I Use My Demons as Fuel to Write: A Question with Qais Akbar Omar

AGNI: The story you tell in your piece “In the Ring” (AGNI 85) is singularly powerful. The way you tell it, when you were younger, you poured the horror of your wartime experiences into boxing. Now, though, you’re pouring those experiences into writing. How is it different (and how is it the same), turning to writing the way you once turned to boxing?

(Note to the reader: Omar’s answer includes necessarily graphic depictions of violence)

Omar: I feel two types of pain: physical and psychological. I can easily deal with the first kind. I either take a pill, or I bear it and tell myself to tough it out. As for the psychological pain, I have been grappling with it since I was ten. Most of it is related to the memories of the years of civil war and the Taliban, when thousands of rockets and bombs started raining all over the country.

The civil war in Afghanistan started in 1992. I was ten years old when the first rocket landed in our neighborhood and killed my friends who were playing on the street in front of our house. An hour earlier I had been playing with them, shooting marbles and flying kites. All that remained of them were some pieces of flesh clinging from the tree branches and their blood smeared on the road and walls. I wish my parents had stopped me from seeing all those things. But even if they had, how could they prevent what was to come in the next five years?

Human life was cheap. I saw hundreds of dead bodies, body parts, and men being killed in front of me in many ways: being pushed from a ten-story building, bitten by a man who acted like a dog, and shot by a sniper perched on top of tall buildings and mountains. I was also forced to watch women being raped and giving birth in front of me.

In 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul, I was forced—along with my classmates—to witness the hands and legs of alleged thieves being amputated in the middle of a roundabout near our house. The next week, they forced us to watch how they toppled a wall on a gay man and shot a woman for infidelity.

At the time, when these horrors were happening in front of my eyes, I didn’t think about them twice. I was too busy struggling to survive, pummeling the punching bag for hours every day to get rid of those images in my head. After 9/11, when the Americans intervened and kicked the Taliban out of the picture, we had a few years of peace, and I did not have to worry about my survival every minute of the day. But my past started to catch up with me.

The memories of the years of war haunted me through nightmares, and other times they attacked me at unexpected moments. For instance, I could be having a nice conversation with some friends about movies, gardening, or something completely unrelated to war. Suddenly, a single word would trigger some of those horrible memories and bring them to the surface. I would feel hot and sweaty as though I had run for miles. Then I would get agitated, and my hands and body gestures would no longer be in my control. Immediately afterwards, I would feel a traveling contraction in certain parts of my body. Now it was in my legs, the next minute in my arms, or neck, or temples. Suddenly, I would feel an intense pain in my guts. I had to lie down.

Now let me tell you how I dealt with them. For about ten years I used boxing as a tool to get rid of the memories. Almost every day, I pummeled the punching bag for hours and exhausted my body so that I did not have any energy left for thinking and pondering over the past. Sometimes when I didn’t have the chance to do that, I turned to prayer and meditations. Other times I sat in a corner and pinched my legs or my arms, or I took a nail and poked it into my thighs, arms, and chest. Sometimes I read, or I watched a pleasant movie, or I listened to upbeat music. They all helped, but nothing had a lasting effect.

When I turned twenty-three, I started to write as a form of therapy. At the time, I was living in Kabul with my family, and there was no psychiatrist in Kabul. Even today, there are only a few psychiatrists in Afghanistan. Many people there don’t believe in mental health treatment, though almost everyone needs it.

Writing about the past was not easy at first. I cried writing. Sometimes tears rolled out of my eyes and blurred my vision, but I didn’t stop. After years of boxing, I knew how it felt to win a boxing match in the ring when hundreds of people cheered for me. Every boxer lives for those few minutes of thrill. While I was grappling with those memories and pouring them onto the page, I felt as though I was in a ring, not fighting my opponent but my demons, and the spectators were cheering. However, there were times that despair leaked into my heart and I felt I was losing because the intensity of mental pain was too high. While a boxing match in the ring can last for more or less than an hour, this new fight lasted for months. “How long can I go on fighting with my inner demons?” I have asked myself a hundred times. There were moments that I doubted myself. “Instead of rethinking those memories, I better push them to the far back of my mind,” I have told myself a dozen times. But my will did not let me stop and retreat.

