Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Don Belton Prize until June 15th! In this interview with our editors, 2021 judge Anjali Sachdeva tells us about the her writing process, the unreal in her fiction, and the writers she’s loving right now.Read more…
Posts Categorized: Interview
Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Poetry Prize until March 31st, 2021! In this interview with Poetry Editor janan alexandra, 2021 judge Zeina Hashem Beck opens up about her forthcoming collection of poems, O, writing in both Arabic and English, and the musicality of poetry.
To read her full bio, visit her website here.
To begin, congratulations on your forthcoming collection, O (Penguin, 2022), your third full-length book of poems. What most excites you about this project? How do you see this work in conversation with the rest of your catalog?
It’s a strange thing, to be excited about this project in the middle of a pandemic, after the August 4 Beirut explosion, and also inside the likeliness that my family and I might be moving country after a decade in Dubai. It’s been a difficult year for me, mainly because of what’s been happening in Lebanon. But O contains celebration and wonder, and I am indeed excited about it, despite my anxious brain, and even if I haven’t fully processed this yet. I’m trying to visualize the book in the hands of people who will find it useful, and I’m trying to visualize myself on tour (will this be possible, in 2022?), reading with beloved poets. Inshallah (insert blue eye emoji).
How O is in convo with the rest of my books? While the collection contains my eternal preoccupation with language and place, I think I see it as a quieter, more personal, more inward-looking book of love poems for the body, for friendship, for motherhood, for the divine and the profane.
I’m thinking a lot about the musicality of your work, and by this I mean at least two or three things: both the explicit references your poems make to beloved singers from the Arab world—Um Kulthoum, Abdelhalim Hafiz, Samira Tawfiq, among others—and the lyricism of your language. I’m also thinking about the beautiful ways you read and perform, which is itself an art form. Of course poetry is fundamentally an oral tradition, but sometimes this can get lost in our contemporary literary landscape. Will you tell us more about your relationship to singing, storytelling, vocalization, and music?
All the art forms I love have performance in common. I’ve always wanted to be a singer, but I’ve never had the voice for it (though this doesn’t stop me from subjecting my friends and family to my singing). I’ve always been in love with the theater, and when I left Beirut and then had my two daughters, I could no longer work in it. I’ve always loved poetry too, of course: the quiet reading of it, the writing and speaking it out loud to yourself, and the gifting of it to an audience, with the energy and possible connections this engenders. My first encounters with poetry in French and Arabic at school always involved reciting poems, and this was my favorite kind of homework.
I wrote the poems for the singers of the Arab world that you mention at a time where their music helped me grieve and dance. Their music is one of the homes I carry with me wherever I go. And you know when you listen to a song and it resonates, and you are deeply moved (sometimes to tears, sometimes to think differently about something)? Yes, that’s what poems should do (for me, at least).
You write in both English and Arabic, and you explore your relationship to these two languages in many of your poems. At a poetry reading, you once said, “English is a wound,” which resonated so deeply in my body as a writer of the Lebanese diaspora who, through the complicated legacies of colonization has been painfully estranged from Arabic (my parents, for difficult and meaningful reasons, never taught us Arabic). I’m thinking about your Arabic-English duets and your reflection, “I found out that I am probably kinder to Lebanon in English.” I think a lot about what particular languages can make possible or impossible for us (humor, intimacy, legibility, safety) and I’m wondering how else you relate to or experience this, on and/or off the page? How do poems make possible your constellational identities?
This is a difficult question, which has so many possible layers, and which I won’t pretend to have formulated a definite answer for. But I’ll do my best to discuss part of it here.
I’ve been thinking about why I said “wound” and whether it’s the word I’m looking for. I think I need to process this more, and probably not alone, but with fellow writers who grew up in Arabic and write in English. Perhaps, what I’m trying to say, is there is inside me, simultaneously, the impossibility of saying what I want to say only in English and the fact that English is the language I can most easily poem in. I wonder, too, whether all language is wound, or at least rift? Doesn’t writing poems come from an impossibility?
There’s also the question of audience, an awareness that some people who will read my poems (since I’m an Arab who writes in English) might exoticize me: I try to be aware of that, while at the same time not letting it paralyze me or make me avoid certain topics that could be “misunderstood.”
