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Rockford College professor puts feelings about Beirut into poems

Wednesday, November 19, 2008  
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RRSTAR.COM
Posted Nov 19, 2008 @ 07:00 AM
Last update Nov 19, 2008 @ 07:08 AM

People staff writer Elizabeth Davies interviewed Susan Azar Porterfield about her life as a poet. Davies wrote the following story from Porterfield’s point of view.

ROCKFORD — It was from a seat at my desk, overlooking the Mediterranean, that I knew there was a book of poems in my future.

I am a poet at heart, after all, and my experience in Lebanon had left me simply overflowing with words. I arrived in Lebanon — my father’s homeland — in 2003 as a Fulbright scholar, teaching at the country’s University of Balamand.

In retrospect, it was one of the safest times in recent history to visit this war-torn land. It’s a country that breaks my heart in so many ways. When I was there, you could feel Lebanon fight off the possibility of being pulled into yet another war. There’s an uneasy balance between its Muslim and Christian cultures, one that keeps this small country in a state of civil unrest. Still, my students at the university had just a glimpse of hope that they might finally live in a world without war. It hasn’t happened for them, but I continue to hope that it will.

As I looked around at the shell-pocked houses and the bombed-out buildings of Beruit, I saw for the first time the devastation of war. This is a mountainous land, one where my father was raised and where his family still lives. It should be a beautiful place, rich in history and culture.

But when I was there, security checkpoints were the city’s backdrop instead. Electricity was shut off fairly regularly, and you couldn’t drink the water. Experiencing that kind of violence and disruption, even though I only saw and felt the remnants, has affected me. I found myself moved by Lebanon, by both its people and its politics. My feelings became words, and they settled over time into poems on a page.

Now, about five years later, those poems are being published by Fishing Line Press. “Beirut Redux” is the proverbial slim volume of poetry. It will be available on Amazon.com, at the Rockford College bookstore and through Barnes & Noble, which also carries my first book of poems, “In the Garden of our Spines.”

I always knew that I wanted to write this book for publication. After all, every piece of art assumes an audience. But writing poetry is much harder — and far more time-consuming — than one might assume. You don’t just scribble it out in one shot. Sometimes, you have what you think is a poem, and it’s only notes for a poem. Sometimes, you think you’ve written something that’s genius, and the very next day, the next hour, or even the next minute, you’ll despair.

With poetry, you have to walk a fine line between thinking that everything you write is inspired and that nothing that you write is worthy. Now back in the U.S. and working as an English professor at Rockford College, I always advise my students to put anything they’ve written away for a bit. They’ll be surprised when they come back to it to find how much they’ll want to change it.   

As for me, I like to trick myself. I put rough drafts of a poem I’m working on in unexpected places, and then when I come across them, I see things that if I stared at the piece for hours on end, I wouldn’t have found or thought about. It’s an amazing process.

Many of the poems in “Beirut Redux” stem from family: Seeing the “old country” where my father came from, learning about his past, connecting with my roots. I think it’s a topic that unifies us as Americans, finding out who we are through family ties. Here in the U.S., we’re a country of immigrants. Many of us have inherited cultural ties to other countries, and we’re curious.

Being in Lebanon has left a small but important mark on my life. I realized that we become the people we are because of family histories. They set our paths, direct our steps. My perspective on life has now become longer or fuller than it had been before.

It’s odd, in a way, that I turned such a personal experience into a book of poems. While I have a doctoral degree in 19th-century British literature and a master’s degree in art history, I had pretty much stopped writing poems during college. It’s a pattern I’ve seen repeated many times in my students: You begin really studying the great poets, and you love the art so much that you can’t see how you can do anything approximating what they’ve done, so you stop trying.

As I learned — and as I now tell my students — you don’t have to compete with John Keats and T.S. Eliot. They wrote their time. You have to write yours. Besides, once you start really studying the great poets, you discover that not everything they wrote is breathtaking. A lot of it is just downright awful! Just knowing that takes away the pressure to be perfect, and just frees you to be an artist.

More than anything, I hope my poetry students walk away from my classes understanding why poetry exists and how much it can help people. It comforts, it soothes, it explores. It touches an audience in ways you can’t imagine.  

That’s why, after seeing the new world that Beirut had to show me, I simply couldn’t help but share it. At its core, this book of poems isn’t about me. It’s not about my father, his history or the family that still lives there. It’s not even about the battles going on in the streets of Beirut.

It’s about humanity. And that, I believe, is the best subject of all.

Why We Travel
Editor’s note: The following is one of Azar Porterfield’s favorite poems. It refers to the Greek Orthodox village where her father grew up.

I am not here in Kousba;
I am standing here in Kousba.
On this narrow, sloped street,
on this October day, I, who don’t exist
without this narrow, sloped street,
have become, have sought to become,
this road, this nearby wall, this very sky.
In the presence of such other,
my heart is a runaway train.
I cannot feel my legs.
I’m hovering right now above the street.
I’m standing right now on the street.
I’m one of the stones of the street.
That’s just what I came here for.

This story appeared at http://www.rrstar.com/communities/x1751720675/Rockford-College-professor-puts-feelings-about-Beirut-into-poems on November 19, 2008.


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