An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah
Justin Bigos: The speaker of your debut collection of poems, Seam, is also a narrator — of the lives of the women she interviews, as well as of her own journey to and away from Bangladesh. The speaker moves through phases of doubt to desire to shame to grief, then back to doubt and, finally, toward some kind of faith, if in nothing else than “the one/ seam of light” the darkness of the world cannot expel. Since the book structures itself around the hesitations and difficulties in transforming witness into art, I wonder if we can begin our conversation at the beginning, not of the book as it has been published but instead with the first few poems that came to you. What were these poems, and when did you foresee the larger project ahead?
Tarfia Faizullah: The very first poem I wrote towards Seam, “Transcription,” was about a Bangladeshi American woman transcribing the interviews she had gone to Bangladesh to conduct with women raped by Pakistani soldiers. This was before I even applied for the Fulbright that took me to Bangladesh to interview the birangona. I’ve never thought about that before: how I wrote the last chapter first.
It was after I wrote that poem, though, that it occurred to me that I could write some imaginary interviews, and when the first of the interview poems began. They were rough, odd experiments in persona and voice, and I was trying to research the birangona while I was writing them. There wasn’t a lot that I could find, so the first poems truly did spring from my imagination. Not too long after that, I took a two-week seminar course on the poetic sequence with Claudia Emerson. She was such a huge early supporter of the poems, and conversations with her opened up the way I was approaching the poems, both craftwise and philosophically.
I tried to go to Bangladesh with no expectations of what I would experience or write. I guess I wanted to be open to the poems I wasn’t expecting to write. It was after I wrote “1971,” the first poem in Seam, that I began to see the book rising from the poems, from this conversation between women, the many selves that each of us are. It was winter in Bangladesh. I longed for my mother. For snow.
JB: I’m glad you mention your study of the poetic sequence with Claudia Emerson. There are some obvious sequences in Seam, such as the “Interview with a Birangona” and “Interviewer’s Note” sequences, but there does not seem to be a single poem in the collection that is not echoed by some other poem in terms of occasion and title: “Reading [Western Author] in Bangladesh”; “The Interviewer Acknowledges [Emotion]”; “Dhaka Aubade” and “Dhaka Nocturne”; and even the repeated title “En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith.” Also, the brilliant crown of sonnets, “Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum” is, of course, a kind of sequence. I’m interested in how poets use the poetic sequence to help structure their books. Sometimes the sequence is self-contained, perhaps its own section of the book; other times, the sequence is interspersed in parts throughout the book. Can you discuss your choice of the latter in Seam?
TF: Charles Baxter says that “Between stagings and subtexts a bewildering relation seems to exist.” Our lives themselves are different stagings and different subtexts. The sequence has the flexibility, the depth, and the breadth to carry that kind of complexity that renders and examines the same subject from multiple angles. I like the way the sequence works like the set of a play: it can move back and forth between scenes while also maintaining a forward progression.
That said, I didn’t deliberately set out to write sequences or overlapping poems. When I sat down to organize Seam, it became clear to me that the speakers were working out obsessions, and that the forms themselves were obsessive. I began to organize the poems in such a way that those obsessions could speak to each other in different ways. I had an interesting template: a year in Bangladesh, interviewing the birangona. How could I organize the poems into an arc that made you feel as though you are on that journey yourself, and therefore are experiencing the full range of human emotions one might feel in such varied contexts?
JB: I like that you bring up plays, especially since there is certainly a dramatic (in the conventional sense of “dramatic poetry”) quality to many of the poems: scene and dialogue. Even the poems that have the voice of the individual birangona have an implied setting of interview space, as well as a silent speaker who listens. Can you talk about how you took recorded, first-hand testimony and turned it into lines and stanzas? Were you looking at your notes, employing erasure, relying mostly on memory?
TF: In some interviews, I recorded with a tape recorder or a video camera. In others, I only had my notebook and a pen, and I wrote down what they said. The writing of the poems was similarly varied.
You mentioning the silent speaker reminds me of something I became increasingly conscious of: silence. For every voice that is speaking in the book, there are many hundreds of thousands more that aren’t. At some point, the awareness of silence became why I changed the title of the sequence to “Interview with a Birangona” rather than “Interview with the Birangona.”
JB: That is really fascinating, and a huge difference. I sense those silences throughout the book, and in some profound way those silences seem to add strength to your lyricism. One musical figure you use often is the anaphora/epistrophe. I use a forward slash between those words because your poems often blur the distinction between repeated words and phrases at the beginnings vs. at the ends of lines. For example, in the poem “Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers” the repeated “once,” “after,” “who,” “it won’t be,” and “language,” occur in various locations in your lines, providing a kind of musical scaffolding. Can you talk a bit about anaphora, its prevalence in Seam?
TF: I love that phrase “musical scaffolding!” Especially because I really like to write with my ear. I read out loud as I’m drafting, and read and reread drafts as I’m revising. I’m fascinated by the way anaphora and epistrophe can take the same words and retranslate them through context. For example, “Interview with a Birangona #4” ends with “they made us made us made us made us,” and I noticed in revising that by virtue of its repetition, “made” can be translated in a number of ways: both the act of being forced to do something as well as being shaped or created. I like that tension of repetition, the way anaphora and epistrophe are such powerful techniques because they can convey obsession and compulsion with both music and meaning, pattern and variation.
JB: Your imagery sometimes reminds me of the poets of Arab Andalusia. Here is one of my favorite Arab Andalusian poems, “Insomnia,” by the 12th-century poet Abū ‘Āmir ibn al-Ḥammārah (translated by Cola Franzen):