Budding Poet Demonstrates True Talent at Joint Reading

Logan Buckley, Staff Writer

“I’ve been walking south for many nights now, / Heading south in Bangladesh / Where the sea churns / Into a hundred deltas / And the landscape looks like a rotting nail.” So begins Zubair Ahmed’s debut poetry collection, City of Rivers. That poem was also the one he chose to open the reading he gave last Thursday in Wilder 101 alongside fellow poet Jean Valentine, telling that audience that the poem “encompasses what [the] book is about… a journey to find home.”

The poem is characteristic of the book in other ways, too — the quiet tone and pastoral imagery interrupted and disturbed by the carefully selected image of “a rotting nail” introduce a technique used throughout the book wherein familiar landscapes are made strange, and unfamiliar ones feel intimate.

Another poem, “On the Night Train to Munich, the Spirit Asks Me a Simple Question,” begins with the image of lights that are “yellow, / Dead and slow, / Trying to make each town we pass / Their home,” and throughout the poem, this image moves from the European countryside back to “the banks / Of the Brahmaputra River,” where “My break / Will turn to snow / And fall over / My family cemetery.” Ahmed’s poems are infused with an accumulation of places, stories of family and travel, displacement and home, and in reading them he sounded both heartfelt and musical.

Though it is impossible to do Valentine and Ahmed’s poetry justice in such a short review, the two were well-matched for the reading. Valentine published her first book of poems in 1965, and her book Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems won the National Book Award for poetry in 2004. The two poets presented both contrasts and similarities: Though Valentine is well-established in her career and Ahmed at the outset of his, both poets tend toward short, sharp poems that trade in quiet, devastating imagery.

Ahmed was born in 1988 in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh and the “city of rivers” to which the title of his collection refers. Though English is Ahmed’s second language, it could be called his first love. In third grade, he and his fellow students were given readings in both Bengali — works by Rabindranath Tagore, the first Nobel laureate in literature from Asia — and in English. “And then, on the side, we were given The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare,” Ahmed said. “I enjoyed The Merchant of Venice exponentially more.”

The next stage in his love for the English language came in 2005, when Ahmed came to the United States with his family. He went to high school in Texas, where he transitioned from speaking a mixture of English and Bengali to speaking English full-time. “Transitioning to English really made me fall for it, fall for the language,” he said.

After high school, Ahmed moved to California to study mechanical engineering at Stanford University, where he earned first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. While studying engineering, Ahmed wrote poetry as a part of a system of “productive procrastination;” when he didn’t want to continue working on something, he would stop and do something from a to-do list of fun things instead. “The easiest and most fun thing to do was poetry,” said Ahmed. “I never procrastinated on it.”

The poems in City of Rivers came about through a close collaboration between Ahmed and a professor of his at Stanford, Michael McGriff, “without whom,” he writes in the acknowledgements of his book, “I wouldn’t be a poet.” The two met when Ahmed took an introductory poetry class taught by McGriff and continued working together in more advanced classes and independent research classes. “We just sat down and wrote poetry, one-on-one, and that was where my book came from. Just one-on-one interaction from a professor who really believed in me.”

The world of poetry turned out to be a refreshing shift from the stress and competition of studying engineering for Ahmed. McGriff, Ahmed said, “introduced me to a world that doesn’t even know the word ‘compete.’”

Ahmed wrote what he estimates to be 200 or more poems and showed them to McGriff. From those, McGriff helped him compile a manuscript to submit to the publisher McSweeney’s. Skeptical of the odds of publication, Ahmed was surprised when, several months later, McSweeney’s wrote to him accepting the manuscript for publication. The book came out in December 2012.

Ahmed ended the reading on Thursday with three new poems. The new material is quite different from the poems in his book — “There are no people in my writing at all… no extensive family,” he said — but the sensitivity to imagery and the importance of place remain. Though he was unsure after the publication of City of Rivers whether he would even continue writing poetry, Ahmed, who now lives in Seattle and works for Boeing, was inspired by the response he’s gotten from readers.

“I feel very blessed,” Ahmed said, describing the joy of hearing from people who had encountered his work. “What people forget is that even one person is this whole entire existence that has gone from age zero untill however old they become, and in the process affected however many lives… if even one person like that writes me an email, I can just sense that life.”