“We are screaming ourselves out in rage as a species.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
You were globetrotting all over the place and got back a few weeks ago, right?
I did. I just got back.
And you went to India and Palestine?
Yes, I went to the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. It was my third trip there. I've actually traveled around the region a lot. The first time I went was in 2011 and I was in both Israel and the Palestinian territories for much longer. That was more of a research trip. I was learning about the political conflict and about the activists, citizens from both Palestine and Israel, committed to non-violent solutions. I’m a yoga teacher in addition to being a writer, so a friend took me to a yoga studio while I was in Ramallah. When the teachers there found out that I was a yoga teacher, they invited me to teach some classes, and I kind of took over a full slate of yoga classes during my stay. They had been planning on doing teacher training, but the teachers were all women and the trainees were women who preferred to be in single-gender environments. So last year I did a teacher training for men. I went back this year to do the same thing, but this time they advertised it as a mixed training to see if there were people that would participate. We had four men and four women do the training.
To my knowledge it was the first mixed gender yoga teacher training in the Palestinian territories.
And you were in the West Bank for a month, is that right?
I was there for two weeks this time. Last time I was there for longer and I was also in Tel Aviv. And the time before that I was all over. I was in Jerusalem, I was in Galilee. This time I was just there for the training and then I went on to India. I'm struggling at the moment to write a book about teaching yoga in a Muslim country as a gay man. Read in a certain fashion, the Palestinian body—especially a Palestinian male body—is a “queer” body. This book will kind of be the follow-up to my previous book, Fasting for Ramadan, which is about yoga and spiritual practices.
Oh, interesting. Your family is from India, right?
My family is Indian and I have relatives there, so I’ve traveled there a fair amount. But this last time I went because I had a book of poetry come out in India. It’s called All One's Blue: New and Selected Poems and it's my first book in India. So I was traveling around, doing readings and going to the literary festivals. And then there’s a town in the south that I go to just to get sun and ocean and yoga, so I went there as well. I stayed with my family for a while, which was a jarring experience. My partner, Marco Wilkinson, and I also spent a stint at the Navdanya Institute, Vandana Shiva’s research farm in Uttarakhand near the Himalaya foothills.
What was the reception like? I don’t know anything about what a book release in India looks like.
It’s much more of a big deal there. It’s very formal. They put a garland on you and bring your book to you all wrapped up in expensive paper and then you and the publisher are supposed to unwrap it together. It was really nice to go there and do the reading but I don’t necessarily—the audiences are much bigger there. I was reading to groups of eighty or one hundred people and it was kind of overwhelming because I'm used to reading to fifteen or twenty people in the States. But it’s a pleasure to hear the poetry there. Being a part of the international reading community was really special. In India I have been recognized in public. Once in the airport of Trivandrum, another time in a gay club in Bangalore—on the dance floor, no less—once in a book store. My book has been reviewed in four or five national newspapers in India. It’s just a different literary culture there; the literary festivals will get the front page of the newspaper's culture section. The mayor of the city will go to the opening reception.
Wow. I imagine that was kind of cool to see everything published in that way. Were you involved with the selection of what made it?
I did it all. I did the selection for it and it was quite challenging. We decided it would be a slim selection with about ten to fifteen pages from each book. It was hard to figure out whether I should do thematic groups, or a real “greatest hits” approach. I followed the advice I was given sixteen years ago by Marie Ponsot. When I asked her how she chose the poems for her new and selected volume, she told me that she chose one poem for each year she was writing and figured that that ought to be a good enough representation of her work. I’ve been talking with my publisher here in the U.S. about doing a new and selected, but it’s probably not for a few more years because I have a new book under consideration. We’ll see.
My earlier books are available in India, but they are very expensive. With All One's Blue, I wanted to give a broad selection, but I also wanted to give some new poems for the Indian audience only, poems that were not available here in the States. It also secretly pleased me to think that some American readers might have to order bootleg copies of the book from India, or have it shipped all the way from India. I like that because that is what my Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan readers have always had to do. So in addition to the selections from my published books, I included poems that preceded my first book, poems from the book I currently have under submission, new poems that won’t be out in book form in the States for a long time, two short lyric essays, and six translations of Pakistani poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Faraz. I doubt I will republish the early poems or the translations in any book in the States. I want All One's Blue to have its own integrity, to have its own contents that aren't going to just reappear.