The battle went on for almost three months, during which I lost about forty pounds from a lack of eating and sleeping, but every day I noticed that I was about to win because I could see the pile of papers building in front of me. I stopped when I reached page 750, and nearly half of all the major events from my past were recorded in those pages.

From that day onward, I felt as though my past no longer belonged to me anymore. It was contained in those papers. But my past is my past, and it will always be with me to the day I die. They still haunt me in my sleep, but not as much as they used to.

Years later, I shared those pages with some friends, and they encouraged me to publish them as a book. I did, and I called it A Fort of Nine Towers, which has now been translated into over twenty languages.

An engine needs fuel to run. Now I use my memories as a fuel for writing and telling stories of my countrymen and women. Sometimes they make me run so hard and fast, I crash for a few days or even weeks, and I can’t produce a single word. But over time, I believe, I will learn how to control the demons inside of me.

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IMG_3422 BIO Qais Akbar Omar is the author of A Fort of Nine Towers, which has been published in over twenty languages, and the co-author of A Night in the Emperor’s Garden. Omar has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times, The Globe and Mail, and The Southern Review, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. In 2014-15, he was a Scholars at Risk Fellow at Harvard University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Reader’s Quest for Authenticity

by Samn Stockwell

Whether it’s about an appropriation of experience or an outright fabrication, the demand for authenticity frightens me. It’s the rightful concern of editors, and an ethical expectation of authors, but poems and memoirs appear and are embraced by readers because they are the authentic story of someone who has suffered greatly. Then the story turns out not to be true—it was written by an imposter—and the audience cries I wuz robbed and the work is discarded.

Writing is shaped by the intentions of the writer, regardless of the genre, and therefore, no matter how raw or immediate a work may appear, it’s a creation shaped by the tools of art.

It is not that authors should lie. It is reasonable to expect that writers represent themselves honestly. It is the idea of authenticity that troubles, as though the provenance of a work certified its value. I realize true is a far more difficult concept, but if the real story of Elmer Magoo was riveting and insightful before it was revealed to be fiction, isn’t it still riveting and insightful?

It is not that authors should trade on the status of being in a minority, for example, if they are not. Our origins determine the shape of our lives, with its attendant sufferings and grace. I am sure there is someone out there impersonating a lesbian to gain access to the tiny audience for lesbian poetry. However, if we as minorities claim sole ownership of experience, does that mean the experience is exclusive and beyond imagination? How authentic must oppression and suffering be to qualify? Oppression, violence, and exclusion are not rare experiences and not limited by class or race.

A friend from the Midwest told me about how successful selling dream-catchers was for a Indian tribe. They were so successful they kept selling out and had to farm out the work to some white women living nearby, white women with a serious meth problem. From the standpoint of authenticity, the safe assumption of the consumer was that, by buying directly on the reservation, they were buying an authentic product, certainly more so than a dream-catcher made in China and sold at a dollar store, although surely someone working in a factory in China might be imbued with the need to catch dreams and reveal them in twists of plastic beads?

In this case, authenticity is the idea that a defined group of people, by virtue of history and genetics, can create a talisman out of those entanglements of lineage that will transmit to the recipient some especially good aspect of that identity. It’s a borrowing of what seems like a richer, more powerful culture—the same impetus that makes us admiring tourists of other religions and lifestyles. It’s also profoundly sentimental.

Much to my disgust, in Vermont, photograph books appear of the ‘natives,’ which means elderly farmers. The photographs are carefully composed in front of old tractors and crumbling barns with not a cell phone in sight. And what casual skier from New York or Connecticut would not find that more ‘real’ than their own lives, and by this mean utterly foreign, a distance that could not be crossed?

