Tarfia Faizullah reads “Yr Not Exotic, But Once Ya Wanted to Be”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of December 10th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Tarfia Faizullah’s poem in the December issue is unlike any of the poems in her first two collections, Registers of Illuminated Villages and Seam.
Tarfia Faizullah: This poem makes me nervous, because I’ve never written anything like this before. (LAUGHING) So, like, I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about it. It’s still pretty new to me.
Lindsay Garbutt: Faizullah created a hybrid between the pronouns I and you. She said the second person you is often a replacement for I, but with greater distance from the speaker. Neither felt quite right.
Tarfia Faizullah: I found myself borrowing the way that I speak with my closest friends in text message, like, I use yr instead of your. I say yup a lot. I say ya instead of you. And so I decided to try that. And then I found myself getting really caught up in the music those sounds created. And it sounds like English and it is English, but it’s something else too.
Don Share: She told us she wanted to write a poem that name-checks countries that sometimes get overlooked.
Tarfia Faizullah: So my family is from a really small country called Bangladesh, which is not India, it’s not Pakistan, it’s part of South-Asia, but it’s really small and specific. And I have a lot of friends, strangely, that come from countries like this, like, little, dense countries that don’t necessarily get talked about in the mainstream… like the Dominican Republic, for example, or Guyana.
Lindsay Garbutt: Here is Tarfia Faizullah reading “Yr Not Exotic, but Once Ya Wanted to Be.”
Whenever folks discuss finding themselves,
ya get kinda giggly. Maybe b/c ya found
yrself considering yr Armenian love
who preferred ya in both corset and bindi,
and it was for her ya begrudgingly waxed
yr jungle-scabbard ... Ya find yrself in the fret
of reclamation via musks all motherland-misty
(coconut milk, marine accord, mimosa tree). Last
weekend, ya found yrself in leggings to argue
again with yr Dominican love over the tender
texture of Texas tamales. Ya not-so-secretly want
to find yrself in a garden kissing a risk-
taking party until ya feel as good as a half-price
smoothie. Somehow, identity never finds ya
kohl-eyed in magenta blooms photographed
by a mixed-race admirer on a humid evening,
mostly b/c yr too busy galaxy-gazing
to be anyone’s so-fair-and-lovely. Was that
a touch of pride or self-pity? Probably. But ya
just can’t deal with another stranger’s surprise
at yr love of both tequila and mango lassis.
Does yr Guyanese love truly expect ya to replace
the chicken & fish in yr diet with mushrooms
that arbitrarily? You’re so black, yr told pretty
frequently. Ya don’t know what to make of it:
humanity. Ever find yrself advised by
Bangladeshi Brooklynites? Like they know
yr bae Poetry! Loves, let’s stop projecting
insecurities. But maybe it’s like when ya tried
to be cheerful after a famous poet called ya Debbie
Downer for mentioning the hurricanes in yr other
sovereignty? Never don’t find yrself coring
what music can be cleaved from a dull language
into an anomalous nationality. A personal theory:
we all behave oddly around fat titties. Now here
Poetry comes to say she wants to be an ode to what is
muddy. OK, baby. Here’s to dank difficult borders,
gardens of ingrown perennials, fractured fins,
the wings of inner menageries. Here’s to our own
empires of dirt — no one’s pruned-perfumed colonies
of exotic beauty. This is not a poem! Or is it
an efficient exercise in surviving hysteria?
Lindsay Garbutt: I love this poem. I think the first time I read it, it was still in the first-person form, and then Tarfia decided to change it. And I love the change, because I think it makes it a much more conversational poem, as she was saying in the introduction. It both feels like the speaker is talking directly to us as a reader, but it also feels like we’re overhearing a conversation that the speaker is having with themselves, which can be kind of common in a second-person poem. But in this poem, which is all about quote unquote “finding yourself,” I love that it becomes the whole poem being about your and what your is, exactly. And so the repetition of finding oneself in different contexts that one wouldn’t expect. So it’s not finding yourself by going to some exotic country and learning about yourself. It’s saying, oh, maybe I find myself talking to my love. Or I find myself in what she calls “the fret / of reclamation,” which I love, or, how “identity never finds ya.” And so, over and over again, there is this repetition of finding that’s not the sort of cliché that we think of, and instead it’s a much more personalized look at what that could mean and maybe why it’s not even worth talking about. (LAUGHING) Does that make sense?
