Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of J. Kahn.
The author was born overseas but lives and works in Kansas and Missouri. He has published in diverse magazines including Unlikely Stories, Rigorous, Rat's Ass Review, Chiron Review, Clockwise Cat, shufPoetry, Barzakh, pureSlush, Fifth Estate, and Califragile. In the 2020s, his work was accepted by Coal City Review, San Pedro River Review, I-70 Review, New Letters and Writers Resist. He has served as a guest editor for Glass: Poets Resist. His chapbook, Speech in an Age of Certainty, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Meet J. Khan!
AN: Jemshed, welcome to the Flapper Press Poetry Café. I have the good fortune to take poetry workshops with you in Kansas City. In your chapbook, Speech in an Age of Certainty, you explore "big" topics such as police brutality, identity, history of our sins, and finding balance. This sparks my curiosity and prompts my first question: do you believe that poetry makes a difference?
JK: Annie, you ask if poetry makes any difference. Yes, Yes, and Yes! Humans program and influence one another through narrative, as well as images, punishment, and reward. Writers are like firefighters, locksmiths, and teachers: we enter the lives of many others.
Conversations with teachers changed the direction of my life. If I did not bring it up to them later, they would never have known of their influence: poetry is similar. People allow the writer's poetic narrative to enter their brain, but the writer does not see the end result.
Practically speaking, however, for most poets our impact is small but direct.
AN: You have said, "Writing through and about [injustices] has helped me come to terms with the limited impact an individual has on addressing the failings of society.” This seems a bit pessimistic. Are your activist poems pessimistic?
JK: Your question strikes at the heart of every effort at improvement: should we be realistic or optimistic? The only answer, of course, is both. Reasonable optimism seems to be the best choice in terms of emotional well-being and meaningful impact. I had hoped that my chapbook would draw attention to injustice. Alas, my tiny book has triggered no discernible societal improvement. On the other hand, successful poetry requires neither sales nor recognition. Publication is simply a physical manifestation of personal belief and autonomy. Resistance writing, especially, is a path of one's own making. Devoting writing energy to beliefs that run contrary to established interests is a step towards a specific type of freedom, waking a few readers from the trance of mainstream propaganda.
I will also note that humbling experiences provide their own insight. I learned that it is unrealistic and improbable for a writer to expect to exert any influence over the larger course of human events. The world would be in an even bigger mess if such powers were easily attainable. It is safer that individuals are relatively constrained in their sphere of influence.
AN: Can you share what you mean by, "I wish my work to have impact as a counter-narrative”?
JK: Einstein said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking—it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Einstein understood why we have such deeply divided nations and such a fragmented planet. People live in different realities created by their thought processes and beliefs. Opening our minds and understanding the actual basis for opposing views connects us with "the other half" of our divided society, our divided world. Part of opening one's mind involves figuring out why and how we arrive at our beliefs. The other side of this coin is learning how others arrive at their beliefs. Reflexively condemning those with whom we disagree is a path to mental servitude. Add to that: most of our beliefs are not our own anyway; rather, they are implanted mainstream narratives and messages.
AN: How are your activist poems constructed?
JK: My activist poems are crafted to undermine specific divisive mainstream messages. The world is so messed up and still amazingly good; so, there are many areas where I engage in counter-narrative.
I try to humanize the plight of victims. This approach elicits an emotional response that allows the reader to re-examine basic assumptions. Think of the uphill battles for women's rights or against slavery. At one time, male superiority and racial supremacy were embedded in our cultural fabric and sustained by force of law, media, politics, social custom, literature, and religion. Basically, any "supremacy" where the powerful oppress the weak will maintain and justify itself through propaganda, sometimes for millennia, and may become accepted for millennia as reasonable, normal, and just. James Baldwin refers to this as the "sanctification of power." Poetry is always part of the fight against institutional racism and sexism precisely because the fight is for narrative control.
AN: There is a prose poem in your chapbook called "Lazarus Force" that demonstrates the concepts of co-existing pessimism and optimism that we have been speaking about as well as the determination to refuse to concede, which I choose to believe is hope. I would like you to share this poem with our readers now.
That day over lunch I was going to write about the Yemenites starving while the Saudi's build five new palaces on the Red Sea. A poem might make a difference. But the sun was shining, 75 degrees in October, and the outdoor pool is heated, so I went for a swim instead. As I swam laps I felt joy and splash with each stroke: thankful for clients traveling to see me in their combustion driven vehicles and for cheap fuel that leverages each shiny day. For three laps I considered the convenience of gasoline and writerly leisure. Okay, yes, a Lockheed Martin missile incinerated another Yemeni school bus, but how could a lunchtime poem make amends for fifty dead school children or eight million starving?
Poetry of angel wings and metrical feet,
I thought you were the steed of change,
that with the right words
we would skywrite the nation's conscience.
Now I see my words never had Lazarus force
and we are no match to the God of gasoline.
