Safia Elhillo asked us to think of something we had lost. We sat in a circle, reading poems aloud. She had brought them for us — four poems about telescoping time, about unhappening events. This is the kind of loss that has no recovery. This is the kind of loss that haunts.
We are at a workshop at the Whitney Center for the Arts on the second day of this year’s WordxWord, and we are all ages — a young girl and her mother, teenagers, young adults and older adults and senior. And we are listening.
She asks us to think about a time when what we have lost was lost, and I think she means a time when we felt the lack of it. I remember this time a year ago, when I was putting together the first pieces of freelance work and slowly getting used to not being in a newsroom at all hours. I remember going to a talk at the Mount about World War I, and walking into the Bookstore afterward to drink prosecco (one glass in two hours) and read Neruda’s memoir and listen to a Williams professor talk about Don Quixote.
But I recognize how lucky I am. In this, as in many things, I have gained more than I have lost. Safia is leading this workshop with gentle insistence, and I think she is wise — this is a powerful place to take us together, and it is not easy.
She is a powerful writer herself, and loss washes through her writing — gaps, mourning, a fallen curtain, the funeral of Hafez when “women poured / down from balconies.”
She describes herself as “Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression.” Her first full-length collection, The January Children, will come out from University of Nebraska Press in 2017, and reading her portrait of abdelhalim hafez as orpheus, I want to look out for it.
She called it “The Presence of Absence,” after a book by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and when I first read the title I thought of ghazals, of the poetry of the North African desert when the nomadic lover sings to someone left behind. That kind of absence is not always tragic, because it is not always permenant.
The kind of loss she has asked us to face may be harder. We wrote silently and then read our poems aloud, any of us who choose to, and I was struck again by the vulnerability and honesty in a well-led writing workshop. I am not going to talk about those poems here, because a wriring workshop is a safe space, and they are not my stories to tell — but I honor her for making that place for us, and I honor all of the writers who came to it.
That evening I joined another group of local poets in presenting a group poem. Bill Yehle, one of the prime movers of WordxWord, described it as based on the Surrealist game “Exquisit Corpse “ (Cadavre exquis), when each person in a group contributes one word to form a quixotic sentence.
In this version, Bill reached out to 10 poets; the first poet wrote two lines to begin a poem and sent them to him, and he sent the second line on to the next poet, who wrote two more lines … and so on. We wrote a poem together, each only the line right before our own. We read it together, each of us coming in with our own two lines, and the poem changed in tone as we handed it on.
I am luckier than I deserve …
… If only I’d known then what I know now.
Would it have made any difference?
We had then each written a longer piece, beginning and ending with our two liens, and we read those two, a more expansive, more wandering version. The ways it diverged tugged at me, but even more the way it came together. And I now know that Carmen Major wrote the two lines Bill sent to me:
The world became a confusion of kaleidoscopic color and sound,
and the feeling buzzing through the once stagnant air was joy.
And I now can thank her for them. I told my friend Seth it isn’t often I get an assignment to write about joy. So I ended the day with a feeling of presence, reading aloud the lines I had written to follow hers:
Drops of water touched the bole of the ash tree — stirring
warm shallows and tadpoles. You knew me, and the rain came.
In the photo at the top: Safia Elhillo, above, appears this week as a featured poet in the annual WordxWord festival in Pittsfield. Photo by Bianca Rose Bono, courtesy of WordxWord.