An Interview with Featured Poet Mandy Shunnarah
By Poetry Editor Jonah Meyer
The poems are everywhere. I just try to be observant so I’ll notice them when they come knocking and can write them down before they go off to somewhere else.
What was it like growing up in Alabama as you did, a member of the Palestinian-American community? How would you describe the ways in which your early life shaped your general worldview? How would you say it has helped shape your voice, style, and focus as a poet?
Growing up Palestinian in Alabama was interesting, to say the least! Alabama is in the Bible Belt, so evangelical Christianity heavily influences a sizable portion of Southern culture. It was endlessly fascinating to me how people would try to convert us, not realizing we were already Christian and we’re from where Jesus was from. And while there’s a thriving community of Levantine folks around the Birmingham metro area, when I’d talk to people outside of the community they’d often say some version of, “I didn’t know there were Arabs in Alabama!”
I think that’s both a function of how “well” Levantine folks in the area assimilated to avoid xenophobia and my family’s appearance. Colorism is unfortunately rampant in Arab communities and everyone in my family is white-passing. For my dad, his siblings, and their kids, people outside the community didn’t know we were Palestinian unless we told them. My sedo and teta (grandfather and grandmother in Arabic) didn’t teach any of us Arabic because they didn’t want us to have accents and be discriminated against.
So I grew up knowing my family was different, but not fully understanding why. Even as a kid without the vocabulary to articulate it as such, I felt like I occupied this liminal space between “other” and “not-other.” I’ve never had anyone discriminate against me for the color of my skin or my religion like a lot of Arab folks in the U.S. have, but I’ve had people say racist things to my face—especially in the years following 9/11—not realizing what they were saying was about me, my family, and my people.
These experiences have made me cognizant that people are infinitely more nuanced and complex than they may appear. I’m a journalist by trade, so I’m constantly listening and observing, asking questions, and seeking the real story beneath the assumed story. That’s why I enjoy writing poems like “mary” and “the great falastini” in particular—they’re both taking narratives most people have heard before and think they understand, then upending them.
Poetry has a long and storied history in the Arab world, so even though my poems are often irreverent and might offend many an auntie, I’m grateful to have this poetic tradition in my DNA.
What are you currently reading? Who are some writers (of any genre) whose work you have especially enjoyed over the years? Could you name your current top two or three? Why them?
I typically read 100-150 books per year and I believe there’s merit in every genre, so my reading tastes vary widely.
I recently enjoyed Unceded Land by Issam Zineh (Trio House Press), another Palestinian-American poet. The title alone is a work of brilliance because although Palestinians are indigenous to the land that is historic Palestine and we’ve been systematically murdered for our land and forced into the diaspora, I and other Palestinian writers have submitted to magazines whose editors called for work from Indigenous writers only to be told that—to them—we are not Indigenous. The term “unceded land” is often used to discuss indigeneity in North America, so I appreciated the usage in the context of Palestinians and that current of unceded land runs throughout the collection.
I’m currently reading You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith, because poets tend to write the best memoirs.
What do you envision to be the primary role of the creative writer—the poet, in particular—in our society? How do you see yourself fitting into that equation? What is it exactly you aim to accomplish with the poems you create?
Being a freelance journalist for more than a decade has informed my creative writing in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. In journalism, your job is to be a clear communicator who’s able to distill complex issues into easily understandable articles that hold the reader’s attention. That’s informed my poetry because I strive to communicate clearly even in this creative medium that offers a lot of forgiveness for ambiguity and artistic flourishes.
I don’t think my poems need to resonate with everyone or even be understood on a deep emotional level by every reader, but I never want someone to read a poem of mine and wonder what it was about. It’s not a matter of not respecting my reader’s intelligence, but I think artistry and accessibility can—and should—cohabitate. I think my work as a creative writer, particularly in my poetry, is to encourage people to see things from a different perspective and I can only do that if I communicate as clearly as possible.
Please share with us a few unique or interesting things about yourself, which don’t even necessarily have anything to do with poetry.
