Tariq Shah: You know it's funny. Re-reading your poem, I find myself smack dab in the middle of a convergence– I just finished reading Bob Shacochis' Easy in the Islands, a collection of stories centered on the caribbean. I just finished teaching my undergrad students Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place as well. Both reckon with language from those regions of the world in different and interesting ways, and now that i've added reh-collec-shun or alphabet amnesia to the mix, I’m checking my room for candid cameras, and my tea leaves for a sign as to what it all could mean.
It's a subject with some resonance to me. Being Pakistani/Polish/German, I've spent no small chunk of my life navigating waters that for a long time felt rather uncharted to me. I’m about to be neck deep in my thesis project, which will be a fictional work drawing from my time in the Peace Corps, where I taught english in Mozambique, as well. So this is all kind of far out to me. How did your poem come to be? Is this a subject you write often about?
Nadia Misir: I was in Guyana with my family and thinking about your poem and about water/the uncharted waters of ancestral and family histories that sometimes take up more room in a suitcase when you haven't been back in 25 years. Guyana is one of the few Caribbean countries that is not an island, but it's covered in water. Everywhere we went we had a view of a river, a trench, a creek, the atlantic. many of the houses I saw stood on stilts for protection against flooding. Do you think about water when you write?
Does it ever happen to you that you begin to think more than write? Or do you ever feel like you lack authority to write, to meditate even on questions like the ones we think about? Sometimes I feel like I have such a weak grasp on my own ancestral histories that I have little right to even write a poem about it. Or do you ever feel like it's impossible to translate the intersections of thought in your head on the page? Maybe that's why it's important to push the limits of form and genre, to strive for a logic that is more poetic/chaotic/nonlinear/"mosaic" as Crystal Wilkinson described it at a recent reading than linear, that honors the way we inherited our languages, especially the english language (thinking about M. NourbeSe Philip here) that goes beyond the content, the stuff that might make it accessible to others. I’ve become so suspicious of that word: accessible. In my mfa program I’ve heard a student or two use it it to disguise what they are really advocating for/invoking: whitewashing.
That's what I loved most about your poem. The way it plays and interrogates the vernacular of word processing programs, the way it reimagines what i initially thought of as elusive, as a medium, the way the words template form papyrus are repeated, the way it pushes form and forced me to think about what it means to bear witness, what it means to bear witness with the mediums the writer uses today. Is it something that you've always thought about as a writer?
It's funny you mention A Small Place! I always reread it when i'm traveling, especially when i'm in the Caribbean. I wrote an instagram post about it a few months ago, but I read it to remind myself that when I am traveling, I am passing through and that I have the privilege of mobility, that there are histories around me that I am ignorant to, but must pay respect to, that slavery happened here and indenture.
I think my poem was born when my grandfather died about two years ago. I had quit my job, gone through a hard breakup with someone and lost both of my grandparents when I signed up for Marwa Helal's vernacular as resistance poetry workshop at AAWW. It was under her guidance and light and the support of the other writers that I was able to think about my grandfather's voice/persona and attempt to channel it in poem that I hope communicates the shame I felt going to school and speaking an english that people defined as broken english. The shame was actually three-fold: shame at speaking what others would call broken english, shame at not being fluent in the languages that were brought over by the indentured (Bhojpuri, for example) and shame, later, now, after college and grad school, at not being able to quite sound like my parents when i speak patwa. They call me a yankee child and though it is endearing, it still opens a wound that I am trying to think through. I'm also suspicious of any narrative of identity that privileges roots or any essentialist narrative of motherland. I never write to find home or motherland. Home for me has always been about fragments, so this is also something I try to think about.
It was in Marwa's course that I learned that language is a means of performance, that the englishes I grew up with are poetic minefields. There are different englishes even in Guyana. The grandfather I tried to channel in this poem grew up without shoes, studied at a university in england, read Agatha Christie and Shakespeare and spoke what others would probably call town english. All of that just in the way he spoke! The queen drops her 'r's when she speaks and so did he. I didn't realize that this is the way oppressive histories sneak their way into our most personal and sacred spaces. My dad's father was a rice farmer and described his way of speaking english as raw. I remember the way he'd say it: rahhhh, the aw sound was transformed into something that made me pause as a child. It made other people laugh in a way that made me think about class/privilege/inequality. I guess what i'm trying to say is that as a writer i'm concerned with the way our bodies and our languages carry these histories and traumas.
