Interview with Slam Champion & Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani — by Joseph Osel

We’ve all been urged to say something, to speak something dynamic into existence - to spit raw emotion from deep within our chests and off the tip of our tongues. We’ve all been impelled by this natural and ardent force… only to find that perhaps at that moment in time and space, the words were not with us.

Anis Mojgani is a spoken word superhero. His poems bleed pure energy into anyone who cares enough to open up and listen. While listening to Mojgani’s poems I could not help but be moved — and to relate. That’s what grabs you about Anis’ work. He’s puts your emotions into his words, making them horrific and beautiful all at once. Whether from his powerful poem Shake the Dust, to the electric Rock Out, or the melancholy lyrics of Cradle, Anis grabs hold of your guts and gently earthquakes you to attention.

Anis is the current (2007) World Cup Poetry Slam Champion and the2005 & 2006 National Poetry Slam Individual Champion (a back-to-back honor shared only by fellow artist Buddy Wakefield). He is also the 2006 Seattle Grand Slam Champion. Anis has been featured on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, National Public Radio’s ‘The Beat’, and in the documentary 'Slam Planet: War of the Words'. You can also find his work in Spoken Word Revolution Redux and in the literary journal ‘Rattle’. And all of this is for very good reason.

Osel: What sets your work apart from other slam poets?

Mojgani: I don’t know. I really try not to compare myself to other poet’s work. There are a lot of poets out there that are coming from a similar place that I am, so in that regards there are slam poets out there that I can’t set myself apart from. I know its semantics, but if a poet doesn’t have semantics what does he have? I do think that if one goes to a slam that I’m competing in, some things that may seem different between myself and several other performers is that I try not to perform. I simply share a poem that I’ve written and open myself up to be allowed the same affect that hopefully it will have an audience member. I concentrate heavily on the written text and the image and respect the audience enough not to pander to them. I understand that no one’s going to get all that I’m saying, not even if they were reading it, so I try not to dumb in down cuz that doesn’t respect the craft nor does it elevate the audience.

Osel: What influences does your writing and performing draw from?

Mojgani: Influences aren’t currently in the bag, as I think that young artists have influences, older artists have inspiration. Of course that’s not a blanket statement, but at least for me these days that’s how it is.

Influences in my path: Jeffrey McDaniel, Richard Brautigan, Bukowski, Gregory Corso, Kerouac, MF Doom, Aesop rock, Robert Rauschenberg, Basquiat, Chris Ware, Frank Miller, Saul Williams, Whitman, Savannah, GA, New York, New Orleans, being broke, being a hermit, shoot the piano player, the Baha’i writings and history. Inspiration though is a more frequent occurrence, and comes from a variety of sources; other poets, art, comics, novels, movies, observing people, our country and the affect it has on its citizens. Flowers. Donuts. Moths. The moon. A good cheeseburger.

Osel: How much of your work comes from direct experience and how much comes from observation?

Mojgani: It’s a mixture. I try to keep myself open to observing people, trying to get a better understanding of how we as people act and react to certain situations. I think that the better understanding one has of human psychology, the more successful one’s art can be at communicating its intent. I try to take what I learn from observing and apply it to my own experiences, cuz when it comes down to it that’s the only person that I can know the most about.

Osel: What makes a good performance poem?

Mojgani: Respecting your audience. Don’t think that you as a poet are in a position to teach them anything or give them something they’ve never heard before. One of our most precious commodities is time. Don’t waste theirs by asking them to invest it into something that’s bullshit.

Having the courage to be vulnerable.
Having an honest and organic connection to your work.
Not forcing anything.
Make it interesting.

And if you’re afraid someone won’t listen to your poem, figure out the best way to deliver the message so they will. And this doesn’t always mean speaking louder or beatboxing.

Osel: There are some who say that spoken word or slam poetry is not real poetry and that real talent lies only in the writing of a poem. They say that if the words were potent enough to begin with you wouldn’t have to scream them into a microphone to communicate them. Why does your work not simply stop when you’re done with the writing?

