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'You're feeding them and they're feeding you back'

Tuesday 2nd February 2016

Ahead of his visit to our shores, Mohamed Hassan picks the brain of Iranian-American spoken word poet, Anis Mojgani. 

 

Photo: Jonathan Weiskophf

Legend has it that slam poetry was the brainchild of a young construction worker from Chicago by the name of Marc Smith. He started it as a way to trick bar patrons into listening to poetry, by giving them score cards and asking them to be judges at what would otherwise be just a regular poetry reading.

Some twenty years later, slam has taken over high schools and universities across the US, and spurred similar movements in dozens of countries across the world, including New Zealand. With the help of smartphone cameras, amateur videographers and the all-powerful YouTube, the genre has amassed millions of followers online and propelled its torchbearers toward book deals, literary festivals and world tours.

Anis Mojgani is a two-time Individual National Poetry Slam Champion. Ask any young poet in the scene, including myself, who their key influences are, and more often than not his name will pop up. Like those he’s inspired to brave the horror of standing behind a microphone and spilling secrets to an audience of strangers, Anis stumbled across poetry as a youth in much the same vein.

“I was enamoured with this idea it gave people, you know? Whoever you were, whatever place you felt you had in society, here is a form that said ‘All that is irrelevant. If you have something to say, here is a space you can say it [in] for three minutes.’”

It was the democracy of it that caught his eye - as an audience member at a slam, you were allowed to have opinions. You could dislike what was happening in front of you. In fact, it was the poet’s job to win you over, through words or wit, and the response would be instantaneous. In Auckland, a poetry crowd snaps their fingers in appreciation. In Chicago, finger snaps means ‘get off the stage’.

I wouldn't say that I love writing. I love what happens as a result of writing. I love the feasibility of discovering a story and discovering a story inside of me that I didn't know before.

“It's a symbiotic relationship… It’s not just this audience sitting there and eating what you're feeding them. You're feeding them and they're feeding you back. It’s a stream that goes back and forth. It’s a conversation,” says Mojgani.

On stage, he embodies that conversation, performing like a preacher telling secrets, hands waving excitedly and face trying to keep itself from grinning. His poems meander through stories of youth, of places and their people, and personal testimonies that are daringly universal. All of this woven through the surrealism of a child discovering everyday things for the first time, although he shrugs off that comparison.

“I wouldn't say that I love writing. I love what happens as a result of writing. I love the feasibility of discovering a story and discovering a story inside of me that I didn't know before. The act and exercise of writing is not always a joy for me.”

He said it’s when the poems come to life on stage that he enters the realm of magic. “It’s an honour and a joy to get to be on stage and invite people onto your ship, and take them to a place where none of y’all know where you're going.”

Mojgani was born and raised in the heart of the American South: New Orleans. It’s hard to know for sure whether the city’s often-romanticised cabaret pulse lives up to the hype or not, but he certainly makes a good case that it does.

“It’s a very musical city, and not even just [because] there's all this music around. [It’s] the rhythms of the city and how it moves and its culture and how it interacts, just like a giant opera.”

LISTEN: Mohamed Hassan talks with Anis Mojgani. 

All of that, he says, feeds into his voice as a writer. “I feel often that all of my work is very much rooted in the story and the myth and folklore of the Southern US, and those are all things that are very heavy in New Orleans.”

Yet despite this backdrop - not to mention his Persian heritage marinating in the words of Rumi and Hafez - he gravitated first not to poetry, but comic book art. So much so that in his first years studying visual art, he hated being called a ‘poet’.

“There was definitely a period in the city where I was going to school, [and] people would come out and hear poems and connect with my work,” he recalls. “It was a small town, so I started being recognised as ‘that poet guy’.

“There was definitely a push-back on my part, like ‘That’s not what I do, I draw comics; I don't consider myself a writer.’”

He would eventually learn to accept the title, and by 2006 plus two national slam titles later, it would become a livelihood, setting him up for several world tours and three published poetry collections: Songs From Under the River, Over the Anvil We Stretch, and The Feather Room. The latter was nominated for the US National Book Award in 2011. It seemed by this point there was no escaping poetry.

Still, he says it still hangs heavy above his head sometimes, and he finds himself in airports filling out his entry form with ‘writer’ as his occupation, rather than ‘poet’.

“You sometimes just sort of feel like an asshole, you know? People who are poets are just ‘young stupid college kids’, and you just feel pompous. It feels sometimes that when I tell someone I'm a poet, they feel like I'm yanking their chain, or playing a joke on them.”

It feels sometimes that when I tell someone I'm a poet, they feel like I'm yanking their chain, or playing a joke on them.

There’s a strange false modesty expected of young artists, he says, and it’s why many of them feel they can’t call themselves ‘artists’ until it’s gifted upon them by other people.

“Occupations of a creative nature exists in this weird place, they shadow both lines; something one does for money and something someone does for gratification. Our society as a whole hasn’t taken that apart and figured out what that means.”

It is this that brings him back to the stage, to an audience that feels part of the process, and that will welcome him with the same ferocity as the other poets sharing the stage.  

There’s an urban legend that follows Anis Mojgani everywhere, much to his own bewilderment. It was 2005 at a slam in Alburquerque (or maybe 2006 in Austin). He doesn’t remember which round or poem it was, but halfway through the lights in the auditorium went out, leaving him and the audience in complete darkness. Instead of waiting for the lights to be fixed, so he could start his poem again, Mojgani kept going, speaking his words into the abyss.

A few seconds later, one-by-one, people in the crowd took out their phones and started taking photos, the flash from their cameras illuminating the stage until he was speaking to thousands of flashing lights, guiding him through.

He would go on to win his first Individual National Slam Championship by the end of the night, paving the way for a career that is as strong as ever more than a decade later. That crowd went home with the memory of a poem they were all a part of.

New Zealand Festival Writers Week

·         Anis Mojgani: Slam Poet – Thursday 10 March, 1.45pm at Embassy Theatre, Wellington

·         Anis Mojgani: Slam Rhythms – Friday 11 March, 5pm at BATS Wellington

·         Anis Mojgani in Action – Sunday 13 March, 2.30pm at St Peter’s Village Hall, Paekakariki

WORD Christchurch

·         Thursday 17 March, 8pm at Wunderbar, Lyttelton

·         Saturday 19 March, 7pm at Christchurch Art Gallery Auditorium



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Mohamed Hassan is an Auckland-based journalist for RNZ.
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