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Chad Abushanab and Kam Hilliard at Prairie Lights

Written by Ellie Zupancic
Photos by Gabby Estlund

On May 1, Chad Abushanab and Kam Hilliard stood in the typical Prairie Lights reading space to share their most recent collections of poetry. In the name of being honest, I will tell you I was drawn to this event because of Kam—a teacher and Writers’ Workshop poet I have admired in person, week after week, while studying with them in the undergraduate writers’ workshop in poetry. Still, Chad read first, and I was intent on paying close attention for the full twenty minutes, this intent made stronger after an introduction mentioning his collection’s winning the Donald Justice Poetry Prize chosen by Jericho Brown.

Abushanab begins, and he does not let us forget where he’s been, where he is—and where he comes from before transplanting in Iowa: West Texas. In this, he reminds me that I come from the same place; except in this place I was, or I am, six years old.

His poems are dark; it is Halloween; things are dead, or dying; the Earth is still; there is something the speaker is trying to escape. I’m from a small town in South Carolina that borders an even smaller town in South Carolina. When I left there, it was kind of falling apart. People were fleeing. It ended up like a husk of a town. This is something that comes up a lot in my poems, this imagery of dying towns. This poem is called “Dead Town.”

Chad Abushanab reads from  The Last Visit  at Prairie Lights Bookstore.  Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

Chad Abushanab reads from The Last Visit at Prairie Lights Bookstore. Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

A man listens to the poets’ works.  Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

A man listens to the poets’ works. Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

In “Dead Town,” brick and mortar are the city’s skeleton and suddenly it is the day the Earth stayed stilled. Abushanab says there is a dead town full of ghosts, and later, we haunt... and I realize the speaker has become the ghost, one that cannot escape the were, and was, and when. Is this ghost town in South Carolina, or West Texas, or Iowa City—or a place that belongs to me, rather than him?

He continues: This next poem is a sonnet; I have an unhealthy obsession with sonnets. Despite Abushanab’s obsession, “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” is more about its being passed on or taken from—almost like places. Abushanab explains, A.E. Stallings wrote a sonnet called “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” and it turns out she took that title from Robert Lowell, who also wrote a sonnet called “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” but he lifted that from Chaucer and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” So, if nothing else, I feel like this poem is another link in a long chain of title thievery, and I’m totally good with that.

In this thieved poem, his drinking gets bad and he stays out late. I wonder who “he” is, but I know there is a marriage, and the narrative is familiar. The woman who holds him shaking in the upstairs hall, I see her, worn down. The woman writes a note: I’ve gone. Please do not call. I’d have thought I were the woman in this poem, until Abushanab revises: then she tears it up.

During Abushanab’s “Haunted House” reading, I look at Kam—their hands are clasped together, held up against the mouth; they are frowning and nodding. Two poems later, their hands are relaxed, taken from their mouth, moved instead into those of the person next to them.

When Abushanab goes on about the ghazal, I remember learning the form and writing one myself with Kam. The last poem I’m gonna read is actually the last poem I wrote for this book. When I finished this, I felt like it was done. It’s a ghazal, and it’s called “Ghazal”—at this point I had totally checked out and was done titling stuff, as you can tell. When I wrote this poem, it was seven stanzas, and the form of the ghazal has you write each stanza so that it can be read independently, can be read as a poem in and of itself. So, I had this idea that maybe this wasn’t one poem, but seven; so I broke it into seven stanzas spread across seven pages.

The idea of pulling a poem—not apart, but out—from itself is a compelling one. Abushanab reads, and the pulling is quick and short, but it is still there. He starts: when my father left for good, we were living in the desert. And he ends: My father’s voice, like wind on dunes; I hear it from the bottle: remember who you are, it says. You’ll never leave this desert.

Kam Hilliard holding  Henceforce .  Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

Kam Hilliard holding Henceforce. Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

Hilliard’s newest collection of poetry is interested in the notion of place, too. Their collection is titled “Henceforce: A Travel Poetic.” However, the introduction names the book “Henceforth,” twice. When Hilliard makes their way to the podium, they correct: this is my baby. She’s called Henceforce, not Henceforth. That would just be a word. I made this one. The audience’s laughs turn into smiles.

The reading takes us on board, drops us off, puts us in “Transit [Hong Kong-Honolulu],” and right up to every self-portrait Hilliard has ever taken, or painted, or written, or spoken to us—all at varying airports.

For the majority of the reading, I know that what I hear in the air is not the same as what I would hear were I reading the book, holding it in my hands. So, I bought one at the reading’s end to compare my written notes with the written poems.

In the reading’s first self-portrait, from what Hilliard reads, I hear: whenever they drop the bomb, we’ll be red, yellow, orange, blue, green, indigo, and probably violent—for the body moves among destruction.

When I look at the page, now, it reads:

Wenever they drop the bomb           we’ll b red
orange yello green blu indigo vio

                                                        lent / 4 the body moves among destruction

Even now, I’m not sure if there’s a difference between the two, or if that difference would matter. This goes for the entire event. In “Blue Orgy,” from what Hilliard reads, I hear: If I see something, may I swallow? and a vocal pitch that moves upwards; a flirt.

When I look at the page, now, it reads:

...      Eff i see sumthin
may i swallow ;)

What is there is a question, but also a lack of question. In my favorite reading of the night, Hilliard prefaces: My parents are not here. So, I’m gonna read this poem about trying to skip a bar tab, and then getting called back into my body. The title of the poem is: this is the bartender from Freddy’s; if you don’t come back to settle your check, I’m calling the cops (“This is the Bartender from Freddy’s Eff Yu Don’t Cum Bak 2 Settle Yr Check Im Calling the Cops”).

In this poem there is ...A wallet emptied A wallet / wide w knowing A wallet w doors & wind / ows A slim fit feeling lyk pig’s blood / down the money clit...

So many times I am shocked, and smiling, and writing fervently. I cannot possibly capture it all—the surveillance, the “gender freakin,” the MSG-free grief—but there is a song. Hilliard sings it for us: Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? And there is a question. Hilliard asks it for us: what if being named is like the end of possibility?

Ellie Zupancic listens intently to the poets’ readings.  Photographed by Gabby Estlund.

Ellie Zupancic listens intently to the poets’ readings. Photographed by Gabby Estlund.