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Sam O'Hana
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David Lehman introduces the Best American Poetry 2015 launch reading to a full house at the New School on September 24. photo (c) Gabriel Don The publication was a ‘maelstrom’ whipped up by a ‘dubious stratagem,’ provoking an ‘irredeemable problem,’ we were told by mainstream media. Then, thirty five poets from all corners of the country promptly turned up to celebrate great writing at the New School, New York, in the largest ever launch of an annual volume in the Best American Poetry series. Editors David Lehman and Sherman Alexie spoke warmly of the contributors (or rather, as David suggested, presidential candidates) and the 400-strong audience were exuberant throughout, with a standing ovation for Aira Dee Matthews’ incisive thought- and form-provoking ‘If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein.' 2015 was another good year for house names as well as rising stars. Saeed Jones, whose debut Prelude to Bruise was published last year, held the audience with a sparse and incisive poem, a 'reflection on the limitations of what we know about our lovers.' Baltimore-born Cody Walker tore the roof off the eighty-four-year-old college auditorium with his exhortation-as-poem ‘Trades I Would Make.’ Although it is quite a lengthy poem, shouts of “read it again” were heard at least once from the audience. Like Walker’s piece, Dennis Nurkse’s ‘Plutonium’ gained particular resonance read aloud. As with Donald Platt’s also, these multi-page poems were long enough to address an issue of substantial importance (atomic energy, say, or the life of an African American boxer, dead at twenty-five), yet concise enough to hold an audience hearing more than thirty recitations in a ninety-minute period. American poets are evidently still occupied, as Whitman was, with the body and its relation to the current status of its environment. The voice of Mark Bibbins’ poem confesses “I don’t even know/ who I’m kissing anymore, do you?” while Sarah Arvio’s poem addresses an out-of-time saviour: “You’ve saved my old body from the fatwa." L to R: Sarah Arvio, Jericho Brown, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Saeed Jones, and Evie Shockley. Photo (c) Gabriel Don Such poets are, in their most basic renditions, coy autographers of everyday life, yet this work offers well-grounded claims about the body which extend beyond the personal into an arena of thought usually occupied by discussions of the private citizen and the body politic. Jericho Brown is more directly political on this subject, '[n]obody in this nation feels safe, and I’m still a reason why.' David Lehman and Sherman Alexie listen to Jericho Brown as he reads "Homeland." photo (c) Gabriel Don The ‘who’ and ‘what’ of a walking, talking biology is being assessed lyrically here, and a socialized, public conception of relatedness now meets the tradition of personal expression in text. What does Dana Levin’s speaker propose when, seeing a starfish in the sea and deciding to film it, she memorializes this way: 'I stood and I shot them.' Humans negotiate their personal encounters with the world differently with time, and such poetry reports from the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 4, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
2015 Paul Violi Prizewinner Mariam Zafar talks with Sam O’Hana about AWP, corporate storytelling and words that never make it into English. “I was presenting on a panel about bilingual waiting at the AWP three years ago”, she begins, detailing her watershed moment in poetry that lead her to take up an MFA at the New School. From Pakistan to New York via Dubai and more recently Miami, where she majored in both international business and creative writing, Mariam Zafar is comfortable occupying the blur of transience as well as the rigidity of tradition. Meeting outside the New York Public Library’s monolithic Schwarzman building in Midtown, Zafar quickly becomes enthusiastic about humor, and poetry that is purposefully engaged with the world. She immediately brings up poetry’s capacity to cross boundaries of time, landscape and culture, and how her experience of much of Pakistan comes through the stories of her parents’ lives there. “Poetry is a way of constructing a home on a blank page”, she then tells me, before mentioning the importance of hybrid, experimental and multimedia forms of poetry. Zafar is keen to talk about writers who, in their own periods, were experimental, and have since gone on to become touchstones in American poetry; Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, as well as key proponents of their form– the novelist Jenny Ofill of The Dept of Speculation, and Kashmiri American poet Aga Shahid Ali. Rich and Ali in particular, she notes were crucial to her appreciation of the Ghazal across languages– the former poet is credited with bringing it to the US, and the latter for refining and mastering it in English. “Poetry is an arrangement of sorts, like pouring texts, languages, ideas, and research into a beaker and distilling it to a concentrated representation of one’s self” she continues, drawing attention to the sense that poetry can be a form of controlled chaos. “Coming from a culture of arranged marriages, I am especially fascinated by the idea of an orchestration that can be deliberate and artful instead of forceful and haphazard” and while aware that her work often speaks with her parents and their collective culture, Zafar widens this scope by pointing to the tension between the collective and individualistic sentiments of Pakistani and the US communities respectively. “I enjoy incorporating research and collaging it into with my own words” she says, describing recent work that addresses the details of her father’s line of work in the tyre industry. She is concise when I ask her about the relationship between traditional and contemporary texts– “there’s a rebellion that goes on between writers and the people that influence them”, specifying further by explaining how secondary or ordinary texts can be made extraordinary by contemporary authors in new work, in particular Jenny Ofill. Zafar reserves a special mention for the effect that texts like this can have. “That physical reaction is an incomparable experience”, she says, describing it as a usually unplanned experience that comes from “a really exquisite piece of writing... Continue reading
Posted Jul 6, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Jul 6, 2015