Tarfia Faizullah vs. Beauty

March 6, 2018

Danez Smith: She's the coupon book to my sensible black mother, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: And they’re the dance break that comes at just the right time in the Mozart symphony, Danez Smith. 

Danez Smith: And you are listening to the Season 2 premiere of VS. The podcast where poets confronts the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Brought to you very excitedly by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Danez Smith: Postloudness and the Poetry-oetry-oe-y-o-y…

Franny Choi: I love them…

Danez Smith: Oh my god. Hey, Franny!

Franny Choi: Hi, Danez!

Danez Smith: How are you doing on this premiere day. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: God, premiere day.. got my premiere look.

Danez Smith: I know, I got a new backpack for it.

Franny Choi: It’s my regular jeans I wear every day.

Danez Smith: I put on a fancy T but I put it wrong wrong, but it’s OK because I’m cute… (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Yay! Ah, it feels so good to be back.

Danez Smith: It does. It does. How have y’all been, yo? We hope that y’all been OK, you missed us?

Franny Choi: Yeah, maybe a moment of silence where you answer how you’ve been doing for the last few months?

Danez Smith: Hmm, wow.

Franny Choi: Woooow…!

Danez Smith: Oh, I’m sorry about that, oooooooh!

Franny Choi: Yezzz!

Danez Smith: Oh, oh..

Franny Choi: Ooooooooh, that explains it….

Danez Smith: OK, OK. Well, it’s good to hear from you, now we’re all here, now we’re all here. Now we got a chance to check in.

Franny Choi: Everyone checks in, good, good, good. Well, we are so excited to bring you this inaugural Season 2 episode, with one of our very favorite people in the entire world, Tarfia Faizullah.

Danez Smith: Yeah!

Franny Choi: And this was actually... she was—fun fact—one of our favorite interviewees from Season 1.

Danez Smith: Also, fun fact, y’all didn’t get to hear it and neither did we cause the audio was, like,…. mwe-mwe-mwe-mwe…

Franny Choi: It was really bad.

Danez Smith: Yeah…

Franny Choi: It was also… there were so many things happening that day.

Danez Smith: I found out that cashews were a tree nut, which is something that I’m allergic to, so I was high on Benadryl out my mind.

Franny Choi: And I was, I think, going through the early stages of heatstroke. We were in a very hot place.

Danez Smith: Yes.

Franny Choi: Tarfia was saying brilliant things.

Danez Smith: We had to walk over a TV to record. Like, it sounds weird…

Franny Choi: We went under it.

Danez Smith: We went under a couch where…

Franny Choi: Under a TV…

Danez Smith: We went under a TV that was, like…

Franny Choi: In the basement…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: It was a wonderful space.

Danez Smith: Wonderful!

Franny Choi: But, we were just not exactly… ehm… present. During that one. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And so we had the wonderful opportunity to reinterview Tarfia…

Franny Choi: Which we’re so grateful to her for doing.

Danez Smith: Yes we are. And if you're listening to this on the actual premiere day of this episode, there's another premiere happening today. Tarfia Faizullah’s new book, Registers of Illuminated Villages is out right now. After you've done this, run of the bookstore, go get it, go get it, go get it.

Franny Choi: Yes. We’re so lucky to have gotten a chance to talk to her about that book, and about the difference between her first project and this project, about beauty and the grotesque and vulnerability and pleasure and guilt and lots of other deep, philosophical, beautiful questions.

Danez Smith: Yeah, at one point, like, Franny, like, legit becomes Tarfia’s therapist. Or at least tries to be. Auditioned for therapist.

Franny Choi: No, no, no.. I just wanted to become close to her.

Danez Smith: OK, that’s fine.

Franny Choi: It’s just about closeness.

Danez Smith: I think it worked, I think it worked. So this is author of SeamRegisters of Eliminated Villages, all-around bad motherfucker, one of my favorite teachers that I’ve ever had.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: So let’s get into it, y’all, this is Tarfia Faizullaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Franny Choi: Here we go. Season 2, Season 2, Season 2!


Danez Smith: We are here in the studio with the one, the only-est, Tarfia Faizullah. How you doing, Tarfia?

Tarfia Faizullah: Hello!

Franny Choi: How are you doing, Tarfia?

Tarfia Faizullah: Hello, I’m good, how are y’all?

Danez Smith: Good!

Franny Choi: Came from an amazing reading with Tarfia and Kaveh Akbar….

Tarfia Faizullah: Thank you.

Franny Choi: … which was so good. So great. How did you feel about that reading?

Tarfia Faizullah: It was cool. Yeah. It was really good to read with Kaveh, specifically, and to get to hear what he's up to and thinking about. And it's cool to be in Chicago, too.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And it was so exciting for me to read poems out of the new book, which is….

Tarfia Faizullah: Thanks!

Franny Choi: You said the pub date is March…

Tarfia Faizullah: March 6th. Yeah.

Danez Smith: It will be out by the time this comes out.

Franny Choi: Yeah, hell yeah!

Tarfia Faizullah: Cool.

Franny Choi: Yay! Amazing!

Tarfia Faizullah: Yay.

Franny Choi: How are you feeling about that book being in the world after you… I mean, you've been working on…. on that project for, like, 15 years, you said?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. I'm sort of working on the third project already. So in some ways it feels kind of crazy, because it feels like it's new to everyone else, but I've been living with these poems for so long…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Right, right, right.

Tarfia Faizullah: So I'm sort of just, like, get out of the house! Leave me alone!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: I have other stuff to do.

Danez Smith: You’re on your own now!

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) Yeah exactly. You have to figure out how to apply to college yourself, I can’t help with that anymore.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Google it. But it's cool, um, speaking about my pub date, it’s crazy actually, because the pub date for my first book and the pub date for the second book are identical.

Franny Choi: Wow!

Tarfia Faizullah: Which is sort of a weird…

Danez Smith: What!?

Tarfia Faizullah: ... random fact.

Franny Choi: And it's how many years between them?

Tarfia Faizullah: Four years.

Franny Choi: Woooooow.

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: Amazing.

Danez Smith: That first book experience, that’s a particular kind of adrenaline.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: How does this release feel different from the release of Seam?