Also, I was raised on the idea that my access to 3 languages is a privilege that could help me tap into more layers of meaning and being. This isn’t to say there are no colonial powers at work within these languages and in the circumstances that led me, for example, to attend a French school and then write in English. But I’m not US-centric in my writing, and I don’t think much of the US on a daily basis. I’m aware of it of course, but also aware of the worlds of Englishes beyond it and within it. On the other hand, a question I’m often asked when I read in Arab cities is why I don’t write in Arabic. Sometimes, the question is a reproach. I’m learning to let go of my guilt toward Arabic, because it comes from a near deification of the language, and when a language becomes God, it also becomes inaccessible and stiff. I don’t owe anyone an explanation. Neither some Arabs who insist I must write in Arabic, nor some foreigners who aren’t capable of seeing me, nor some fellow Arabs who feel “we” must always be on our guard about what to say about “us.” I believe poems will always find their way to the readers who appreciate or need them. I’m grateful for the work of so many poets and writers around the world, writing in many languages. I’m trying to exist as I am, to write as I am, to remain curious. And I’m not interested in cynicism.
Finally, since you asked about the bilingual Duets: I switch between English and Arabic all the time when I speak, so it’s interesting for me to see what happens when poems do that as well. I think of them as an experiment to try to bring both Arabic and English unto the page and see what conversations happen, and to consider how perception could change with the change of language. Why, for example, in one Duet, does the speaker in Arabic say the city doesn’t remember them, whereas in English, the speaker believes the city won’t betray? There are no answers of course, no formulas, and there’s a lot of space for contradiction.
This is a behind-the-scenes art of poeting question, and one that I think we all have to sort of figure out in our own way, but: what does your creative practice look like at this stage of your career, and what have you learned over the years about your own methods of research, making, noticing, revising ? Who are some of your guides?
It’s been very difficult for me to follow any sort of creative process in this pandemic and with Lebanon falling apart, and I wonder whether this would eventually lead me to a different process. But if I were to describe my “usual” practice: I don’t write every day, I try to read every day, I don’t rush poems, and I don’t feel I need to be a poetry-producing machine. Yes, I get anxious when I feel I’m not writing as regularly as I should, then I remind myself to resist this capitalistic way of thinking and that work comes in many forms, not just words on the page. I listen, I take notes, I wait. I always take guidance from the writers I happen to be reading, and these are some writers I’ve been reading recently in English and Arabic: Audre Lorde, Italo Calvino, Edward Said, Asmaa Azaizeh, Mourid Al-Barghouti (who has recently left us, may he rest in power), Golan Haji, and Lina Mounzer. And I’ve been listening to James Baldwin too, via Joey Ayoub (shout out to his podcast, The Fire These Times), who always reminds us in his newsletter to listen to Baldwin.
Lastly, and thanks again for sharing so generously with us, what are you thinking about—or reading / listening to / watching / studying—these days? What is moving you?
I’ve been working on a podcast in Arabic about Arabic poetry, titled Maksouda; the project was an idea in my head for a couple of years, and I’m extremely excited to be working on it with friend and poet Farah Chamma and the network Sowt. Recording this podcast, and doing so in Arabic (to go back to the convo about the many languages that intersect in us) has been feeding my soul! I’m also excited that Hala Alyan and I have found a home for our poetry anthology of love poems by poets of Arab heritage.
What I’ve been thinking about? Mental health, and ways we could take care of ourselves and each other. Friendship and community. Long voice notes from friends. Lebanon and its heartbreak. Strange and familiar cities. Turning 40 in April. Bougainvillea. How much I miss hugs and dancing with loves. Love.
Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Fiction Prize until March 31st, 2021! In this interview with Fiction Editor Laura Dzubay, 2021 judge Kali Fajardo-Anstine opens up about her award-winning collection of short stories, Sabrina & Corina, the importance of craft in good fiction, and what’s in store for the future.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine is the author of Sabrina & Corina (One World, 2019), winner of an American Book Award and Reading the West Award. Fajardo-Anstine is the 2019 recipient of the Denver Mayor’s Award for Global Impact in the Arts. Her writing has appeared in print and online at Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, O, the Oprah Magazine, The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature, and elsewhere.
