After 9-11, I encountered battles both internal and external. As a writer, I felt that words had begun to fail me. They seemed flighty, ephemeral, opaque, misleading, and ultimately powerless. Approaching my art form after the loss of so many lives felt like an impossible task. Journalists sought just the right vocabulary to guide and nurture the country, but I was unable to comprehend how grammar, syntax, or how the use of stanzas or line break would do their larger job. I was confronted with the question, “What is the role of poetry?” or “How can my words matter now?” It all felt insufficient to describe what happened to our city and its people.
I closed my books. I put my pens away. I placed my writing journals in storage boxes. I even stopped reading. I wandered my apartment looking out the window, occasionally making phone calls to loved ones, and then I sat for hours without sound.
But a friend had a project, an anthology called “Language for a New Century,” which gathered the voices of poets from the Middle East as well as poets in the United States. Editing it took almost 10 years — but it was necessary to get me to believe in words again: their meaning, their significance, and their sheer power. All the struggles between reality and imagination played itself out on the pages as I read poems of outrage, redemption and, yes, love.
I cannot say for certain whether we are stronger or weaker as a people. We live within a shared experience, but I also realize there are losses I cannot comprehend though poetry. Our humanity which, like the word, is as resilient as it ever was.
By Perveen Shakir
(Translated by Baidar Bakht and Leslie Lavigne)
Now, that I have closed the doors
of the city of love
and have thrown the key
of each gate
into the jade-eyed sea of oblivion,
this little timorous feeling
is so consoling.
Beyond the forbidding walls of the prison,
in a small lane
of the old walled city,
there is a little window
still open in my name.
From “Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond.”
Tina Chang is the poet laureate of Brooklyn and author of “Half-Lit Houses” and the forthcoming, “Of Gods & Strangers.”