Saturday, June 06, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Nishat Ahmed

Nishat Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American residing in the Midwest. He’s an Illinois native with a deep love for Fall Out Boy, The Notebook and Chipotle. He received his MFA in poetry from Old Dominion University. His work has been published by Sobotka, Words Dance, The Mochila Review, Into the Void, The Academy of American Poets, The Tampa Review, and has been performed at TEDxUIUC and AWP. His first chapbook, Field Guide for End Days comes out summer 2020 from Finishing Line Press, and his second, Brown Boy is forthcoming in late 2020 from Porkbelly Press.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

This first chapbook, Field Guide for End Days, isn’t even out yet, and it probably won’t catapult me into mega-writing stardom, but it’s changed my life in the fact that I have wanted to have a book published ever since I picked up writing in the 3rd grade. I’d say my most recent work is more focused than my previous; it feels like there’s a clear central body it’s circling whereas before a lot of my work just kind of revolved around the initial spark of inspiration.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I actually came to poetry via songwriting. I started writing seriously in high school, trying to emulate the lyrics and stylings of Pete Wentz from my favorite band, Fall Out Boy. I loved the use of Pete’s metaphor and the clever tricks of the line that appear in their songs, and eventually, I just dove into writing poetry. But the first poet I that really inspired me to write straight up poetry is Andrea Gibson, who was shown to me by my dear friend, Kelsey Collett.

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 really depends on the emotional content of the poem. For a lot of poems (but not all), I tend to subscribe to the poet-as-speaker model, and because of this there’s a lot of raw stuff that goes into the work. To enter the wound of many of these emotions and moments is difficult. Sometimes, it’s even harder to enter the joyous moments. It’s a slow process to get to the page but once I am down and writing, the words come fast. For the most part, most poems do resemble their first drafts, but I’m learning (slowly) to let go of what I initially had as the shape so the poem can move and grow as it needs to.

4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?

The poem is always beginning. I’ve gotten the luxury to hear transcendental poet Kaveh Akbar speak towards ‘wonder’ many times and because of that I’m finding new places where the poem lives every single day. I’m usually writing short pieces that I stitch together into a book, but this book came together in a flurry of two weeks. I just had this idea that I needed to write a book about the end of the world—which world, who knows? Many worlds end everyday—and I wrote 80% of the book in those two weeks. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I absolutely love readings! I came up in the spoken word/slam world of poetry and I am SO interested in the sonic life of the poem (and all writing). Readings are a huge part of my process and there’s nothing I love more than being on stage. It’s so special and intimate to be able to verbally express my poems to an audience, to let them truly experience the poem in what I want it to be experienced. It’s a luxury that I don’t take lightly at all.

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?

Urgency is always driving me. I suffer from anxiety and depression; part of my process in coping with these mental illnesses is focusing on the beautiful love I get from my friends, family, and wife. I’m obsessed with making sure I’ve said all the things I want to say to these people before my time here ends, and I think the question I’m always asking is: does this say “I love you” well enough? If I ever die, I want people to remember me as someone who was always chasing a better way to love people.

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 definitely think writers (and all artists) do play an important role, but the specific role they play I think changes with the current state of the world they’re in. Currently I think it’s our job to spread truth when so much misinformation exists out there. Furthemore, to build community-ties feels more important than ever. Our words define us, identify us. We’re the only species on Earth that has the privilege of language and writing; for us to not utilize it to build bridges among each other feels so wasteful.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

There wasn’t really much outside editorializing from Finishing Line Press with this one, but I made sure to get second looks from my amazing mentors: Remica Bingham-Risher, Luisa Igloria, and Tim Seibles. I’ve learned so much from these amazing poets and thinkers, but the most important lesson I’ve learned from them is that our own poetic sensibilities can often blind us from improving certain aspects of our work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“The second you admit you don’t know shit, you open yourself up to knowing everything.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I haven’t written fiction in a hot minute, but I do write quite a bit of creative non-fiction now. I find the move pretty easy because despite the word-economy constraints in poetry, I’m a pretty verbose person. CNF allows me to explain and express my thoughts and feelings more clearly, and I appreciate the new challenge of playing with language in a new setting.

