In Conversation: Anis Mojgani and Ken Arkind
I first met Anis Mojgani at the 2003 American National Poetry Slam in Chicago. We were competing against in each other in a semi finals bout. It was the first National Poetry Slam that either of us had ever competed at and we were both representing our hometown teams of New Orleans and Denver. We both lost. It was cool. We got over it.
Anis would go on to have one of the best competitive runs in poetry slam history. He won the individual National Poetry Slam title two years in a row and the the World Cup in Paris the following year. He has performed across the world, from the House of Blues to the United Nations. While poetry collections are rarely lucrative, Anis has a hugely successful publishing record. In 2011 his collection The Feather Room was long listed for a National Book Award.
Though Anis Mojgani’s work is often described as simple, or even childlike, it takes great skill to reflect an audience’s interiority. His art is the eloquence of the unsaid, as if he went through hundreds of teenage journals and collected the lines left behind. The ones that seems too simple and honest. The lines that many people feel, but few offer.
In conjunction with New Zealand Festival and Writers Week, Anis has just started a tour of Aotearoa. We chatted about divorce, spoken word before YouTube, New Zealand, and what it means to make a living in poetry, kicking off with the evolution of the art community in his town of Portland, Oregon.
Ken Arkind: You’ve seen all of the changes that Portland has gone through over the years, which I believe are pretty significant, correct?
Anis Mojgani: One of the things that always seemed like a hurdle for Portland is that it’s a city rooted in grassroots and it’s very anti-establishment. Which is a good thing, but it can also be very counter-productive. When I lived there the first time, poets would come through town and want to know where they could read. And every time I had to research it, because all the readings would have died. The thing was, it seemed like, they weren’t allowed to get bigger than this type of size. Like, ‘We don’t want to get bigger. We want it to stay like this tiny little thing’. And that’s great but it also stunts things.
There was this open mic near my house when I first got here and I stopped going. It felt like a circle jerk. There was no catalyst for growth or change in the individual artists as well as that community space.
KA: It’s actually something that I quote you on when talking about Portland. We were in New York and you said, “Portland is just too easy. Everything I want is just sort of there, and it doesn’t ever change. I’m thinking about moving back to New York because it’s always hard.” Which is funny, but it’s true.
AM: It is true, and I think that in the past that worked very much against Portland. Within the the literary community there has been a lot of growth and a lot of solidarity and unifying. Some of the challenges now are, well, that it’s not a very diverse city. And that is something that is being pushed back against. It might seem like things are all good but there are all these people of colour in the community who don’t feel like they have a say or a voice. There’s still a lot of growth that needs to happen.
Also, when I came back I was really interested in finding a studio space. And it wasn’t even that I couldn’t find affordable studio space, I couldn’t find any studio space. It just didn’t exist, and I am sure that there are places, in true Portland style, that aren’t advertised and are below the radar. Some dude out there with a shipping company saying, ‘Hey. If your friends want to paint or have a band space, I’ll charge them like $200 or something.’ Searching for spaces to create art inside of, it’s not manifesting. And are there are lots of places that for years housed studio spaces for artists that are no longer here. They’ve either shut down or are in the process of being shut down, and those buildings are being sold for apartments or condos or whatever. The same thing that is happening everywhere.
There are lots of places that for years housed studio spaces for artists that are no longer here... those buildings are being sold for apartments or condos or whatever. The same thing that is happening everywhere.
KA: The conversation is similar here in Auckland. It’s one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, and a lot of places are gentrifying. A lot of people are afraid of what will happen with K’ Rd or other spaces where a lot of interesting things happen with the arts. Or at least where a lot of artists like to hang out. From my short time here though there seems to be a bit more institutional support than back home.
The growth thing is the same back home in Denver. Something like a 100,00 people have moved to Denver county in the last 14 months or so. Because, well, they legalized marijuana. There are other economic factors too but that’s the big one.
KA: It’s funny, there was this joke for a while that used to say Denver was the new Portland. Which really pissed me off. But it’s true, artists are the first to gentrify a space.
I remember the last time I was at the slam in Portland. Its old was huge. They’d cram 400 people into that room. Do you think because of the growing literary scene there, that people are taking slam more seriously than the rest of the country? And I guess that’s a bigger question too: do you think that people take the term 'slam' or slam poetry seriously in the United States?
