On Tuesday, April 9, the American Academy of Rome announced the winners of the 2019–2020 Rome Prize, among them Reed Associate Professor of Creative Writing Samiya Bashir. Bashir was one of thirty Americans chosen for the prize, which seeks “to support innovative and cross-disciplinary work in the arts and humanities [for] artists and scholars who represent the highest standard of excellence.” She will live, work, and create at the Academy during her sabbatical next year.
Each year, the Academy awards fellowships to thirty Americans and six Italians in literature, visual art, ancient studies, architecture, music, and more. Bashir, recipient of the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, received one of only two fellowships in literature.
This year was the first year in which both literature fellows are poets. Nicole Sealey, author of Ordinary Beast (2017), who is Bashir’s friend and fellow former Cave Canem scholar, received the John Guare Writer’s Fund Rome Prize.
Bashir commented, “When literature jurist Cornelius Eady called this year’s literature awards ‘historic,’ he meant it. This year is the 125th Anniversary of the Academy and never before have there been two poets to represent literature. Never before has there been a black woman awarded the literature fellowship, not to mention two at once! To win this prize, at this moment, with this amazing and beautiful poet to share the year with, is an almost incalculable gift.”
Bashir, whose third collection of poems Field Theories won the Oregon Book Award in 2018, will also be the guest editor for the American Academy of Poets Poem-a-Day series in June 2019. The Rome Prize promises Bashir “time and space to think and work,” and she plans to use this time on her current project “MAPS :: a cartography in progress.”
In “MAPS,” Bashir asks, “What does it mean to simultaneously create and be created? … This work reflects our current moment forward to the next generation and back through those who brought us safely forth. Engaging questions of diaspora and movement, wrestling with my own familial history and the interlocking cultural and geographic threads of Motown, Mogadishu, and Rome, I am working to write and build a multimedia poetry, steeped in East African diaspora, which can be reshaped like culture to stretch across multiple platforms, a house made of poetry which can be moved and carried.”
Specifically, this project seeks “to locate and articulate through a poetic cartography [of] the long historical relationship between Somalis and Italians,” and Rome will provide an invaluable setting for this work as the home for a large population of diasporic Somalis. “MAPS,” in its intention to be mobile, will move with Bashir as she moves across the sea, “packed and carried, rebuilt and reopened for entry and activated engagement through light, sound, haptic reception, sculpted installation, breath and image.”
Bashir has been working on this project for years. And, as she describes it, “‘MAPS’ simmers at its surface, urgent for the sustained time and attention its journey requires. The Rome Prize which, as Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, whose work has been so important to my own, would say ‘has no business to fit so well!’ allows access to the necessary time, space, and support to enable the work.”
Hardly able to wait until the April 9 announcement to tell her friends and students, Bashir is especially excited for “the kind of support and connection afforded by a large, tight community of artists and scholars working in close proximity to imagine anew their own work alongside each other with the support of the 125 year old institution which is woven throughout the cultural landscape of one of the oldest and most ceaselessly vibrant cities on earth … before returning home to share my work, and all I learn with my own communities.”
Reed will eagerly await her return as well as her new work. Part of the work Bashir has done for this project can be found at https://vimeo.com/160197171.