By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM
MOORHEAD – It’s been a banner year for Yahya Frederickson’s poetry.
The Minnesota State University Moorhead English professor was awarded a $5,000 Lake Region Arts Council/McKnight Fellowship literary/performance grant, his collection of poetry “The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali” won the 2013 Idaho Prize for Poetry and was published by Lost Horse Press, and an animator friend set two of his poems to video.
But the Moorhead poet, husband and father of a twin son and daughter in college isn’t new to literary success.
Frederickson, who’s been teaching for 15 years, has published three chapbooks, “Month of Honey,” “Month of Missiles: Returning to Water” and “Trilogy,” and his poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals.
Next up is another poetry collection, called “The Birds of Al-Merjeh Square: Poems From Syria,” which won Finishing Line Press’ Open Chapbook Competition and will be published soon.
Tell me about “The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali.”
It’s been a long time coming. It’s been a book that’s been dear to my heart for many, many years.
The inspiration for it came from the time I was in the Peace Corps in 1989 and 1991, just around the first Gulf War time. I joined the Peace Corps after getting my Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Montana.
However, I liked my experience so much, I actually stayed in Yemen four years beyond that two-year Peace Corps commitment. That six years of my life in Yemen really has defined my life since.
How is this collection different from your previous works?
It’s my longest work. It’s a full-length poetry manuscript.
What can poetry do that other forms of writing can’t?
I think poetry speaks to the heart. I think it’s writing at its crispest. I think it’s the jewels of the language, the multifaceted words that sparkle and give more meaning to things than we typically would think of them as having.
In our fast-paced world, it’s perfect, because it’s a short little snippet where you can feel something quite quickly. You don’t have to read 100 pages to feel something.
How do you juggle your own writing with guiding others’ writing?
When I’m teaching poetry, it feeds the same funnel, so I might be teaching Introduction to Poetry to my students at MSUM, and I might see something in the poems that I haven’t noticed before, some word play or sound, or some style.
On the other hand, commas and periods in papers don’t always inspire me to write, so there’s that side as well.
The good thing for me is I’m still digging around in the garden of words as I correct papers. At least I’m marking something with a pen on paper; if it’s not my own creative work, it’s something, at least; I’m playing with words, I’m in the medium.
How is teaching in the Middle East different from teaching in the Midwest?
There’s a relationship between teacher and student there that is I think more formal. There’s a lot more deference to the position of teacher, and, dare I say, more respect for the teacher.
Some of that is appreciation of the wisdom of elders, and the other side of that is it’s just full-blown fear because the teacher can give the grades.
I didn’t have to be as much of a standup comedian as I have to be here to kind of keep my students’ attention.
What can we, as Midwesterners, learn from the Middle East?
Wherever I’ve traveled in the Middle East, I’ve been humbled by the amount of poetry that the common people know.
I’ve had taxi drivers in Yemen recite poetry to me as we’re driving across town. I’ve had a Syrian surgeon find out I’m a poet and break into a verse in Arabic that he’s memorized.
Then he says, “How ’bout you? Can you share a poem with me? What have you memorized?”
As an American who’s been weaned away from memorizing poems, or memorizing anything, in our education, for so long, I just blush I’m so embarrassed.
I tried to explain that in the West, we’re poets on paper and the writing aspect is important.
Do you plan to return to the Middle East anytime soon?
I plan to return there every day, but it doesn’t always work out. (laughs)
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590