AM: No. Poetry, and the performance of it, is more far reaching than when we were coming up. It’s amazing, the impact of the internet. When I started college in 1995 the internet was a babe. I would scour for hours just to find hidden text from Daniel Roop poem about being Tupac. Usually I couldn’t find jack shit. Now, you go online and type poetry slam into YouTube and you can find 10,000 videos. Now this kid in Butte, Montana, who doesn’t even know he has an interest in poetry, can just go online and in a few clicks up pops a video from Def Poetry Jam season 8 and they’re like “what’s this?”. On that level it has definitely changed. It’s so much huger than it was before. And definitely there is an element that exists in our community of poetry as a whole that has always said that there is a difference or a fight or an argument or a rift between poetry that is performed or poetry that is written. Most of us couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Within our community, by and large, slam is welcomed. But in the larger world, and even in our own community, the term has such a heavy connotation.
KA: The internet makes everyone a hipster. Accessibility makes it uncool. DVDs ruined anime for me. I remember being the only kid in middle school who had seen Akira and then Sailor Moon came out on TV and every kid knew about it. It’s easy to think something is ruined when other people know about it. At least if you’re a pretentious jerk like myself. And Portland is full of pretentious jerks, with beards. That’s the conversation, I found it crazy that so many people in a city that hip would support the poetry slam. In my experience a kind of backhanded compliment you would often get in any venue that wasn’t slam specific would be: “I love what you do. I hate poetry slams. But I love what you do.”
Do you think that slam has become better understood? I mean, how many interviews have you done where you didn’t have to explain what poetry slam was at the beginning of the interview?
AM: It’s frustrating, but I also think that it’s an exercise in futility to try and battle against what the term ‘slam’ now means. If I have the opportunity to give someone the knowledge of what a poetry slam is, that it’s not just performance, or that it’s yelling loud or freestyle poetry. To explain that it’s just a competition, that you have 3 minutes and so on…
KA: No serious, we’re good, you don’t have to explain it here!
AM: It’s definitely a frustration. Like you said, 'I don’t like poetry slam but I like this'. Or even, 'I don’t like poetry but I like this'. You know you’re not complimenting me when you say that, right? Like, I’m not an asshole. I understand our relationship with poetry in this day and age and how that gets shaped. And it’s unfortunate. So I try and fight against that and bring awareness to it. I’m not going to think differently about someone for thinking that, but all it does to me is show to me their level of ignorance. It’s not through any fault of their own. Poetry is beaten out of us. We are introduced to it at a very young age and are told that poetry is this very small thing. So we assume that’s all it is. And it is, but it’s also this and this and this.
It’s like saying ‘I didn’t like the color blue until I saw the color of your jeans’.
KA: What is that Jon Sands quote? “People who tell me they don’t like poetry just don’t like the poems that they’ve heard.”
AM: No one judges films based solely on Tyler Perry’s output. Like, ‘Man all the films must suck because Tyler Perry makes films’. And then they see a Wes Anderson film and they’re like ‘Man, I don’t normally like films but I like what you do’.
KA: Do you think that people outside of the United States take slam more seriously? It seems like that to me a lot of the time. It is fairly new in New Zealand, at least as a culture. I believe that the Going West slam has been going on for well over a decade but as a whole, it’s relatively new.
AM: It’s interesting to me, the difference in cultures. I can’t say if it’s one of those sour grapes things where I think that things are taken more seriously in the country where I don’t live. Poetry has never been cool in the States. I don’t know what it’s like in other countries.
But I think about how a lot of Chicago cats, they go over to Germany a lot. The way they tell it, it seems incredible. It’s respected like opera. Slam is still not for everyone, just like opera is not for everyone. But no one is sitting there like, ‘Opera, what a trite cliché’.
It’s funny how poetry, as a culture, is so much older in other countries then it is in the States but slam is so much younger. So you go to another country and watch a slam and you think, this is so young. There is a part of my brain that pipes up with that and then there is another part that’s like, ‘shut up’. That’s irrelevant. There is a power in that newness. I use myself as an example. The work I did in college is extraordinarily different than I do now.
KA: I’ve heard very similar comments from other American slam poets who go overseas. That’s very much an American stylistic issue. I mean, the amount of growth in the performance poetry scene in Aotearoa since I first came here has been massive. Not just in participation but also in style. This is due in part to the internet, where it has become more American-sounding. But I was just at a slam in Nelson and none of the poets who had made the final round were under the age of 50 and they were reading poems about the horses from New Zealand that served in World War 1.
