Safia Elhillo vs. Shame

May 15, 2018

Danez Smith: She got kicked out of Charlie's Angels for trying to unionize, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: And they're Queer Eye for the slant rhyme, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: And you're listening to VS, the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Presented to you by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness.

Danez Smith: We got two parents, y’all, we fancy. Uhu…

Franny Choi: Two fucking parents, no, they’re parents.

Danez Smith: Gender neutral.

Franny Choi: I was just gonna say, they’re queer somehow.

Danez Smith: Also we just got a queer podcast. It’s kind of queer, so…

Franny Choi: It’s gay. It’s a gay situation. Hi, Danez!

Danez Smith: Hi, Franny!

Franny Choi:  How are you doing?

Danez Smith: I'm doing good. How about you?

Franny Choi: I'm doing good. I'm just so happy to talk to our good friend and perpetually brilliant human being, Safia Elhillo. One of the things that we started talking about was this idea of ancestry, and especially, like, poetic ancestry. Like, literary lineage, you know. So, Danez?

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: I wanted to ask you, who is an ancestor, a poetic ancestor, that you didn't know you had and then had to find out that you had.

Danez Smith: Oh!

Franny Choi: You know what I mean? Like, sometimes you look at a poet and you're like, oh…. dad? (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: You know what I mean?

Danez Smith: I do. I’m gonna say two folks, one is Whitman. Like, I had… some people say, like, oh, what you're doing is, like, sort of... Whitmanian, Whitmanesque. And I was very adverse to that, I think, just because of everything, like, I have my own feelings about sort of the whiteness of the canon.

Franny Choi: The white man...

Danez Smith: Yeah yeah. And then I read Whitman and I was, like, ah, I kinda see what you were saying. (LAUGHING) And that was important. I think I had to find ancestors that felt closer to me, before I could see myself in Whitman.

Franny Choi: That is so real.

Danez Smith: And I think it felt, like, by going to Whitman too early, I felt like I was bypassing a lot of folks who really helped me even fall in love with poetry. And Whitman wasn't one of those poets. But once I was in love with poetry, then I was able to love a lot about Whitman, and was able to see myself in him.

Franny Choi: For sure. What is it that you see in Whitman that is you?

Danez Smith: His deep exploration of the self and the sort of, like, I mean that's the thing, I'm large, I contain multitudes. That whole thing. But I think that is, like, you know, sort of a thesis of a lot of his work. Holding an exploration of the self and how that also has an outward gaze. I think sort of his celebration, sometimes even, like, his lines and the way he, like, thinks about nature and infusing that into his poetry I think is a lot of what I do.

Franny Choi: Yeah! What I see is, like, queer American extravagance...

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: … in him and 100 percent in you. That, like, bigness, you know?

Danez Smith: Mmmm. And I think that bigness is an internal bigness, right. You know, it's a bigness that is explored through even recognizing how small the self is, but how... how large that smallness can even be.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Danez Smith: And another person I would say... I think what was interesting… we’ll let Safia say it when she says it, but, like, looking for your ancestors in your contemporaries, too. And I think somebody I'm always looking to is Hanif Abdurraqib. You know, I hear a lot of my own concerns in his work. And I think sometimes I look... like, you know, it's more of a horizontal look across the sea. Like, what is Hanif doing, because sometimes I need to go to Hanif to figure out, like, what do I care about. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Don’t we all…

Danez Smith: It’s, like, I listen to Hanif and he unlocks so much in my own work for me.

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Danez Smith: How about you?

Franny Choi: Um…

Danez Smith: Who yo grandaddy? Who yo grandmomma?

Franny Choi: Well, someone that I found, came to, was Kim Heysoon, who is a… I don't even remember if I've talked about Kim Heysoon on the show. But, first of all, she's insane in the best way and she's a contemporary but, like, very well-established Korean poet, not Korean-American. And her language is so strange and so surreal and deeply sexy and bizarre in this way that… I knew some thing of, like, my debt to Asian-American poets and Korean-American poets. But I didn't realize what debt I had to Korean poets…. you know... until I encountered them in translation. And it was wild the first time I read her book “Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream.” First of all, that’s the name of the book. Two words. First word “Sorrowtoothpaste”...

Danez Smith: Sorrowtoothpaste? Sourtoothpaste?

Franny Choi: Sorrowtoothpaste. Second word, “Mirrorcream.”

Danez Smith: OK.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) It’s so stupid and weird that I love it. But in translation... translated by the poet Don Mee Choi. It was wild to read this person that I felt I had never read before, and was newly in translation in the US, like, not a lot of American poets had read her. And then to be, like, this is my mother. This is who I came from.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: You know? And I think what… something I learned later was that a lot of her generation of Korean women poets, like, feminist poets, were really influenced by Korean translations of Sylvia Plath.

Danez Smith: Oh!

Franny Choi: So Plath had been translated from English into Korean, and so they all read her, and then were, like, on their Plath shit. And so, like, it's, like, a double lineage for me, like, from Plath…

Danez Smith: Plath by way of these Korean, Korean…

Franny Choi: Yeah. Yeah.

Danez Smith: Word.

Franny Choi: Which I think was bananas when I realized that.

Danez Smith: Pff, that's so great.

Franny Choi: It’s great, right?

Danez Smith: It is great. What is also great is that we get to have a conversation with one of my favorite ancestor, Safia Elhillo.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Danez Smith: Right now.

Franny Choi: Yes. Favorite lateral ancestor.

Danez Smith: She’s even a little younger than me and I look up to her. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: For sure!

Danez Smith: Most definitely. She is the author of a phenomenal collection called The January Children.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: Poet, teacher, editor, let's not wait any longer, let's get into it with Safia Elhilloooooo.

Franny Choi: Hi, Safia!

Safia Elhillo: Hey, friends. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: How are you doing?

Safia Elhillo: Good. How are you?

Franny Choi: Good. You look so good, per usual.

Safia Elhillo: Thank you, as do both of you.

Danez Smith: Thank you.

Franny Choi: This is my non-day outfit.

Safia Elhillo: I like your leather jogger situation.

Franny Choi: I just feel like, if you have everything... if everything is black, then you look like you're put together even if you pulled a random piece out of the closet.

Danez Smith: Yeah. The goths figured something out.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: What was your first AWP? How many times have you been coming to this jam?

Safia Elhillo: Not so long. So, Twin Cities was my first AWP. So that was three, four years ago?

Danez Smith: Word. Why do you keep coming back. Cause I know, some people feel really antagonistic toward AWP.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: And I see like a lot of people are getting super stressed. How are you able to experience these sort of conference dealies, what do you do? What do you get from ‘em?

Franny Choi: Especially, like, I think you identify as, like, an introvert.

Safia Elhillo: Yes.

Franny Choi: Right.

Safia Elhillo: So my first AWP was so stressful. And I almost didn't come back. But also, I think, if I had reached out and asked anyone about it, someone would have told me, like, sleep eight hours and bring water and a snack before you walk into the book fair.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: So I feel like I spent my first AWP just, like, hyperventilating in a corner of the book fair for four days and then I went home early.

Danez Smith: Word.

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure. This is also sage advice for anyone who is considering coming to this conference.

Safia Elhillo: Yes! Hydrate and brings snacks.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: And eat protein.

Franny Choi: Protein! For sure.

Safia Elhillo: You know, we all met, like, doing traveling poetry stuff and I feel like these conferences are the only way that I get to see a lot of my friends, like, in the same space at the same time.

Franny Choi: Totally.

Safia Elhillo: So, honestly, that's the main draw of it. I go to maybe, like, two onsite events per AWP.

Franny Choi: That's such a good number, too.

Safia Elhillo: And then my book came out last year, and it's a partnership with the University of Nebraska Press and the African Poetry Book Fund. And the book fund, they are, like, my very godfamily. So they, like, I get to usually, like, have dinner with them at AWP and hang out at the Booth and, like, sign some books and stuff. So it's... again, it's usually just a way to see people that I already like. I think some people think of AWP as, like, an opportunity for networking or something like that. I don't really know how to do that, cause I don’t know how to talk to strangers.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Honestly, I’m just here to hang out.