Mojgani: Because it has its origins in being an oral art. My mouth wants the feel of the words inside of it. Sometimes it does stop with the writing because the piece of creativity, that particular thing I was making stopped there. It doesn’t have a need or a desire to be spoken. But there’s a myriad of forms of art and creativity. Why didn’t art stop with the fresco? Why didn’t it stop with the marble? Why did people have to continue with the photographic image until it moved, why weren’t they happy with capturing a still image? Because some things have to be expressed in a certain way. It doesn’t make the photograph less then the motion picture. They are two different and similar things. And it’s not up to a body of people to decide what is valid of one person’s work in regards to what they define, it’s up to the individual to decide for themselves the form that their expression takes.

Osel: How does the spoken word scene compare with other social literary movements?

Mojgani: I’m probably not the best authority on social literary movements. I do have some ideas as to what is important about the spoken word one, and these may be the same reasons that previous ones were important as well. Actually I have fewer ideas about the spoken word scene then about the poetry slam scene in particular. In regards to the spoken word movement, I don’t really see it as a movement. It’s nothing new; spoken word has been around since the inception of poetry. What is nice about it and that may separate it from a number of other circles, is that the community itself is one of inclusiveness. Not always its individuals, but any open mic poetry spot you go to, there is a welcoming embracing atmosphere. Which of course has negative aspects to it, but it’s good that there is something in this world that allows individuals to experiment with themselves in an environment of acceptance. Slam is a lot more of a movement, as it took something that was here before and made something new out of it, challenging what its parents did. A lot of spoken word is irrelevant. It doesn’t do anything except give its speaker an opportunity to speak. Which is good, but what you end up with is a lot of people who didn’t think too heavily before as to whether they should speak. And of course you get that with Slam, but what Slam does that puts it into a movement is that there is fire there. There's an urgency. Because it is within the confines of a competition, it makes people make decisions, both as artists and audience members. And by putting that power into a person’s hand, it makes someone feel that they matter, that they are an active member in what is going on around them and that their voice and opinion count for something. Slam also engages the audience in a way that open mic or readings may not. People want to be entertained, and when there are things on the line, at stake (even if arbitrary things), then people are automatically more interested and more invested in what they are experiencing. And if that’s the case then the poets, the poems, the poetry, is able to work more effectively on the people receiving it, thus having a larger effect on the society it’s inside of creating a catalyst for change. Becoming a social literary movement.

Slam is only 20 years old… its possibilities are limitless. Folks haven’t even dabbled at its boundaries yet.

Osel: James Cabell 
said that “Poetry is man's rebellion against being what he is.” What do you think of that?

Mojgani: Two things:
I agree in that poetry can be something that does lead us out from where and what we are and allows us to reject that and we’re able to follow it into a different place, a different world.

However, I’m more inclined to disagree, in that I find that poetry is the discovery and illumination of truths that are common to all of us and connect us to one another. And that even in the rebellion against ourselves that finds us departing from what we are and into something outside of our existence, that plane is still of us--we simply are not privy to it in the physical sense and poetry can serve as a bridge to that wider definition of what we are. Boy, does that sound like a bunch of hoohah horse pucky.

Osel: It seems there are a lot of “poets,” at least more than, say, dog catchers, sculptors, or gymnasts. Why do you suppose that is? What drives so many people to poetry?