A reader or a shopper wants an authentic property, even if the sense properties of the object are indistinguishable from the sense properties of similar products, whether it’s dream catchers or poetry from the survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima. The desperate search for something true and enduring, one of the sweeter aspects of human nature, is diverted into shopping for pedigrees of experience.

The authentic work is also a presumption that the other has an identity formed in secret from the world that surrounds us, despite the works’ participation in contemporary discourse. Rousseau raises his head and finds this ideal in the description of subversive voices—a genuine voice subverting the dominant paradigm, a voice of someone poor, black, disenfranchised, queer, as close to the wilderness as possible. With all that subversion, surely the dominant paradigm should be completely reversed by now. How much subversion is needed to subvert?

(And that is an interesting hope, that someone is going to say something that will reveal/dismantle some existing stereotypes or sentimental constructions. Or perhaps it has been done already in a book languishing in the remainder bin. The truth will out, but it is likely to be slow and fitful.)

Because of this idea of authenticity, the voices a poet houses can be evaluated for their authenticity: a way of saying you can know this, but not that—the voice of your native speech, the voice of your ancestral lullabies and war songs: mined for in distant regions, weighed, and elevated. Authenticity is a search for dislocation by the reader, a work wrenching the present to another perspective because it offers an opposing face. Identity cannot be the marker of that kind of authenticity.

Voice is malleable, democratic, and expansionist. Identity does not come in discrete, bound units. Although personality tends to be largely stable over time, it does not have a single, fixed perspective. Identity shifts, mixes, absorbs and repackages. However much the fiction of an identity may warm us (my race/gender/religion never does That!), it does not develop in isolation. It is a mirage to search for a conversation comprised of one voice reared in isolation. Voice is the result of conversation.

And if some voices are authentic, and others are not, then some lives are more ‘real’ than others. I hear this said: he really knows, he’s real, she is so much more real than I am. I mean I hear this from people who teach English and it saddens me. The time when I was sleeping in a car was not more real than the times I was reading Middlemarch. Poverty is not more elemental than art, violence is not a more human act than caring.

Much of what motivates the search for the ‘authentic’ work is the search for authentic suffering. The abused child, child soldier, raped woman, the exiled, the enslaved, the oppressed of any flavor…the hunger for these narratives seems blinding and voyeuristic. And they happen ‘out there,’ so they need not disturb our lives. They may induce guilt, but guilt only changes behavior when the source of the guilt is close enough to touch. At the worst, they encourage the cheapest of emotions: outrage and pity.

Readers must value their own suffering and use it to understand themselves and others. It is not less real because it is less horrific. Life is lived in its dailyness and the constituents of that bear examining.

A deeper problem I have with some of the authentic poetry and prose is how cloying and easy it feels. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle is thinly constructed—if you don’t believe she has nearly perfect recall of her 3rd year as recounted in the opening chapter, the memoir falls apart. The ideal of authenticity ends any discussion of value—the authentic work, no matter how simplistic or reductive, is valued because of its pedigree, a reversal of the old hierarchy, when the right pedigree was male, white, and preferably landed. It is the same mistake. Experience cannot sound one note and be true, however real it may be.

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Face shot 8 20Samn Stockwell has been widely published, and her two books of poetry, Theater of Animals and Recital, won the National Poetry Series and the Editor’s Prize at Elixir, respectively. She has an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, and has taught poetry and English at the New England Young Writer’s Conference and Community College of Vermont. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Peddling a Poetry Chapbook

by Joan Michelson

To peddle. To go from door to door. Or as I am, from person to person selling a signed poetry chapbook with a cover drawing of a cane and a walking frame. Behind me stands the memory of my mother’s father, a Hebrew scholar, who escaped service in the Tsar’s army by fleeing Russia for America. Landing in Boston, he travelled twenty-five miles west and started selling things he could carry. It was his first experience of peddling. A century later, this is his granddaughter’s.