Danez Smith: Word.

Safia Elhillo: And, like, be in Florida.

Danez Smith: Speaking of the book, so January Children came out around this time last year, wasn't it? So it's now, like, a year old. How are you feeling about the book and those poems, what has that been like, now that you're, like, all published and all that, you know what I’m saying?

Safia Elhillo: I mean, the year after it came out was such, like, a weird…. post-partum purgatory space. I felt like in some way or another this was, like, the book that I'd been writing, like, the whole time that I'd been writing poetry. And everything that I'd written before had been, like, an attempt to get to some of the stuff that ended up being in the book. And I finished it, which is not a thing that I ever, like, planned for.

Danez Smith: Well, that's dangerous cause, like, it can feel like you finished poetry.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah! Well, for a second it did, I was like, cool, I got to the top of the mountain, now what. So I just did not write poems for, like, a few months after that because I didn't… It also felt like there was a lot of pressure, because so much of the work of mine that I'd been engaging with for, like, the past year was just revising drafts of poems that had already been written. So I felt like I didn't know how to engage with first drafts of mine anymore. And I was worried that they would be bad.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: I don't even know where this pressure even came from. But I felt like everything I wrote had to be to prove to myself that I still knew how to write a poem.

Franny Choi: Hmmm!

Safia Elhillo: And I was not sure that I would be able to prove that. But, what I did end up doing, which felt good was... I started playing with form a lot last year in a way that I hadn't done before. And then that was so liberating for me, because it was a space to play, and it was also, like, if I write this sonnet it and it sucks, it's because I don't know how to write a sonnet. Not because I don’t know how to write a poem.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: So that was super helpful, and it, like, I think, like, got me through to this year. And now I feel like I can't confirm whether or not I know how to write a poem, but I'm not scared of it anymore, which is good.

Franny Choi: Yeah. I feel like that's, like, a thing that I hear poets say all the time. Like, that fear that we'll have lost our ability to write a poem, like, every time you sit down to write a new one. Where does that come from? Because I feel like…  do other artists in other media feel that same sort of, like, oh, shit, what if that was the last thing that I did? Like, I don’t really think so.

Danez Smith: I think so.

Franny Choi: Yeah?

Danez Smith: I've heard that a lot, a lot, related to publishing, like, publishing a book...

Franny Choi: For sure, for sure.

Danez Smith: ... and that sort of exhaustion to finish such a project. I think what it speaks to is the need to be kind to ourselves, maybe, and rest, you know. I think, after you finish something that's as grand as a book, and The January Children is quite the book. And after you finish a feat like that, I think there’s, like, our sort of artist’s brain and our artist’s heart that are arguing with each other. And our artist's brain says, create create create create create. And sometimes the artist's heart is sort of saying, I need time to, like, refill and, like, even, like, know what I am after this thing, right. I felt that with both my books, like, after both of them published and came out… especially this last one I was just, like, what if I never, like, write a good book again.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: I took a break from writing for a little bit, an intentional one, because... I was expecting too much of my poems.

Safia Elhillo: Hmm!

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: You know, I was looking at them and even on the first draft I was, like, yo, you're not good enough yet, you're never going to be anything, and so I was, like mommy-dearest-ing my poems.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) No! More! Couplets!

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: But then, you know, I took a little breath…

Franny Choi: You were writing couplets for a long time, it’s true that you were. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Couplets in Garamond. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Couplets. In. Garamond. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I, like, been tricked as an editor by some Garamond, many a times, and I'm worried that if I start writing in Garamond, I won't be able to look at my work honestly. So, you know, 12 point Times New Roman keeps me honest.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Safia Elhillo: I feel married to it in that way.

Franny Choi: It's just, like, bare bones.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: This is me. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Well, because, then you like, like, a lazy verb in Garamond still, like, (SEDUCTIVE) in Garamond.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) That's true. But if your poem could be good in, like, Cosmic Sans…

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That's a good poem. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Can a poem be good in Comic Sans, though?

Danez Smith: No. No… (LAUGHING) I opened up a book at a bookstore the other day, and…

Safia Elhillo: No!

Danez Smith: Girl..

Safia Elhillo: In Comic Sans?

Danez Smith: Girl.

Safia Elhillo: Noooo!

Franny Choi: Noooo.

Danez Smith: Girls. Y’all.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It was so intense. I was so offended.

Franny Choi: That makes me feel physically ill.

Danez Smith: I felt like it was a joke. I was, like, looking around the bookstore, like, is this the gag? What did I, what, what happens now? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: That would be such a bizarre episode of a prank show.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Like, a bookstore where everything is in Comic Sans. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Yeah. Woof.

Franny Choi: Which would be like a very subtle…

Safia Elhillo: I think I've had that anxiety dream before.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I might try this. Because I think I'm hiding behind Garamond.

Franny Choi: I'm definitely hiding behind Garamond, for sure.

Safia Elhillo: I don’t mean to expose you.

Danez Smith: It’s OK, it’s OK. (LAUGHING) What is a podcast if not a therapy session where I admit these hard truths that my new poems might be as good as they are, because I'm just very tab happy and using Garamond.

Safia Elhillo: So, I used to tab for the cesures a lot, but because I don't have Microsoft Word, it’d deactivate the day after I finished college, because I was using a student account.

Franny Choi: Wow!

Danez Smith: Oh, they didn't waste no time.

Safia Elhillo: They didn’t wait! I tried to open it the next day, and it said… they tried to charge me again. So I use Pages, which is the word processor that comes with the macbook. I like it, it's, like, very minimalist. You can’t really do anything in it but, you know.

Danez Smith: You can’t tab stuff and all?

Safia Elhillo: You can tab, but the thing is, afterwards, when I'm trying to send it out places, because I have to convert it to Word, the tabs aren't always the same size.

Danez Smith: Aaah.

Safia Elhillo: And because I need my lines to be more or less the same length all the time, when the cesuras get messed up, it’s a hard time in my life.

Danez Smith: Your lines are always the same length. Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: So now, instead of tab, which is how I, like, started with those spaces, now I have to, like, count out little things on the spacebar.

Danez Smith: (GASP) Wow.

Safia Elhillo: It's been helpful because now it makes me think about how big the space actually should be. Whereas when it was a tab, I was like, alright, the tabs are more or less the same size. Not always. But, you know, it's made that decision for me. But now I’m like, OK, is this a six-space cesura, or a four-space cesura, or a twelve-space cesura.

Franny Choi: That's real! I don’t like the tab because then things line up on the same thing on the page and I don’t like that.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah. And then it looks like it's trying to be a contrapuntal and it’s not.

Franny Choi: Right. It's not trying to be a contrapuntal.

Danez Smith: That’s real. You play with the cesura a lot in your work. And even with spacing, like, I know there is a poem called…  But it's a sonnet…

Safia Elhillo: The one for Charif?

Danez Smith: Yeah, the one for Charif.

Safia Elhillo: Asmar.

Danez Smith: Asmar. So that one, it’s a sonnet, but you’re also, like, playing with these spaces. When did you start thinking about space in your poetry and sort of, like, how the lines live together and also float in their own space? What does that offer for you? Where did that come from?

Safia Elhillo: So I learned what a cesura was from Heather Christle's book “The Trees The Trees.”

Danez Smith: Oh, I love Heather Christle, shout-out, Heather Christle.

Safia Elhillo: I'd never seen a cesura before that, not that I was aware of. And the whole book is, like, full of these poems that have these little holes in them. And I was so taken by that, and it made the words pull their weight so much more when they weren't, sort of, crowded with other words to disguise ‘em. You know how yesterday, in Hanif’s essay, he was talking about… in that Whitney Houston performance, they just put a gazillion dancers on stage around her, so that you wouldn’t notice that her dancing is not so good.

Danez Smith: U-huh.

