Thursday, November 26, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch

Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch [photo credit: Laurence Philomène] is a queer Arab poet living in Tio’tia:ke, unceded Kanien’kehá:ka territory (Montreal). Their work has appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry 2018 anthology, GUTS, the Shade Journal, Arc Poetry Magazine, Room Magazine, and elsewhere. They were longlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2019. knot  body, a collection of creative non-fiction and poetry has just been published by Metatron Press, and The Good Arabs, a poetry collection, will be published in Fall 2021 with Metonymy Press. You can find them on Instagram @theonlyelitareq.

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

I don't know that my first book has changed my life exactly, though it's just about to come out so maybe that's to be determined. I do think that my first book taught me more about my aesthetic and theoretical concerns and preferences, and has showed me the ways I want my writing to keep growing and changing.

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

I actually first started writing when I was a kid and I wrote a bunch of Fan fiction and little short stories. I started writing a bit of poetry when I was in my last year of high school and we were learning about different poetic forms in my creative writing class. I went to a pretty small high school and there weren't that many "cool" classes so I was stoked about the CW class. I started writing poetry for class, and those poems were really bad. When I did this creative process class in my first semester at Concordia, a prof had told me my poems sounded pretty and they probably meant something to me, but they didn't mean anything to anyone else. It was the best advice I got, and I started experimenting more with my poetic voice, reading more poetry (I had only really read fiction before) and discovered I loved poetry and the playfulness and experimentation inherent to the form.
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 honestly depends on the project. I do quite a lot of thinking before I can write anything, walking around with my ideas and mixing them around in my head. Then I do A LOT of reading. Sometimes though, I'll read one poem and have to run to my computer to start a poem. Reading really gets my brain going. Often when a poem makes its way to the page, it's almost ready and needs a few edits. Or it's obviously not going to become anything and it's more of an exercise that I put away in a folder that helps me to get where I'm going. When it comes to non-fiction, or the lyric essay I wrote for knot  body, there was a lot of note taking, a lot of research, a lot of reading, A LOT of edits, a lot of exclaiming and talking to people and trying to work through what and how I wanted to write it. It's a lot harder for me to write non-fiction or fiction, though I think that's mostly because I haven't honed my craft as much and haven't had as much practise.

I often come up with ideas for future writing projects while working on a writing project, and I have to often write out my idea and then put it away for later or else I'll get distracted from my current project and use the new idea as another way to procrastinate.

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?

I used to write a lot of singular poems, but then I started thinking about my work in terms of the larger project, and I don't know if I'll be able to go back to writing singular poems. I really love working towards a bigger project, having all the pieces work together to create a larger narrative or mood or feeling. I think the overarching theme feels important to me, to keep my poems grounded and tied together somehow. But, before I start writing, I always always read other poetry.

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

I really love reading. I often test out new poems or pieces at readings and see how they land, or how they sound. I love performance, I love engaging with an audience and seeing how they react. It's one of the things that's been hard about the pandemic, having to launch a book virtually and not really being able to tour. It definitely feels like a bit of a loss, reading on Zoom or Instagram live or any online medium, and not being able to hear people's instant reactions, those they can't edit out.  
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 have so many theoretical concerns behind my writing, almost too many sometimes, and I have to ween it in a little. Kama LaMackerel, during a panel I did with them, recently said that their art, first and foremost, is decolonial, and I'm inclined to say a similar thing about my work. I think my theoretical concerns have a lot of overlap with my political concerns, thinking through gender and feminism, race theory, socialist ideas, post-colonial critical theory, etc. I also work with a lot with the idea of biography, though in a deconstructed and spliced way, working through what is "real" and what is "made-up". I think poetry and creative non-fiction is often read by the wider public as inherently true, which I think my work tries to deconstruct and push against. I think all writing for me is made-up, at least in the sense that choosing and picking certain experiences or things I've heard or read to put into a poem or an essay feels like a choice of fiction, the fiction of how I experienced a certain thing, rather than the work of pure biography.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writers have so much power as culture makers. Sometimes I think people assume writers are always activists, especially those of us with marginalized identities, but that's not always the case. I think a lot of people are forced into this role with their writing that they might not want to occupy. Not everyone wants to be a spokesperson because they are a marginalized person. A lot of people would rather do their activism in other ways.  However, while I don't think poetry can replace hands-on activism, but I do think it's a strong tool that can reach people, at least in small ways. I think the subjects I chose for my writing feel first and foremost, important to me, and to the kinds of thinking and questioning I want to do, but hopefully also bring certain concepts like transphobia/transmisogyny and racism/anti-black racism into people's consciousness while also normalizing trans people and BIPOC. But I think it would be deeming to assume that was the only importance of my work. I think culture makers bring joy and pleasure to the world, and that's also important on its own.   

