This week we stretch the boundaries of Selective Focus — both geographically and conceptually. Moheb Soliman is a poet who will be installing his writing in the form of very official looking signs throughout Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the four other major Great Lakes national parks at trails, vistas, and beaches as part of the National Park Service centennial celebration. Some of the installations are already done and this month he will be finishing up at Isle Royale National Park.
M.S. I’m a poet often working beyond the page in installation and performance projects. Almost all of my interdisciplinary work in some way has poetry at the heart of it. I’m interested in how we experience and come to know everything through language — a very associative, impressionistic, incomplete, but constant language of mind. Poetry can capture and dwell in that obscure but universal process really beautifully, not bound to narrative or rationality. Creating and putting this sort of text back into life, literally, physically through objects and gestures and actions and in sites, is for me a really thrilling creative act. I’ve always been really aware of the power and artifice of language, I think because of my background as an immigrant to the Midwest as a kid from Egypt and feeling especially compelled to master English in order to thrive. This preoccupation may have lead me to poetry at first, and eventually in experimenting with it, to a concern for the place of language in human experience generally.
As a pretty “unskilled” or “undisciplined” artist, performance art was an accessible and freeing form to explore this further. But in that, I was always drawn more to the art part — the part that wasn’t all theatrical but potentially just intimate and intricate, the way I feel poetry is. These national parks signs are as close as I’ve ever come I think to distilling that into an encounter between me and my work and the general public and the natural world. A final note on all this and about this project specifically: I find nature and poetry perfectly matched because they both appeal to us in similarly obscure ways — poetry exploring the limits of language in how we perceive life, and the living natural world at the threshold of the human in how it never actually speaks to us no matter how hard we try and commune. Using weird language to render this supreme “other” couldn’t be more fitting. Applying poetry to think about nature is of course not new at all — it’s one of the biggest traditions — but it is always a unique and stimulating thing to do in each passing phase of modernity.
I’ve been writing for a very long time — probably thinking of myself as a poet since high school nearly twenty years ago! But I would say only in the past ten years have I really managed to make a distinctive place for myself with interdisciplinary poetry work and receive some support and recognition and just begin to really participate in a community and a public or at least artistic discourse dealing with that and, separately but just as importantly to me, with the subjects of contemporary nature and identity, which I’ve been recently imagining shaping my entire ephemeral career around.
Writing poetry should be one of the easiest art forms, judging from a number of standpoints—certainly “logistically.” Doing site-specific installation and performance work is definitely the total opposite. With this project for example, trying to remotely work with five far-flung “offices” of a federal department, based in some of the most remote places in the Great Lakes region, on selecting and accessing coveted wilderness locations for poems to be tailored to those sites, and then co-designing signs using their official templates, WAS NUTS! But the fact that it actually happened, that they allowed it to happen, that I managed to see that process through, is incredibly satisfying and important to me and hopefully to a few hundred people of the hundreds that come across the signs. It was just an enormous, though understandable, challenge working with the national parks. They’re not used to doing this sort of work, and they have many much more urgent challenges and issues themselves they always have to be focusing on with limited resources and staff. The experience certainly taught me a lot, and also encourages me to continue doing this sort of work in new and unknown forms and contexts and projects.
Where can people see your work?
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore! And the four other major Great Lakes National Parks — each has five original poems installed as official signs. All the details are at mohebsoliman.info, where you can see other work I’ve done oriented around the Great Lakes region as a site for exploring nature, culture, identity, modernity, and more. At agreatlakesvista.tumblr.com you can also see tons of images and text from a four-month excursion I took as part of a Joyce Foundation fellowship tracing the coast of the entire Great Lakes borderland in 2015. I started in Duluth and ended in Superior, doing site-specific work and delving into partnerships with diverse organizations and groups all around the region.
Soon I’ll be going to Isle Royale to install the final five poems signs. And I’ve got a set of poems I’ll soon be working on, to be installed in downtown Minneapolis, along with four other poets and a sculptor who’s fashioning our writing into giant lanterns, which is amazing. I’ve got a huge project I’m dreaming about and fearing embarking on… It would consist of 50+ landscape/sculpture pieces embedded in 50+ places around the Great Lakes shoreline, each built around and inscribed with a line of a poem that would literally circle the region, with its materials or text informed in some way by each locality—a “poem of sublime proportion.” That might take the rest of my life to do; if I begin it, I’m afraid I won’t stop until its completed.
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