Buying books from American publishers is prohibitively expensive in India, isn’t it?
It’s very expensive because the exchange is priced up. Books in India cost 300 rupees, which is like four dollars, but an eighteen dollar book from the States converted into rupees is very expensive. It ends up costing six or seven times more.
And you’re writing at this high level across all these different genres. You’ve got two novels and a book of short stories coming out, right?
In the fall. Uncle Sharif's Life in Music is my first book of short stories, and that’s not a genre that I know a lot about.
You've written a fair amount of prose, though. In Resident Alien you’ve got that great tiny essay where you're talking about the poetics of God, "In this same fashion, the mosque in which Muslims worship is empty, God Himself has no actual name. I am not sure you can say the thing itself but can only illuminate the search for it, tell the story of a process toward understanding." And I love that. I think about that all the time. I also like the title of the essay, “Poetics of G—d,” which is something Fanny Howe does in her writing—not actually spelling out "God.” I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a direct nod.
Yeah, yeah. She does it with "God" and she also does it with the words “dead” and “death,” which she writes as “d—d” and “d—th.” Her own nod is to the Jewish tradition of not writing the name of God. I myself used three versions of that word, “God,” “god,” and “G-d” in my book, Bright Felon, and had to really wrangle with the poor copyeditor about it.
Totally, totally. I really love Fanny Howe.
She’s so wonderful.
She’s incredible. I feel like a lot of your work is in conversation with her. There’s even a poem explicitly for her in Sky Ward.
Oh yeah. "The Vineyard." You know The Vineyard is the name of one of her books?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
She lived on Martha’s Vineyard for many years. I went to stay with her there and that’s when I wrote the poem.
I started reading her poetry when I lived in New York City. I was just thinking about this recently—I went to NYU to study with Phil Levine and Sharon Olds, and when I arrived in New York I was completely overwhelmed by the city and by the Lower East Side arts scene. I was practicing a lot of yoga and I was studying dance at the time and I was going to all these dance performances. I started to learn a lot about interdisciplinary approaches to poetry that people were doing—a poem that has choreography, or a poem as a piece of music—and I started to think about sense and senselessness and the art of the poem itself. About language as a medium for something larger and more gestural.
So a friend of mine was talking about how he didn't like Jorie Graham’s book Swarm and I asked him to give me his copy. It was hard to get a book of poetry at that time. We were all really broke. So anyways he gave me his copy of Swarm and I was like, "Oh my god, this is what I think poetry is." It was a real powerful hinge moment for me. That book struck me so much that I backtracked through every person she mentioned in the notes and read their books.
This is how I was introduced to the work of Susan Howe, Anne Carson, Michael Palmer, and Donald Revell. This was a real turning point for me in terms of what I thought poetry could do and I what I wanted to do as a poet. So I was talking to my friend Jeffrey Yang—who is now the editor of New Directions, but at the time we were just young little graduate students—and I was talking to him about Michael Palmer, and he said, "If you like Michael Palmer, you should read Fanny Howe." I asked “Is she related to Susan Howe?” He was like, “Um, yes.”
That was when I first encountered her work. Her poems are incredible. They're these sorts of small fractured things. They are serial. They build on one another. They are epiphanic, in a way, but with a light touch, you know? They don’t really discover anything permanently. They have daily concerns in them. All of them are informed by an experimental poetic, so I was just sold on her. She’s been one of the most important poets to me.
Fanny had this whole other career as a novelist. Almost 20 novels. I started to read her prose and it was very voluminous. Really beautiful stuff. All of her work is super important to me. When Jennifer Chapis and I founded Nightboat, I actually had the specific intention of re-publishing and reprinting Fanny’s fiction, because it was all out of print. Our first publication was a reprint of her book The Lives of a Spirit.
