It’s National Poetry Month Again! If you have been visiting here for a while, you know what that means—it’s our seventh annual round up of daily doses of verse! If you are new, here’s the scoop. Every day all month I will feature poets and their poems. I aim to be as broad and inclusive as possible to style, subject, period, gender, race, and neglected voices. I don’t want just a parade of the usual dead white men, but a lot of them did write some damn fine poetry, so they have their place here to. As always, selections follow my own tastes and whims. Yours may be different. But I am open to—eager for—suggestions, especially for contemporary writers. I do not subscribe to dozens of little magazines or prowl the internet for poetry posts. I often only stumble on new and unknown poets and I am sure I miss some great stuff. Please feel free to turn me on to some—or be bold and submit your own. I don’t and can’t promise to use everything.
Last year, almost by accident there ended up with a sort of theme—refugees. Not surprising it was a world of refuges, war, famine, and walls mental, spiritual, and all too real. It brought forth young voices from the ends of the earth and other unexpected places. It also evoked memories that climbed out of history books and slapped us in the face by long dead poets. There was other stuff, but plenty of that.
This year the world has gone to hell in a hand basket tied to a runaway limousine of privilege and power hurtling into a wall of despotism and tribalism. This year, not by accident, the theme will be poets in resistance.
We will start with the work of two very different poets—an acclaimed American writer and a distinguished Syrian American—the daughter of refugees—both of them women.
Jane Hirshfield is not only a leading American poet with eight highly acclaimed collections under her belt, a slew of awards and prestigious fellowships, and wide teaching experience but she is also now officially a leading face and voice for American verse as the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
She was born in New York City on February 24, 1953. She was a member of the first class of Princeton University to graduate women.
As a young woman teaching part time at distinguished universities her tastes and influences were wide. She studied and became fluent in Japanese and was drawn to Zen Buddhism receiving a lay ordination in 1979 in Soto Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center. Buddhism deeply influenced both the style and the thematic content of her work as a poet. She also became an accomplished translator of Japanese poetry, particularly that of women.
Since the publication of her first collection in Alaya in the Quarterly Review of Literature Poetry Series in 1982 Hirshfield’s recognition as a poet has grown steadily. Among her most acclaimed collections are Given Sugar, Given Salt in 2001, After in 2006, Come, Thief in 2011, and most recently 2015’s Come, Thief.
Her awards and honors include the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, Columbia University’s Translation Center Award, the Commonwealth Club of California Poetry Medal, the Poetry Center Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2004, Hirshfield was awarded the seventieth Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. Her work has been included seven editions of Best American Poetry.
In addition to her work as a freelance writer, editor, and translator, Hirshfield has taught in the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars, at the University of California at Berkeley, and at the University of San Francisco. She has been a visiting Poet-in-Residence at Duke University, the University of Alaska, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere, and has been the Elliston Visiting Poet at the University of Cincinnati.
Hirschfield’s work often focuses on social justice and the intimate relationship of humanity and the natural environment. It connects the deeply personal with the broadest concerns. Yet it is not overtly political and never strident. Instead it is infused with a Zen combination of subtlety, clarity of expression, and a deep awareness of the moment. Like a koan her poems invite a meditation by the reader.
Let Them Not Say
Let them not say: we did not see it.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
we witnessed with voices and hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.
Let them say, as they must say something:
A kerosene beauty.
Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.
Copyright © 2017 by Jane Hirshfield. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 20, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.
Mohja Kahf is a generation younger than Hirshfield. She was born in Damascus, Syria in 1967 where her family was dangerously involved with opposition to the Assad regime. They immigrated to the United States in 1971 when she was just four years old and grew up in the Midwest. She thus grew up in both the Muslim life and values of her family and of the nation in which she matured. She has celebrated—and criticized—both.
She received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Rutgers University and is now a professor of comparative literature at the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
She has published widely in both literary and academic journals. Her work is informed by autobiography and by the broader experience of Muslim women in the United States and the misconceptions and stereotypes they endure daily. At the same time she brings a feminist critique to traditional Islamic culture and frank discussion of sex and sensuality.
Her collections of poetry include E-mails From Scheherazad, a finalist for the 2004 Paterson Poetry Prize which sets the heroine of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights in contemporary Hackensack, New Jersey and Hagar Poems, the story of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah—the ancestral feuding family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in 2016.
In addition she has written an acclaimed novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf about a Muslim girl strikingly similar to herself growing up in Indianapolis, escaping the Midwest, and then being forced to return to face old demons and realities. She has also published criticism and non-fiction including her scholarly monograph, Western Representation of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque.
Currently Kahf co-authors a column on sexuality for the website Muslim Wake Up.
Nine November in 2016
Feeling calm. You folk forget,
I’ve lived in ameriKKKa before. Lived to tell.
Think one damn election is enough to get me down? Psh.
Roots dig deep in winter, drink nourishment underground.
Good in the world doesn’t drain out overnight.
This ain’t the apocalypse, just the same old business
a little more naked than it has been in a while
and now we have a few more tools stored away
in the vision cabinet for making plans.
This isn’t optimism, just Sisyphus speaking.
I know this boulder from before, and I’ll push it again,
only this time I have more friends,
know better how to hunker my shoulder to it.
Never expected it to get any lighter, and if it did
for a minute, that was a breath we can use for the next heave.
We’ll need every wisdom we can conjure, in every language.
Yalla binna, vamonos, and who knows what buffalo herd
might thunder in to help. This is not the end—
ain’t no end to a spiral; struggle is struggle is all.