The first time I met poet Sarah Kay, I fell flat on my face. Literally. The second time we met(one year later) she asked me if I was okay while fellow poet Phil Kaye (they are not married, not siblings, and not together) took pictures of me and my friend and the handmade Rabindranath Tagore book I had gotten them on his phone. Up until that moment, I had only seen these two on Youtube, which was quickly becoming my version of television. Almost every spoken word poet in India has found their way to the mic with a Sarah Kay or an Anis Mojgani poem in their pockets. We had managed to build an entire community around spoken word and poetry off of the work poets of color in the US have done – Button poetry, Write Bloody and the Youtube channel speakeasynyc being the only places to access contemporary poetry.
Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye were the first poets I met in the list of poets who have turned into my personal heroes. When they came to India for the first time, people had flown into Bangalore from all over the country. They were heroes to an entire generation who found their way to poetry. When I met them, they were snickering along with me.
Sarah told Phil about how I hit my head when I fell and then wrote a poem about regret tasting like putting salt instead of sugar on my best friend’s birthday cake. They signed my books, the multiple copies I had bought for all my students and made a joke about the city we were in because ‘we know each other now’ and Sarah was ‘dying to crack this joke’. (Bangalore – Sarah said, more like banga-a lot!) We took some hilarious pictures in all three of our phones before we parted and the 200 people behind me could get their chance at a Sarah & Phil Kaye conversation.
This entire time, I had Sarah’s poem, Mrs. Ribeiro, running through my head.
I tell them, “Listen. Listen to one another like you know
you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world. Show me how many colors you know how to draw with.
Show me how proud you are of what you have learned.
And I promise I will do the same.”
Sarah the person was a lot like Sarah in her poems.
I thought heroes were supposed to be grouchy. But these people/poets were talking to me like I am a human being. Like they are as excited to meet me as I was to meet them. Like they were not waiting for their turn to speak or the line to speed up and get back to their real lives. Like this was their real life and they had worked hard to get where they were and did not think celebrity was a facade they had to put on. Their real selves and poet selves were the same people.
That was three years ago. Since then, I have come to Chicago and managed to meet/spend time/get to know some poets I and my country had previously only seen on screen. None of them have not lived up to their poems. None of them have made me wish I had not met them.
Merriam Webster defines ‘hero’ as
a : a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
b : an illustrious warrior
c : a person admired for achievements and noble qualities
d : one who shows great courage
Historian Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image : A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America says “As never before in art it has become easy for the great, the famous, and the cliché to be synonymous.” Published in 1962, The Image was a scathing book establishing the graphic and image culture as a way to turn mortals into gods and blurring lines between image and reality. He compares today’s image-oriented celebrities, quite unfavorably, to the action-oriented heroes of yesteryear. He coined phrases like “famous for being famous” and “well-known for well-knownness.”
Boorstin argues in The Image that the replica of art, any art – will take over the real. A picture of Monet’s Water Lilies will appear more seductive than the actual painting. The artist will have no agency over the image or spectacle that their work will then be a part of.
Working under this premise, one could argue that the image, any image is fundamentally democratic, an illusion we have repeatedly chosen for ourselves until we have ceased to see it as a choice at all. The image gives rise, Boorstin argues, to a “thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life.” That is also how he defines ‘celebrity’ – An image of a person created, a pseudo-event which is neutral; who has no good or evil, merely an image built over the real – a layer to put on – to present under the right circumstances. Any hero(read celebrity) “has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness.”