Safia Elhillo: I feel like when a poem is too packed together for me, then I can, like, let a lazy word live, because there are words that I like better around it before I notice it. So when I let some air into the poem, then I'm, like, alright, there are actually only five words on this line. Are they all, like, the Beyonce of this line?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: But it also... I'm, like…. Punctuation is hard for me, in my writing, because it feels so mandatory. I think, like, a hard stop in a poem isn't really, like… like, the nature of the thing I'm trying to do. So I like a hesitation. Which I think a cesura is more of. And I think visually too, it lets a lot of air and it lets a lot of silence into the poem. And I think it, like, quiets down the whole thing in a way that I enjoy.  Where it just feels too... I don’t know, like, stark or aggressive or… at a volume that I'm not trying to write at if it's just, like, punctuation or something like that. So it's just, like, little, little, like, visual bits of silence scattered throughout, which I think I like.

Danez Smith: I like that a lot. Especially because your poems so much deal with the conflicts of language, or maybe the space between languages, too. So that idea of silence as a way to maybe highlight those two different registers or these two different languages.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And I think, like, on a content level, like, your poems are so much about, like, reaching across borders and, like, across those hard lines. Or sort of, like, questioning those hard lines. So I think it makes total sense that, like, you wouldn't want to have periods…

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING) I don't like periods because I don’t believe in the nation state.

Franny Choi: Yeah! Exactly! Exactly! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: But yeah, but I mean, and also... I've taught your poem “Application For Asylum” multiple times in my, like, freshman composition course, where we were talking about migration and safety and this idea of refuge and stuff. And students are always most fascinated by that empty space and the brackets. And that's always where people want to spend the most time. And then I think that makes a lot of sense, it's, like, people are curious about, like, what's happening in that space. Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: I feel, like, I use brackets with, like, empty space in them quite a bit. But it wasn't until, like, preparing for the reading yesterday that it occurred to me that I don’t know how to read those out loud.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Neither do my students. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: OK, so you've gone through your January Children drought, reposed January Children drought, and you're back to writing poems again. What are the poems saying to you now, What are they talking to, what are they heading towards... You say you got some new obsessions.

Safia Elhillo: Yes.

Franny Choi: What's the new obsession?

Safia Elhillo: Just a fun little thing called shame.

Danez Smith: Hm.

Franny Choi: Oh! That little thing! HUGE!

Danez Smith: You know Shame too? We go way back. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: So I'm thinking a lot these days about Muslim girlhood and shame, and how, like…. I think shame was taught to me so early as, like, a moral regulator rather than, like, explaining to me why something actually was wrong. I was just told that it was wrong. And that shit works. I still have so much internalized stuff where I'm, like…. I'll be going through the world being, like, you can't do that! And then I have to ask myself, well, why?

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: So I’m trying to unbraid a lot of that. You know, I feel like I belong to a lot of communities and I feel very lucky in that way. And I have a lot of families and a lot of mothers and a lot of…. you know, aunties and uncles and grandparents. But being a person whose, like, poems are fairly easily accessible on the internet by people I don't know, whose photograph is easily accessible by people I don't know…. Part of my, like, New Year’s selfcare resolution is I no longer read messages from that, like, other DM inbox on Instagram, because that's where all the filth is.

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Danez Smith: Yeah!

Safia Elhillo: But it got to a point towards the end of last year where just, like, people who I don't know talk to me like I belong to them. We talked about this a little bit earlier but I'm, like, supremely introverted and, like, strangers scare me and... you know. So the fact that, on a daily basis, I was receiving so much communication from people that I do not know, and people who felt so entitled to communicate with me, and share their opinions about my body, and about the way I dress, and about the way I do my hair, and whatever, whatever, like, on a nearly daily basis was, like, exhausting.

Franny Choi: Totally.

Safia Elhillo: I think it reactivated a lot of those thoughts I had about how I am so governed by shame and so much of what I do and don't do isn't dictated by what I actually want to do, but by what I think I am or am not allowed to do. And it all comes back to this idea that if you do XYZ, people will talk.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: And then the question is, well, who, what people. You know?

Franny Choi: Who is listening?

Danez Smith: Who are these people, what is this talk? (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Exactly. And then, you know, I open up my inbox and there are those people. They’re the people who are talking and they’re the people who are, like, tagging their friends in the comments of my Instagram photos like I can't see it. I just got to a weird place towards the end of 2017 where I, like, felt like public domain, and it felt, like, everything about me was public domain. And that's not a good way to feel. Because it's also not something that I've written about a whole lot before, because of shame. You know?

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: There's so much that I felt like I couldn't put on blast. Where talking about, like, sort of a vaguer, general, like, nationalist nostalgia felt like a safe thing to do, because, like, that's not actually, like, contending with my own body, with my own shame, with my own girlhood. With any of that. That's, like, vague and abstract and far away from my body, so it was a safe and okay thing to write about, and it wouldn't... No one would be talking about me. If they were critiquing it.

Franny Choi: Right.

Safia Elhillo: But, you know, I already wrote that book. So now…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: … all I'm left with is, like, actual me. And if I'm trying to write poems, then I have to contend with that a little bit also. But yeah. Not reading the messages in that inbox have helped greatly.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Are there other things that you've started doing in order to avoid that feeling of, like, being public domain?

Safia Elhillo: I don't read the comments, if I can help it. I have started muting people on Twitter…

Danez Smith: Amen.

Safia Elhillo: soon as there’s a single thing that happens. Because it's, like, I feel like a block is, like, satisfying to them, where they can see that they’ve gotten to you.

Franny Choi: Right, right.

Safia Elhillo: You know, if someone, like, says something gross about me, I know myself and I know I’ll keep going back and looking at it over and over and over again.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: So when you mute it, it's not there anymore. But the person never has to know. That's been very helpful as well.

Franny Choi: I totally get obsessive about that too, then I keep looking and I keep thinking about it...

Safia Elhillo: Yeah, it's bad. Because sometimes I'll also convince myself that maybe it wasn't that bad, or maybe, like, I made the whole thing up and I’ll go back to... verify.

Franny Choi: Fact check..

Safia Elhillo: Yeah. (LAUGHING).

Danez Smith: I mean, it’s easy to tunnel into what hurts us, right. You know, just to want to dig. How deep can this hurt go?

Franny Choi: Right right right. Yeah. Yeah. It's, like, that curiosity that can be useful …

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: … and also can fucking suck.

Danez Smith: And also, just, shock. Like, is this still true? Can that thing really still be happening?

Franny Choi: But also, kind of, like, that self-gaslighting of, like, oh, it's not that bad.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Right. Like, why am I hurt by that? Like, it’s fine, you know.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Wfff. It’s weird to write about shame so much in one's work and to feel like you have, like, all this, like, language to talk about it. And then for someone to say something on Twitter and then just be, like, wrecked.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I thought that I… aren’t I, like, well-versed in this? Like, shouldn’t I know my way around it?

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Why am I on the floor? Again?

Danez Smith: You know what fuckin’ messes me up about shame. I realize… you know, I did this... wrote all these poems when I was younger and I thought I had done away with shame.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Me too!

Danez Smith: I was so.. done with it, like, shame is in the past, that’s so 2011, what ever, I’m off it.

Franny Choi: Right.

Danez Smith: But it’s not a dress you take off once.

Franny Choi: No!

Danez Smith: You know? It’s a continual undressing of that shame and, like... You know, little shames and the big shames and the secret shames, and the “I didn’t know I was ashamed about that.” (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Yeah… Like, oh, hey new Shame!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Yeah… And it’s this scary project. Who do you feel, like, are your, like, your allies? What do you find yourself reaching towards when you think about this project of, like, sort of… discussing and doing away with shame?

Safia Elhillo: Fati, Asghar. I had like a handful of Muslim friends before Fati. But, I felt like we didn't talk about our Muslimness a whole lot, it was just, like, a fact—which it is—,you know, but because this person is Muslim I feel like all of my behavior is, like, a test of my Muslimness and so I have to, like, do this. And I don't feel that way with Fati at all. And I feel like talking to Fati and working with Fati has helped me, like, dismantle so much of my, like, oh, I can't do this because people will say XY and Z. And so I feel like... safe being a Muslim in public. In, like, so many ways. Not even just, like, in the general, like, post 9/11 ways.