A lot of the stories in Sabrina & Corina manage time really masterfully—weaving characters’ backstories in through flashbacks, jumping forward in time to the most relevant scenes, introducing a key event early and then explaining it later, etc. Could you say a little about how you decide to handle time when you’re writing a short story, and what you think its relationship is to structure?
Thank you! Time fascinates me, and I think much of this obsession comes from being part of a large family that has inhabited the same geographic space for generations, and in some cases since time immemorial. The way I tend to handle time in fiction is intended to replicate the reality of having numerous timelines existing at once during a scene. That is to say, if I am standing on a street corner in Denver, not only do I possess my own memories of that corner, but I often have glimmers of stories from my ancestors collapsed into my own experiences. My characters’ minds function in the same way.
Time in my work is communal, shared, and is often not linear. Structurally, this makes for time-infused scenes, where each sentence is imbued with layers of meaning, allusions to the ancestral past, but also an understanding that the future eventually brings death. “Time is an ocean,” sang Bob Dylan, “but it ends at the shore.”
Short stories can feel like microcosms of characters going through specific changes in particular areas of their lives, but in a good story we often get the sense that a character is a complete person, even when what we see of them is limited. How do you decide what parts of a character’s life to include in a story, and what does the process of getting to know a character look like for you?
During my MFA at the University of Wyoming, the first short story I turned into workshop was a draft of “All Her Names.” I was writing about a character named Alicia who had once been well-known in the Denver graffiti scene. I knew she painted trains and had an ex-boyfriend she ran around with despite being married to an older man. Back then, this was 2011 or so, the story wasn’t landing the way I wanted it to, and my professor, the late Brad Watson, stopped me in the English department hallway. We were on a split-level staircase. He was going up and I was going down. The sun was coming in a long window behind Brad’s whitish hair and the stairwell was warm. Brad told me he had been thinking about my story, but he suspected I needed to “dream on it more.” At the time, I thought his advice was ludicrous. I wanted to force my fiction into shape with rules and prescriptive advice. But Brad, a truly gifted and sensitive artist, knew better. Sometimes, we need to listen to our subconscious. Give time over to our characters. Daydream on their realities. “All Her Names” was published eventually and is included in Sabrina & Corina, but it took years for me to finally listen to Alicia.
When reading short fiction, what excites you the most and why?
Everything. If it’s a good story, I’m in love. And what makes a good story? It’s voice, a particular way of looking at the world, a dedication to craft.
Which writers and works do you look to for inspiration?
Arturo Islas, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Edward P. Jones, Katherine Anne Porter, James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Kent Haruf, Katherine Dunn, Jack Gilbert, Mark Strand, Joy Williams, Gabriel García Márquez and many, many others.
Are there any projects you want to share that you’re looking forward to in 2021?
I’ve recently finished some new short stories and I’m very close to completing my first novel. I’ve also written my first book review, which is such an intimate and energizing way to learn about a book.
Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st, 2020! In this interview with 2020 judge Bassey Ikpi, Nonfiction Editor El Williams invites her to talk about literary techniques and influences in her essay collection, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, and what excites her about creative nonfiction.
New York Times Best Selling author Bassey Ikpi is a Nigerian-American, ex-poet, current writer, constant mental health advocate, underachieving overachiever and memoir procrastinator. She lives in Maryland and is working on various creative projects.
In your book, I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying, the POV switches from essay to essay, oftentimes changing from first to second person perspective in a single piece: What power do you feel shifting POV has on a reader’s imagination or emotional response?
I think it does a few things depending on the story being told and why: some of the stories needed to feel immersive. I wanted the audience to live in the experience with me. I also wanted them to be able to activate empathy by placing them as close to the experience as I could. There are essays where I’ve been told that the reader was exhausted after a certain point and, yes, I too was exhausted living it. I want you to know what it feels like for people who live lives with this longer than just between the pages of a book. It also gives me the opportunity to tell a full story based on how I see it. For instance, I needed to tell the story as completely as I could. In the writing, I found myself telling myself the same lies and half-truths I’d always told myself, so giving myself permission to distance helped tell a fuller story. There were times when in the middle of the writing, a part of me would say, “You forgot to mention how…” and rather than editing those out or rewriting them once they were written, I kept them. I would love to say that it was more deliberate than that but it wasn’t. Many of those essays were born out of free writes in the moment; me needing to find some grounding and centering as I was experiencing anxiety or insomnia or what have you. But once I saw how effective it was, I gave myself permission to write as it came instead of worry about making it standard. The plan was always to go back and change the tense and clean up the pronouns and make it look “normal,” but I tried to do that and it changed everything about what I wanted. It just didn’t work and it would have been a lesser book had I done that.
