Ghazals for Foley


Jim’s comments on my story, Ithaca Is Never Far,” from John Edgar Wideman’s workshop in the spring of 2000. I used the last lines of Jim’s comments in my ghazal. Sometimes, I am grateful for my tendency to hold onto papers that seem to have no particular use.

My second mini-essay is up now on the Kenyon Review Blog, and it’s about a new book of poems, Ghazals for Foley, commemorating the life of journalist James Foley. Jim was my friend and classmate in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. In 2014, he also became the first American journalist killed by ISIS . The book, edited by our friend, Yago S. Cura, includes the beautiful ghazal by Daniel Johnson below. You can buy Ghazals for Foley here from Hinchas Press (all proceeds to support the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation). From the essay:

Whenever I think of ghazals, I think of our former UMass professor, the late Agha Shahid Ali, who is credited with bringing the form back into usage within contemporary American poetry. The ghazal, often about love and longing, is also naturally elegiac in form. As Cura writes in the introduction to the anthology, “Using the ghazal’s form to ‘speak’ with Jim made sense to us, I guess, because of how the repetition crescendos, and because the form has addressed separation, mourning, and loss for centuries.”

Read the whole post here…

Ghazal for James Wright Foley
by Daniel Johnson 

“The idea of walking ahead on my own through the desert as if compelled by a magnet is insane.”
 -James Foley in his Syria journal

Kinetic friend, you moved like light in a mirrored room. Come home.
Raqqa. Damascus. Aleppo. Homs. You rarely took a room. Come home.

We’ll read Borges aloud–burn windfall in the pit–spark a joint.
You’d leave a parting gift, a rebel scarf or Turkish cartoon. Come home.

You crashed your Civic reading Chomsky in Chicago traffic.
Who now will shatter the day into such bright ruins? Come home.

I killed a bat in Olanna’s room, its body the size of a grape.
I laid it in the trash on eggshells like broken stones. Come home.

Roethke in his journals wrote–The cage is open. You may go.
If sunlight bleeds under your cell door, Jim, never the moon. Come home.


Pilgrimage: Some Thoughts on Thanksgiving

IMG_6428I have always been ambivalent about Thanksgiving. My family did not celebrate it in any recognizable way when I was a child. No cranberries, turkey, stuffing, pies. We ate Indian food (which we just called food) with our family friends (also Gujarati) in Rochester, as our extended family lived several hours away in California and New Jersey. Most of these family friends, I realize now, also had no other blood relatives in Rochester. They were my local cousins, my family.

We often watched movies – the one I remember most clearly is Kramer vs. Kramer—which seems like an odd film to watch at Thanksgiving, with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep divorcing. I remember the sympathetic portrayal of Dustin Hoffman’s character, and how he was also so kind to Meryl Streep’s character when she was in the courtroom and was asked if she was a good mother. Yes, he said or mouthed or nodded. I think Meryl’s character was in tears and wordless, and I think sometimes I was, too.

After my brother married my sister-in-law, we (my parents and I) either spent Thanksgiving with them in Massachusetts or in New Jersey, home of my sister-in-law’s parents. The night often ended with our watching movies, including the video of my brother and sister-in-law’s amazing wedding, twenty-three years ago.

Before her father passed away, suddenly, six years ago, my sister-in-law’s parents hosted most often—delicious South Indian food from Edison, champagne, lots of extended family, kids, football on the large screen TV in the basement. I would brace myself for venturing into Penn Station, which was completely bonkers on Thanksgiving weekend—and keep my cousin or my brother posted about when I would arrive—which train into which station—Metuchen or Metro Park or Berkeley Heights.

I was always late, looking up the NJ Transit train schedule, dragging a suitcase and a backpack of papers to grade and trying to hail a cab over to the West Side to even get to Penn Station. You could feel that crazy buzz of the East Coast—people constantly in motion on the train or I-95. Everyone jostling for space, everyone trying to get ahead, to get there faster. Those days seem far away. Another era, really.

Since I returned to Rochester and my grandmother moved in with my parents, and especially since her stroke, we do not travel as much. Also: I got married this year to someone who grew up five minutes from me. My husband’s parents live in town, too. Two nights ago we had dinner with both sets of parents, my aunt (who moved here last year), and my grandmother – at Pizza Hut (all Indians love pizza)—to celebrate a lot of fall birthdays—my mom’s, mine, R’s.

Last night, R and I had a quiet dinner at his parents’ house. We had traditional American Thanksgiving food from our local grocery store—sweet potatoes with cranberries, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing. Turkey for my father-in-law and R. My father-in-law bought shrimp for me, since I don’t eat turkey. So very different from other years.


Still of my sister-in-law and me during the ceremony, taken from the wedding video. She and my brother worked before, during, and after the wedding, helping us. An Indian wedding is no joke.

We decided to watch the wedding video that night for the first time—and realized part way through that it was our five-month anniversary. It has taken some time to process the whole experience of the wedding. We laughed and cringed at the expressions on our faces—my wide eyes, his consternation, our not knowing what was going on (no rehearsal). We drove home after, no suitcases needed.