Franny Choi: And being the Muslim you are.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah. Yeah yeah. And to feel like my Muslimness and my relationship with Islam and my practice of it isn't... trying to, like, pass a test in anyone's eyes. And I'm not trying to be like, the most Muslim person in the room and, like, if I am, that's cool too. You know?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I think it's, like, helping me... sort of… disrupt the system of values that I picked up somewhere that I didn't have any agency over. So, yeah. Shout-out to Fati.

Danez Smith: Shout-out to Fati. 

Franny Choi: Who is your co-editor on “Halal If You Hear Me”?

Safia Elhillo: Yes.

Danez Smith: Such a great title.

Franny Choi: It's such a great title.

Safia Elhillo: The title was a joke that Nate Marshall made once that I don't think we would take and use as a title.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Shout-out to Nate Marshall for making jokes.

Danez Smith: Shout-out to jokes. They make the bills happen. What has been editing that like. Like, how are you finding the process, what are you learning, what are you finding?

Safia Elhillo: It's thrilling in that there are so many of us.

Franny Choi: That is so beautiful!

Safia Elhillo: The idea that Fati and I had in coming up with this anthology was that we wanted to make space for the voices that you usually don't hear when people are talking about Muslimness. So usually, when there's someone out there talking about being a Muslim, it's either, like, a straight cis man or, like, a woman that's been oppressed in some way.

Franny Choi: (CHUCKLE)

Safia Elhillo: And the thing too about, like, people who are allowed to have narratives of flawed Muslimness and who are safe in those narratives are so often only straight cis men. So to be, like, this straight cis man who is, like, you know I, like, go to the bar once a week. But I try really hard to be better in my Islam. It's safe for a man to say that. If you say that as a woman in public, you'll be, like, tried in the court of public opinion, like, within two seconds of making that statement.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: You know, it'll cost you your community in a lot of ways. And so, I think, because of that, there just is not... like, a nuance in the sort of Muslim representation that's available. Where I think, like, recently with, like, Master of None and whatever, there's been this idea of, like, the…. Humanizing Muslims Project. But again, it's always straight cis dudes who are, like, I like white women! I’m just like you!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) I too find Jennifer Aniston attractive. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I’m just like yoooouuuuu….

Safia Elhillo: So the anthology is for Muslim writers who are women, who are queer, trans, gender-nonconforming, any combination / permutation of the above. Because the thing is, like, those voices exist and there is a lot of them. But whoever is spotlighting those voices? And a lot of times it hasn't felt safe for those voices to, like, come forward and take up space and, like... Have anything to say about Muslimness in public. Where it feels, like, every time any Muslim says anything about Islam in public it is, like, a representation of all Muslims all the time.

Franny Choi: Right. But then when you have, like, 50 people, then you don't have to say everything, right?

Safia Elhillo: Exactly. And so many…. I mean, a lot of the work in the anthology is about being Muslim, but a lot of it isn't. And that's exciting too, because, like, sometimes Muslims think about stuff that isn't just about being Muslim.

Franny Choi: What!? Newsflash! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Y’all eat sandwiches and shit? (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Stop the presses...

Safia Elhillo: Muslim Woman Eats Sandwich Unrelated To Islam.

Danez Smith: Yes! Just, like, non-Islamic sandwich. Just turkey and brie.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: So I think at first... so when we first opened the call for submissions, there was, like, a slow trickle, and then there was just, like, a… (TSUNAMI SOUND] influx of submissions.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: You know, maybe I'm a pessimist, but I thought that we would get, like, five submissions and maybe we'd like two of them and we'd have to scrap the project.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: But so many people sent in work, that we… it got to the point where we just, like, numerically speaking could not take so much of the work because they were, like…

Danez Smith: Wow.

Franny Choi: So beautiful...

Safia Elhillo: You know, the risk of, like, being… a person who in any way, like, goes against the value system of the community we’re raised in, is that sometimes it feels like it costs you that community.

Franny Choi: Hmm..

Danez Smith: U-huh.

Safia Elhillo: Maybe you do still live within the value system, but if you want to ask a question about it, then that's not allowed either. And so you’re, like, exiled from that community. And just seeing all these voices who, like, have complicated these ideas that we were all raised with and who have, like, made whole entire lives for themselves, like, in these, like, new, sort of, hybrid spaces…. There’s so many of us that there is, like, a community in its own right now. And this idea that being different is something that isolates you is, like, not…. true.

Franny Choi: I feel like this is a thing that I've always known but that I didn't know how to say in public because I was worried that I would be, like, corrected or told that it’s… you know? But I think that there are, like, as many ways of being Muslim as there are Muslims. But there… it felt, like, so many of the people that I grew up with were all practicing Islam the same way, that I feel, like, maybe there is something wrong with me for, like, you know, like, wanting to wear a crop top every now and then. And, like, wanting to know if that's okay or not. But to have a conversation about it that wasn't, like, built around shame. Because I'm also... I'm just, like, a fundamentally curious person and there's a lot of stuff I want to know. But there's a lot of stuff that I'm too ashamed to ask about. There is just, like, so many Muslims who are Muslim in so many ways. You know? And it... I feel so, like, like, profoundly reassured by that, that I don’t even… I was not expecting this.

Franny Choi: I’m… yeah. I’m happy. I'm just, like, wrecked thinking about the... like, young, queer Muslim or the young Muslim woman who, like, reads this anthology and then is like, oh, it wasn't me!

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Like, I’m OK! You know?

Danez Smith: Yeah!

Franny Choi: And, like, finding, like, however many different models for living.

Danez Smith: It’s such an amazing moment when you figure out that, like, being different is not to be excluded from the room, but it's actually just a key to a different room.

Franny Choi: Yeaaaaah!

DC: Which is..

Franny Choi: There’s a whole other room over here!

Danez Smith: There’s a whole other room that looks, like, okay, this is the one.

Franny Choi: Yeah! Maybe you can go back and forth, even!

Danez Smith: Or just live in the hallway.

Safia Elhillo: And I think, too, what feels important about this community and this difference in the community, is not that… Again, to go back to, like, Master of None or something, so much of that work feels like it's writing back to the white gaze and it's in response to the white gaze, or the Western gaze, or the... you know, so... So much of this is, like, intra-community and not, like, we are doing this to prove to white people that, like, we too can sin and be just like you. It's not... it's not that.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: Because even trying to be the safe, secular, non-extremist, non-terrorist Muslim is still, like, not a safe space, because you're always trying to prove that identity to some outside gaze.

Franny Choi: Right.

Safia Elhillo: It feels good to not have to be doing any sort of measuring in that way.

Franny Choi: Yeah. I mean, that seems like a move that prioritizes, like, the safety of the people rather than the safety of the people who are looking.

Safia Elhillo: Yep. Exactly.

Franny Choi: You know, right? Not, like, oh, hey, look at me, I’m safe, but, like, OK, I’m… safe. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Just imagine someone on the lifeboat on the Titanic, like, safe, cool! Tight! That was a big-ass ship that went down.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I’m good though. I’m eating my sandwich.

Danez Smith: Sorry, Leo.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Oooh.

Danez Smith: There was enough room for him on that boat.

Safia Elhillo: There was!

Danez Smith: There was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio.

Franny Choi: But wasn’t there some sort of like infographic about, like, a diagram about how there wasn't enough room?

Danez Smith: I saw the diagram about how there was enough room. I saw the diagram with them, like, playing cards on it, there probably was enough... well, I guess weight is the thing. Buoyancy.

Safia Elhillo: I guess…

Franny Choi: The reason was that it was about to flip over. But then they didn't try a second time.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah…

Franny Choi: They tried one time.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: I don’t know.

Danez Smith: If I was on the Titanic! How the fuck do I know. I  don't even know how my black ass got here.. I was supposed to be sleeping cold… Like, sorry, y’all, I gotta go. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I’m just trying to hitch onto this free ride.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Maybe there is a Mississipian heaven I gotta go to. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) OK.

Franny Choi: Ooooh.


Franny Choi: Can we hear more about.. about the new work? You said “book-length poem”?

Safia Elhillo: Yes.

Franny Choi: To me, as someone who has heard you read, that doesn't surprise me. Because when you... often when you read, you, like, read it as one… multiple poems as, like, one thing. So I’m, like, great, book-length poem from Safia.. I'm familiar with this. Please, let me have it.

