I don’t normally cry at poetry events. Most movies don’t get me either, unless I am on an airplane. There’s something about being suspended in the air that makes it easy for me to become teary-eyed at even the lamest romantic comedy. But here I was, very much on the ground at a poetry performance by Shailja Patel, sniffling back the flow of emotion.
It could have been my damp feet from walking through the rain all evening, but I think it was more. In part, it was my own sense of migritude that hadn’t washed away despite the rain. It was all the people I would have loved to bring with me, but they were in various cities and countries. It was my friend in Delhi who sent me the information with the info, and told me to go and soak it all in for her. It was more than that though, it was also the sheer power of Patel’s words.
“Poetry is my best thinking,” she told the audience at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco on March 24, 2012. “When a poem stays with us, it changes the way we look at the world.” There is a reason we read poetry at weddings and funerals and not contracts or wills. After briefly discussing the Occupy Nigeria movement she poses the question, “How do I synthesize the largeness?” For Patel, it usually begins by being in community, “What kick-starts my writing, is always conversations.” More recently, she has been exploring the idea of being alive, as opposite from depression. Patel sees art as part of this, “Art is also a conversation. That’s why we write, that’s why we speak.”
Her book, Migritude (2010) has been translated into 16 languages. She has appeared on Al Jazeera, BBC world service and won various poetry awards. Born and raised in Kenya, she has lived in London, San Francisco, and is now based in Nairobi and Berkeley.
From a performance done in San Francisco, some of Patel’s poems can be heard here, Readings from Migritude: How Ambi became Paisley, The Making (Migrant Song), Under and Over, and Eater of Death.