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Regional Interests

Portland poet Samiya Bashir emerges from isolation

"I’ve worked on this book for six years at least," says Samiya Bashir, "and what I did was walked around with glasses on that were glassed by quantum physics questions."
"I’ve worked on this book for six years at least," says Samiya Bashir, "and what I did was walked around with glasses on that were glassed by quantum physics questions."

When the coronavirus hit the world last spring, Portland poet Samiya Bashir was in Italy for the prestigious Rome prize. She had given up her housing in Portland because she was supposed to be there for a year. But soon Bashir and the other prize-winners were told to leave before the borders closed. Bashir has spent the last year in a borrowed house on Cape Cod wondering about the nature of home and solitude. Bashir has an essay about her experience in the new book “There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB.  I’m Dave Miller. In the fall of 2019, the poet, writer, artist and Reed Professor Samiya Bashir went to Italy for a prestigious fellowship. She had won the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, but she arrived in Italy not too long before something else came, the then novel coronavirus, which rampaged through the country and brought life and Bashir’s fellowship to a screeching halt Bashir wrote about that time and the months that followed in an essay that was published in the new collection, “There’s a Revolution Outside, my Love,” and she joins us now. Samiya Bashir, I’m thrilled to have you on Think Out Loud.

Samiya Bashir: Thanks, Dave. I’m happy to be here and happy to talk about this beautiful collection.

Miller: So, as I mentioned, when the pandemic started, you were in Rome for this prestigious literary and academic and artistic fellowship. What were your hopes for your time in Rome?

Bashir: Well, you know, it’s funny because I actually was there working on a project about basically mobile homemaking and then in the end, that’s basically, one could say, I’ve been working on that ever since I’ve not been home, I was building a thing. I was doing a lot of work in terms of  really kind of building a poem physically. Looking at architectural histories, particularly Somali and Somali and African American and bringing them together, and I really shut down things in Portland and kind of moved myself there for a year to bring everything into this project.

Miller: It’s called, Maps:: Cartography In Progress. And so you’re saying that and we’ll talk about the ways in which everything was disrupted, but it seems like you’re saying that partly because of disruptions, you were able to continue at least a version of your original idea in some ways.

Bashir: I think what it is, is everything, I mean everything, is shifted. I was working on a choral piece that we actually managed to finish last year that will be debuting soon. But the piece itself became a whole other thing. And I think that this project, the Maps Project, has absolutely opened up in ways that I could not have imagined. I was working on an essay for another publication this winter and it was so clear that what I was writing was actually part of this larger project that I had to kind of break off the writing of the essay because I’m like, this is clearly what the thing that I’m still working on is. Well, we’re looking forward to finishing down here.

Miller: What was the community at the American Academy in Rome like? It’s not just writers who can get these prizes. It’s composers and visual artists and historians and architects,

a whole bunch of you theoretically, ideally thrown together.

Bashir: Yeah, thrown together and then thrown apart so quickly. When you first asked about the community,  my heart just kind of swole up. We really kind of built a family. The folks who were kind of year round people at the academy often shared with us what a different kind of group we were than the normal. We were so tight. We were so interactive.

Miller: You mean even pre-pandemic?

Bashir: Yeah, from day one from day one.

Miller: It almost makes it even more painful than to be broken up.

Bashir: Yeah. Because not only were we so enmeshed in each other and informative of each other from day one, but we ate together every day. We slept, we lived together. And so it really was kind of like your family being all of a sudden one day you go home for dinner and it’s like everybody’s got to go to a different place right now.

Miller: So let’s turn to that part. Do you remember when you first heard about the coronavirus?