KA: Right? Really dope stuff that is very specific to New Zealand. Americans, we like to get our fingers into everything. Which also means our opinions. We forget that these are just opinions. Stylistic choices. We don’t rhyme, but they often do in Australia. It’s what the audience is looking for.
AM: There was a time in the States where all the poems rhymed too. There was a time when everyone and their mother was writing poems from the perspective of person to another person. I don’t know if Marty (McConnell) was the first one but she wrote one and then suddenly everyone else did too. Then there was the period where everyone was writing numbered poems.
None of this is bad, it’s just interesting. What is bad is the conversation that surrounds it. People shouldn’t do poems like this or they shouldn’t do poems like that. It does us a service to go to a different a country and see nine poets do a rhyming and say like, ‘well they’re young’, as if we didn’t all start from that same place. And it might not have anything to do with that. That’s not your culture. As an American, who knows what the culture in this country is, who knows what centuries of poems have shaped it.
KA: Artistic colonisation.
AM: It’s like going to a different country and being like ‘Man, everyone here just does poems about kumquats. Broaden your mind.’ But the folks from there are like ‘Yo man, we broadened our mind and wrote about oranges 2000 years ago and now we write about kumquats’.
KA: It is interesting the way that Button and the internet has affected things. Some of those young poets in New Zealand, from maybe Rising Voices or Word: The Front Line, a lot of them have been highly influenced by Button but have still found a way to incorporate their own cultural voice. Some not so much. Or Germany, for instance, is very humor-based.
AM: Robbie Q. told me that the poets in Germany, when it comes to the idea of airing your drama or the real issues of your life in a poetry slam, they wonder why you would ever do that? It’s all funny there.
KA: You came to New Zealand two years ago?
AM: Yeah, it was the fall of 2014.
KA: You performed in Auckland and Christchurch?
AM: Yeah I was in Christchurch for most of it… I really loved it. Definitely a part of it was that I felt an affinity or a connection to what Christchurch was experiencing in regards to the earthquakes and how that relates to my hometown of New Orleans and Katrina. The people, pound for pound, were some of the best audiences I have had the pleasure of performing for.
KA: It is interesting to see the kind of art that is taking place there. It seems to parallel a lot of what is happening in the Mid West US and all of its urban decay.
AM: One of the things that happened to me when I first got there was one of the local poets took me on a walking tour of Christchurch and was sharing with me work that this organization named Gap Filler was doing. They were basically reclaiming many of these empty, destroyed spaces with creative urban renewal projects. There were no more dance clubs left. So there was this empty lot where they set up like 4 speakers in the corner and they had this washing machine with a speaker inside and an I-pod dock. It said Dance-O-Mat on the washing machine and you’d put in some quarters and get half an hour of amplified music. Just cool things like that.
KA: Tell me about your new book? It seems a bit more specific, and multi-disciplinary.
AM: The name of it is The Pocketknife Bible. I had approached Derrick (Brown) at Write Bloody about doing a new book. I hadn’t had a new book since The Feather Room. He really wanted me to do a book with both poems and artwork. And I thought it sounded like a great idea. It was slated for release in the fall of 2014. Because of the publishing schedule and how all of that works I needed to get to him a title, a cover and a synopsis before the book was written.
I kind of wanted to do a book where the illustrations weren’t just illustrating the poems but were more or less visual poems. Also, I had the title for a number of years. I also always wanted to write a book that dealt with the themes how we create our own personal mythology based on what happened in our lives.
There were three things that proved to be very challenging. The way I would put a book together in the past was I would have poems, and I would go through them, and collect the ones that excited me. Or the ones that felt like they were well suited to go with one another. Then I would create a kind of narrative arc and then I would fill in the spaces by shaping them or writing new poems to fill in the gaps. So it always came from a very internal space. I had work and then I created a book out of this work.
This was the exact opposite. Having a book idea and then creating work to fit into that space. So that was one issue.
Second, there was this very large illustrative quotient to it. I had never done anything like this. Basically doing a fully illustrated book. Frankly, my relationship with my visual art was something that had not been present for a very long time. I kind of explain it to folks like, I had this very close friend, whom I hadn’t spent time with in like a decade. So you still believe you have a relationship with this person but you’re not quite sure how it works. So it was really challenging to start exploring that. You need to get in training for a marathon. Like, so I have to start jogging for like 10 minutes a day, so I can start jogging for 20 minutes a day so I can start jogging for 40 minutes a day and so on. It’s like going through all this exercise, not because I want to be jogging for 20 minutes a day but because you want to run 27 miles.
