Tawanda Mulalu [photo credit: Joseph Lee] was born in Gaborone, Botswana, in 1997. His first book, Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die, was selected by Susan Stewart for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and is listed as a best poetry book of 2022 by The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Washington Post. His chapbook Nearness was chosen as the winner of The New Delta Review 2020-21 Chapbook Contest, judged by Brandon Shimoda. Tawanda’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Brittle Paper, Lana Turner, Lolwe, The New England Review, The Paris Review, A Public Space and elsewhere. His writing has been supported by Brooklyn Poets, the Community of Writers, the New York State Summer Writers Institute and Tin House Books. Tawanda has also served as a Ledecky Fellow for Harvard Magazine and as the first Diversity and Inclusion Chair of The Harvard Advocate. He was recently awarded The Denver Quarterly’s 2022 Bin Ramke Prize for Poetry.
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?
Hmm. It hasn't actually changed much about my day-to-day life. I still have to labor and breathe and stuff. I feel marginally more confident in my ability to get published, but I don't actually feel more confident in my ability to write (actually, a little more horrified: I keep thinking of the poets I admire and what they did for their second book and, often, the jump in quality of writing from first to second book for those folks is absurdly large…) It's changed a few things socially. For my friends who believed I could be a writer, it was simple confirmation—which warms my heart, because I didn't feel that great about the whole endeavor (even though it was a dream of mine to get this thing out there). Those same friends say nice things about me at parties when I go with them, so I get cute introductions to new people (which is kind of helpful in New York for all sorts of reasons, both good and bad).
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I used to write a lot of personal essays, particularly in college. They were all hyper lyrical and suffered from a lack of cohesion and scattered, imagistic narratives. Eventually I gave up on being able to write something extended that could make 'sense' in the way that fiction and non-fiction tend to. So I ended up committing to the thing that made my brain feel safest. Poetry was, is, really good for the way I think: which tends to be deeply affective, wildly associative, etc. It's the only place where I don't have to feel ashamed for not having my thoughts altogether—and often, not having my thoughts altogether makes the poems more interesting (though the editing thereafter becomes a nightmare…) I’m suddenly worrying now because I’m remembering the much-quoted Auden phrase, “Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” Maybe let’s all focus on the “might be” part.
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?
Honestly, I don't know. This is my first real (finished?) writing project. I wrote this book from a place of extended depression. A lot of it feels like it sort of just happened to (with?) me. I think, in writing terms, the book came relatively quickly (the first poems are from the fall of 2019, the last poems are from the summer of 2021). I have a strong feeling that the next project that I'd like to write will be long and torturous—which is fine. Totally fine. Genuinely fine. Yeah.
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 don't want it to be like this moving forward, but for this project anyways, the poems tended to come to me from places of feelings that weren't fun (pandemic depression, seasonal affective disorder, pretty-normal-in-retrospect heartbreak, persistent fears of racialized harm, diasporic longing, etc, etc—) I often wrote in a way that's kind of like listening to music when you need a pick-me-up. I was also fairly desperate—given my overly-large imaginations of the various failures I had accumulated during my time at Harvard—to write something to prove to myself that I could matter in some way (an insipid motivation for art, obviously). Some of the poems in the book are "project poems" that I wrote for the sake of filling in perceived gaps in the book (this is particularly true of 'Frenzy' which was basically an attempt to justify having the cover of the book as the cover of the book). For now, I have an idea for a second collection that involves writing several poems that sound like arias (even more so than in this one). We'll see how that actually ends up going. I’m pretty optimistic about it to be honest.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Not really? I read some of my poems to my friends sometimes when I was tipsy at parties or cuddling on a bed with them or whatever—all those things ended up being strangely helpful because I trust(ed) them. Also, reading poems out loud in writing workshops is also a little helpful because you get a sense of when the music is actually doing what you wanted it to do (or something worse, or something better). But mostly I read out loud to myself. I read out loud to myself a lot while writing the first book, and often did so when I wasn't feeling very happy in the vain (very vain) hope that the poems would somehow inevitably make me feel better. Which sometimes worked. Sometimes. Those were lucky moments that made me believe in the poems a lot more than was likely warranted (but I wouldn't have it any other way, really).
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 really need to get over Sylvia Plath but I have absolutely no intention of doing that anytime soon.
(I worry, like everyone else, that I'm not good enough. I mean, there shouldn't be a 'good enough' aspect of writing poetry in terms of the desire to write poetry. But I care a lot about writing something that outlives me. Not even for the sake of being remembered or whatever (that's what love and family and friendship is for). Mostly, I care about having poems outlive me because I think poems are beautiful and I want to be good enough to honor that beauty (also a little insipid, but, in this case: why not be? It's a maudlin, flowery, sentimental and astonishing art.))
