The novel Clio’s Mobile Home is a facet of my creative work. Several characters in my novel write poems; I am serious about writing poetry. I also work on short shorts, and short stories. They are all modes of thinking about identity, transcendence and beauty in contemporary life. Art keeps us aloft, but it is more than decoration. Its force can be astounding. The artist becomes an instrument, and art lives to tell the tale.
Last week we endured the Cohen hearings and two blanketing snow storms, along with our local Poets Resist. My conditioned instinct is to laugh – poor poetry! — only to be replaced by a memory of our reading’s bright presence. It was neither a blip nor a weak , not an insertion, interruption but a solid thing standing on its own alongside the forces of nature and politics. In the melodramas and storms, it was rather steady, unforced and unmannered, the ongoingness of poets reading and singing people they hope are listening, but singing nonetheless in the space their words create.
I think of the different tones and approaches taken by our nine poets: the whispery, the off-slant, the eloquent wit, the darkly ardent. The open pleas, the laments. The open door to tenderness. The eight-minute slot per poet added to an intensity of poets concentrating their meaning and audience listening hard to what they had to say. That focus ensured that the words left their mark.
Thank you to Peter Covino, Tina Cane, A.H. Avant, Amy Pickworth, Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, Rosalynde Vas Dias, Erin Perfect, Joanna Brown! Thank you, Riffraff for the emotional and physical space!
Home, for Syrians exiled by war, is gone, irretrievable, a lost paradise just as it is, at the same time, a place forever unattainable and mythic. Listening to concerts this week by Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian clarinetist and composer, I was reminded of the mystical desire of Arabic love poetry. The object is unattainable. The wonderful paradox is that in evoking absence, art walked right in and created presence.
Azmeh’s music, presented by Community MusicWorks at local centers, evokes wistful longing with sighs, bends, microtonal wavering and high solemnity of Arab string exhortations — and Kinan’s clarinet wrangles with clarity and fading memory. The feeling is raw, open and shared. Mohammed al Shawaf, a recent immigrant, jumped up spontaneously to read his own poem gathering at Dorcas Institute, a resettlement organization. I scrawled down some of the lines as Kinan translated it into English. It’s about a nightingale who was encountering a displaced poet (apologies for the scrappy transcription!).
“Nightingale, I saw your sad face from the East…Are you a refugee like me? How did you leave heaven on earth? Everything is different, everything destroyed. Did you bring anything from home? You have awoken my feeling…. I promised you, Damascus, I would never forget you.”
The unexpected continued to pop up. Azmeh described how he composed part of a suite, 139th Street, melding Arabic and Hispanic cultures. But while Kinan opened the door to merengue in his Harlem brownstone, klezmer walked onto the stage. He dedicated the wonderful Syrian Wedding piece to “all the Syrians who managed to fall in love during the past eight years. In spite of barrel bombs, chemical attacks, utter destruction. Love is one human right no one can take away from us.”
Last week I presented a project that seemed unlikely to exist and equally unlikely to succeed, but it managed to do both. It was a live poetry performance called Mirrors. In spite of the simple title, every time I tried to explain to the people I’d enlisted to read, we all got tangled up. Three groups of four pairs, with ten-minute breaks for discussion — too much information! Just dive in! Which we did.
I chose bits of writing from observant feminist/literary scholar of Torah, Avivah Zornberg, whose verbal pyrotechnics and all-around genre-bending work I’ve long admired. I placed these powerful excerpts of midrash opposite a selection of my poems. Zornberg’s dense text, out of context, next to my dense text … a case of heightening complexity to obtain clarity?
The idea was to put them side by side and let the sparks fly. They’re not one-to-one correspondences, more like juxtapositions, points of departure, spiky soul mates. Zornberg’s probing of the unconscious of a Torah passage, her eliciting of emotion inside discontinuities gaps and white spaces left room for my poetic eruptions about existential condition.
Did they tango? Well, yes. Rumblings, premonitions, regret, amazement, praise – voices were liberated in the room, a choral celebration of the many.
