Arts & Humanities

Never Just Words

Prof. Samiya Bashir opens up about poetry, politics, and writer’s block.

By Josh Cox ’18 | March 3, 2020

A voice spills over you, weighted with music, whether mirthful, melancholic, or mad. The words are powerful, evocative. But the meaning is not just contained in the words. Sometimes it is only breath that comes through the mic, and somehow it fits just as well as any verse. And there is movement, whether a full-bodied pace or a stretch of the arms, the shoulders, the neck.

Samiya Bashir doesn’t just read her work. She performs it, delivering the lines with the intensity of an actor—fitting for someone who once dreamed of a career on the stage.

Prof. Bashir is on a roll right now. In 2018, she earned tenure at Reed and her third collection of poetry, Field Theories, won an Oregon Book Award. Last year, its titular poem won a Pushcart Prize. To follow it all up, she was awarded the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize by the American Academy in Rome and is currently on sabbatical completing the fellowship.

Some people might be tempted to rest on their laurels. Not her. She’s not cut out to be a body at rest.

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Bashir did not originally want to be a poet. As a girl, her twin obsessions were theatre and fiction. She grew up in Michigan, the eldest daughter of two teachers. Her father immigrated to the States from Somalia in the sixties on a college scholarship, where he met Bashir’s mother, a Michigan native and fellow student. Both parents worked in the Ann Arbor public school system: her mother as an English and language arts teacher and her father as a math and science teacher.

Bashir frames their jobs as an integral part of her upbringing. Because of them, she was surrounded by learning. More important, it meant she and her siblings had advocates within the public school system who allowed them to evade some of its prejudice. When Bashir and her sister were placed in remedial classes even after scoring high marks on standardized tests, for example, their parents were able to intercede—a privilege she recognizes other black and brown schoolmates didn’t always have.

Her parents’ commitment to education brought other advantages too: her mother taught Braille and often worked on the Braille typewriter she kept in the house. Bashir acknowledges that her early exposure to different forms of communication had a profound influence on her development. Her mother decked out the family’s basement with black art and black history posters in order to expose her kids and their friends, whether white, black, or brown, to cultures that were being neglected at school.

All the way from childhood through her teenage years, Bashir kept a journal. It was chock full of creative writing, short stories, and even a novel. When she left home for college, however, the journal was misplaced and never recovered. She was devastated—she didn’t write for years. When she finally picked up her pen again, she was still too grief-stricken to write fiction. Instead, she renewed her focus on her other childhood dream: theatre.

Theatre became her everything. At the age of 19, she moved to Los Angeles. She started appearing in local productions and being recognized for her work—literally. One day, while she was marching at a political protest, two women interrupted her to pay compliments on a recent performance. Bashir appreciated the recognition but realized that the more accomplished an actor she became, the more she would have to deal with incidents like this. Maybe, she thought, she should write plays rather than act in them.

Bashir may have never returned to poetry were it not for one critical life event. In 1992, a jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department of all charges in the brutal assault of Rodney King at a traffic stop, despite an explosive video of them tasering him, tackling him, and striking him with batons. LA erupted in riots. Smoldering with anger, Bashir and some friends decided to watch the fittingly titled 1991 film A Place of Rage. It was a choice that would alter the trajectory of her life. When she watched Berkeley poet June Jordan read “Poem about My Rights,” a flashbulb went off in her head. She needed to work with this person.

Bashir transferred to UC Berkeley, where Jordan taught, and promptly enrolled in the professor’s Poetry for the People program, then in its second year. The initiative had a peer-education model in which students learned how to lead poetry workshops. By the time she graduated, she had taught all over the Bay Area. Like her parents before her, she discovered that she loved teaching—and reaching—young minds.

After Berkeley, she went to New York City to work in publishing, did a two-year residency in Austin, Texas, earned a graduate degree from the University of Michigan, and even taught a year of public high school in Arkansas. She won numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, and published two books of poetry, Where the Apple Falls (2005) and Gospel (2009). As a teacher, she went from strength to strength, joining the English department at Reed in 2012. As a writer, however, she ran headlong into a brick wall.

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By the time Bashir arrived at Reed, she was hard at work on her third book, Field Theories. It was not going well. Something was wrong and she could not figure out what. She was mired in it—too entrenched in what she wanted from the collection to see it for what it was. Then a chance remark from a friend gave her an idea. “I had been trying to mend a broken wing, when I actually needed a whole new bird,” she says.

The next day, she tore the collection apart—literally. She printed out her drafts and spread them all over her floors and walls so she could see the words. This exercise clarified the material she had to work with and broke free her mental logjam. When she finally published Field Theories in 2017, it felt much more authentic to her than her first two collections. That chance conversation is one reason she seeks out creatives, writers, and intellectuals on campus and beyond. “Sometimes you just have to talk things out,” she says.

The connection between creativity and community is central to her teaching philosophy. To her, teaching is more than a job or duty—it is a gift to the teacher. She loves connecting with fledgling writers and helping them develop, something she describes as “opening the window to let one’s voice breathe.”

In her classes at Reed, she introduces students to the technique of embodied writing and guides them through the process of leaning into their emotions. She constantly reiterates that struggle is part of the work of writing. It is frustrating but valuable. It is almost like teething, hellish as you are growing through it, but worthwhile, because in the end you have better tools with which to bite into your work.

“Samiya’s classes, like poetry itself in many ways, give as much as they take,” says Ben Read ’21. “The poetry classes I’ve taken with Samiya are some of the most rewarding classes I’ve taken at Reed . . . As my professor, Samiya has transformed not just my writing, but my beliefs about where and how a poem can be found. She is incredibly generous with her attention and her knowledge.”

The advice she gives to her students is the same advice she continues to impose upon herself. She says that when she crashes into an obstacle in her writing, teaching reminds her that she has a map. She often pauses and considers “what would I tell my students,” then uses that as a launching point to reenter the work, a practice that helps her fight writer’s block. She believes that in those moments, we know the answer, we have just convinced ourselves we don’t.

That technique has paid off for her in Rome. At the American Academy, she was given an artist’s studio in the main pavillion—a first for a poet—in consideration of the visual and multimedia way she works. She’s got easels, screens, and everything else she needs to enter and reenter a piece. She is also invigorated by the other Fellows and a revolving cast of visiting writers, artists, and scholars, with many of whom she has long hoped to collaborate.

Of her upcoming book, she prefers to say little—it’s still in the process of becoming, and she is not yet comfortable trying to describe it. That’s OK. Whatever it is, we know her work will never just be words.

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Josh Cox ’18 graduated with a degree in English. He recently won a grant from the Precipice Fund to connect and promote Portland’s POC arts community.

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