It’s hard to associate busy work with creative endeavors. I know I have to go through these motions even though none of these things are what I actually want to put in the book. It’s hard.
KA: Yeah, like transcribing an interview.
AM: Yeah! And then the third part was simply that my personal life was utter hell at the time. Just really crazy. I didn’t realize it then, but I was experiencing a lot of emotional and psychological abuse... just a lot of confusion from trying to fix another person’s unhappiness. And there was this book I was attempting to write that didn’t have anything to do with any of the stuff that I was trying to process in my outside life.
Then my personal life got even worse. How can I concentrate on this book, when I’m just trying to stay alive? I’m trying not to kill myself while I write it. In 2014 it was one type of book but by 2015 it was very different. Like, imagine if you were an adult and you came across a journal of your dreams that you kept when you were eight years old, and in reading it you realize these dream are not dreams, instead these are things that ended up happening in your life. That was the kind of a book I wanted to write. So in order to explore it, I started to treat that as an exercise. I started to write about things that were happening in my life, but from the perspective of a child’s dreams. What would those look like? What would those sound like? What’s the voice of that? What is the interpretation of that? These things that I am experiencing as an adult that are heavy and dark, but what would they look like if they were funneled through one’s sweeping imagination. And as I explored that it started becoming me writing a lot more from the viewpoint of me as a boy. And then it started being me just writing about growing up in New Orleans.
I got out of Austin because the book was just not happening and I went to stay in a new friend’s house that was empty in the Bay Area in California. And I was out there by myself for like 6 or 7 weeks. The shape of the book up until then was still supposed to be just a collection of poems. Just let me write 60 poems with 60 pictures. Just do that, keep it simple Anis. But while I was there everything in the book changed. It became this weird little story. A picture book for adults but also a kids book. The first two thirds are me when I was a kid. Writing these little journalistic, poetic observations about my life and what it means to be a kid. And a weird little kid, which I mean all of us are. Even the normal kids are weird. Because childhood is weird. And the back chunk of the book is where you follow the boy into the dreamscape. This dream world where he ends up encountering himself as this 38-year old man. It’s this weird little time travelling book where the protagonist exists in the same place he did as boy and ends up saving himself as an adult.
KA: One of things about a performance poet is that we have to make our living touring. How do you find time to keep creating with a regular tour schedule? How do you find time to balance art and also a relationship? I had to start dating a performance poet in order to make it work.
AM: Almost immediately after I got married I didn’t want to be on the road anymore. But my marriage was over. I left for two months. Part of that was not wanting to be in Texas but part of that was realizing I had shut myself off from a part of my being that really enjoys being on the road. That element can be really challenging. That is how I make my living. I go and I do shows. It’s great and rewarding to find myself at a place that is different then when I first started. I can pick and choose a bit now. I don’t have to be on the road for 3 weeks straight to pay my rent. I can go and do a show and then come home two days later. That’s something I am very thankful for. There is so much of my person that wants and needs the stable life. The challenge is not even so much balancing a life at home while being on the road. The greater challenge is that I love being at home and being still and I love being on the road and moving. How do I balance those two things? Wanting to nest and roost and also wanting to be in the wind?
KA: It has to be great living with other poets at least because they understand. I remember living with my day-job roommates and they would think I was just super lazy because when I did happen to be at home I would just sit on the couch and not do anything. They all thought I was the laziest dude in the world.
AM: I love that my life allows me to do great things like go to New Zealand for three weeks. Why? For poetry! It’s a blessing. But that also means I don’t get to spend time at home with my friends who I have been friends with for two decades. It’s still difficult.
For me, I think I've arrived at a place where I recognise I need both of those things. It’s important for me to have a routine when I am home. It is hard for me to create work when I am on the road. There are a lot of different things that I want to do right now, and those things might not have anything to do with poetry as I do it right now. The only way to find the place to explore those things is to not be on the road. It’s hard to say that I need to not be on the road for maybe the next year. Because then what happens at the end of that time and I need to get on the road? What if all the jobs are dried up? So I am trying to figure out how to continue to make work, and explore work that I want to make differently and to not be too afraid to follow that for fear of not being able to pay rent.