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, I feel, like, Seam came from such a specific context. Like, I was looking at a specific time in history and trying to write poems around that specific historical context. And Registers is different, because it’s dealing with more things that are happening currently and experiences of my own life. So it feels that way like a more vulnerable book. Because it feels like, in some ways, what I think some first books are; which is sort of really vulnerable personal stories. But I'm doing that in my second book. That's one of the differences. And I think, too, that in the second book I’m trying out a sort of wide range of forms and a wide range of different voices. I'm excited about it being out in the world. I'm a little scared. I always get a little overwhelmed at the idea of a new project being out in the world.

Franny Choi: Sure, totally.

Tarfia Faizullah: But I feel like I stand by those poems, I believe in them…. and I'm curious to see how they do out in the world.

Danez Smith: You know, it's really interesting. I'm wondering if there might be a particular kind of freedom in having your first book not focus on you, right, cause it's already so much attention and people are already gonna see if you're worth your salt, a little bit, with the first book. So to have that also be a judgment of you and your personal experience, might be a little bit….

Tarfia Faizullah: Right.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: I mean, you mentioned vulnerability. Do you feel like your relationship to vulnerability has been changing because of this book, and because of the new territory that it's entering?

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, one of the challenges I set for myself for Registers was to see if I could write a book that was largely in first person. Without first person getting stale.

Franny Choi: Hmm. What do you mean by “first person getting stale”?

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, I guess, like, for me, like, I think growing up in some ways, you're taught that your personal experiences are things, maybe, that you think about privately but not necessarily things that you share.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: And so this is a book that is, I guess, sort of... me in some ways attempting to face or acknowledge darker things, but be willing to shed a light on some of those dark things that…. In some ways I thought I was writing those poems to erase what had happened to me. Or to kind of destroy dark things that I had been through. But the book ended up being more a way of, sort of, looking at those things head on, and not being afraid of feelings like shame or guilt or rage, pain, sadness... Like, I feel like the poems make room for that. But those aren't the only things they're trying to grapple with.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Tarfia Faizullah: And so, in that way, they feel sort of, like, shedding a light on those things and not being afraid to look at them, rather than writing something in order to beautify it so that the original darkness no longer exists, if that makes sense.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And it had a different title before, right?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. It was originally called… well, it’s been through a lot of different titles, but the two that I ended up wrestling with at the end was that it was originally titled Registers of Eliminated Villages.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: It was that title, I guess, for a couple of years. And then I changed it to Registers of Eliminated Villages.Because I was going through this period where I was thinking about how so much of what we go through, some ways attempt to sweep it under the rug. Like, those things didn't happen. Those things happened to me then. But that's not true of my current reality. But…. In my case I feel like I'm visited often by dark memories in the present moment. And instead of trying to tell those voices to shut up, or, you know, trying to tell them to forget about the past, I want…. it's not necessarily replay the past, but to look at the past and try to understand it better from the current moment, and not feel like I would be destroyed by those things.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: But I guess to me the idea of being lit up rather than... kind of... dwelling in the shadows, like, I feel like I've attempted to my whole life... ended up being part of the project of the second book.

Danez Smith: Do you think you had to go through that as a person before you went through that as a poet?

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, I think the process is… Yeah, like, I feel like they're sort of connected. Like, I felt like I become (CHUCKLING) a slightly more decent person the more poetry that I write.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Which is just sort of an added bonus to writing poetry, I think.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: But the things that used to scare me were the things that I wouldn't want to think about, but that I would end up thinking about anyway. They don't have the same hold on me. And so, in that way, I feel, like, it allows me to encourage others to think about how to look at themselves more openly, with less fear. Because I think it's scary to look at the dark stuff and to write into that space, because I think you can feel, like, you'll lose yourself to it. But I felt like in my case, I felt like the deeper I went into those poems, the more I can understand how darkness happens in the first place.

Danez Smith: Haaa!

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: And not to try to erase darkness or to control it, but just to accept it. And I guess, into….. to try to understand how something like light just doesn't exist in a vacuum and darkness doesn't exist in a vacuum. They have a really interactive relationship with each other. And so I feel like being able to say, I have dark thoughts, but I also have these thoughts that feel less heavy than that.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: Hmmm. Totally. Not to bring my therapist into the room here, but something that my therapist did…

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: ...that we were talking about, was sort of….. A proposal that she made was about looking at the dark feelings and the dark thoughts and, like, how to look at them with, like, curiosity. Curiosity seemed like a really good alternative to, like…

Danez Smith: Despair?

Franny Choi: Yeah, or just being swallowed by it, or try to fight it down. It's, like, neither of those, and, like, allows you to kind of, like, engage with it and be, like, hey, who are you. Where do you come from? Like, come sit down and have a cup of tea with me, you know.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: And then, off you go, on your way.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, exactly.

Franny Choi: I wonder, like, how curiosity functions in all of this.

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, it's interesting because I did an interview around the time “Seam” came out, and one of the things I said about “Seam” was that I was fascinated by these……. Basically, the troubled stories of women in Bangladesh who had survived war time. I heard a criticism of me saying that I was fascinated by that. Because I think the implication was that I was maybe looking at it a little voyeuristically, I guess. But for me, fascination and curiosity come from a place of wanting to understand something that I don't understand. Poetry creates this distance that allows me to look at those things... not necessarily to transform those things into something beautiful, which is to say, I'm not trying to beautify something that is maybe ugly, but I'm trying to understand how something that is potentially grotesque or ugly bumps up against something that's beautiful. One of the criticisms of “Seam” that I've heard has been that I lyricized the difficult stories of different women... And I thought that was really interesting because I thought, why is the assumption that a woman who has undergone serious trauma wouldn't be capable of beautiful thoughts?

Franny Choi: Hmmmmmm.

Danez Smith: Hmmmmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: Inside of those dark spaces is when you, sort of, come alive in a different way and you, maybe, can have a sense of what beauty means to you, maybe more acutely. When you're facing something that feels uncomfortable or dark or ugly.

Danez Smith: Yeah. That’s so smart of you. And I'm, like… I really appreciate what you said about fascination. The way you said it, I think, makes me think more of a linguistic root of fascination. I see the word, like, facet, like, to facet yourself to something, right, to make it stuck to you. I don't know if that's really where it comes from, if they have a similar root, but, like, to really be stuck to a thing, makes you want to make it beautiful too, right. Once it's attached to you, you want to be able to see yourself in your own... not prettiness. Prettiness isn't a word. But we all want to see the good in ourselves, so, like, to be fascinated with a thing means to me, see, I want to be able to see goodness that I see in myself also in this thing. Or to, at least, allow my light to, like, illuminate this thing. Which is great.

