April 23, 2020
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Moments before his performance, poet Amir Sulaiman carefully ran a long pendant of beads through his fingers, expertly maneuvering the misbaha, or Islamic prayer beads. “So many religious traditions share an item like this,” he reflected to the audience later in the evening. “It’s something to tell you, ‘Stay awake. Stay awake.’ ”
No one was in jeopardy of falling asleep when Sulaiman — also a recording artist, activist and recently appointed Harvard Fellow — spoke to a full-capacity crowd at the Horn Gallery on March 18. While the relentless and driving lyricism of his poetry is powerful, his demeanor was an embodiment of peace and calmness of mind, his voice subtle and soft-spoken.
“I am not angry, I am anger. I am not dangerous, I am danger. I am abominable stress, illiotic relentless,” he recited from his work “Danger.” His recitative voice seemed immense compared to the brief introduction and the conversational question-and-answer after each piece, which was met with applause.
The self-proclaimed “artist, abolitionist, alchemist” balances calm humor and fierce dedication to his art. After reciting another work, “Like a Thief,” a student asked when he was inspired to pen the work. Some poems, Sulaiman reflected, came to him over the course of months in bits and pieces. But “Like a Thief” he recalled writing on the steering wheel of his car while driving on the freeway in Michigan as a friend steered: “I’m like the Jason Bourne of poetry writing,” he laughed.
Sulaiman’s humor is as astringent as it is keen. He uses his craft to cut away at a matter others feel is too sensitive to address so directly. “This poem is designed to remind people who want to be reminded, and those who don’t want to be reminded,” he said in introducing “They Don’t Know.”
One attendee, Katie Connell ’18, an international studies major from Cincinnati, said she was only recently introduced to Sulaiman’s work but was immediately fascinated. “After watching a few of his performances online, I was enthralled. I thought he was incredible. It’s hard not to be moved by Amir’s words,” she said. “His honesty is incredible. Even though he was just taking comments or questions, he was spitting truth.”
By Matthew Eley '15