Interview with the American Poet: Iskandar Soekardi


Recently, Morocco Pens had a chance to sit down with the American Language Center instructor and the host of the upcoming Spring Aspirations event at Campus Universitaire Ait Melloul, Iskandar Soekardi,  to ask him a few questions. The new permanent resident of Agadir met us at a seaside getaway where he was catching up on some books of Prophetic Narrations, Spiritual Etiquette, logic, and poetry.
He was at the door when I arrived, sitting alone on pillow amongst a few others strewn across the floor, looking certainly foreign: white t-shirt, blue slacks, and a blue jellaba hung over his right shoulder, his face part-Bruce Lee, part-young Johnny Depp, short, disheveled black hair with an uncertain part. In his fairly large hands were prayer beads wrapped around a silver pen, his left hand fondling the beads’ tassle as we spoke.
Soekardi was welcoming but certainly uncomfortable; we’d negotiated the interview on the condition of short duration. He would have probably been more enthusiastic if he were allowed to speak of his homeschooled ten-year-old daughter or the interests of his young twin girls. But we wanted the lowdown on the American of Indonesian descent and his activities on the Moroccan coast. We had him under the bright afternoon sun coming through the room windows.
MP:  How would you introduce Iskandar Soekardi as a poet to our readers?
IS(laughs) I am reluctant to call myself a poet. I definitely do write poetry, but I find myself too in awe of the greats. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I am not so prolific.
MP:  The greats?
IS:  Rumi, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib, William Blake, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Dickinson…(nods his head)  Wow.  Mountainous.  Just so wondrous.  So when I recall these names, I say ‘Yeah, no, you are not a poet.’  It is not discouraging to the process, however, rather inspiring.  They are part of the drive-in everything I attempt to do.
MP:  What does poetry mean to you?
IS:  God, it means so much, has meant so much. When I visited the tomb and mosque of Rumi in Konya, Turkey, I felt the poetic presence in that place, the way people lived so gracefully, the green surrounding it, in nature, and in the prophetic metaphor. A constant springing to life. I remember drawing inspiration from a large turtle slowly making its way through the graves of those I imagined to be saintly. Everything was so alive. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the blessings bestowed upon Maulana Rumi.  رحمه الله and his poetry. That experience was life-changing, and it was enhanced even more when I started to attend majlis (gatherings) of zikr (invocations) and qasa’id (poetic chanting). Experiencing the reading of the Burda and the Diwan of al-Habib with teachers who brought out from the verses much wisdom was transforming for me. I loved those gardens of remembrance, and I still do. 
MP:  When did you start writing poetry?
IS:  I don’t remember exactly when.  When I was younger, I used to write a lot of song lyrics. I played around with various genres of poetry as well, Haiku, slam, some classical structures, but there’s nothing I’m particularly proud of or worthy of reciting. 
MP:  Did you have specific themes that you wrote about?
IS:  I think much of my earlier poems had to do with catharsis, trying to work the words to get out of darker corners in my life, places I felt oppressive. There were also the themes of love, heartbreak. I guess more socio-political topics than political.
MP:  You mentioned songs?
IS:  I released an album of music and poetry called “Peace and Puisi” in Jakarta a long time ago. I read some poems with an ambient backdrop.  There were also my attempts at singing in new wave and smooth jazz compositions.  It got some radio airplay.  I thought that was a definite achievement because much of what was being played at that time was disposable pop, really mindless.  (laughs)  Not much has changed these days either, right? 
MP:  Have you thought about publishing a collection of your poems?
IS:  I have two self-published chapbooks, Grove Green and Gift, that are now out of print.  They were offered to audiences who attended my poetry readings.  As for a future publication, I have no plans. It’s not something I aspire to, either.  If it happens, that’s another matter, then great.
MP: Are the teacher and the poet inside Iskandar one and the same?
IS:  I certainly hope that what I do as a teacher has the ability to inspire. But one and the same?  It’s difficult to say.  As a teacher, one of my main goals is to assist students with clarity in English and to strive for deeper meaning. I’d love that to be said about my verses. I don’t know. You tell me.
MP:  Does poetry have a future in Morocco?
IS:  Poetry has always been a part of the weave of culture in Morocco. As an example, before I moved here to Morocco, I was engaged in the classical text, The Helping Guide of Sidi Abdul Wahid Ibn Ashir, the Moroccan scholar. Here is a text of aqeedah, fiqh, and tassawuf (doctrine, jurisprudence, and Sufism) all in metered poetic verses and for centuries, it was on the tongues of most Moroccans.  It is still taught but unfortunately not to the masses. It is extremely beneficial for understanding religion and spirituality, and I think some of that has to do with the delightful rhyming experience. 
Poetry and creative expression just need a revival of sorts. That’s what is behind what we are trying to do with events like Spring Aspirations.  We want to end the “Poetry is boring” statements by bringing together creative types who will prove otherwise. They can show how they’ve been inspired and hopefully transfer that spirit to their audiences.
(looks out the window with wonderment)  I’ve been thinking a lot about Italo Calvino’s chapter title “A Network of Lines that Enlace” especially that word “enlace.” You get this idea of wrapping something with lace. And “lace” is something delicate, delightful to touch and look at, something that is mysterious, elegant, sultry, just feels good. We want a network of that.
MP:  We appreciate your answers. I know you have a busy schedule, so thank you for your time.
IS:  (wipes gently the cover of a book on his lap) No, I should thank you.  

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