From a Poetry Peddler’s Journal,
London, 25 March 2017

The first catch this morning is the new counter girl in the Health Food Shop. Paying for my sauerkraut, which is on offer and drew me in, I ask if she has any interest in poetry. She says that she loves poetry. I ask her if she writes it. She says no but that she is studying poetry at school. Now I notice how young she is, her face soft and open. For English they are reading Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. Robert Frost is her favourite. I tell her I aspire to write in simple language like Frost, only I don’t rhyme. I show her “Bloomvale Home.” She opens to the first poem and reads aloud, “everybody’s mother and her own.” She says, “This is beautiful. This is like my granny.” I’m moved and gratified. “Your granny must be special.” “Absolutely,” she says, while looking for details to order the book. I tell her the publisher told me I had to sell it. It’s £3.60. She can have it for £3. I look at her, uncertain, and lower my voice, “Or is that too much?” She says she has no change on her. But tomorrow she works at the Cancer Charity Shop. Could I bring a copy there? I think she’ll read the poems. I think they’ll speak to her. My thoughts seesaw between selling and giving. I wish I had given it to her in the first place. “Take it.” I say, pushing it at her. “Please.”

In the supermarket, I spot Steve, a fellow American who has also lived in the area for most of his adult life. His glasses lenses have thickened and he holds a shopping list close to his eyes. Could I show him my little poetry book? He is not interested in poetry. Does not read it. I say that people who do not read poetry like these poems. Diana Athill likes these poems. She was surprised she liked them because she sees herself as a difficult reader of poetry. He doesn’t know who Diana Athill is. “She is a ninety-nine year old literary critic who lives in a Home like Bloomvale.” He shrugs. Why oh why do I go on? Praise the line drawing on the cover. Praise the artist. Show him the book. Now he is with me. He’s seen it around the house. My heart sinks and I feel embarrassed as I recall selling his wife a copy. A few weeks earlier approaching on her bicycle, she’d pulled up to chat. She had not yet seen the dental implant surgeon I recommended but she had had one of her hip replacements, and she wanted to buy the book.

I am grateful for the crowd on the Broadway and the gusts of cold in the wind. I breathe the cold in and collect myself.

At the bank I deposit the week’s takings from sales: £20 in coins. The teller has been reading my poems to his aunt on Sundays. I tell him about my blunder with Steve and about the schoolgirl who reads poetry and giving her a copy. Not for the first time, I tell him I’m happier giving it but I have to keep to my rule: sell three and a half for each give away. Today I am in the red by half a book. He laughs. “You have your work cut out.”

Heading home, I keep a look out for one more person to try. I meet another American. Ken is younger, not on the road to a Bloomvale Home as might be said of Steve, his wife, and me. The last time our paths crossed, Ken was on his way to play squash. But today––to the cleaner’s and walking the dog—he has time for my schmooze. We stand where we meet on a street corner in the fitful wind. I’m well-wrapped up, hat, scarf, thermal gloves, winter coat but, a fit fifty, he’s bare-headed in black zip sweatshirt with the hood dropped back and, as if anticipating summer, his sunglasses are propped on top of his head.

He puts his clothes-collecting bag on the pavement, propping it against his leg, and he keeps hold of the dog’s leash. The dog seems happy to wait and look around. I pass Ken the chapbook and stand odd-angled half facing him, half looking away. I hug my daypack against me protectively. He goes straight to the middle of the book and reads two poems. Then he opens to the first poem, a first stop for Home visits, “The Receptionist.” His face is composed and closed, his hand, fisted with the dog’s lead, covers his mouth. Whatever he is thinking or feeling, he is keeping to himself. Save for a single interruption, he reads steadily to the end.

By now I am focused on his reading and worried about his response and his judgment. He is an international journalist in a senior position. Journalists are writers who write every day, who think about words and let them flow, who can’t and don’t redraft for years, creating files of rewrites to be rewritten, and surely they don’t have time to write themselves into a corner. My doubts about my work surface. My stomach knots, unknots, rises, falls, squirms, takes in the thumps of my heart. I swallow against dryness.

