By: Meghan Feir
For a writer, few things are more thrilling than having your work, your art published. English professors are not beyond this excitement, so when Dr. Yahya Frederickson’s poetry collection, The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali, was chosen as the first-place winner of Lost Horse Press’ Idaho Prize for Poetry 2013 contest, it was the proverbial icing on an already sweet 2013.
Frederickson’s winning collection was based on the years he lived in Yemen, a country you may not hear spoken of very often. Located on the Gulf of Aden off the Arabian Sea, Yemen was his destination when he joined the Peace Corps in 1989, immediately after earning his MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana.
When the Peace Corps called Frederickson and asked him if he’d be willing to go to Yemen, he replied, “Sure! Where is it?”
Through his willingness to brave what to him was then unknown, Frederickson went through a chain of life-changing experiences. “I kind of found myself, kind of grew up, kind of had a sense of my future for the first time. It was a defining period of my life.”
Even after his two-year period with the Peace Corps in Yemen had ended, Frederickson continued working there as an English teacher for four more years. “I just kept coming back.”
During those four years in Yemen, he met and married his wife, Fathia, and had twins, bonding his ties with the Middle East even tighter.
Yahya (pronounced YAH-he-ah), a name he gave himself after converting to Islam, and his surname, Frederickson, represent his two cultures, his two homes—Frederickson embodying his roots, his actual heritage, and Yahya, the transformation of whom he has become.
Frederickson has played many roles at MSUM. Growing up only a few blocks away from campus, he has spent the majority of his life on Dragon soil. His father, Loel Frederickson, was a health/physical education professor and a coach, often bringing his little boy along with him to sporting events.
Later in life, Frederickson found himself as not only a professor’s son, but also a student, a summertime groundskeeper, an adjunct professor, and a full-time professor, the latter being a role he has currently held for 14 years after acquiring his Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.
This summer, immediately following his arrival back to the states from a two-week stay in Morocco for a writing residency, he was notified of his first-place win in the contest.
Frederickson’s time spent in Morocco hasn’t been the only international residency he has taken. In 2005, he was able to bring his wife and two children along with him to Syria, and in 2011, they traveled to Saudi Arabia, both through The Fulbright Program, a U.S. government program designed for international educational exchanges.
Throughout his travels, inspiration has been bountiful. His poems often reflect on the natural world and capture his observations, like one inspirational moment he experienced while visiting some of Fathia’s relatives in Africa.
“We’re in Ethiopia and leaving the town we’re visiting, and it’s midnight because that’s when you have to start traveling. You look out the window, and there’s a hyena loping down the street, like a stray dog would,” Frederickson said. “Things like that strike you, and make you think about what your reality is. Those little, odd things often trigger a poem, kind of looking out and looking in at the same time.”
His ability to analyze surroundings in an artistic form has earned him his role as a published poet numerous times, which is one of the ultimate goals of any writer—to share one’s work, one’s observations, to connect with others and leave a legacy.
“I don’t play the lottery, and I’m not involved in politics. But I want to spend a lot of time with my work,” Frederickson said. “If I can communicate something that other people can enjoy, that’s great because it’s not always easy to make connections and communicate with people. If I can do that with a piece of art longer than I will be in this world, there’s a good feeling about that.”
What I learned about poetry in Yemen, I learned at a sidewalk café off of Zubairi Street,
one of the main streets in Sana’a named after the poet who fomented revolution with rhyme,
where I’m finishing off a plate of butterflied chicken, the aroma of garlic and lemon marinade
mixing with the smoke fanned by a piece of cardboard box, the grill right there on the sidewalk,
when a ragged old man tramps by looking like a bedouin, a holy man in hard plastic shoes,
banging his walking staff on the pavement and reciting poetry, which, even though I can’t
understand, I know is poetry. Maybe the smell of the grilled food caught his attention,
but he doesn’t stop singing his poetry as loud as his lungs will allow to the waiters, cooks,
and whoever else is listening, which I am as I’m standing there paying my bill, and now
he’s dancing—banging his staff in rhythm, stamping a couple steps forward, a couple steps back,
BANG!—and I’ve got to admit that I’m feeling it too, so I put my arms up in the air like his,
and he grasps my wrist, and suddenly we’re dancing together, the waiters smiling
and clapping as we go back and forth, BANG! in front of the restaurant,
until the end nears, the big finish, and everyone is standing and cheering, and I’ve got to
buy him lunch, I mean I‘ve just got to, because when was the last time I tasted
poetry like that, not just a cool mint swirl in the brain, but a wash of chile in the marrow?
So I slam some rials down on the counter for another platter of chicken and rice,
but he’s got no time to sit and eat, so the waiters bag it up for him, and off he goes
toward the city center, his bag of food swinging from one hand, his staff in the other,
his hard shoes clopping away, my day swinging from his neck like a medallion.