“Poetry is a diamond-making process.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How have you been?
I've been all right. I've been traveling a bit the last few weeks, but I've been home for about a week. So, that’s been nice.
And home is in Chicago, right?
Home is Chicago for now.
It was cool. I was actually in Puerto Rico. I'm trying to work on some prose. Some essays.
Oh, cool. Like craft essays?
No, no. Like political. Like Joan Didion-esque essays.
Oh, that's awesome.
Yeah, so I've been working on stuff on colonization in Puerto Rico and PROMESA, which is a piece of legislation that was passed by Congress to allegedly tackle the debt crisis in Puerto Rico by ensuring all of Puerto Rico’s creditors and those that have taken over the municipal bonds are paid the debt owed. However, what the bill surreptitiously and un-surreptitiously also enacts is a confirmation or reifying of the U.S.’s position as imperial potentate over the colony.
Yeah, yeah! I've read a bit about that.
So, I was over there covering the election because this election, in some ways, is the last free election of Puerto Rico. If this fiscal control board does what it's planning to do, then this is the last relevant election of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico will come back under the control of the US in a very old school, colonial way.
It wouldn't matter who the governor is, or who the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico is because the budget will be controlled by the US. The fiscal control board, a board mandated through the PROMESA legislation, oversees the entire Puerto Rican economy. Public lands can be sold off. And a lot of other stuff is going on as well on the island, so I want to write about that—the economic uncertainty, the migration to the US mainland, the war between taxi cab drivers and Uber, credit and debt. I've been thinking about Joan Didion and the way she did her Salvador book. I know this may sound weird, but there are things that can be done very well in an essay that can't always be done very well in a poem. Form is form. So there are things that need a great deal of explanation as a way to understand the present moment. And also I don't think most Americans are really aware that we have a colony.
Haha. Yeah, we have a handful of them.
Yeah, we have sixteen actually. But only five of the colonies are inhabitable.
So, I've been thinking through the stuff in Puerto Rico as our election was coming about, too.
I think that's fascinating, you doing that work. And you make a good point about how certain subject matter leads itself to certain mediums. This topic is something that will require a fair amount of exposition to be understood by the average American reader, and I don't know that poetry is necessarily the place where that works best.
Yeah. And I do think that poems can clarify the material. It's just that what you can do with it is very different. You know, I love how poetry puts pressure on the language. Poetry is a diamond-making process in a lot of ways.
I think that it's in keeping with a lot of the work that you were doing in your first book, King Me, just in terms of the way that the book situates itself. You know, the scope of the book isn't a single city, or even a single country. You're engaging Stalin, and Brazil, and Van Gogh—all of these. There is a way in which the book is worldly. And it's interesting that that impulse is present in this non-fiction that you're doing, too.
I'm really interested in the way that America is everywhere, unfortunately: how we export ourselves and our culture anywhere money can buy. For instance, at the Krakow Poetry Symposium in Poland, I remember realizing how limited American poets are in terms of thinking about ourselves in the world—in terms of world literature. It’s such a problem that so little of what’s published in the US is work in translation. When I was out in Poland, in Krakow, I was speaking to teenagers who knew contemporary American poets. They knew the poems of Ed Hirsch. They knew the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa. But I don't know if we would know their contemporary poets. Or the contemporary poets of Chile or Spain.
I think I've always been aware of our insularity here in the US, and it's something that I've always tried to combat in myself, particularly in my day-to-day life, but also in my work. Even as I'm thinking through Blackness and subjectivity, I'm thinking about all these things in regards to what's going on in Nigeria, or how the US is influencing markets all over the world. I think about how we've created oil crises in Nigeria, and created certain types of feuds through oil companies like Shell and BP. I'm more interested in really thinking about, like, "What is it to be a world citizen?"
It's an interesting thing to desire to be a world poet—to not accept the narrower definition of being an American poet, or a Southern poet, or whatever. And I agree, I don't know that that's an ambition that is particularly common in American poetry. Especially not among young poets. I've been in poetry classrooms for the past decade and I've never even seen a world poetry class offered in one of my institutions. You know what I mean? It's just not part of the experience.
For me, it's also encountering poets who are maybe in America, but aren't American in a lot of ways. I'm thinking of Ishion Hutchinson, a Jamaican poet.
A really great friend of mine, who just became an American citizen recently, Ladan Osman, who wrote—
Yeah! The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony. That’s a brilliant book.