Which writers inspire you and what does their work teach you?
A lot of writers inspire me, for this book:
Lorrie Moore taught me how to tell a short story.
Melissa Febos taught me that poetry can live in prose. She taught me that the truth can be told both unvarnished and beautifully carved. She taught me to tell the truth but edit with kindness. Melissa taught me about freedom in writing.
Megan Stielstra taught me that the “ending” of a sentence or a paragraph or a book didn’t need to be smooth. That a thought, or an emotion, can hang and sit with the reader while the writing has moved on. It was because of her book that I didn’t feel the need to write the “last essay.” I left when I was done and with the idea that there is more to the story than fits in the pages.
J. California Cooper taught me about beauty in brevity. She taught me that some of the most impactful moments can be contained in just a few short sentences.
Ntozake Shange taught me that my two loves, writing and dance, were lovers and I could have them both.
Toni Morrison taught me to write for myself and for my people. No matter who those people are.
Nana-Ama Danquah taught me about telling the truth despite the fear. Telling your story for the sake of the story and nothing else.
Kiese Laymon taught me to be fearless. He gave me permission to write the story ugly.
Many people taught me many things. I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people but these are what came to my mind when I read this question. I’m sure I’ll think of about 95 other people tomorrow and want to edit this.
While reading creative nonfiction, what excites you the most and why?
Beautifully crafted sentences and brilliant, or clever, turns of phrases that take a moment I’ve experienced many times and turn it on it’s side, exposing something I’ve never seen. Or when I read something and say, “I didn’t know how to say that. I didn’t know what that was until I read it.” I love feeling like the author is showing me something that I forgot to look at. I love having my breath catch or escape with worry or compassion or anger or frustration. I want to live in it with the writer. I want to read something beautiful and ugly and authentic and lived in.
I know your collection of essays was published last year and is still fresh, but what’s next for you or what are you most excited for that is happening in the near future?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy the publishing process or anything that came after it. It made me very tense so I’m not in any rush or hurry to write another book. I think this was the book I was meant to write and I don’t have much else to say. I couldn’t be happier with what I wrote and I think it’s okay to let it live.
I did enjoy recording the audiobook so I’m going to be doing some more around that later.
I can’t say too much about some of the other things but I’m excited to see what other shape this book can take.
The 2021 Blue Light Books Prize is open for submissions until October 31st! In this email interview with 2021 judge Nandi Comer, IR invites her to talk about her new book, Tapping Out, her literary influences and writerly obsessions, and the process of developing ourselves through writing.
NANDI COMER is the author of the American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press). She is a Cave Canem Fellow, a Callaloo Fellow, and a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Muzzle, The Offing, and Southern Indiana Review. She currently serves as an assistant poetry editor for Four Way Review and as a poetry editor for Obsidian Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora.
Tapping Out features illustrations and definitions of different moves and luchadores, which also serve to delineate the different sections of the book. How do you conceive of these expressions working together?
The book is about Lucha Libre—sort of. It’s about home, love, travel, and identity. It also is a deep dive into language, how one acquires new vocabulary, and how we don’t always have the language to say what we mean. The definitions serve as an intro to the themes of the poems, but they also demand the reader to participate in the quest for meaning that is so important in writing and language acquisition.
I am always working with a dictionary nearby. I don’t think too many days go by without paging through to search for the meaning of a word or opening the dictionary app on my phone or computer. I love the way different dictionaries serve specific roles in my life. A dictionary of literary terms, a Spanish-English dictionary, the urban dictionary—they are about gaining access to a language and meaning.
