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Shailja Patel: Unfiltered Truth

Shailja Patel is an internationally acclaimed poet and author, playwright and political commentator and activist. Her first book Migritude was an Amazon poetry bestseller and deals with the immigrant experience in a variety of ways. She is a founding member of Kenyans for Peace, and was named one of Fifty Inspirational African Feminists for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. She spoke via Skype with Now host David Byrd ahead of the Split This Rock poetry festival in Washington.

Poet Shailja Patel
Poet Shailja Patel
David Byrd
BYRD: What has sparked your imagination recently? The poems in this month’s issue of Poetry Magazine are about things happening in Africa, but that’s not the sole focus of your work.  What has sparked your imagination recently?

PATEL: Well I divide my time between Kenya, my home country and Oakland, California. And of course in these times anyone who is thinking realizes that national borders have very little relevance to the global crises that are affecting us – climate crisis for one thing.  It does not respect national or state or continental borders. So in this moment the most urgent and stimulating issue that’s driving my work is really the planetary crisis we’re in and how we come together as humanity to address it.
 
BYRD: Some of that crisis is man-made, situations like the takeover in Crimea or the Central African Republic or the situation in Afghanistan as they are heading toward elections.  Does that inspire you more than just the general situation of humanity or do you find that these things pop up and you are almost compelled to write about them.

PATEL: I believe one of the most important things I do with my work is to connect the dots between what we think of as political or geopolitical conflict, and the struggle – the fundamental struggle – over resources.  If we look at every war that you just mentioned – Afghanistan, the conflict in Central Africa, Crimea – we can really trace the roots of the military actions and the state actions to resource scarcity and the war for resources.  If we did not have oil, and mineral resources at stake, then nobody would be disputing these territories and certainly no state would be mobilizing armies to claim them.

BYRD: So you think that poetry serves as a better vehicle for communicating protest or dissent than other media such as music or editorial writing or essays?

PATEL: Poetry serves a different function.  It’s not useful to me to compare them. It’s useful to understand what poetry does that journalism for example or analysis doesn’t:  we’re bombarded every day with information, most of it depressing and distressing.  And we have very good defenses for how to screen it out so we can go on functioning.  What poetry does is cut through those defenses; it enters us at a gut level, at a heart level.  It gives us a space to actually feel the fullness of our human emotions. And in that feeling, we understand our connection to every other form of life on the planet.  That to me is the power of poetry.

BYRD: That’s scary, though because people – often times the very defenses you mentioned – people put those up because they don’t want to feel. Is it a struggle for you as a poet to break through that shell and to stay there long enough for people to hear you?

PATEL: It is my work as a poet to open myself up to what is often unbearable and to look clearly at what most people turn away from. And then to find a way to distill it into the most beautiful, precise, truthful, and powerful language possible so that it enters others.  There is a reason that people seek out poetry – people who have never read a poem in their lives will seek out poetry when they’re in love, when there’s a wedding, when there’s a funeral, when a child is born – all the biggest human experiences – somehow something in us calls to poetry and needs poetry to speak to us in those moments.

BYRD: What about what I call speaking for the silent, people who cannot speak for themselves.  Does that tend to get your creative juices flowing more or is it something that you might see walking down the street in Oakland that you just go ‘Wow, that has to change’ or ‘I have to speak truth to that.’

PATEL: Nobody on the planet is really silent. There is nobody on the planet who is unable to speak for themselves.  The difference in power and the severe inequality comes in who has a platform which allows them to be heard.  Who is actually considered to be worth listening to by the centers of power.  So my job as a poet is never to claim to speak for anyone else and certainly never to insult anyone else by telling them they’re voiceless.  It is to use the spaces that I am privileged to occupy and the platforms that I am offered to amplify the voices of those who need to be heard.   

BYRD:  Do you think that poetry has gone to the fringes of our society by all the mass media in our society? Is it still the voice in the wilderness crying to the rest of the consumer society ‘hey look at this truth’? Or do you think that poetry has always been part of that society, but you have to seek it out?

PATEL:  Poetry is definitely a marginalized art form in the USA, but we must be careful not to mistake the USA for the whole world.  If you travel outside the USA, you find that poetry is central to many, many societies.  I was in Colombia a couple of years ago at the Medellin International Poetry Festival, and that is a city where crowds of thousands will turn out regularly every day of the week to listen to poetry.   To them poetry is not an esoteric, marginalized art form; it is as important as rock music or football. 

BYRD: How should my audience think about poetry?

PATEL: I would like your audience to think about poetry in three ways: first of all the power of listening to live poetry is that in our time pretty much all of the entertainment, all of the culture that we consume is filtered, manipulated, mediated, and transmitted to us through technology.  So the spaces in which human beings listen to another live human being in front of them without any intermediation are increasingly rare. And something powerful happens in that space that you can’t get through YouTube, through radio even, through audio.  It is an un-manipulated human being speaking truth to other human beings.  I think poetry is distilled truth and in our time it is particularly suited to social media and to limited attention spans because it is what we need to hear condensed down to minimal words for maximum impact.  I also think that poetry is going to become increasingly important as we see a breakdown of the infrastructures, the grids that we take for granted of electricity, of access to media, of Internet access, as we see when we have big storms and climate crises and suddenly the electricity grid goes down, what remains is the words we carry and what we remember – the songs, the music, the poetry.  And so I actually see a time coming – not too far off – when what we have within us, the language and the art that we can carry within us will become vital to our survival.   

You can learn more about Shailja and read more of her works at her website:
http://www.shailja.com/

You can also follow her on Twitter:
https://twitter.com/shailjapatel

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