A poet laureate for new times

As the world turns, new Oregon laureate Anis Mojgani embraces his role: "Writing a poem is the answer to an unknown question."

On Monday, April 27, Governor Kate Brown named Anis Mojgani as Oregon’s 10th Poet Laureate. Mojgani, whose two-year appointment begins May 4, succeeds Kim Stafford, who has held the post since 2018. In a press release Brown praised Mojgani as “the pragmatic optimist Oregon needs in these unprecedented times. His words breathe fresh air into the anxiety and negativity that we all feel. He urges us to resolutely reflect in the moment and with each grounding breath, our hearts ‘come closer and come into this’.”

The role of the Oregon Poet Laureate is to foster the art of poetry, encourage literacy and learning, address central issues relating to humanities and heritage, and reflect on public life in Oregon.

Mojgani is the author of five books of poetry, most recently In the Pockets of Small Gods, published in 2018. He is a two-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam and a winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and he has performed at venues around the world, including the United Nations.

Born and raised in New Orleans. Mojgani received a BFA in Sequential Art and a Master of Fine Arts in Performing Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design. He first called Portland, Oregon home in 2004.

Anis Mojgani takes over as Oregon’s 10th poet laureate on May 4. Photo: Hilde Frazsen

What does it mean to win this award, especially right now, in this world?

It’s strange and weird and bananas. One feels very excited and validated while at the same time humbled and unsure. But (it’s) also terribly exciting and fantastic for a number of reasons. As many years as I’ve had a relationship with Oregon I haven’t seen a majority of the state. To be tasked specifically to go to places I haven’t been is in itself a wonderful opportunity. To get to do that while introducing poetry to people or fostering the reading and writing of poetry and widening that dialogue and space and permission to engage in that with folks is very exciting.

But definitely in the time that we’re in right now that takes on a different lilt, just from the logistical standpoint. One task of the Poet Laureate is to bring poetry to people and to engage in being a steward of poetry in communities. What does that look like if you can’t travel to and be in those communities in person, at least for an unknown amount of time? So there’s an element of readjusting and re-exploring the creative possibilities in which to carry out this appointment.

This is one of those times that we as people feel so much more the weight of what it means to be human. The more human we feel the more powerful and powerless we feel at the same time. A large role of the arts and those that engage with the making and sharing of arts is to give voice and definition to those unspoken feelings of what it means to be human. In times like this, that are very confusing and uncertain and scary and sorrowful, that’s hopefully when artists are able to do that. Not necessarily to alleviate those feelings but (to) give space to their validation so that we don’t feel as alone.

That segues nicely into my next question. What does poetry specifically offer us in this moment we are living through?

To go a little further and deeper, it’s both a hard and beautiful thing to be a person. One of the reasons times like this become hard and challenging, well one of them, is that they require us to be very present. In our lives, and the way society shapes us, engaging with human vulnerability is something we are required to do. Right now we’re all uncertain about what is happening, there’s a range of experiences that are happening amongst us based on our situations and privileges, but we are all tasked with being in some frame of aloneness that we might not normally be in. And that’s a very human thing, to be both alone and to be with each other. We are alone but we know we’re not the only person who is alone right now. Everyone right now around me is is being alone. And to me that’s the most human thing you can be.

For me that’s what poetry does; it gives space to what it means to be a human. To pinpoint it so we can recognize it in others and ourselves. In times like this poems are a way to make us feel concrete. More understood. More known. If there’s a lot of uncertainty going on at least there’s also more certainty arriving to us.

Sorry, I should have opened with this. How are you living through this?

Generally I’m good. It’s a strange thing. My existence as a self-employed artist and poet isn’t terribly disrupted. Monday through Friday before this I would walk down Hawthorne to sit at Fresh Pot and sit with my computer and engage with what I do. Now, instead of doing that, I just sit inside and do what I do.

But I’m also sitting inside a world where there’s a vast spectrum of ways in which people’s lives are affected. In recognizing that there’s a larger thing that’s happening there’s a thankfulness for the privileged position I’m in and a guilt for that. There’s sadness and empathy for those whose lives have been disrupted, sometimes in cataclysmic ways. And an anger towards those who are charged to be responsible servants of our country and society and time and time again show they are incapable of doing what our government should be doing right now. This sadness and anger wind into me, pinching my nose, and I’m overcome by that for a moment, or more.

To get to feel human with humans, in spite of the reason, is also a gift. A surreal and strange gift, but a gift nonetheless. Not to silver line it, but I think that the reality is that this pandemic has brought a greater illumination to how unsustainable and unprogressive our current society is. And in order for us to move to a more sustainable and progressive world there will be more suffering and heartache. Actual lives are being devastated. They’re both truths but it’s hard to hold those things and understand how to feel about it.

How is your process as a writer changed right now?

