On Thursday March 1st, Oberlin creative writing professors and award-winning poets Chanda Feldman and Kazim Ali held a reading at The Feve to celebrate the release of their most recent collections of poetry. Feldman, a visiting professor and winner of myriad prizes and fellowships, including an endowment from the National Endowment for the Arts, read first. Her book, Approaching the Fields, thematically explores family history, generational perspectives of Southern Blackness, and how growing up with haints in the halls and chitlins on the plate have shaped her own identity. She read “Native,” “Election Day,” “Interior,” “True Autumn,” and “Approaching the Fields” to applause as raucous as a crowd of twenty students and professors brave enough to journey through that night’s snowstorm could muster. Ali, an assistant professor, read from two of his recently released books, Silver Road and Inquisition, a collection of poetry that explores, among other topics, the poet’s own identity in a particularly hostile time for queer-identifying people and Muslims. He read “Abu Nuaz,” “John,” “His Mosaic Prayer,” and “Origin Story,” the last of which addresses rootlessness and his mother’s medical issues. Then, asking the crowd if they wanted to hear another “emo boy poem,” Ali read an encore of “The Astronomer’s Son,” among laughs and calls from the audience. I had the chance to talk to both poets, and the resulting interviews follow. These interviews have been edited for concision and clarity.
Lee Khoury: What is your usual writing process, and what was different for you when you were writing this collection?
Chanda Feldman: I try to carve out a three-hour time block at least twice a week where I can write. I always start on paper; I keep a notebook, and I usually start by just fast-writing, sometimes with the desire to try something formally, or I’ve read a poem and I’m like “I wonder how they did that and if I can do that.” But not all the time. Sometimes, I’m just trying to see where the writing takes me, and sometimes it takes me somewhere interesting, sometimes it’s a big struggle. So, I just have to show up and put in my time and kind of do it for the discipline of doing it. But at the same time I find little nooks of time to write. When I was a Stegner Fellow, it took me a little over an hour to go from my home in San Francisco on the train down to Palo Alto, so I would use that time on the train to write. Commuting time is a really good time to write. I could just block out everything around me if I was riding a train or the subway or the bus and just write. I feel like I’m rambling! (Laughs)
LK: No, that’s completely ok! Talk as much as you want!
CF: I read a lot while I’m writing. I think that’s also part of my process. It’s really nice to be in conversation with poems while I’m writing. I get jealous sometimes when I read a poem and I’m like “I wish I could write a poem as good as that!” So it inspires an ambition to write a really good poem or to say something I haven’t been able to say. Or sometimes it’s like a productive antagonism. It’s like, “Hmmm, you know I don’t agree with what’s being said in this poem and I want to say it my way,” or “I see what you’re doing there, but I think there’s another way to do this.” And I think both of those things are good. It should be a dynamic conversation with other people’s work.
LK: Was there anything in particular you were reading when you composed this collection?
CF: Oh, wow. All sorts of things. The second-to last section of the book, which is section three, is a sequence of 14 poems. That was the last section of the book that I wrote. And they’re not sonnets, but they kind of ghost the sonnet form in that they’re short poems between 12 and 16 lines. They take something from the “crown of sonnets” form, where you have the poems linked one to the other by taking the last line of one poem and using it as the beginning line of the following poem. So I was thinking about that formally and looking at other crown of sonnets. Bruce Snyder has a wonderful crown of sonnets that I really admire. And so I was looking at the narrative propulsion of the poems and the lyric depth that a sequence of poems in sonnet form could hold onto and give the space to explore. Subject matter wise, I would say that at some points I turned to Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah.
LK: I love that collection.
