Our poetry editor Grier Martin recently had these exchanges with our Issue #33 poets Hussain Ahmed, Alexis Bates, James Blevins, Moushumi Chakrabarty, Savannah Cooper, and Jessica Lee. Here’s what they had to say about their inspirations and the act of writing poetry.
Is your poem “Ice Cream and Blood” a reaction to a particular event, or the current situation in Iraq, or something else? What was your initial motivation to write this poem?
Yes, it was a reaction to the bomb blast that hit an ice cream shop in Baghdad during Ramadan sometime in May, and just within that month, there had been crises between the cattle herders and some farmers in Nigeria.
Whenever there is news posted on my social feed, after reading the content, I try to read through the comments, and in most cases I find it ridiculous how this generation justifies acts of terror because of our different religious, political, or racial views. I was motivated to write the poem after reading some of the comments.
Do you see this poem as a way to express a set of ideas, or perhaps a call to become more involved in political or humanitarian issues? What do you hope readers take away from this poem?
I believe that poetry can be political, because the activism of poets is necessary to keep the world sane. The poem is a call to get more people involved in humanitarian issues, and I think it could go a long way to ensuring that peaceful world of our dreams, free of smoke. I want the readers to know that we do not become stronger by breaking the bonds of love, irrespective of our diverse affiliations.
What do you think is the role of poetry during times of crisis?
Poetry is the cheapest means of healing; it creates the solidarity of a new human race. Poetry is a compass that can lead the mourning Sierra Leone to smile again after the mudslide, it is hope for Florida and Puerto Rico to start to rebuild, to make us believe that this storm will pass. The role of poetry during the times of crisis is to light the grieving hearts without setting them on fire.
The title of your poem “Unsolicited Advice (About That Boy)” appears to be an integral part of the poem and its message. Is this a fair assessment? How and at what point in the process of creating a piece do you decide on its title?
I really love to play with my titles. I think a lot of times they provide some context to my poems. Rarely do I have a title that just refers to a line of my poem. I usually title my work before or after the piece is written. Sometimes you realize there is just the right, most precise title for the piece. That’s what I try to achieve.
How did you feel after completing this poem? Was it a cathartic experience for you? Did you learn something about yourself? Did it ruin bananas for you? What are your thoughts about how writing a poem can affect the poet?
This was loosely based on my ex. I felt kind of crappy after writing it, actually. My last relationship was really traumatic for me, and writing this poem really tapped into that. It took a really long time to be able to write about what happened. Bananas were already gross. The ones in the poem were actually my roommate’s.
My poems are all very personal, either because they come from a personal place or because they become personal as I write them. The latter isn’t always good for me, as it tends to lead to depersonalization. I strongly believe that poems can serve as self-discovery and change how we view people and the world.
When you send a poem out into the world to be read, do you feel any trepidation? Are you afraid of being misunderstood? What advice would you give a timid poet who is worried about sharing their work?
I don’t tend to feel trepidation. I send out work that I think is at its best (for where I am at that time). If I sense that a poem has AMAZING potential for the future, I’ll sit on it until my writing gets better, and I’ll go back and revise it. I’m not afraid of being misunderstood. I’m torn between trusting my readers to understand my meaning and trusting them to come up with their own meaning.
I’m not sure what advice I have for timid poets. If they don’t want to publish their work, that’s cool. If they do, but they’re anxious, I’d suggest finding a writing buddy! I became friends with Logan February (my writing partner) when he was just getting his work out there and watching his confidence build has been such an amazing thing. It’s so important to find somebody or a lot of somebodies that will support you in your process but also be honest with you. The worst thing that will happen when you submit is that you’ll be rejected. And if you’re rejected for a piece several times, it just means that you might want to revise it! It’s a learning process.
What is the beginning of a poem for you? Is it an idea? A feeling? Something else?
For me, a poem begins with whatever string I happen to stumble on in the dregs of my frayed mind (he said like a poet). Frayed strings sticking out of my mind like matted hair on a drunkard’s skull after another rough night of no sleep (he said maybe too much like a poet). But yeah, it usually starts with an idea-like thing. Usually a word or two that seem to combine compellingly or provocatively in my mind when I’m thinking about writing and BOOM, I’m off to the races. Because I’m always thinking about writing, so it’s hardly something I have to force myself to do. To continue with my metaphor: once I grab a hold of that string (a word, a sentence, a variant thought or feeling), I pull and pull until I have enough to hold onto, then I keep pulling, following it back to wherever it goes—somewhere with light or maybe somewhere in the dark. Sometimes it’s a long and sprawling string, other times short and contained. Sometimes it’s a string rich in meaning and intent, other times I might discover that there was nothing of any value at the other end of that string, even after heaving for so long—word salad, more or less. But I always pull at them, no matter what they turn out to be. I just enjoy the act of pulling on my poetry strings, seeing where they go. It’s worth the chance. And that’s how most of my poems start.