TS: That's such an interesting question, whether I think of water when I write, one I've been pondering. There is one image I return to when writing poetry, or fiction for that matter. I imagine a kitchen faucet, and the water is turned on to that precise point where it flows in a placid way, to that point where it appears almost static, like a clear icicle, almost, down from the spout to the drain. Most often, however, i think of wind and quiet. I think of trees a lot. More than these, I think of–or try not thinking of–pain and regret, the past, small things, all the blasé stuff I tend to see past–car horns, power poles, soot patterns on windows, sidewalks, boots, benches. The personal challenge, lately, is to try, somehow, connecting with these objects, senses, rhythms, these byproducts and the passive kind of buildup our lives create while we, well, live them.
My No, Dear poem came from these concerns, in a way. I had been toying around in my spare time with a single page word document as a poetic form. To see what could be done with just a single blank page, all the way filled. Because, I don't know–how many millions of us spend vast amounts of our time staring at that program? At this point, can we not treat it as if it were created without an instruction manual? Were we ever sworn to use it in any single way? My god, doesn't it kind of control us, and annoy the hell out of us sometimes?
Coupled with this are the aesthetic principles of Gertrude Stein, as I came to understand them, both reading her on my own years ago, and re-reading her work, and her ideas about her work, through the lens of old Charles Bernstein's thoughts on her, which I found in his essay collection, Pitch of Poetry. The notion of every word in a work having potentially equal weight in a democracy of language appealed to me, not only because it sort of turned the lights on in my head about Gertrude Stein's work, but because I was getting to a point of emotional supersaturation with my work, and the work I was reading. I couldn't take one more bite of it, and as such, that pendulum in my brain begin swinging the other way, towards a more intellectual, or at least, conceptual approach to poetics. As the number of these poem experiments began to grow, I thought some sort of mission statement about the form, about word, and all of that stuff, might be in order. I thought it might be fun to use the form to explain the form, and "for instance ms. word" came about.
I definitely feel I lack the authority to write about certain things, all the time. My father's death, I think, contributes to that. I was fifteen at the time, which yes, is a bit tragic, as far as that goes... but it's an interesting time to have a loved one depart. I was too young to get to know him as a man, and just coming out of that obnoxious, rebellious phase all teens go through. But even if he had lived, I think my perceived lack of authority would remain, would still need to be reckoned with, simply for the fact of my biraciality. The same goes, in turn, with my mother's polish/german side. I find there is a slant to many of the memories, insights, joys, loathings, I feel, specifically towards my ancestry and how it manifests itself in my life. This slant, I sometimes feel, is perhaps akin to what a beloved friend of a different culture might experience, that of one who is fully accepted on paper, but who still shadowed by lingering doubts in the minds of that culture's "purebreds." The whole thing can be a headache. There is much about islam/muslim culture that I have problems with and feel I have little authority to address/criticize, while at the same time I often find myself leaping to its defense any time it is condemned in the media, literature, or in conversation. There are, of course, deep issues that need discussion. But it's my place to criticize my culture, not yours! Then I think, well–is it? How much of my father is left in me?
I navigate these uncharted waters by feel, and by not venturing too far out unless it is a matter of, if not life and death, then at least sincere and cautious acts of self-preservation.
I’d like to hear more about carrying your histories and traumas in body and language. Now, though, I’m thinking of homes. Even ones on stilts.
NM: That image of the running faucet stays with me. Clarity is also something that bugs me to the point of paralysis when I write. I find myself mapping out entire essays or stories with watercolor markers instead of just sitting down, taking a deep breath and writing. Yesterday i attended a writing workshop led by Christina Chiu and the first thing she instructed us to do was to take a deep breath. It jarred me because I realized I had been holding my breath the entire time she was speaking. Do you ever forget to breathe sometimes? Anyway, I took a deep breath and I've been taking deep breaths before sitting down to write anything and it's helped tremendously.