Yeah, I have that! I have your version of it.
Yeah, so then we just kept going after that. Her books were our first two books. I want to do another book of hers.
It’s cool to hear you be so excited about someone else.
Oh yeah. We founded Nightboat because we wanted to support writing that we were excited about. We wanted to publish our own work, but we wanted to do something that was going to help other people, you know?
Totally, totally. And it’s a major press in poetry. You still edit for them, right?
Yeah, I do. There's three of us at Nightboat right now. Stephen Motika is our publisher, and Lindsey Boldt is our Managing Editor. I’m in a smaller role with the press, but I’m still selecting and editing.
It seems like you’ve got so many plates spinning. How do you maintain the discipline and the organization to balance editing and teaching and writing essays, poems, and novels?
It’s funny to hear you say two words that I don’t apply to myself: discipline and organization. I mean, I’m a mess. I’m a real mess. I can’t hold things in my head, and I have deadlines that I miss, and I have projects that go nowhere, and I have projects that hang out at the margins forever and then come back. It just is what it is. I love working on projects, though. I love being in the middle of a writing. In a blur in 2003, I wrote this weird hybrid novel in the form of a string quartet—with muscial lines and everything—and nobody would publish it. After a long time I just stopped trying with it. Then two years ago I was in California doing an event for Kaya Press, which is a press devoted to publishing experimental literature by Asian-American writers. I was talking to my friend Neela Banerjee, who had just become an editor at Kaya Press, and she was like, "I’m looking for projects, do you have anything?" So I showed her the book and it's being published next year.
So what, fourteen years after?
Fourteen years after I wrote it.
And twelve years after I put it in the drawer and stopped looking at it. I don’t know. Am I prolific? I’m not sure. I am persistent. Or maybe it's that I have no standards! It’s something different than being prolific because it’s very difficult. Every book I’ve published has taken me such a long time and I’m so unsure about all of them. There has never been a book where I’ve been like, "I did the best I could with this one, it’s going out there, it’s going to be great." I’ve always felt doubts, but I learned to just get the stuff out there. Just keep publishing what you’re writing. Write it, publish it, write it, publish it—no one else is going to judge it, you’re not going to judge it. The only time that I’ve felt kind of strongly that the book I made was what I needed it to be was when I wrote Bright Felon. But with every other book, I always think, "Is this the best that I could do? I call myself a poet, this is not acceptable." But then I just punt it, get it out the door. For me, publishing a work opens up new space for a new work. I don’t want you to think I am cavalier. I mean, I really agonize over these collections of poetry. Nearly every single one of them used to be two separate books that crashed together and made a single volume. When younger poets tell me about the stacks of poetry collections they have that they are trying to get published, the old curmudgeon inside me thinks, “Oh yeah, you probably have one really solid book in those three or four different collections you are marketing around.”
So you spare yourself the publication anxiety, which doesn’t have to do with the thrill of the process of understanding, it’s just the sort of ephemerae that follows it. But what do you think it was about Bright Felon?
I knew what I wanted to do and I was not writing to get it published. I was writing it as a process for myself. I invented a form where each chapter was a city that I lived in, and each chapter was going to be no shorter than five typed pages, and each chapter would be written in one sitting.
I did the initial draft at the very end of November and I finished it at the beginning of February. So I basically wrote the draft of that book in two months. It was obviously refined after that, but I didn’t add very much. I mostly edited back. I actually say this in the book itself, but it was more like the book was a sculpture. It was a sculpture in language. It was an object. I was working on a physical thing, you know?
I love thinking about that.
Even when I finished the original draft, I knew I had the shape of something. I understood it. And that’s never been true of any other book. I sent it out and the place accepted it right away. I balked. A little later I sent it out again to a bigger place, they accepted it, and I balked again. Prageeta Sharma scolded me, she said, "Why don’t you just put this out there?" I said, "No, it’s too personal. She said, "It’s your work, it’s your life." But she also said, "Don’t publish it with too small of a place. You're a poet, you should publish as big as you can because every place is going to be small compared to everyone else." So I sent it to Wesleyan. They took it, and I panicked. I was reading a book by Joshua Marie Wilkinson that I liked very much, so I wrote to him and begged him to read the manuscript. He was so generous. He read it and marked edits on almost every single line.