In no particular order …
- I roller skate at skateparks. I’m not very good, but it’s fun and I’m addicted to the adrenaline rush!
- My favorite restaurant is Waffle House and I go so often that waitresses at multiple locations across the city have my order memorized. (Double hashbrowns, triple smothered, triple covered.) I’ve been featured on the official Waffle House Instagram and have a handwritten note from the CEO.
- I collect typewriters. I’m up to 14 now, which feels like a lot for my small house. My favorite is my 1962 Smith Corona Sterling in sea-foam green.
- I have eight cats: Pancake, JK Meowling (named in 2014 before we knew her namesake was a TERF but she’s so old now she won’t answer to anything else), Donny, TinyCat (who’s 18 pounds now), Captain (with three legs), Gerard Stray (fingers crossed Gerard Way doesn’t disappoint me years from now too!), Sassy, and Pepita. They’re my constant companions.
- I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian funerary practices and cemetery symbolism. Many years ago I volunteered as a tour guide at a historic cemetery for a fundraiser as a favor to a friend, and got obsessed.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
That I’m still doing this work. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was five, but as anyone who’s in it knows, this industry is rife with rejection, low pay, and fierce competition. Not to mention the confusion of navigating the writing world since there’s no one prescribed path to success. (And what counts as “success” anyway? What does that even mean, much less look like?) There have been many times I wanted to quit and took time off from writing that I thought would be permanent.
In particular, there was a period in 2017 when I was getting multiple rejections a day and I knew something was wrong with my work but I didn’t know how to fix it. (Turns out I needed to spend more time in therapy and honing my craft so when I figured out what it was I wanted to say, I’d actually be in a good enough mental place to say it.) At the time, I was convinced I had my shit figured out and I didn’t understand why editors felt differently.
I was seriously considering giving up writing when I ran into Hanif Abdurraqib at Two Dollar Radio Headquarters and he asked how my writing was going. I was taken aback because, although I’d interviewed him for a literary journal, I hadn’t published much creative writing myself at the time, so I didn’t realize he even knew I wrote creatively. I’ve admired his work (and who he is as a person) for a long time, and having someone I respect so much ask about my work—really see me as a fellow creative—shook me. I went home that night and cried it out. I said to myself, I can’t give up writing now. If Hanif fucking Abdurraqib is going to ask me how my writing is going, I better be prepared to give him an update! I couldn’t stand the thought of disappointing someone I think so highly of, so shout out to Hanif for giving me the kindest, most compassionate kick in the ass.
Please tell us about your upcoming book, Midwest Shreds: Skating Through America’s Heartland. I have read you are involved in skating and skate culture. How did you become interested in the sport? What is it about skating that you enjoy?
I was a latchkey kid in the early 2000s, so I’d ride the school bus home and immediately turn on MTV. After TRL, I ended up watching a lot of Viva La Bam and Jackass. I didn’t care for their ridiculous (and many times patently offensive) pranks, but I was fascinated by the skateboarding at skateparks. Skateparks weren’t accessible to me growing up (Birmingham didn’t have one until very recently) so it was never something I was able to do as a kid.
I tried street skating, but after saving up my hard-earned allowance and buying a Wal-Mart board, I took it out for the first time, fell going down a hill, and the skateboard rolled into the gutter, never to be seen again. I figured I’d have better luck with wheels attached to my feet, so I started going to the local roller rink. I loved skating there but eventually stopped going because I got made fun of. It wasn’t really seen as a place that older teens or adults went—more like a place for children’s birthday parties.
Years later, I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and noticed there are little skateparks in so many neighborhoods. Around that time, I stumbled across a video on Instagram of someone roller skating at a skatepark—merging my two interests, but something I’d never actually seen anyone do before—so I decided to give it a try and got addicted. I love the adrenaline rush, the constant challenge of learning new tricks, and the people—skaters tend to be excellent humans.
Since I love reading, anytime I get obsessed with something I want to read about it. But all the books I found on skating were either skateboard-centric, focused on the West Coast, detailed skatepark architecture, or were coffee table books of photos. I couldn’t find anything about skating in the Midwest, though based on how many skateparks there are here, I knew there was a thriving skate culture.