Tarfia Faizullah: I think in general... I mean, I would say that I am fascinated by myself. I mean, I think about how my parents came here in the 70s from a tropical developing country. And so I was born in Brooklyn and I feel like... I feel like I'm a monster. But I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing. But I think I did think that for a long time.

Danez Smith: We all seen Monsters Inc.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Exactly. It’s, like, we could also reference Kanye West’s song “Monster” as a different way of thinking about monsters.

Franny Choi: Can always reference that song Monster.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) Yeah, exactly. Nicki's verse in that is just amazing.

Franny Choi: I mean, I meant Nicki’s verse. When I say Monster, that’s what I mean.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It is a Nicki Minaj song.

Tarfia Faizullah: Right, exactly. We all wait for that part of the song. But, you know, I'm sort of the result of what happens when you take my parents growing up the way they grew up, and then coming to America, I'm sort of the strange result of what happens when you add McDonalds to, like, to… You know, my parents, sort of, like, the ancestry that they bring with them. I don't know. That's interesting to me, because I think that I'm very peculiar to myself and I want to understand why and how. And how my peculiarity bumps up against the rest of the world. People both who are close to me, but also who are just living in the world in general.

Franny Choi: Hmm. You know, adding McDonald's to the pot is a.... I don't know, you talked about, like, the grotesque and beauty and, like….

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: That’s kinda… a grotesqueness as well, right.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah!

Franny Choi: That kind of, like, meshing of things.

Danez Smith: Can I ask a question?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Maybe it's kind of weird.

Franny Choi: Sure.

Danez Smith: But I think about it when I think about beauty in your work. What does the color green mean to you?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) 

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) I do have a thing with green. Well, I mean… So, I grew up going to Bangladesh every year, every other year, with my parents. And it was such a weird thing because growing up in West Texas is one totally different geographical landscape and climate. And Bangladesh is just so shockingly green. Because it’s a tropical country. So that’s some of it. Is that it feels connected to this landscape that I feel, like, lives inside of me and that I sort of weirdly trace my… my own ancestry to. But it doesn't necessarily exist in this world, like, it doesn't live in the West, so… I guess, like, I think of green too is sort of, like, I feel, like, I'm constantly a newbie. I'm constantly starting over and rethinking what I already know. Like, I feel like now that the second book is done, the third book will feel very very different. So I wonder. Just thinking about it out loud, if I'm drawn to that idea of green because I like the idea of starting over. I like the idea of beginning in this kind of raw space, where anything could happen still.

Danez Smith: Word.

Franny Choi: And your poems are so chock full of living things. I think Kaveh tonight used the term ecosystem to talk about your poems. And I feel like, they're absolutely ecosystems, there are things growing and dying in them. Which I… you know, again, maybe goes back to that beauty / grotesque kind of conversation.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. And my father is a gardener. So I think there's that too. Yeah. And I think that I'm interested in the grotesque. I'm interested in what's thought of as ugly and, you know, I think, growing up, like, I was one of the only brown kids in, like, a, you know, 20-mile radius. In some ways, growing up in West Texas… I felt sort of grotesque for a long time. And it was a long time until I was able to really engage with my own beauty.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Danez Smith: Just for... I know this is an audio program, but, like, confirmed fine, y’all, confirmed.

Franny Choi: Confirmed!

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Affirmative, yes.

Tarfia Faizullah: I appreciate it.

Danez Smith: Confirmed fine person, Tarfia.

Franny Choi: Noted fine individual.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) Accept.

Franny Choi: I mean, it does make me wonder, like, what is your relationship to beauty right now when it comes to yourself. Like, do you… Maybe that’s a… like invasive question to ask. But, like, do you feel beautiful these days?

Tarfia Faizullah: Oh, man, Franny. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: I do a lot more than I ever used to, I think. And I don't think that it's an external thing for me, like, I think—this goes back to a question—like, I feel like it's this really slow but consistent process of excavating all of this, sort of, I don't know, like, shittiness that I felt like I had inside of me. And so I feel like the more that I'm able to contextualize that or understand it, or put it somewhere different, the lighter I feel.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: And so, in that way, I feel sort of, like, more beautiful than I did certainly, I think. But it's not... you know, like, I'm not, like, looking at myself in the mirror going, like, damn.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: OK, I’m, like, sometimes I do that, sometimes I do that.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Every now and again. You know, sometimes you put on a really good fit and you're, like, nah, this is working.

Franny Choi: I feel like, I’ve seen you feeling yourself in a crowd.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) I feel myself sometimes, but… But for the most part I actually, like, I've started this practice where I avoid mirrors at home. This is probably also going to sound equally silly, but I sort of go back and forth with my relationship to selfies. Because sometimes I can get sort of, like, tunnel vision around, what do I look like in this one screen, you know. Or I've been trying to trick myself out of being focused on the physical. Beauty for me increasingly is complicated, because I just think… if you start looking at the world through the lens of somebody who is actively seeking out beauty, you can see it, in all sorts of places, you know, geometry, or, you know… For me it's been this active process of, I think, just… trying not to shrink from the world. And feel it is a scary, dark, grotesque place, and trying to see it more as a place that has beauty in it if I'm willing to look at it and find it.

Danez Smith: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know that idea that, like, everything is pretty to somebody. It's really... the grotesque is just something that's waiting to be understood as beautiful.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: In a lot of ways, right. Even the grotesque things within ourselves, right. And I think, even when I think about my own traits. I think I have some really ugly things about me, but they have been useful in some beautiful ways at different points in my life.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. Absolutely.

Danez Smith: What is something in your work, in your life, that you've learned to call beautiful.

Tarfia Faizullah: Well... OK so, this…

Danez Smith: Or that maybe scared you before, right, in a grotesque way.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. Well, I guess, this is, like, a, you know, maybe a little personal. But I was in a car accident when I was 13 and my right shoulder got really messed up. In the months that followed, I had to go through multiple different kinds of invasive surgery and my shoulder got infected and... it was this whole big thing. And so I have pretty limited range of motion in my right arm and for a long time I was really insecure about it. I remember a distant family relative said something about how it was going to be really difficult to marry me off, because of my arm, like, kind of thing. And that happened at a pretty young age. So, I think, for a while I was just sort of, like, well, I'm inadequate or….. Because I have this thing broken in me. Or this thing that's broken about me physically, then that means I'm sort of essentially unlovable in some ways. And these are early thoughts, I think. And then eventually I got to the point where now, I just sort of feel, like, beautiful things can grow from breakage. Now I'm just sort of, like, really grateful to my kind of funny right arm, I guess. Because it feels like it makes me aware of the fact that breakage can be… can be ultimately beautiful. Because learning to accept something like, like, a handicap, I think like, that can make you realize that a lot of the emphasis that is put on perfection or symmetry, certainly is one kind of beauty, but that there's plenty of beauty to be found in things that people would otherwise abandon or think of as broken.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Yeah. Do you think about breakage in your writing?

