When Anis Mojgani first learned he might be Oregon’s next poet laureate, the COVID-19 pandemic had not taken off in the U.S.
“I was excited at the possibility of seeing the state like I never have and, of course, it was very much not the case,” he said.
A few months later, the Oregon Cultural Trust officially announced Mojgani as the state’s new poet laureate, taking the reins from poet Kim Stafford. By then, COVID-19 had taken root, forcing widespread closures of businesses and schools. Little did he realize his entire tenure would take place during the pandemic.
“It’s been a very strange one,” he said recently, reflecting on the past two years.
He thought he’d be traveling around the state, entertaining crowds with acclaimed work that has appeared on HBO, National Public Radio, and as part of the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series. An author of five books, Mojgani is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion and one-time World Cup winner and regularly emcees events and slams, such as Verselandia, the annual high school poetry slam organized by Literary Arts.
Instead, he found himself at home in Portland. Like many Americans, he shifted toward virtual readings and workshops, doing what he could to make the most of his role as Oregon’s poet laureate.
He describes the experience as “a mixed bag,” noting that the pandemic exposed “how much of the world is held together by duct tape.” While he enjoyed being home, he yearned to get out and meet people in their spaces, something that feeds him.
“I love spaces and how a space shapes people,” he said, adding that he likes to foster and introduce poetry in other communities and use poetry and language to “be in conversation with them.”
He said he likes to “give people permission to hold poetry in a new way.”
“Poetry holds such weight. It is breathing inside of us,” he said.
Everyone has their own take on poetry, he added, noting that some might love it while others find it lame or ridiculous.
“The reality is poetry can be limitless,” he said.
“When you visit your parents’ home, everyone talks about that scent that hits when you walk in the front door,” he said. “That scent is a poem.”
“When you see a crow with tin foil in its mouth, it might make you laugh,” he said. “That’s a poem.”
“Poetry asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” he said.
The answer, he said, is varied and that’s “a beautiful and powerful thing.”
Mojgani, who grew up in New Orleans, said he’s working on a new book that should be published in spring 2023. Like everyone who’s lived through the pandemic, he said, he feels like he’s emerging from a hibernation of sorts.
“Parts of me are starting to wake up,” he said. “It’s spring and I’m having an internal spring.”
Recently, he and a friend, Jenn Batchelor, involved in another endeavor called The Morale Dept., started talking about art happenings and gatherings they’d like to see. They decided to host a bring-your-own-chair event at his new studio, reading poetry and playing music from a window to about 50 people at sunset on a Friday night. They’re hoping to host similar events every other Friday, with the next occurring March 25, in an effort to “find joy” and “connect us to art and also connect us to each other.”
“Gathering together is inherently human,” he said. “This is a return to that space.”
At the same time, as his tenure as poet laureate comes to an end in a few weeks, Mojgani said he recognizes the pandemic isn’t really over. There is tremendous uncertainty about right now but also about what the future holds. He likened it to being on a lake and leaving one dock in a boat bound for another dock on another shore.
“Maybe it’ll be the same on the other shore, but maybe it won’t be,” he said, “We’re still in the water. We’ve got to cross this water. We’re in a passage.”