Section: Arts

Remi Kanazi’s poems confront Israeli-Palestinian conflicts

Remi Kanazi’s poems confront Israeli-Palestinian conflicts

Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi addresses the Horn Gallery crowd. | Nikki Anderson

Last Thursday at the Horn Gallery, Palestinian-American poet and activist Remi Kanazi’s demeanor was deceptively casual. Before his performance, he cracked jokes about running late and bantered with the swelling crowd of students and professors.

“I’m going to do a sad poem, then an angry poem,” he said, once seven o’clock rolled around and the audience had filled the room. “Then I’m going to do the closest thing I have to a funny poem.”

The organizations Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Black Student Union and Middle Eastern Student Association brought the 35-year-old to campus to promote his new collection, Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine, published in September by Haymarket Books. The poems focus on issues of Palestinian identity and resistance.

Kanazi performed seven poems, most taken from his new book. But the true soul of the evening was in his commentary between the pieces, when he spoke candidly to the audience about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his own upbringing as a Palestinian-American in western Massachusetts and the need for non-hypocritical community engagement with issues beyond the Middle East. For example, he cited the Dakota Access Pipeline and the rights of transgender individuals to use the bathrooms of their choice.

Kanazi’s writing does not rely on imagery or linger on details. Instead, in its tone and delivery, his poetry is to activism what stand-up comedy is to humor. He takes up a conversational style to deliver well-structured points. His talent appears in the clarity of his thought,  his quick-wittedness and his unapologetic defense of his beliefs.

Last Thursday, he did not try particularly hard to paint pictures. He did, however, make a valiant attempt to engage and mobilize the crowd.

Of the pieces, one stand-out was “This Divestment Bill Hurts My Feelings,” whose title references the attempts to remove funding from companies, including Hewlett Packard (HP), that do business in Israel. In the poem, Kanazi adopted the voices of two characters in a call-and-response format. One voice argues, “We need a positive campus climate,” and the other replies, “While HP stock rises on division, producing stock to segregate Palestinians.”

In “Normalize This,” Kanazi emphasized the importance of remaining sensitive to injustice. He listed in quick succession, “I don’t want to share the stage, co-write a poem, submit to/ your anthology/ talk about how art, instead of justice, can forge a better path.”

The near-funny poem, called “Dear Twitter Revolutionaries, #YouAreNotThatBadass,” criticized those who equate political action with posts on social media. It also urged people to avoid blanket comparisons.

“The only thing that is Nazi Germany,” Kanazi said in the poem, “is Nazi Germany.”

Throughout all of this, Kanazi maintained a dialogue with the audience and conserved his authorial voice. At one point, he asked an audience member, “Can I, in a non-Zionist way, borrow your book?”

The audience seemed receptive to Kanazi’s message; at the end of the show, most rose for a standing ovation. Layali Awwad ’19, who is from Ramallah, in the West Bank, and helped organize the event as a member of SJP, met Kanazi last fall at a national SJP conference in San Diego. She praised Kanazi’s use of poetry as a means of protest. “It is not a radical form of protesting,” she said. “It’s a peaceful form.”

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