Poetry reading with Safia Elhillo, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Craig Santos Perez
By: Menat Allah El Attma, April 12, 2021
“You are getting dressed. You stand in front
of a mirror. And your peers are that mirror
telling you: You’re not wearing pants.
Why aren’t you wearing pants?”
Hieu Minh Nguyen depicts the first draft, au naturel. Before any revision or remaking, that first draft of a poem exists barer skinned. This is the emergence, at first birth. Nguyen believes revision involves people to bear witness, too. The poem will be cradled with the attention it seeks from eyes and hands until, ultimately, it can walk—or rather, walk away. But there is no telling when a poem no longer needs you. Today, in the pandemic space, it feels we may need poems more and more. They are like companions, Nguyen reveals, who visit us when no one can, touch us when no one will, and remind us we are not alone.
A poem, to Safia Elhillo, is a long-term relationship. It is a commitment where reward is never instant. No, it takes the megabus. And you may not arrive until the second, third, seventh, or seventeenth draft-stop along the way. Lay your head against the window; and once you’ve delighted in the scenery, nap. “I am dreaming of a world more bearable than a world outside. In the world of the poem, I have a say in the logic; I have a say in the cause and effect.” Elhillo speaks of the “myth-making eye”—nostalgic and dreaming—as the source from whence real agency is felt and poetry-writing can begin. So, when you awake, pull out your pen and pad.
How long or short, wide or narrow that road you are now on becomes language and what Craig Santos Perez names the reckoning of self: a “quieter space for one’s emotions, thoughts, anxieties, and fears”. A poem and its revision are your grounds for play, Santos urges, so make it enjoyable. Shape, laugh, cry, adorn and map it into existence—because it was always meant to be this way, a beautiful tension. Find that space where the language of a poem is both liberating and restricting, this and that; simply consent it to be.
- (v.) to fix or mend (a thing suffering from damage or a fault)
- (n.) the action or result of restoring something
late Middle English: from Old French reparer, from Latin reparare from re- ‘back’ + parare ‘make ready’
Poetry is a call(ing) to our people and ancestors as much as it is to ourselves to repair. Be ready to return, to fall back, for it is inside yourself that you must create someone who will understand. Come back into a savage intuition of yourself—neither predatory nor prey, just primal. This disposition is to effect a way of being in the world yet to realize your imagination of it.
Hold steadfast to that vision and navigate carefully as you move back. Remember: keep patience as you write and repair.
The full recording of the event is available for viewing on our YouTube channel, here.
Menat Allah El Attma is an Egyptian Muslim woman, educator, writer, and visual artist. Menat graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in English literature and is pursuing her teaching credential. She is a logophile and linguaphile, working to affect a similar love for words/languages in her students through the practice and art of storytelling. She believes art is in the telling of the story as much as the story itself.