Poem-inspired, coffee-flavoured

Workshops and art expos abound in the SWANA festival

Poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan is one of the presenters at the Southwest Asian and North African Festival of films, poetry and workshops.

The University of Manitoba hosts the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) Festival from Feb. 5 to 18. The free online festival highlights films, poetry and workshops with artists from these regions.

The festival is curated by Christina Hajjar, whose curatorial statement says that their aim with the festival is to "showcase films from the wider region in which I descend from, not in an attempt to conflate the experiences of that region, but to nod to their inherent connectivity, and share the work of artists who create such visceral work to be immersed in, often in the diaspora, and often making visible topics, landscapes, and bodies that have been subjugated."

Starting Feb. 12, during week two’s theme “We Didn’t Sleep,” poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan hosts a poetry-reading session with her opening poem “Sleep Study No. 3.” Alyan says the poem’s inspiration stems from her fascination with sleep.

“I am interested in the borderland of not being quite asleep and not being quite awake,” she says.

Alyan has lived with insomnia for brief periods in her life, and she says writing is a great way to bring this and other mental health issues to the forefront.

“Writing saves lives,” she says. “Regardless of what your life’s circumstances are, there is a certain degree to which being a human means to know suffering ... and I think poetry and writing can be really powerful ways to put language to that.”

One of her most recent works, “Object Permanence,” is a poem that addresses lost love, and Alyan points out that it also focuses on transience, which is something she has dealt with her whole life.

“The idea of a place intersecting with memory is something that I have always found interesting,” she says.

“I am someone who has moved back and forth between two parts of the world, (the United States and the Middle East). It felt like I had to shed different parts of myself every time I moved cities, and in that shedding, it also felt like your memory gets reformed, refashioned and, in some ways, reset.”

Workshop leader Levon Kafafian also has history with poetry, and the weaver says something happened during a 2019 poetry workshop that led to their new focus.

“In the bottom of the cup of espresso I had, I saw a single image in it while I was having great difficulty with a writing exercise, and it inspired me to write an entire poem around it,” they say.

Kafafian is hosting a workshop on Feb. 13, where they will teach tasseography, the reading of fortunes from coffee grounds and tea leaves.

As someone who learned the craft from their family, Kafafian says this practice is important because of the active part everyone plays in the future, something that can be intimidating.

“It is vital to our future, because, on a daily basis, we are taking part in shaping that future,” they say.

“Without having the space to imagine what that future will be like, we end up staying in our own established cycles. Using the imagination to play with the future helps us to imagine possible and potential futures that we can inhabit, which can inspire us to work towards them.”

The festival runs from Feb. 5 to 18, and a list of events can be found at umanitoba.ca/art/swana.

Published in Volume 75, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 10, 2021)

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