And Ilya Kaminsky. I think about all these folks who are writing really brilliant, big, beautiful works that in some ways do a great job of sort of highlighting their connection to America, but also subverting it in a certain fashion. These poets push me and my work to be larger. For me, the poets I'm around are international. I think about Solmaz Sharif. And I think about Fady Joudah. These are poets that I find a lot of kinship with, aesthetically as well as politically. So I'm interested in thinking about the work in a much larger way. Are we keeping up with that tradition? Are we thinking about Nigerian poets today? Are we thinking about poets from Poland today? Are we thinking about the ways in which we can be talking across these many diasporas to each other?
Right, right. I was born in Iran and I came here. And a lot of my poetry is very interested in the psychic life that everyone writes about, but it also has to do with the negative space—with leaving one's home. I think that your work is a real model for me in that way. I mean, you don’t have the same immigrant experience necessarily, but you do braid an exteriority with the sort of psychic life stuff. You can weave that all together in deft and creative ways. That is one of the things about your work that I admire most and that I've learned the most from. How the global informs the psychic, and vice versa.
It's funny, today I was thinking about—this is going to be a really odd connection—but I was thinking about yoga. Thinking about the use of yoga in the American social landscape and the use of spirituality in the American landscape. And I'll give you an example. So, I was thinking about a friend of mine, who is a woman of color, and how she'd been trying to work out some things spiritually—she was feeling unrest, unsettled. She went to this meditation space—which I am very much in favor of—and she was talking to one of the leaders in the meditation space, and race came up. And one of the things that I think is really interesting about interiority, and happiness, and joy, and race is that I don't think people realize how hard it is to be happy when you're a person of color.
I think that people of color can be happy; I'm not saying we can't possess joy or that we don’t. What I am trying to talk about is the way in which, in America, we subscribe to this sort of pop spirituality wherein one’s happiness and joy is discussed in terms of owning one’s own power—that you don’t give someone else power over your emotions. You control your emotions and all that. And I think, yeah, sure, that sounds cool and all. But then there are things like the police; and when the police see you, the Black you, in the streets and run up on you and knock you in the head for being your Black regular self, you know, you didn't give them your power, they just motherfucking took it. Right?
So, it's hard to have a sort of spiritual grounding, a sense that one’s spiritual or emotional borders or physical borders for that matter are under one’s own control. So, I was thinking about how this meditation leader was telling my homegirl how she has to relinquish some of these things, and it's like, well, it's really hard to give in to a certain set of spiritual beliefs, a certain set of spirituality, a certain type of interiority when the exterior world is trying to shape your interiority. Part of the interiority you're trying to build is what some people might call a sanctuary through the poem. You're trying to build this through examining the exterior and seeing how the exterior is trying to force you into something that you do not wish. I'm saying a lot, and it may sound confusing, but I'm really interested in the way in which we might attain happiness and a certain type of joy in light of the most recent election—I'm going to have to be so purposeful in practicing happiness and joy.
Yes. Oh, absolutely.
There have always been things that have tried to assail it. But now, there are going to be very very clear and determined exercises and people trying to stop my joy.
So, I'm thinking about what you're talking about in terms of exteriority and interiority. And it's funny—I have an eighteen-month-old daughter. And that's really affected the work, in the sense that the work is quieter. It's quieter because the ruminations are more interior. They're still wandering and wondering like, "Will I be alive long enough to take care of her?" I live in Chicago. This is a rough city to try and be Black in right now, for a lot of different reasons. So, I think about all these things, but it has been a much more interior process, even as things are going on around me.
Yeah. I think of Toi Derricotte's "Joy is an act of resistance."
My experience isn't the same as your experience, but you know, they're talking about these Muslim registries and stuff. And I was born in Tehran and I have a very Middle-Eastern name. And I've been thinking about joy as an act of resistance and joy as something that, for me, is going to have to be, like you're talking about, very proactive these next four years. There's not going to be any passivity to my experience of accessing joy and accessing gratitude in these horrible moments. I wasn't naïve about the fact that I lived in a racist country. But there's already been a ramping up of violence toward people of color, and now it's effectively state-sanctioned. All that to say I'm very interested in what you're saying about joy being active and joy being something that certain communities have to work harder for, you know what I mean?
I do. I do. It's funny; I think living in Chicago has prepared me a bit for this election. We've been in the political muck for a long time. The state of Illinois doesn’t have a budget. And our legislature and governor think that that's the way to be in the world. So I started doing these little practices since I've been here to counteract the overwhelming doom that I feel as a state employee and a Black citizen of the state, of the city. I do this thing where I try to see something really well every day. I watch something unfold, like a hawk perching on an electric line above a police car. And I try to see and think through that whole moment, or listen through something really well and in a concerted fashion. I find that I've gained a lot of joy from that. Even if it's just looking at a piece of paper smashed into the road, "What keeps that paper there?" There's an image that's stuck with me. It's not a poetic image yet, but during a jazz concert in Millenium Park, I watched two people praying, facing east at sundown. And they were by this statue, and I remember just thinking, "Wow." And it was the most amazing thing. It was the concerted effort of stopping and sort of being in a different sense of time.