CF: Yeah, I love that collection. It’s a collection that I read for the first time when I was—wow, how old was I? Probably sixteen or seventeen. And it kind of changed my world because I didn’t know about many poets at the time. I mean I knew poets existed, but this was an African-American poet, this was a woman poet. On one hand I really identified with those poems because they were about Black people in the south, and at the same time I felt like my eyes were really opened by the entire collection because she wrote about all sorts of things and places. She wrote about antiquity and myth. Her husband is originally from Germany, so she has these poems that take place in Germany and include German in the poem. I felt really impacted by this collection. I thought “oh this is equally my family, my sense of who I am” in terms of identity, in terms of place. These are also things that are worthy of poetry. So I did return to that collection to look at it while I was writing that section because I thought “oh no, am I doing the same thing Rita Dove did?” And then on the other hand, really having deep respect and admiration for those poems, wanting to work against them too. I think those poems really honor and capture the internal mental life, and I guess spiritual life of Beulah, that’s what I was really drawn to in those poems. My poems, I wanted to focus more pointedly on using the personal to mirror the public circumstances of the times. What else was I reading at the time? I also read another set of poems—I feel like my book is really elegiac for place and for community, and also not related in subject matter so much, but thinking about how the elegy functions. I fell in love with Thomas Hardy’s elegies for his wife, the Elegies of 1912-1913. I was just really in love with the way that in those poems Hardy looked at the landscape around him as a trigger for personal memories. So those poems are really important to me too.
LK: How much of your work is informed by autobiography, and do you prefer the autobiographical speaker or do you try personas? I know you talked some about this at the book opening about your family history. Do you usually go outside perspectives that you’re really familiar with?
CF: That’s a good question. So this collection does rely a lot on autobiography or my parents’ biography, so there are things that are close to my life and my family’s history. Yet at the same time there is blending of details, masking some people and circumstances, and also wanting to be faithful to facts, to not skew a record, especially if you’re writing against a dominant culture’s record, but at the same time knowing that the goal is not propaganda, the goal is to make a poem, it’s to make art. Also, being interested in the material of language and wanting the poems to be sonically beautiful or to be imagistically compelling or to appeal to the senses and really evoke a visceral reaction. So I feel like yes, autobiography is definitely there in this collection, but it has to negotiate amongst aesthetics. And I do have a lot of other poems, though, that are not autobiographical, that are not in this collection just because they fell outside the thematic concerns of this collection. So I guess I’m interested in both but it’s interesting seeing that there are thematic currents that keep the poems together. It meant that I had to exclude a lot of other poems that perhaps aren’t as rooted in the facts of my life, or aren’t as interested in the same sort of identity issues or issues around history and storytelling or oral histories.
LK: Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write? Or when you’re revising?
CF: You know, that’s funny, since I’m always asking my students that question! “Who’s your audience? Who are you writing this for?” Sometimes it’s just for me. Sometimes I feel like the poems are for my parents, or at least in my first collection sometimes I felt like it was a kind of correspondence with our history. And sometimes I’m writing for anyone who wants to come to the poems. So I think it varies—it’s such a hard question to answer! Now I see how hard it is to answer when I do this to other people! Because in the act of writing I think I enter into the process just wanting to write for myself, like “Gosh, you know, if only I could write another poem!” It’s like this desperation every single time—“please, please, please let me write another poem!” And just wanting to see if I can still do it! So there’s that audience. But at the same time, I have to say that there’s the sense that sometimes the poems are personal, and they are for family. Although I hope they have an audience beyond that, but that might be what’s in my mind while I’m writing them. Other times they’re for a part of me that I can imagine existing in other people. I think back again to myself at sixteen or seventeen, and thinking “oh, you can write like this” or “these stories are valid” and wanting to find that kind of audience, if that makes sense.
LK: What is your usual process, and if there are differences, what was different for you when you were writing for this collection?
Kazim Aili: My usual process is very long. I will often start thinking about something or writing notes towards a poem a long time before it is ever really a poem and then a draft will come and then it often takes me a year or more to really arrive at the endpoint of the poem. I’m always performing them in process so I’d say performance is part of the writing process itself. The poems revise themselves by being spoken out loud, for me. This book was very different than some of my earlier books because the work in it is very much like from a wide range of time and in very different forms. There are more traditional descriptive narratives, there’s more lyrical short fragmented pieces, there’s even three or four pieces that were initially written as spoken word pieces. Inquisition is really governed by this sort of current political moment of crisis and citizenship especially for Muslim people and queer people and I’m in both of those communities which has not traditionally been a huge identity for people. So there’s that. I have another book that’s out right now which is essays, but it’s not really essays—it’s creative nonfiction but it has multiple strands in it. There’s four different types of writing in it. There are traditional essays, then there are journal pages, there’s more diary writing, and then there’s lyric prose I guess you would say, kind of cross genre writing, and then there are actual poems in there too. There are 8 poems kind of punctuated through, and it’s called Silver Road and it works in a braided structure where first you have a diary page, then you have an essay, then you have a prose poem/lyric essay, then you have a poem. And then it repeats in that pattern throughout the book. And then what’s interesting about that book—it’s really short too; it’s only about 100 pages long—but what’s interesting about that book is that none of those strands were written together at the same time.
