Interview: Tarfia Faizullah

Tarfia FaizullahTarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s First Book Award. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in PloughsharesThe Missouri Review, Passages North, New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Southern Review, MeadPoetry DailyMid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the 2012 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Margaret Bridgman Scholarship in Poetry, a scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a Fulbright fellowship, and other honors. A Kundiman fellow, she is a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University program in creative writing. (Bio from Blackbird).

TCJWW: In an interview with Best New Poets, you said you read the entire Qur’an by the time you were seven years old. How do you think this experience—rich in spirituality and literature—affected you as a poet?

Faizullah: What’s strange about having read the Qur’an at a young age is that I didn’t understand a word of it because it was written in Arabic. I was taught to read and write Arabic, but I was rarely taught its meaning. In retrospect, I don’t think it was in spirituality and literature that the experience affected me, but in music.

Since then, I’ve been obsessed with the music of language. Memorizing and reciting a language I didn’t understand made me really aware of techniques like meter and rhyme, even if I didn’t know the terms for them at the time. When I did learn the translation, I’d already been affected by music, and so I understood meaning as syntax: the profound result of diction working in tandem with music.

TCJWWCan you talk about the process of witnessing, then shaping histories into poems?

Faizullah: While I was in Bangladesh, I often regarded my terror from a strange and cold place of distance: on long bus rides alone through the countryside or late at night in an unfamiliar village, for example. It would be much later that I would notice that my nail beds were raw because I’d been biting the hell out of them.

Paul Celan wrote, “Though I had known the journey would be strenuous, I worried when I had to enter one of the roads alone, without a guide.” Maybe witnessing is similar: an act of self-preservation. In order to survive, we have to remain alert and acknowledge the monsters on the dark road so that we can kill them and live to tell the others how. It’s an act each of us have to do on our own so that we can have a community of perspectives to learn from so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

In this way, the specific history I chose to write both from and towards was the lives of raped Bangladeshi women in wartime. Speaking to them, learning about the war, and imagining their lives led towards other poems about the process of that documenting, and how I then saw myself. I wanted to try to understand and render the horror and miracle of their survival so that maybe I could survive too.

TCJWWThis is an important book for women everywhere. What did you learn about yourself while writing the poems in Seam?

Faizullah: I learned about shame. It haunts me, the women I spoke with, my friends, our mothers, sisters, daughters. It chips away at the humanity our communities struggle for. I learned that we really can contain dualities: beauty and horror, gladness and sadness. That we can learn empathy from those dualities. I learned that writing a crown of sonnets is really hard, and that sustaining a long sequence can be frustratingly tear-inducing work, but that you learn patience. That I could say the word “shit” in a poem. I learned to look myself dead in the eye.

TCJWWThere are a series of poems in Seam such as “Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh” and “Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum.” How do you see these poems working in the collection?

Faizullah: While it’s impossible to know for sure when writing first began, it’s clear that the impulse to record is ancient. I believe that as writers, we create the world even as we discover it. In this way, the “Reading” poems view the text as both map and window: both guidance and revelation. When I started putting the book together, I noticed that many of the poems are written from perspectives that vacillate from distant to intimate, and I hope the “Reading” poems do the same kind of negotiation with those external texts that helped me glimpse worlds within worlds.

TCJWWThe poems in Seam move across the page in interesting ways. Can you tell us a little about the function of form in these poems?

Faizullah: I’m fascinated by where form begins and where vision ends. Some of the earliest stories we know, such as creation myths, are attempts to make sense of the world within a specific but expansive format. Similarly, the poems in Seam move with both a sense of purpose and bewilderment, and the forms of the poems shifted and grew depending on the center of gravity around which they were circling. “Reading Celan,” for example, started out as a series of random notes in my notebook, but then I noticed that there was a pattern of continuous cycling back to rhymes and previous images or ideas. A crown of sonnets is such an obsessive form, and it felt really right to shape the notes towards becoming linked sonnets.

TCJWWOver what period of time did Seam come together?

Faizullah: Just yesterday, I grabbed my reading copy of Seam from one bag to throw into another (I swear, sometimes I feel like my whole life is just moving material from one place to the next) and I stopped and stared at it. It’s such an odd feeling, to hold the minutes of the hours of the years you spent working towards this tangible tangle of pages. The first poem was written in 2006. I couldn’t have known that five years and many random scribbles and interviews with war heroines and late night conversations and snacks later, I would return from the Bangladesh with a huge stack of poems that would eventually become Seam.

TCJWWAdrienne Rich once wrote, “The moment when a feeling enters the body/ is political. This touch is political.” Do you consider the poems in Seam political or personal, neither ,or both?

Faizullah: I love that Adrienne Rich quote. It gets at something I’ve been trying to figure out how to say, which is that there is no real choice between the personal and the political. The words I’ve been thinking about lately instead are social, ethical, and moral: all concepts more specific than personal and political, but that also have connotations they both fulfill and fight against.

I want to learn more about these distinctions because my real concern is how writing a poem can help individuals powerfully connect to themselves and each other within the frameworks of our religious institutions and socio-political structures. I don’t know why we love and ruin in equal measure, but maybe if we learn how to say it, we have a better chance of dying singing.


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