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Slam poet Anis Mojgani celebrates the art of verse with students in India

The celebrated American poet exhorts students to be fearless in risk taking and follow their heart.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   20-12-2017

Anis Mojgani warms up the stage during  BIS Slam 2017 in Bangalore, India
Anis Mojgani warms up the stage during BIS Slam 2017 in Bangalore, India. Picture: Uttara Choudhury

He's been called ridiculously talented, "a twirling dervish of lyric and the body's music," a poet who gleefully spurns the boundaries of poetry. Of course, the gale force is Anis Mojgani, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion and winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam. The American writer traveled to Bangalore to inspire student-poets to duel it out at the second edition of the BIS Slam 2017.

"I have never had a group of devoted student-poets pester me so much to bring an author to campus,” quipped one of the BIS Slam organizers.

That a poet from the American slam scene has such a devoted following in Bangalore testifies to the relatable power of Mojgani's work.  

Mojgani says students who don’t like writing essays may enjoy slam poetry, with its absence of traditional rules and kinship to rap. 

"There are a number of correlations between poetry slams and hip-hop. Being that there is so much in hip-hop’s roots that deal with braggadocio and battle rapping and that the slam is a form of competitive wordplay, the two can elicit a similar spark in some folks," said Mojgani.

"What’s great about slam is that it’s not meant to be exclusive — anyone is invited to participate. It's just you and an audience. It allows an outlet for folks attracted to rap and hip-hop," he added.

Mojgani is the author of four poetry collections titled The Pocketknife Bible, Songs From Under The River, The Feather Room, and Over the Anvil We Stretch. A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Mojgani designs and creates the arresting covers for his poetry books.

Mojgani enjoys Anne Sexton and Jack Gilbert's poetry, novelist John Steinbeck and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which he counts among his inspirations.

Excerpts follow from BIS Slam 2017 where Mojgani as the chief guest fielded questions from students and

What is the relevance of poetry?

Poetry is a magical art, and always has been — a making of word spells designed to open our eyes, and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared to dream of. Art and poetry are ways in which we as people are able to connect, able to reveal, able to illuminate the things inside us that overlap and that cannot necessarily be shared through common everyday language. The creating and discovering of the arts are ways in which we can find more peace within ourselves and build bridges to that and to others.

In this day and age, it's important for us to find where it is that we can take our paths, our careers, our professions, our talents, our skills, our strengths and lend our voice to the dismantling of social injustice and contribute to a more fruitful age. Poetry can change the way we see the world. As poets we have a responsibility to take the thoughts that a lot of us might be wrestling with and illuminate the truths that are common among us. I love young folks being introduced to poetry, and writing it, and finding their voice through it.

What is your advice to students who are aspiring poets and writers?

You can get there if you are willing to work. Just write every day — don’t be afraid of failure. Don't be consumed by whether your writing is good or bad. Observe everything around you and store up its inspirations, so you don’t have to wait for inspiration to arrive — it’s simply and hopefully always present. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems. Learn from other writers. Learn by copying. Learn always by doing.

Anis Mojgani with one of the top three teams at BIS Slam 2017
Anis Mojgani with one of the top three teams at BIS Slam 2017. Picture credit Uttara Choudhury

Write functionally and with greater intimacy. Be authentic: it occurs when you write with a voice that is uniquely your own; therefore, it does not follow a formulaic pattern but grows organically from your sense of purpose and intellectual honesty. The struggle to write well is also the struggle to write honestly.

What is the one thing you know to be true?

When we follow our heart, we cease to have regrets. There is no greater truth. Things may not always go in our favor, but at least we will have tried. So just follow your heart and that which will make it happy. Don’t be afraid — be fearless in risk-taking. Do stuff you want to do — don't be afraid to go the movies by yourself or eat in public alone.

You received a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in comic book art at the Savannah College of Art and Design. What inspired you to pursue a career in performance art in contrast to design?

American poet Anis Mojgani
American poet Anis Mojgani. Picture credit: Ryan Longnecker

I wasn’t necessarily seeking a career in it, nor was it something that was on the other side of the fence or something completely different. I know it seems like it is, but ultimately I see art as art and the making of it as the making of it —it just has different tools that are more or less appropriate for what one is trying to communicate. The whole time I was in college studying comics and pictorial story telling I was writing poems. Time that I wasn’t performing poems, I was painting. It wasn’t a separation. The things inside of me just took shape in different ways.

That being said, when I was done with my BFA, I was pretty burnt out on the idea of comics. I started graduate work in performing because I was able to work for the school in exchange for my MFA and because these studies were turning on a different part of my creative brain. My creativity was being activated in new ways that were exciting to learn and study. When I was done with school simply put I was still interested in continuing this. I was inspired by the thought of being a part of New York’s spoken word community, so I moved to there and jumped in.

Do any of your other hobbies influence, or incorporate themselves into your performance poetry?

I find that the most important things I’ve learned about poetry were infused by the lessons I had studying comic books/sequential art. All art is communication, essentially telling a story of some sort, and that’s all comic book art is. Being taught storytelling fundamentals ended up being the most concrete influence for writing poems.

I’ve also been wanting to combine my own music with my poems both recorded and live onstage, and have wanted to explore the mixing of film with poetry.

Uttara Choudhury is a writer for Forbes India and The Wire. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.



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