Artist Series, Two: Elijah Lewis

Elijah Lewis: 20 Year Old. Poet. Pakistani. Social Activist. Artist.


Listening to Elijah Lewis perform his slam poem, “In Other Words”, it’s hard to believe he’s only been doing this for a year. In fact, standing there on Beta Bridge as he pours his heart out, it’s hard to believe anything. It’s that kind of awakening performance that makes you question literally everything you know. Bone-chilling. Perspective-shifting. Eye-opening. You’re left wondering how you didn’t know about it before you knew about it.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 1.23.12 PM

But it isn’t the fact that we’re standing on one of UVA’s most iconic monuments of shared history and culture that strikes you. Or even the rhythmic whir of cars and students passing aimlessly behind you as people shuffle on their way to their lives. It’s the climax of Elijah’s poem, a still-shot with a heavy aperture, perfectly crafted and perfectly executed—ruined by the passing conversation of a group of girls exclaiming “see you later!” at the exact moment his poem settles into its stark ending. And then the trance is over. Time unfreezes. Our temporarily suspended rage hits us: of course they couldn’t have been bothered to stop. Of course they didn’t notice our two cameras perfectly poised on Elijah. Of course they couldn’t have passed silently. Of course one of them had to shout, “I’ll ask my mom!” across the bridge, because it simply couldn’t wait. It had to be said then.


I had thought my indignation stemmed from the setback; our audio was unusable, and with it, so was our film. I felt the guilt of Elijah’s exhaustion, as he gave all of himself to each stanza until there was no more left to give, and then gave some more with the next reading all the same. But it wasn’t about the footage or the sound. It was indignation at something greater. It was the fact that I saw the same triviality I resented in the passing conversation of our interrupters in my own conversations. And that the three of us could stand in the middle of a sidewalk at a busy time of day at a busy university living crazy busy lives, and no one seemed to take all that much notice of it.


I don’t have much to say about Elijah’s words. His work speaks for itself. But I’d hope that he might inspire a little bit more attention to what goes on outside our bubbles. Histories, not just Elijah’s, but all of ours, can be written over, and covered up, and made unrecognizable. But Beta Bridge wouldn’t be Beta Bridge if the concrete buried underneath the names of the new probie class weren’t also the concrete my mom painted over when she and her brothers were here in the 70s. Stories still build and deteriorate, hair still grows and is cut, traffic still ebbs and flows, and people still hurt and heal, even when we think it’s happening too slowly, or too outside our range of vision to be perceptible.

University of Virginia Beta Bridge, 1969. (RG-30/1/10.11. University of Virginia Visual History Collection. Image by Digitization Services.)


Elijah is only 20 years old. When I heard from Natalie that he’d taken a year off from school, I figured it had happened between 3rd and 4th—someone that’s as young as I am can’t be as wise as he is. His 20 years have also known more grief and hardship than mine, though. “It’s important for me that my work be genuine and honest. Whether I write about race, gender, or whatever is considered social justice, it’s always from a very personal perspective.” Often, that honesty can be painful, but it’s something Elijah says comes with the territory. “I think poetry in general comes with a responsibility of sharing the work. I write the most about abuse and domestic violence, because sharing my voice as a male survivor helps other people going through difficult times.”

As someone not all that familiar with slam poetry, I asked whether certain poems make for better slams. “Maybe not all of poetry is stereotypical ‘slam.’ But I don’t think the slam community is limited to just being loud and waving your hands or whatever the mainstream thinks slam is. Slam is a game.” And it’s not always a clean one. It’s a messy, iterative process, and unlike the deliberate, formulaic meter of a Shakespearean sonnet, it can lead to a poem entirely different than what its author expected to write. “I don’t think there’s one right way to do this. I think that’s what makes slam beautiful — it’s not some procedure requiring degrees and proper education. It’s a space open to anyone who has a story that needs to be told.”

I think from the start of middle school until the end of high school, I wanted to fit in with something. Something that wasn’t me. I think it was wanting popularity. I think it was wanting to not be made fun of for my accent or the Pakistani food I’d bring in for lunch. I think it was wanting not to have terrorist jokes made at me every school day. So, I tried not acknowledging my background and culture. The place where I came from. Where my parents grew up in and their parents before them. I never even learned Urdu, even though I was born in Pakistan and my parents speak it. But, last year I began learning Urdu. I began learning about my own culture. Learning about myself. I’d call it discovery. It was accepting that I’m Pakistani. That my skin is dark. Brown. But, I’m still American. I see a lot of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk still try to appropriate other cultures — many of them dropping the N-word and speaking slang. Or acting as if the South is their heritage and whitewashing everything about themselves. I wrote this poem as a portrayal of my acceptance. It’s weird to say that. That “I accept who I am.” However, in this country, which seems to struggle in finding common ground between wanting diversity and assimilation, sometimes immigrants like me do lose ourselves. Acceptance is only one part of that though. I try not to become numb to all the pain the news carries. Black and brown bodies being unlawfully murdered. Islamophobia. Dark skinned women fetishisized. So, I wrote this poem for me and for others in that sense.


Living in a world with as much hardship as Elijah’s seems to have could make even the most optimistic of us cynical. But despite all of the power and anger of “In Other Words”, that rage isn’t his reality. “A professor of mine told me that the key is ‘giving more love than you receive.’ I think that’s a difficult thing to do. I don’t even know if it’s achievable. But I know that if I try then I can impact others. I feel as if I’ve received a lot of love in my life and I want to be able to give that back. Doing that might make the world a better place.”


Elijah About Us Collage

Things that made us smile this week:

Watching How to Be Single in our pajamas. At the actual, very public movie theater. Breaking lent. Getting into Curry! The face swap feature on Snapchat. THIS WEATHER. Elijah Lewis.


Bailey and Natalie

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