Farnaz Fatemi the author of Sister Tongue (Kent State University Press, 2022), winner of the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Fatemi will produce a series of pop-up teen poetry workshops led by local poets, during which participants will be invited to write about place in consideration of the lasting impacts of the 2020 fires and flooding across Santa Cruz County. The workshops will culminate in a permanent digital poetry space that will launch during National Poetry Month in April 2024.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Santa Cruz County, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?
Farnaz Fatemi: Although I knew some of this before becoming poet laureate a year ago, I am constantly struck by the ever-growing poetry micro-communities that populate our county. We have rich literary traditions, partly coming out of the diversity within our borders. I’m thinking of multiple, nationally renowned literary journals; bilingual poets laureate in the city of Watsonville, California; a healthy open-mic schedule meeting a range of needs; virtual and live reading series; writers’ groups; and a healthy university creative writing program. Until recently, both individual writers with publications and writers who publish primarily in print have been privileged. I think that’s changing. I hope that there will be a more expansive awareness and appreciation for what poetry in our county can be, how it can look and sound, and how it can be part of civic conversations and social change.
Much of the poetry life of Santa Cruz County is built for adult writers. I look forward to a time when more young poets will flourish. Not everything I’m focused on these days is geared towards younger poets, but much of it is.
I would love to see future poets laureate in California supported by more local resources in order to help us integrate poetry into the civic and artistic fabric of the county and state. There are countless inspired poet-leaders in our midst with ideas for how to integrate poetry into public spaces and how to use poetry to address social justice issues. I keep discovering more community members who want to partner on these ideas. I hope for a future where there is more financial support to make these partnerships a reality.
Poets.org: How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?
FF: I am not sure I can say, yet. Being appointed poet laureate has made me trust, more deeply, my impulses to write. I trust that I have a unique perspective—as an individual, private poet and as a public poet—and that my writing and my efforts to encourage people to think about poetry in new ways reflect that perspective. Being in a community of diverse poets laureate across the country is a kind of salve, the reassurance that I am one of so many, both recognized and unrecognized, very hard-working poets engaged in both the work of writing and the work of expanding the place of writing in American culture. My position doesn’t give me more importance than the other fine local poets I know and admire. But it does provide me with invitations to work with others, and with the chance to call on people I might not otherwise and ask them how I as a poet, and how poetry itself, might become part of their thinking and programming. This trust in my own perspective is necessary to organize the biweekly newsletter of poetry events and opportunities that I began as poet laureate; for the chance I had to create a community poem during our local contemporary music festival; and for answering questions like yours. Privately, being poet laureate has made me scrutinize my own words (spoken and written) more than I used to. Not when I’m generating writing—in fact I’ve found that my interactions with so many diverse groups in the community have helped me have more trust in the tiny seeds of language when they emerge, seeds whose provenance I am ignorant of. I’m talking about care when crafting and revising so that the words are saying what I think I mean.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
FF: Poetry is a space with vast permission for nuance. Communities—ecosystems, towns, metropolises—need nuance. Now more than ever we need to counter our lack of critical inquiry, our tendencies toward binary thought, our gravitation to ideas from the left or the right, and falling back on inherited givens. We need nuance to counter easy answers to complex issues. The world of poems allows us to inhabit unpopular spaces, cast light on evils that don’t always present as evils. Poems also help us find beauty in the quotidian, the awkward, or the untested, to view the world through previously shuttered windows. Poets want to shed this weird light. Healthy communities are able to value this light-shedding.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
FF: I’m excited by so many elements of the Our Place project, it’s impossible to name just one. I love that young people across the county will have the opportunity to work with enormously gifted teacher-poets in our workshops. I love that through these workshops, through what young people write, and through our development of a bilingual digital space, young writers will feel like the project belongs to them and will be able to make it their own. I love the depth and breadth of place as a theme. I can’t stop noticing the myriad of ways it helps us as poets see and think about the world. For example, after I launched the project, California Poet Laureate Lee Herrick launched Our California, an opportunity for anyone writing inside and about the state to share their work. Clearly there’s a zeitgeist.
The topic of place has resonated in unexpected and enriching ways. As I started doing outreach and inviting various organizations or groups to participate in workshops, I was buoyed by enthusiasm for these workshops from sources I hadn’t previously connected with. For example, we’ll be doing poetry workshops with the Climate Corps Leadership Institute for high school students in Watsonville, a group that allows interns to gain hands-on experience in stewardship, community activism, leadership, and addressing climate change. We’re also partnering with a Pajaro Valley High School English teacher who recently built a “food forest” with students on their campus. The workshop will help the students generate poems about the environment for a poetry installation that will become part of the food forest this spring. The directions the project has taken are gratifying.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
FF: None, really. I’ve been met with so much enthusiasm: positive responses from local groups, parks, classroom teachers, and the poets offering the workshops—all of whom have been eager to provide more creative opportunities for young people.
Poets.org: What do you hope Santa Cruz County teens will take away from the poetry workshops?
FF: I don’t really know how teens feel and think about where they live and how they got there. I do know that when they have the time and invitations to think and write about those feelings, they have something to say—both to themselves and to each other. Nuance begins with attention and opportunity. The slowing down that writing a poem offers, and the generosity of attention we give anything when we are in the spell, or the space-time, of poetry are both superpowers. I hope that writers who participate will feel access to those superpowers in the company of others feeling it, too—whether it’s their first glimpse or they realize an excitement they’ve felt before. We are living in times which need witnessing—by all kinds of writers and artists, but I think by poets especially. We need to bear witness to issues concerning housing, climate change, our neighborhoods, and the world at large. I find my own hope when younger poets are empowered to transform the world by writing about it. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “I have to cast my lot with those who […] reconstitute the world.”
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Santa Cruz County? How so?
FF: It’s impossible to narrow down so many gifts on the site to just one, but I do return to poems which help me see, anew, ideas of home on this planet and ideas of community, both to make those ideas more inclusive and to expand my definitions. I’m thinking, recently, of Mosab Abu Toha’s disorienting “What is Home” and Camille Dungy’s “Characteristics of Life,” which so beautifully centers the more-than-human world. But also, I’m thinking of a long-time favorite, Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Identity & Community (There is no “I” in “Sea”).” I feel lucky to be alive at the same time as these poets.