Exquisite Dissonance

For Tarfia Faizullah, poetry is time travel.
Image of the poet Tarfia Faizullah.

Poet, editor, and professor Tarfia Faizullah’s debut collection, Seam, won the 2012 Crab Orchard Series First Book Award and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2014. Reviewing the book for Slate, Jonathan Farmer noted that the poems “feel like the quickened presence of a flawed person (flawed as we are all flawed) who has committed to making as much as she can of the horrors she feels compelled to see.” Faizullah’s latest collection, Registers of Illuminated Villages, works in an even wider array of emotional pitches and forms—soliloquies, elegies, prose poems, aubades, nocturnes, and homework assignments, to name a few. Exacting and unforgettable, Faizullah’s poems offer dynamism and humor mixed with deadly sobriety, as in “Self-Portrait as Mango,” which begins “She says, Your English is great! How long have you been in our country? / I say, Suck on a mango, bitch, since that’s all you think I eat anyway.” A former Fulbright scholar to Bangladesh, Faizullah currently teaches in the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. In January, shortly before the release of Faizullah’s second book, we corresponded via email about A Wrinkle in Time, Play-Doh, and all the reasons that poetry is her fave. The following exchange was condensed and edited.

The centerpiece of your first book, Seam (2014), is the long sequence “Interview with a Birangona,” which examines the history of Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. You’ve said, “I don’t believe that there is an art that can ever render something as unreasonable and as violent as human suffering. I tried to write a book that acknowledges the limitations of that rendering as much as it is helpless before those ‘images of the atrocious.’” That statement made me think of the essay, “Against Witness,” by Cathy Park Hong, in which she writes, “In an era when eyewitness testimonies, photos, and videos are tweeted seconds after a catastrophe, poetry’s power to bear witness now feels outdated and inherently passive.” What guidelines do you set for yourself when you approach topics that you simultaneously cannot yet must address?

From a practical standpoint, I understand poetry best as my BAE, an imaginary bestie rolling with me on various adventures, so my fave part of Cathy’s essay is her discussion of encountering the sublime and the uncanny. My curiosity is sparked by what’s startling or lurking in the corner and by the encounter itself. That encounter can be with anything: a person, the national news, a historical event, or a memory.

Who or what I am in relation to that encounter is what I discuss with poetry, like being misunderstood or desired, or what’s painful and confusing, like being bullied, or exhilarating and scary, like falling in love, or what’s embarrassing but oddly pleasurable, like being good at something.

Poetry gets it and is smarter than me. Poetry is also very good at math and has a real keen sense of schematics and structures. And then there’s what I observe daily. Poetry is my second pair of eyes, not because I need my sight validated but because I need eyes to see!

The title of your second book is Registers of Illuminated Villages, and its title poem is "Register of Eliminated Villages," named after 397 villages destroyed during the war in northern Iraq. The wordplay is clever but not funny per se or at least not in any but the darkest way. How did you settle on that set of titles? And how do you determine what emotional registers to use in your poems? What’s the place of somberness, and what's the place of play? 

Not long ago, I was hanging out with my friend and her daughter, a five-year-old at the time, and we were playing with Play-Doh. She had just spent the better part of an hour fashioning the perfect pile of orange spaghetti and neon green meatballs. And then she brought her small, strong fist down like a hammer and smushed the whole thing to smithereens. Her mom asked, “Why do you destroy what you make?” and she answered, “To play.”

I love it so much. I’m really drawn to that kind of, I dunno, exquisite dissonance—like when my sister died and two of her friends played house and set a place for her at the play dinner table. Play is a really neat expression of humans’ ability to cope with whatever comes our way. By the way, the book title actually started out as Eliminated Villages because I thought I was writing to forget, but in the end, it turned out I was trying to remember with more clarity, so I decided to put my shovel down and pick up my flashlight.

Your book opens and closes with epigraphs from Nina Simone’s rendition of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”: “I do not count the time” and “I do not fear time.” How do you conceive of the relationship between poetry and time, both in the sense of the duration of a poem itself and in the sense of how a poem exists in time and engages with various readers and even history?

Poetry is my fave because it is time travel: we can connect to younger selves, ancestors (both blood and literary), neighbors, total strangers, made-up magical creatures, historical figures, not to mention the unborn! That’s bananas. I reread A Wrinkle in Time every year (the movie is coming out the same month as Registers!), and it changes in subtle ways each time. I suspect a poem is a tesseract: a leap in time and a record of it. A good poem is also like a great friendship that’s figured out the sweet spot between time spent together and apart. And on a technical level, a poem is made of time: what’s a line break or a syllable but a way to measure and mark? I’m so into it. In her intro to the live version of that song, Nina Simone says, “Time is a dictator.” I love that idea of time (and a poem) as a dictator: a ruler with control and also a person or device that records.

You were a Kundiman fellow, participating in the organization’s mission of “nurturing generations of writers and readers of Asian American literature.” Can you speak a bit about what Kundiman meant to you as a writer and what impact you see such programs and communities having on writers and readers in general? What are the joys and challenges of embracing and writing from the perspective of one’s identity group?

It’s good for us to enter rooms where we feel both challenged and comforted and where what we have in common and what we don’t are given equal value. I’m very private, but both times I went to Kundiman, I cried like a relieved colicky baby in a room full of perfect strangers (perfect in more ways than one). I was surprised, but it makes sense—I was among my own kind; it felt safe. Or, I should say kinds: there are lots of us, and we come in so many shapes and surprises!

One of my favorite sections in any collection is always the “Notes” at the end. Yours were extra delightful because of the way you chose to phrase them: the name of the poem followed by “would not exist without” and then a credit to the source or inspiration. This ranged from the 2002 episode of Frontline from which you first learned about the “eliminated villages” in Iraq to “lines from Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Beekeeper’s Daughter’ from Ariel.” What made you choose to present them this way? What, in general, do you think poetry would not exist without? And what would you not exist without?

To be honest, I’m not sure if I exist (or if you do! But I’ve decided to trust you). But a poem definitely does. We can revisit it. I guess I see the sources as part of a poem’s origin story. Each took me on some adventure or another or changed the direction of my sight, even slightly, or described something I couldn’t explain. A lot of those sources helped me survive tough times or kicked open something in me when I was feeling numb. It feels good to pay homage to impossible conversations across time. 

What’s the poem you read most recently that totally blew your mind and why?

A friend sent me “The Lie” by Don Paterson, recently, and after reading it, I was, as they say, significantly shook: by the personification, the form, the rhyme scheme, and the way it all unravels. I just reread it. Ugh. It messes me up every time. Shudder.

Your third-person author bio at the end of your book concludes “She believes in destiny.” Why do you believe in that, and what else do you believe in that might surprise us?

I can’t answer why I believe in it—it’s like faith, it just is. But since you asked, I also believe in true love, imaginary numbers, telepathy, and unicorns.

Originally Published: March 5th, 2018

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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