Lit Chat: Meet Moheb Soliman
Water. Poetry. Space. Place. The sublime. If you aren’t familiar with the writer and cultural worker Moheb Soliman’s poetry and way of looking at the Midwest, you’re missing out! Moheb lives in Minneapolis and works at the Saint Paul-based organization Mizna, which produces an Arab American lit journal and film festival.
Moheb filled me in on what he’s been up to lately as a writer: “Through a Forecast Public Art grant I’m working on the research phase of a project that would result in a massive installation: a single poem, as a single sculpture, but broken into 50+ lines/pieces circling the Great Lakes. The poem would need to start somewhere grand I think to create some momentum, such as Chicago or Toronto, Milwaukee maybe; Milwaukee has a lot of environmental water initiatives going on right now. And then the sculptures/lines would continue in towns and wilderness spaces all around region. I've got a lot of locations and communities in mind already to approach. I circled the Great Lakes for four months in 2015 through a fellowship connecting with a lot of people and organizations and doing site-specific work. And last year I worked with the five Great Lakes national parks on an installation of poems disguised as official parks signs, so I'm hoping that can open some doors.”
When I asked him about his relationship to the natural world and how his poetry explores it, one of the things he said was, “Nature is always being humanized or being turned into an object of the human imagination. I’d love to just be a ‘nature poet’ but because of who I am in this post-modern world, there’s a lot to think through to get to nature. If I really love the idea of the natural non-human world, there’s a lot behind me that I can’t ignore.”
He talked about the importance of the mid-continent aspect of his work and of being grounded in the Great Lakes, “This proposed project is about North American nature and specifically Midwest nature, where I’ve grown up. What is the most sublime part of the Midwest? It’s this gigantic water body in the middle of it, all cut through by the longest international border in the world, but still ecologically, historically, economically whole—a bioregion. But when I look at the cultural here it's always through the natural, because it's a liberating and almost radical lens for considering humanity and identity and belonging and much more.”
Recently, there’s been a shift in his focus, or intensification, as he turns his attention to completing a manuscript of the poetry at the heart of his interdisciplinary practice: “I have a ton of Great Lakes writing and I need to take it seriously as a collection, I’ve been accumulating it for years.” I asked him how he became interested in the intersections of spatiality and poetry, and he said, “My master’s is actually in education and not in creative writing, but my thesis advisor was a museum studies guy who was interested in the Holocaust, and museums and public spaces and memory. He allowed me to write a master’s thesis that was about geography and philosophy and incorporating poetry.”
Moheb also has an upcoming residency through Coffee House Press’s “In the Stacks” series with The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization in Northeast Minneapolis. The focus will be the “re-islanding” of Hall's Island, long merged with the riverbank, and what it means to ceaselessly be shaping our environment. This connects back to other Great Lakes work he’s pursuing with the Natural Resources Defense Council about the historic reversing of the Chicago River at Lake Michigan and the current proposals to re-reverse it and re-separate of the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds to stop the spread of invasive species such as Asian carp. Moheb hopes these sorts of collaborations yield new writing, performance, and installation work more intimately informed by ecological and scientific work happening around the Great Lakes. Recently the region has been coming to a renewed consciousness through the efforts environmental, native, artist, and other communities—Moheb sees his entire practice within that movement as he makes a life in and around our "third coast."
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose) and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.