Bashir: I do it, I do. And actually my first real experience, I was up and I went to Florence to read a piece, that happens to be called “Choreography” and that is looking again at home, but really is talking through the legend of John Henry, the kind of steel-driving man and the moment I got there I was there to also share work with a lot of people who were kind of study abroad students, et cetera. Everybody was evacuated right before the event happened. And  so we changed up the whole event and we really got into what is this corona, what is this, what are we talking about here.  It was a really interesting evening. Going back to Rome, suddenly on the train was the first time I saw everybody wearing masks, really wiping everything down. When I got back to Rome was when the changes started happening at the academy.

Miller: I’m not sure that our audience needs a reminder of this, but just to put it out there, Italy after China was the first country that was truly ravaged, at least obviously ravaged by the coronavirus.  We now know that it was in many other countries, early as well, but nothing was quite like Italy at that time, outside of China and you were right in the thick of it.

Bashir:  Right in the thick of it. But it’s important also to note though, that that was really also in the North and there’s really kind of a North South, we think about north south in the US, but there’s a North South in Italy and being in the North, me had it, having gone to Florence was further north and coming back, but once they actually blocked everything off,

we kind of felt a little bit kind of out of the fire in Rome.  And obviously you saw everybody lost their way out of the fire-ness around the world over time, but it was ravaging, but it was still not quite touching us.

Miller: What options did you have in terms of where you could be once this got bad enough that everything was shutting down?  You were a visitor there, so what options did you have there?

Bashir: There really weren’t any. I mean, once the academy decided they were shutting the doors, there wasn’t anywhere for us to go. And you know, we all kind of wound up on planes to New York, which, you know, the next blow up place was in New York City and it was kind of like chasing just ahead of the pandemic. A couple of folks picked up the virus on the way back, because now we’re on airplanes and most people left. A couple of folks including one who was Italian--his family was in the South--but really kind of dug around trying to find places to stay because coming back also didn’t feel very safe.

Miller: Was coming back to Portland an option for you?

Bashir: Well, sure, but where, I mean, I didn’t have anywhere to live in Portland either. And now there’s a pandemic.

Miller: So. Oh, because you’re giving up your place.

Bashir: My apartment. Yeah, exactly. Everything was shut down because I knew once I was leaving Rome, I would have time theoretically to find a new place to live,

et cetera et cetera. That was not the case when I left Rome, I had to find some place to be In 48 hours.

Miller: Where did you end up?

Bashir: So I wound up here in Cape Cod. And it’s through actual  connections of poetry and literature and Portland and beautiful people. I’m at the home of a friend that you know, an old, you know grandma’s house in Cape Cod and almost the magic of it, too. I did not want to leave Italy. That was my one rule. I just didn’t want to leave. I was doing all of this work and having to do that I was quite afraid of where I would wind up. I couldn’t just kind of go sleep on people’s couches in Portland. I couldn’t go home because my parents are older, I couldn’t you know, what does that mean? And to be able to have people come up with a solution and give of themselves so quickly and so fully has blown me away. I say in the piece about how this year has just been this toss of horrors and gifts, horrors and gifts and this is such an example of that.  I’m out here by myself quarantining.  But what a gift.

Miller: You have written that the project you were working on was a kind of a personal exploration of place and map making and place making and finding meaning in places. Whether it was Mogadishu or Motown as you note, or Portland or Rome. Did Cape Cod before you got there, have any meaning to you, any significance before you got there?

Bashir:  It’s so funny, Dave. I mean, I haven’t quite talked about this very much, but yes. Cape Cod broke up one of my most major relationships in my life and then to wind up kind of back here was so...I spent a lot of time here 20 years ago and really not much since. Although the last place I was before I went to Rome was here in Provincetown because I did work with the Fine Arts Work Center and I hadn’t been here in years to suddenly show up right back here where I was before I left was also so kind of shocking. I was fortunate too though that there are a couple of people who have moved here some years ago. I got to reconnect with them when I was here right before Rome. And so I have a couple of people who were very important people to me who live here and I don’t know that I would have made it through all of this time, all by myself out here without, without having that touchstone.

Miller: I wonder if you could read us one of the poems that has come from this time that you sent us this morning?  It’s called, “I Traveled the World. It was fine.”