I want to share a little of the essay I wrote for my presentation on the lyric essay at the NonfictioNOW Conference in October—because it’s also a little bit about Thanksgiving—at least about the images I grew up with.  Title of the Presentation:  “The Lyric Moment – to be both Pilgrim and Indian / to be on Pilgrimage”:

 “In Anne Carson’s essay, “Kinds of Water,” the narrator and her companion are on a pilgrimage and each journal entry ends with a meditation on what it means to be on such a journey—a sentence or two defining what a pilgrim is. Carson writes, ‘Pilgrims were people who figured things out as they walked. On the road you can think forward, you can think back, you can make a list to remember to tell those at home.’ (185)

Pilgrim is a word I sometimes wince at—cowboys, Indians, pilgrims. I am one of these three and pilgrim is not it, but when I read Carson I forgot that. I remembered, even as the word felt awkward to me, the origin of the word / world—the pilgrimage, the undertaking beyond Columbus and Thanksgiving—holidays and history I feel alienated from, not the least because I came from a place where people are also called Indians, but we were not studied in school. We did not count. We were invisible and so were the Indians we studied. Writing is about making the invisible visible. Writing is about counting—steps, images, stories. In this way, as a writer and reader, we each sail onward, solitary pilgrims. We pilgrimage. We count.”

At the time I was working on the essay, I was thinking about the relationship between walking and writing. I read the book in which the essay is contained, Anne Carson’s Plainwater, while in Noy Holland’s graduate English class, Stylistics. My friend, Jim Foley, was in the class, too. I still think of him, walking in the desert, walking in Amherst, searching and thinking, as we all were, for our stories, for who would we become. Jim was captured in Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012, so I pause too, to remember him and his lively and loving spirit. (Thank you, Rilla Askew, for reminding me of the date.) I’ve been struggling with finishing an essay about him. Persist.

While working on my presentation, I had somehow forgotten about my friend Holly Wren Spaulding’s book, Pilgrim. (Buy this book– for yourself and it’s perfect for a stocking stuffer or an easy-to-pack gift for when you are visiting friends over the holidays.)

Holly and I have spoken often about what it meant to leave the lives we had made—leaving home and place and academic perch, for the unknown—except we knew we wanted to put art / writing, a mindful approach to living and to love, at the center of it. I’ll share the title poem of Holly’s book here. Her poem, “Pilgrim,” (along with Carson’s essay) gives me a different and more nuanced sense of the word.


I’ll rewrite some lines from the poem again, for emphasis:


October is to fall


all things die back


varieties of brittle

tannic smoke


where are you from

now that you’re not

from there

~Holly Wren Spaulding

This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for family—near and far—and for the friends I grew up with in Rochester. I’m thankful for memories of watching movies on the VCR, Tootsie (we must have liked Dustin Hoffman) and Octopussy (James Bond and set in India, to boot!). I am relieved and sad I can celebrate Thanksgiving without running the gauntlet of either I-95 or Penn Station on a holiday weekend. I miss my sister-in-law’s father, a kind, quiet man. I’m grateful for friends I met as an adult—in particular today, for Jim, for Holly, and for my husband, who all walked into my life and made it better.









Remembering Jim

On September 20th, 2014, I attended and spoke at a celebration of Jim Foley’s writing and life, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Jim was the first American journalist murdered by ISIS on August 19, 2014, in the Raqqa area of Syria.  He was also my friend and former classmate. We were students in the MFA program at UMass, from 1999-2002.  It was important to me to be in Amherst that day with old friends, remembering Jim, and I am grateful to have been able to get away during the busy first month of school. I wrote up some memories of Jim, too, which I want to turn into a real essay at some point.  Right now, I’m thinking about tomorrow’s Parent Night.  I am always still amazed at how life goes on, after happy days and after awful events.  I think about Jim every day.

I’ll share what I did post on Facebook, though, which was a little bit more about that day:

Thank you, Shauna Seliy, Brian Jordan, Erin White, and Noy Holland, for organizing Saturday’s tribute to Jim at UMASS. And thank you for asking me to write something to share something about my memories of Jim. It was as hard to do as writing ever is. So much to say and how to say it, where to start, especially in front of a room full of writers. It was for Jim and so I had to try. I am honored, Brian and Shauna, that you thought to include me and asked me to read one of Jim’s articles about Syria at the event. I hesitated, not feeling up to it, and am glad that I pressed through and did it. More than anything, it was an honor to meet and hear Jim’s beautiful, amazing mother, Diane Foley. Her graciousness and presence, her heart and strength–these I will always remember.

I was heartened to hear the stories of Jim read by Erin (Erin shared her remembrance first, and then read memories of Jim sent in by Matt Basiliere, Yago S. Cura, Chris Carrier, Daniel Presnell, myself, Laura Dave). Daniel Mahoney got up and spoke from the heart after driving six hours to get to Amherst from Maine. And then to see others from that time…Lisa Olstein (who traveled from Texas), and Robert T. Hayashi, Wendy Bergoffen, Sylvia Snape, Jean Marie Ruiz, Stephen Clingman, Andrew Varnon, Sam Michel. And others who were there, just to support, Sabina Murray, Edie Meidav. Brian Jordan read Jim’s gorgeous, funny, prize-winning story, “Notes to a Fellow Educator,” Martin Espada read from Jim’s MFA thesis, Noy read some of her memories of Jim and shared some writing sent to her by John Edgar Wideman, with whom Jim had also studied.

Towards the end of the tribute, Shauna read from emails she and Jim had written back and forth to each other for years, while in different cities and countries. To hear his voice from those emails and even text messages transported us and it was a great gift for Shauna to share them. I can still hear her saying “FoleyPhoenix,” –part of his email address. Now I think of Jim as a phoenix, rising. Their deep love, their friendship, their mutual regard, and their shared commitment to writing over so many years…to writing novels, to writing anything, to encouraging and cheerleading each other–all of that came through the steady correspondence and reminded me of the special nature of the friendships we made and years we had at UMASS. I know there are so many others who wished they could be there and we were thinking of you, too. We are together in our love for Jim.

Poster of the UMASS Amherst Tribute for Jim Foley. Photo credit: Shauna Seliy

Poster of the UMASS Amherst Tribute for Jim Foley. Photo credit of poster: Shauna Seliy.  Photo credit of Jim:  Manu Brabo.