Now I start noting his progress and mentally reading along. I am overtaken by the people in the poems, people reimagined from those remembered, my father’s fellow residents from his years in a Home. Although he can’t know my love for the people and how many times I reworked the poems hoping to bring the community to life, as if he might know how absurdly my feeling are rising, tears burning behind my eyes, he lifts his head and points his finger to a line break. “This one,” he says. I lean forward to read, “the other woman” and hear, without really taking it in, his comments on line breaks and how important a role the break has taken on since free verse came in. I say, “I have so much trouble with line breaks. I am never sure.” He says, “This one works.” And turns back to his reading.

I look at him and, to give him space, I look around. A gust catches an empty beer can and pushes it over the kerb with a thud. The sound reverberates in me as if it’s a bang. The can rolls to a stop against a car tyre. It is silent. But nothing in me is quiet. Here and now the bang of the beer can. Here and then the shuffling of the Bloomvale Home organist moving up the carpeted hall in his slippers. Though it can barely be heard, and it is long past, I hear it. Beside the organist, leaping from a different page, is the thirties’ refugee from Berlin. She is sitting at dinner in the Home with her tablemates, seeing far away the grapefruits she picked as a kibbutz pioneer when Israel was Palestine. She makes no sound but I hear her sigh. And I hear the scrape of her chair as she pushes it back to leave to be alone with her past. Now Judge Daxon is stirring his oatmeal before he too pushes back his dining chair. As his heart gives out, I hear the chair fall over with a loud knock. It happens all at once—the lives in different poems unfold before me, crowd into my heart, which is beating everywhere, and into the life in which I am standing in the March wind, bonded to my reader. Ken has arrived at the last poem, “The Reader.” His fist moves away from his face and something like a smile edges in. He would love to buy it. He looks at the price. “That’s outrageous!” he says. I say that the publisher is in rural Wales, and he is a non-profit, as if that might explain the bargain rate. The next words rush out like sales patter. “Five years work,” I say. “A ten minute read. The cost of a coffee. That’s poetry for you.” We laugh and part. In my pocket, the envelope coin bag to bring to the bank next week. In it two £2 coins.

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AGNI JMJoan Michelson’s book publications include: forthcoming, a poetry chapbook, The Family Kitchen, The Finishing Line Press, USA, 2018; prize-winning collection, Landing Stage, Sentinel Press UK, 2017; Bloomvale Home, Original Plus Books, UK, 2016; Toward the Heliopause, Poetic Matrix Press, USA 2011. ‘Self-Portrait with Secret’ won Poetry Society UK quarterly prize, 2016; ‘Stories’ won first prize in the Bristol Poetry Competition, UK, 2015; ‘Daxon Fraser’ first prize in the Torriano Competition, UK, 2014; ‘Muslim Girl’, the Poetry Society UK Hamish Canham prize, 2012. Her writing has been selected for British Council and Arts Council anthologies of New Writing. Originally from New England, Joan lives in London, England. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Villoro/Hernandez, Brody, and Melnicove: New work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—a story by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández), an essay by Leslie Brody, and a poem by Mark Melnicove. Check it all out!

AGNI Hernandez“One afternoon, my father got in his Studebaker, and we never heard from him again. The last and defining fact tying these photos to my father is the absence of pictures afterward.”
from the story “Bad Photographer” by Juan Villoro (translated by Jorge Luis Flores Hernández)


AGNI Brody“I’d never been manhandled before. There’d been no physical violence in my childhood. When I was nineteen, a policeman had clobbered me in the head at an anti-Vietnam War protest. Then, there’d been blood and stitches, and I’d displayed my scar proudly. Nothing in my life had prepared me for being flung across a room.”
from the essay Daisies: An Observation” by Leslie Brody


