Tarfia Faizullah’s poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, Crab Orchard Review, diode, The Nashville Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, a Fulbright fellowship, and other honors.
[Grist]: Can you speak about your relationship to your own writing and the writing world at-large since you completed your MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University? Has anything changed for your process and/or outlook pre and post MFA? How important is a writers’ community for you now and how have you maintained that part of the writing life?
[Faizullah]: Three years out of college, I felt the acute absence of a writing community. Three years out of graduate school, I am as grateful to the solitariness of my writing life as I am to my writing communities. It’s always been a lonely business, but there was a particular kind of isolation that followed graduate school in which I was able – or forced – to return to the excavation that compelled me to write in the first place. It’s a different kind of immersion than graduate school provides: there are no weekly workshops to prod you into writing or revising, no thesis hours to prepare for, no intense nightly conversations about life and art. The world doesn’t care whether you write or not (and given the drafts I produce some days, it really shouldn’t!), but there’s always the possibility of enacting the world into language across the blank page. I love Roberto Bolano’s assertion that “writing of quality” is “to thrust your head into the darkness, to leap into the void, and to understand that literature is basically a dangerous calling.”
That said, I do think that community is important. While the act of writing is solitary, I get so much value from the multiple communities I’m lucky to be a part of. Kundiman, for instance, is a rich space in which I don’t have to defend or explain myself as an artist of color, even as we as a community continue to explore and rearticulate what we mean by Asian American literature. I’ve remained close with graduate school friends and faculty: wonderful poets who continue to amaze me with the depths they achieve in their poems. A few summers ago at Bread Loaf, I crossed paths with writers who are as talented as they are humble. Most days I feel like a big fraud, so I’m deeply gratified for the reassurance and the challenges being part of a community provides.
[Grist]: Of the work we’re re-publishing online, there are two aubades and a poem responding to reading Willa Cather. Can you speak to your relationship with received form(s) and the work of other writers? Why the choice to engage the poetic past? In the Cather case, why have you included the poem’s impetus in the work itself?
[Faizullah]: I rarely begin writing with a received form in mind. The shape of the poem has to begin to emerge first, and if a tendency—repetition of an image or an idea, say—starts to reveal itself, then I’ll nudge it in the direction of a form. Often, working in received form helps me to compress or be more daring: to winnow a poem down to its barest elements, or to take greater risks because there’s a scaffolding for me to hold on to. For me, self-imposed restrictions of writing in form are synonymous with the permission to break out of it as well: if the form hinders the truth the poem is trying to tell, it goes out the window.
The same is true of intertextuality, as with the Cather poem. I’ve been visiting Bangladesh with my family regularly since I was a young girl, and every time I agonize over which books to take with me for the long trip across the two oceans and back. One year, I took Song of the Lark, and I kept underlining passages that I thought were not just beautiful and poignant, but remained superimposed over my time in Bangladesh. The novel itself moves through the life of an artist as she discovers and rediscovers herself, a process not unlike how I feel each time I travel there: an unexpressed self that begins, however unwillingly, to emerge. I’m not sure it’s possible to truly articulate the impetus for a poem. As Stephen King says, “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style . . . but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”
[Grist]: Place and memory abound in much of your work. What happens for you in the process of bringing place into your poems? How do you sense personal and cultural memory working together in the process of making poems?
[Faizullah]: I’m fascinated by the way the world is a palimpsest: a landscape that is being written, rewritten, and written over. I’m drawn, too, to writers who are interested in memory and the way we live in, with, and outside it. Anthony Hecht’s wonderful poem “The Hill,” is a devastating enactment of the way memory can rise up unsummoned in the present. Russian neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria’s beautiful little books The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with a Shattered World are testament to how the complexities of memory, language, and thought can’t be confronted merely scientifically or medically. As Luria writes, “The brief account of a man’s vast memory has quite a history behind it.”