It was a big personal experiment. I brought all my energy, then right afterwards collapsed into a miserable cold. I’ve been out most of the week. The work was ready but it took a lot of energy to be ready. I spent the week recovering from my readiness. I am renewed, ready to be ready again.
Thanks to Alan Flam, Louis Gitlin and the Soulful Shabbat contingent!
Kinan Azmeh is an existential wanderer and a supreme musician who finds homes around the world. He was riding the New York subway, just back from a musical tour in China, when he described the genesis of a piece he’ll perform, along with the MusicWorks Collective, during his upcoming residency at Community MusicWorks.
Azmeh’s composition The Fence, The Rooftop, and the Distant Sea began with a moment. Years ago, Azmeh was sitting on a rooftop in Beirut, Lebanon. He was staring out past a fence at the distant sea. As his mind skimmed the waves, he entertained a series of images from Damascus, the hometown he’d been separated from. How far was home, or how close? He used a mental map to reconstruct ways of getting from his parents’ house to the opera house, where the traffic lights would be, which corners were where. Later, he composed music for the four-sectioned piece in which two characters turn over the complex notions of what is home, when you have it, when you lose it, how you recreate or reconstitute it.
“In the beginning of the piece, the search for home is complicated and fraught,” he says. “As the music continues, one realizes the best are simplest memories; the music ends almost in the form of a lullaby.”
It’s an extraordinary and consoling resolution that he shares in concerts for audiences widely and happily varied – at refugee camps for Syrian and other displaced people, at schools, at prestigious spots like Carnegie Hall. Azmeh’s musical meditations on home/not home have been the product of discontinuity, years of reflection, radical turns of life both by choice and by fate.
Born in 1976, Azmeh began studying clarinet at age six in Damascus. After studies in high school, he left Syria to study at Juilliard School in New York. His musical reach was always inclusive. He was at home with classical greats: “Bach, Mozart and Brahms weren’t staples on the Syrian radio. But as a child I drank it in. Mozart is equally mine. It didn’t matter if he was Austrian or German, he was Syrian too.” In New York, he won prizes for virtuoso playing, performed with the Syrian National orchestra, Daniel Baremboim’s West-Eastern Divan orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road. He plays with City Band, a consortium of creative musicians who cross borders and integrate different musical genres.
“Bach, Mozart and Brahms weren’t staples on the Syrian radio. But as a child I drank it in. Mozart is equally mine. It didn’t matter if he was Austrian or German, he was Syrian too.”
When the Syrian uprising began, it caused Azmeh tremendous suffering and an inability to return home. The pressure crushed his creative juices: he couldn’t pick up the clarinet for a year. “What was going on was way deeper than the music I was trying to make. The need for the arts was too complicated for me to address, no less reflect on.”
Azmeh eventually came back to his own tool for self-expression — his playing and composing. “I decided to use it as loudly as possible. Even though I realize it’s a soft form and I realize the limitations of it.”
The haunting refrain, “What is home?” came up again in 2017. Azmeh found himself unable to return to his adopted country, United States, when President Trump issued a travel ban on Syrians, and he was on tour. He felt the outrage, double sting, and fear of being exiled again. This was an irony for someone like Azmeh, who believes so staunchly in the openness of cultures, the shared vocabularies of music. “I don’t see barriers or much difference between musical genres. Of course there are different musical vocabularies, but at heart, it’s all the same.”
Essentially, Kinan Azmeh feels most at home when he’s playing music, and the powerful emotion he conveys through the heart of his instrument. The clarinet is close in sound to the human voice, and Azmeh’s playing is informed by familiar folk musics, for instance, klezmer, Greek, Turkish, big band jazz. He can blow off the roof or go silky and soulful. Listen to the meditative care with which he describes playing a wind instrument: “When I play one note, I feel the reed vibrate. There is sound coming out of silence. Every time I play I’m giving birth to something. I’m fighting silence when I start breathing, then when the breath stops, the sound stops.”
Ultimately, Azmeh’s immersion in music and experience of exploring identity has led to wisdom in liberating oneself from strictures. He tells a story of escaping labels: “First I was called a young clarinetist from Damascus. Then when I wasn’t young, I was a clarinetist. Then a musician from Damascus, then a Syrian musician. The next step would be a musician. Yo-Yo Ma said to me, ‘there’s just one additional step to take: you become a human.’”