AGNI Melnicove“Just when all feels lost,

the fire department volunteers show up in shiny,
red corvettes, gather in a circle around
the crumbling frame of the house, and piss

on the charcoal timbers”

from the poem “Where I Came From” by Mark Melnicove



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Poetry Is Dissent

by Richard Hoffman

Poetry is political. Period. It has often been remarked that the so-called “apolitical” poem, the objet d’art, is of course political in its acceptance of the status quo. But while I agree with that view, that’s not quite what I’m getting at here. I believe poetry is political because a poet is always both working with and straining against language. That may seem like a truism, and you may ask “What’s political about that?” Well, for starters, the question of what to accept about how the world is represented in words, and what to reject. In some respects it is a poet’s duty to reject the verbal and rhetorical formulations of his or her moment in time. In other words, a poet is always on a quest for originality, which is not a question of trying not to sound like anyone else, a question of what these days is called “branding,” but a return to the great storehouse of language, to see what can be found there that is useful and true to this moment.

The part of me engaged in that process is the oldest part of me—or maybe I should say the youngest since I started doing it before I can remember anything else.

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

This is, at heart, a moral commitment, or so I believe, because one of the reasons words have come to disappoint has to do with their deliberate misuse, with their having been poisoned by dishonesty. Here is where I could rant about the ubiquity of advertisers’ and politicians’ designs on us, but it is enough, I think, to simply make the point.

Let me give you a favorite poem of mine, by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as a way of describing the act, the ethical and political act, of writing poetry:

by Zbigniew Herbert
translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it’s easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down from their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answers me

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralist’s dry poem

Maybe in another time, a time when the world had not been poisoned by a century of genocides and mechanized murder, and before the continuing threat of ecocide, a poet could trust his or her culture’s assumptions about what it means to be good, or powerful, or heroic, or simply human. We do not live in a time like that. And so, we are “moralists” or ought to be, as Herbert unapologetically suggests he is. But it is not the finger-wagging moralism of the self-righteous Herbert’s talking about here; it is instead the weighing of words, and a rigorous attention to how these same words have been used before. Because the discourses of the past have brought us to a sorry spiritual state, we can take nothing for granted, nor can we be silent.

Here’s a recent poem of my own — not great, way too simple, but at least short—that asks a similar question about the poet’s relation to the received world:


In my seventh decade
I have not been able to decide
if we have made a mess of everything

because we have turned away
from what the old stories, poems, rituals
sought to preserve by teaching us,

or if we’ve learned those lessons all too well.

Though I’ve railed against Caesar
and raged against the gods,

I am still unable to decide.

If, as poets, we do not fear the misrepresentation of the world, if we do not guard against it, work against it when hunched over the page, then what are we doing? What is being accomplished, and whom does it serve?

It seems to me that poets are of little value who aren’t trying to see through the fog of stereotypes, untruths, half-truths, and alienating narratives that profit a few at the expense of the rest of us. How do we address the racism, or racialized oppression, that has deeply injured our ability to see one another clearly in America? Why should we continue, as writers, to acquiesce in our own infantilization, as if literature were a playground where what happens is of no consequence in the world?

Here’s how the post-WWII critic George Steiner put it “…any thesis that would, either theoretically or practically, put literature and the arts beyond good and evil is spurious. The archaic torso in Rilke’s famous poem says to us ‘change your life.’ So does any poem, novel, play, painting, musical composition, worth meeting.”

And yet, without beauty—in the case of poetry the satisfying and pleasurable play of language, the bodily, erotic tongue caressing the thrilled ear—the soul remains asleep while the intellect goes on chewing its flavorless daily bread. I’m reminded of Yeats’ comment that some poets have pulpits but no altars and others have altars but no pulpit—his version of Aristotle’s charge to the poet to both “delight and instruct.” The temptation is to try to oppose the pulpit-less deco-poets by leaning way out over your own pulpit with an excoriating index finger in the air. But the real alternative is to enact the poem in beauty’s sanctuary, the heart thereby opened to hear words that challenge, inform, and refresh us in the struggle for a just future.

