Tarfia Faizullah was born in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of Seam (SIU 2014) and Registers of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf, 2018). Her poems have received multiple awards, been published widely in periodicals and anthologies both in the United States and abroad, and have been translated into multiple languages. In 2016, she was recognized by Harvard Law School as one of 50 Women Inspiring Change. Tarfia currently teaches in the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetry. She still believes in true love.
Your new book Registers of Illuminated Villages will be published in 2018. What was your overriding goal when writing the poems for this book?
I’ve been working on Registers for 15 years, well before Seam, so it’s hard to track or even remember what my initial overriding goal was, if I even ever had one. I work on multiple books simultaneously, sometimes without even knowing it, and any goal is achieved only as it is uncovered. I don't begin with a clear goal in mind; I begin to understand where it is I'm going only when I begin traveling.
That said, since I’ve been working on it on and off for so long, it’s actually my first book in terms of conception. It’s also as close as I’ve ever gotten to my own origin story. Registers of Illuminated Villages addresses personal memory/history, questions of faith, and other native geographies besides Bangladesh (Texas, for example), so I suppose one of the goals that crystallized along the way was the desire to do right by those concerns as they appeared.
Your question made me actually reconsider the word goal, which upon closer examination can mean both the beginning and the end of a race, as well as boundary, or limit. That really resonates with me—in the end, for me, Registers is a book that loops back on itself through and across time, and it occurs to me now for the first time that maybe that was the goal—to write a book that never begins or ends, but is in continuous motion, the way I feel I am, all the time.
Would you say that there is any looping to or from the other books that you are simultaneously putting together? And if so, would this reoccurring element in your poetry be the thing that urges you to write poetry?
I do think there is looping across the obsessions in Registers and Seam and the third book I’m working on. Seam, for example, has a sequence of persona poems called Interview with a Birangona; it considers the perspectives of the 200,000 Bangladeshi women either raped or taken as sex slaves by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Liberation War. In that same war, collaborators led soldiers to a village where they killed every single male. Registers, therefore, has a sequence of poems entitled Soliloquies from the Village of Orphans and Widows, which imagines the perspectives of the widows left there who continued to live out their lives without men. That village, by the way, that was once called Sohagpur (Village of Love), but renamed Bidhoba Palli (Village of Widows). Isn't that heartbreaking?
The two books feel very different in other ways, formally, tonally, geographically, temporally, and otherwise, but both of those sequences do consider two distinct but related occurrences in the same war. So, I've looped back to the Liberation War, but from a different perspective. I'm not interested in negating perspective as much as I want to reconsider and add to it, and in that way, I continue to be intrigued by the pluralities and paradoxes native to memory and history, and its relationship to time, which seems to be dependent upon what we can see as well as what we can’t.
A contemporary example of this is the strong and consistent comparison of our current moment to World War II and the Holocaust, which seems ironic rather than informative or educational. Do we helplessly recreate the same histories without even knowing it? Can we actually avoid atrocities by knowing about them? Do we produce our obsessions, and the consequences that come from following them to their inevitable conclusions, or do they produce us?
As for whether or not this is the thing urges me to write: hmm. I'm not sure. I do know that there are moments from my childhood in which I keenly remember experiencing revelation without knowing the word revelation. I felt what I could not understand or articulate. I felt the truth before I learned the words to express it. As my vocabulary increased, so did my ability to express what I already knew. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that language increased my knowledge, as much as it increased my awareness of what I already knew, as well as produced confusion around what I didn't.
Your question, and this conversation, brings to mind the first part of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” and its inherent contradictions:
“There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series,
The sad marvels;
Of this was told
A tale of our wickedness.
It is not our wickedness.”
To put it more simply: with time, we can see more than we used to, but maybe that means we are also more blind, too. It's this duality that I think is so compellingly maddening about time. It seems to me that what we understand of ourselves seems to be dependent upon what we are willing to look at, again, and again, as well as what we choose to hide from ourselves.
I am always encouraging my students to put their drafts away for at least a short time, so that they can see what they couldn’t see before with fresher eyes. It’s uncanny, actually, how something written centuries ago can resonate with us in the present moment, or how differently we read something we wrote or thought years or days ago. I like to look at my younger self’s writing not as mistakes, but as love maps back to myself that I recorded to keep track of where I was in a different time and space. I like to see how my younger self knew some things that my current self has forgotten, and vice versa! I am invested in my own timelessness, and speaking of time, it pleases me to remember that a loop is a shape produced by a curve that crosses itself. I am always going back to what I have already looked at; there's always more to see. I am always crossing myself, both helplessly and actively.
What is your favorite part of writing a poem?
My favorite part of writing a poem is how time falls away. I live in a world structured by alarms, notifications, schedules, and meeting times, and I really, really hate the feeling of wasted time, or being late. If I'm not checking what time it is, I'm wondering what time it is, or wondering what on earth time even is. To be able to enter the world of a poem and lose track of non-linear time is everything to me; it restores my connection to my wild, wandering interior that lives in a spiral rather than a straight line.
Let's move to American political events. Poets seem fairly unified against the Trump administration. What can poets do in the Age of Trump?