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

I find it such a pleasure and so essential. I've had so many great experiences with editors, particularly my editor for knot  body, Tess Liem, author of Obits. (Coach House 2018) who I think understands my work well enough to help me work on what I'm already trying to do. I think good editors try to understand the poet's intentions. Bad editors, which I've had, have tried to turn my work into what they wanted it to be rather than help me achieve the best of what I'm trying to do. The other issue I've had with editors is that a lot of white editors don't know how to edit work that talks explicitly about race. I've often had people treat me as though I don't know what I'm talking about when often, I'm the expert about race in that particular conversation, as I've thought about it, experienced it, learned about it, and read about it in ways these editors often haven't. I've had small tiffs with people about the correct terminology to use and the importance of critical race theory in reviews.

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

That reading was an important part of being a poet and that I shouldn't just focus on the page. It was something I knew, but just being told it, even if it was sort of obvious, felt really important. I think so many poets are afraid of performing, which feels a bit sad to me. I think a lot of people think you have to be insular and have stage fright to be a true poet, but I think we lose a lot when as poets, we don't think of the stage, lean into the performance aspect of poetry, and remember that poetry came from an oral history. I think it would be ableist to not think about the ways printing poetry books makes it more accessible, but I also think that sound in poetry is important, no matter which way you get to "hear it", whether it's in your head while you read out, heard out loud at a poetry event, or signed! I went to a poetry reading and a (music) show where the performances were interpreted in sign language and it was so beautiful to see, because the movements of the interpreter were almost like dance, something we don't always equate with poetry performance. The performance of poetry in sign is something that we should think about and hear about more.

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

I love moving between genres because I feel like not all genres are able to address all the thematic and theoretical concerns I am trying to address. The essay in knot body felt important because I was trying to talk directly about fibro, in a way that I didn't feel like I could quite do with poetry. I'm not really a fan of poetry that explains too much, I'm much more excited about images and sound and language choice and mood and feeling in poetry. I didn't want to explain fibromyalgia and the ways that it is experienced by trans people through a poem. But I also didn't want to write a boring didactic essay about fibro, and so I blended poetry and essay to have more movement running through the piece, a way to challenge the standard of the essay writer being seen as "the expert".

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 have a shared studio that I go to that's run by my friend Wai-Yant. I tend to come in Monday-Friday from 11-5ish, a decent writing day, where I split my day between writing, reading, chatting, editing, etc. Closer to deadlines I tend to spend too much time in my own brain, staring at my computer, and often have to ask my studio mates to talk to me about benign things to remind me how to be a human outside of poetry and to get me out of my brain, that often turns mush at the end of the day. I love poetry and writing but it's actually quite draining sometimes.

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

I always read my favourite poetry books. I often know which one I need to read to remind me what I love about writing. Tommy Pico's books are some I often go back to, especially Feed. I'll also look up singular poems online to remind me what poetry sounds like haha. Like I'll look up poems published online by Danez Smith or Bhanu Kapil or Vi Khi Nao or Hanif Abdurraqib or look through their books that I own. I often go back to Chen Chen's poems "Winter" and "Poem In Noisy Mouthfuls". Kay Gabriel's letter poem "Bath 2" in Peach Mag really inspired the letters in knot body, and I often went back to it to figure out how she did the epistolary form so well. I had a real Carl Phillips moment while writing knot body, and I also spent a lot of time with Anne Boyer's books Garments Against Women and The Undying. Montreal based Kaie Kellough's Magnetic Equator was particular helpful for writing some of my next book, The Good Arabs. Honestly I often turn to a lot of contemporary BIPOC writers and queer writers. Writing for me is a conversation, and it's important for me to be in dialogue with my contemporaries. I think sometimes that's to the detriment of my reading of older writers, which I'm trying to do more of.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?


