Interview with Poet-Activists Dayna Ash and Lisa Luxx

Lisa Luxx (left) and Dayna Ash (right).

Please note that Dayna sent in an audio file, which was transcribed below. Listen to her response here.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves!

Lisa: I'm a poet, writer and activist who lives between England and Lebanon. Winner of the Out-Spoken Prize for Performance Poetry. Author of 4 chapbooks, and widely published in anthologies, newspapers and journals worldwide. My work has been featured on BBC Radio, VICE TV, ITV and TEDx. I also founded The Sisterhood Salon, a feminist literary gathering in Beirut which brings women and non-binary folk together through poetry, discussions and practised siblinghood. At the core of my work is a drive to heal, to enquire, to agitate, and cast spells.

Dayna: Hello, my name is Dayna Ash. I'm the executive director of Haven for Artists. I'm a cultural and social activist, feminist playwright, performance poet and the founder of Haven, based in Beirut, Lebanon. What I do stems very deeply from who I am, therefore I cannot see myself doing anything else. I'm a woman and a writer. I'm an Arab and I am queer. I was raised in the West and in the East. I'm not simply an activist, I am whatever my city, my community, my gender, my fellow sisters and brothers require.

What causes are you passionate about, and why?

Lisa: Sisterhood has become a prominent theme in my work, I believe in the power of community, but the kind of community Audre Lorde talked about - community that bears differences within it. Feminism is at the core of everything I do, and every single choice I make. I also write about identity, given that I am a mixed-heritage, adopted, daughter of diaspora; I embody displacement, and I defy geography because of it. Outside of writing - because it's inhumane to write and not fight, too - there are many causes I am passionate about and act on; anti-racism, the financial collapse of Lebanon, capitalism's destruction of climate and the complete failure of the UN, or any global "peace-keeping" organisations, to step in adequately during the unbelievable genocide of the Syrian people.

Dayna: I work very diligently for LGBTQI rights and women's rights and micro-workers’ rights, because any kind of oppression is all kinds of oppression. [It] is so overwhelmingly present in comparison to whatever minute few freedom we might have and LGBTQI being criminalized in Lebanon, women being treated like second class citizens, migrant workers under the kafala program is modern day slavery and where we are in the age of information -- I saw this poster a while ago and it's been kind of stuck with me -- ignorance is a choice. I think it's extremely imperative for us to constantly be fighting for everyone's freedom and break from the systemic racism and the systemic and inherent xenophobia and Islamophobia that's present and trying to change the rhetoric and understand that the people that have been in power have only made us hate each other to this extent because it benefits them. Because it is profit over people. We need to slowly start becoming conscious of that and fighting that on a global level. And I think that started happening with BLM. It kind of reverberated into the Middle East, especially when people started sharing BLM posts, a lot of activists in the Middle East and stood up and said we need to work on our own local kind of racism and anti-blackness. Right now it's just about ensuring that we can change these oppressive laws and these systems and to ensure that we can progress and move forward into a more free, open, and intersectional way of living.

What are your favorite things to write about?

Lisa: Well, hard to narrow that down but I just released a new poetry chapbook called Trust Your Outrage which is about the body as a site of protest; the female body, the mixed-heritage body, the lesbian body. I low-key love to write love poems too, but they're the hardest to write well, to say anything new or different. Regardless, I like to write love poems to my friends and family.

Dayna: My favorite things to write about, a variety of things -- I used to only be able to write about women. And I think it was me coming to terms, not just so coming to terms, but kind of embracing my sexuality, embracing my love for women and it was just [that] the only way that I could really see myself was through their eyes through my poetry. So it was a way for me to place a filter between what I was feeling and people. My poetry was kind of the way that I would communicate for a very long time. That was when I first started writing, just kind of me exalting whatever or whichever person I was in love with at that point. Now it's grown and I talk a lot about my identity, about my queerness, about being an Arab. These are all things that I've had to wrestle with for so long because I was raised in the States and I lived most of my adult life in Lebanon. It was a very different balance. Usually people do it the other way around but for me it was just trying to find that comfortable kind of grounded space where I could understand my own identity, understand my own needs and be able to articulate them clearly. It took me a very long time. Before it was just articulating my desires and then as I grew it became my needs.

Do you have any work you’d like to share?


