Sunday, October 15, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with A.D. Lauren-Abunassar

A.D. Lauren-Abunassar is an Arab-American writer. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Narrative, Rattle, Boulevard, and elsewhere. Her first book, Coriolis, is forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press as winner of the 2023 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize.

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

My first book is filled with work from so many different stages in my life. So it means a lot to me in that I can look at something and remember the exact moment I wrote it and what was happening in the world then. A weird kind of time travel and such. To have the book selected by writers I respect so much, and designed/read/edited by such a generous team, is just something I’m really grateful for. It’s changed my life because it has taught me how much a team can come around a bit of writing—teachers, editors, designers, typesetters, publishers, etc. I remember going to all of these poetry lectures and readings as a student. Once, one writer talked about how the streets near his house were all letters of the alphabet. And so, “in learning the alphabet, I found my way home,” he said — or something like that. It reminded me of learning the alphabet with my father. My dad, in his really thick accent, always pronounced it “etch” instead of H and I loved to mimic this, even though it drove my teacher crazy. Years later, I was doing some volunteer work, reading stories with this really little kid who used to say ache instead of H. Three different ways to say one letter and, in learning all of them, I also felt like I was exploring some city, looking for home. I guess I bring up memories like these because it feels like it says something about my own work and how it’s changed but also stayed the same. I’m always looking for something, always a bit restless. The way I look changes—maybe my more recent work is different in that I’m turning more and more to the stories of others than my own—but the impulse to break something down, even to the letter, is a kind of play for me that’s always present in my writing.              

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

I came to poetry first as a reader, but a very narrow-minded one. Surrealists confused me. Modernists frustrated me. I struggled to see anything of the world I grew up in reflected in work that felt, largely, distant to me—maybe a little elitist. So I went to college primarily interested in fiction. Then I was so lucky to have some absolutely wonderful teachers. One brought a section of Adrienne Rich’s “Cartographies of Silence,” to my first year seminar. This has not only stayed my favorite poem, it also helped me realize that there was a world of poetry I never knew about. From there, I just kept reading. I returned to work that frustrated and confused me and had totally new experiences with it because I was so much more open to the utility (and importance!) of disorientation. More than anything, I think I began to realize that something doesn’t have to make sense to have meaning. And that meaning is a thing you build. You have to be accountable to it. For me, poetry has always been a great reminder of that. Beyond art, it’s such a nice human/life lesson as well.

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?

I’m a pretty slow writer. I do keep lots of different notebooks with single lines that will come to me while I’m reading or watching or listening to something. Sometimes these grow into fuller pieces and sometimes they just stay lost there. As slow as I usually am, every now and then something will come very quickly and usually these are the pieces that are in response to something external. For example, a poem I wrote about an article I read on a lion who ate her cub. After I read the story, the responding poem came very quickly afterwards because I was in such a hurry to try and live in that narrative world for a moment. It’s sort of similar with revision—sometimes because the piece has taken so long to emerge, it emerges fairly “finished.” More often than not, though, I’m a proponent of really radical revision. Swapping the order of lines. Rewriting an entire poem keeping just one or two images from the initial draft etc. Sometimes I’ll find an earlier draft of a poem in a notebook and think, “wow that was totally fine? Why did I scramble it so much?” I think in those cases it comes down to that internal engine we all have that tells us when we need to keep going to get at something different, even if not necessarily better.

4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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 would say I’m typically not writing with a book in mind. Though that could certainly change as I’ve found I do start thinking of larger/longer projects more and more lately. I also find that often single poems of mine turn into larger sequences or series. The same way an essay or a piece of journalism or a story often sets down an obsession that guides the next four or five pieces I work on. Maybe for me it has to do with an interest in transmutation (how much this mimics memory and life) and how you can constantly push to examine one central thing from a new lens/perspective. Maybe it has to do with restlessness and a sense I’m not quite getting it right, even when I’m getting close enough to call something ready. For all of these reasons though, questions often mark the beginning of a piece for me. The journalist in me is also very driven by external sources: a film I love, a piece of music, even the fun fact on a Snapple bottle cap. I like the idea that a single focused influence can very often take up more of me than I expect, growing into something like a book or a larger project as a result.

