Tonight's Just Buffalo Literary Center BIG NIGHT event features a celebration of the life and work of Millie Niss, the Buffalo-area-based poet, writer, digital artist and web-based installation designer, who died of complications of Behcet's Disease and the H1N1 virus at the age of 36 in November of 2009. It begins at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.) in Buffalo. Admission is $5, free to students with valid ID and members of Just Buffalo and its affiliate organizations.
Ms. Niss, one of only a few people we've ever met for whom the description "savant" might accurately apply, was an award-winning, Columbia University-trained mathematician who saw her very promising academic and professional career foreshortened by the early onset of a rare vascular autoimmune disorder -- later diagnosed as Behcet's Disease -- that would eventually take her life.
With an indomitable intelligence and a fiercely competitive spirit, she approached her progressively worsening condition with courage, wit and a highly focused agenda of things she hoped to accomplish. Over the last decade and a half of her life, she turned to writing, digital art forms and a variety of web-based media forms to express the full gamut of ideas and emotions that still roiled inside her.
"A Tribute to Millie Niss" coincides with the release of “City Bird: Selected Poems (1991-2009),” a collection of her writings published this month by BlazeVox Books, and will feature readings of selections from the book by members of the Western New York literary community, and a special appearance by award-winning poet, essayist and Oberlin College professor Kazim Ali--a former Buffalo-area resident and high school classmate of Niss who maintained a lifelong correspondance and friendship with her.
In many respects, Ali is the quintessential poet to celebrate the life of a polymath like Niss. His focus on breath, somatic intelligence, spirituality, and the prerogatives of the body is the substantial complement to her edgy, rhetorical propulsiveness and hyper-rationality born of the near-certain knowledge that her time on this world was limited. Here, for instance, is a passage from an essay Ali contributed to the literary blog The Millions for National Poetry Month in April of 2009:
Poetry, to me, is an art that lives in the body – in its cavities of breath and mechanisms of propelling breath, in the vibrating cords of voice, deep in the skin and blood, and flashing across the axons and dendrites deep in the brain’s neural networks. If it seems political in the extreme it is because throughout what we call human civilization, but at no time more intense than at the present moment, the individual body has been under attack by collective bodies – the body politic, the corporation, various strains of organized religion that all at least agree on one thing: salvation requires the individual to submit his body to the law.
Ali—who was born in London, England to Indian parents of Muslim heritage, and spent a significant portion of his youth and teen years in the Buffalo area, where much of his family continues to reside--is the author of the poetry collections “The Far Mosque” (Alice James Books, 2005) and “The Fortieth Day” (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008), the novels “Quinn’s Passage” (BlazeVox, 2004) and “The Disappearance of Seth” (Etruscan Press, 2009), and a memoir “Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities” (Wesleyan University Press, 2009).
Over the past decade, he has quietly emerged as one of the indispensable voices of our aesthetic and geo-political moment. No writer now working within the constraints of postmodern poetics is more adept at articulating a mystical, beatific spirituality equally rooted in his Islamic faith and the concreteness of the secular world.
Ali's two most recent books, "Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence" (University of Michigan Press, 2010), and "Fasting for Ramadan," a collection of writings on culture, philosophy, and spiritual practice forthcoming in April from Tupelo Press, demonstrate what a subtle and original reading he has of American popular and media culture, and the disembodiment of our personal and political lives it produces.
In "Write Something on My Wall: Body, Identity and Poetry," a tour-de-force of an essay originally published in American Poetry Review that was republished in "Orange Alert," Ali constructs a hopscotch-like non-linear narrative on the idea of interiority in language and American literature, and its seeming obverse, the commodification of the body and depersonalization of a culture that fetishizes "reality" and obliterates personal space.
He sorts through Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe, and Anne Carson, Melville and The Matrix, Paris Hilton and French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to consider the alternatives American culture seems to offer us--"mindless body" or "bodiless mind"--and proposes a third way:
Where we once thought of the mind in terms of metaphors of the body—which is to say the understanding of corpus was the grounding experience, the anima a poetical (or “astronomical”) consideration—we are now moving in the other direction, that is to say, considering the body in terms of metaphors of the mind...[We] may find our best spiritual, intellectual and emotional nourishment in the spaces between bodies and their existences, in the conflicted, confused, and vexed spaces of the oral and ecstatic, the profaned and profound, the queer and the difficult. Our very language of the intellect has assumed qualities of the body, and with perhaps our chance to become ourselves, to become human, has increased a thousandfold.
"Poetry is the smallest way – it is a small, small way, but it is a way indeed – that the individual body can express its own personhood and value in the face of faceless systems," writes Ali in another of the volume's essays. "In poetry, in community action in solidarity with the disempowered, unhomed, dehumanized, in the trust of a human expression in a human mouth, we might start moving towards a consciousness beyond the individual that is grounded in selfless action and not selfishness, greed, and acquisition...We need to construct a new value system, one that prizes the individual and human, that eschews needless desire and has a view of interconnectedness of all living things, not based on the flow of money, but based on mutual interest and yes, kindness."