Far from being a luxury, poetry is the essential medium. It is because poetry is handmade, because it does not require a great deal of money to perform its artistry and effect its influence, that it can save us. Most people find poets archaic, quaint, maybe charming, like candle-light. But think how useful candles are when the power goes out. And think about the gathering storm, and the darkness that has begun to fall.

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AGNI HoffmanRichard Hoffman is the author of seven books, including the celebrated Half the House: a Memoir, published in a 20th Anniversary Edition last year, and the 2014 memoir Love & Fury. In addition to the volume Interference and Other Stories, he has published four collections of poetry: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Sheila Motton Award from The New England Poetry Club; Emblem; and Noon until Night. A former Chair of Pen New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Release Party: AGNI 85 is here!

The 85th issue of AGNI is ready, and we’re celebrating—join us!

When: Monday, April 24, 2017, at 7:00 p.m.

Where: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston (Green Line B, Pleasant St.)

We’re celebrating with readings by:

  • Wen Stephenson: Climate change activist and former editor at The Atlantic.
  • Kim Adrian: Author of the memoir The 27th Letter of the Alphabet.
  • Noah Warren: Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
  • Courtney Sender: Winner of fiction prizes from Mississippi Review, Boulevard, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Glimmer Train.

Plus there’ll be a performance of words-to-music by singer-songwriter Brian King of What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? Our release party follows.

Like all our release parties, this will be free and open to the public. For more info, contact AGNI Senior Editor William Pierce at agni@bu.edu or (617) 353-7135 or visit AGNI Online. And if all this talk about AGNI issues has got you excited, check out our subscriptions page!

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On the Desire for Future Biographers

by Josh Gidding

I sometimes imagine my life from the point of view of a future biographer. For instance, concerning the months my parents and I were living in India in 1961, I imagine something like the following:

“From an early age he showed sensitivity towards the miserable and downtrodden. This was dramatically evident in an incident involving the ‘untouchable’ Natu, the household ‘sweeper.’ One morning the child, in front of Natu, took his mop and began to clean the floor with it. The intention was apparently to show solidarity with the sweeper. But Natu, appalled at this transgression of caste boundaries, or perhaps simply afraid that his job was being taken away from him, grabbed back the mop, and the seven-year-old burst into tears. He was often afraid of—and even, it seems, ashamed before—the beggars that were a common sight on the streets of New Delhi, hiding his eyes from them when they would approach the family’s car stopped at a light. But there could also be occasional shows of cruelty, as when he spent an entire afternoon decapitating ants in the driveway, or when he would pull on the restraining leash of ‘Tiger,’ the worm-ridden Alsatian that the family’s rental agent, Mr. Singh, had procured for him after endless entreaties to his parents….”

However, this is misleading, because when the “biographizing impulse” strikes me, it is never in full sentences—or any kind of sentences, for that matter. It comes as a momentary consciousness, the wish for a biographically-shaped pattern guiding the shapeless here-and-now of my daily experience. An awareness that this life—the rainy-day train ride into New York City, for lunch with an old girlfriend; the prolonged Instant Messenger flirtation with same, which went on for three years, which my wife found out about, and which caused her pain, anger and humiliation—a sense that my life, in its daily delinquencies and partial fulfillments, may have a larger meaning and unity, which remain elusive to me, but will not prove so to my future biographer.

I know what you are probably thinking, and yes, there is surely some grandiosity in all of this. But let us make a distinction here. The desire for future biographers is less grandiose than the desire for, say, present biographers. The kind of biographers (they are really no more than intrusive personal reporters) who might hang around the house, watch you make breakfast, follow you to work, to the market, etc. I don’t want those kinds of biographers. I try to imagine them as little as possible. (Though sometimes I just can’t help it.) When the thought of present biographers comes to me, I nip it in the bud, and tell myself—in the words of Waymarsh to Strether in The Ambassadors—to just “stop it.”