I'm fascinated by the wording in your question—poets "seem" to be unified against Trump. It made me wonder what kind of surveying is occurring to come to that assessment of poets as a group: social media, at a glance, for example, certainly seems to suggest that that unification is true. I’m not saying it’s not, but for me, what the election really revealed to me and reminded me is that there’s a vast difference between how people present themselves versus how they actually think.
What’s also interesting to me about politics is that no matter what anyone says in any kind of public forum, we ultimately don't know what happens in the voting booth, or what kinds of conversations occur privately. As for what we can do—I wish I had a straightforward solution as to how we might best go about protecting ourselves, our values, as well as our loved ones. I’m trying to keep my ears and eyes open. I’m trying to think for longer before I speak.
In what way might poetry resemble politics?
I have to be honest. I’ve been avoiding answering this question for awhile, as the increasing insistence on a de facto relationship between the two unsettles me in a way that I haven’t known how to articulate. Still, I’ve been asking myself this very question too. Impossible, these days, not to. Okay, y’all. This is going to go long. Bear with me.
Let me start with freedom, since so many politicians and poets say they aim to protect it. From my perspective as an artist, freedom is the possibility, opportunity, and desire to imagine and create freely without fear of self-censorship or censorship from others. Freedom is the ability to inhabit one’s own vantage point without fear of erasure or distortion. In that way, I am concerned that anytime we insist on anything, and insist others feel that way too, we are moving further away from freedom rather than towards it.
Let me now move on to permission. This is a word that I often used as a younger writer to describe the deliberate act of allowing myself to write poetry. My whole life, I have felt guilty about wanting to be left alone to think; to permit myself to write was to guiltily carve out the space and time to be in my own head, and to apologize to everyone around me for doing so. I am a true introvert, which makes me wonder if one of the main differences between poets and politicians is that the latter seem extroverted, whereas poets typically seem to like to stay at home with a stack of books and ourselves (plus, in my case, the occasional pint of ice cream).
I’m drawing a distinction between freedom and permission because I think they are sometimes conflated. For me, freedom requires no one’s affirmation or validation, whereas permission does rely upon an external party for the same thing. I want to write my way towards freedom, not continue to live in fear that some institution or organization won’t validate me and therefore, I will no longer exist (which begs the age old question: do I exist in the first place?). It makes me wonder: if we insist that others fight for our freedom, then are we ever truly free? For me, freedom is invisibility: the space and time to see clearly without being watched as I’m seeing. I guess I’m saying: I personally don’t mind not existing to others as long as I am free to exist to myself.
In that way, I’m unsettled by some tendencies I’ve noticed lately. I’ve observed finger-pointing at fellow writers who are not “engaging” the “political” obviously enough either through social media platforms or in poems. I’ve also heard multiple poets fret over a fear of decreased likelihood of publication because their work may not be “political enough.” Must politics regularly be named explicitly by another’s standards, not only in contemporary poetry, but also in the digital spaces where poets promote themselves professionally? To put it more simply, is it actually true that poetry + politics = Truth? Or, these days, is it more true that poetry + politics=product?
I have no conclusive answers to these questions, but I do want to keep on asking. Do politics and poetry have an intrinsically linked relationship, or is that question ultimately unanswerable, and is that why we keep circling back to it? It seems like what really distinguish the two is content rather than context, as both are potentially private or public formats of perception and expression. In that way, both try to confront the perils and possibilities of attempting to encapsulate individual human perceptions. Both poetry and politics inherently negotiate the relationship between interior and exterior worlds through language, and both attempt to use language as a means to achieve clarity of perception—poetry seems primarily invested in perception of the self, whereas politics, perhaps, is more engaged with the shared perceptions of others.
To that end, I want to share a couple of quotes I discovered in the Oxford English Dictionary when I looked up the definitions for "politics" and "poetry."
“What we may call the politics of despair, by which is meant . . . a conviction that the United States are being borne on to an end not seen.” (International Review, 1871)
“America demands a Poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and kosmical, as she is herself.” (Walt Whitman, 1874)
Both of these quotes try to understand and describe a vast geography of people and places in different ways, and yet what joins them is that they both try to describe something as myriad and as individual as perception of what America/United States is or isn’t. Even that difference is interesting as a way of considering questions of both individuality and multiplicity. This question of perception and its expression ultimately just leads me back to the nature of time (I’m obsessed): are poetry and politics just another means by which we try to be immortal? Whether it’s a poem or a speech, are we all just trying to scrutinize, withstand, and perhaps most meaningfully, materialize time through language? Can we accept that another human creature grapples with time differently, and can we make room for that grappling?
And finally, I want to share one last quote from Fazlur Rahman who writes in the wonderful book I’m reading, Major Themes of the Qur’an: “God, then, becomes the friend of and cooperates with a person who has ‘discovered’ him.” I love this emphasis on discovery rather than belief. In that way, perhaps what ultimately unites politics and poetry is that they are there to be discovered, to come alive through individual human perception. Otherwise, they remain as abstract as the terms we use to describe the myriad universalities and histories inside each of us, as we look for any means to describe what we sense might be what we have decided to call the Truth.