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?

Music is really important to my writing process. I think sound rather than lyrics fuel my writing, so I often have to listen to things that are able to live in the background of my brain, like a lot of Oum Kalthoum's performances, or Chiekha Rimitti's music, basically a lot of Arab music given it's not in the same language that I'm writing. In this way, the sounds and feelings bleed into my work rather than the actual words, though sometimes a word or two sticks out and ends up in my poems.

I often think about albums that work as a whole in order to try to emulate that in my books. I don't particularly feel like writing singular poems right now, and often work towards book length projects because thematically that makes sense to me, several pieces working together to create a bigger narrative, or a big feeling or overall effect. Albums that do that effectively can feel extraordinary to listen to, one song moving into the other seamlessly. I think this is the case for Sufjan Steven's Carrie & Lowell, Tierra Whack's Whack World, Mitski's Bury Me At Makeout Creek, Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, Abdallah Oumbadougou's Anou Malane, Yves Jarvis' The Same but by Different Means, and honestly so many other albums.

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

Dionne Brand, especially The Blue Clerk, has really shifted the way I think about my work, emphasizes its decolonial nature, and has opened up doors in my brain for what I want my work to do. Tommy Pico's work has helped me learn how to incorporate play, humour, sound, and movement into my work. Jasmine Gibson's Stop Texting Me series also informed play in my work, and the ways to incorporate political ideas without it feeling didactic. I've honestly gone back to her poems multiple times over the past two years and often use them to help me write.

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

Probably travel a bit more? I don't know, it sounds like such a basic answer but part of growing up for me was moving a lot from country to country and the recent stability of Montreal has been great, but sometimes I still get that itch to travel and see the world and make connections. I want to visit a lot of the Arab world that I've only read about in books, but the current state of current areas make it hard to travel to (and honestly it would feel selfish to travel there with the privilege of my Canadian passport), and more than anything, I wish that the people of Syria, Palestine, Yemen, and other Arab countries might get some peace from the intense state violence inflicted on them.

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?

Honestly nothing? I don't particularly like working, or capitalism, and my fibromyalgia has gotten bad enough that a regular 9-5 job or anything that requires too much physical exertion, standing up for long periods of time, or regular hours feels exhausting to me. I'm also a bit romantic when I think about writing, and I love books and literature so much, even when it's a pain in the ass to write, and I don't think I would really change the fact that I get to spend most of my days thinking about books and writing.

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

I initially wanted to be a doctor while in my teens. Partially because of all the Grey's Anatomy I watched as a teen, partially because I was fascinated by surgery and human bodies, partially because my sister was in the hospital for a while as a kid because of her chronic neurological disorder. But then my creative teacher told me I was a great writer, and I was my english teacher's pet because I was the only one in my class who enjoyed analyzing literature and writing essays as much as I did, and figured my love of books and writing was something worth pursuing.

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

I would probably have to say that Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward is one of the best books I've ever read. The audiobook is also stellar. I think I spend a lot of time thinking about books that I love that might help my writing (i.e. The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand or Trish Salah's Wanting in Arabic, which were both (writing) life changing books for me, but Sing Unburied Sing, though I definitely think it's probably influenced my writing, I read as a reader rather than a writer. Honestly I re-watch Howl's Moving Castle many times a year, so I might not be the right person to ask about "great films"; I'm easily impressed by beautiful visuals and give movies more space for bad storytelling if they succeed at good visual storytelling than I give books. It's the same with albums, I give them space to have bad lyrics if they have good non verbal/audio storytelling.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm currently working on my second book of poetry called The Good Arabs, which will be out with Metonymy in Fall 2021. After that, I'm hoping to work on some short stories/experimental prose poetry.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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