By Emma Grover
On January 26th, 6 PM-8 PM PT, ARTogether hosted its first poetry reading, kicking off its new quarterly reading series centering immigrant and refugee writers. On my way to the event, as I crossed onto Harrison Street towards the bright lights filling ARTogether’s new center, I ruminated on my own journey as a writer. Specifically, how I had struggled to write prose since finishing my creative writing thesis about a year ago. I remembered the immense pressure to produce a final story that would showcase my worth as a writer and be subsequently judged before an institution. Since then, I had forgotten how to write for myself. Every word felt not good enough, not descriptive enough or dripping in enough meaning. But that night, Edward, Noun, and Dawn reminded me what it means to write for oneself.
ARTogether’s first reading, “The Way Back: An Evening of Poetry”, celebrated author Edward Gunawan’s new chapbook, The Way Back, a hybrid poetry-prose collection, alongside two guest poets Noun Abdelaziz and Dawn Angelicca Barcelona. Throughout the evening, all three writers shared poetry that spoke to each other’s experiences and style, interweaving themes of belonging, language, diaspora, family, and home.
The idea to start a reading series at ARTogether was born from Edward Gunawan’s filmmaking workshop entitled, “Home Made: Video Storytelling”, which ARTogether sponsored. Michelle Lin, ARTogether’s Program Director, shared with me that themself and Edward started meeting more frequently to discuss the structure of the reading series as a natural extension of Edward’s film workshop with a focus on “home” and “home-making” in our often-times inhospitable world. ARTogether’s move into their new center in Downtown Oakland was the final push they needed to make this reading series a reality
Currently, ARTogether has a list of potential writers they hope to spotlight. Their dream is to support a wide variety of literary events including writing workshops, classes, professional development workshops, and a reading club. Michelle is excited to structure each reading with an emphasis on community building, giving attendees the opportunity to meet one another and forego the writer/audience separation common at many book events. At her previous job, she witnessed firsthand the incredible effect of building, “a space where marginalized people are safe and held and they feel their experiences are reflected in writing.” They continued, “We want the same for immigrant and refugee writers as well, a place for people to build community through those experiences.”
Poet Noun Abdelaziz opened the reading with the question, “Where is home?”, and as the night continued, all three poets skillfully collaborated in building a safe and loving home out of language for us attendees.
“Home is a feeling, not a place,” Noun shared. Her voice brought to life her stunning imagery and attention to stillness, as she transported us to the softness of a moth, the heat of her mother’s rage, and painted pictures of her family’s rituals.
Edward Gunawan shared his answer in his own words, “Speak it [love] to me: I might just make it home.” He journeyed through the body, taking us through the discomforts of language, tracing the contours of his mother tongue, bringing to life the fear of displacement and not belonging. In his title poem, “The Way Back”, he guided us through streets and intersections to his grandmother’s grave, speaking aloud each turn to his grandmother’s photo so she would know how to get home. Only to realize, “… those directions home weren’t for you. They were for me.”
Similarly, Dawn called upon her own ancestors, summoning her grandfather in the form of a grasshopper. Her prose broke open in the air to reveal the painful truths of family dynamics, diaspora, grieving, and healing, like her beautifully depicted image: “a small crack explodes with weeds.” She reminded us to create our own found families, bringing us back to Noun’s opening question, and the cycle was complete.
During the discussion portion of the reading, all three poets addressed the journey of their writing processes and the importance of writing to each of them. Noun shared that, in a world that is constantly categorizing people, poetry allowed her to accept all her identities, to see the world in a more complex way, and document how she is alive. Similarly, both Dawn and Edward spoke on writing being a form of therapy, a way to explore their multitude of selves.
Following the reading, as I walked back to my apartment from the bus station, I wrote my first poem along lines of trailing thoughts. After a year of writer’s block, I rushed home and searched for a pen to help dictate the prose flowing out of my mind, the feelings I wanted to capture, the images that rang between my eyes. Soon, I filled the page, then another. I felt as if I had returned to myself. Like I was returning home.
Noun had revealed, “I go to writing to feel safe, as a reflex to stay alive. To get my voice back.” Inspired by her words, I now strive to do the same.
Emma Grover is a freelance writer from New York City who recently moved to the Bay Area after completing her degree in English and Creative Writing at Wesleyan University. She is passionate about the healing powers of written and artistic expression as well as highlighting the voices of underrepresented and diasporic writers like herself. She has a background in non-profit work and education.