Strange Attractors: Two programs for international writers join in a common mission
In 2004 businessman Henry Reese established COA/P as a refuge for creative writers suffering from persecution in their homelands. Six years later, COA/P is a series of row houses fronting on a narrow alley called Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s historic Mexican War Streets district. Endangered writers in exile receive two-year residencies. To date, COA/P has welcomed writers from countries like China, El Salvador, and Burma. Jazz Poetry is the organization’s premier public event. It couples international writers with American jazz greats on stage for a free, community-wide celebration.
For Croatian writer Miloš Djurdjevi´c, the opportunity to participate in COA/P’s Jazz Poetry event was beyond his imagination. “I was so excited, especially when I learned that I would be on stage with Reggie Workman and Oliver Lake,” he said. “I saw them in Zagreb at one small jazz festival held at the beginning of the 1990s, so it was like my dream come true.”
The odds may be slim that a Croatian poet would recite his poetry accompanied by the music of Guggenheim-Fellow Oliver Lake before an eclectic Pittsburgh audience of jazz fans, poetry enthusiasts, and neighbors. But those are exactly the kinds of synergies that City of Asylum/Pittsburgh strives to achieve.
“The collaborations between the musicians and poets performing in languages like Mongolian, Urdu, Arabic, and Burmese, have helped to make Sampsonia Way a home for free expression,” said Reese. “Art is an especially important way to build bridges to others, even your neighbors. And the joy of the performances is totally thrilling, actually physical. When you are watching and listening, you understand the power of creative free expression and why it is so vital to living a full, free life. And hopefully you take this feeling with you and use it.”
The world in their backyard
Jazz Poetry began with China—or at least with a particular Chinese poet.
COA/P’s first at-risk writer was Huang Xiang, often called the Walt Whitman of China. In 2005 he painted his poetry on the outside of his residence on Sampsonia Way, and “read” his house to an awestruck audience.
“Huang Xiang’s voice was operatic,” said Reese. “He danced, jumped, rolled on the ground, and did anything but stand still, acting out his poems. I thought that it would be natural to have him ‘sing’ to music.”
The idea for a Jazz Poetry concert featuring international writers reading in their native languages was born. “Jazz musicians seemed to be perfect collaborators,” said Reese. “Because they are experienced in listening to one another and collaborating improvisationally.”
Not only that, but jazz is emblematic of American democracy in the way that it honors and melds individual voices, said Reese.
In 2006 Nobel Prize-winning, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was the featured author for the concert.
“The audience almost doubled the second year, so we decided to continue the experiment and invite poets from around the world for the third year,” Reese said. But where would he find enough international poets to round out the program?
“The Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) seemed like a natural partner,” said Reese, who first contacted IWP in 2007. “I had met Chris Merrill, who is the director, so I asked if him if their international writers might find it interesting to come to Pittsburgh and try something unusual.”
For more than 40 years, IWP has been the premier writing residency for international writers.
“We bring about 35 writers from overseas for three months each fall,” said Hugh Ferrer, IWP associate director. “While the writers are here, we like to create other opportunities for them both locally and nationally.”
The partnership has helped build the reputation of COA/P’s Jazz Poetry. It is generally in the fall, only a few days after the writers arrive in Iowa.
“Henry and I look over the roster as soon as we have one, and talk about who might fit,” said Ferrer. “We like writers who can help clarify what Cities of Asylum means. If we have writers coming from totalitarian governments, we start there. Having a writer from Cuba makes more sense than four writers from Scotland.”
Along with Djurdjevi´c, two other IWP writers performed last fall, including India’s Meena Kandasamy. Kandasamy is a woman, a Dalit (an Untouchable, the lowest rung of India’s ancient caste system), and a Tamil (an oppressed minority in Sri Lanka)—three identities that have subjected to her persecution.
“I am not just a poet-essayist-fiction writer,” said Kandasamy, an English lecturer at Anna University in Chennai, India. “I am also a grassroots activist. It was the most marvelous moment of my life to perform with these jazz legends and to read my poetry before the American public. At the end of the concert, it was so comforting to know that the angst of my poetry could strike a chord with the audience; that they could empathize with me, cheer for the anti-caste struggle, and above all,be so generous with their appreciation.”