Tarfia Faizullah: Oh yeah, all the time. I mean, I think that's why I fuck with the line break so much. You know, like…

Danez Smith: You do the best line breaks, yo.

Franny Choi: Yeah. It’s true. It’s really true.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) I think about line breaks a lot, I think, because they create a sense of time or a sense of pace. But they're also sort of, like, really interesting moments of breakage, like, where you can really experience how someone else engages with something like disruption.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Hmmmm!

Tarfia Faizullah: And so, yeah, breakage is something I think of in that way. In the technical sense. And then I think there's... there's been this criticism I've heard my whole life, people sort of roll their eyes at the idea of poetry as therapy. Or poetry as cathartic, you know. And I understand what they mean sort of, like, there's…. there's a way poetry can be, maybe, overly sentimental. When it's encountering things like grief and pain. But I think that I'd rather risk sentimentality and overreach and miss the mark, and then sort of pull it back. I think poetry can hold breakage and also organize breakage, such that it doesn't seem completely chaotic. And you can see something, like, splintering or breakage as elegant. I guess.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: Hmm. Yeah.


Franny Choi: Something that you mentioned that you were interested in talking about, was the relationship between pleasure and guilt. Which also…

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: I'm very curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, I mean, I guess that sort of connects to everything as basic as, say, I don't know... eating too many Funyuns and then feeling guilty about it.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: But I think about how, say... I sometimes have felt guilty, I guess, about the pleasure I've gotten out of taking something difficult or complicated and getting pleasure and organizing it on the page.

Danez Smith: Hmmm!

Franny Choi: Hmmm!

Tarfia Faizullah: And understanding something from that.

Franny Choi: Where does that guilt come from? Like, why?

Danez Smith: I understand that, I think I felt that before.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Especially for writing about difficult topics. I'd like to think about it as a type of buoy, or an anchor. That we need to, like, lift ourselves out of it, right. So, like…. For me, when I think about, like, play in poetry, it's weird to think about, like, I want to play in my trauma. Or I’m gonna play…

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: And when you’re a poet, I think we have these two strains that we follow, which, one is really caring or sometimes even being devastated by our topics. But I think there has to be... once you're, like, really in this poet's shit, you do need to have a sort of love and curiosity and play with the actual things of the poem. And I think... I think it's what actually allows us to dive further into that. But I think that guilt has come from, you know, the pleasure of “I wrote a good thing.” Or I wrote that good sentence. But when you think about the actual core of what that poem you are writing about is, like, I'm actually writing about, like, this dead relative. Or I’m writing        about, like, this horrible thing that happened to me, you know. It’s almost, like, that people, I mean I know we've talked about it… Where, like, a bad thing happens to you, and, like, for a minute you're sad about it, but then there's a second thought of, like, oh, I get to write about this now.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: So an ugly thought….

Danez Smith: It's an ugly thought. But I think it is what allows us as poetry…. as poets. We are poetry too!

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It’s what allows us as poets to enter into those dark spaces, like, you're talking about… So I can enter the dark because I know how to have fun in it.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: You know?

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: But I think there is a guilt that sometimes peaks its head up in there. Because we're taught that we’re supposed to be scared of those dark rooms, that it is supposed to be a caution.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And I think it goes back to that criticism about, like, turning a terrible thing beautiful. Like, the…

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, I know exactly. I mean, I think, the ability to sort of play with your own dark materials is really interesting to me. Because on one hand I feel, like, OK, these are the materials that I've been given. You know, these are … This is my inheritance. This is what I have. And so this is what I have to work with. And my mom and I were talking recently, actually, about how, when, my first day of kindergarten, I got a U for unsatisfactory behavior.

Franny Choi: O-oh.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Damn.

Franny Choi: Day one!

Tarfia Faizullah: Started early, I know, early. I was a troublemaker early and I just kept on…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: But it was because this kid…. I was playing with blocks and I was making something that I was really into. And he came and he messed it all up, and I got real salty about it, and so I threw blocks at him.

Danez Smith: This sounds like an appropriate response.

Tarfia Faizullah: Right? That’s how I feel too!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Fight back.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah! (LAUGHING) Yeah, exactly.

Franny Choi: Resist.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) So I got sent to the corner, you know…

Franny Choi: Oooow, the corner....

Tarfia Faizullah: And I had to, like, just stand there and think about, you know, the things I had done wrong. But instead of… instead of doing that, I stood there and I got increasingly angrier and angrier about the gross injustice that I was facing.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Cause he messed up your thing!

Tarfia Faizullah: Right.

Danez Smith: Did he have to stand in another corner?

Tarfia Faizullah: Nooo!

Danez Smith: See.

Tarfia Faizullah: See! Exactly.

Franny Choi: That’s the patriarchy right there.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. I was the one who was supposed to feel guilty about caring about what I was making. And so I guess that's what I mean a little bit, about the pleasure-and-guilt thing, sort of, like... I refused to feel guilty even though I got in trouble for, sort of, like, engaging with my play materials the way I wanted to engage with them.

Franny Choi: Hmmmmm!

Danez Smith: Hmmmm.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Danez Smith: Who's winning in your new poems that you're writing for this third book, pleasure or guilt?

Franny Choi: Ooooh!

Tarfia Faizullah: Whoaaa. Oh, man. I think pleasure is winning. Yeah.

Danez Smith: Can you tell us a little bit about them?

Tarfia Faizullah: The new poems?

Danez Smith: Yeah, I mean, you know, somebody will, like, listen to this is 2020 when the next book is, like…

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) It’s interesting because I feel like my first two books are pretty serious in tenor.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: But my close peoples know me as a pretty goofy, corny person. So I feel like, in the third book, the tone is a lot more playful... I'm a little bit more... darkly humorous. I think... It feels really new to delight in making fun of things. Or just, sort of, you know... Puncture holes in them in a slightly different way.

Danez Smith: We can talk about this later, but I’m starting to wonder if third books are where poets are to have fun?