(Speaking of Henry James, how nice it would be to have a Leon Edel as a future biographer! How alluring are the titles of the separate volumes of his magisterial biography, especially to those of us prone to such fantasies: “The Untried Years,” “The Middle Years,” “The Treacherous Years”—and finally, as if inevitably, “The Master.” To know that your life can be said to have had such a thing as “untried years,” “middle years,” “treacherous years”—culminating in the triumph of being “The Master”—how cool is that? Ah, the gratification, the posthumous gratification of it all! I realize, of course, that there can be no such thing as “posthumous gratification,” because when you are posthumous, you are in no position to be gratified by anything. But to imagine future biographers while you are still alive—is that not already to be living, as Keats put it, a “posthumous life”? And in a posthumous life, can there not be such a thing as posthumous gratification? Grant me then this day, O future biographers, my posthumous gratification!)

The idea behind the wish for future biographers is really quite simple, and perhaps more common than supposed. It is merely this: that someday, someone will care enough to ascertain how it all fits together. The task is beyond me, but I have seen it done many times before, in the literary biographies that I read. This doesn’t mean that I still hold hopes of becoming a famous writer. Those days are over; I know better. This isn’t about fame, or riches, or greatness. It’s about understanding. Understanding and forgiveness. And vindication. Understanding, forgiveness, and vindication. And the greatest of these is vindication.

Future biographers, you see, get it. They understand; they forgive their subject his trespasses; they set the record straight. They see pattern and sense where the subject seemed to live only muddle. They are wise and knowledgeable in the ways of one’s life. They discover purpose and meaning in it. That is their job—and they are better at it than shrinks. Because while shrinks might very well understand, they tend also to condemn—tacitly, subtly—ever so subtly—to condemn. Even the most understanding of shrinks—mine, for instance—tacitly condemns. They are in a superior position to us, at least for the duration of the therapy, and it is their job to whip us into shape. I read this as an implied condemnation, however well-intentioned. Paranoid? Maybe; then again, even paranoids have real shrinks! They need them as much as the rest of us. (More, actually.)

Future biographers, on the other hand, never tacitly condemn. Though they may, indeed they must, criticize judiciously. That’s very important in the matter of future biographers—their judiciousness. A balanced assessment of motive and action is something most of us aren’t normally accorded in our daily lives; which is another reason it is so important to enjoy it through our future biographers. It is their job to bring an informed understanding and forgiveness to the study of our lives. That’s what makes them good biographers. Needless to say, I don’t want bad biographers. Who does? Bad biographers can do a whole lot of damage. They can really screw things up. Bad biographers understand nothing, and so are in no position to grant forgiveness, let alone vindication. Give me good biographers, or give me … no biographers at all. Actually, that’s not true. I’d be willing to settle for a mediocre first biographer; but he or she must then be followed by a distinguished second biographer (preferably, Leon Edel) to set the record straight and vindicate me.

Because remember: of the three most important things a future biographer can give you—understanding, forgiveness and vindication—the greatest of these is vindication. When, through the unstinting efforts of our future biographer, our true, underlying motives are seen for what they were, and understood, and we are forgiven our trespasses, our lives will have been vindicated. (The future perfect tense, by the way, is the preferred tense of future biography. It is the tense of anticipated completion, of a promise already fulfilled, of the already-done deal. And who of us does not secretly wish for the already-done deal?) We will be found to have been living, all along, lives with a structure and purpose, lives that made sense. Our decisions will be shown to have been the right ones: made in the context of principles and patterns we could not possibly have envisioned at the time, but that our future biographers can now discern and lay out clearly, dispassionately, judiciously, in the wisdom of biographical hindsight. Our lives, apprehended now in full, at last, through understanding eyes, and in the light of biographical truth, will not have gone unappreciated by those who really know.

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good jojay photoJosh Gidding is the author of Failure: An Autobiography (2007). His essay “On Not Being Proust: An Essay in Literary Failure” (AGNI 67) was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays (2009). He taught writing and literature for many years at Dowling College on Long Island, and before that at Holy Cross and the University of Southern California. Before entering academia, he worked as a script reader at Warner Bros., MGM, Columbia, and Paramount. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.