It is the public expectation, even preference, for celebrities to be manufactured, mostly as goods and as gods. As people who are larger than life, do no harm and essentially possess no human traits. Their image is more real than their real skin and that image is what fans chase when out looking for photographs and autographs. This person who smiles on the camera and kisses the interviewer’s cheek charmingly. Imagine meeting real living human being – Who sneeze and choke and get tired of putting up a show. What a disappointment. I guess I have some sympathy for the 15, 336 people on the Reddit thread ‘never meet your heroes’ because their heroes turned out to be ‘assholes/refused to sign my ticket/had no heart/said no to taking a picture. ’
It is not 1962 anymore. The image is getting more and more transparent – to an extent that people are beginning to question its need. Celebrities and heroes are being questioned for their opinions, for their real lives and processes – held accountable for more than just their end products. Actors and characters, artists, writers, poets are learning to shed the celebrity layer and how their human sides. In the conversation about art made by problematic artists, art is also being held to a lens of how revealing of the artist it is. Dare I say, we are slowly approaching the age of labeling transparency as bravery?
We have slowly started blurring lines between a hero and a celebrity – a celebrity is not necessarily a hero, and a hero is not necessarily a celebrity but now that these two worlds are colliding I wonder who gets to be called a hero? My list looks like this.
a : Someone whose work you admire,
b : Someone who is walking the path you want to walk upon,
c : Someone who has overcome adversity,
d : Shown immense courage by putting the greater good above their own selves
Bravery is not mythological or illustrious. Neither is the greater good. The definition is changing to being more honest, digging deep into self, being more open to the truths and multiplicity of truths. At least in the poetry circles I am a part of. Interviews are turning into human conversions; Craft becomes as much about the person and the artist than the actual poem.
The person behind the poem is as much a part of the conversation as the poem. Poets with a persona are quickly picked apart by HD cameras and Twitter. These poets, with social media and Youtube as their media are talking about publishing, funding, friendships, love, each other, academia. They are also offering consultations and recommending poems every day. They talk about taking time off when they need. They are generous with their time and attention. They do not hide behind their high walls because (i like to think) they have none. Celebrity crushes and political opinions appear in the same place. There is no zero-sum game. When I meet these poets they do not disappoint. There was no facade for me to pick apart. They are as generous irl as they are on my phone screen. They are not celebrities – they don’t act like one – just humans.
Poets I call heroes are not ascending diagonally. They are spreading horizontally, building a community as they go along. They are not living up to fantasies larger than life and then disappoint fans by being reduced to mere human pettiness. They are not achieving accolades by sacrificing their human sides. Not separating their art from their selves. They are not giants, not superhumans who are creating groundbreaking art. Just people trying to find and build a place for themselves. They are people trying to live their lives and using art to talk about things that matter to them. Poets I call heroes are people I call heroes.
My list of ‘poets-turned-heroes I want to meet’ has stopped looking like a list. Under every name I write down the conversation I had with those poets.
Poetry Foundation, April 25
The first time I met poet Kaveh Akbar, who has written for the New Yorker, Poetry magazine, Interview, has a weekly column with The Paris Review (all things I strive for) I couldn’t believe he remembered me from all of our Twitter conversations. A Reza’s diner in Kaveh Akbar’s poem has a childhood memory that turns into a conversation about favourite food at various diners and which celebrity chef has gotten Persian cuisine down, which prayer song works with what food and what prayer does for a ten-year-old Iranian boy in the US who’d never seen another Arab till he was 16. He then asks me about my life here in Chicago – If I miss India and if I am meeting my friends back home anytime soon. He listens as much as he speaks.
Thalia Hall, April 8
Andrea Gibson asked me who to get in touch with if they wanted to perform in India. While signing my books (one for me and a couple for my students back home) they ask how I think their show went. They had set up a booth for signing books and spent almost two hours talking to every one of us in the line.
Volumes Bookcafe, April 17
Eve Ewing told me to tell her what I thought of her new book. While signing mine, she mentioned reading my Ironheart review.
Camonghne Felix hugged me when we met. She had taught me in New York and said thank you for being there for her on the day of her book launch.
Safia Elhillo said hi, it was nice to see me again.
Poetry Foundation, April 11
I had never seen a Namaz ceremony. I prayed with Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo who turned the Poetry Foundation in a prayer room before launching their new book. We all held hands as we prayed.