Safia Elhillo: Well, I'm think I’m only…  I'm learning a lot about my brain. And I only have the capacity to be obsessed with one thing at a time. Which means that I often only have the capacity to write around one thing at a time. And it might be, like, different entry points to it or whatever, but I think I only... writing is most fun for me, and most safe for me, when everything is sort of under the umbrella of a larger concern, a larger project or obsession. You know, the days where I am, like, getting up and trying to write… if not everyday then a few times a week. It's usually because I'm actively obsessed with something and I have that sort of North Star to, like, look towards as I'm working.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Safia Elhillo: Which is why... again, last year was so difficult because I didn't… I'd, like, reached the North Star and I was, like, well, cool! Now what.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Safia Elhillo: But now.. I've sort of... I've been looking at a few of the poems that, like, came out of that little exercise in form last year, and then arranging them around the longer poem. Again, I wasn't doing it on purpose, I wasn't thinking about a project at the time, but it is not only in the same universe, which is usually what happens, but it feels like the same poem. And I've never really written a long poem before. Usually I get to, like, the bottom of the Word document I'm, like, oh, this is long!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: And I, like, try to take out some space between, like, the title and the poem so it's not...

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Has that been challenging to sustain?

Safia Elhillo: I feel like… I've found the momentum that is helpful for me. Where I think so much... of, like, the fuel of everything that I do is momentum, which is why I think I need routine more than I thought I did.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: Because I think starting something is the hardest for me. But once I'm in there, you know, I can just... It's easy to keep going once I've started. And so I think with, like, reapproaching this poem every time I want to add a little bit more, it feels like I have a momentum built up, and I feel like I'm, like, getting comfortable in the world of this poem now. So I feel like I'm getting my bearings a little bit.

Franny Choi: Cool.

Safia Elhillo: So far so good.

Franny Choi: Nice.

Safia Elhillo: You know Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s verse on Ghetto Superstar, by Mya, with Pras wherever he is…

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Shout-out Mya. Shout-out Pras.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I really love that song.

Danez Smith: Is that from the Rugrats soundtrack?

Franny Choi: What?

Danez Smith: No.

Franny Choi: I’m trying to.. was it?

Safia Elhillo: Nooooo…

Danez Smith: I think I’m just combining the video for Ghetto Superstar with the video for Take Me There…

Safia Elhillo: OK. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And it’s, like, a similar cast of characters, I think Mya is the, like, link. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Incredible…

Danez Smith: Ghetto Superstar, I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry.

Franny Choi: For a moment, Rugrats just gained so much cultural capital.

Safia Elhillo: I know!

Franny Choi: Wow, what an iconic show. (LAUGHING) What were you asking? About the…

Danez Smith: Ol’ Dirty Bastard…

Safia Elhillo: Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s verse. So he has a line where he says, “I'm hanging out partying with girls,” and then in his version, line break, “that never die.” But the more I think about that line, I've been thinking of it as... “I'm hanging out partying with girls that never die.” And so “Girls That Never Die” is the tentative title for the whole project. Because I think I am, like…. Going back and looking at…. Like, the stories that have been told to me and the stories, like, that I've lived through or whatever, in trying to, like, dismantle shame I think…. I'm trying to think of what it would be to, like, repopulate these stories with girls that never die. And how do the stakes change if the girls don't die.

Franny Choi: Hmm..

Danez Smith: Woof.

Safia Elhillo: Because I think that's, like, the overall governing threat behind shame, right, is, like, if you, like, breached this, or if you do the thing that brings shame on you, there is, like, a kind of death there. But what power does that have if I can't die?

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: So. I don’t know, I’m working it out.

Franny Choi: Ooof!

Danez Smith: What power does shame have when I can’t die…

Franny Choi: Aaaah. God.

Danez Smith: Come on, now. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I need to lie on the floor.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: There's a lot ripe in there, too, because, like, I think about the same thing. Shame both kills and crystallizes the life too, right, like, it is a kind of death but also within that, sometimes you die and the shame lives on.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Danez Smith: So we still know… we know historic shame. We know what people did back in the 1800s that was fucked up, you know. And, like, your shame can live on even without you. Ooof, that’s the title. Or at least it’s the epigraph.

Safia Elhillo: I think I’m most excited just to, like, have the ODB epigraph in there.

Danez Smith: You love some ODB! You had that great ODB suite in the BreakBeat anthology, I read that poem all the time.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Safia Elhillo: That’s my boo.

Danez Smith: Think we’ll get an ODB book one day?

Safia Elhillo: Oh! I don’t know, maybe. I hope so.

Danez Smith: That’d be a nice little challenge.

Safia Elhillo: I’d love to do a little thing for him. Someday. Let me resolve my shit around shame first and then we’ll see.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Shame. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Cool!

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I feel like Ol’ Dirty Bastard had to, like, do away with some shame to be who he is.

Franny Choi: Reclaiming… dirty. And old. And bastard.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Should we….. move to the other things? Oh wait, wait, I wanted to ask… in writing, like, do you feel like you have, like, poet ancestors, like Muslim women poet ancestors?

Safia Elhillo: I feel like…. there has been a real, like, lack of Muslim woman poet ancestors that I would want to be in the lineage of, because it’s just, like…. I wonder if that's, like, a failure of, like, the way that I was schooled or a failure of, like, what I even thought to look for when I was, like, building up my ancestry.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: But I think,  so many of my ancestors are also my contemporaries. Because we’re in a moment where there are all these amazing Muslim women making work and, like, changing the narrative around, like, meek, oppressed Muslim women, just, like, sitting around waiting for white men to save them. Or white women.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Ah.

Safia Elhillo: I think what essentially was, I think, my first, like, Muslim poet friend who, like, engaged with Muslimness in any way in her work. And I think gave me a lot of permission to think about that too. Ladan Osman is another, like, combo contemporary and ancestor.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: Fati, again.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: Honestly, you know. And there is so many, Tarfia Faizullah. But again, everyone is, like, relatively young…

Franny Choi: Right.

Safia Elhillo: I'm pretty sure there is, like, a wealth of literature out there that I haven't tapped into. And I wonder if that's because my reading in Arabic is also not so good. I read like a third grader. And I wonder if that's, like, the door that the wealth is behind.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: But as, like, a person whose primary literacy is in English, I feel like there's so much that I, like, can't access when it comes to, like, Muslim women who've been writing throughout history.

Franny Choi: For sure.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: You know, there is a…. a pre-Islamic Arabian poet named Al-Khansa. It’s my grandpa who told me about her actually, but I haven’t been able to find any of her work in translation. And all the books are in, like, hard Arabic.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: But.. in pre-Islamic Arabia, women were the poets for the most part. And there were all these wars at the time, so the men would go to war, and the women would write elegies, and then they would basically have like a little poetry slam, where they'd, like, recite the elegies and then the person with the most moving elegy would be the winner of the…

Franny Choi: That’s amazing!

Danez Smith: Damn, that’s exactly a poetry slam.

Safia Elhillo: Right!

Franny Choi: That’s amazing!

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Great!

Safia Elhillo: So Al-Khansa, I guess, was the one who, like, kept winning these, like, elegy poetry slams. Because she's the one whose name survived, you know. I've, like, done a bunch of Googling and not a lot comes up. There's also the really fucked up contemporary issue also that the Islamic State has used her name as, like, the name for their, like, women’s brigade or whatever. So now you Google that and, like, Big Brother, that’s not what I'm looking for, I'm looking for the poet.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Get it together, Big Brother.

Danez Smith: I want verses.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Would you ever… like, want to participate in, like, a translation project?

Safia Elhillo: I would love to.

Franny Choi: So, my grandpa is a poet and the project that I’ve, like.. the project I feel like I've been trying to work towards my whole life, but my Arabic is, like, increasingly trash as, like, a literacy medium, is…. So many of his poems are, like, in his head. And we don't know….. You know, will I write them down here and there... But the thing is, his sisters, his two older sisters, were poets as well. But they…..

Danez Smith: What!?