And I know this is a weird thing to say, but I think that what Trump and this election are trying to force is another sense of time, and I think as poets we have a very intimate relationship with time. And I think that what I'm really interested in is playing with time in the work. How to make time. How to make a different set of time. Because, if we change time in the work, then there's an opportunity to transform the world around the work with this different sense of time. If we disobey the time of the new regime, then we thwart its efficacy, we thwart it. So I think that time is really important. I’m always playing, figuring out how to make a different set of time inside someone else's time. I have a friend who's a Victorianist, and he talks about time in the metropole versus time in the colony. And how there're two different sets of time. I think about Fred Moten’s notion of imagination—within something, you build something else. He calls it "invagination" in In the Break. I think we can do that with time. That's what aesthetics allows us to do, to change time in this really interesting and concerted fashion.
Totally. I think that's so true. And I think that's a beautiful practice that you've found for yourself. I think a lot about this idea of how, even if you're writing a poem about how much you love Wendy's, or whatever—
I haven't had lunch, so—
I love that.
But even if you're writing a poem about that, you're still slowing down the metabolization of language for your reader. In doing so, you're counteracting one of the great weapons that's used to dull critical thought in 2016, which is just the pure overwhelm of meaningless language. So, no matter what you're writing about, no matter how ostensibly apolitical your writing is, you're still performing a political act in writing. I love the connection you make to what the Trump regime is trying to snuff out, and how the act of slowing down time and the act of looking flies in the face of that. I think that's so potent. In these moments where I'm just like, "I'm a poet, what am I going to do against this multi-billionaire who's putting fascists in every branch of the government," it's one of the things that gives me solace and makes what I'm doing feel more potent in its ability to be politically activated.
Yeah, I think we also have to be careful as we're writing because there's a way in which all of this can be co-opted. I think that writing can be co-opted by political regimes very easily. I'm thinking of Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." You know, all of these things—radio, television, film, poetry—can be brought under subjection of the state even as they're "trying to resist" the state. I'm not going to tell a poet what they should or should not write about—you write what you're called to. But there's a way in which the writing could be utilized to do the exact opposite. It could actually be used to further a regime’s network of power—I can imagine Donald Trump being very interested in, not so much in the art, but in a certain type of entertainment, in a certain type of way—calling that art, that being part of a certain type of alt-right. We can't forget that Birth of a Nation, the original film, screened at the White House. That Woodrow Wilson used what was essentially considered a very avant-garde form, cinema, and D. W. Griffith used the form of the film to make this very racist portrayal of Black folks in the south. And that was screened at the White House. And Woodrow Wilson was like, “All this is true.” I think that's why I kind of move slow in terms of thinking about how to resist in writing, how best to respond to what appears to be a monstrous sea-change in the US—I know there's a lot of reaction and a lot of fervor in this first week after the election. It's not that we shouldn't have action, or that we shouldn't be out there decrying some of this stuff. In fact, let’s get in these streets. But we have to make sure that we're not doing something that eventually can be co-opted toward our own dismemberment and our own disillusionment.
You bring up Althusser, and I'm thinking about how the sort of repressive state apparatus has been what it has been since Woodrow Wilson and long before, but it's so baldly on its face now. And it's so caricaturized. I could see a timeline in which, fifty years from now, this is the moment that has activated everyone's awareness to that fact, you know? Like, this is when we all saw the marionette strings. Frankly, I feel like I'm in this period of mourning. And that seems to be the case with my students, too. A lot of my students seem to be grieving something. And like I was saying earlier, I don't think it's that I was naïve about how racist this country is, I think that I was cognizant of that fact, both intellectually and experientially, but I think that what I'm mourning is a kind of softness that I had access to. And now that I know I have to be on guard, I won't necessarily have access to that same kind of softness. It won't be my resting state, you know?
