Doyali Islam is the winner of CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35, as well as the winner of CV2’s Thirty-fifth Anniversary Contest. Poems from her second (current) poetry manuscript have been featured in Kenyon Review Online and Arc as well as published in CV2, Grain, and Split Rock Review. Her debut poetry book, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, was published by Ottawa small press BuschekBooks in 2011. She has work forthcoming in The Manifesto Project (University of Akron Press), which is a collection of short statements by contemporary poets. Islam will share some of her poems on March 17th as part of Ottawa’s VERSeFest 2016. Presently, she is in Toronto where she is living out her dreams through a 2015 Chalmers Arts Fellowship for poetry: though only 5’, you will find her at The Monkey Vault parkour-training facility swinging from bars, drilling her balance, running at tall(ish) structures, and learning how to fall gracefully.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Driven by formal experimentation, my most recent work – a completed full-length poetry manuscript – is very different from my first book, which consisted of free-verse poems. While still lyrical, this current manuscript is much more grounded, more physical, and more engaged with both the turmoil and the spirit of the everyday. In a way, I think it is more human, more accessible. I feel like I’m coming into my own with this current work.
My first book, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, allowed me to connect with and learn about people who I would otherwise never have had the pleasure of encountering: whole communities and wonderful individuals from Toronto, Saskatoon, Fort Langley, North Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. My first book also made me hyper-aware of ‘audience’ – an awareness that can inhibit the creative process if one is not careful!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry is capacious. Poems are small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I, too, am small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I feel reflected in poetry.
I like the intensity, musicality, clarity, ambiguity, and flexibility of poetry. I was drawn to these elements – or, at least, the first three – from the beginning, but I couldn’t name them or pin them down.
I can work on one poem for hours at a time without stopping for a break or thinking about food – which is shocking, as I love to eat! (Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term, “flow state,” resonates with me.) Yet, I don’t have the patience to write a novel. The notion of ‘plot’ is daunting and depressing, and characters don’t seek me out the way I have heard some novelists describe their experiences. No one’s appeared to me on a stalled train.
I don’t know how I came to poetry first, but I started writing it at the age of seven or eight, in Grade Three. Instead of going outside for recess, I wrote a poem in AABB quatrains – “A Poem About Birds” – on the school computer. Huge early-‘90s sans-serif typeface. Printout on continuous-form paper. I still have that poem! Then, at some point after that, I started keeping an exercise-book of poetry forms – haiku, tanka, cinquain (remember those?!), couplet, limerick, sonnet – that I would challenge myself to write. I still have that exercise-book, too.
In Grade Four, I wrote several short stories and poetry collections for which I would create elaborate front covers, back covers, and copyright pages. My teacher, Mr. Alderson, was good enough to have each one spiral-bound for me. I realized only last year that my juvenilia – both short fiction and poetry – is very humorous. I would like to reclaim this literary sensibility somehow. Short fiction has again been calling to me, but I don’t know if the call is urgent enough.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the poem, but I usually have many drafts – all of which I save, and a few of which I print out and work on by hand when I feel instinctively that it will help the process. (Always in pen, with blue ink, not black.) The only poem from my current manuscript that I remember as feeling ‘quick’ to write, with the first draft looking close to its final shape, is “she.” Sylvia Legris published it in Grain. This poem deals with my short time WWOOFing in the French Pyrenees at the age of 20. Interestingly, I had always wanted to write another poem about that experience, but it took ten years to do so. Last autumn, my poem “two burials” finally came together – and it recently won CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize! So I think some poems just need time to percolate before they arrive.
I never take copious notes, but I’ll jot down scraps of verse – phrases, words, or slant rhymes – that I feel have the potential to develop further. I prefer Peter Pauper Press journals for this purpose, but if I don’t have my journal with me, I’ll scribble on used envelopes, post-its, or any other paper that’s on hand. Once home, I’ll transfer the thoughts into my journal.
More and more, I find that poems are difficult and slow to write. With my poem “susiya,” written in 2014 and published in KROnline in May 2015, I went through several full days of poorly-executed and uninteresting drafts. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to what the poem needed. I had been trying to talk about the people in that poem without first having mentioned the land – and those people are tied intimately and inextricably to the land. After that realization, the opening two-and-something lines emerged: “in the south hebron hills the slanted hills / recall old songs, and the women collect / them like rain.” I painted a landscape with words, and then the Nawaje clan was able to walk into it! The ending of that poem – “knocking / upon a fence, asking it for a dance” – also came to me as a welcome surprise. Who knows exactly how or from where poetry arises? It remains a mystery to me.
My weakest poems are the ones I’ve forced in a certain direction. I’m stern with myself and scrap these poems. My strongest poems – the ones that I think might last, if all of the forces of the universe align! – have more surprise, ambiguity, questioning, tension, irresolution.