Home away from home
Catherine Ryan lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years before eventually moving to Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets in 2007.
“When I heard that City of Asylum needed volunteers to house international writers during Jazz Poetry, I offered our home,” said the freelance graphic designer.
She and her husband, Entezam Sahovic, have hosted several poets from the Middle East. “When we lived in the Middle East, we received so much hospitality,” said Ryan. “I wanted to return the favor.”
Ryan has maintained contact with her 2008 houseguest, Iranian poet Maryam Ala Amjadi. The experience made her more aware of what it was like to live under fear of government reprisals.
“I have emailed her more than once and then said to myself, ‘What was I thinking?’” said Ryan. “I forget that I have to think about what I say, or I could jeopardize her. She emailed me back and said she was studying in India and that it was OK. But you forget that you can’t be free.”
John Allison is another neighborhood resident who has hosted poets during Jazz Poetry. Allison and his wife, Cécile Desandre, met in Prague in the 1990s. He felt kinship with their last guest, Djurdjevi´c. “My wife is a filmmaker, who’s done translating,” said Allison. “I’m an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. This is right up our alley—these are my people.”
Djurdjevi´c felt equally at home, citing the generosity of his hosts during his stay. He was also impressed with the venue.
“The alley on Sampsonia Way in fact functioned as theatre space,” he said. “It has good acoustics, and an attentive, grateful audience. It is one of those rare and precious spaces that with a minimum of intervention could sustain artistically very complex and technically demanding events.”
Kandasamy agreed: “I loved the homes, the art on the homes, the warmth of the alley, and how every single aspect came together to create magic,” she said. “A poet has to bleed before people. That I could do on Sampsonia Way. I have read in lots of spaces, but nothing matches the sheer delight of throwing your words at hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages and colors and walks of life.”
The favorable experience is one reason IWP continues to partnership with COA/P. To date, nine IWP writers have performed in Jazz Poetry, including writers from Mongolia, Iraq, and Cuba. “It goes back to Henry’s vision about how to use arts to build a neighborhood and how to make a neighborhood a good place for arts,” said Ferrer. “This is all happening in an intimate way.”
A South African discovers snow
In addition to partnering with IWP for Jazz Poetry COA/P offers some of the IWP writers a three-month residencies following their stay in Iowa City.
South African novelist Maxine Case came to the United States in 2009 to get away from her grueling schedule as a senior writer for the development organization Cape Town Partnership.
“I had a fulltime job that was quite demanding,” said the winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book in Africa. “I would often wake up at 5 a.m. to write fiction.”
She came to the IWP in 2009 hoping to find solitary time to write.
“However, in Iowa City, about 30 of us lived on the same floor of a hotel,” Case said. “My writing was often interrupted by a call to play poker, go out to play pool, or to go out for a meal. Still, Iowa freed the fiction writer in me and once more gave me a voice.”
An extra three months in Pittsburgh helped solidify that voice. “Once the mercury dropped in Pittsburgh, there was very little to distract me from my writing,” she said. “I told a friend about how much writing I was getting done, and he reminded me how prolific so many of the old Russian writers were, given the long, extremely cold winters.”
The South African added: “I can also write quite confidently about snow.”
Of course, Case had time to relax in Pittsburgh, too.
“I’ll definitely remember singing karaoke—‘Purple Rain’ by Prince—in Nico’s Recovery Room,” said Case. “It was great that I was not only not booed, I was actually applauded.”
Two other IWP writers extended their stay in the United States with the three month residency at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh: Glaydah Namukasa of Uganda and Marius Ivaškeviˇcius of Lithuania. Vijay Nair of India stayed for one month.
A collaboration that delivers us the world
The synergy between IWP and COA/P has benefited the tiny Mexican War Streets district and the writers themselves. “The effects have been both playful and profound,” said Reese. “But I hope that they all have lead to a deeper appreciation for diverse voices—and empathy or perhaps self-questioning—and for the importance of creative free expression in everyday life. Each writer has been extremely productive, so the residencies seem to work well for the writers too.”
The collaboration has also benefitted IWP. “We value the collaboration between IWP and Pittsburgh as a City of Asylum for writers at risk, and the many vital connections forged between our two literary cities,” said Christopher Merrill, director of IWP. “We look forward to reading the next chapter in this book!”
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