“Hey you: // let’s toss our tarantellas / across the tracks. Let’s // reveal one another / bit by puckered bit. Let’s // emit this fit of heat / before we burn. // Or let’s burn.”
These lines are taken from the poem “Synchronous rotation,” which appears in Professor of Creative Writing Samiya Bashir’s first collection of poems Field Theories, published in 2017 by Nightboat Books. On Tuesday, January 30, Literary Arts announced Field Theories as one of the five finalists for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry as part of the 2018 Oregon Book Awards.
Judge for the 2018 Oregon Book Awards D.A. Powell wrote that “this book splits the sky right open, swinging like a melody, swinging like a boxer, swinging on each elemental and freighted word to beat the devil.” Powell’s review is consistent with Adrian Matejka’s review that “there is so much happening in these poems.”
This collection is a fit of heat that simultaneously invites its readers to dance, burn, and reveal one another along with the speaker in the poems. Bashir’s poetry covers topics ranging from physics, history, medicine, and astronomy, and this interdisciplinarity is central to the collection. To her, “human life is interdisciplinary, and I write poetry about human life.”
Similarly, the title Field Theories, and particularly the plurality of it, is designed to connect disparate meanings and aspects of life. Or perhaps they are not so disparate. Bashir describes the title as an “acknowledgement of … a whole wide range of fields that the poems touch on.” In reference to the physical sciences, the field (or form) of the poem, cotton fields, and sugar fields, Bashir said, “I want to conflate these … meanings in one space because they’re all up for question.”
One such field that both undercuts and unites the collection as a whole is blackbody theory. In quantum theory, the black body is an structure that absorbs all electromagnetic radiation without changing, and its existence is uncertain beyond an idealized theory. In contrast, the white body reflects all radiation. Bashir describes the black body as something that is “perfectly absorbative” and “stays cool, much as our human black bodies are asked to do no matter what this pressure or oppression or heat or fire — don’t react, don’t respond ever, or you could be killed.” However, the black body also emits “blackbody radiation,” and poet Evie Shockley’s review of the collection calls Bashir’s writing a form of this radiation, an indirect response to what is inflicted on the human black body by American society.
Around this theory, Bashir describes wanting to “push further” into laws of thermodynamics, laws of robotics, and coronagraphy, all of which influence the structure and content of the work. Bashir said, “I wanted the tension between classical physics and quantum physics; I wanted the wrestling of that.” And that’s what this book does. It wrestles: with race and love and the universe itself. But, as Bashir herself stated, the book is not interested in saying who’s winning, but rather asks the question: “What is a thing of beauty / if not us?” In this line from the title poem of her collection, Bashir offers a way to unite the varied fields of the book and to order the entropic nature of the universe: ourselves.
Bashir has been teaching at Reed since 2012 and she also runs Poetry Salon, a venue for students to gather to discuss poetry and meet the poets who visit Reed as part of the Visiting Writers Series. Her teaching and writing complement each other. Her teaching keeps her “energized with her work” when the two are difficult to manage simultaneously. She said, “I get to have the best conversations here with my students, and … I carry that home with me, I carry my questions from home to work with me, and they come into the classroom as well.”
Specifically in relation to her teaching here at Reed, Bashir said, “I like to destabilize … One thing that I absolutely know is my job here, even though nobody said it’s my job, but it was clear to me that it is, that I’m here to interrupt the life of the mind with the body.” Despite being “as much of a book nerd as anybody else,” Bashir believes “our mind needs our body just to live, and poetry needs our body as well as our mind.” On the back cover of her book, Bashir’s poems are described as “engaging their containers while pushing against their constraints.” For Bashir, this applies to teaching as well. She described the life of the mind as “a bit of a container of the kind of Reed community that I push against.”
Bashir’s future work is also concerned with resisting constraints. In the fall, Bashir collaborated with poet Ronaldo Wilson, artist Roland Wu, and more on a multimedia performance piece called “_15 m = ?_” as part of the TBA Festival at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and her current and future work will continue to explore multimedia and genre-defying poetry.
At the end of our interview, I asked Bashir, “What is poetry?” I had warned her about this question at the beginning. She laughed, paused, and, after a moment, replied, “I think that the moment when you turn the recorder off … and walk out of the door of my office and at some point, whether it’s in the hallway or outside, you think about what we just talked about, and there’s a bit of a settling of it in your chest or your stomach … and opening yourself to the vulnerability of that … I think that’s a moment of poetry.”
The 31st annual Oregon Book Awards ceremony will take place on April 30 at the Gerding Theatre at the Armory, where the winners will be announced. Field Theories is competing against Reed alumnus manuel arturo abreu’s transtrender, published by Quimérica Books, among other collections from Oregon poets.
In the meantime, pick up a copy Field Theories and explore its fields. Let it settle in your chest and stomach. Open yourself to it, and as the poem “Blackbody radiation” suggests: “(breathe in.) / ± / (breathe out.)”