Franny Choi: I was just about to say!

Danez Smith: I’m writing a really fun third book y’all.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Danez Smith: I’m wondering if, like…

Franny Choi: Shit is bad, shit is really bad… Let's play. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I don’t know what it is.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, exactly.

Danez Smith: I think, like, you know, even when you think about Terrance Hayes’s work. You have, like, you know “Muscular Music” and “Hip Logic,” well…. Terrance Hayes is always, like, kind of a fun dude. Never mind, never mind.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That’s n*** been having fun since the beginning. (LAUGHING) But I think, like, you know, “Wind In A Box” is like a really fun kinda book to me, you get to put on Dr. Seuss and, like Lil Wayne and, like, all these different characters and shit.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yay.

Franny Choi: Sort of, like, setting up the stakes. You know, like, even when we play, even when we're finding pleasure, it's because the stakes are high, that, like, that pleasure is so meaningful, you know.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, exactly. Like, I have a poem that is looking at being a middle aged woman and it's kind of spliced with Whitney Houston lyrics. It's always, like, that kind of thing, like, thinking about how I guess, like, sort of looking at what's already out there in the world and seeing how I connect with it. As a young woman who's just trying to kind of simultaneously enjoy myself and do my work at the same time.

Franny Choi: Hmmm.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: Do you feel… never mind, I don’t want to ask that question. (LAUGHING) I was gonna say…

Tarfia Faizullah: Yes I do feel it sometimes. But not always.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Do you feel it?

Franny Choi: Do you feel. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Well, I was gonna say, do you feel like where you are right now in your life is a place where play is allowed? I guess, maybe the question that I should ask is: how do you have to set up your space or your life in order to most facilitate that, like, spirit of play? And pleasure?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. That’s a great question. You stumped me.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: When I was growing up, I was really protective of my play space, you know, like, whatever that was.

Danez Smith: Obviously, you throwing blocks.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Exactly!

Franny Choi: I was gonna say, because I feel like you’re… it seems like you’re someone for whom, like, your living and working space is, like, very important.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I rearrange my house a fair amount. To sort of… like, that feels like a kind of play. Bigger blocks I guess.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: And I don't throw them; I'm not gonna throw a couch at anybody. Unless you mess with me and then maybe I will.  But honestly I mean, a lot of it is sort of, like, me in my pajamas dancing around my own house.

Franny Choi: Yeeeeeees.

Tarfia Faizullah: And so I think for me it's, like, anything that can cultivate in me a sense of remembrance about what it is to regard the world with a kind of awe and wonder, rather than sort of leaving the house kind of already bracing myself for the worst, or… I work at home primarily and I have tons of art supplies and I have books everywhere. I'm kind of an overgrown child so I like doing things like playing with Play-Doh and doing really terrible-looking, amateurish-looking, you know, finger painting and that kind of thing. So on a literal level, it looks like that. I think on a more metaphysical level, it's about looking at other humans as possible creatures who may want to play too, you know. When I travel, I sort of engage people by sort of feeling out whether or not they want to be temporary playmates. You know, like, asking ridiculous questions.

Franny Choi: What was the question that you ask Uber and Lyft drivers?

Tarfia Faizullah: Oh yeah. What would you say to your younger self if you could?

Franny Choi: Oh yeah. Ooooh. What a question.

Danez Smith: Can I ask you that question?

Franny Choi: Yeah, what…

Danez Smith: What would you say to younger Tarfia?

Tarfia Faizullah: Ah, shit. I’m a lot better at asking questions than I am answering them, I have to say.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Is it easier if I give you an age?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah! Give me an age.

Danez Smith: OK. Umm… Sixteen.

Tarfia Faizullah: Oh, God.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: How long do we have for this? There is a lot of stuff I would like to say to my sixteen-year-old self…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, first of all, I’d probably give my sixteen-year-old self a huge hug. Because I think she needed them way more than she ever asked for them.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: Hmmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: So I would do that. I would give her a hug, I would give her a hug or a high five. I think I would tell her to trust your instincts; because I think that's a really hard thing to do, to cultivate a sense of trust in your own counsel and in your own intuition. And I think… maybe we ideally… we sort of… if we pay enough attention and we’re doing the right work, we cultivate that the longer that we live. But I would say to trust your instincts. She was thinking about stuff in a way that I didn't always appreciate at the time. Besides trust your instincts, I would say… eat your vegetables even when you don't want to.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Always good advice.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) And I would say, stick with the poetry thing. Because sixteen-year-old Tarfia was sort of, like, I can't do this. You know, you can’t… Poetry was something that was really… felt kind of private and selfish to me in a lot of ways. So I would tell her to keep doing that.

Franny Choi: Do you think sixteen-year-old Tarfia believed that current Tarfia was possible?

Tarfia Faizullah: No way in hell. Oh my god…

Franny Choi: Why not?

Tarfia Faizullah: Such a brain-breaking question.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) 

Tarfia Faizullah: But those are my favorite kind. I'd like to think that she had a sense, you know, that we were eventually heading this way. But when I was sixteen, I was probably arguing with my parents about going to med school or law school already.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Tarfia Faizullah: I was also very acutely aware that I wanted to leave. And I didn't really want to be at home a lot. I was impatient to move quickly. So I think that she thought she was heading somewhere, but I don't think she knew where she was going, exactly. So I would tell her to just trust that and to be OK with not knowing. She was… I feel like sixteen-year-old Tarfia was sort of simultaneously trying to please everyone and also resentful of feeling like I had to please everyone and therefore rebelling against it at the same time.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) For sure. For sure. Like, everybody like me; fuck everybody!

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, exactly!

Franny Choi: Both constantly.

Danez Smith: Don’t you like me, I said fuck all of you. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) Exactly.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) If twenty-eight-year-old Franny showed up at sixteen-year-old Franny’s doorstep, she would be, like, so… relieved.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah! Absolutely.

Franny Choi: Like, oh, thank god. It’s gonna be OK. You know?

Danez Smith: I think sixteen-year-old Danez is both pleased and disappointed.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: He’s like, damn, I guess I never did start doing those crunches. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And I’m like, also, check your pronouns. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: We’re having some disagreements.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, I feel like sixteen-year-old Tarfia is, like, so you still like chicken fajitas a lot?

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: That’s good. 

Franny Choi: Check, check.

Tarfia Faizullah: Good to know some things don’t change.