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

They’re definitely not counter to my creative process. I actually think attending readings and panel discussions was a monumental influence for me as a younger writer and as a writer to this day. It’s one of my favorite things to do as an audience member—whether I’m in a creative drought or am very actively writing. I haven’t quite gotten over that public speaking fear that makes reading my own work a little terrifying. But I try to keep pushing myself and finding opportunities to read because it’s a lovely way to inch outside of the isolation writing sometimes enforces. Also, answering questions about my work, or even just listening to the way something sounds in my voice or another’s, is a great way to get closer to understanding what I really want to be working on or accomplishing with a given project.

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 am someone that gets really paralyzed if I think too much about theoretical concerns. So I try to engage with them but limit them. When I was in grad school, I wrote a poem about a character from Arabic literature. One of the critiques of the poem, in workshop, was whether or not I had a right to take on that voice. Several of my classmates spent the majority of the workshop discussing this question, not even really getting to the craft of the poem itself. They were concerned that the answer was no, I didn’t really seem to have the right. It was a troubling experience for me because 1) The assumption that I was not Arab myself was incorrect 2) It brought up a whole lot of existential tailspinning (am I Arab enough since I don’t look as Arab as some of my family, for example, since I’m not totally fluent in the language, etc.) and 3) It scared me that there was this possibility we couldn’t engage with certain things that elicit our curiosity as writers, and that this list of things we can’t engage with are constantly shifting and hard to predict. Isn’t that an obstacle to empathy? At the same time, yes—it’s hugely important to me that writing is genuine and that writers are aware of their own positionality AND do not obstruct or co-opt the voice or tradition of another. In that way, I suppose I’m always asking: where is my work in relation to empathy, honesty, originality? And do I have a reason why I’ve written this? Those are the questions that feel most important to me.

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 guess this is a question I’m always asking (re: the above question) and one I don’t think I ever get totally close to answering. Maybe because the role of the writer is always changing, especially as the culture changes. I think it’s important to question, to indict, to reflect, to listen. To engage (internally, externally). There are so many responsibilities and roles. But I guess, at the end of the day, I keep coming back to empathy. And I don’t want to project that onto every writer. I just know that for me, writing is a practice in empathy and is always something that shapes my own understanding of my work and what I feel my role is.

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

Both. I think if you find an editor who reads work on its own terms, it’s not difficult. When you’re editing with someone (say in a workshop) who tends to project the way they would write something on your work, not the way you’ve written it, it can get tricky. I’m constantly guided by that workshop mentality of always wanting to hear other people out and try and find a place for their edit in my work. You have to eventually get good at knowing which advice to follow though, and which advice to save for another piece altogether. Still—I always seek feedback and editing from others when I write. It’s essential for me.

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

Don’t be afraid if you’re lost. When you’re lost, you notice everything.

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

I think I work best, or at least most regularly, in a state of divided attention. Writing and watching a film, for example. Indexing an essay and listening to a podcast. Because of that, I find myself moving between genres constantly. I hesitate to say I move between them easily because writing rarely feels easy to me. But I guess for me the forms are always in conversation. So moving between them is sort of like moving from room to room all within the same house. I’m turning to writing as a way to explore. And that’s where the appeal of working in different genres lies: there are so many new ways to explore. Where poetry or fiction may feel a little insular sometimes, journalism allows me to engage with the stories of others. Where journalism may have more fixed “rules,” poetry or fiction lets me deconstruct rules if I feel so inclined. I think it’s so important to embrace a sense of curiosity. And different forms of writing allow me to really lean into that impulse.

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?