I started experimenting with the lyric essay form because I felt like maybe I could access clarity via a form, a structure. It seems like the lyric essay is more sympathetic to this than other forms. I keep trying to connect the emotional trauma/abuse my mother experienced from her in laws, indenture, the love stories i grew up hearing from other family members, intimacy, desire, domestic violence in the Indo Caribbean community and the murder of Rajwantie Baldeo. Sometimes i find myself thinking too much in metaphor and image, trying to hard to turn everything into a metaphor, when a simple, clear line will do. Maybe all of the hiding under metaphors is a coping mechanism?
Your last question makes me stop and take a breath: "And then I think, well–is it? How much of my father is left in me?" It resonates deeply with me because I often think about how much of India is left in me when people ask the where are you from question, when some people insist on letting me know, "but you're basically Indian, right?" What I wish I could tell them is that diaspora basically fucks that up, indenture and colonialism basically turned that question into an absurd joke. How much of these places really reside in us unless we make space in our lives for it?
I hear you about it being your place to think through and write about the issues in your cultures! I feel the same way. I get super defensive. There was a Washington Post article that Columbused my neighborhood. The dude literally fell asleep on the A train, woke up at Lefferts and declared, "There are Indians that sound like Bob Marley here."
I’ve been thinking so much about Guyana since coming back. A lot about mourning and grief too and the way my mom's tears were the first thing to hit the tarmac at the airport over there. We landed just after sunrise and I remember thinking about the shock of green i saw as soon as we were off the plane. I haven't seen that shade of green anywhere else on my travels. I’ve been thinking about how the first murder victim of the new year in NYC was Stacy Singh, an Indo Caribbean woman who lived in my neighborhood and was stabbed by her husband. Last year, the city's first murder victim was also an Indo Caribbean woman. When I think about all the variety of boats (speed boats, ferries) I saw in Guyana, I wonder about the not so savory things that migrate, that throw down their own roots in the name of diaspora, things like domestic violence and patriarchy. Some journalists categorized Stacy Singh as South Asian, but many members of the Indo Caribbean community (including myself) resented that label. I want to think through that tension, think through the way demographic labels can erase entire histories and communities.
TS: I'm so glad you brought up breathing. I have been told on more than one occasion to keep breathing while reading either my own or others' work. It was something I was very conscious of while preparing to read for instance ms word, as well, to the extent I made little marks on the page, designated breathing spots. Not only because some of the lines are so long, but because I have the tendency to seize up we reading publicly. Doing so has been a tremendous help reducing the anxiety of speaking publicly, and also structuring lines with consideration for the common human lung.
I also identify with your struggles with clarity. I find myself falling into "obsession traps," for lack of a better term, trying to pin down as precisely as possible what I mean/feel/etc, and before i know it I find myself staring at a new stanza that has grown like some mutant 3rd arm. Which can be kind of cool. More often than not though, I lop it off. Which isn't to say that ones obsessions with precision and capturing emotion or thought in language aren't useful, or don't hone necessary poetic skills. I feel like it's all to the good, ultimately. Though that stanza may not find its way into the final draft, I do think that process of reflection, research, and concision/summation makes one a poet more attuned to their own grasp of language, cognition and the interplays between emotion/image/word/line/form.
Your thoughts on Guyana, family, mourning, diaspora really resonate. "My mom's tears were the first thing to hit the tarmac at the airport over there." ---I’ve just been kind of staring at that sentence for the past few minutes.
For all the good work being done in the field of journalism these days, man, it sucks when they screw up. The ugliness that gets publicized can be ruinous for people, specifically because it is angled as being "exotic" in nature. Stacy Singh's story is so burningly heinous we lose our ability to comprehend people. I’m also thinking of the victims of acid attacks here and abroad.
I sometimes wonder if these stories are published not because these people suffered painful, unjust, horrifying ends, but because the details of these crimes will be considered morbidly intriguing to the average newspaper's idea of its readership.
