When Ashley Cornelius speaks, people listen. They’d better because the Pikes Peak region’s newest poet laurate is a “spoken word” poet for the most part. Most of her work has yet to be written down for our reading pleasure. But just because you can’t pick up a book of her work doesn’t mean you’ll forget it. Once you’ve sat in an audience and heard her speak, her words will resonate with you for days.
Our voices are reincarnations of our ancestors’ prayers.—Defy Silence
Cornelius, 30, has lived in Colorado Springs since she was three years old. She attended Rampart High School and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and she earned a master’s degree from The University of Denver in international disaster psychology.
Her day job is managing the RISE Program at Denver Health, a peer support program that provides 24/7 confidential support to healthcare workers. She is a licensed professional counselor candidate and has worked in adolescent inpatient psychiatry.
She has deftly woven her healing arts together with her literary talent. As a therapist, she provides individual and group therapy using poetry for healing. With a background in poetry education, she has given poetry workshops across Colorado. “Poetry is very therapeutic,” she says. “It allows us to access parts of ourselves we might not otherwise find. It allows us to tell the truth. It also helps people revisit trauma without being traumatized again.”
Cry until you have enough water to drown your own bruises—salt
Her poetry, she says, “focuses on empowerment, self-care, body positivity, intersectionality, and systemic oppression.” Her themes often address domestic violence, sexual assault, self-love, self-care, mental health, and racial equity. “Growing up here as a black girl was sometimes difficult,” she says. “Lots of those issues touched my life or the lives of those I loved. I had lots of issues with self-love and body image. Poetry helped me, later, to survive a pretty toxic relationship.”
Her workshops aren’t all about performing. They are therapeutic, she says, “because I like to create situations where people feel like they are being heard.” For her, spoken-word poetry is not merely reciting something she has memorized. Each performance might be a little different from the one before it. If the audience responds to something, she might emphasize a word or repeat a line for emphasis. “I edit myself a lot during each performance.”
“This is about speaking up in a world that expects you to be silent.”
Also, don’t expect her poetry to rhyme. She’s more Maya Angelou than Robert Frost. But you can expect cadence, rhythm, alliteration, and well-chosen words that truly reflect the precise sentiment. Some words have more power than others even if they mean basically the same thing, she says.
Her work has won her many accolades. Cornelius has won multiple poetry slams in Colorado Springs. She was the 2018 Women of the World Poetry Slam Colorado Springs representative and competed nationally. She is a member of the Colorado Business Journal Rising Star class of 2021 and was the Colorado Springs Independent Best Artist in 2019. She has been featured at TEDx Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak Community College, the Colorado Springs Women’s March, the Denver Public Library, the Colorado Nonprofit Association, and much more. If you are interested, her Tedx performance can be seen on YouTube (under her name). She is especially proud of her workshops for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and the use of her poetry across activist demonstrations and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cornelius also won a 2018 Pikes Peak Arts Council award for the best recurring poetry event for the Poetry719 Black Voices Matter event. She serves as codirector of Poetry719, a local, Black-run poetry group whose stated mission is “lifting the voices of marginalized communities and BIPOC folks through creative self-expression and art.” She has been with Poetry719 for four years and hosts and organizes more than 20 events for the community annually. She also has organized three city-wide poetry festivals.
From a shy little Black girl, she has blossomed into what seems to be a confident, outspoken woman. And performing does give her confidence, she admits. “I still get nervous every time,” she says. “But when I get on stage, I feel very grounded.”
“…generations of dry mouths, cracked lips and stories caught in throats trying to scratch their way out.”—salt
She realizes that spoken-word poetry leaves no legacy, and she has had numerous requests for a written presence, so she is working on a book. Legacy secured.