KA: Well I think there is always that question in the back of your head about relevance.
KA: Like if I take time for myself, I don’t get shows. Meanwhile the new kid who got two million views on Button is going to get all the shows. Which is changing as far as sustainability. It’s a little different down here because it’s such a small country. It’s like you’re touring a state. You have to be international in a way. There’s less people in my home state of Colorado than there are in the whole of New Zealand and Colorado isn’t even one of the big guys.
Since there is such a growing spoken word scene here, this is a conversation a lot of people are having. And not just in New Zealand but all over. The industry is growing and there are more people who want to become ‘Professional Poets’. How would you define someone who is a full time poet? Because often, I think people don’t think it’s legit unless you pay the bills outside of touring and selling books.
AM: Well maybe it’s just semantics, but if someone says full time poet or professional poet or this is how I make my living, those are all the same thing but they’re also different. There is a range. Maybe I’ll sound like a dick, but the way I make my living as a poet and the way someone else makes their living is very different. There are plenty of people in our community who have carved out a way to do this. For some folks that involves not having a home address. It means crashing at different homes. All of that is said without any judgment or badness. We create the lives that we want. The ones that we desire. Life is a constant balance of sacrifice and compromise.
Some of us do it as a combination of shows and workshopping. Some do it with all teaching or some it’s more of an academic route. My life as a full time poet is one where I usually do about 15 to 35 shows over the course of a year. Some years are busier than others. Then the rest of the time I am at home doing art, or whatever I want. To an extent. Because there is also the hunting of the shows, or the managing of my merchandise. There’s updating my website or doing stupid social media stuff to make sure that I am relevant.
We create the lives we want. The ones that we desire. Life is a constant balance of sacrifice and compromise
KA: Fewer people question a producer when they say they make their living off of music, or a gallery owner if they make their living off of art. It just gets discouraging when you’re working with younger people that think they can’t do something or live their dreams. Especially when you live in a smaller country where the industry isn’t as big as America. I think the definition most of our community accepts as a full time poet can change and that it should change.
AM: It is frustrating, and I’ve felt the frustration in both scenarios of that conundrum. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a set mode for how to do this professionally. That there are a million ways to do this. That if they’re not getting the opportunity to do it in the very specific way in which they define it, then there is a frustration there. I’ll get that question often, how does one get to do what you do for a living Anis? I don’t have an answer for that.
KA: Well I feel like it’s very different too. For us back in the day. I feel like there wasn’t this set rule of things. You had to make it. You had to figure out a way to do it.
AM: Exactly! I remember after winning a national slam, the thing I had been directing myself towards becoming for a number of years seemed accessible. I wanted to be a professional poet, because I knew there were some folks who actually did that. I hollered at Mike McGee and Rives like, ‘How did you guys do this?’ And from what they told me, they just did whatever it was that was specific to their life and stuck with it. That’s not going to work for me. Which was sad, but also invigorating because it showed me that there was no one way to do this. This also speaks to the difference now. I’d like to believe in my love for my art and my drive for it and my skill or talent. All these things that I’ve used to make this world for myself would be just as prominent and powerful now if I were to start trying it at this at this time in history. But, it’s clearly different. So any 20 year old who comes up to me at a college show and asks for advice, it’s like, none of what I might say to you is relevant. Zero. So what it comes down to is that any folks who want to make a living as a poet, take out the word poet and put in whatever word you like.
I think essentially what it comes down to is this. You figure out what it is you’re good at. You figure out what it is that makes you happy. And you find a way where those two things can intersect as often as possible. And you find a way to see where those two things can intersect in order to give you money, as often as possible, then it becomes a wider definition. Like, what is it that makes me happy? Does it make me happy to specifically just write poems, perform poems, give them to people and then they give you accolades? That’s what you want to do in order to get money, well that’s a very small way to make money. If I sit down and decide what it is that I love doing, then it everything opens up.
I love being my own boss. I love creating stories. I love processing and observing the world around me. I love travel. I love letting my imagination flourish. All of these things that are not tangible, but because they’re not tangible it allows someone to make the definition of their job a little less tangible and therefore a bit bigger. Then, if I’m like, ‘I get happiness from engaging others with poetry’. Well, there’s a multitude of things that you can do with that that.