Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Q&A with Anis Mogjani

If you’ve ever walked by the Sunnyside playground and seen a crowd gathered in front of one of the buildings lining Yamhill, you might have wandered into “Poems at Sunset out a Window,” an impromptu event hosted by Anis Mojgani, the Poet Laureate of Oregon. Anis is also a visual artist, currently finishing the art for his forthcoming children’s book Lifespans of a Rock. He has been Poet Laureate since 2020, a gig that takes him from Medford to Enterprise to nurture poetry in our state.

Raised in New Orleans, Anis first moved to Portland in 2004. After a brief stint in Austin from 2011-2015, he came back because, as he puts it, Portland held “the largest contingent of people who I love, and people who love me.” For years he has lived in a house off Hawthorne called “The Pointy House” with a group of friends, and he runs into a friend wherever he goes in Sunnyside. We sat down at Stumptown on Belmont to talk poetry and Portland.

When did you get your studio on Yamhill?

Anis: I got that space in February of ‘22. At that time, I had an office in conjunction with the Poet Laureate appointment in Southwest over at the shipyard, which was really rad, but it wasn’t conducive to visual stuff, and I really wanted someplace close to the house.

My friend Lilith has a ceramic studio in that building [on Yamhill]. It’s basically three buildings connected, and she and somebody else were in one of the other buildings. The building that my studio is in was completely empty at the time. Kevin, the guy who had just bought it, was planning at that time to either knock it down or gut it. And so, I was like, ‘Hey, Kevin, can I use one of these empty rooms?’ And he’s like, ‘Here are the keys, I’ll probably have to kick you out in six months to gut it.’ But his plans changed, and so, after six, eight, 10 months, I just started paying rent, and other folks moved into the building.

And you do events there.

Anis: I started doing these readings where I just read poems out of the window. We started doing that in March of ‘22, and it has always been very loose—a little intentional looseness. I’ll make a poster to put up on my Instagram one to three days before the night of the reading. It’s pretty much always been at sunset, and most of them have  been on Fridays. Folks just show up.

This past year when we did it, there were 250 to 300 folks just sitting in the street. Cars can’t easily drive down the street because it’s between the back fence of Sunnyside [Environmental School] and the building. It’s people sitting there, standing, and we hang out for an hour, and then we go off into the night and that’s that. The first one came about as a result of my friend, Jenn coming by to hang out, and we ended up just hanging out via the window, just me in the window, and her on the street, and us talking. And it was just so nice. It felt very neighborhoody, and we were like, ‘This was super fun. We should do this with more people.’

It wasn’t anything that was like, right, let’s find a space and let’s do this thing. It was just sort of like, all right, hey, we did this thing, and this was fun, and folks enjoyed it, so we kept doing it. It’s something that started revealing its intent and purpose, which felt really in line with how to explore and expand what we all might envision as being a show, a performance. What’s the relationship between artists and audiences? What are the ways in which too much of our day-to-day world is one that requires us to engage in a transaction? What are the ways to build a space that doesn’t ask someone anything, just allows them to just be with others?

Cities are always changing, and I think whoever is sitting at the top of the ladder in cities, is usually moving those cities towards things that probably the majority of the people in the city aren’t asking for. It’s felt in these recent years that Portland is very much in a place like that. And so, the window I think, allows me as an individual to create something that leans toward a city that I want, and the city that I want to see. And hopefully by way of that it also invites other people to think about what a city means.

I think often we think about cities as being something that is constructed and legislated, and that’s part of it. But, cities are also a person saying poems out of a window, or putting a mural on this wall, or organizing a food drive, or setting up a food pantry, or whatever it might be. And so, what are the ways that any of us might be called to think, ‘I’ll build this little part of the city’? The poetry window allows me to engage with the political activism that is important to me but also fits with me.

Can you tell me about the Poet Laureate program?

Anis: I’m in the last chunk of my second term. The terms are generally two years with the possibility of being renewed for a second term. I started on May 4th of 2020. I’ll conclude in May of this year. In the fall, [the organizers] open it up to the Oregon-wide community to nominate someone who they feel would be good in the role. Then they contact nominees and ask them to send applications if they’re interested. They apply, and a committee of artists and organizations go through a committee selection process. They make a selection, send it to the governor, and the governor says yes (or no). The only really tangible tactile responsibility is to do 20 public engagements over the course of those two years. It comes with a $15,000 stipend each year, and each year there’s $10,000 allotted for budgetary expenses for travel and whatnot.

For me, it’s about having a position, having a support system to introduce, deliver, foster, allow, and support poetry to and for the people of Oregon, however that might look.

What do you hope to see in Portland in the coming year or years?

Anis: Oh, man. What I would love to see for Portland is a city that really seeks to take care of all of its residents. Yes, of course, the many folks that are living without anything, and also just all of us. I think that’s the thing that’s been really frustrating over these last several years. It almost feels as if the city doesn’t know how to take care of anyone.

In the last three years it feels like the city’s like, ‘What does the Portland Business Alliance want? Be quiet, everyone else. They’re the people who we’ve got to save first.’ I want to see steps towards a lot of inclusivity for the people who live here. And also just to see action taken. It’s my understanding that the level of money and resources specifically devoted towards houselessness services has just disappeared at the end of the year, and nothing has happened. I want action. Even if it’s like, ah, this reveals itself to not have been the right decision. It’s like, just try something.

I also think about different plans and ideas that have surfaced over the years I’ve been in Portland that just haven’t come to fruition. One idea was basically a very green, lush, shiny bike highway that was envisioned for connecting both sides of the river. Seeing something like that would be amazing. What are the ways in which development in the city can happen that serves the city not just five people’s bank accounts?

It’s a city that is, I think, rich in creativity, rich in the arts, rich in cultural events, and cultural affairs. What are the ways that we might capitalize on this, for lack of a better word, and support these things?

To learn about the next Poems at Sunset out a Window, follow Anis on Instagram at @Thepianofarm

Lydia Kiesling is a writer who lives in Sunnyside. Her latest novel, Mobility, came out in August.

Lydia Kiesling

SNA Member

Author: Lydia Kiesling

SNA Member