Your poem “Helios” seems to cover a lot of ground in a small space. The reader travels from morning to night, from the past to the future, and from the speaker contemplating feelings about a female companion to his own solitude and place in history. When you set out to write this poem, did you have such an ambitious vision in mind? Did this poem evolve as you wrote it, and if so, how?
With this one, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history. So, when I was taking this social sciences class in college, I was learning about Paleolithic and Neolithic man—Homo habilis, the Chauvet Cave in France, etc.—and there was this theory about why Neanderthals might have painted on the walls of their caves that really interested me. It has been suggested by anthropologists that early man might have painted as a form of wish fulfillment: if they painted a successful hunt, then it might happen in real life—almost like a primitive form of faith. It captured my imagination to try and combine that concept with the idea of common, everyday heartbreak. To bridge the gap between cave painting as it might relate to why someone writes poetry in the first place—bridge two very different divides and make them meet in the middle in a compelling way. Also, the idea of someone’s art enduring for so long: someone’s heartbreak—someone’s wish fulfillment—lasting and being observed, dissected, and understood after so many centuries was an intoxicating concept. I’m not sure I was completely successful, but that was my ambition for the poem. And as far as evolution goes, “Helios” didn’t change too much from start to finish. I can say that it started out longer, then I whittled it down to the poem’s current length. And it seemed to work better in a smaller package: it became less exact, more open to interpretation, and it seemed that a little dose of this idea went a long way. I usually like my poems to be short and contained like this one.
Describe your writing process. How long does it normally take you to create a finished poem?
It varies. Sometimes, I write poems crazy fast, like they just come to me and I’m halfway through the race of writing a poem before I even knew I started one—all in my head. While other times, it can feel like some poems just don’t want to ever be written. The longer I’ve written poetry, the longer my process has started to take. But I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a clear sign of growth. I’ve come to be more exacting in my work: what I want from myself and what I expect from myself as a poet has become more deliberate. I’m always trying to write more sophisticated poems and push myself towards as much new and unexplored terrain as I can, which can affect how long it takes to write them, for sure. So, it varies. But I can still jam out a decent 14-line poem rather cleanly in an afternoon every once in a while—pristine from my brain with little editing. And I’ve come to find that when that happens, it’s usually a pretty good day after that.
You have stated that you write poetry as a way to explore themes of nation, identity and connection. What kinds of connections do you hope to make with your poetry? Can you remember a particular poem you read by another writer that inspired you to seek such connections yourself?
I’d like to invoke a sense of a place and its associations with my poetry. Each person has certain experiences that are linked with geographical places. These have metaphorical underpinnings and I would like to make that connection with my poetry. Naomi Shihab Nye’s work has influenced me greatly in this.
In your poem “Illegal,” you use strong natural imagery to evoke a sense of home and family, and you write about grappling with the “spirit and pull” of a landscape. How does the inclusion of landscape and nature in your poetry help you to explore themes of identity and connection?
Nature has always seemed to me to be a starting point, if you will, of a person’s journey through life. In these days of uncertainty, with people moving across fluid and unsafe borders, very little is assured. For instance, a familiar place called Home adapts and changes so that it defies neat categorization. Being an immigrant myself has prodded me to explore and venture “outside the boxes” through my writing. When I first moved to Canada, the experience of calling it Home unleashed a maelstrom of conflict within myself. Now, when I go back to India (where I was born), I’m at a loss. It’s as if I’ve forgotten the steps to a very intricate dance form, which had previously allowed me to interact naturally with the country and its people. See, there’s always this tug and pull! The grandeur of landscape and seascape in both the places I call Home has broadened my understanding of Home.
You have also written two non-fiction books for young readers. Why do you write poetry in addition to non-fiction? What roles do each genre play for you? Does poetry fulfill any special need that other forms of writing cannot, and if so, what are those needs?
I initially trained as a journalist and dealt with facts all of the time. It was dinned into us by stern professors and editors that objectivity was paramount; no whisper of bias could contaminate writing! My love of news-writing continued through the years, but increasingly, I felt I needed something more. The answer came to me when I started researching and writing books. My third book is due out next spring. Poetry is my sacred space, a form of prayer and rumination for me. Inequities I witness leave me breathless. I guess writing poetry is my form of activism. To have a reader feel a sense of connection to the themes of my poetry—belonging, exile, and loneliness—makes the struggle to write and publish worthwhile.
In your poem “Fragments,” the speaker is addressing a lost love. Did writing this poem help you to work through a particular event in your life? If so, how, and how does reading the poem affect you now?