Does that feeling remain now? Do you feel that book was your most successful? I don’t mean critically or commercially.
I don’t want to compare it. You don’t want your new books to feel badly. But yes, that's the one that keeps selling and getting assigned in courses. It was a finalist for a number of different prizes. I still get emails and Facebook messages from people around the world, including queer people in Muslim countries, about that book. It was quickly pirated onto a dozen different e-book sites and I never cared.
I never asked my publisher to act, I just want it out there for whoever needs it. Thank god my publisher Suzanna Tamminen really understands issues of open access when it comes to academic and creative work. She’s been very supportive. I do think that’s probably the book that has found the biggest readership for sure. I’m going to admit something unattractive, but I do get a little defensive about the genre of lyric prose, or the poetic memoir, and when people talk about this genre, they talk about writers I really admire like Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Ronaldo Wilson, and Bhanu Kapil, but they don’t include Bright Felon.
That’s interesting, yeah.
I feel like my back gets up a little bit because that’s what that book is, you know? People call it poetry, it’s actually published as a book of poetry, but to me it’s a memoir, it’s an autobiography. Genre is used as a way to circumscribe a book, define its intentions, define its audience. That book is the story of my life as a Queer Muslim as clearly and as accessibly as I could tell it. Its form feels confused, and deranging, and defamiliarizing because those were precisely the conditions of my life. I had no experimental aesthetic to develop or prove in the writing of that book—it is autobiographically mimetic.
It’s interesting how something will take a sort of organic form that feels like the only form that it can live in, but then the sort of taxonomization plays such a huge part in its life outside of the actual act of writing.
It is a huge question I get from younger writers when I travel. People seem to want permission to approach fiction, to approach the essay, to approach an autobiography, to try a book which mixes forms or genres. One of my books, Fasting for Ramadan, is a diary, another one, Wind Instrument is a transcription of a spiral notebook. I’d love to publish a book of letters one day.
I have ambition. Poets talk about ambition a lot. I don’t have ambition for myself as a writer. I swear it, I don’t care at all if I just work away without recognition; in fact, I think that might be better. But I do have ambition for these books.
Totally! And that’s something that you explore even in Sky Ward, where you’ve got the poems about the Bright Felon screenplay.
Yeah, the movie version. And who doesn’t think about their book of poems as a screenplay in their heart of hearts?
Who would play you?
In that poem, you have the line, "the role of "Kazim" will be played by a figure of stone," which is gorgeous. It’s also tongue-in-cheek and funny.
Well, it’s sort of heartbreaking. You laugh to keep from crying. It’s a disaster.
Yeah, and the whole—
Our lives are just unfolding disasters where once in a while nice things happen.
Hah. The whole book is circling around the myth of Icarus, but there’s this twist in your version where Icarus survives at the end—
Spoiler alert. Hello, spoiler alert.
Oh, I’m sorry!
No, I’m just teasing. You’re right. The whole book is built around Icarus, but the first half of the book has all the Icarus poems in them, and then at the middle of the book we leave Icarus floating in the water. Originally, the myths went all the way through, and then the short little proem that begins the whole book, even before section one, that was the last poem in the book.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And Icarus didn’t survive. I mean we left him in the middle of the ocean, and then the last poem of the book was a flashback of him hitting the water. And so there’s no indication that he survived. I was having a really hard time finishing the book. It had already been accepted by Wesleyan, and I had a deadline for the final manuscript. At the time I was teaching at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, where I taught for seven years or something. I was reading from the book and explaining to the audience that it wasn't done and that I didn't know how to finish it. The poet Annie Finch, who was the director of Stonecoast, said to me, "You can’t finish the book because your Icarus dies at the end. But you are still alive."
And then this writer, Matt Switliski, came up to me at the end and said, "I know how your book should end. You should have Icarus falling toward the water and seeing all the feathers from his wings fluttering away, and glowing in the sunlight."
