Safia Elhillo reads “yasmeen”
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of July 9th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. In The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-America writer known for her spoken word poetry. She’s the author of January Children. She’s also the co-editor of Halal If You Hear Me, a forthcoming anthology highlighting the voices of Muslim women, gender non-confirming, queer, and trans writers.
Lindsay Garbutt: In the July/August issue, we feature Elhillo’s poem, “yasmeen”. Elhillo says the title is personal.
Safia Elhillo: Yasmeen means “Jasmine” in Arabic. Sort of the significance as it relates to me is that it was the name that my mother had picked out for me, so we had a last minute name change because my dad’s aunt Safia died. Whenever I consider any parallel version of myself or any alternate version of myself, there’s sort of that ready made name, all set.
Don Share: “yasmeen” is a contrapuntal poem, laid out in two columns. She reads the first column, then
the second poem, then she reads horizontally from both columns.
Safia Elhillo: It took a really long time. It’s just excruciatingly slow, is the thing. You can’t just put a word there because it makes sense for the line you’re writing. It sort of has to make sense all three ways.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s the first column.
Safia Elhillo: i was born
at the rupture the root where
i split from my parallel self i split from
the girl i also could have been
& her name / easy / i know the story
all her life / my mother wanted
a girl named for a flower
whose oil scents all
our mothers /
for their perfume.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here’s the second column.
Safia Elhillo: i was planted
land became ocean became land anew
its shape refusing root in my fallow
cleaving my life neatly
& my name / taken from a dead
to remember / to fill an aperture with
cut jasmine in a bowl
garlands hanging from our necks
Lindsay Garbutt: Now, here are the two columns read together.
Don Share: When you realize how well this works in it’s many dimensions, the poem is almost three dimensional or fractal, you almost wonder why most poems aren’t written this way, to sort of work in different directions and dimensions. It’s very moving for that reason. It sort of lifts itself off the page and into another realm of existence, which is sort of earthy and ethereal at the same time.
Christina Pugh: I think that’s so true of this poem. I’m just struck by how this poem really works with the element of chance with respect to probably many of our experiences of being named, and our names, and how there might be a difference in life if you’re named for, as it says here …
Safia Elhillo: … & my name / taken for a dead woman / to remember
Christina Pugh: Versus if you’re named for a flower. We don’t really see the name Yasmeen in the poem as being connected to any other person. It’s really just connected to that flower that the mother wanted. It just really made me think about how naming is so important in terms of how we view ourselves and our lives, and also our relationship to our lineage. The difference between naming as part of a generational project versus naming out of a desire for a symbol, something that breaks free of lineage in a certain way. I just think it’s fascinating.
Lindsay Garbutt: It’s really beautiful, this focus on the plant or flower, and the way the poem grows in so many different directions at once because of it’s form, and the emphasis on how the name is sort of the root of our being. It’s the beginning of this poem, and it’s also the way the poem grows out in these two different names. I did think that Jasmine at the end of the poem does become very intimately tied with lineage, as you were saying Christina, and the mothers become like petals, they become their own plants that this young woman has grown from but also grown apart from, and that she feels this embodied within her too with her two names.
Don Share: One of the things that means a lot to me here too is the idea of “garlands hanging from our necks”. That goes back to some of the earliest conceptions in Western literature about poems being gathered together but also transmitted forward, sort of the lineage of poetry at least in the Western world does have a connection to garlands. So there’s something in that image to me floats this really moving history forward, not just in terms of lineage and naming, but in the sense that poetry also brings to it, that there are many scents and petals. It gives a sensual life to the work that’s done in a poem.
Christina Pugh: When you see the lines …
Safia Elhillo: … to fill an aperture with / a girl named for a flower / cut jasmine in a bowl
Christina Pugh: it’s hard not to think of Stevens The Poems Of Our Climate in which there’s the kind of circular isolated beauty of those brilliant white carnations in the bowl. It is wonderful, the way that it has just that crystalline moment of almost hearing Stevens in that isolation of the name, and then working into what you were talking about Lindsay, the way in which that really weaves itself into a kind of return to our mothers.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, and I think what’s so interesting about the garlands at the end is that they’re both decorative, and they’re honoring something, but they’re also a weight; that they’re hanging from your neck, that it’s something you have to carry with you as you move through life.
Don Share: And then they’re wilting. They lose their power in some sense. You can read “yasmeen” by Safia Elhillo in the July/August 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all the July and August episodes all at once on the full length episode on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought about this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this poem comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.