“I write for the people who come before me and the people who might come after”: an interview with Fatimah Asghar

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The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews Fatimah Asghar about writing trauma, language and accessibility, and her chapbook, After, out from YesYes Books.

How many books have you published, and where?

After is the first chapbook that I have published, and it just came out on YesYes Books. I’m currently working on another project, with poems about my family and diaspora.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How are you conceiving of ordering the collection?

Actually, After was born out of a first, failed manuscript. I put together a manuscript that was about a lot of the same themes that After is: sexual assault, body, and race. But then it felt kind of forced and like it was not working, so that manuscript fell away and I assembled a chapbook. Also, as I started healing from the sexual assault, I felt like some of those poems were harder to look at for me; they came from a really dark place.

Narrative nostalgia and joy started taking over more of my work, and that’s where my poems have been leaning more of late. I’m really terrible at ordering things, so I have a tentative order right now but I know that it’s bound to change many times. Right now, it’s just an order that’s based on intuition. Thinking about what poem leads into the next, what compliments or sets the context for the poem the best.

That’s such an interesting decision, to take out those initial poems responding to trauma. I’ve written about trauma from various distances to varying degrees of success, and it's really interesting to think about the role of writing during and immediately after a traumatic event. Did you have the sense that you were too close to the trauma to say what you wanted to say about it? Or was it that those poems felt personally necessary in a way that didn’t feel like it was a part of the book project?

It was more that the poems felt like they were necessary for me personally, but not for the project. Also, some of them were poems that I needed to write in several different ways before I found the avenue that worked the best for me, so they seemed repetitive or unnecessary once I looked at the project as a whole. 

Did you notice poetic tics once you¹d put the poems together? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I think a lot of Urdu and Punjabi words just started cropping up in my writing more when I started writing about my family, which I really love. It wasn’t an intentional thing but it just started happening and that’s when I realized that the project of my poetry was shifting slightly. I have a strange and wonderful relationship to Urdu and Punjabi. Because I grew up with them but was never formally taught them in school, I feel like my relationship to those words is very textured. I know the feeling, the touch of those words. But not always the exact approximate definition.

I also use the word blooming a lot. I think it’s good to see what words are cropping up and then interrogate if it’s laziness or intentional. For me, the use of the same words might be more coming from a place of safety and laziness rather than pushing myself to think of something better. Putting together a manuscript helps see some of those things.

How are you/have you decided which poems to include in the collection?

I’m still writing some of the poems. But the ones that I have decided on including are poems that I feel like are strong, that I keep gravitating to, that I enjoy. I’m trying to get away from what other people think and listen more to what my own heart is telling me is good.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Take your time. I think I felt really rushed to make a book because all my friends had one and it seemed like a tangible marker of success. But then I started to realize that I just want to be really proud of my first book. I want it to feel like me. And I want to feel like I can share it with my family, that they can be proud of having it on their table. A lot of my poetry has been a secret from them.

I haven’t been able to share it with them and I kind of actively keep it away from them. That’s definitely the case with After, because of the nature of the subject matter. I haven’t been able to tell a lot of them that it exists. But I want my first book to be something that doesn’t need to be hidden.

This intersects a bit with what you said before. To what extent do you write for yourself? Why do you think it feels so important to present a poetic self to your family? (I ask as someone who writes extensively about family and thinks about this question a lot). 

I want to honor my family and the people who came before me. I want them to be able to relate to the work and see themselves reflected in it. For so long I felt like I existed in a world where I didn't see anyone who looked like me, or had a similar story to mine, doing the work I wanted to do. I've only recently started to feel like that is shifting and like there are more people who look like me that I am finding and can look up to. I want to make sure that I'm doing that for the next generation too, so that they don't feel the same loneliness that I did. So I actually don't write for myself. If I did, I wouldn't share my work with anyone. I write for the people who come before me and the people who might come after me, so that I can honor them and create space for what is to come. 

Has publication (either of individual pieces in the collection, or of the collection as a whole) changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

I think that the publication and response to some pieces have made me realize their value more. I think also doing public readings has done the same thing; I use a lot of my readings to see what is working in a poem and what isn’t. There might be a line that is too clunky that needs to be fixed or an ending that’s just not landing the way I want it to. Those reactions have helped me figure out what to do differently. But it’s a balance, being able to figure out the line between listening to people and reaction and not over-listening to people.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

I have an interesting relationship with After. Like I said, a lot of the poems came from a really dark place. Sometimes it’s hard to go back to them and read them. But I’m really proud of the book, of having lived through that kind of darkness; having been able to construct that work out of trauma; and now, being able to look back on it from a more removed place. I wrote the book that I wish I had when I was going through it, the thing I needed in order to say that my body was mine and no one else’s. I think that the book and the story behind it are really important.

Also, I made two poem films based off the poems in the book. I loved making those and collaborating with so many artists to get them done.

I also am in love with the cover art and the feel of holding it. I’m really thankful to Jess X Chen who did the cover art and is just one of the most talented visual artists that I know.

You are also involved in slam as a performer and in your work with Young Chicago Authors. How does spoken word influence your written work (or vice versa) formally? Does a heightened awareness of a poem as a performance change the choices you make in composing?

I think so. I’m interested in writing poems that I can walk into a classroom with, onto a stage of any group of audience, and have something that they will want to connect to. I think I’ve seen a lot of readings where more academically inclined or page poets are condescending to their audience, or read really dryly. That shit is wack to me. I’m so not interested in that. Why shouldn’t a reading of a poem be as equally moving as a private moment you have with it on the page?

Having come up in spoken word, I am deeply interested in the accessibility of my work. I do this work to be connected to people, so I want to make sure that comes across in every way that my audience experiences it.

But also, I think that there is a really important blend of accessibility and experimentalism that can work. I think I look up to poets like Douglas Kearney and Terrance Hayes who do that well.

I tried to think of an elegant way of phrasing this question, but couldn't: could you talk about the process of writing "Pluto Shits on the Universe"? It's a euphoric, jubilant poem and I love it and it seems like it was a lot of fun to write and would be a lot of fun to perform. I love Pluto's fierce hilarity and Pluto's refusal to adhere to the 'right' world. It seems like a theme in your work–celebration of the in-between.

Yes, I wrote this poem for a show called the Encyclopedia Show. My topic was February 7th, 1979. I had been working on another draft of the poem, one where Pluto was like sad and lonely, and it just wasn’t working. So, because I was frustrated, I wrote this poem. And the poem isn’t a neutral poem. I’ve had a lot of friends and some mentors (all men) say that they don’t fuck with the poem. That they didn’t really think that I should be performing it because they thought it was misogynistic. And I hear that critique. But to me, Pluto’s voice is my voice: a queer woman of color. This is the way that I talk. Having a marginalized identity and saying fuck all these structures that you are trying to put me in is a pretty radical act.

This isn’t gonna make sense to people who don’t slam: but it was also my first doorkicker poem. When I slam, I’m usually a Joker, the wild card, the 3rd round poet. And here I was suddenly, with a King poem, a 1st round poem that was unfuckwithable. And there were a number of straight, cisgendered men saying that I shouldn’t do it.

After I slammed with it at Nationals of 2013 I stopped performing it. And then my friend and collective member, Danez Smith, kept telling me I needed to submit the poem to the BreakBeat Anthology. So I did. And I talked to Kevin Coval about it, about what people had said and he was like “fuck that noise, the poem is good and important.”

The poem was a lot of fun to write and it is a LOT of fun to perform. But it’s also complicated to perform, so I don’t take it lightly.  

FATIMAH ASGHAR is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. Her work has appeared in many journals including POETRY Magazine, The Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective