Jai Hamid Bashir’s poem “Little Bones” captures a distinctive silhouette of Southwestern America through the eyes of a little girl. Courtesy of Roadsidepictures/flickr.
Since 2012, the Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize has been awarded annually to the U.S. poem that best evokes a connection to place. This year, talking about “place”—a concept always open to interpretation—feels particularly poignant as people around the world must now consider its physical constraints and vast virtual possibilities as many of us stay home, in fixed spaces, to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The submissions for 2020 (which came from as far away as Doha, Qatar) dove deep into the meaning of place to explore literal, fictional, and metaphorical geographies. Set in locations as different as Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock, and the lingerie department in Walmart, each poem demonstrated the power of place to anchor us in a shared conversation of what it means to be alive today.
This year’s winning poem, selected by the Zócalo editorial staff, won us over because of the way the poet’s distinctive voice guides us through the familiar scenery of the Southwestern U.S. The poem is a celebration of a person’s girlhood, and how it is shaped by such forces as family, religion, heritage, and location.
We’re thrilled to announce the Ninth Annual $500 Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize goes to Jai Hamid Bashir. Her winning poem, “Little Bones,” combines specific places, such as a payphone in a gas station, with universal themes, such as childhood and growing up, the natural world, and family.
“Bashir’s work is beautiful, particularly in negotiating dichotomies—inner and external experiences, languages and landscapes, and feelings versus walking around in the world as a person,” says Zócalo poetry editor, Colette LaBouff.
Born to Pakistani-American immigrant artists, Bashir was raised in the Southwest and has spent many years advocating for climate justice and land conservation. A graduate of the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah, she is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University in the City of New York. The recipient of the Linda Corrente Memorial Prize at Columbia University and an Academy of American Poet’s University Prize, she has been published by The American Poetry Review, Palette Poetry, The Cortland Review, The Margins, Sierra Magazine, The Academy of American Poets, and others.
Bashir will deliver a public reading of her poem during Zócalo’s 10th annual Book Prize Lecture, which will be streamed online on May 20 at 5 PM PDT. Her poem “Little Bones” is below, followed by a conversation with Zócalo associate editor, Jackie Mansky.
In a chlorinated morning. White, wet noise
is everywhere, so it is endless. After the pool, we echo
for the gas station attendant to use the phone,
Salam. Ma don’t worry. In song of bleach and sun,
we spent an afternoon earnest in the creation
of nests woven from tall grass, netted wrappers
from lunch apples. From palm—to—palm
passing a dying field mouse with the slow
understanding of boudins sharing a spring
in the desert. There was love moving us forward,
interveled like pangs before birth, asking us
to breathe in certain ways. We took it home
and fed it formula with an old baby dropper
in the backyard, until Ma called our names
before the hard vesper air of sunset, before
salat, we set the unsaved animal in the shade
of our family tree—lightheaded in our own
untold plans for eternity.
How did you start to write this poem?
I think that when you're a child, confronting death is a very strange and very subjective experience. I think that everyone, if they look deep into their marrow, at some point when they were a child, whether they know it or not, had that first experience of mortality. So I wanted to write about an experience I had as a child, and I kind of mixed a couple of experiences together, including being at the pool with my sister.
I found many animals when I was a kid. I've always been very animal-centric and had this certain desire to always be helping them. In my former life, I have a degree in environmental science, and I have a Master's degree in environmental studies. So it's always been something that's been on my mind, about having a connection with the more-than-human world.
[Also,] my parents are immigrants from Pakistan and India. Something I've wanted to do in my poetry is to talk about my diaspora identity, while also being very explicit with the fact that I am still very American; and I actually have a lot more shared experiences than unshared experiences with a lot of other Americans, regardless of race. And so this poem came out of that.
The poem is called “Little Bones.” Talk to me about what you were thinking about there.
I thought about it in two ways. I thought about it as the field mouse being this tiny thing that encapsulates mortality and the idea of how we fit into the larger network of the cosmos, but also being little, and being small, being a child, and the ways in which things are still very beautiful and curious. I don't imagine a lot of adults seeing a field mouse and with their bare hands wanting to try to save it anymore. You know what I mean? There'd be the fear of disease. I feel like being young and being a child, there is so much possibility. The pool is a place of just magic, and then walking home in July. This is how I was kind of thinking about it.
I included going to the gas station and using the phone because I also wanted to place it in the very specific time, because now I think most people have cellphones, and there's this sense of parents really helicoptering their children. And this was very ... my sister and I asserting our own autonomy, in a way. Like, "Ma, don't worry. We're going to be okay." And then on the way home, having to confront death. I was really interested in being a child and being allowed to confront death, confront my own autonomy, the fact that I am separate and ... well, separate from my family, but also, completely intertwined. And also, intertwined in this larger way in which life itself functions. That's kind of how I was thinking about it. I was thinking about the idea of smallness, and being something that's growing, but being aware of one's place in the larger frame of things.
When you thought “place,” what brought you back to childhood?
I wrote this poem in New York City, and I've lived in the Southwest my entire life. What I found is that living in New York City made me more hyper-cognizant of the fact that I am a child of being from this particular geography, of being from Utah, specifically. I'm looking out my window right now, because I'm actually back in my childhood home, which I haven't been in years, because I moved out years ago. But because of crazy circumstances [the COVID-19 pandemic], I'm back living with my parents.
It’s interesting to hear that the poem came together from the lens of being in New York thinking about home in Utah, because the poem did feel very nostalgic to me. Do you think nostalgia colors place?