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 have no idea, sorry. I want to believe that poetry matters more than, I don't know, economics. It feels like that to me. But I don't have a good, universal theory regarding the importance of being a writer (tried that—failed horribly, got depressed again). I suppose we could acquiesce to pleasure: the idea that writing, like any other art form, when received or produced invokes pleasure, and that that pleasure is its own justification for writing. I actually don't believe that, and have always modestly resented that argument (yes, yes, pleasure need not be trivial, but the word itself sounds a little trivial, no?).
I guess I want writing and reading to feel more significant than whether or not it invokes strong feelings in me—even if that contradicts the fact that I do this precisely because it invokes strong feelings in me (and, hopefully, others). The best theory I have, at least for poetry, is that it feels like the closest representation of what it's like being a person, of what it's like being a mind in this world that I know and can personally understand (to the extent that poetry can be 'understood'). I think it's important to understand what it's like being a person because we have to live with ourselves and with each other. We can't escape our minds, the feelings within ourselves and others that our minds and other minds provoke. And, since we can't escape that, we should at least pay a great kindness and respect to the fact of our experiences. Poetry is a way of honoring each other, even if that honoring is so absurdly and blatantly materially useless.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Please edit my work, please please please. I love it when I submit stuff to journals and editors suggest I cut lines or re-arrange something or fix a poem in any way. shape or form that they desire. For one thing, if I don't like the advice, I can just ignore it and the work typically ends up getting published anyways. But—and here's the cool part—edit suggestions teach you how to read a poem even if you disagree with them. It's really fun seeing where other people's minds receive or reject ways that you wrote the lines of a poem. And it can also teach you how to read the poem, surprisingly, in its own terms, separately from how you thought you knew how to read it as the ‘original’ author. This is because you end up wondering to yourself: Why did I want to 'fix' the poem a certain way? What is the poem trying to do that is making my mind warrant that kind of intervention? Etc, etc.
I struggled a little because I was so used to taking edit suggestions from classmates and poetry professors and so on (I accepted, about, maybe half of whatever I got and revised my poems accordingly) But the editor for the series my book was published in, Susan Stewart, gave me, like, five edit suggestions and said "do what you want ,it's your book" which made me freak out for about two-plus months. I'm honestly not sure that anyone below the age of 30 should be allowed to publish a poem without editorial intervention (I'm obviously being facetious, and 30 is an arbitrary cut-off age…I'm just admitting to my own anxieties given that so many of my favorite poems that I've read recently have been written in a kind of "late" style that you basically only acquire after having been doing this for decades. I don't think it's me being too self-effacing to say that I trust that kind of learned beauty more than whatever it is that I end up cooking because I felt sad in college. Though, obvious counter-example: Rimbaud).
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don't laugh, but, genuinely, every time Naruto said "Believe it!", both in the manga and anime, he kept me going even up to my early twenties. I say this completely unironically. Perfect anxiety antidote.
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 don't have a writing routine. Right now, a typical day begins with an alarm ringing "Wake-up!" and my body saying "No".
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Music. Always music.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don't know. I didn't even know I didn't know. I haven't been home in three years.
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?
Music. Always music.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Sylvia Plath. Morgan Parker. T.S Eliot. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Robert Hayden. Okot p'Bitek. Chinua Achebe. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Josh Bell. Jorie Graham. Jay Deshpande. Sharon Olds. Haruki Murakami. Vamika Sinha. Isabel Duarte-Grey. Emma de Lisle. Darius Atefat-Peckham. Noname. Earl Sweatshirt. Childish Gambino. Kanye West. Adrianne Lenker. Robin Pecknold. Haolun Xu. Others more. Others more to come.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A good long poem.
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?
I wanted to be a theoretical physicist, but I failed at that. For the past year-and-a-half, I had been working as an investment researcher, which I wasn’t super good at either (I’ve recently resigned). I kind of wanted to try being a clinical psychologist at some point—but maybe later in my life? I was good at teaching, I could maybe try that again. Actually, no: I'd sing. If I could sing, I'd sing. Like in the Dorothea Lasky poem, 'Me and the Otters':
There is no poem that will bring back the dead17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
There is no poem that I could ever say that will
Arise the dead in their slumber, their faces gone
There is no poem or song I could sing to you
That would make me seem more beautiful
If there were such songs I would sing them
O they would hear me singing from here until dawn
At first, it was because I wanted to be smart. Then it was because I didn't really have much else going on (of course I did, we always do. People love us. We love them back.)
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Way of the Earth by Matthew Shenoda (still reading). Aftersun, directed by Charlotte Wells.
19 - What are you currently working on?
There's people I need to talk to.