Safia Elhillo: …this was, like, Sudan in the thirties and forties so, like, they weren’t going to school, they weren’t learning how to read and write. So they would memorize the poems and they would, like, recite them to each other. And then they died. And so the poems are gone.

Franny Choi: Wow.

Danez Smith: Wow.

Safia Elhillo: And, you know, my grandpa went to school a lot and can write in, like, multiple languages and is very literate. But he's old and his memory is, like, still, like, very sharp, but how much longer is it going to be like that? So what I want to do—because I would be really salty if someone else did it—is to translate his poems. But whenever I hear a poem of his, I can, like, pick out, like, a handful of lines, because it's also in very elevated Arabic. And then I can, like, gauge that it is generally beautiful and very skillful. But then, like, he or my mom or someone will have to go back in and basically do, like, a close read for me and be, like, this means this and this was, like, the tool that he's using here is this and... you know. Maybe it's about, like, you know, letting go of my ego around that and, like, being open to asking for help around it and being open to saying to someone, like, hey, I don't fully understand the Arabic here, but I want to have a hand in translating this, will you help me?

Franny Choi: Yeah…

Safia Elhillo: So there's maybe some, like, letting go of shame there too.

Franny Choi: Yeah, for sure. I… last year was asked to be part... it didn't end up happening, this project, but to be part of, like, a translation team… Or someone who was, like, a comp. lit., like, graduate student, I think, was, like, translating some Korean women's poems and then I was, like, the poet consultant to be, like, like, oh, that doesn't sound good, though. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: You know?

Danez Smith: Well, that’s the double of translation, right, there’s, like, the actual linguistic translation and then there is the translation of the heart and feeling and how do you actually… what an image carries.

Franny Choi: But I also feel, like, that... what's the name of the poet that you were talking about, the woman poet?

Safia Elhillo: Al-Khansa.

Franny Choi: You said that her work is, like, not translated?

Safia Elhillo: I’m sure there’s, like, some… I found, like, a handful of things… but they’re, like… What I found is, like, Sapphic in that it's, like, these little fragments that are presumed to be part of a whole but… again, I don't know...who was writing these down at the time anyway. Because I'm not so sure that she was reading and writing.

Franny Choi: Right.

Danez Smith: So it's, like, somebody down the way wrote it down.

Franny Choi: Like, I’m sure that even if she's not, like, part of your poetic lineage, like, explicitly or consciously, I'm sure she's there.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah. She’s totally an ancestor.

Danez Smith: I mean, they’re all there, your aunts are there, you know… And what does it mean to, like, you know, like, you get on stage and do these memorized poems.

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That’s a beautiful line, you are honoring them by getting up there and doing what they did. And also writing it down, taking that next step. That's beautiful.

Franny Choi: Yeah. Again, like, thinking about that, like, recording of ancestors. And with the anthology, with “Halal If You Hear Me,” like, what would it have been like if something like that project had existed when you were a young person first starting to write poems.

Safia Elhillo: Oh man. I don't know if anyone could tell from my poems that I was Muslim. My life was so compartmentalized for so long, where it was, like, this is what I'm allowed to do in public. I think I also just didn't know how to talk about my Muslimness for a long time. Because I felt, like, there is so much I don't know about Islam. And I think so much of, like, being Muslim in America is being expected to be, like, some kind of mouthpiece or spokesperson. I was worried that if anyone asked me I'd be, like, well, I don't know.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: So, I think… Just, like, being able to see such a multiplicity of Muslimnesses early on would have, just like, helped me out a lot as like a…. young Muslim trying to make it out here.

Danez Smith: What a gift to, like, readers or young folks, like, that lineage, if it doesn't exist, that it gets a start here. Something to go back to now.

Franny Choi: Yeah. And that idea that your ancestors are your contemporaries, like, that strikes me as, like, first of all very queer. Right?

Safia Elhillo: Yeah!

Franny Choi: You’re, like, my lineage just, like, these people around me who I'm, like, choosing to be part of my lineage.

Danez Smith: Doesn't necessarily have to mean something older, it's somebody who hands you something.

Franny Choi: Woo!

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)


Franny Choi: Do you want to read us a poem?

Safia Elhillo: Sure! I was thinking of reading a poem that I've never read out loud before.

Danez Smith: What!!?

Safia Elhillo: Because what I'm trying to do to make this AWP fun for myself is to, like, read new shit because the old shit I can do in my sleep now.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: So here's a first draft called “Short Essay On Property.”


It is helpful to pretend that ownership

is the antonym of loss

That we own anything becomes a fiction

if the weapon is cruel

Back home, we all know the story

about the woman whose house,

wallpapered and warm, scrubbed white

and gleaming, caught the eye

of the president's wife. And still furnished

was taken away.


Or the story about (redacted)’s body

or (redacted)’s body or (redacted)’s

or mine. As a child I would sit for hours

in tepid bath water and play at falling

in and out of myself. Spread the fingers

of my hand and think, how do I know

this is my hand. And then the hand is

no longer mine. The face crooked

in the water, no longer mine. The form

burnished by fingerprints, by teeth,

evacuated and no longer mine.


Once I fainted in the front row of a

Twigs concert and lost my place.

When I woke, I had been moved

away from the stage and cursed

my dilapidated body. Longed to discard it

and watch the show from above.

Once I fainted on the subway platform

and arched into the dark track.

Once in a patch of greenery

by the Nile, during a game played

with my cousins where we pressed

at each other's throats until the body

folded and came to. A sensation identical

to blinking. Swift darkness, then waking

in the soft black dirt to the reddening sky above.

Scorpions shimmering the sparse grass.

My body a house I could depart and return to.

Body an unlocked door.

Body my small and failed container.

How do I know this is my hand?


The story continues this way.

The woman whose house was taken

said nothing. Found another. Hung

curtains and beat the carpets and

peeled the plastic from two brocade

sofas and installed her children

in their rooms and sank her body into a chair

and the president’s wife came again to call.

Touched her fingers to the walls.


Danez Smith: Wooo!

Franny Choi: I love that scene in the bathtub. It's just, like, asking the question of, like, how do I know that this is my hand. That then puts... like, that creates that, that wild, wild distance. Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah, I was a weird kid. I used to, like…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) No, totally!

Safia Elhillo: Yeah, cause to be, like, six years old in the bubble bath being, like, how do I know this is my hand. That's, like, how I am the weirdo that I am at twenty-seven.

Franny Choi: For sure. I remember staring into the mirror for a long time being, like...what is the… what…. What the fuck is this? (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: And being, like, how do I know that this is the body that I was born in?

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Like, what if I was... what if my body was replaced. And this is, like, my second body.

Safia Elhillo: I think we would have gotten along as children. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I think so too!

Danez Smith: Strange children make for good poets. So parents out there, if you’re a little bit worried about your kid, like, don’t worry, there’s a book on the way. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Push them into the arts. Find that after-school program.


Franny Choi: We ask our guests on this season of VS, Season 2, if there's anything recently that you have read or experienced, any piece of, like, art or media, or just anything in the world that has knocked you out.

Danez Smith: Knocked you down, re-Keri Hilson. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Has forced you to reconsider… your parts. Not your parts but, you know...

Danez Smith: Who's been up in your face?

Safia Elhillo: Hmm. The new Natalie Eilbert book, I don't know...

Danez Smith: “Indictus”?

Safia Elhillo: Is that how you pronounce that? Thank God.

Danez Smith: Tus. It’s a tus at the end. We should look this up.

Franny Choi: Yeah, we should look it up before we…

Safia Elhillo: The reason I'm not sure how to pronounce it, is because the word indict.

Franny Choi: Yes!

Safia Elhillo: That’s why I, like, are you not supposed to say….. C…. inditus….  Anyway, Natalie Eilbert wrote a really good book. And it has, like, made me excited to write in a way that I haven't felt in a long time, because the way she uses…. I feel like she knows so many words. And, like, deploys them so fluently. I feel like so much of the language I know is compartmentalized into things I can say in a poem and things I can’t. And just, like, there are all these words that are, like, science-y words and they're just, like, they're so, like, lush and delicious that it just has been so fun to read. Where I feel like I'll read two pages and then by the end I have, like, a list of words that I, like, now love, that I hadn't thought about before, like protein.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Yeah, you don’t see protein in poems.