Dayna: I would wait for Queer Courage, the film coming out out at the end of August and it's gonna be discussing what we go through. I'm very excited for this piece of work in particular because I'm working with a beautiful creative team and artistic team that I've been working with for a very long time on different projects. This is the first time where the entirety of the team is working on one [project]. We all identify LGBTQI. we're all based in Beirut, and we're all activists in our own right and in different forms. [We’re] all for similar causes, if not the same causes, but with different mediums in different contexts. Queer Courage comes out at the end of August and I definitely encourage everyone to see it. It will be a free film online. You could, of course, drop your comments, your concerns. Then we can expand the conversation and hopefully be able to make more and more informative pieces of art that can expand people's understanding and bring us all together.

Why did you choose poetry?

Lisa: When I was a really young kid and began to be afraid of death, I thought that poetry was a way to reach god without having to die. That if you could crack the code of language, you could transcend, without agony. On some level, I probably still think that now, though my definition of god has changed. I don't believe poetry can change the world, but it can change the individual, and it can do so quick as a bullet passing through flesh. Every time there is political descent, poetry rises, because it galvanises, it awakens, it helps folk transcend slumber, apathy and isolation. It reveals our everlasting tethering to one another.

Dayna: I never chose poetry. It just was. Poetry is a lot of who I am and how I speak. I try to speak quite poetically. It's always just been such a large part of how I express that it was never a choice. At least for me, poetry was definitely something that was inherent in the way I was writing, because even in class, when I would write a, let's say report or something, it would be so poetic. It wouldn't be structured as a poem, but it would just flow as one, or I thought it did when I was younger. Poetry was always pretty present in my life.

To me, there is no separation between art and activism."

Your thoughts on the intersection of poetry and activism?

Lisa: What role does poetry play in uprisings? I answered that in the last question. But what I'd add is that history (and what history is concerned with archiving) has always been used as a weapon of oppression, it was written by the victors to re-hash their narratives of success and sustain their notions of power - whereas poetry always archived something different, it archived the heart. Giving us our centuries old records of spiritual strength. Uprising happens when we feel more power in our heart than in authority.

Dayna: To me, there is no separation between art and activism. I mean, there is to a particular extent, but I believe it's very difficult to be an artist and not be aware of the political kind of surroundings and the issues that many people are facing. It's very difficult to be an introspective poet or an introspective artist and not see how politics is personal. So to me it's inherent in each other. Poetry is an errand and activism is a narrative poetry. A poet’s role is to articulate emotions that are beyond the human understanding or layman's terms as far as just basic conversation. Poetry is meant to go beyond that. It's meant to expand our understanding of things and people and situations. When it comes to activism, it is imperative that those two are kept together. I always believe that art and activism in general have never really been separate. It's just that they've been pushed to be separate because the potency of them was understood very early on. I think if those that are in power, the authority, would want us to constantly separate causes and fights against the system, they of course want us to separate art because it's such a powerful tool. When used in protest, chants or poetry, songs of revolution or poetry give you strength, they give you energy, they give you this power that you weren't aware of when you start singing the song. To this day, the Lebanese revolution is still going on. It's been eight months now. And every time I still get on my bike, the music in my ears is revolutionary. It’s poets, it's rappers, it's a hip hop kind of R&B Arab Lebanese musicians that are talking about the revolution. It became kind of interlocked. It's hard for us to now, especially being in the midst of a revolution, to separate the need for the artist to be present on the ground, the need for the artist to also be articulate in what they want and their needs and use their art to articulate this, of course. It's important and it cannot be separated. The chants are poetry, the music is poetry. The strength and the resolve in and of itself is poetic because it is reaching for a dream and for something that we have not yet experienced: the aim to have as our life and our reality. I think they're [poetry and activism] extremely interlocked.

How has technology impacted your work?

Lisa: It has allowed me to create global community, to work alongside my sisters in various countries. It means I have more to do, to be visible, to learn skills I never planned to learn about graphic design and marketing and so on. But it's the price we pay for our interconnectedness. I had my first mobile phone when I was like 11 though, so I can't tell you how it's impacted my work because I never had a working life before it. Though I did write a chapbook about going offline for three months, wandering Silicon Valley in my early twenties.

