Capturing the Ethnographic Surfeit: A few poems from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology Poetry Workshop

From the 2016 AAA meetings in Minneapolis
Lead by Ather Zia & Adrie Kusserow

One of the exercises in the Poetry Workshop included that the participants share an old or a new poem written in the workshop itself based on a field experience, and then a partner wrote a poem as a response. A few poems of this nature are reproduced here for your reading pleasure and to give you a little peep into the workshop and the beauties it produces. Join us next year at the AAA!

Valerie Borey

Skogfjorden Norwegian Language Village,
Concordia Language Villages, Bemidji MN
On Sunday afternoons we take to the woods, counselors and youth. Protective of this space, counselors pair up and make a bridge with their arms; children pass beneath them into the forest, into quiet.
The younger children are thrashing through the woods, peeling birch bark off twigs, daring friends to tumble down the steep hill, where the setting sun meets the chill of Buck Lake. They speak in hushed tones, aware of the sense of sacredness, occasionally letting out a squeal of delight, and then shushing themselves.
Older children sit interspersed amongst the birch trees, writing in journals or staring off into space in contemplation. Standing near the campfire, Tove will read a story from a children’s book whose cover she has concealed in brown wrapper. Sometimes Tora will have brought her cello. She plays this, strains of wild and lonely music intertwining themselves amidst the trees.
Staff will sing, Ta nå tid til å nyte skogen. “Take now time to value the woods.” These woods. This space. These people. This is what makes them cry. They think of what’s ahead; they dread the “going back,” out there, into the “real world.”

Nelli Sargsyan’s response to Valerie

How do we reconcile mourning and festivity?
See how I already assume there is a tension between the two? I came to learn it, didn’t I?
Then I can unlearn it.
I want to create this ritual space where I can hold both together: mourning, honoring, and embodying/literally wearing festivity.
I am so humbled by your courage to be vulnerable in public.
Committed before … mom’s passing, I noted.
I am humbled by your ability of processing loss without imposition, taking on, or rather wearing, heritage with grace. Hard-core vulnerability in public, I’d say.  But what touches me most, is the commitment to those around, commitment to more than just the self, to the communal, and through that to the self as well.

Nelli Sargsyan

I am in a cab, in downtown Yerevan, it is middle of August, I have just had dental implants, and I can feel heaviness in my jaw. The cab smells like cigarettes and some chemical air freshener that is making me nauseous.
But is this in Yerevan? The nauseating smell of the air freshener, or New York City? I think the air freshener was in the New York City cab on my way to the airport to fly to Yerevan. The cigarette smell is in the cab in Yerevan. Of course it is, the driver just asked me if he can smoke (despite the sign that says: no smoking).
I say, sure
So many cars.
Sitting in the back, I am bracing myself, I have become unaccustomed to the driving in Yerevan. I wasn’t a driver when I lived here.
Coming back as a driver year after year still won’t help me get used to unexpected lane changes and driving so close.
I am here to talk to people who I hope know what needs to be done for transformation, because I don’t.
I don’t know what to do. Do they?
I trust their tired calm
Because I don’t have it.

Valerie Borey’s response to Nelli

Man Running Alongside

I was in the cab.
There is a man running alongside the cab.
We were stopped at a streetlight, and when it changed, he wouldn’t let go. His eyes glass, his hands curled around the base of the window.
He points to a storefront and says, “For $2, I’ll smash that window for you.” The $2 will go towards food, maybe, the price of life.
Man running alongside it.
I don’t take him up on it. Don’t give him the two dollars. Don’t let him smash windows on my behalf, even though I knew it feeds him, even though I know it keeps him, him.
$800. What the window costs. What the man costs when the window owner shoots him in the head. When he is chopped into pieces for what he has done. $2. The threshold of corruption. The market value of this
Man running alongside, the
Man about to get hurt because he is running alongside.
I know how easy it is, to cross that threshold. I keep it where I can see it, right there in the window of that cab, in the smashed glass, in the eyes and the offer of the
Man running alongside.
He is going to get himself killed,
Running alongside that way.
That is what they are saying in the streets.

Brynn Champney

I’m in Kinyinya, Rwanda, along the one road, on the one hill, that I’m allowed to walk alone.
Though I had to fight, even for this.
It’s always bright and there are always goats bleating and children staring.
I came here to learn.
I came here to see, to smell, to hear, to listen.
I came here to feel. I came here because I’ve never been anywhere.
I stayed here because no one else wants to.

Ather Zia’s response to Brynn

Brynn and Chantelle
She is just Chantelle
The woman I, Brynn lived with
We never had a conversation
I just heard her story
She is just Chantelle
Long given up for deaf and mute
Her head had been smashed,
left for dead,
she bore a son
From the rape [yes, the same you know Rwanda from]
She is just Chantelle
Giving me her son,
To bring him to the United States
But I leave alone
She is just Chantelle
We have never been face to face
Since her son died of third degree burns
From hot beans,
Maybe, the dinner I ate with her countless times
She is just Chantelle
What will she say to me?
If anything –
Does she wonder
if I would have brought her son to the United States
Would be still be alive?
She is just Chantelle,
without a surname
All kinds of men from her life gone
and I, Brynn have questions

Ather Zia

She says,
“you are always in arrival
in the night, again at dawn,
and in-between, with each new breath,
and the old one –
and when the morning is quiet,
sometimes a shadow, sometimes a voice,
sometimes a brush against my hair
you come often, you have to
you are always arriving…
at the door
It doesn’t close but
sways back heavy
someone is outside?
Let it be –
I used to fear anyone could barge in
And those damned soldiers –
Now the door must remain open;
it has to
my lined face our new map
of grief
it won’t let you lose way
I keep looking at the bend in the alley
From where they took you
The specter,
you beckon
I step out,
Back then a baby
Once I lost you in the bazaar
only this time,
You are waiting for me,
instead of candy you want justice

Brynn’s response to Ather

Don’t shut the door on possibility-
I need to breathe.
Like a child insisting her door remain cracked at night;
In this case the monster is finality.

The door stays  open because I must stay open to the world-
The world where my son is, somewhere.
The world that took my son,
I must also offer myself up to.

Even to the leopards.
If my son is in a leopard’s belly,
I must open my door
To the leopards too.

Am I waiting for someone?
At the very least,
I am waiting.

I will remain open.
To the leopards,
To the cold,
To the world that took my son.

Don’t shut the door
Don’t end the story
Don’t pronounce him dead
Call him disappeared
He is out there
I will keep breathing.

Poet Bios:

Nelli Sargsyan [nsargsyan [at] marlboro [dot] edu]

A native of Yerevan, Armenia, Nelli is currently assistant professor of anthropology at Marlboro College in Vermont, where she often team-teaches multidisciplinary courses with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, such as visual and performing arts, religion, and politics.

Brynn Champney [bchampn [at] emory [dot] edu]

Currently pursuing her PhD in Anthropology at Emory University Brynn’s research focuses on kinship as a community coping mechanism among Child-Headed Households in East Africa.

Valerie Borey [vborey [at] cord [dot] edu]

Valerie is a playwright, poet, and fiction writer. Currently she is the Assistant Dean of Language Discovery Programs for Concordia Language Villages.

Ather Zia [ather.zia [at] unco [dot] edu]

A native of Kashmir, Ather is an Assistant Professor at University of Northern Colorado. She is a poet, writes short-fiction and is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit at

PS: Thank you also to Chris Gonzales (Ohio University), and Carole Giles Banks (poet-professor) for your generous sharing in the workshop.  


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