By Marlena Chertock
Published first in The Writers’ Bloc.
Being exiled or facing obstacles that keep you from returning to your country impacts everything you do in life. For four poets, it is a major part of what and why they write.
Four poets, from different parts of the world, performed group poems about displacement, home, identity and crossing borders on Friday at the Split this Rock 2012 poetry festival in Washington, D.C.
The poets showed how displacement from their home countries made them feel like their identities were floating around, not quite belonging to one country or the other.
The session, titled “Many Rivers to Cross — Poetics of Border Crossing: When the Way is Deep and Wide,” included group performances of several poems and poems recited individually. Daniela Elza, originally from Bulgaria, Ari Belathar, originally from Mexico, Christi Kramer, from the U.S., and Nilofar Shidmehr, originally from Iran, performed to an audience of about 10.
“Nobody chooses borders like a postcard,” said Belathar, a Mexican-Russian poet who now lives in Toronto.
Belathar writes about and struggles with the inability of going back to Mexico.
He is a political refugee and is exiled from the country. He was an activist and independent journalist in Mexico where he said he “got into a lot of shit.”
He couldn’t gain asylum in the U.S., so he went to Toronto, Canada with help from PEN International.
The poets performed Belathar’s poem “Mother” together, each reading one line or answering each other in a sort of call-and-response model of poetry.
But sometimes words aren’t enough to ease emotions caused from crossing country borders, semantic borders, or borders of love, sexuality, gender, religion and other borders.
“Words barely, just barely adequate,” Elza said in one of the poems.
Elza, a poet from Vancouver, performed genuinely, gazing directly into audience members’ eyes, her gestures and tone of voice honest and raw. She had a way of reciting words that seemed to slow down time and make the audience listen harder.
Elza grew up in Nigeria and became a Canadian citizen after she struggled with United States immigration regulations.
“I experienced a lot of frustration in the States with immigration, even though my husband was an American citizen,” she said.
She was often stopped and interrogated in airports.
“I don’t even look like a criminal,” she said.
Shidmehr’s experience with border crossing speaks to the unrest of words not always expressing enough, of the difficulty of trying to make the unspeakable said.
“The pain doesn’t have a trace in X-rays and blood tests,” she read, speaking of the pain that remains after not being able to return to your country.
Shidmehr faced many issues with gaining a visa to travel to other countries and leave for America and then Canada.
“There’s this need to have your documents everywhere,” she said. Iranians need a visa to travel anywhere, according to Shidmehr. “We cannot really cross the borders (in Iran), we need illegal papers.”
Kramer, from Idaho, has studied and written about exile for a while. She has recently written about Iraqi Kurds in exile, some of which can be seen in “I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights.”
The four poets had very distinct, different voices. But the way they weaved them together for about an hour, through performing their poems alone and together, created a sort of tapestry of voices, pain and longing. It is even more astounding that they had only met in person two nights before, while preparing for the festival, according to Belathar.
When people fixate on Belathar’s ethnicity, which is often since he comes from various places and heritages, he becomes frustrated.
“Why does that matter so much?” he said. “I’m a child of the future; I have no ethnicity. We’re going to start being more and more ethnic and from everywhere.”