Texas Book Festival 2020: Meet the Whiting Award Winners in Poetry

Three emerging literary stars on disturbing the peace

Moderator Safiya Sinclair opened Saturday evening’s discussion with a James Baldwin quote – “Artists are here to disturb the peace” – followed by a Baldwin-esque question: What is the role of the poet in this political moment? The panel, which was made up of three Whiting Award recipients, each offered their take.

(clockwise from top left) Safiya Sinclair, Jake Skeets, Aria Aber, and Genya Turovskaya

Navajo writer and teacher Jake Skeets answered succinctly: The job of the poet is to write poems. Ukrainian American poet (and psychotherapist) Genya Turovskaya said it’s important to protect language in order to elevate it. And Aria Aber spoke of resistance: “Our role as poets is hard to define … but it’s always in conversation with politics because we use the same tools as demagogues and politicians.”

Aber’s debut collection, Hard Damage, is based on her tangled experiences as someone who was born and raised in Germany by Afghan refugees and is now living in the U.S. A first-generation Muslim immigrant who came of age in a post-9/11 world, her book is as political as it is autobiographical.

It’s also an exercise in pushing boundaries on the page. “I wanted to exhaust all the formal possibilities,” Aber explains, later adding, “to pay homage to the multiplicity of my relationship to Afghanistan.”

Themes of uprootedness, war, and home permeate Hard Damage. The author recalls a conversation with a cab driver in Maine, a former Marine who casually mentions his time in Afghanistan. In another instance, she is driven to Düsseldorf Airport by her father in his beat-up white sedan. His pride for that secondhand car, she writes, “knives me in all the wrong places.”

The poem “What Your Life Was Like” addresses her mother, a woman who forfeited her freedom, first in Afghanistan and later in the throes of a foreign culture: “Oh, Mother – weren’t you humiliated by phrases such as thanks, of course, and applesauce?”

Aber’s poems have the tenderness of a CIA-backed coup. Twice, she matter-of-factly lists the names and dates of covert American regime change operations. Rambo, Rumsfeld, and Rilke swirl together in a cohesion of fragmentation. When asked to read a poem, she shares “Reading Rilke in Berlin” in which she confesses: “It took me twelve strange springs to know: nothing occurs out of a sudden.”

The moderator inquires about the German word “sehnsucht,” which appears in the Düsseldorf Airport poem, meaning a wistful longing for something that no longer exists. “As a child of refugees, my sense of self and sense of belonging was always incredibly fraught,” she remarks. “My life’s work is to rebuild that."

Hard Damage

by Aria Aber
University of Nebraska Press, $17.95

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Texas Book Festival, Texas Book Festival 2020, Aria Aber, Jake Skeets, Genya Turovskaya, Safiya Sinclair, poetry

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