Unfortunately, I’m just not the kind of person who is good at routine. I end up feeling a little bit too trapped or stilted in them. That said, I try to write at least a little every day. When I was going through a really bad creative drought, a friend told me to commit to writing five sentences daily, even if they were really bad ones. And I have found that in following that rule, five sentences often turn into a lot more. It’s really about just making yourself start which, for me, has always been the most challenging part. I also try to stop writing for the day when I still have a little more to say. That way I can start the next day with something already on my mind. Usually, my tendency is to spend the first half of the day gathering content by reading or engaging with outside material of some sort. The writing almost always comes later. So a typical day would probably start by going outside for a little while, taking a walk. Then sitting outside for some reading or research. Basically doing everything I can outside, which helps me sort of “boot up the system.” And though I don’t follow routine by way of doing something at certain times, I do have daily habits: Try for one walk a day, try to watch one movie a day, practice my Spanish and Arabic everyday, write at least one thing in my commonplace book, etc.

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

For me, there is a certain amount of waiting involved in enduring a moment of stall. I’ve found that trying too hard to unblock myself just makes me more frustrated and, as a result, more blocked. Even when I’m stalled though, I’ll write those crappy five sentences (a teacher once told me to always remember, “you can’t edit nothing,” and that is something that’s really always stayed with me) and then I’ll step away and just try and stop overthinking things. Reading has always been my surefire way to get inspired. I also go back to old writing prompts. Ekphrastic pieces based on paint swatches, something that responds to something I’ve read in the news, etc. One time, I told a teacher that I felt blocked because I just kept writing about the same obsessions over and over and how could I get new obsessions? And he (very wisely) told me it was not about getting new obsessions but finding new ways to write about the obsessions you have. So doing things like writing a poem about grief using only words found in the dictionary entry for joy, for example, are ways I’ll try and look for new light, new perspective. And really, it’s often about churning out a lot of bad stuff so that you can get to what has potential underneath it all.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Wet grass. New tennis balls. Sawdust. Sumac. Horse hair. Liz Claiborne perfume. Elkalub. Too many!

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?

I’m a really big collector. Old gas lamps, empty cigar boxes, typewriters, whiskey decanters, rolodexes, etc. And I think that instinct to collect is there in my influences. Which is my way of saying I’m just influenced by so much. Nature, always. But also things like John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible,” Ann Hamilton’s “face to face,” Elizabeth Cotten’s folk songs or John Fahey’s requiems. Guillermo Del Toro, Michel Gondry, Marjane Satrapi, Luis Buñuel, Katie Paterson, Wes Montgomery, Katherine Toukhy, Sarah Knobel, Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson… And then yes, science — everything from the pheromones of ants (and animal behavior more generally) to botany to modern and antiquated medical practices. I started getting really into watching tennis with my brother a few years ago and even something like that feels like an influence, albeit maybe a little less legible. The movement, the fluidity, the physicality, the sound. And while I find it difficult to actually write without reading, I’d say that maybe the inspiration for actual narratives or thematic obsessions come more often from things outside of books altogether.  

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

This list is massive. But a few examples: Adrienne Rich’s “Cartographies of Silence” and the entirety of The Dream of a Common Language beyond that. Etel Adnan — maybe Surge in particular. Joan Retallack’s Memnoir. Anything at all by Lorca. Maggie Nelson (also anything but Bluets first). Toni Morrison (also also anything but I’ve probably reread Song of Solomon the most, especially the section on how the clouds love a mountain). The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy. Humanimal, Bhanu Kapil. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams. James Agee, Let us Now Praise Famous Men. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. There are just too many more to list.

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

Writing-wise, I’d love to try writing a play or a screenplay. I don’t think I’d be any good at either but I’m such a fan of both forms. Non-writing: too many things to list but certainly one of them would be to hike the Camino de Santiago.

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?

I would have loved to work in a library or a bookstore. Or, I think, as either a photojournalist or filmmaker. When I was a kid, I used to say I’d be a professional tree climber.

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

It’s hard to say because writing was just always the thing I was going to do. Even if I wanted to be a soccer star or an equestrian or a river guide, I always wanted to also write. I guess I think of writing as a place to go as much as a thing to do. And it was always a place I kept coming back to.

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

I just reread A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozecki and that book never fails to knock me out. Films—maybe The Worst Person in the World.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve currently been doing a lot of research on pilgrimages. And I find that that, along with the concept of walking and believing, is finding its way into everything I write at the moment.

12 or 20 (second series )questions;

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