Poetry and the Avant-Morte — Workshop with Farnoosh Fathi

In her 2015 introduction to an artist talk by Mel Chin, the poet Genine Lentine writes:

“In trying to pinpoint the essential quality of the writing I keep close at hand, I recently coined the term ‘avant morte.’ I reserve this term for writers who inhabit life with such astonishing courage, resilience, tenderness—and aplomb—it seems they’ve already come through death. To read their work is to learn what it takes to live. Work that is so adventuresome that it folds its fear of death into its unstinting advocacy for life, life as we know, and don’t yet, know it.”

How is adventuresomeness in writing a coming-through death, into life? What does the language of your greatest freedom look like? In this class we will focus on our process in writing as “avant-morte”— in what ways poems are death-forward–and through the modes of attention, play and prayer, inhabit a more flexible posture toward our life as we know, and don’t yet know it. We will create, combine and consider our own attention, with the goal of seeing how an effortless effort, a surrendering curiosity, rather than forced determination toward a particular outcome, is both avant-morte and the real work of writing.

Each class will function as an extended meditation, drawing activities from teachings by Sister Corita Kent and Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, J. Krishnamurti, to name a few; we will also experiment with avant-morte spiritual and cultural practices such as the memento mori and the Buddhist five remembrances. Our readings will range in poetry and prose from gnostic riddles to poems by Taoist adepts and medieval mystics, as well as selections from Celan’s Breathturn to Timestead, Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva; Joan Murray’s Drafts, Fragments and Poems; Henri Michaux’s asemic writing; Rilke’s Duino Elegies; Galway Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares; and Sister Wendy Beckett’s meditations on art and prayer.

Farnoosh Fathi

Farnoosh Fathi is the author of Great Guns (Canarium, 2013), editor of Joan Murray: Drafts, Fragments, and Poems (NYRB Poets, 2017) and founder of the Young Artists Language and Devotion Alliance (YALDA). She lives and teaches in New York City, most recently at The Poetry Project, Poets House and Columbia University.