Mojgani: I don’t know. Everybody wants to be something. I think we put a lot of weight on the things that we recognize as being worthy, things that have a tangible presence, i.e., athleticism, art, comedy. If we can’t do something like this, we have to try and make ourselves, even though being kind is better then all that. Be a gardener, a baker, find what it is that makes you click and what you’re good at. Play practical jokes, be a pie thrower, an ice cream eater. Be mindful, be a believer in justice, be supportive, be health conscious, be shy, read books. One doesn’t have to be anything. I do think that there is this preoccupation that makes us want to be something cool or different, and the definition of what a poet is at times is so very ethereal and not concrete that most anyone can say they are a poet and don’t have to back anything up with actual poetry. One can even write poetry and have it not be very good and go share it at an open mic and most open mic communities are about the most warm and receptive and inviting of any art community, so it’s not like you’re gonna come across a lot of animosity. But really, why be a poet? Be a dogcatcher or a television or something.

Osel: What did you do before all this intellectual non-sense?

Mojgani: Before all this I went to school to study comic books and drew and painted a lot more. I coached rowing and slung coffee and iced cupcakes and did catering at the zoo.
Before all this I would go to work tired cuz I would stay up late burning paper and canvases with work that had to be gotten out and that was the only time when it could.Now I stay up late and I don’t have to be anywhere in the morning but the work comes slow.

Osel: It’s been said: “poetry is dead.” As someone who has performed throughout the states and overseas what is your feeling? Is interest in the poetic form being taken over by TV, the 40-work week, and a berserk apathy towards the arts?

“Blankity-blank is dead,” outside of the term “sell-out”, is maybe the dumbest phrase in existence. I love how something that has existed since the inception of man is dead because the box that this individual or that individual has put around it to define it, is in danger of disappearing and thus an entire art form is “dead.” That’s like saying dance is dead because everyone is only doing the funky chicken and you hate the funky chicken. On top of that, you can’t kill a word. If I have the urge to dance, I’m gonna dance, so how can it ever die? Poetry, as all art, is something that exists outside of the human experience; we come in contact with it, we aren’t its boss. It remains whether we choose to pick it up and touch it or not. That being said, I do think that there is a tremendous lack of innovation in a lot of things. What I mean by innovation I guess is more on a personal level. There’s a tendency to only go the minimum with one’s work. Cuz it’s hard to take it farther, or it has taken shape at this distance and they’re afraid to take it a little further for fear of disrupting what they have, or whatever. However, you get the brighter gems, the deeper in the earth you dig. The same way with art. While I wholeheartedly think it’s a wonderful thing that the world we live in is one that says anyone can be an artist and everyone is one, because it can help give people the courage they may need to explore a part of themselves they wouldn’t have explored before and it curbs some of the elitism that comes with the arts community, it also makes people lazy. “The world says that everything is art, so I only have to make something to a certain point. I don’t have to craft something and shape it down and sweat over it” and one doesn’t have to do all those things to make important work, but one will also always only be dancing on the surface of what one can truly do. And that’s where I think any deadening of an art form lies.

Osel: What are you working on right now?

Mojgani: Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a book combining poetry with poetry in visual terms, using illustrations to translate those ideas. It’s four stories that are connected through common themes and symbols dealing with father-and-son cycles, achieved/unachieved dreams, faith, God.

The stories are about a boy searching for his father who has absconded with the family’s heirloom of a pair of magic gold boots; a pair of Siamese twins of which one is a boy and the other an adult, and a man in black who tries to kill the grown up half of the pair in order to kidnap the young half; a carpenter and his son; and the relationship between a young man who works on a piano farm and the giant who moves to his town.

Though that recently got put on the back burner. I just finished putting together a collection of poetry for my publisher to put out in the upcoming month, as they wanted something out for my tour this fall--I’m touring with poets Mike McGee, Buddy Wakefield, Dan Leamen, and Derrick Brown, under the moniker Solomon Sparrow’s Electric Whale Revival. Other then that and the tour planning, I’m trying to find time to work with my music partner Kenya on our project Happy Brown, and on some other written projects.

Osel: We’ve all got them, what’s your problem?

Mojgani: Possums.

Anis Mojgani lives in Portland, Oregon and Anis has a poetry collection out this fall through House of Parlance Media. ( (

Joseph Osel is the founding Literary Editor of The Commonline Journal.