Poets on Borders: Perspectives at Poetry International

Literary magazine Poetry International, based at San Diego State University, promotes a wide range of voices and publishes translations from around the world. The magazine’s blog published a series of conversations with international poets about borders, in response to US President Donald Trump’s order for the construction of a wall between the US and Mexico.

What is a border? What does it mean to live on or cross a border? Can you be a citizen of a border, of language? Here’s a sampling of poets’ responses to these questions.

Kwame Dawes (Ghana)

For most of my life, borders have happened in the pristine mute halls of airports. Uniformed smiling agents decide who I am and where I can go. For decades, the short walk to the kiosk, no matter where in the world I am, is filled with disquiet, anxiety, and sometimes fear.

Roberto Castillo Udiarte (Mexico)

To live between two distinct worlds. Pesos and dollars. Tacos and hamburgers. Tías and uncles. Tequila and whiskey. Pedro Infante and Tony Bennett. Quinceañeras and Sweet Sixteens. Spanish and English.

And then to cross them, unite them through language, and from that union of two different languages, to invent such things as: Fish tacos, Toluca Lake, Tortilla Shop, and to have children with names like Stacy Gutiérrez or Chuy Smith.

Sandeep Parmar (United Kingdom)

I look at my British passport and wonder if someone will come door to door to scratch off ‘European Union’ embossed on its cover. I look at my American passport and wonder if patriotism wasn’t ever linked to violence. I pass through borders and debate which passport to show the guards and ask what difference it makes to the body who is passing through, without allegiance, loyalty or belonging.

Arthur Kayzakian (Iran)

I am told I carry Armenian blood, but I was born on Iranian soil. Now, I am in the process of obtaining my U.S. citizenship, but what does any of this mean when I never feel like I belong anywhere. When I crossed the ocean to get here, all I did was trade one edge for another. At least for now, I am alive. I can live with this edge.

Cynthia Dewi Oka (Indonesia)

Perhaps the body itself can be thought of as a border, or rather, a gathering of borders — I am thinking of how different places, languages, peoples pass or do not pass through me because of the meanings with which my body has been inscribed. For instance, when I was growing up in Bali and Java, what would be said/done to/around me in places where I was being read as “native” were very different from where I was being read as “Chinese.” The same is true nowadays when I am being read as a straight or a queer woman; a model minority or a yellow peril; a young mother or a college student.

Piotr Florczyk (Poland)

I, however, am much more fascinated by the psychological and imaginary frontiers we cross daily. I travel even when I stand still. I get lost when I dream. The ever-growing need for empathy and understanding drives me to scrutinize my beliefs and creeds. Indeed, like the speaker in Ciaran Carson’s famous poem, “Belfast Confetti,” who’s caught in the middle of violence, I turn the lens upon myself as much as I do it to others. Am I part of the border problem? What are my blind spots?

Abeer Hoque (Nigeria)

My father, who is also a writer, once told me that in order to be a writer, I had to know a place, which to him meant living somewhere for a long time. What he doesn’t know is that it might be too late for me. I want to be able to create something from the so-called skim, from the outside in.

I recently reread Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which can be interpreted as a story of border crossing, into fantasy, dreaming, madness, hallucination, imagination, and more. So many of the characters have entered our public consciousness as figures of speech and metaphor and humour. I love both how all the mad things happen so casually, and how there’s no moral, no lesson, no resolution. It just gets “curiouser and curiouser” until Alice comes to, her sister brushing leaves from her face.

Read all the responses in parts one and two in the series at Poetry International.

May 23, 2017Commentary, Identity, Longreads, Poetry, Political Commentary, , ,