Bashir: Sure, absolutely.

samiya bashir

i traveled the world. it was fine.

::  lists  ::

genres

not-genres

survival

surveillance

::   lists  ::

bath salts

meds

nail stuff

grapefruit juice

keys

protein

tequila

other keys

gin

grapefruit juice

other other keys

hair

::   lists   ::

things i won’t be answering:

emails

voice mails

really any mail without a stamp

phone calls

call outs

call ins

ungrounded theories

anything that begins “can i touch...”

::  states  ::

potentially

pointless

surveillance

survival

::  states  ::

selfish

she invites

all the curses

(no curse for you!)

::  states  ::

how are we all so busy now

again

::  lists  ::

my name

the way my name

is said

yawn

Miller: Okay. Yeah, that’s my guest. Samiya Bashir, reading one of her new poems called, “I Traveled the World. It was Fine.”  Bashir is a poet and writer and visual artist. She’s a professor of creative writing at Reed College and has an essay in the new collection, “There’s a Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters from a Crisis.”  How have you been filling your days since you arrived in Cape Cod?

Bashir: Wow. So, so many ways.  I have been teaching at Reed from here, I taught the full academic year on Zoom as so many, many people have and you know, being so far away and yet with so much happening this year. Portland was on fire when we started school last fall. There’s been a lot to do. My students and all of us have been going through a lot for a year, so I think that even just the teaching process was much meltier than normal. I have surprisingly finished a number of writing projects but I also feel much like I’m in the middle of a project that’s building.  I said to a friend recently, it’s like I’m living in a book that’s not like the rest of the world outside which is kind of like breaking the fourth wall when I engage. And so I feel like a lot of this is since I will be exiting exile soon in the next month, which is very strange to reconnect with the world in this way. I also know that it’s going to give me some distance from this real, this whole experience so I can figure out how this story ends.

Miller:  If you’re exiting exiles in which I take to mean leaving Cape Cod for some other place, what are you, what are you entering?

Bashir:  Isn’t that the question, Dave. What am I answering?  And I don’t know the answer.  I’m actually not coming directly back to Portland. I’m going to be in Brooklyn for a little bit for the rest of this year.  I also ironically got Lyme Disease and up here in the Northeast. And I started the school year kind of in the hospital, too, last fall. I’ve been working with people in New York around that, so I’m actually going to be there, still not home. And also at this moment where,

you know, is it the hot vac summer? Is everyone free again and coming outside? Will we, what will happen in the fall? And I feel like I’m still, I’m exiting exile, but I’m in no way exiting uncertainty, if that makes sense.

Miller: You did say hot vac summer, did I hear you correctly?

Bashir: Yeah.  Hahaha.

Miller:So the idea of that is massless, sweaty dance parties of jubilation and relief?

Bashir: I think that’s an image, I think that’s an image that is definitely called out. But yeah, people are kind of letting loose, feeling like everything is safe or safe enough that I can go back out and all of the play I’ve been withholding and holding inside and sort of engaging online. I get to let out and be free and I don’t know if that’s so true.

Miller:  This is not fair for 30 seconds, but do you have a sense for one way in which the pandemic has changed you?

Bashir: Oh my God. One way is tough because there are so many ways.  I think I have been first still-- I have not been on a single piece of land for this long in memory. I’m usually on planes. I travel and read and do things all over the place. To just be still not just spiritually, but also physically, to be living in another’s house with all of my stuff somewhere else, I’ve had to really kind of slow down, really think about what is necessary. I mean, to the point in the poem, like things I won’t be answering. Actually, the things I can’t do right now, I actually can’t do. And that’s OK.

Miller:  Samiya Bashir. Let’s talk again. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Bashir: Thank you. Dave.  Have a great afternoon.

Miller:  You, too.  That’s Samiya Bashir, a poet, writer, artist, creative writing professor at Reed College.

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