Safia Elhillo: You see protein in these poems!

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I haven't read it, but I've just read things about it. Has that been instructive, like, on… kind of, like, a thematic level for the poems that you're writing?

Safia Elhillo: It's been instructive on a formal level...

Franny Choi: OK.

Safia Elhillo: … I think, where the first poem in the book is a long poem, it’s like 50-something pages, and I think it's helpful…

Danez Smith: Oh wow, she’s starting off with a poem that long?

Safia Elhillo: Yeah, it’s wild.

Franny Choi: Yeah, actually, I heard that but I didn't totally process it, like, uhu, 50 page-poem…

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: ...and it’s like, wait a fucking second! (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: But I think, like, Natalie’s long poem which is called “Manhole.” It works as, like, a standalone piece on each page but, like, it's…. Everything is, like, a brick in, like, a greater, like, house or whatever. Before, when I was like, alright, I'm writing a long poem, so I have to just sit and, like….. in a way that maybe writing a novel must be or something, where I’m, like, here's where I last left off.

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

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Where is Harry Potter today? But it's been helping me to think about—OK, today I'm working on this section of the poem, and I'm treating it as a poem in itself. And I think that helps me use the toolbox that I already have, which is more built around writing shorter poems. So if I, like, trick myself into thinking I'm just writing a little poem like I usually do, but actually it's, like, a chapter in this greater, long poem.

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Safia Elhillo: So, shout-out to Natalie for teaching me to do that.

Franny Choi: Hell yeah.

Danez Smith: Thank you, Natalie!

Franny Choi: And J.K. Rowling.

Safia Elhillo: Yes. Always. I recently rewatched all the Harry Potter movies. Just because…

Franny Choi: Ugh… We've gotten to that point in the VS episode where we’re just inevitably talking about Harry Potter… (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: This happens every episode. I just wanna let y’all know that I’m not pleased.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I know, as soon as I said J.K. Rowling I saw your face fall… Like, this shit again..

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Goddamnit.

Danez Smith: It’s OK. I...I.. I love Harry Potter. Just not as much as…. any…

Franny Choi: All of your friends.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) … any of our guests and my co-host. I’m just, like, what’s the other one’s name? Tom?

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Tom Beazley?

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Hermichael Granger?

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Hermichael... 

Safia Elhillo: We were talking about this earlier a little bit, but I've been going to the movies a lot. And there have been a bunch of movies that I really loved. But I think just the experience of it is something that has been... doing a lot for me, where I've been just, like, going to the movies by myself in the afternoons and, like, seeing whatever is playing at the time and not the thing that I think I will like.

Franny Choi: Amazing.

Safia Elhillo: And I just feel like I'm, like, learning a lot. I don't know what I'm learning yet, but I feel like I'm just, like, absorbing a lot of stuff.

Danez Smith: Movies I think are sometimes, like, the poet's best playground to sort of go to.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Cause I think we are often trying to do something with image, like, we're trying to put a picture in somebody’s head. I don’t know about y’all, but I know, when I go to a movie or, like, see a bomb music video or something like that, that’s what makes me want to write.

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Danez Smith: Because I want to figure out: how do I make that happen in somebody's head?

Safia Elhillo: I saw “Call Me By Your Name” a couple of weeks ago.

Danez Smith: I still haven’t seen it, I feel like a bad gay.

Safia Elhillo: It’s very beautiful, but the thing that struck me.... —yes, there's a big love story and all that—but the thing that I, like, I'm still, like, aching about, like, weeks later, is that there is this scene where the two men go into…. it's, like, set in this Italian villa over the summer, and they go into, like, the little town by the villa for the day. And they, like, don't know each other super well at this point, but one of them puts... I think, like, his pack of cigarettes or something in the other guy's backpack while it's still on his back.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: It's such, like, a small but so... so, like, deeply intimate, that I'm still, like, shaken by it. And I wanted to cry.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: That’s cry-worthy.

Safia Elhillo: And I think it's just making me, like, think about intimacy and about how, like, intimacy is, like, a big thing built up of, like, really small pieces. Because it's not, like, there was this, like, big sweeping, like, Hollywood kiss in the town. No, he just put his, like, cigarettes or whatever in this dude's backpack. And that was, like, oh my god, they’re in love!

Franny Choi: There's a handful of people that I know I can just, like, reach into their bag and…

Safia Elhillo: Yeah.

Franny Choi: ...put stuff in there.

Danez Smith: Yeah, that's beautiful.

Franny Choi: Yeah! It is…


Danez Smith: So now we’re gonna play a little game—if you don't mind. It’s a game we play every episode, it’s called This vs. That. We're going to give you two things; concepts, people, whatever we come up with. And you're gonna decide who would win in a fight.

Safia Elhillo: Oh man.

Danez Smith: Hmm. For this week’s This vs. That, in this corner we have… everybody’s favorite, Times New Roman. And in this corner every poet’s favorite, Garamond. Who’s gonna win the fight? Battle of the iconic fonts.


Danez Smith: Maybe it's a triple triple match between them two and Cosmic Sans.

Safia Elhillo: OK, so Comic Sans never showed up.

Franny Choi: You keep saying Cosmic Sans. Which also… which is incredible.

Danez Smith: What is it then?

Safia Elhillo: Comic sans.

Danez Smith: Comic!? It’s not cosmic?

Safia Elhillo: No, because I think it’s like from a comic book…

Danez Smith: Oh, I think it’s out of this world! (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi:  (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Garamond is, like, the people's champion. It’s, like, I don’t know anything about sports so I have no analogy to go here with. But, like…

Danez Smith: Let’s say, um, the Rock. He was the people’s champion…

Safia Elhillo: OK. Before he became America's sweetheart. Yes. OK. So the Rock and then... the less glamorous underdog, but who has good technical foundation. Who is that. Is there a wrestler that fits that description?

Danez Smith: Let's make it Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Safia Elhillo: Stone Cold Steve Austin is Times New Roman, cool. I don’t know, I feel like I'm, like, committing to this extended metaphor and I don't know if….if I actually knew these things, if they would be true. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: But, you know, based on Danez’s consult, it's the Rock vs. Stone Cold.

Danez Smith: In basketball, it could be, like LeBron James who’s, like, very, like, fancy and stylistic and great…

Safia Elhillo: And that’s Garamond?

Danez Smith: Yeah, that’s Garamond, versus Tim Duncan who was, like, very, like, fundamental and functional and a great player but, like, you know, he's not maybe the most exciting to watch.

Safia Elhillo: Hmmmmmmmm! OK.

Danez Smith: I know sports! (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I feel like, my brother watches a lot of basketball, so I feel like I at least know the faces of these two.

Danez Smith: OK, cool, cool, cool.

Franny Choi: Is that not a donut company?

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Oh, I think, that's Tim Hortons and they make a really good iced cappuccino.

Danez Smith: And Dunkin Donuts. And Heyn’s is ice cream.

Safia Elhillo: So if Tim Heyn and Dunkin Donuts were combined, they would be Tim Duncan.

Danez Smith: Dunkin is, like, the donut of basketball.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: He’s, like, great and functional but, like, nobody’s ever, like, that excited.

Safia Elhillo: Aaaaaah!

Danez Smith: He’s not going to the Hall Of Fame.

Safia Elhillo: So he’s like the glazed donut.

Danez Smith: The glazed donut, no, like, no sprinkles, no nothing.

Safia Elhillo: So, like, while you're eating it, you're happy, but it's not, like, your first choice when presented with more glamorous pastries.

Danez Smith: There you go.

Safia Elhillo: OK. I think I’m starting to understand this man a little more.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) But not a fresh… Krispy Kreme glazed donut.

Danez Smith: Not a fresh Krispy Kreme glazed donut, but, like, is going to the Hall Of Fame.

Franny Choi: OK.

Danez Smith: Sometimes he has Krispy Kreme games. Oftentimes. He’s a great player!