It’s been challenging; creating feels largely nonexistent. I hold true to the part of my process that is not action. It’s not just typing something or moving ink across a page. Part of it is just existing and reflecting. I want to be writing. I want to find the doorknob to open to allow all those things out. It was challenging before this. I was finding that aspects of my process were needing change and that change  wasn’t revealing itself. Now I realize I didn’t have the tools and now the shop with the tools is closed and it’s raining and I’m stuck outside. There’s all these things bearing down on my emotional and mental psyche.

My sister told me to be easy on myself. Not so easy. I lose sight and focus on my relationship to creativity but to not to beat myself up if a poem doesn’t come out. (laughs) So the process right now is doing a lot of walking around and looking at leaves.

I do find myself creatively stirred when there’s a bit of a puzzle to solve or a task at hand. Finding that nice in-between space between external pushes and my interior machine of creativity. I’m starting to see how to get this machine running in a different way.

What is your relationship with Oregon?

In some regards I don’t know. If I were to time travel back to me as a kid and say, “Portland, OR is going to be very special to you,” I’d be like, “Where is Oregon?” When I first moved here it wasn’t about the city; a large number of people I hold close to me live here. But when I came here it was so different than places I had been in regards to the land, air, and vegetation. I think that spoke to me. I grew up in New Orleans and that’s a really lush and green city. I went to school in Savannah and that was a very rich lush and green city. Portland also is a really lush and green city. But its lushness is different than Savannah and New Orleans. It allowed me to have what I love in nature not become commonplace or taken for granted. Come June, after months of on-again off-again rain everything in my neighborhood is so lush and exploding with color.

And I love that there is a culture of living that seeks to make space for what it means to just be living. The longtime joke about Portland is that it’s a place you go to retire at 30, and there are definitely challenges with that, but I think a lot of that comes from knowing you don’t have to hustle to be alive. I should be able to make what I need to exist and focus on what’s actually important and joyful to me. I think it’s connected to the DIY, pioneering aspect of the state, for better or worse. It tries to makes space for the actual important things in being alive. There’s a possibility of easiness that I get from living here.

What draws you to poetry?

When I was introduced to what it means to write poems, visual art was what I was rooted in. It was like I had been on a playground and only seen the monkey bars. It opened up this field of creativity to explore and that was tantalizing. Writing a poem is the answer to an unknown question. Making a painting is the same. Those questions are asked by the same source but are different questions and reveal different answers.

That’s part of it, but what I can point to what I get from poems is that they allow me to process myself and understand what I’m thinking in the darkness inside of me. It brings light to those shapes. The poem gives me peace.

And I just love beautiful language. I love how someone can take language and shape it and cultivate it to make it a very specific thing of beauty which reflects a very specific human endeavor. One can take unfettered and wild slices of language and put them in a space where they wouldn’t be together; it also reveals the human endeavor to us. That boundless scope of what a poem is “allowed” to be is exciting. I love trying to give shape in myself to the things in me and hopefully through my process it might allow another person to walk in their own direction.

Anis Mojgani in performance. Photo: Megan Gex

Do you still draw?

Has its hills and valleys over the years. The writing and performing of poetry has been my focus for my last 15 years. The last year or two I’ve been trying to make more space to re-cultivate that. It feels like a dear friend who we have not lived in the same city for a long time and now we do. We both love each other but we’ve been through a lot. How do we know each other in the now? It’s challenging but I’ve been making moves on more illustrative endeavors.

Have you had time to think about what you want to do with your tenure?

I have ideas over the process and a part of me wants to hit the ground running. But there’s the reality that there is going to be a lot of uncertainty about what I will be doing over the next two years. Some of the ideas I’m really excited about I can’t do right now. There’s a lot of pots in the fire; I don’t want to burn myself out too quickly. So I’m sitting down to think about what it is I’ll be doing. It allows me set the foundation for how to make those things happen. And it gives me the opportunity to re-explore creatively what to do with this position and resources if I can’t physically visit different communities. What are other ways to have conversation and dialogue about poetry, from afar?

Any poems or poets that you are finding useful right now?

I’ve been trying to find out for myself. I don’t know who to read right now. A poet I always return to, in any occasion, but also in times when I want my heart to feel good but in a manner that doesn’t ignore sadness or paint a positive picture for the sake of positivity, is Ross Gay. His last collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is an amazingly beautiful book. It threads that line to what beauty there is in being alive even when there’s sorrow of being a person.

Lucille Clifton stands out to me because she speaks so plainly and brilliantly to what it means to be a person with feelings and a heart and a body.

One Response.

  1. Shawn Levy says:

    I have no idea how such a brilliant, apt, and forward-looking choice was made, but it delights me. And my joy is increased that Anis recommends Ross Gay’s book, my favorite of at least the last decade. Bravo, bravo, bravo!

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