Portrait of The Artist as a Portlandian

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Poet Anis Mojgani will visit Pacific University on February 15

   Poetry is not your thing, yet you find yourself at a poetry reading. This is not how you would usually spend a summer evening. Your friend roped you into attending. Currently, you’re on some street in the Sunnyside neighborhood around Hawthorne, and this seems to be more like a small local concert, with two hundred congregants occupying the street, some in beach chairs and all anxiously waiting for this poet. Then, what seems to be an IPA microbrewery owner pops his head out of a window and begins shouting, in the least corny way, about race, love, and loving strangers. You find it not corny. 

   If that story relates to you, there’s a good chance you might be Journalism Professor Phil Busse, and you may have landed at one of the pop-up poetry readings from Oregon’s Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani–whose next stop is Pacific University on Thursday, February 15, for a full-day of poetry and lecturing, including a pop-up reading at the Bates House at 3 pm that day.

   Mojgani is something of a Tony Hawk in American Poetry. I imagine his house littered with his hundreds of accolades and awards in American letters; among such trophies that line his trophy case are the National Poetry Slam and the International World Cup Poetry Slam. So described as a “word thug” (by his own volition) and a “gale force talent” (Patricia Smith, winner of multiple slam poetry accolades), he’s brought a plebian savant swagger to an art form that, though constant in civilization, has danced between the lines of obscurity and staleness in recent decades thanks to the likes of Rupi Kaur, among others. 

   “I find that his stuff is a tour-de-force; one minor thing of his writing that I really admire is how his verses perfectly imitate the free-form movement of the body,” says Owen Cooper, Sociology Major at Pacific. 

   Over the summer, a committee of four Pacific University faculty members convened to select and organize the annual Whiteley Lecture Series, a group that included Busse as well as Scott Korb, Director of Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts program. They were looking to find a speaker who could connect with students–both through themes of their work as well as presentation. As much a dynamic, funny and engaged presenter as much a someone who tackles poignant and contemporary issues, Mojgani hit all the right chords. “I admire the enthusiasm of his poetry and the centrality of the community to his work,” says Korb.

   When asked about how he first learned about Mojgani, Korb explains that he learned about him through the artwork he created concerning Black Lives Matter, chiefly a t-shirt that Professor Korb now owns with the inscription, “Black Lives Rule.” (Others, like the previously quoted Cooper and myself, learned about Mojgani through the verse from Milo the Rapper, thus: “I’m reading Anis Mojgani poems in the bathroom stall,” which I personally feel encapsulates the perfect way to read his work, in an incredibly uncomfortable, intimate space that is not your own.)

   Mojgani has shown a particular proclivity for youth, whether it be the countless universities he’s visited or his work with flagshipping Verselandia. In this non-profit organization, students from numerous Portland high schools can come for an evening of poetry recitals. 

   When asked about the importance of the visiting writer, Mojgani said: “I think it’s terribly important for people in study of a thing to meet and engage and interact with people who are also in the study of the same thing, even if those folks aren’t still students in an academic setting. Visiting writers, I think, allows writing students to be inspired simply by the reality of writers existing in the real world and (possibly) being introduced to how there are many ways writers in the real world, so to speak, (and how they) can exist. Not to mention what are things to be garnered and learned from these interactions, both by students and visitors, and also what might the visitors learn from the students––I think it’s important for people, wherever they may be on their path, to be reminded of and to share a space with, others who are sharing a similar path.”

   As Oregon Poet Laureate, Mojgani is concerned with the importance of art and poetry on a community and individual level. Recently, poetry as a form of artistic expression has lacked that dual importance, whether it be the current commodification of the word poet along with the art form itself for hamfisted interior reflection or even more hamfisted attempts at over-emphasizing and missing the mark on the importance of community (see the Rupi above Kaur).

   Poetry, among other forms of expression, is a constant in human civilizations. However, the usage of poetry has remarkably changed and shifted over time, specifically in who could write and be allowed to read poetry. There has always been that balancing act between interior and exterior reflection, whether it be Sappho of Lesbos riffing on love and interior struggles or Luis de Camoes basing the national epic for the Portuguese people, The Lusiads, on discovery which further cemented their fixation on Exploration, throughout history those have been the two fixations of the poet, and they remain.

   Mojgani on the purpose of poetry: “To better know ourselves, to better know each other. To give language to that which is languageless. To give shape to that which is intangible. To better know the universe. To give. To share. To learn how to listen better, by way of all our senses. To add our one definition to that which has many definitions. To aid each other. To make one another feel heard, to feel known, to feel less alone. To bear witness. To love, to loss and life. To bear witness to beauty, in all its sizes. To deliver humanity, to someplace.”

   With writing, there is also a balancing act between wanting to write and needing to write. Plenty of authors see the distinction, which boils down to simple semantics, as vital. Mojgani on the distinction: “It’s both (that guide him). Writing helps me make better sense of the worlds inside and outside of me. It allows me to process being human, both specific direct experiences and also just to better understand what this means to and for me, the being of being a person in this world. That process gives me a greater balance inside myself and when I’m not writing or not giving myself some sort of outlet that does the same or similar task the writing does, I can feel this.

   But there’s also the want, to attempt to use words beautifully, to explore language. And also the pull of my imagination to explore story and the telling of it––I love stories and think they are of the utmost importance to being human.”Anis Mojgani will visit Pacific University on Thursday, February 15 at 5:30 pm in the Taylor-Meade Performing Arts Center. All students are welcome to attend; free admission.


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