by Maricia Hunt
Poet Dujie Tahat spoke about their pieces and their life with Purchase students in a virtual poetry reading and Q&A.
On Monday, Nov. 16, Tahat read poems from their recently published chapbooks, “Here I Am O My God” and “Salat,” as well as new pieces.
In “Here I Am O My God,” Tahat’s poem “Balikbayan” is a reference to Filipino culture. A Balikbayan box is a package Filipino people can fill with goods and send home to family in the Philippines.
“I haven’t made Balikbayan since I was a child,” they said. “But I have been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to ‘my people’ and what the phrase ‘my people’ even means.”
As a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant, Tahat said that they grappled with figuring out how to remain connected to the Philippines while living in the United States. Their poetry is purposefully seeped in the cultures of their parents, establishing a relationship with the Philippines that they remember so little of.
“As I get older, I’m wondering what I owe to whom,” they said. “I think that the poem is what I can offer to my people. I think it helped me connect to that culture without having many clear familial ties left in the Philippines. I still feel like I need to offer something. To me, these Balikbayan poems are doing that.”
Growing up in the US, Tahat was raised in a mixture of Filipino Catholic and Islamic faith. Both their “Salat” chapbook and the Salat poems in “Here I Am O My God” are homages to the Arabic prayer.
“My faith impacted my language long before I knew I wanted to write poems,” Tahat said. “The Catholic Church and the Mosque framed the way I entered English and sort of coming to America. My faith relates to poetry because to me it's like where language meets the body and how this body that I have come to be.”
The theme of many of Tahat’s poems is the racism they have experienced as an immigrant in the US. Their poem “Salat on the First Day of School,” describes a time in elementary school when they were assaulted by other students for being an immigrant. Other poems, like “This is the Last Time” provide more commentary on these incidents.
Like other poets who immigrated to the US, Tahat used to wrestle with crafting poems that appealed to both a general American audience and readers of Filipino descent. Inspired by Iranian-American poets Kaveh Akbar and Solmaz Sharif, Tahat balances wanting people to read their poetry with wanting Filipino readers to have a space in the poems to call their own.
“I feel like if people want to know what certain things are, they can easily find out,” they said. “Words like ‘Adhan’ and ‘Salat’ are ways into my poems for my people. [When writing] I think about if there are enough entry points for everyone and what space I’m making just for my people that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
Citing a reading of one of Sharif’s poems about the Kent State tragedy, they said, “I first started writing poems because I wanted people to give me a standing ovation. Now I write poems to get them to shut up. To make them feel so embarrassed and uncomfortable that they have to sit on their hands and if I do it right that they actually get up to leave.”
Tahat is currently working on a full-length manuscript. Their current works are heavily inspired by the erotic, according to Tahat that refers to author Anne Carson’s definition “where you come to the edge of yourself as a way to encounter an idealized self.”
As a poet who recently began publishing work, Tahat gave advice to Purchase writers getting ready to publish their work.
“There’s your artist self and there's the self that has to put in work to get your world out there,” they said. “I didn’t have a published poem until 2018. I set out to get 100 rejections that first year. You have to decide if your body can handle 100 rejections. You’ll eventually get a feel for what the established journals are and then once you have a sense of your career, you can decide where you would want to be participating and engaging in conversations.”