Dayna: Digital technology makes my work a lot easier. I'm an improv poet. I mostly do improv performance poetry. I'm with music and then I get on stage and I improv. Of course, I write a lot of my pieces pre-performance but there's a large part of it that ends up being improv and just being able to take the energy from the crowd and building on it with the musician that I'm performing live with. It just kind of all changes. It's very rare that I stick to exactly how a written piece is. There's always some space left for improv, just so that I could be true to whatever I'm also feeling at that moment, so that I'm not always encapsulated in that past feeling. I maintain the past feeling of course, because you need to be aware of what we felt and how we felt, but I try to always remember that part of my performance is the evolution of that feeling. Digital [technology], of course, has helped me quite immensely from recording to being online and being communicative with a lot of people to expanding my understanding of things simply by having the means to communicate. It's a very important facet. Up to about three years ago, I was one of those people that only used the typewriter but that was mainly -- not because I'm hipster -- but mainly because I needed to use a medium that didn't allow me to second guess myself constantly, to hesitate and to backspace and to delete. This is the only thing that I think is somewhat of a difficulty when it comes to writing. This backspace button is always available, the red line always pops up before you even have time to think about the word you've written or the general poem as a whole. It's helped me in the sense of being able to communicate and reach out and to have more access to information, but it has not helped me because it has created somewhat of a larger kind of hovering self-doubt because of autocorrect.

How have your experiences as women and members of the LGBTQ+ community changed the way you approach activism?

Lisa: Again, it hasn't changed it because I have always been a lesbian woman, so I don't know a way of approaching activism outside of this body. But I have certainly learnt that lesbian women are the back-bone of activism. There's a joke that a group of lesbian's is called "a committee". Because so many social movements were kick-started by lesbians, but usually it's not them to take the credit or reap the rewards. It's exhausting, but we do it because we are visionaries (and once you've seen a different way you can't unsee it), we are nurturers (we hold all of society in the absolute sorcery of our wombs), we are fighters (because we have been raised to need battle-tactics in order to survive), and we know what a world without patriarchy would look like because our microcosm is that world in action.

Dayna: I've always been an activist, so I don't know how it could change. Poetry has always meant activism. For me, activism has always meant art. They've been extremely interlocked for a very long time. My experience is changed in the sense that as a woman and as a member of the LGBT community, I've become a lot more vocal. Being a performance poet means that you're vocal. If you're also an activist for the LGBTQI community, for the women's community, and for the micro-workers, you have to be more vocal. Just speaking out has always been something that I find very great comfort in. Poetry has allowed me not just to find comfort in it, but to also find resolve and calm. Poetry has allowed me to approach activism beyond that one moment. It's not just about that one time I'm in a protest, you go to that protest, you go home, you think about the protest, you write a poem about the protest, you prepare the next chant for the next protest, then it goes on and on and on and on.

What are you working on right now?

Lisa: I just finished writing a play for Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. I am also working through edits for a novel called Honey Eyes, which is about identity, adoption and being both British and Arab. I also am working on something I'm really psyched about but I'm not to say anything more about that until my publishers announce it.

Dayna: With Haven I'm working on multiple things. In particular, we're working on making safe spaces for LGBTQI women and the microworkers community in Lebanon called Drop a Pen. We're working on something called cultural emergence where we are trying to ensure that there's a safe space online for LGBTQI individuals in the MENA region, especially with the arbitrary attacks of violence pushed online when it comes to LGBTQI living in MENA. Our work is mainly trying to mark safe spaces and assist people when they do come out of quarantine to know where they can be safe. At the same time ensuring that while they are in quarantine or while they might be in particular situations that are extremely difficult for their mental health, we're there to somehow assist and support them emotionally and mentally through this.

Personal note: I'm writing … [inaudible] in Brussels. It's called Queer Courage where it talks about the concept of the closet in the Middle East for us and how it is a different form of pride. It's a different form of closet, it's a different understanding of coming out. We're working on that film. It was originally a play, but because of the coronavirus, we've adapted it to a film and we should be releasing it at the end of August.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring poets and activists?

Lisa: Find your community, even if you don't think you need one, find it. For poets; learn how to edit, you won't have a truly transformative experience on the page until you learn how to edit. Editing is how we let the poem tell us more about ourselves than we consciously told it. For activists, learn how to sustain the urgency of rage; a movement is not a moment, and your endurance, and ability to think carefully will define the changes you want to see.

Dayna: What I would advise aspiring poets and activists is as much as it is a given, let's say, that we doubt ourselves and we hesitate and we question everything. Try not to question yourself. Try not to question your power, your capacity, the potency of your words, the potency of poetry, and the capacity for poetry to change the world. Don't ever underestimate or think that just because art has been monopolized into becoming this capitalistic sphere, it doesn't mean that that's what art is meant for. A lot of things in this world have been monopolized and a lot of things have been taken advantage and abused and exploited for profit. But the beautiful thing about artists: we can always take it back.

Where can people read more about you and your cause?

Lisa: or I'm also on Instagram, and on Twitter, and there's a Facebook page too.

Dayna: Facebook, Instagram

Haven for Artists: Website, Facebook, Instagram