Literature Genius Award Sponsored by Amazon
HAS WRITTEN POEMS ABOUT: br> Helicopters, investment bankers, ancient Arab poets, revolution, porn.
SAYS WHEN HE'S WRITING IN EGYPT, HIS POEMS: br> "Start to be about dust and walking and tea. Once you see dust and tea, you know I am in Cairo."
WILL USE HIS GENIUS AWARD MONEY TO: br> "Pay the rent and the house insurance, and I think I might support the publishing and translation of some young Egyptian poets."
If you're looking for an introduction to what Maged Zaher is like as a human being, you probably couldn't find a better example than the 60 seconds after Ellen Forney announced him as the winner of the 2013 Genius Award for literature. The first thing he did was hug Willie Fitzgerald, one of the organizers of the APRIL literary festival, a fellow finalist. Then he hugged his way down the aisle, targeting other APRIL organizers. He climbed the stairs to the stage, and then he dove into the thick of the Seattle Rock Orchestra mid-song and hugged a friend of his who was trying to play violin at the time. Then he hugged me (Zaher gives heavenly hugs; he encompasses your whole body in a warm cocoon as he murmurs appreciative words in your ear) and he hugged Forney. Then he gave a generous acceptance speech, calling fellow finalist Neal Stephenson "a true genius," recited a poem, and took a shot of vodka, straight.
Zaher is a lover, an all-inclusive, bighearted poet who can't wait to laugh and pull you close and whisper affections. This doesn't mean he's always polite—one of his first actions with the Genius Award finalist "bully pulpit," as he describes it, was to call out poetry publisher Wave Books on Facebook for not publishing more multicultural poets—but it does mean that he's interested in finding common ground. "Poetry was never a popular genre," a "slightly hungover" Zaher says in a post-awards phone interview. "It needs to reach. If someone needs to teach literature to understand your poem, we are in trouble." He often bristles at the contemplative, vaguely mystical air that some poets take a whole life to cultivate, often to the exclusion of other moods. "Poetry can be exhilarating, like Frank O'Hara," Zaher says. "Poetry can make us exciting." He's quick to add that he doesn't just place the blame for poetry's relative obscurity on the part of poetry; education has failed, too: "People who have bachelor's degrees should be able to read and enjoy poetry." But though it's not the most popular form of literature, Zaher thinks "the poet is a revered kind of artist. Like whenever someone wants to say something is wonderful, they say, 'Oh my God, this is like poetry.'"
So what's the difference between a bad poem and a good poem? Zaher is fairly prolific, writing about one short poem a week. One line, maybe two, tops, appear in his head, and then he has to sit down with a pen and paper and write the poem as it comes. "I sit with [my poems], and the editing is what makes the poem look okay." He says, "I want to advise other poets to edit out. You would be surprised how amazing it can be." Zaher has written prose pieces—one essay about recent changes in Egypt was published in The Stranger over the summer—but his heart just isn't with prose. "A long piece is torture for me. A poem is not torture for me at all. I reveal myself in order to feel like it is worth living an occasionally difficult life."
All of Zaher's books—The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me, Thank You for the Window Office, Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer—spring from the soil of Seattle and Egypt, Zaher's homeland. You're likely to find references to both a sterile Seattle skyscraper and the revolution in Cairo in the same 10-line poem. It's easy, now, to turn on a phone or a computer and instantaneously see what's happening on the other side of the world. But just because you're aware of something doesn't mean that you truly understand it. The situation that's currently unfolding in Cairo is complex and uncomfortable, which is to say, for better or worse, it's a very human situation. And nobody is better at explaining humanity to humans than poets. Zaher can take any moment, from the drama and heartbreak of a revolution to a deflating night at a dance club, and tap into the bubbling layer of humanity just beneath the surface and share it with everyone. He can find the awkwardness in a street fight, and the comedy in a bland corporate memo. This is something that CNN can never do: Zaher excels at introducing us to ourselves, at making us laugh and hope and want to go cry in the shower until everything just goes away for a little while. He is the best kind of correspondent, because he makes everything feel domestic and foreign at the exact same time.
So what's next? Last month, Zaher finished a manuscript called If Reality Doesn't Work Out that's scheduled to come out next year from SplitLevel Texts. For the last year and a half, he's been working on editing and translating a "conflation of six Egyptian poets" that's nearly ready to find a publisher. With other exceptional Seattle poets like Don Mee Choi, Robert Mittenthal, and Laura Neuman, Zaher is part of a collective called Margin Shift that regularly discusses poetry and curates a reading series at Hedreen Gallery on the fourth Thursday of the month. (The next reading, on October 24, features poets Standard Schaefer and Maryrose Larkin, and begins at 7 p.m.) Next month, Zaher is planning to visit Cairo again. He seems to be at home with his feet planted firmly in two worlds. "I am a poet who talks about location, and language matters a lot to me" because of that, he says. Writing, to Zaher, is all about location: "It is putting a word next to a word in order to create a field of meaning that is different from any meanings these words held before."