Interview by Jill Pearlman
Interview done for Community MusicWorks and shared from its blog. For information about Kinan’s residency March 27-30 in Providence, please visit http://www.communitymusicworks.org
“And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.” Most of us can hear Martin Luther King’s thunder and cadence from his speech in Memphis the day before his death in 1968. He knew – a voice was whispering in his prophet’s ear, an angel pressing against his heart – that he would not be crossing the finish line. Moses, the prophet who led his people out from a narrow place of oppression, also was open to the terrific presence of destiny; he, like King, only saw it from the mountain top.
Those of us who are still here: we are still, always arriving. We’re not in the Promised Land, that’s for sure. All we can really do, is to be in the becoming. Still, always arriving. We’ve been still, always arriving since we left the ennui of Paradise. We throw questions, try to dominate, cure. We try to stare down the enemy though, as if in a mirror, we’ll see our own face in its acts of aggression. Learning to love the questions themselves, rather than the answers relaxes the drive to conquer. As King said, mental freedom, illumination can move things.
Today also on the Jewish calendar: Tu B’Shevat, festival of the trees. Today trees are sheathed in ice in New England. The sap is there, held in tension, in suspense, waiting, always arriving.
I am happy to see my poem, Armageddon Blues, in the winter issue of Salamander. The poem is full of irony and tenderness for the challenges of everyday life in times of siege. The unthinkable seems to suck all the energy out of the room. I see certain personal hallmarks: I play with dialog and dialectic, two voices, two positions in this extended address (which is one sentence). I explore a subject of continuing fascination: the ways that art speaks, with fragility but force, to macro political forces. And in order to insure human values along with survival, the necessity to guarding one’s own place of beauty and goodness.
Oh, the curse from the Chinese: “May he live in interesting times.” We’re living those interesting, precarious times: we are in the middle of structures, nations, assumptions breaking apart. London is calling, Paris, Brazil, US falling. We’re deep inside that process!
But what does it mean to be a witness to history? More frequently than not, it will look circumstantial, something like the poet in Roberto Bolano’s “Savage Detectives” who was talking stall to stall in the women’s room while a coup was happening. Unfolding of lives coexistent with unfolding of human events in time. We will be gauged by the intimate, by the personal. By what we create, salvage, dream. The values we discover as essential. Otherwise we will be dispersed, our heads endlessly spinning. Here are some images from the month when “Paris was burning!”
For Noël, the French received a gift of unknowingness. It’s a lucky gift! Les gilets jaunes have doled out confusion to their compatriots who are singularly sure of themselves, gifted in the pur et dur, the absolute. Their clipped “mais oui!” or “mais non!” has, until now, been singularly annoying.
In this new moment, when asked about politics, people pause, hesitate, search for words that are taking days and weeks to form. They glance out the window at the full moon, the crumbling cornices, the slate roofs. Roll over, Descartes! Perhaps there are no answers at all!
Yes, the conceptual ways of thinking are sinking under their own weight. The good news is that the French have a great correction in their back pocket. Food, or exquisite attention to the everyday. The marchés are cornucopias of oysters, escargots, fishes, feathered pheasants; they have a milky way of pungent cheese, chocolate and of course the faucets nearly run with wine. Celebrations aren’t just about consumption: they are happenings of community. I also think of Francis Ponge’s poems about oysters and escargots. When systems can’t be trusted, when they fail, go to what you can touch, taste, what is close to the heart. Don’t go to nihilism, go to regeneration. It’s a chance to reimagine what society could be, to clear space for imagination and the beauty of what is.
We saw a show of the photographer Willy Ronis, whose brilliant eye caught French culture in various states of undress, layered with two or three complex emotions. Reading a plaque, I was astrounded when the critic wrote, ‘After the interruption of the Occupation, he returned to …” Feathers ruffled at first, I thought, “As if the Gestapo was a minor thing!” Then I remembered la durée. I realizing this is the strategy of half full: back to everyday life, back to reality.