Actually, this poem didn’t come from a specific event, so much as the sense of loss that stems from wondering how things might have been. I have a writer’s overactive imagination, and I often think about how things might have gone differently. These thoughts sometimes cut into normal or mundane life and can even be haunting. What would have happened if I had made a different choice, if I had acted or spoken differently? How far off-course would my path have gone from where I am now?
What is the first poem you remember reading that really struck you on an emotional level? What was that experience like? Did it inspire you to write your own poetry?
The first poem that really stuck with me was “Notice the Convulsed Orange Inch of Moon” by E.E. Cummings. I first came across the poem sometime in high school, and the language was at once romantic and eerie, and every line made the poem feel remarkably present and real. Up to that point, poetry had been either starkly confessional or full of elevated language and rhyme, so to read a poem that felt immediate yet still linguistically graceful changed the way I looked at poetry. It inspired me to branch out, to write more than angsty confessional poems, and to try to find unique ways to communicate the things I felt and saw.
What is inspiring you currently? Is there a new event or topic that is calling you to write about it?
More and more, my poems tend to revolve around relationships. The older I get, the more friendships change and sometimes disintegrate and fall apart, and the more relationships in general sort of evolve, whether positively or negatively. In photography, I always find people more fascinating than landscapes, and I think the same holds true for poetry as well. There are so many facets and perspectives to relationships, whether romantic or otherwise, and I love exploring them through poetry.
Your poem “My mom found my condoms” addresses an awkward family moment and hints at larger problems of communication between parents and children. Do you think poetry can help solve these kinds of problems, or is writing simply a way for poets to express themselves, without necessarily reaching a resolution with someone else?
I imagine this answer varies for every poet. For me, poetry is a means of self-expression, and within that—and perhaps most importantly—a means of self-learning. Writing poems like “My mom found my condoms” doesn’t solve the larger communication problems between my mother and me, nor our conflicting views of sex, but writing these kinds of poems teaches me something about myself.
I sat down to write “My mom found my condoms” to document the awkward memory, hoping for comedy. But while engaged in the act of writing, I realized that my embarrassment wasn’t what mattered most in the memory, so much as my fear that my mother might never have sex again; she might never find a new partner; and that I, a daughter of divorce, might be one of the only people she had to rely on. When I saw this was where the poem was leading me, I was overwhelmed; now I’m grateful. Recognizing these fears was a reminder of my inherent love for my mother, a love I hope will inspire me to be more compassionate with her in the future, despite our different beliefs. But bear in mind that I’m not about to send her this interview, either.
I admit that reading poetry about other people’s embarrassing and awkward moments often provides me with a sense of relief—I’m not the only one who goes through these things! Is this the effect you desire your poem to have? How do you hope your poetry will help or affect your readers?
I feel the same sense of relief you describe when reading about other people’s awkward moments and feel it is my duty to be similarly open and vulnerable in return, as in you tell me your embarrassing story, and I’ll tell you mine. This exchange makes me feel like a part of something, and much less alone.
“My mom found my condoms” comes from a collection I’m currently working on that is inspired by The Donna Reed Show, which I use as a lens to explore constructions of femininity and family, gender dynamics, sexuality, and mother-daughter relationships. In this collection, as in the rest of my work, I have the explicit intention of bringing taboos to the forefront, especially those associated with sexism and women’s bodies. Most of us have mothers; most of us have sex. Most mothers I know don’t want their daughters having sex, don’t allow their daughters to be sexual beings in the way that boys are (to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I think I turn to childhood and adolescent memories in my work, because that is often when sexual education (or lack thereof) and repression begin. I hope my writing will help break the silence still surrounding aspects of sex, embodiment, and shame. I hope my poetry will make readers feel less alone and inspire them to dig into their own memories, as I do, in the goal of understanding the origins of shame so that we may recognize them and move forward, freer.
Does it take you a certain length of time before you can put a difficult feeling or interaction into your poetry? Do you need distance from an event before you write about it?
Most definitely. The length of time varies based upon the severity of the feeling or interaction, but I always need some distance from the subject matter before I can write clearly about it. Of course I want to capture my initial thoughts and feelings, and I often worry that if I don’t write a poem immediately I’ll forget those crucial sensations. That’s why journaling is so important to me, as it gives me a place to record everything without the pressure of creating art. The act of recording is what I’m after, first and foremost. The craft comes later, whenever enough time has passed. If I try to start a poem and it still sounds too sentimental, I know that that particular experience needs to remain in my journal pages for a while before I can try to craft poetry from it.
Poems like “My mom found my condoms” are a little different, though, as they are inspired by more distant memories, rather than recently lived experiences. If the memory has been buried in my subconscious and decides to suddenly reveal itself, I’m usually able to dive right into drafting a poem. I strive for this immediacy as a way to thank my brain for gifting me the memory in the first place, a way of asking for more.