What Sparks Poetry

Life in Public

What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.

What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?

With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.

We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.

Ilya Kaminsky on an Anthology from the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

As I am writing this, the USA is putting people in cages, our politicians are telling refugees to go back.

What book of poetry to recommend in such a moment?

 I am a Rohingya: Poetry from the Camps and Beyond is a book of poems in which refugees are given a voice. It has just been published by Arc in UK.         

And, here is some context for our own moment: When he was recently asked about the plight of Rohingya people in the camps, our President Trump turned to his aide and asked:  Where is this place? 


The place is Cox’s Bazar; it is the oldest and largest ongoing refugee camp in the world.  It began in 1797, when Captain Hiram Cox assigned ‘wastelands” to thousands of ‘Emigrants and Refugees.’ 

The people who live here are Rohingya, one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities on our planet. Although our President is not aware of this, over one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar currently live in the camps near Cox’s Bazar.

According to James Byrne, poet, translator, and co-editor of I am a Rohingya, the camps are so crowded that many can’t even get in. Here are lines from a poem by Zaki Ovais, one of the people of the camps:

          I’m a fly in the kitchen, buzzing 
          on the boundary of a blind wall. 

          I’m a chicken under mother’s wing, 
          confined to the narrows of a wattle.


          I’m the water flowing in Mayu river,
          missing my partner: Air.  

          I’m a human in the universe, 
          denied the most basic rights. 

          I’m someone I’m afraid of. 


How did this book come to be?

Shehzar Doja, Bangladeshi/French poet, and James Byrne, British poet, came to Cox’s Bazaar to work with twenty refugees. This was the first creative writing group ever facilitated in the camps. According to Byrne: “Shehzar and I quickly realized that the attendees weren’t just making history by being part of the poetry sessions, they wanted to mark history.”


Here are a few lines from the first ever Rohingya poetry anthology:

          Snipers shoot father and mother, 
          drag their little son along the street

          Save me

                  —Thida Shania, “Save Me”


          What do you feel
                  when you see your sibling’s corpse 

                           inside a mass grave?

                  —Maung Hla Shwe, “My Arakan”


          I was born as one of the forgotten,
          those the world doesn’t quite remember.
          But at least I was born,
          so you can hear me speaking up

                  —Yasmin Ullah, “Birth”


Writing Prompt

I have to say I feel a bit uneasy about this part: what are the ethical implications of North Americans, living in our comfortable homes, and doing poetry exercises based on the work of people who currently live in the camps?

So, I went ahead and contacted the editors of the anthology with this question. 

James Byrne recommends: find something about the history of Rohingya refugees. Learn more about Cox’s Bazaar, which goes back to 1797.

Shehzar Doja says: “If you are a poet on the other side of the world—what can/would you say to the poet/s in this book if they can see your response?” 

To this, I would add: how do we contribute to this (and many other forms of) suffering by just living where we do, paying taxes? What is a lyric/civic poetry of citizens of the country that does unspeakable things in our name? How are we implicated? Can the answer to this question come not in the form of flat pronouncements but via images, details, line-breaks, inner-rhymes, assonances? 

— Ilya Kaminsky

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Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union and is now an American citizen. He is the author of the poetry collections Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic, and coeditor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. He has received a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.