Don Share: Yeah, yeah. And one of the things that’s being reclaimed, just one of many things, is that sense of finding yourself, which ordinarily would mean to most people something like navel-gazing. (LAUGHING) I’m trying to find myself. And the poem is so social and so sociable that it shows how a person—how you—find yourself amidst and among other people and their cultures and their language and their food and their clothes and where they came from and their history and all that. So it’s sort of highlighting this great empowering paradox, which is that you find yourself by finding other people and being open to finding other people. I like how even though it is a kind of, like, an ode that addresses the subject of the exotic—the title is “Yr Not Exotic, but Once Ya Wanted to Be” —its disavowal of exoticizing is even more humane. I mean, it really puts us on the line as people among other people. There’s such a warmth and even idealism in that, not without recognizing the difficulties that arise. But it’s very inspiring. And I even like how, towards the end, in the second-to-last line, it even says, “this is not a poem” so that the poem is sidestepping kind of clichés and pieties and anodyne notions of how, for instance, democracy could work, how the mixture and admixture of cultures can work. It’s sort of neatly but intensely avoiding falling into traps.
Tarfia Faizullah: Somehow, identity never finds ya / kohl-eyed in magenta blooms photographed / by a mixed-race admirer on a humid evening, / mostly b/c yr too busy / galaxy-gazing / to be anyone’s so-fair-and-lovely.
Don Share: It gives itself lots of room and elbow room, and yet it’s very exacting.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, and I love that, after that line, “This is not a poem!,” it continues, “Or is it / an efficient exercise in surviving hysteria?” Because hysteria is itself a very gendered term, right. It’s considered something that was pushed upon women who were trying to rebel against the strictures of society or sexual mores or all kinds of things. And this poem is kind of about that. It’s about sexuality and our own bodies, as well as the national bodies that don’t fit us very comfortably. And so I love that this poem decides to end on that question of, like, what is this thing that you just read, and what is it really about?
Don Share: (LAUGHING)
Lindsay Garbutt: And I think that those complications are really beautifully embedded in this poem. Because the last time we hear this sort of find-yourself theme is in this sort of syntactically strange sentence.
Tarfia Faizullah: Never don’t find yrself coring / what music can be cleaved from a dull language / into an anomalous nationality.
Lindsay Garbutt: And so the poem sort of bends that idea back on itself. Never don’t find yourself. I love that thinking that the poem goes through.
Don Share: “Now here / Poetry comes to say she wants to be an ode to what is / muddy.” And instead of, I mean, it allows for that kind of muddiness, but it also points out again in that last line, that it could also be what you might want to think of as a poem. And we do think of this as a poem because it is one, is “an efficient exercise in surviving hysteria,” that there is an intelligence in ourselves that is efficient. The way we interact with people, the way we learn from them, the way we can mix things up, can seem to be messy and muddy, which it is gloriously. But at the same time it involves a kind of efficiency in our interrelationships. It’s very, I don’t know, it’s very inspiring to me to imagine that so many things that are in this poem are just all part of one thing ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: … an ode.
Tarfia Faizullah: Here’s to dank difficult borders, / gardens of ingrown perennials, fractured fins, / the wings of inner menageries.
Don Share: You can read “Yr Not Exotic, but Once Ya Wanted to Be” by Tarfia Faizullah in the December 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 December episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Don Share: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Lindsay Garbutt: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Don Share: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Don Share.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt. Thanks for listening.