Absolutely. Have you ever heard of this term topophilia? Topophilia comes from the Greek topos, place, and philia, love of. It's this idea that we assign emotional human value and sentiment to the places we love, and that's what makes us want to care for them. There's almost an ecological consciousness in that: when you really love a place and see it as a very tangled, very woven, part of yourself. It's something that you can't necessarily divorce yourself from. It's something you carry in you at all times. And I think that is a type of nostalgia, but I think it's also a type of presence. I think that for me, I definitely—especially because I was living in New York City—became more aware in myself that deep in the very center, the mantle parts of my being, that I am from the Southwest, and that's something that I can't completely erase, and that it will always be a pulse of mine that currents throughout.
You don’t tell us the names or any specific details about the characters themselves. Everything we learn is contextually through the places they navigate. It was really a window into how much place can tell you about a person—their habits, their relationships, even religion is tucked in here.
Yeah. That's something I wanted to talk about with this poem. There is the influence of being Muslim-American in it. I think it kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier. This isn't a criticism, but I noticed that a lot of immigrant voices today oftentimes talk about the pain and the trauma, and the marginalization, subjugation, and isolation that comes from being part of a diaspora, or being part of a certain minority group. And that's completely honorable. I have felt that as well.
But for me, there's a particular desire, in poetry, to write about being Muslim-American, being Pakistani, being Indian, et cetera, in a way that if you're not necessarily looking for it, you won't find it. But it's there, it's present. That's something that is important to me, that in the larger fabric of being an American, we are just human. We're all human here. We come with our own very beautiful lattices of culture and religion, but at the end of the day, I think that my experience, like I said, is actually not so different as many other people's.
So that's why you get us saying “Salam,” which is a very standardized Muslim greeting, to our mother, talking on the phone at a gas station, and then my mother calling us in for evening prayers. I think that's a very shared experience—your curfew when you're a child to come back into the house is sunset; but for us, it was a very particular "come into the house because we need to read our evening prayer now." I don't know if I was necessarily thinking about that in this poem. I think it just came through, because that's something I personally believe in, and is part of my natural aesthetic drive, but it's something that I think is important.
We’re speaking today, on March 26, as the COVID-19 pandemic has us both socially isolating in our respective homes. How do you see the role of place as something useful to think about as we navigate this time?
For me, returning back to my hometown—and I think this is happening to a lot of my friends, specifically because we were living in New York City, and New York City is the epicenter of this entire tragedy in the United States at the moment—it's an opportunity to start thinking about our communities, and thinking about who we belong to and where our responsibilities lie, and who and where are the people and places that really, really make us who we are. For some of us, that might be our hometowns. For some of us, that might make us more cognizant that the new places we occupy are our new families and new landscapes of adoration and meaning.
I think being sheltered in place makes you really aware of what is it that makes the place you're in. On a very minuscule level, but also on a major level. Who are the people I live with? Who are the people that I care about? What are the things that I took for granted? I am so worried, I'm so terrified that our parks are going to shut down in Salt Lake, because I know that state parks have shut down in Oregon and Washington. I think the coronavirus, COVID-19, has made me more aware of material things that matter, because I had to leave everything in Manhattan and just get on a plane as quickly as possible. Speaking of which, I also hope that all of this makes us more empathic and realize that becoming a refugee or immigrant is actually just a few steps away for all of us. So yeah, I think it makes us aware of those kinds of things: where are we from, and what do we care about?
My last question for you is what is a place that you've been wanting to write about?
Oh, wow. Especially considering I can't go anywhere right now, and I've been social distancing, just the desire to be anywhere else is so profound. Let's see. You know, I've never actually been to India, quite yet, and I have a lot of heritage from India, because India and Pakistan were the same country until 1947, and my family was part of the wave of people who were displaced because they were Muslim, and had to flee to the newly established Pakistan. We have stories that my Nana, my maternal grandfather, had to be wrapped in extra blankets because he was, I think, under the age of two, to keep him calm as they caravanned between the Indian and Pakistani border. So I've spent quite a bit of time in Pakistan, but I actually have never been to India. I think that's a missing puzzle piece of my life that I would really like to write about, to experience, to be part of. Right now, because of growing restlessness and different clashing political ideologies—and the larger reverberations of historical violence—being a Muslim person in India is a very fraught thing. So I think that would be really intriguing to write about India right now, and to connect with my heritage.
But also, I really, really, really want to go to Alaska. I always have, because I see myself primarily as a writer of the more-than-human world, and our connection with creatures and beings and places. And so, for me, Alaska has always felt like the last frontier. And especially being from the Southwest, and really growing up with the mythology around the American West, and really loving writing that comes from a lineage of being outdoors and finding meaning and solace and wonder and the sublime in being outside. I think there's something about Alaska that's been really calling me.
I also think how Utah and Alaska both have such an expanse of space. And then, as you say, with the Western mythos, and that concept of “frontier,” however you want to unpack what that is a stand-in for.
Yeah. And I think especially as a woman of color, it's not something that's been very explored. It feels like that's a very white male narrative of being outside and confronting your own animal qualities. Those kinds of things are kind of silly, but I think they're part of just a larger inheritance of being part of a culture of being in the American West. I think as a person of color, there's a lot of rich material to negotiate some of the ridiculousness of that, but also maybe some of the possibility of wonder and meaning. So yeah, I don't know. If this pandemic hadn't happened, one of my larger goals was to go to Alaska this year. But we'll see.