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Poet hopes people take her work with them in life

By Marc Polonsky Special to the Daily Planet
Wednesday February 14, 2001

Valentine’s Day has been canceled 

This is not a test  

“We’re all so intensely conditioned, preyed upon by capitalism around our romantic and sexual desires,” said Aya De Leon, who has hosted alternative Valentine’s Day celebrations at La Peña Culture Center every year since 1996.  

“We’re seduced away from being concerned about the world, by this idea that we can feel better if we just fall in love. Falling in love is great, but there should be an environment where people can celebrate love of self, love of spirit, love of community,” she said. 

Having grown up in Berkeley, Aya, 33, says she has been “extremely opinionated” all her life. Her mother, Anna De Leon, is a long time community activist and former civil rights lawyer. “I grew up hearing stories of police brutality around the dinner table,” she said.  

As a family, they participated in the anti-nuclear movement; Aya was a teen organizer and nonviolence trainer, while her mom worked with the protesters’ legal team. Aya was also a teenage feminist.  

“There was this wonderful satirical group in Berkeley, called LAW, Ladies Against Women. We started a spin-off group in our high school, TAUNT, Teenagers Against Unmoral Naughty Things,” she said. “My dream was to found a traveling guerrilla theater and travel the world doing street theater.” 

Aya set aside those aspirations to study political science at Harvard, where she wound up switching majors seven times before graduating with a degree in history.  

It was a shockingly unpleasant experience, coming from Berkeley to “an incredibly racially stratified, conservative environment.”  

Aya, who is African American and Puerto Rican, got involved with Free My People, “a youth-run, youth-led ultra-left African American collective in Roxbury, Mass. They gave me a deep sense of what it meant to be intimately involved in a community.” 

Aya returned to Berkeley to work on a novel about a group of young black women who form a sisterhood to help each other through college.  

But “writing a novel is very isolating and I’m a very extroverted person, so I found myself going to open mics just to read snippets of my work and feel more connected to people.”  

She never considered herself a poet, however, until she went back to school for a master’s degree in fine arts.  

“Folks would write poems and I’d say, ‘Gee, what’s that poem about?’ and they’d say ‘It doesn’t have to have meaning.’ And I just thought, ‘What? Then what’s the point?’ I’d always thought writing was predicated on having something to say. So I figured, if these people can write poems that don’t mean anything and call themselves poets, then I could certainly be a poet.” 

Aya’s first poem, Loyalty, was about a young black girl in an alcohol and drug prevention program that Aya ran in Alameda. “She misbehaved constantly and she wore me out, but I was determined to stay connected to her.” 

Since then, Aya has stunned audiences throughout the Bay Area and the country with her powerful performance poems. She’s won poetry slams from San Francisco to New York City - she was on the winning SF slam team that made the nationals last year. She’s performed at benefits for the Prison Activist Resource Center, Speak Out and KPFA and has published an essay in Essence and short stories in anthologies. 

Her topics cover the gamut from “fat liberation,” to the plight of gay youths who sell their “priceless ass” on the streets of San Francisco, to the wounded souls of African American men, to prayers for Mumia Abu Jamal, to poems like Icon which are about “corporate control of everything:”  

I can just imagine what advertisers would do with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail... 

... let’s say the NBA buys his speech at the March on Washington talking about “I have a team . . .”  

Or perhaps it would be bought by developers talking about “I have a scheme . . .” 

De Leon says: “My work has a political message, and an emotional message about people healing themselves. Hopefully it’s funny, or the metaphors are interesting, and it’s entertaining too.  

“I want people to feel it, hopefully agree with it, and take whatever’s useful for them and integrate it into their lives.” 

Contact Aya De Leon at 

Marc Polonsky is the author of “The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit.” He can be contacted at