Franny Choi: Figured out a glasses shape that works for your face…

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)  

Franny Choi: … is what sixteen-year-old Franny would say to me.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Alright, that’s what it is. It’s large men’s glasses. That was the key all along. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Yo, can I circle back to something because this is reminding me of a little thing you said earlier.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: What is the relationship between silliness and vulnerability, for you?

Franny Choi: Woooooh!

Tarfia Faizullah: Urg. That’s such a great question.

Franny Choi: I think we’re asking, like, deep philosophical questions tonight. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: I know, I love that. Ummm… (LATE-NIGHT RADIO VOICE) VS after hours…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) For people at home, it’s, like, almost eleven.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. We’re really old…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)  

Franny Choi: Yeah, for us this is really late.

Tarfia Faizullah: The relationship between silliness and vulnerability… Well, I mean, I think that I tend to be pretty serious upfront, and then the more you get to know me, the goofier I get.

Franny Choi: Yeah, I totally agree with that.

Tarfia Faizullah: So I think in that way, I think… the more comfortable I feel, the more willing I am to be goofy and out of the box.

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: And then I guess at the same time, by the same token I would say that the more vulnerable I get, the more willing I am to be really really dark. But then I think that, to me, that kind of darkness has a natural relationship with self-deprecation. I really enjoy self-deprecation and I enjoy when people are… Are at least attempting to, sort of, simultaneously honor the gravity of whatever it is they're feeling, but also get to the point where they can sort of be, like…. ah, fuck it, what are you going to do another day in the life of, you know that kind of thing. You know, I hear my friends sometimes and they're so hard on themselves in ways that I find kind of painful as a friend. When you're watching a friend suffering, for example, and you can't penetrate through their, sort of, fog of pain or… you know, like, when they're really chipping away at themselves. For me anyway, that a lot of my… I've noticed that a lot of my friends will do this thing where, they want to do the right thing the first time. You know, they want to have the right reaction at first. They don't want to have negative feelings, like shame or jealousy or frustration or any of those things. And to me I feel like, you have to first acknowledge that you're having a base feeling in order to work your way to the place where you are more, say, ethically or morally enlightened.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: And so I think in that way too, to me, being able to be silly or corny about something difficult that's happened to you, doesn't necessarily have to negate the gravity of that thing, but can maybe point to a different way of engaging with it. And I don't know. I think that's been really helpful to me; to be able to say: I'm feeling so basic right now. You know, like, I'm feeling this negative emotion, but instead of going: I shouldn't feel this way. I try to do this thing where I'm, like, alright, you feel that way. And so now what. Now how do you deal with that. And so I think, sometimes silliness will happen after I've written a poem about something dark, for example. It feels like I'm getting closer and closer to the place where even really dark heavy things can start to feel light, and that can feel like a kind of vulnerability.

Danez Smith: By the way, by the time I get to silliness—keep that in your pocket as, like, a craft essay or, like, a poem at some point.

Franny Choi: Yeah, right. Yes!

Danez Smith: I would read the shit out of that.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Word.

Franny Choi: It's funny how that is absolutely the kind of thing that's, like, easy to tell a friend and, like, see and, like, forgive them for, like, the base first bad thought, right.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: Hmm.

Franny Choi: And, like, so much harder to, like, tell yourself, you know.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: I don’t know why… I wish I could…. I wish I could, like, forgive myself the way I forgive my friends, you know, for, like, being human. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, absolutely. Poetry can do this, and I think good friendship and communities where you feel like you can be… not, you know, not just silly or vulnerable or dark, but that you're allowed to experience all of those feelings. That there's nothing you're not allowed to feel. I worry. I worry about… you know, a sort of… as a culture, as a world, sort of, censoring ourselves from feeling what feels to me like really human feelings. Like, I think, you know, the list of human concerns that we all share, I think it’s a pretty short list that’s common among us all. So I don’t know. The hope is that you eventually get to the point where none of those things feel like they have a hold on you.


Franny Choi: We always ask our guests to bring in a poem to read for us, so Tarfia, do you have a poem that you would like to read?

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. This is a poem called “I Told The Water.” And it's a poem that I wrote for Flint Michigan and the water crisis there.

Franny Choi: Hmmm.

Danez Smith: Word.

Tarfia Faizullah: 

I told the water                                    You’re right


the poor are   


broken sidewalks


we try to avoid.


Told it              the map of you                       folds                into corners


small enough              to swallow                   I told the water


You only exist because of thirst


but beside your glistening membrane            we lie


facedown in dirt


The first time               my father threw me into you


I was hieroglyph                      a wet braid


caught             in your throat


I knew then                                         how war was possible


the urge


to defy gravity                         to dis-

arm another


I knew then we would kill





to be your mirror                                 You                 black-eyed barnacle


You     graveyard


of windows                                                      I told the water


Last night I walked out onto the ice


wearing only my skin


You couldn’t tell me                            not to.


Franny Choi: Woooow!

Danez Smith: Woooh!

Franny Choi: Tarfia! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Off the dome, too.

Tarfia Faizullah: Thanks, y’all.

Franny Choi: Can you talk about that line, we would kill to be your mirror?

Tarfia Faizullah: Um, sure. Do you have a specific question about it?

Franny Choi: No, just like, what.. I just wanna hear you talk about it. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Um. OK. We would kill to be your mirror. What did I mean by that? Um…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Well… I guess… I guess I was sort of thinking about how water is this thing that is so simultaneously easily taken for granted and really difficult to acquire at the same time. I see so much discrepancy in the awareness over a resource, like, water. And how much war is fought over resources. And how much violence is shed because of the impossibility in allocating resources. And then of course, that goes into… I think maybe some thinking about things, like, capitalism, and how some people have easy, ready access to resources like water, and some people don't at all. And then I think about how the violence that is shed over something that is all around us really. Like, water is just everywhere. And yet the Flint water crisis made me realize just how you could… you could… you could have water right there. And that the awareness that it would kill you if you drank it, is sort of, like, a strange reflection of being human, you know, where you're sort of looking at your own impossibility in some way.