When I started writing poems about Lucha Libre, I was using the definitions as epigraphs for individual poems because I was aiming to explain to a reader unfamiliar with wrestling. Once I began assembling the collection, I didn’t like how the terms were restricted to single poems. I did what most writers do—I played around with assembly and reassembly. There was even a version where all of the poems that were introduced with definitions were in an individual section. When I decided to pull the wrestling terms out and use the definitions as section headers the mystery of sequencing shifted. The meaning of the poems became more expansive. The definitions gave the group a framework to be in conversation with each other.
You introduce different types of luchadores throughout your book. Do you identify with one more than others?
Let’s see, there are so many divisions of “types” of wrestlers. The exóticos, the minis, the superheroes, the families, and then women! –who I feel like they should have their own category for how incredible they take to the ring. The técnicos (faces) and rudos (heels) are the two dominant groups. Sometimes I identify with técnicos. They are the heroes. They don’t want to cheat. Through brilliant strategy, they prioritize taking down their opponent within the confines of the rules. Writing can be a struggle and I like to think that within the structure, I hold down the body of the poem and shape it into what I want. Writing within the structure of rules can open extraordinary possibilities. On the other hand, I am naturally rebellious like the rudos. They are the rule-breakers. There is a satisfaction in knowing the rules and throwing them out. What might be expected of me is not always what I want to give. Maybe I am a técnico with rudo tendencies. Either way, when I go to matches, I find myself rooting for técnicos.
What do you consider the makings of a good book of poetry? Do you gravitate toward literature that appeals to your own “writerly obsessions,” your oft-revisited themes and ideas?
My writerly obsession might not be as obvious. I am most drawn in by voice and lyric work. I love it when a collection takes me in and then surprises me. I can be taken up by almost any collection that has an original approach to language and/or its subject matter. The poetry that I think is most engaging is the kind that serves as a container for multiple acts. If I do a close reading of the work will I find more? Is there close attention to craft in the syntax or structure? While I find myself drawn to new or historically marginalized perspectives, I am excited by original representations of familiar stories. I want to fall in love with the mystery of a writer’s invention.
You adapt a line from Federico García Lorca’s “Ghazal of the Terrifying Presence” in your poem “Tamed.” What other artists influenced this collection? Who do you draw upon for inspiration?
There are so many influences on the poems in Tapping Out—some more obvious than others. I see this collection as a contribution to the rich tradition of African American travel narrative and so I spent a lot of time studying the first ideations of black travel in the slave narratives. If I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, I set out to create a document that extends the conversations found in Phillis Wheatly’s view of her country or Olaudah Equiano’s global voyages or Fredrick Douglas’ escape to freedom. I also turned to contemporary poets working through themes of displacement and travel abroad like Tracy K Smith and Collen J. McElroy. The memoirs of Langston Hughes and the essays James Baldwin were texts I kept returning to.
My life was changed when I decided to do close readings of writers taking on personas in their writing. I am always returning to the poetry of Ai, Wisława Szymborska, and Patricia Smith. Reading them taught me a lot more than just stepping out of my perspective. I borrowed strategies for sequencing and their use of historical research for my poems. I could live a complete life returning to their books.
Your poems, like “Negrita,” “Kathmandu,” and “Guadalajara in the Form of Litany,” work a lot with questions of identity and place. Do you have any advice for writers working to excavate their own histories or develop their own voices?
Place. Home. These are very difficult things for me to write about especially because I struggle over what it means to be from a place like Detroit. When I was growing up during the economic decline of the 1980s, my generation was taught that success was equated to leaving, that we needed to find the life of wealth in the suburbs or a safe college town. When I left for college, I thought I’d never move back. Then a family emergency brought me home indefinitely. I returned to a community struggling with a new recession, numerous foreclosures, and a city battling bankruptcy. But I also came home and connected with poets, grassroots organizers, community gardeners, and artists all building the community they wanted to see without the dominant cultural definitions of wealth and prosperity. Through community, I fell in love with my complicated home.
So advice? The work of unearthing is dirty. Drop to your knees and dig. Allow yourself to feel the rich soil, worms, and roots of the stories that connect you to place. Everything you find may not seem like good stuff at first and the process might feel a little dangerous. You might find a stone or discarded bottle. But that’s important too. Even the weeds are useful. And too, leave your subject alone. Write about something else. When I am not writing about Detroit, Detroit, like a squirrel, will creep up behind me and sit in my poems. It likes to bury little gifts for me that I will have to dig up later.