And of course, these stories end up shaping one of like maybe three conceptions of ethnic group x people outside that group ever develop. That is, if they even get the name of the group right in the first place.
We must take care.
NM: I would love to take a look at a copy of for instance ms word with the breaths marked! How did you decide where to take a breath? Was there any connection between where a breath was marked and the emotion you wanted to convey in your reading? When you write and revise a poem are you thinking about breaths too? I started going to a wonderful open mic at Red Pipe cafe on Tuesday nights put on by the queens alchemy collective. Going religiously on Tuesdays opened up my mind to the way spoken word sometimes relies on moments of not breathing and then breathing. Sometimes when I draft poems I get rid of all commas, periods and other forms of punctuation and try to experiment with line breaks to convey moments of dramatic pause and moments of breathlessness.
"I do think that process of reflection, research, and concision/summation makes one a poet more attuned to their own grasp of language, cognition and the interplays between emotion/image/word/line/form."--YESSS. I've been trying to articulate how i feel about cutting up poems in the revision process and this is it. I took a free poetry workshop with Joseph O. Legaspi yesterday at the Jackson Heights library and we talked about how poem-making is so much about gathering images and then arranging those images according to a certain poetic logic to express emotions and feels. The revision process is where I’ve found myself to be the most creative--thinking about the worlds/histories outside the poem's inner world, thinking about structure and sound and how to do a magic trick on the reader, researching the things that can transformed into metaphors. What's your process of revision like? Do you think about poetic logics when you're revising too?
"The ugliness that gets publicized can be ruinous for people, specifically because it is angled as being ‘exotic’ in nature. Stacy Singh's story is almost so burningly heinous we lose our ability to comprehend people. I'm also thinking of the victims of acid attacks here and abroad."--YES. A friend of mine who is a community organizer told me that a woman who attended Stacy Singh's vigil blamed her red hair for the murder. I don't even know where to start with the absurdity. When he told me I immediately thought of the sindhoor in my mom's bathroom cabinet. She doesn't wear it daily, but when we have a wedding to go to she'll sprinkle some on her hairline to indicate she's married. That contrast between a little bit of red in the hair signaling a "correct" kind of domesticity and Stacy's red hair signaling a threatening sort of excess, something that's policed by both men and women in her community, is something i can't stop thinking about. Why the double standard?
TS: My approach to marking breaths in for instance ms word was pretty straightforward--I had resolved to read the poem rather flat and monotonic as possible, while still having each sentence convey some sort of meaning to the listener. Most of the breath marks coincided with periods ending the sentence; however, towards the middle of the poem, some of those sentences get LONG, which required breath so that the reading of the poem didn't become some kind of physical feat performance.
The similarities and differences between the poem as it is written and the poem as it is read is something I consider a lot. Often I find the places poets breathe/pause are given no indication to a reader who has never heard the poem recited out loud before. Playing with that tension can be interesting. Completely ridding a poem of punctuation is something I definitely do! I'll then add it back, as appropriate, and in consideration for how a given line's break evolves.
Poetic logics! I love that phrase. I do think about that also, as well as any all poetic magic tricks the poem might be able to pull. My revision process involves wasting all kinds of time playing with sound and rhythm, until it dawns on me that I should try figuring out what the poem is about. Once that has been found, I sharpen that point, and sort of prune away at the parts that are nonessential. This usually involves rearranging whole stanzas, or slicing a poem in half. Once I've mustered the courage to do that, I kind of start the whole thing over again, honing the sound and rhythm of the newer, sharper thing, until looking at it makes me want to throw up. At that point, I usually show it to someone, and revise further based on their response to it.
Your story about the woman blaming Stacy Singh's red hair for her murder is fascinating. It seems cultural and societal norms are so fluid these days that what is considered proper on Monday is heresy on Tuesday. So much is thrown at us, we're all making rules on the fly, and I think there is good and bad to this. I try to be helpful, to do what I can to keep calm the little swathe of the world in which I move. Sometimes it's a labor of love.