Danez Smith: What the line also does for me, this  notion of… we would kill to be your mirror, right. So, we would kill to be as powerful as the water, but also, you can't harm your reflection. You know, that's the thing you can't damage. And I think about… when I think about Flint, I think about black people, I think about our constant fraught relationship to water. Whether it be coming out of hoses, whether it be on ships, whether it be in the glass and in the shower too, you know. I think you would. You know, we would kill to be as untouchable. We would kill for water to have nothing on us.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Well, I was thinking also, during… while you were reading this poem about how a tactic that certain groups have used in environmental justice fights has been to try to grant rivers civil-rights-having status. Like, try to get personhood assigned to rivers. And so, that's to say, like, that, like, the river has human rights. Which I think is completely fascinating and also, like, I don't know… I think it's, like, also a beautiful way of engaging with this distance between the person and the non-human source that makes the person possible, you know.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. Also, I guess, I was thinking a little bit about the myth of Narcissus who, you know, you know, the idea of, like, water as a reflection of where you can see yourself. But because water is always sort of in movement, your reflection is always in movement. It's impossible to really nail down exactly what you might look like to yourself at any given point in time.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Woof! God, that poem was totally gorgeous. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Thank you.

Franny Choi: You wrecked me.

Tarfia Faizullah: Thanks y’all.


Franny Choi: Speaking of being wrecked. 

Danez Smith: U-huuuuuh.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) So we have a new segment this season…

Danez Smith: That's right, that’s right.

Franny Choi: …which is just called, I think it's called “Knock Out”. Where we ask our guests that we interview to talk about something that has knocked them out. That has KO’d them recently. Whether it's, like, a piece of art or a poem or some other piece of media that they've… that they've seen, that they've been floored by. So what is something that has knocked you out recently. Knocked you to your feet. Well, my friend Tommye Blount, he's coming out with a book with Four Way, and I've gotten a chance to read one of the…

Danez Smith: What!? I don’t think I knew that! Aaaarghhhh…

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, I know, right! A Tommye Blount book, in the world.

Franny Choi: This is a day of such good pub news for you.

Danez Smith: Oh my god, such good pub news got my way today. Oh my god. All the people I want to have books have books.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Shout-out Shira Erlichman.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yes! Yaaaay. Ah, that’s excellent, what’s also excellent is… oh man. Yeah. So I’m a huge Tommye Blount fan, I have to say, he wrecks me. In general. I don’t think I’ve read a Tommye Blount poem that does not seriously mess me up. But there's also, because Tommye is such a good poet, there's recovery built into the wreckage, because he is really nice that way. He's, like, I’ll fuck you up, but I'm also going to, you know, here's a cushion for afterwards.

Franny Choi: That’s so considerate. Is he a Virgo?

Tarfia Faizullah: No, he's a Gemini.

Franny Choi: Oooooh… one of those. One of you. One of your clan.

Tarfia Faizullah: One of my strange kind.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Geminis, apparently, are the number one sign most likely to commit murder just….FYI. Just FYI.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: No threats. No threats here.

Danez Smith: You couldn’t tell that from meeting… them?

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Happy to be the study for that.

Franny Choi: Running through all the Geminis that I know. Like, yep yep check check check check.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It’s also who I would call if I needed to kill somebody.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. I mean, you have my number.

Franny Choi: Or to cover it up. To help you cover it up.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah. Could this podcast be used as… anyway nevermind.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: But what if they find out… Anyway.

Franny Choi: Shout-out JFK.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) But I've gotten a chance to read some of the stuff Tommye is working on right now towards the book. And it's just… it's so mind blowing and I just think… It's hitting on so many registers, no pun intended. Maybe pun intended.

Franny Choi: Just a little bit, just a little bit.

Tarfia Faizullah: Umm, but no, I mean, I’m just really blown away by the work that he’s doing, and.. it’s really interesting to be friends with a writer like Tommye, because his process is also really interesting. He really… he really lives in the world, and he really thinks about it, and how to move that aliveness into his poems so that the poems are alive. As alive as the world. It's really amazing.

Franny Choi: What do you mean by living in the world?

Tarfia Faizullah: Well, I just think Tommye pays attention to so many things that, I think, are easy to overlook or to miss. And he comes with such a sense of history. He's always looking at the world in more than one way. His sense of himself is so activated along multiple axes, that when he writes, like, his work is firing on every cylinder possible.

Danez Smith: Like, I think, like, one example is, like, Tommye has this series of poems that are all three poems that are thinking about the same situation, where, like this dogs just sort of runs past him, to the lake. But I think so many of us are so good at our view, that we forget that we can also have multiple views of the same thing, that time is really… that we’re really able to see with many eyes.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, he’s able to sort of name his own contradictions. And so that gives the work this really interesting, brutal tension, I guess. That’s really… it’s pretty amazing. I’m really excited for that book to be in the world.

Danez Smith: If Tommye, if you’re listening to this… (WHISPERING) come be on our podcast.

Franny Choi: Yeah!!

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Tommye Blount!


Danez Smith: Alright! So we've reached my favorite… is it my favorite? Everything is my favorite.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: So one of my favorite parts is the podcast, which is a game we call This vs. That. So, you know, we're called VS, we’re, like, fight-oriented, we’re violent. So we’re gonna ask… we’re gonna put two things in two different corners and ask you to decide which one of these things would win in a fight.

Tarfia Faizullah: OK.

Danez Smith: Umm…

Franny Choi: All-out brawl.

Danez Smith: All-out brawl. Cool. So for today, in this corner, we have beauty. In this corner we have grotesque. Whatever you wanna call it. Who’s winning in a fight? Beauty or the grotesque.

Tarfia Faizullah: Oh god, I hate y’all.


Tarfia Faizullah: Can they both win?

Danez Smith: You talk it out.

Tarfia Faizullah: OK.

Danez Smith: There is such a thing as a double KO, I’ve seen that happen.

Tarfia Faizullah: OK.

Danez Smith: I’ve watched some videos of two dudes who knock each other out in a boxing match.

Franny Choi: God, that’s, that’s… seems… I don’t know. It seems like America to me.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Well, that’s what happens… like, Democrats and Republicans who lost, people call…

Tarfia Faizullah: I mean, that’s a good place. America is a good place to start with this question, I guess.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Let’s talk about America. I think sometimes, especially since last November, I wonder what other countries are thinking when they look at what’s happening right now.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Tarfia Faizullah: Like I think about my extended family in Bangladesh sort of being, like, somebody go make more popcorn, this is crazy what’s happening.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: You know, like.. Some people might see America as grotesque. But I also sort of think that part of the reason why people are so curious, to go back to this idea of curiosity, worldwide, about what’s going on here, is.. It’s kind of a beautiful, messed-up experiment that we’re all… engaged in in some ways. I mean, I think… when my parents came here in the seventies, I don’t think they even knew what to expect in terms of what life would be like in America. And how they would think about themselves in such a totally, brand-new context. And so I imagine that in some ways, there are ways in which my parents found America both grotesque and beautiful at the same time, where they were sort of, like, wow, this is… there is a really terrific picture of my parents not long after they got married. My mother was already pregnant of me, and they went to to Niagara falls, and I can see that they’re both sort of, like… my mother is wearing a sari, but she’s wearing, like, a really modern peacoat over her sari, for example.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: You know. So I think about those sorts of collisions I guess. This is kind of… maybe not so much related to the idea of grotesque and beautiful. But there’s a kind of like texture here that I think could go either way. And so I think… I don’t know. I think that’s interesting.

