“After 17 years in Seattle, it's become obvious that I can't hike, I can't bike, and I can't ski. So I'm getting the fuck out,” Seattle poet Maged Zaher joked at his last Seattle-area reading before moving to Atlanta early next year. Zaher was reading at Arundel Books in Pioneer Square to celebrate the upcoming release of his book Opting Out: Collected Poems (2000-2015) from Chatwin Books.
Opting Out isn’t technically being published until February of 2017, but Chatwin publisher Phil Bevis rushed a few paperback and hardcover editions into print for the occasion. In his introduction, Bevis tried and failed to recall when he first met Zaher (the consensus was somewhere between 2000 and 2004,) and he praised the poet for his “Passion and heart and warmth and razor blades.”
Zaher, unsurprisingly, was in an introspective mood. He recalled his first readings in Seattle, at the Coffee Messiah-based reading series hosted by Spankstra Press publisher Chris Dusterhoff. Zaher praised Dusterhoff for being his very first publisher, and for taking him seriously when it seemed nobody else would. One of the poems Zaher read was a tribute to late Seattle poet Harvey Goldner, the Bard of Belltown who was known for his hilarious and plain-spoken poems. (Goldner used to criticize Zaher’s driving as Zaher was ferrying him around town, and Zaher recalled Goldner yelling at him about craft, too, occasionally bellowing “Poetry is not music!" at Zaher when his poems got a little too highfalutin for Goldner’s tastes.)
Zaher is moving to Atlanta for family reasons, but you get the sense that Seattle will haunt his work for years to come. “You don't know if you belong to a city unless you love and hate it,” he told the audience, “and I love and hate Seattle. It's the same with Cairo,” Zaher explained — his poems divide their attentions between Egypt and Washington — “but Seattle snuck up on me” in a way Cairo never could. “After 17 years in Seattle, I’ve grown much more polite,” Zaher announced before reading a horny earlier poem from the book. “This poem is from before Seattle disciplined me.”
Another poem found Zaher on the east coast, staring west. And the poem could just as easily be describing our current political situation:
…it is 4:43 hereWhich means it is 1:43 in Seattle
”And I text you “the world is fine”
Then I feel bad for saying so
The world is fucked
Yet you are alive
And I might be too
A poet is more than a place. Zaher is a poet of two places, and he’s about to add a third. But hearing the pieces he wrote, and watching the way he hugged and praised and celebrated the dozens of Seattleites who came to see him say goodbye, it’s clear that Zaher is not going to give up on Seattle, and that Seattle won’t give up on him, either.