11 - 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 don’t think I have a routine at all. I work a day job, I do most of the cooking at home (on my own volition), I’m working everyday to grow as a husband, and I have other interests to pursue outside of writing as well. I try my best to find pockets of time to make the writing happen, sometimes that means eating my lunch quicker to write during my hour, or if I’m traveling using downtime at the airport or on the train to jot down a few lines. Weekend mornings are my place to get substantial editing done. But it’s important for a lot of us on the go folks to realize that writing doesn’t always mean putting the pen to the paper (or the finger to the keyboard). It’s also having a meal with your pal and laughing your belly off; it’s stopping to look at the flowers at your local supermarket; it’s sitting on the couch with your love and sharing the silence in peace. If you are attentive to the world around, if you are present, the writing is always happening.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Always, always music. I find so much freedom and inspiration in sound, but surprisingly, video games have been a great place to go as of late. If I’m playing a story intensive game, living in a different headspace for a bit opens up how I see my own reality when I exit the game’s world. And sometimes, I just need to play something mindless like a first-person shooter just to shut off the creative engine for a bit and let it refuel.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Turmeric, mustard oil, cumin seeds roasting.

14 - 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?

Absolutely. Music and science really influence my work a whole lot. I’m always trying to make sure my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it’s in conversation with other forms of art. I find astronomy and physics fascinating, and part of my fascination with the lifetime of the universe is what has me thinking about the lifetimes of all things on this planet, including the planet itself. Music is everything. I hate silence; I’m afraid of it. I tend to always have some song playing while I’m in transit or writing. The dead space of a noiseless room feels haunted. Because I’m always bumping songs while writing, a lot of my work ends up being in conversation with the artist I’m listening to or the themes of their work.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My mentors mentioned above are a given! Some more classical names are Rumi, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. But to be honest, I’m way more interested in contemporary and living poets, poets who are doing the work now to shape and shake the literary (and non-literary landscape).

Some writers in the last few years who really live inside my work are Hanif Abdurraqib, Kaveh Akbar, Andrea Gibson, Angel Nafis, Ilya Kaminsky, Richard Siken, Amanda Galvan Huynh, Amanda Gomez, and Kelsey Wort.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Give whole and unabashed love infinitely and endlessly to my people.

17 - 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?

Shameless plug for my band, Ocean Glass! I would have loved to give the whole band thing a proper run back when I first started the band. But heck, I’m young! I still might take a crack at it! If I weren’t in the arts though, I definitely would have gone into counseling or social work. I just really love talking to people and building relationships.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t think I had a choice. Even as a child, I had a robust love for storytelling. For hours I’d arrange legos and plastic army men into these intricate battle scenes, give them all dialogue and backstories, and of course, weep for them when characters I loved met their end. (For you folks who write fiction and end up with dead characters, how do you ever recover? It’s too much!) Writing was the place to find connection when I felt alone and was also the place I could be alone when the world was too much to tussle with. With my struggles with anxiety and depression, writing was also a way to live outside my own head for a bit when things got bad. At first it was freedom that allowed me to write, and then it was survival that kept me at the page.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

How do I pick one book??? Recently I’ve been bouncing between Space Struck by Paige Lewis and The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu. Both come with some powerhouse words! I also read Gemini by Kelsey Wort probably once a week, definitely a staple in works I return to. It’s not out yet, but I’ve got an ARC of Wasting Disease by Amanda Gomez and my goodness, y’all need to order this book when it comes out in the fall!!!

I need to be better about watching movies, but the last one I recommend for everyone is Knives Out! Fun, witty, suspenseful! A good time all around.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m prepping my second chapbook, Brown Boy, for its release later this fall through Porkbelly Press, working on a new EP with my band, Ocean Glass, recording some other fun surprises here and there that are both poetry and music related, putting together poems for my first full-length book of poetry, and working on the last few essays on this creative non-fiction manuscript called Mixtapes for The Dead & The Dying. Trying my best to keep myself busy!

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