The cardiologist said my heart stopped. The apartment manager says I was pulled blue from the pool: resuscitated with CPR and defibrillator paddles across the chest. I survived the ambulance ride, heart stents, ICU, rehab. Today I put my head back in the game. Read an anthology of resistance poetry. Each work smoldered on the page until my chest burst into flame. I rose from the bed, grabbed my pen, began to write again.
AN: Do you write to self-soothe?
JK: As an immigrant, my privilege is to write in a nation (U.S.) that allows the freedom to publish and criticize authority. I am at ease for having had my say about the systemic abuse of governmental power. "Self-soothing" was not my goal, but it did occur and moved me from a place of frustration. Now I have a happy place from which to write. Writing can and should be healthy. On the other hand, a relentless Plath-like focus on emotional distress consumes too much oxygen. Writing is a place to vent rather than accumulate poison.
AN: This is where I invite you to ask yourself a question of your own devising and answer.
JK: Okay, well, how about, “Now that your chapbook is out, tell me about your next project.”
I am excited to be collaborating on a poetry epic based on the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is considered this continent's oldest book and oldest poem. The original text, now lost, dates from the 1500s and contains Mayan depictions that correlate to architectural friezes dated back to 200 BCE. It was translated in poetic form from a K'iche' Mayan reading between 1701 and 1703. Our book title is not final, but something like The Popol Vuh: An Illustrated Epic. This will be an upbeat adventure sourced from several translations. It runs about fifty poems long and is nearly complete, and our next step is finding a publisher. My co-conspirator, Leonard Greco, is illustrating the work, so add in 50 color plates in his inimitable style.
AN: Thank you so much for joining us in the Flapper Press Poetry Café, Jemshed. Before you leave, please share 3 of your poems and give a brief backstory on each.
JK: Sure, here are three poems with illustrations from my next book. They are in chronological order and give a sense of the style and development of imagery and poems along a narrative arc. These particular poems relate the birthing and maturation of the Mayan Hero Twins. The first two poems are in the voice of the mother.
Birthing at the Place Called Los Sapos
Now we shall tell of the birth of Hunaphu and Ixbalanque
—Popol Vuh (Morley & Goetz)
my back rests
against a slope
of water-smoothed stone.
I lower myself
until I squat like a frog.
After gush of water,
hours of cramp
and pain, I pant
who enchanted me.
I birth twins, bite
across each cord,
spit out the metal
taste of blood.
They cry for touch,
skin slick, their hair
smells sweet and clean
like fresh corn meal.
Fingers and toes curl
as they suckle,
I coo their names:
They smile in their sleep:
and tiny breaths
upon my chest.
"My Boys Are Not Babies Anymore" is a poem relating to a discussion between the Hero Twins’ mother and grandmother. The Twins are entering manhood. While their mother is proud of their warrior skills, grandmother is not so sure, as her own adventurous sons (one of whom fathered the Twins) are both dead.
My Boys Are Not Babies Anymore
when we remember my babies.
First, they cried for me.
Later, they crawled after centipedes.
Then they climbed ceiba trees,
chewing bark and rousting bats.
If they found eggs or honey
they howled like spider monkeys.
Now, Hunaphu carries darts
dipped in a blue frog's sweat,
moves silent as a serpent
down the jungle path.
When he blows his poison-pipe
tipped with porcupine quill
at a flitting shadow,
a hummingbird hits the ground.
Ixbalanque adorns his head
with quetzal feathers,
drapes his muscled shoulders
with jaguar skins
and swings a mahogany club
studded with obsidian blades.
They are warriors like your sons, I say.
Grandmother turns her eyes away.
The next poem, "Grandmother’s Wish," elaborates upon grandmother’s wishes for her grandsons. It is a universal theme and a common sadness among those who have lost sons or daughters to war.
Her grandson Hunaphu
hunts all day.
Just like his father, she says.
He moves on puma paws,
tracks his prey with falcon eyes.
His blow dart drops
a peccary at twenty strides,
and knocks a hummingbird
from the sky.
His brother Ixbalanque
sleeps all day,
grunts and snores
like a javelina, but at night
he stalks with jaguar eyes.
When he stitches
a headdress of leather
and quetzal feathers,
she remembers that his father
did the same:
then taught his brother
the sport of pokolpok,
the sacred ballgame.
She complains that
these boys bristle
with swords and pride
when they swing their axes
as her sons once did.
Grief will break me, she cries,
if they follow the path
that took their fathers.
She warns them again:
death is a black road
beset by fanged coralillo,
rivers of blood and pus
where none survive.
Though glory beckons
like the aroma of fat
that sizzles when armadillo
roasts on a spit,
she swears that she will
turn these boys
from arrows and game
to clearing nearby fields
and raising maize.
They should roast cacao,
get drunk on balché
and burn copal resin
in their father's name.
Enough of heroes, she says,
I will celebrate my days
with honey and cornmeal,
sprawling on my lap.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.
Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!
FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.
Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.
1. Share at least three (3) poems
2. Include a short bio of 50–100 words, written in the third person.
(Plus any website and links.)
3. Share a brief backstory on each submitted poem
4. Submit an Author's photo and any images you want to include with the poems
5. Send all submissions and questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org