I grew up in West Texas in a Bangladeshi Muslim household in which Bangla was the primary language spoken. In the evenings, we prayed Maghrib and ate rice and lentils with our (right) hands, and in the mornings I would wake up and go to the Episcopalian private school and attend the daily chapel service. Many winter breaks, while my friends were skiing with their folks, we went to Bangladesh with suitcases heavy with gifts for our huge extended family. Each time we returned to Texas, it was impossible to convey to my friends where we had been and what it was like. Each time I went to Bangladesh, it was impossible to convey to my cousins what it was like to be an acolyte. Language has always been a way for me to try to articulate the strange & familiar wonder of both returning to Bangladesh & returning to Texas: those places that are both & neither my homelands. I think there’s such richness in the space between those worlds, even though some days I want to disavow them.
[Grist]: I’m continually awed by the way you can bring the personal into the public realm through your poems in a way that makes the emotional core accessible to a wide audience. Are you conscious of this as you write? What is it, for you, that allows a poem to open wide to the world when your work is at its most personal?
[Faizullah]: I just spilled coffee on myself, which is something personal I just brought into the public realm. In all seriousness, though, I’m not conscious of the distinctions between the personal and the public as I’m writing. I try to be as open and as vulnerable as possible to the urgency of the image, the narrative, or the lyric. It’s in revision that I begin to worry the poem into clarity & I truly start to consider audience. I try to aim for a balance between Oppen’s assertion that “All speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape” and Phillip Larkin’s idea that “poetry, like all art, is inextricably bound up with giving pleasure, and if a poet loses his pleasure-seeking audience he has lost the only audience worth having.” In other words, I hope to write poems that are, as my friend Laura Davenport says, made of equal parts shamanism and scrapbooking.
[Grist]: What historical traditions and/or writers do you find yourself aligning with as you work? How does your sense of tradition fuel you as a writer? Of course, when I say “tradition” I mean Eliot’s notion that tradition isn’t simply inherited, that it must be labored for.
[Faizullah]: One of the things I love most about literature is its richness: a vast and intricate geography of aesthetics, subject matter, style, and form. And yet we are all equally fighting for the same high stakes: the concerns of the human heart. It’s remarkable that, even with the constant onslaught of information in our digital, globalized time, I can be drawn so fully for a moment into someone else’s life through poetry, and in doing so, see my own life and the world transformed. I can appreciate Eliot’s notion that tradition must be labored for, & I hope we do earn the right to do so, because it should be hard work to simultaneously build upon the work of our predecessors, live up to them, and honor our own inner lives through language with integrity.
There are too many writers I love to name here. I love the visionary poetry in translation such as Cesar Vallejo, Anna Akhmatova, or Tomas Transtromer, as well as more contemporary American voices such as Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. There are two female poets in particular I want to mention because they have passed and I fear their powerful poems will be lost: Eleanor Ross Taylor and Lynda Hull. Jake Adam York and Vievee Francis are both writing about race and heritage in such rich and necessary ways. I love, too, so much of the new work by emerging writers of color: Dilruba Ahmed, Joseph Legaspi, and Tamiko Beyer, to name a few. And always I am indebted to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, who gave me poetry before I knew to give it to myself.
[Grist]: Thank you, so much, for allowing us to reprint some of your poems online and for the new work, which is available in issue 5. What sorts of projects are you working on now? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
[Faizullah]: Thank you for having me! For the past few years, I’ve been working off and on two manuscripts and a collection of lyric essays. One of them, Seam, rotates around a sequence of poems about the birangona, or war heroine: Bangladeshi women raped or taken as sex slaves by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. While I was in Bangladesh on a Fulbright fellowship for nine months last year, I was fortunate to personally speak to many of the women who suffered this horrible fate, and many of the poems stem from that experience. The second, Ramadan Nocturne, I just returned to after many months of distance, and I’ve been surprised and excited by the new ways in which I’ve been entering those poems. I’m increasingly interested in hybrid or cross-genre forms, and there’s a certain expansiveness in the lyric essay that I find thrilling and liberating. I’ve also begun work on translating the work of Kazi Nazrul Islam, an early 20th century activist Bengali poet.