In Conversation with Oregon’s Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani on the Value of Poetry, Uncertainty, and Vulnerability 

Anis Mojgani, Oregon’s current poet laureate. Photo by Opal Rockett

“[Poetry] offers people the opportunity to be uncertain. It offers people the opportunity to reveal themselves to themself. It offers people the opportunity to move in a manner that is very different than how so much of the world kind of requires us to move.” Anis Mojgani, the current poet laureate of Oregon, is best known for his spoken word poetry, which he has performed all over the world. Based in Portland, Mojgani is also a visual artist and musician. He is a two time champion of the National Poetry Slam as well as the winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam, and his poetry digs deep into the essence of what it means to be human. What is it like to be able to make art and write and perform poetry as your profession? I had the pleasure of spending a rainy Portland afternoon in conversation with Mojgani and got insight into Mojgani’s life as a poet and artist. “We live in a world that does not make space for the importance of what art is and its relationship to being a person, and we live in a country that is consumed with the mechanics of capitalism. Everything is connected to ‘what is a thing worth’ and how a thing only has worth if that worth is something that you can hold in your hand, if that worth is something that you can put in your bank, if that worth is something that has a dollar sign attached to it, and so if it’s not profitable, it’s worth drastically drops. The beautiful thing about art is that it is a thing that is not quantifiable like that. You don’t get to give a weight to how a poem might save your life, how a painting might save your life, how a song might better understand yourself to yourself, better give you the ways to which you want to speak your love to other people.”

Anis Mojgani first got interested in poetry when he was in high school. “Generally in my English classes there was only [a small amount of] time given to poetry and even that little bit of time was very specific to very specific poets and poems.” 

Taking a creative writing class in high school, the unit on poetry resonated deeply with Mojgani. “It made me realize that poetry is not a thing that is simply specific to a time in history but is continual.” Poetry opened up a new part of Mojgani’s imagination, and in college he got introduced to the performance of poets, opening up yet another aspect of poetry. Mojgani would listen to CD recordings of national poetry slams, and through listening, got exposed to a vast range of voices and all the different ways poetry can be delivered. Throughout his career as a poet, Mojgani has performed at hundreds of universities throughout the United States, participated in festivals around the world such as Seoul’s Young Writers Festival and Jamaica’s Calabash festival, and has written five books of poetry including In the Pockets of Small Gods, The Feather Room, and Songs From Under the River. Mojgani wants to write more children’s literature, as well as expanding upon visual art. “ [I’m] really curious in finding the ways in which I can expand the things I want to make, in part with regards to what’s the coalition to writing and performance and especially here in the city where I live.”

What makes poetry unique? “Different art mediums allow different parts of the things that drive us to take the front seat. With poetry I think it is very much trying to highlight what is the communication that our hearts are trying to communicate to our brain and our brain trying to translate that,” says Mojgani. Just like how life is full of circumstances we don’t have complete control over, poetry has its own sets of operations that we can choose to approach in different ways. “To me poetry is sort of like this water, and the poem is whatever the vessel is that we are carrying that water inside of. And so there’s going to be a vessel but we are going to shape it.” Poetry is a way in which we can unleash our creativity and embrace the unknown. “The thing I love about creativity is the opportunity to not know what’s going to happen. When we think, there’s always birds of different things bringing different things in our head regardless of whatever we might be thinking on. All of a sudden something else will drop in. Poetry, I think, really gets to operate like that and I love that.” 

In a fast paced society that doesn’t place value on vulnerability and time to reflect, two things that poetry offers us, young people are often not encouraged or given the opportunity to explore the ideas of being poets or artists as their profession, and making a living as a poet can seem like a far away possibility. “It can be a strange continual conversation and process to make a living off of that which feels very inherent to one’s self and is a thing that one is excited to do and curious about, and does for a wealth of reasons that have nothing to do with making money.” When is there a line between work and living? For Mojgani, living, being a human, not just a cog in the engine of a working society, is a top priority, and he tries to allow his work as a poet and artist to support and harmonize with this need to live fully. “It is important for me to use the opportunity and the gift of this being, my profession, to ensure that it allows me to live more than work.”

What is particular to making art and poetry be one’s job and career? “I think that when one allows oneself to make the journey into art making a sizable part of one’s life it means that you get to open so many more rooms in your house that you didn’t even know existed,” reflects Mojgani. There is a unique and essential value in doing art and writing which other kinds of work often don’t allow for. “They allow me the opportunity to continually engage with vulnerability and for me that’s the most important thing about being a human. How we get to where we want to go, how we get to where we want to be as people, is by doing the hard work of looking at our vulnerability and better understanding it, and better giving it the permission to engage with other people’s vulnerability. That’s a gift and a joy and a beauty of doing this work that is unquantifiable.” Creativity is part of human nature and is a way to express ourselves and communicate with others. Having a job that allows for creativity in a deep and engaged level is something that is essential for Mojgani. “To engage in a conversation that says you’re allowed to not shut down your imagination, you’re allowed to be a creative person, you’re allowed to find your way to vulnerability and art, and things that are bigger than a car, that are bigger than a 401K, that are more important than a promotion, and that you’re allowed to engage with those things. Because so many of us have been told you’re not allowed to.”

When asked to give any advice to high schoolers who want to pursue poetry and creative arts as a career, Mojgani emphasized that there is no single route to the path you want to walk. “I don’t think everyone who is an artist and loves art and is called to it needs to be an artist as a job, the important thing is that everybody finds ways that are not cutting themselves off from what the possibilities are for themselves and that there’s not one route to anything. There’s not one route to art beginning something of great importance in one’s life.”  Being a poet doesn’t mean you need to write poetry as your profession. “There’s plenty of poets that I’ve known over the years who say, the best way for me to maintain my relationship with poetry in my life is to be working a job that has nothing to do with poetry and so it’s about finding the thing that works for you, what is the thing that supports your heart. You figure out what is the thing about art and making art that does speak to you and you fight for that. In some situations it might be  the best way for me to do that is to find a way to be a professional artist and another situation for me to do that might be to go do something completely different. I think it basically comes down to: we all have our responsibilities and our expectations and we all have our privileges and the opposite of privileges working for us and working against us.” Not only are there infinite ways in which to interact with art and poetry, there is also just a single life we have. Mojgani highlights this by saying, “but we all just have this life and it is our life, and it’s not our best friend’s life, and it’s not our mom’s life or our dad’s life, it’s ours to decide what we want to do with it. It’s really really important to walk the path that we are called to walk and not walk the path that somebody else is calling for us to walk. That doesn’t mean you know what the path is, and that’s alright, but the important thing is to be walking in the direction you are called to walk and not the direction someone else is calling for you to walk towards.” 

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