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Interview with 2017 Blue Light Reader Raena Shirali

Indiana Review is gearing up for our annual Blue Light Reading, where we have the honor of bringing to Bloomington three talented writers who will read from their work and conduct craft workshops open to all. We are thrilled to have Raena Shirali as one of our Blue Light readers this year. In the following interview, she discusses her just-released poetry collection GILT, poetic closure, and advice to writers at all stages.

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Raena Shirali is the author of GILT (YesYes Books, 2017). Her poems & reviews have appeared in Blackbird, Ninth Letter, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Four Way Review, & elsewhere. She currently lives in Lewisburg, where she is the Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, & serves as a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine.

1) At what point did the individual pieces in GILT start to coalesce into a collection? How did you develop the title?

GILT was born out of my MFA thesis, so part the challenge of synthesizing a manuscript came from having to find a way to explain these seemingly disparate tropes—interracial relationships, anxieties around marriage, sexual violence, heritage, the political body, the personal body—as part of a whole. That process really began my second year of graduate school, when I realized on a personal level that I had to stop trying to compartmentalize aspects of my identity for the benefit of the Other—whether that was a lover, or my family, or the predominantly white spaces I’ve always had to navigate. That’s when I began to see the book’s arc and questions as inherently connected—just as was true for myself, there was no space for compartmentalization in the book. And it’s no coincidence that I was single or heartbroken for much of the generation of GILT. Being alone made me reconsider the self not as a limited entity, but as one that is shaped and informed by varied and numerous cultural forces. In my visualization of the connection, I pictured the self, sitting alone in a room, with all the book’s various tropes radiating out of her, out of the room, out of the country—and then those same tropes radiating back into the self.

In terms of the title, I knew that it had to include gold as an image—because there’s so much gold in the book, and because I consider “if i wrap myself in gold” to be the book’s title poem, in a sense—while also referring in some capacity to the liminal space these speakers occupy. After months of writing and scrapping titles, I finally came up with SHORELINE GILT, and my thesis director, Kathy Fagan, immediately suggested cutting the word SHORELINE, noting that “gilt” is a homophone for “guilt,” which speaks to issues of consent, personal grief, and, perhaps most importantly, the grief that comes from feeling cultural disconnect.

2) Several of the pieces in GILT are persona poems. What challenges did you face in adopting the perspectives of these speakers?

I was, and am, concerned in this collection about the political function of persona, and I really believe that to do persona well, and to write about violence you aren’t physically connected to, you have to be willing to involve yourself—whether that means recognizing the shortcoming of the project, or being willing to emotionally go therewith your speaker(s). As a survivor of sexual assault and assimilatory trauma, I found writing poems engaging with rape or witch hunting less challenging in terms of my relative confidence entering those experiences and narratives. Poems in the book dealing with Hindu-Muslim violence, though, were more difficult to write because the connection between myself and both the victims and perpetrators is more distant. But, that work—poems like “The State Para-Military Force Speaks” and “From Our Bedroom”—evolved largely over my first and second year of graduate school, whereas work that involved a direct implication of my self and my experiences developed later on. I think positioning myself as poet-bearing-witness, as beginning to question the guilt of the perpetrators of hate crimes, led to what I see as the most complex persona poem in the book: “CROWD/GIRL.” It was immensely difficult to separate myself from the GIRL speaker enough in that poem to envision and then embody the CROWD, who alternately sat complacently by and participated in the gang rape of that twenty-year-old girl. I believe that the goal of persona is to take the reader as close to the instance of violence as one possibly can, and most of the persona poems in GILT were frankly steps leading up to “CROWD/GIRL”s engagement with that strategy. And I can’t overstate how difficult I found it to speak not on behalf of but as a part of the CROWD in that poem. I had to ask myself: how could I be a spectator of this kind of injustice—and how am I already a spectator to similar injustices? The answers to those questions are messy, and force us to think about our complacency and comfort as political statements. That was definitely the hardest part of writing into the CROWD’s perspective.

3) Your Blue Light Workshop description asks us to think about poetic closure: “What, if anything, do poetic endings reach for? What happens when we consider the ending as a political gesture?” In light of that topic, I’m wondering if there are any poems in GILT whose endings gave you particular trouble. And how did you know when these poems were complete?

To me, no poem is really the final word, even if the poem is fulsome in its articulation and conception. It seems almost haphazard to call the poems in GILT complete, in a way, when the notions of fracture, chaos, and fear are so integral to the project. That being said, of course those poems are at least reaching in their endings. “Now You Are Eating Alone” gave me the most trouble, by far, primarily because of feedback I received indicating that the ending didn’t wrap things up effectively. And I agree with that insight—the poem ends with the speaker not “hav[ing] the words to say why just yet,” and as such is truly embodying the liminal, while simultaneously avoiding easy explanations or prescriptions for the connection between the (female) speaker’s grief and sexuality. Really, that ending felt fitting only once I asked craft talk questions of it—what happens when we consider the speaker’s evasion of closure as a comment on female sexuality? Whenever I can’t end a poem, I ask questions of it (see Audre Lorde’s Questionnaire to Oneself, adapted from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider).

4) I love the formal variety of GILT, how the poems travel in such different ways across the page. What is the form in which you first began writing poetry, and how did you become inspired to let the pieces take different shapes?

I certainly have forms I prefer engaging with in the generative space—single-stanza, 1.5” spaced blocks; couplets—but most of these poems were generated or revised individually in forms that are very similar to their iterations in That’s partially because I wanted to allow individual poems as well as the book to be a liminal space, where answers aren’t accessible to us, because in any instance of violence, what is the answer, really? How do we formally explore such barren landscapes— landscapes fraught with the aftermath of violence, landscapes where girls aren’t welcome, where girls are the fear-riddled creatures we’ve brought them up to be, no matter the country? Another way to conceive of the book’s formal variety is that for those of us (so many of us) whose identities are inseparable from the way we navigate this world, our art is often a reflection of that truth. My preoccupation with formal experimentation indicates to me that my work isn’t concerned with comfort, and that instability is its/our very strength.

5) If you could give one piece of advice to writers at all stages, what would it be?

I’ll borrow from Audre Lorde again. Every time you sit down to write, ask yourself, “for what do you not have the words, yet?” Write toward that, no matter how daunting it may seem.

If you’ll be in Bloomington on Saturday, 3/25, don’t miss Raena Shirali, Andrea Lewis, and Cathy Bowman reading at the Bishop Bar, 7 p.m.!

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