LJ Talks with Aris Kian, Houston’s Poet Laureate

Library Journal commissioned Houston Poet Laureate Aris Kian to write about her relationship to libraries and their mission. Her poem’s title is a reference to the world’s oldest tree.

Library Journal commissioned Houston Poet Laureate Aris Kian to write about her relationship to libraries and their mission. Her poem’s title is a reference to the world’s oldest tree.

In your poem “Methuselah” you use the metaphors of wood and dreams to talk about censorship, the power of words, and the strength of people to uphold principles and others (“everyone is a shelf | a holding place/ for someone | for yesterday | for a future/ we could not dream without you | yes |/ you too”). What’s the biggest takeaway that you hope librarians remember from this poem?

I hope librarians remember, as I know most already do, that this work is a part of the larger work of liberating communities. That access to new and existing knowledge, archives of the victories from our past and present, and spaces for imagining and creating are necessary to build the lives we want with everyone, especially the most marginalized of us, in mind. That this work happens both inside and outside a library building.

You utilize your platform as Houston’s poet laureate to combine community organizing efforts with poetry to effect change. Which communities do you help, and how have you gone about accomplishing this?

The communities in which I feel my work is most rooted are ones most impacted and targeted by policing, militarization, and surveillance. I hope for my work to imagine and support the imagination of a livelihood without the need for police. I do this by archiving, in poetry, the police state of my city (Houston), while also crafting workshops that invite participants to create work that demands a city with these abolitionist values in mind. Poems are only a step in the process, and I hope to continue to participate in organizations with like-minded values that work to create a city we’re excited to live in, one with resources that reduce harm and allow people of all mobility to move freely and without fear.

This is National Poetry Month. What do you think poetry does for the world and people’s degree of hope, especially in our current political and social climate?

Poetry is a tool towards self and community expression; it’s an excellent avenue towards demanding what you want and need, while also learning what others want and need. It is also an archival tool; it provides the infrastructure to paint what is occurring around us, physically, politically, emotionally, socially, which are deeply interconnected. It is also an opportunity to imagine what is not yet present, and to mark, in writing, the ways in which you could make it so, alongside the values of folks who wish to make a better world for everyone in it.

You write for the page (including the chapbook blac•ademic) as well as for the stage, as an award-winning spoken-word artist. What do you strive to give your audience in each format?

As a performer for the stage, I hope to encourage folks to listen. I began performing not just to hear myself but to be in a place that values listening, that encourages marginalized voices to be platformed. My first poetry home was CoogSlam, an organization of multiple languages, cultures, religions, and experiences, and I am absolutely a better person because of it! This type of listening can occur both on the page and on the stage.

What books and poets do you consider a must for library collections?

Poets who are a must in the collection are Patricia Smith, Ayokunle Falomo, and Ebony Stewart. A few current book favorites are Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi, Birthright by George Abraham, and Bittering the Wound by Jacqui Germain.

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