LINE LEVEL #1
Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses OCTOBERS by Sahar Muradi.
Excerpt from “Zuihitsu for the New Diaspora,” from OCTOBERS by Sahar Muradi:
N. finally crosses the border. Eighty-five hours by bus. A wife and four children. His press pass buried in his father’s yard. Nangarhar—Kandahar—Quetta—Karachi—Peshawar. Goes to Saturn to get to Venus. Dirt roads and forged papers. Two five-minute piss stops. Bribes the size of windows. A car accident. Pneumonia in his newborn. He is thirty-one. Hair frosted.
My memories begin at age nine. Before that, a long, white expanse, mute as a rope.
Nothing is quiet about small towns with their hateful lawn signs.
New York to Florida and back. I come of age along a corridor. Gregory. Linton. Hawthorne. Vanderbilt. Each move cleans the tongue. Circle becomes sare-kal. Bald head.
All my life trying to name the thing without naming it.
Father’s laugh rises from a wound. Every year, on the day, the tease: “Your birth was a curse.” The year of my arrival twinned with the Soviets’. It’s August. I stroke the taut lampshade of my belly. A black band bisecting it. A flag. Soon, my son, his own twinning: the end of an occupation and its harsh exit.
Who will I be once the gates open? To have to learn anew: the latch, the loop, and how lonesome. I want to be multiple, a hologram, slippery as a foal.
Contributor’s Note // Sahar Muradi
My approach to writing poetry is much like my approach to thrift stores—they are equal loves, and to both I come as a devout forager. My racks and shelves are my notebooks and sketch pads. I scour and glean, I pluck with the curiosity of a seashell sifter. I delight in ephemera, in miscellany, in the astonishment experienced in placing two seemingly disparate things beside one another and listening for the wildness. This is why I love the zuihitsu, a Japanese poetic form I first encountered in the 11th-century collection The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and continue to learn about through the work of Kimiko Hahn and others. The zuihitsu is a collection of fragments, notes, observations, lists, anecdotes, and other bits of text. Hahn compares it to “a fungus—which is neither animal nor plant. It is a species unto its own.”
It was precisely a unique species I needed when trying to pen a thing at all in the wake of the disastrous U.S./NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. I found myself, like so many others in the diaspora, in a state of panic and triage, racing to help evacuate friends, families, colleagues, anyone we could. This, while also heavily pregnant and then with new child in isolation during a frightening pandemic and presidency. I was not exactly thinking about poetry. And yet, like many of the writings in OCTOBERS, it was also the urgency of the moment that demanded witness. This poem arose from sifting—through journals, my Notes app, WhatsApp chats, memories, and musings—as a kind of miscellany of pains.
Craft Lessons from Poets of Color // Joanna Acevedo
Poetry finds us—whether we go looking for it or not, and most importantly, when we need it most. As we see in Sahar Muradi’s zuihitsu form, excerpted from her recently released OCTOBERS (UPitt Press, 2023), poetry can be a sort of recording device as well as a type of satellite dish, capturing and collecting random bits of information and language and filtering it into an art form. The zuihitsu, which emerged in the final division of classical Japanese history with the aforementioned The Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon, pulls from different sources to create a form which borrows linguistic elements from daily life, a sort of magpie approach to poetry—collecting what is shiny and interesting and abandoning the rest.
This kind of found-object poetry can be particularly effective when collecting one’s thoughts about a complex set of emotions, as we see in Muradi’s excerpt—the poem becomes about juxtapositions, which is a commonly used poetic tool. When using this form of juxtaposition, a writer puts two or more things which are not like each other together, for example: “taut lampshade of my belly,” and “a flag.” These seemingly random fragments are at the core of the zuihitsu, but they can also be a part of any poem—putting unlike things together can make a poem more arresting, jarring, and ultimately, memorable. It’s a common and ubiquitous poetic technique which is used by poets of all different styles and forms.
Zuihitsu is appealing because unlike some other forms, including other Japanese forms like haibun or haiku, there are fewer rules that the reader must follow. By simply recording these random fragments, culled from observations, found text, overheard language, and a variety of other sources, a poem may emerge. It can be an easy way for a beginner poet who has an ear for language to explore the world of poetry, which can feel vast and overwhelming, particularly with regards to the huge number of poetic forms.
This technique is genius in its simplicity. Contrast is often what we remember about a poem—Muradi’s line, for example, “mute as a rope,” comes to mind. A rope is inherently mute, but it is Muradi’s placement of these two things together—the adjective “mute,” and the noun, “rope,” which makes the line sing. The two are unlike, but bringing them into conversation allows for poetry to happen.
Surprise, in a poem, is almost always welcome. Zuihitsu is such a satisfying poetic style because it feels random, yet is so cleverly weaving unlike things together, contrasting disparate elements and making them into one cohesive thread. In just a few lines, Muradi manages to bring together the diasporic panic of the Afghanistan evacuation in 2021, her own pregnancy and the fears surrounding it, and family melodrama that permeates the entire poem. Drawing together these random flavor notes, the result is consistent, even as it feels like it should not be—this is the brilliance of the zuihitsu.
Much of the poetry we love today has a sensibility like this. Some of my favorite poets—Richard Siken, for example, does this all the time, but in a much more ironic, tongue-in-cheek type of way. Chen Chen, another of my favorite poets, is always picking up random scraps of information, comments, musings, and thoughts and blending them in a humorous and surprising style. Although it may be hard to notice on a first read, it’s likely that most of your favorite poets are doing this—bringing words and phrases that are unlike each other into sharp focus by placing them near things that don’t seem to instinctively seem like them—using pieces of the zuihitsu form to create both magic and music.
So what can we learn from the zuihitsu? Perhaps the most important lesson is this—that all language is useful, and that, as poets, we must act like linguistic packrats. Picking up and saving every last little bit of language, we never know what might be useful later. Part of the charm of Muradi’s lines is that she uses not only her own observations, but the actual speech of others, such as when she quotes: “Father’s laugh rises from a wound. Every year, on the day, the tease: ‘Your birth was a curse.’” In other places, she uses found language from all kinds of sources, stocking away bits and pieces that might serve useful later. As she writes in her contributor’s note, she is taking a “thrift store” approach.
Save everything. This is the lesson of the zuihitsu. You never know what might be useful later—what question, suggestion, or comment might prove important or memorable as you draft. Poetry is the language of observation, and as we observe, we must also record, hold space for these observations, and collect everything that comes towards us, good or bad. Only through the sifting process, as Muradi documents, can we parse through what the world has given us, and find the poetry in what may originally seem mundane—as the poetry will also, inevitably, find us.
is author of the collection OCTOBERS, selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the 2022 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She is author of the chapbooks [ G A T E S ], Ask Hafiz (winner of the 2021 Patrons’ Prize for Emerging Artists from Thornwillow Press), and A Garden Beyond My Hand. Her writing has been supported by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Bethany Arts Community, Blue Mountain Center, Kundiman, and WOC Writers. Sahar lives in New York City and dearly believes in the bottom of the rice pot. saharmuradi.com
is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at https://www.joannaacevedo.net.