Wednesday, October 10, 2012

City of Asylum and House Poem

I am in Pittsburgh and much as I miss the family back home, it feels as if I have come to visit another home tucked in another country. Mainly because of my extraordinarily generous hosts, Diane and Henry Reese who have set up City of Asylum, Pittsburgh, to provide sanctuary to writers under peril.

I first met them when they agreed to host me when I came to the US five years ago as part of the International Writers Program, Iowa. I was the first writer to be hosted by City of Asylum who was not under any kind of peril in his own country. The institution had simply arranged to host one writer every year from the program. I happened to be the chosen one in the first year when the arrangement got going. I was extremely ambivalent about coming to Pittsburgh the first time.

I was not sure what awaited me. But from the time I landed and met Henry and Diane, something felt oddly familiar about the city. Like there was a deep connection and bond with it. And then it hit me. Pittsburgh used to be a major steel city of the US in the 70s. Much like the city I grew up in India, Jamshedpur. I guess the proposal I submitted for the Fulbright grant happened only because I traveled to Pittsburgh and was hosted by City of Asylum in 2007. My grant is to research a book I plan to write on the impact of globalization on the steel communities of Pittsburgh and Jamshedpur.

 The house where I stayed was House Poem, something of a tourist attraction in the city. Huang Xiang, the Chinese poet and the first writer provided sanctuary by City of Asylum, lived in the house for over two years. He wrote some of his poems on the wall in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. My favourite among them is ‘The Wisp of Light.’ The translation reads-
 ‘There is a kind of space
  that’s a different vastness
  There’s a heavenly body
  that’s a different great arch ‘
  The cells that permeate my body
  are unattainably distant
  The unreachable constellations
  find shelter in my flesh in my blood
  Death, not to be denied rises  
  as it slowly falls
  Life, not to be denied.'
 For some strange reason, I experience this poem as a profound Haiku.
My hosts have very thoughtfully provided me with the same house to stay this time. And I love the fact that I   live in a space that is walled by poems. It feels special. Last time I was here, I barely stayed a month but got a good deal of writing done.

There is something very energizing and expansive about living here. This time round, I am going to be here for eight months and really look forward to getting a lot of research and writing done. It helps that Diane and Henry are such wonderful hosts and mentors. After the grueling air travel that lasted over 24 hours, not only did Henry pick me up from the airport, sharing with me on the way all that has transpired in the last five years, when we reached home, I discovered Diane had thoughtfully stacked the pantry and the fridge with loads of food, wine and beer. If that was not enough, they also invited me for dinner to their place later. I feel blessed to be in this city, in this house and in this neighborhood. 

Of course I have spent quite a bit of time on Skype with the family back in India in the last two days I have been here. And because I am living alone like this after a long time and was stupid enough to watch Paranormal Activity 3 on TV, just a few days back, I sleep with the light on. Another writer from the IWP, Iowa,is joining me as a housemate in November.

I am looking forward to that. 

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