Poet Richard Blanco at WGBH's Boston Public Library studio.

Credit: Tori Bedford/WGBH News

The Village Voice: Remembering 9/11 Through Poetry With Richard Blanco

September 11, 2017

Boston Public Radio is proud to announce its first installation of the Village Voice, a bimonthly deep dive using poetry to understand the news of the day.

Poet Richard Blanco joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan to discuss “How To Write A Poem After September 11th,” a poem by Nikki Moustaki that explores the importance of poetry in times of tragedy.

"How To Write A Poem After September 11th"

by NIKKI MOUSTAKI

First: Don't use the word souls. Don't use the word fire.

You can use the word tragic if you end it with a k.

The rules have changed. The word building may precede

The word fall, but only in the context of the buildings falling

Before the fall, the season we didn't have in Manhattan

Because the weather refused, the air refused . . .

Don't say the air smelled like smoldering desks and drywall,

Ground gypsum, and something terribly organic,

Don't make a metaphor about the smell, because it wasn't

A smell at all, but the air washed with working souls,

Piling bricks, one by one, spreading mortar.

Don't compare the planes to birds. Please.

Don't call the windows eyes. We know they saw it coming.

We know they didn't blink. Don't say they were sentinels.

Say: we hated them then we loved them then they were gone.

Say: we miss them. Say: there's a gape. Then, say something

About love. It's always good in a poem to mention love.

Say: If a man walks down stairs, somewhere

Another man is walking up. Say: He sits at his desk

And the other stands. He answers the phone and the other

Ends a call with a kiss. So, on a rainy dusk in some other

City of Commerce and Art, a mayor cuts a ribbon

With giant silver scissors. Are you writing this down?

Make the executives parade through the concourse,

Up the elevators, to the top, where the restaurant,

Open now for the first time, sets out a dinner buffet.

Press hard. Remember you're writing with ashes.

Say: the phone didn't work. Say: the bakery was out of cake,

The dogs in the pound howled. Say: the world hadn't

Asked your permission to change. But you were asleep.

If only you had written more poems. If only you had written

More poems about love, about peace, about how abstractions

 Become important outside the poem, outside. Then, then,

You could have squinted into the sky on September 11th

And said: thank you, thank you, nothing was broken today.

A NOTE FROM NIKKI MOUSTAKI:

“When I wrote my Sept. 11 poem, about a month later while sitting in my apartment in New York City, I was overwhelmed by the horror of the event and I didn't think that there was a poem that could do justice to the tragedy. No words were going to be enough. But as poets, it is our business to bear witness. We can't shrink from the things that we see or experience.

"I thought about how one would go about writing a poem of this magnitude. And that's where I came up with a form that I call the 'directive poem.' It basically says, 'here's how to do this.' And in writing the directions on how to write it, I wrote it. It actually came to me very quickly. I did a few small revisions on it, and it was done. This wasn't one of those poems that I labored on a lot. I didn't mean for it to be a work of art or something grand, I just wanted to write what I saw, what I heard, and what I knew.”

Village Voice is led by poet Richard Blanco, the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history. Blanco will be joining Boston Public Radio twice a month on Mondays. This fall he’s a professor at Florida International University teaching poetry. His latest project is the fine-press book “Boundaries,” a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler.

Nikki Moustaki holds a M.A. in creative writing from New York University, a M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University, and a M.F.A. in creative writing from NYU. She taught creative writing at several universities for 10 years, including both NYU and The New School in New York City. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant in poetry, and has been awarded many national prizes and honors for her writing, including two Pushcart Press nominations. Her poetry and essays have also appeared in various anthologies and college textbooks. Her most recent work is a memoir, "The Bird Market of Paris," a true story of beloved birds, a remarkable grandfather, a bad-girl youth, and an astonishing redemption.

To hear the full segment, click on the audio player above. 


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