Safia Elhillo: So, I think…

Franny Choi: Back to fonts. (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I think…

Danez Smith: Yeah, we’re wrapped up in, like, donuts and basketball… (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Yeah, how did we get to this…

Franny Choi: We just spiral down and that’s it.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Well, I think, Garamond, like, in its, like, glamour and beauty and flash often will, like, let a lot of shit slide that if it, like, had to hold its own outside of the realm of glamour, would not be able to hold its own. And I think that accumulates after a while. Is this still a basketball game? Maybe if they’re, like…

Danez Smith: It’s supposed to be a fight.

Safia Elhillo: Maybe in this first fight… So maybe Garamond would win individual battles early on in the war, but, like, I think Times New Roman is, like, the turtle and the hare or whatever. I think it’s the one that ultimately comes out on top, because when you get to the end of the fight, Times New Roman is more likely to yield the better poem earlier on.

Franny Choi: Amen.

Safia Elhillo: I personally think that Times New Roman will win this fight, but also, I accept that I have my biases.

Danez Smith: So is it, like, because the poem is the fight, that, like, Times New Roman wins the fight but you go home with Garamond?

Safia Elhillo: Yeah. Times New Roman wins the fight, but people will keep forgetting that.

Danez Smith: Yeah. This is, like, Maria Sharapova making more money than…. Serena.

Safia Elhillo: Serena. Yeah.

Danez Smith: I just add another sports metaphor. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I know…

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) It’s, like, that sports that is like poetry is also like sports. Or donuts. Which are like sports. In and of itself.

Danez Smith: Alright, we got a poem going that’s got way too many motifs.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Must be in Garamond.

Danez Smith: Aaaaaaah!!!!!! (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Wow!

Danez Smith: Safi, we just wanna thank you so much for coming in, this has been such a delight.

Safia Elhillo: This was fun!

Danez Smith: Yeah, where can people find you, or, maybe you don’t want people to find you.

Safia Elhillo: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Hmm… find me, just don’t DM me.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: Hmm….my website is S-A-F-I-A— Twitter I’m @mafiasafia and Instagram I’m @safiamafia.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Safia Elhillo: I wanted to be my Twitter to be safiamafia too but it was already taken, so I had to go for mafiasafia.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

Safia Elhillo: So. You know, that’s the great ill of my life.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)


Danez Smith: Oh my god, that was so good, just talking with Safia…

Franny Choi: God, I love her. She’s so smart!

Danez Smith: She’s so smart and so kind and so generous.

Franny Choi: Yeah.

Danez Smith: And just all the things, you know?

Franny Choi: Yeah. The energy that stays, like, right here. I'm gesturing in a small way. But also, like, it's so big at the same time.

Danez Smith: Hmm. And I just want to fight everybody who is in her DMs.

Franny Choi: Right!

Danez Smith: Who is making Twitter a not good thing for her, and Instagram.

Franny Choi: Stab all of them.

Danez Smith: Yeah! Like, stop being creeps, y’all.

Franny Choi: Like, you don’t own anyone!

Danez Smith: You literally don’t own anyone.

Franny Choi: Certainly not Safia.

Danez Smith: Certainly not Safia.

Franny Choi: OK, here’s a question. Who or what would always be welcome to slide into your DM.

Danez Smith: Oh wow.

Franny Choi: And it doesn’t have to be a person, it could be, like, a metaphysical concept…

Danez Smith: Yeah, for sure, for sure.

Franny Choi: Four out of the five men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Netflix can def slide into my DMs, you discuss amongst yourselves who’s the one that is not allowed.

Franny Choi: Hmm!

Danez Smith: I also think any Groupons and coupons.

Franny Choi: You want coupons in your DMs?

Danez Smith: I want coupons. I want deals. You know? I want somebody to DM me, like, hey, I need you to know that Target has pleather pants on sale. Right. Now.

Franny Choi: I feel though like you’re about to get a lot of advertisementzzz in your…

Danez Smith: But I don’t want advertisements from, like, advertisers, you know? I want, like, them from, like, real people. I want, like, hey Danez, I saw this coupon and I thought of you. You know?

Franny Choi: Oooooh!

Danez Smith: Yeah. I want, like, personalized coupons. Also, you know, any upwardly mobile men of color or white men who look a little bit olive…

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Y’all can holler. At me.

Franny Choi: (SHRIEKING)

Danez Smith: Come respectfully…

Franny Choi: You said “upwardly mobile.”

Danez Smith: Upwardly mobile!

Franny Choi: Cannot… (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I’m an explicit girl!

Franny Choi: Very, very realistic.

Danez Smith: Very realistic! I can love a broke dude if love is what leads, but if it's a DM, then let's lead with the check.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Come on! We can have a very happy inexpensive marriage.

Franny Choi: Ooooh my goodness.

Danez Smith: How about you? Who’s in your DMs, what’s allowed? Not who is there, cause.. (LAUGHING) … it might not be who you want.

Franny Choi: Goodness. Any, like, Korean-American celebrity. Please. Come on through. If Margaret Cho just showed up in my DMs talking some nonsense, I'd be, like, please have a seat. Let's hang out.

Danez Smith: Let's have a non-sequitur conversation.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: I guess I'm just, like, I'm feeling, like, very very pro-Korean heritage at this particular moment for some reason. I think, any actually solid, not made-by-white-people Korean fusion food with another kind of quote, quote, quote, quote, “ethnic food,” like, is always welcome in my presence, generally. You know what I mean? Like, a really good Korean taco…

Danez Smith: Yeah.

Franny Choi: Like a really good Korean taco made by a Korean or a Mexican person…. please. Come on.

Danez Smith: We still gotta start this Korean and black restaurant that we’ve, like… yeah, soul food! It has to happen. Where do you want your fried chicken from.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING) Do you want it from South… of the States, or South Korea?

Franny Choi: Right, right, right, right. Southern fried chicken.

Danez Smith: What if it’s just called South.

Franny Choi: No, because the… cause, like, reunification....

Danez Smith: Okay, we'll talk about this later in our business meeting. Maybe we should do some thank yous and get on out of here.

Franny Choi: Yes.

Danez Smith: I would like to thank coffee and its cousin espresso for, really, just always being there and making a will where there is no way.

Franny Choi: Wooo!

Danez Smith: You know. Every time I am back up against the wall, I have some coffee and all of a sudden there is no wall.

Franny Choi: Hmm… I would like to thank magnesium powder…

Danez Smith: Woooot!

Franny Choi: On the other end of the….spectrum.

Danez Smith: Is that an X-man?

Franny Choi: Cameron Awkward-Rich, known poet, introduced this to me, and it just helps you relax before bedtime.

Danez Smith: Oh, really?

Franny Choi: U-huh!

Danez Smith: Oh.

Franny Choi: It’s cute. I Amazon Primed…. Nate Marshall something something.

Danez Smith: It’s like lavender but in metal.

Franny Choi: Yeah!

Danez Smith: Alright, tight, tight.

Franny Choi: OK, some actual thank yous. We would like to thank the Poetry Foundation, particularly our hero, Ydalmi Noriega. We’d like to thank Postloudness, thank you Sound Asylum Studios, and of course, as always, our producer Daniel Kisslinger.

Danez Smith: Make sure that y’all follow us on all social media, on Twitter and Facebook, @VSThePodcast, you can listen to us on Soundcloud or Apple Music or wherever you get your podcasts, wherever it is you’re listening to right now. Make sure you tell a friend, keep on listening, tell a friend, tell an auntie and… till then, see you next time! Bye bye bye.

Franny Choi: Bye!

Danez Smith: Bye…. don’t do nothing stupid.





Safia Elhillo is a goshdarn timespace-suspending poet. She’s also this week’s guest. Danez, Franny, and Safia talk unraveling shame, opening the door to a queer Muslim literary community, caesuras and contrapunctals, and much much more!

More Episodes from VS
Showing 1 to 20 of 31 Podcasts
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  4. Tuesday, November 6, 2018

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  6. Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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  7. Tuesday, August 28, 2018

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  8. Tuesday, March 6, 2018

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  9. Tuesday, February 27, 2018


  10. Tuesday, February 20, 2018

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  11. Tuesday, February 13, 2018

    VS Season 2: Coming March 6!