I used to think there was a divide between ‘page’ and ‘performance’ poetry. I was clearly in the later camp and didn’t think I liked much poetry for the page, except perhaps Sylvia Plath. But Ashes in the Air by Ali Alizadeh was part of showing me that it’s just a matter of finding page poetry that you like, understand and can connect with.
I’m not exactly sure how you read a poetry book, let alone review. I suppose everyone is different. I basically read it cover to cover, perhaps like you’d read a prose novel, with a pause after each poem to think and breathe. I stopped at a few poems in particular, either to read them over because I was really moved by them or because a first reading was not sufficient and it took me a few more to gain full understanding, or at least enough to get something out of it. I think perhaps you read poetry books a few times and keep coming back to it. Or that’s how I intend to approach it.
But I think reading poetry collections in general can feel a little foreign, to even spoken word poets like myself. I was force fed a bit of poetry in school, but never really made it a habit, beyond being struck by Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and ‘Meatworks by Robert Gray. They are two poems in particular that I remember as moving me. I was introduced to spoken word much later and found it accessible, much more than some of the poetry I read in various literary journals and so my opinion about the page and stage divide began to form in my head.
This is important for readers to see where I’m coming from with this review. I have often felt that page poetry requires an advanced education to gain full understanding, which is very much the opposite of something like slam, but Alizadeh’s collection Ashes in the Air really impressed with me with how accessible it felt to me, even though I had to read a couple a few times over. Is that how you read poetry? Is there a right way?
I bought the book after meeting Ali at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in May. In one of the ‘Embassy sessions,’ one of the issues that came up was about the poet’s persona and whether that was important. I feel like it is, and that meeting the poet in question helped to gain an understanding of his work. It’s just a matter of knowing some basic biographical details, perhaps how he speaks and the issues he’s concerned about outside of poetry that allow for this. Does it allow a poet to get to the heart of creating the imagery and poetics without having to labour over explaining details to put the poems in context?
His poetry deals with issues of travel, migration, coming from Iran and living in Australia. The poems that struck me the most were ‘Shut Up’ about an Iranian asylum seeker in detention (I’m always on the look-out for affecting poetry about refugees and asylum seekers in Australia) as well as ‘The Guns of Northcote’ which talks of gentrification and poverty in Melbourne.
Often the choice of how the lines are placed, and where there are line breaks are not obvious to me, with all page poetry, but in this case, it does not prevent me from that simple level of understanding and from there, the more subtle. The form does not force you to live or die in making sense of it, but it allows you to focus on the content of the poems, and the images, which to me seems the most important part. You can write nice sounding poetry, but if it fails to mean anything then it leaves the reader wanting. Alizadeh does not leave me wanting.