Yeah. My mom said something to me this weekend. She lived through the sixties and seventies. She said, "It feels like exactly what the sixties were." She said, "The air feels the same." She said, "The inability to know what's going to happen next, that disaster feels around the corner, at every turn. That's what this feels like." And I was like, "Wow." And so I think that lack of softness you feel—you know, if I say it quite overtly, I just didn't know America was this fucking crazy. And that’s a half-truth. I knew that we were quite capable of something like electing a racist into public office. We do it election in and election out, from the city and town municipal level all the way up, but what the Trump campaign has called for is without subtlety. It’s without the backdoor racism manifested through language like the “urban” or “the urban poor.” None of that nice-smile-in-your-face, Reagan virulent racism and homophobia. It’s like—“hit these queers and negroes in the mouth!”
I actually expected him to win back in March, here in Chicago. When I saw what was going on in terms of these rallies—I protested at one of the rallies with my daughter and my partner, and I thought, "Oh, man." The stadium could only hold 10, 000 people, and there were 25,000 people waiting outside to get in. It reminded me of going to Obama rallies in Austin in 2007. The rallies were always much more well-attended than originally thought. Folks swarmed in from the suburbs, yelling “Trump” out of their white SUVs at my daughter in a stroller. And when I mean swarmed, I mean it was like a Baz Luhrmann film—Romeo + Juliet meets Hype Williams's Belly. And they were virulent in showing and demonstrating their support for Trump’s policies toward immigrants and queer folk. That’s a lot of people in support of something like that—25,000 suburban moms and dads. I guess, in terms of the softness, what we have woken into was what was always there, but we had the veneer of something else. You know, the rose-tinted glasses allowed us to see the things softer. You know, I've experienced a lot of racism. Overt. I mean I've experienced what I call academic racism and things like that. But I've also experienced police officers threatening to shoot me or to arrest me for just walking down the street. And experienced them yelling, "Nigger" and stuff like that. You know, stuff that we see as overtly and explicitly virulent and racist. But this softness is over—I think what we've woken into is just our lives. I think we're back to the America that Manning Marable discusses in his book, Beyond Black and White. We're back to that post-seventies, early eighties racism. It’s like how we supported apartheid in South Africa for so long. It wasn't until the mid to late eighties that we shamed the Republicans in office into a different position.
I know that this may be gauche, but I was quite surprised at how many white women voted for Trump after his scurrilous comments about grabbing women by their private parts.
Yeah. Totally. And I think it's about this sort of preservation of a hierarchy where white women understand that under this regime they may still be kept under white men, but they will still be above every other group of people. They will still be second in the pyramid. And I think that that has a lot to do with that particular phenomenon, where the preservation of a certain kind of privilege trumped the potential disillusion of another kind of privilege, you know?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
And I know that we're talking about these big things, and we're not talking about the poems, which is cool—
No, we can talk about poems, too. I like poems. Haha.
I did want to say that when I was just reading through your book before I called, there were moments that really stuck in my mind. Like how the poem, "Of Genocide, or Merely Sound," begins with "How much of saying nothing / gets you a starling or a jewel." It acquires—not that it wasn't resonant when it was written, but in the long shadow of the Trump presidency, we're talking about the complicitness of white voters who wouldn't identify as racist, but didn't particularly seem to mind being racist adjacent, or racist enabling. And you know, "How much of saying nothing / gets you a starling or a jewel" in a poem called "Of Genocide, or Merely Sound" and with the last lines, "If allowed, I might say / this is how genocide begins," I just felt the blood rush from my head when I read that.
Yeah. The way I write poems is I try to let sound lead to sound. And let the next utterance lead to the next utterance. And often I hear myself say, "Oh, you can't say that." And then I immediately write it down. Because the thing that you can't say is the thing that has to be said. You have to be willing to make the mistake. And to even make it publically through publishing sometimes. Or saying a thing. Talking quite politically right now, and not just talking, but also enacting. I'm really thinking about what we've allowed, what type of character we have if we've capitulated to it. I keep thinking about a man who has openly been divisive, openly been racist and sexist—that this is what follows, that's what we see following a Black president.
So, I think, in the poems, we must continually mine what it is we think we can't say, what it is we think might get us killed. Because it actually might be the thing that keeps us alive, that gives us life. Taking that risk. It's funny, I wrote that poem so many years ago, and I remember the day that I wrote it. I was in a very different city, and I was thinking, "What is it that I'm not allowed to say?" You know, I often ask myself that, "What is it that I'm scared to say?" "What is my concern today?" That's a thing I always think about, "What is my concern?" It might be, "I need a hamburger. I really want a hamburger." Or it might be, "I worry that I'm not going to live because there's been four shootings on my block in the last month." Whatever that concern is, I try to allow that concern to take an aesthetic form and to think through the emotional space of that. Because it's connected to the other things.
Interview Posted: January 23, 2017
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