And I was thinking, "Oh my god, Icarus survived." If I’m Icarus, then I want to live, and I want to write the ending that’s actually true. Soon after that, I went to teach at Squaw Valley. The whole gimmick of Squaw Valley is that you stay for a week and you don’t bring any work with you. You write a new poem every night and the next day you workshop the poem.
I love that.
And the staff poets also have to write a new poem every day. So when I was there I wrote four new Icarus poems.
And those were the poems where he lives. There’s one called "The Argument," there’s one called "Confession," there’s one called "Hymn," which is now the last poem in the book, and then there was another one that I inserted a little earlier. That’s when I rearranged the whole book and decided that the midpoint of the book was going to be that old cliffhanger where he's floating in the middle of the ocean.
And then you think he’s dead and gone as you’re reading the rest of the book. There’s all these other poems about all these other things, and then at the end of the book he reappears and explains, "P.S. I’ve been alive this whole time." That’s the old soap opera move—where someone you thought was long dead suddenly reappears. Then I took that last poem, the poem that was the ending, and I put it as the proem to start everything off with.
I love that how-the-sausage-is-made sort of thing. That’s fascinating. It’s a brilliant collection. So you said you have a book of short stories in the pipes coming out this fall, with who?
It’s Sibling Rivalry.
Oh, wonderful! I’ve got a chapbook coming out with them. Not that that’s germaine but—
Bryan Borland mentioned that to me!
Oh, that’s awesome.
So, we’ll be press mates!
Yeah, that makes me feel really really glad. They are so wonderful.
They are. I love them and I love doing my fiction. People have asked me if I've tried to find an agent, but I just like doing my fiction with independent presses. I don’t want any pressure. You know what I mean?
And he’s a great editor and it’s a great outfit. They're publishing amazing people and it's really cool to be a part of that. If my book can help to support other books, that would be so wonderful.
Yeah, absolutely. What else are you working on?
Well, I have a big year coming up. In addition to the collection of short stories that Sibling Rivalry is doing, called Uncle Sharif's Life in Music, I have the hybrid fiction from Kaya Press coming out in 2017, it’s called The Secret Room: A String Quartet. Early 2017 is bringing two other books of mine—one is a collection of essays I edited on the work of Agha Shahid Ali, Mad Heart Be Brave, and the final is a short book-length hybrid critical/lyric essay called Anais Nin: An Unprofessional Study..
Honestly, I'm exhausted—individually, but also as a human on the planet. But that's appropriate. We are screaming ourselves out in rage as a species. It's sad, but I'm not sure what I would have expected considering the long view of history from European expansion and colonization of the world's resources up to and including the sad, bad, twentieth century.
On the other hand, we are engaged in political work and contemplative practices, and no one can stop the end of a life, or a planet. What do we do through the dissolution? That's a sad sad question to have to answer.
You can spend a career grappling with just that.
Yes. I am writing again, so there's that.
I’m so happy to hear that. Have you generated enough new poems to be able to think about a potential new book?
Suzanna Tamminen at Wesleyan has my new book, which is full of poems written from 2011 to 2015. The newest of the new are a rough handful, a trickle, a slow accumulation. Something is happening, but I am being brave enough not to look. They are longer, more raw, angrier, more formless, rangier, stranger than anything I’ve done before. Let’s see what happens. One of these new poems, “The Earthquake Days,” was published in Poetry last year, but other than that I haven’t published any.
Jean Valentine once told me that when she asked Olga Broumas if she was writing again, Olga said, "Every day I listen, so far I don't hear." So that's me now. Just listening. And for the rest, none can say. When artists think of “failure,” they may think of a work that hasn’t realized itself or a work that didn’t go far in the world. Poets just live with “failure” because no poem realizes itself, no poem goes all that very far in the world, except maybe one or two—and even those only go a certain way. Our bodies fail, the planets fail, death wants us. For me, poetry and dance are other ways the body can breathe more deeply.
Interview Posted: September 12, 2016
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