LK: That’s what I was going to ask! That’s fantastic!
KA: Yeah! It wasn’t written to be a book. They were all these separate writings that I had that came together as a book.
LK: So it just happened that way for you?
KA: It just happened that way, which I love. The unplanned book.
LK: So going off your generative process, do you use stream of consciousness, trying to get unconscious meaning out of something that you’ve thought a lot about? Or is it very controlled?
KA: No, No there’s never a plan. There’s never an idea. I’m always led by language as well, not just experience. There’s often, in writing, a polar opposition between when people talk about imagination or experience. So sometimes people will give you the advice “write what you know,” so this is like “write from your own personal experience” and then the flipside of that is imagination, “write from what you invent.” But for me, I don’t live in either of those regions. First of all, I don’t see them as oppositional because we do imagine our own life as we’re living it and our experience is defined by how we imagine our life, you know what I mean? And what we’re capable of imagining is defined by our experience. So I don’t see these as oppositional. To me, the form of the poem is a container of language, in rhythm and breath, and so I’m always led by language and I’m lead by rhythm. So I listen to a lot of music. I look at a lot of dance–and I have a dance background so I’ve lived that in my body. But I feel that language and its properties will often get me to the topic of a poem a lot more than thinking about it will get me to the topic of a poem. And sometimes not knowing it goes all the way to the end when the poem is finished. I’m still mystified or unclear myself.
**LK: Are you trying anything out, experimenting linguistically or with forms that you hadn’t worked with before?
KA: Yeah, I’m currently working in a longer poetic form—so my book, my 2009 book called Bright Felon was an extended poetic memoir. It’s made up of nine chapters and each chapter is multiple pages. It’s written in prose but it’s written in a disjunctive, nonlinear style of narrative. I’m actually working on extended poems at the moment, some of them are between 10 and 40 pages long. It’s taking that nonlinear and fragmented style but putting it into poetry. And without the intention of memoir, where in the memoir I really was trying to actually tell a story. And in the current stuff I’m just working on ideas and working through music and working through the poetic line so I’m kind of excited about those projects.
LK: So this is kind of like your The City in which I Love You (Li-Young Lee’s 1990 collection of long poems)?
KA: I guess so, because he has that long poem in there, yeah. These long form poems are also bringing in a multidisciplinary approach. I’m using geography, I’m using astronomy, I’m using physics, I’m using dance, I’m writing about jazz music. The poem about jazz music is using the structure of jazz. I’ve looked at the way that the jazz music manipulates the 12-tone structure of non-jazz music—and I had to research all this stuff, I didn’t know anything about it! I didn’t know anything about geography, I didn’t know anything about astronomy or quantum theory or any of it but I’m learning about it. And the jazz musicians, there was a jazz musician named John Coltrane. He actually has a chord progression in one of his pieces that this physicist at MIT has identified as one of the equations of quantum mechanics. And it doesn’t mean that John Coltrane understood quantum mechanics, it just means that he was on a wavelength of one of the building blocks of the universe. Whether he understood it or not, he was plugged in in that way. So I’m trying, in poetry, to sort of plug into the truth that’s beyond language. That’s a little of the intangible.
LK: Reach for the ineffable.
KA: Yeah. Right.
LK: Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?
KA: No, I don’t—it’s me, I’m my only reader. Odysseus Elitus, a Nobel laureate of the late 20th century from Greece, said that “all any serious poet needs is 3 readers who truly understand his work, and since any poet worth his salt has at least 2 devoted friends already, his entire career becomes the search for that third reader.” That’s what Elitus said. So you’re just looking for one more person in the world to truly get you. I love that concept. But I also don’t feel pressure to find that one person because as long as the writing that you’re doing helps you, in your life, then that’s the purpose of it. And that’s what I believe. So I do publish, yes, because I want to get the work out there, and it’s nice to make a living, but it’s truly for me. Everything I write is truly for me.
Contact contributing writer Lee Khoury at firstname.lastname@example.org.