Also, I experience gaps – periods of silence – between large projects during which I accumulate new experiences and have nothing to say and no preoccupations other than living/suffering.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
With Yusuf, I wrote many poems before looking back at them and realizing that they all worked together as a cohesive whole. I put that manuscript together before building a so-called ‘publication history,’ so I was very fortunate that it appealed to BuschekBooks.
With my recently-completed (current) poetry manuscript, the process was different. The formal experimentation that I used in the poem “– 35th parallel –” – which won CV2’s Thirty-fifth Anniversary Contest in 2010 – led me to other ideas: “What if I wrote a whole suite of these self-termed ‘parallel poems’?” “What if I explored this visual and figurative ‘split’ in other ways and applied it to and innovated on other forms – particularly, the sonnet?” So, with this recently-completed manuscript, I knew early on the main preoccupations and themes that were driving the work. The manuscript took five years. By about the fourth year, all of those thematic and formal certainties/drivers started to take over and constrict the work too much. My thinking became limited. Saying, “I’m writing a poetry book, and it’s about x, y, and z,” or “I’m experimenting with x,” led me to discard certain poems – and keep others – purely based on whether or not I perceived them to fit within the imagined collection. Thoughts like, “Oh, I can’t include this poem, or even write this poem, because it won’t fit with the rest of the manuscript.” That’s when I realized the danger of working towards a ‘book’: putting the horse before the cart, so to speak. After this terrifying and freeing realization, my manuscript opened up: it became more flexible, inviting, and dynamic. It was living again. So now I think I should always work on individual poems. Go back to the poem as poem. Go back to it at the level of language and internal music. Then – only then – figure out if a poem is worthy of manuscript inclusion.
Now, looking beyond this recently-completed manuscript, I have no idea what I’ll do next. It’s exciting! My current Chalmers Arts Fellowship is a huge blessing. It came at just the right time in my personal life, and it’s gratifying, terrifying, reinvigorating, and humbling all at the same time. I feel like I’m living out a pivotal moment.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m not one to share work in progress, but I love doing public readings of finished material. (I’m really looking forward to participating in VERSeFest 2016!) Together, the attendees/listeners and poet create a space that will never exist or happen exactly the same way again. Also, the aural/oral aspects of poetry are important to me. I have always revised by ear, and I recite my favourite poems from memory when I’m walking to the bus stop, to the grocery store, et cetera: Czeslaw Milosz’s “Encounter;” Derek Walcott’s “Love after Love;” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Facing It;” Geffrey Davis’ “King County Metro;” Adonis’ “Love;” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Red Brocade.” Sometimes I even recite poems of my own that I need to hear again. (I pause when people walk by!) I don’t know why, but I feel that the wind or air carries these recited words. And I will always love Etheridge Knight’s saying: “The words from my mouth are beating on the drum of your ear, so don’t take this as casual.”
Even though I never share poems in progress, I cut two finished poems from my current manuscript because I recited them at Conspiracy of 3 – a literary reading series I curated for just over two years, out of North Bay – and noticed that they didn’t elicit much of a response. I did volunteer training in North Bay with a high-school girl who told me that she returned a dress to Target (before its swift demise in Canada!) because she wore it once and didn’t receive any compliments from her friends. I wouldn’t say my decision to cut the poems was exactly the same, but the audience’s unresponsiveness made me return to those pieces and take a good second look. In the end, I decided they weren’t up to par, and that there was nothing I wanted to salvage from them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I hope that my poems use commonplace items or tangible subject matter in such a way that when readers come across said things – for example, ‘ants’ or ‘fishermen’ – in real life, they remember the respective poem and have a broader, richer, or more complex experience. And of course it works the other way, too. Everyone brings their own experiences, perceptions, and sense of history/ies to bear on images, on language itself. I think that’s what Yusef Komunyakaa meant when he said that images are not static – that they’re “more than their static component” (Blue Notes, 78).
Also, more and more, my work seems to be about locating questions or expressing tensions rather than finding answers or resolutions. I’m also wondering if I’ve written even one authentic poem, or if this question should be of concern.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I can imagine as many ‘roles’ as there are poets – or poems! However, as a poet, I hope to never merely reproduce culture. A good poem is an intervention. A good poem makes some kind of trespass.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The ear is an outside editor, of sorts. From the age of seven or eight, I have always revised my poems by ear. I don’t know why or how this process arose for me, but I suspect it had something to do with being read to, by my mother, as a young child, as well as something to do with the children’s television series Ghostwriter! The character Lenni always revised her song lyrics by ear. (That show, by the way, was wonderful for encouraging literacy and thinking about issues of equity. I don’t know if children’s programming has that quality today.)
For me, the need for an editor depends on the type of work – book review? interview? manifesto? poetry? – and even more on the needs of a particular piece. It’s circumstantial. An editor who understands a writer’s vision can definitely have a place, at the right time.
To date, I have never found it difficult to work with an editor. I’ve come to realize that the most important thing is the work itself – not my own ego. I have had productive experiences working with Manifesto Project editors Rebecca Hazelton and Alan Michael Parker, and more recently with Puritan reviews editor André Forget. With Yusuf, Sylvia Legris offered to read the manuscript. Her offer was hugely generous and surprising: a complete stranger who had only read two poems I had submitted to Grain believed in my potential and my work enough to make time for me. I was 26. Even though the manuscript was already under contract with Buschek, I was still honing my craft – a lifelong process – and she offered critical thoughts and gems of advice that I continue to find valuable today. Good editors are extremely generous. They try to understand the vision behind the work. They don’t assume control, but they show where one’s thinking isn’t clear, or where one might want to take another look.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Young-adult fiction writer Jennifer Rouse Barbeau once reminded Conspiracy of 3 attendees that it’s not the writer’s job to reject herself/himself. I relay her advice to anyone who expresses anxiety about submitting work. And I think it applies to all other areas of life: romance, career, et cetera.
Also on the subject of advice: when my first book came out, Sylvia Legris sent me two pink pocket-sized Moleskin notebooks. Since I’m very picky with my journals, I didn’t know what to use them for, and they lay blank for four years. Last summer I finally started filling one with advice and encouragement given to me by poets I respect and admire. (I read somewhere that Emma Watson keeps notebooks for the same purpose, and I thought it was a good idea.) I didn’t want to lose any of those fragments or encouraging messages, as they’re medicine in hard times.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I usually struggle to emerge from bed. I’m not a morning person, and I don’t drink caffeinated beverages or eat refined/processed sugars. In the words of Rory Gilmore, “I find nothing exciting before eleven.”
I don’t have a writing routine, but I most often work on drafts at my beautiful and expansive desk, which was given to me by a friend during my time in North Bay. It takes two strong people to move it anywhere.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t rush about seeking to un-stall.
Things sometimes come to me when I’m doing the dishes or other physical/mundane/rhythmic tasks.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
None. One day I hope to have a better answer.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Right now, my nascent practice of parkour/freerunning, after seven years of admiring the discipline. See my bio above!
Other ‘forms’? Attentiveness. Suffering. Poncho the cat was my muse, until the divorce.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Perhaps more than certain writers, I’d say that certain poems are important to me. I’ve mentioned some above. These poems refresh my spirit and/or hold places in my heart and mind. These poems I memorize. In general, though, I find I am drawn to black and mixed-heritage American poets, Middle-Eastern poets, peripatetic poets, poets of ‘witness,’ and intense lyrical poets. Let me tell you some of the poetry books that are literally on my top shelf: Geffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm; Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light; Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us; and half a dozen titles published by Copper Canyon Press. I also try to make room for works that I’m not comfortable with, which Pearl Pirie in an e-mail to me once called “stretch poems.” Thinking back, Rumi’s poems – in translation – were a significant influence from the age of 17 to 26, and especially for the manuscript of Yusuf.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write and deliver a TEDx talk. (Perhaps) live for a time in Arizona, or somewhere else with red rocks, blue skies, and a dry climate. Find a stable and permanent job that affords me nutritional supplements, Kathak and bellydance classes, an annual Monkey Vault membership, and jars of almond-hazelnut butter. Take boxing classes – for the discipline, drills, and technique, rather than for the sparring. Learn tai chi. Continue the assessment of all of my material possessions to decide whether they are adding value to my life. (Perhaps) live with a cat of my own.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Hearing, reading, and writing poetry has helped me to survive and thrive. It is my most powerful and immediate medicine. I wouldn’t be here without it, so it’s more than an ‘occupation.’ However, my royalty cheques are not that of Billy Collins, so I think I must go the way of T. S. Eliot, Ted Kooser, and virtually every other poet I can think of, to make a living. I’m considering going back to school for a Master’s in Clinical Audiology. I like working with people one-on-one, and the ear is fascinating. (Did you know the cochlea has over 32,000 hair cells on it?) The ear is such a small sensory organ, yet so crucial for balance. Anyway, perhaps, in a few years, I might be a hearing expert – audiologist – by day, and a listening expert – poet – by night!
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Most of all, it’s because I love hearing, reading, and writing poetry more than doing anything else. Other advantages: it’s relatively inexpensive and can be practiced anywhere. Also, I could never afford dance classes in the long-run.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Geffrey Davis’ Revising the Storm. It is currently my favourite poetry book in the universe.
I don’t watch many films, but perhaps it was The Hurricane or The Fellowship of the Ring. As for documentaries, People in Motion (Dir. Cedric Dahl).
19 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m living out my Chalmers Arts Fellowship (see bio above) and working on being human.
[Doyali Islam reads in Ottawa on March 17 as part of VERSeFest 2016]
12 or 20 (second series) questions;