I’ve heard it said if there’s a book you want to read that doesn’t exist, you have to write it, so I took that advice literally. I got laid off during the pandemic, so I took five weeks to travel around the Midwest interviewing skaters (hobbyists and pros), skate manufacturers, skate product makers, skate shop owners, and skatepark owners. The resulting book, Midwest Shreds: Skating Through America’s Heartland, is part travelog, part cultural history, and part memoir. Because the sport is a microcosm of the region and, arguably, the country at large, it covers how sexism, racism, poverty, anarchism, entrepreneurship, and more all intersect in the community—all with the undercurrent of that good old DIY Midwestern ethos.
I am equally intrigued to read that you are working on a memoir about your “half-Southern redneck, half-Palestinian family.” Please do share!
Usually, when I tell folks I’m a Palestinian person from Alabama, they’re like, “Wait, what?” You can tell they’re having a “this does not compute” moment and are trying to recalculate what they know about both Palestinians and the South, in real time. But because I grew up in it, I see a ton of similarities between the two cultures. Although the different sides of my family warred at times (my parents got divorced when I was three), they seem more alike than not when you look closely.
I started writing essays about life straddling this line and how I often feel “not Palestinian enough” or “not Appalachian/redneck enough,” depending on whose company I’m in. Meanwhile, by nature of my existence and, as such, the way I move through the world, I’m constantly blending the two. The essays range from funny pieces about stuffing grape leaves with mac and cheese and barbeque chicken to investigating similar linguistic colloquialisms (I mean, “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” and “mashallah” are pretty much the same), to more serious pieces about each half of my family trying to excise the other’s influence out of me.
While there’s trauma in it, I’m very consciously not writing a “trauma memoir.” I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because being a redneck Palestinian has at times been difficult. I want people to see the beauty in my existence as well and the joyful experiences that could have only been possible by being the person I am, living in this body, born into the cultures I was born into.
Between also working on Midwest Shreds and an unnamed poetry collection of which the poems published in Mud Season will be a part (thank you!), it’s taking a while to finish. But I think when it’s done it’ll be my best work yet. Stay tuned.
Describe for us your process of composing poems. Do you tend to have a particular routine? Do you go through many revisions? What, for you, sparks a poem?
I wish I had a routine! My poems always seem to catch me off-guard. Inspiration will come from a news article I’m reading, a walk in the woods, a conversation with a friend, a random memory that pops up, a found object, a weed edible, the window of space between not-awake and not-asleep, and and and … The poems are everywhere. I just try to be observant so I’ll notice them when they come knocking and can write them down before they go off to somewhere else. I really do believe that if you don’t write down ideas as they come you’re training your creativity to stop feeding you, so even if I have to stop in the middle of a hike or get up from a dead sleep to write, I do it.
Though I’ve been writing creatively for a long time now and took poetry workshop classes in undergrad, I still couldn’t tell you what makes an “objectively” good poem (if such a thing even exists). I can only tell you whether I like it or not, so I edit my work until I like it (which can take a while!), then I send it to some trusted poet friends for brutally honest feedback. Without fail, their insights make the poem infinitely better. It’s an exercise in humility because it goes to show that just because I like something doesn’t mean other people find it good or without fault.
What words immediately come to mind when you consider your own personal thoughts on what makes for a great poem—or any piece of creative writing?
For me, it’s two: insight and authenticity. When I read a poem, I’m looking to either see something anew or be seen and know I’m not alone. The best poems are the ones that allow me to do both and that comes down to the insight the writer is sharing and how authentically they’re sharing their interiority.
This will vary from reader to reader because I’ve read some poems that didn’t really strike me, yet others have loved enough to tattoo on their bodies. Meanwhile, I’ve read the same poem for weeks on end that nobody else I know seems to care about. What’s insight to one person is old news to another; what’s authentic to one reader is tired and trite to someone else. I think the judge of insight and authenticity has to first be with the poet. You have to feel like you’re authentically offering an insight that allows the poem to make people see themselves or the world around them differently.