Franny Choi: Who would win in a fight though?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: I don’t know! I’m avoiding the question! I mean, like, I guess, like, if you look at Beauty and the Beast, they ended up getting married. So, I don’t know…

Franny Choi: Woooo!

Danez Smith: Wow. They both forfeit. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah.

Danez Smith: I like this. They both forfeit for love.

Tarfia Faizullah: Man.

Franny Choi: And they become one.

Danez Smith: So grotesque and the beauty meet in the ring and it actually becomes the plot of The Parent Trap 2.

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Got it, alright.

Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, they meet in the ring and then they end up making out and growing old together.

Danez Smith: They’re twins? It’s Sister, Sister. (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: I love it cause it’s a … pretty classic Gemini question.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)  

Tarfia Faizullah: I don’t know, evil, good, I don’t know, it’s hard to tell which is which sometimes.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And with that piece of wonderful Gemini knowledge which I will later turn into Gemini slander we thank you. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Tarfia Faizullah: (LAUGHING) Thank y’all so much.

Danez Smith: Thank you, Tarfia.


Danez Smith: Wow, I’m like all of my feels after that.

Franny Choi: I know.

Danez Smith: I love Tarfia.

Franny Choi: We also recorded it so late at night that we were all… I feel like, just, deep in the thoughts and the feels.

Danez Smith: That’s true, that’s true, that’s true. Late night does help with VS. Umm… Franny, do you feel beautiful? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: OK, now that I’m on the other side of that question, I totally feel how exposed I…

Danez Smith: Now you see.

Franny Choi: Now I see. I get it.

Danez Smith: Now you see how you treated our guest. But no…

Franny Choi: Tarfia, I’m so sorry.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) OK, but what’s the thing about yourself that maybe you have learned or are learning to call beautiful.

Franny Choi: I mean, so… so much. Right. I mean, you know, I got this body. Name a body part.

Danez Smith: Elbow. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Woof! It’s a process.

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: But no, for… like… to be totally serious, like, I think I’m still learning how to love my eyes, you know, the monolid life.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Becoming better at makeup has… like.. almost from the beginning, has been a process of, like, learning how to, like, love my face. In a certain way. And especially to love my eyes. Small eyes.

Danez Smith: Yeah. I love your eyes.

Franny Choi: Shout-out to all my monolid kin.

Danez Smith: Monolids? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) What about you, what’s a part of yourself that you are learning to call beautiful. What a question! (LAUGHING) Even asking that question made me feel emotional.

Danez Smith: I think my language, you know, and for me it has been a long process of learning that, like, how my brain works, and its relationship to my tongue and my mouth, the words I say, the way I say them, the way I make a sentence, learning to just like see… not just the beauty but the intelligence in the way I talk, too. And not feel.. like, sometimes, I know…. I have the privilege of knowing some really really smart people. And I think sometimes I feel like I am not as smart as them, and I’d be, like, no… I’m smart in my own ways. I’m, like, learning to know that the way I speak is still intelligent.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Trust the, like, wisdom of your…

Danez Smith: Yeah! And I think wisdom is a kind of beauty, you know.

Franny Choi: Yes of course.

Danez Smith: So, yeah.

Franny Choi: Oooh! Girl, I love you!

Danez Smith: I love you! I love your eyes!

Franny Choi: I love your language!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: OK, let’s get out of here before…

Danez Smith: Yeah, let’s get out of here y’all, I’m about to combust. OK, so first off today, I would like to thank Emergen-C for your amazing packets of just health and wonder. Where would I be on all these goddamn planes without you to be there to mix into water with something disgusting going down my throat that makes my body feel amazing.

Franny Choi: Yes. Yes. Umm, I would like to thank all of the white women in my life who have introduced me to various herbal tinctures, so that… I don't know how effective any of them are, but shout-out to St. John's Wort. You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah. I would like to also like to thank above that all the brown women who talk to white women about tinctures.

Franny Choi: Right. Right. Right.

Danez Smith: They do.

Franny Choi: Say that. Say that!

Danez Smith: We would also like to thank the Poetry Foundation and our partner in crime, Ydalmi Noriega. We would like to thank Postloudness and our producer Daniel Kisslinger, thank you Daniel.

Franny Choi: Keep up with everything VS, @VSThePodcast on all of our social media platforms, you can find all of the episodes for this season and for the first season on Soundcloud, on iTunes, on the Poetry Foundation website at, the NPR One app, basically, wherever you find podcasts, we’re there.

Danez Smith: (SINGING) We’ll be there…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Alright, thanks y’all for this episode, y’all have a good one, we have a jam-packed season so make sure you tune back in.

Franny Choi: It’s gonna be great.

Danez Smith: It’s gonna be great, you are gonna be great.

Franny Choi: Yeah, you are gonna be great.

Danez Smith: And you’re beautiful.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: Go be beautiful.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Danez Smith: Bye.

Franny Choi: Bye.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)






We’re back, baby! We kick off season 2 of VS with brilliant poet Tarfia Faizullah for a helluva convo about balancing the beautiful and the grotesque, finding silliness, and much more! Listen and subscribe now for a whole upcoming season of goodness!

More Episodes from VS
Showing 1 to 20 of 30 Podcasts
  1. Tuesday, January 29, 2019
  2. Thursday, December 13, 2018

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  4. Tuesday, November 6, 2018

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  5. Tuesday, October 9, 2018

    Jacob Saenz vs. The Block

  6. Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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  7. Tuesday, August 28, 2018

    Nate Marshall vs. Fear

  8. Tuesday, February 27, 2018


  9. Tuesday, February 20, 2018

    Franny and Danez's Season 1 Favorite Moments

  10. Tuesday, February 13, 2018

    VS Season 2: Coming March 6!

  11. Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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