An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah

Justin Bigos

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):

When the bird of sleep

thought to nest

in my eye

it saw the eyelashes

and flew away

for fear of nets.

And here are the last lines of your poem “The Interviewer Acknowledges Desire”:

                                 I have

nothing, she says, turning over

her hands, holding them

cupped open like the split

halves of a pried-open shell.

In much of Arab Andalusian poetry, the images are binary, often split between the erotic and the martial, or between music and its absence — and the split, though often emphasized by the white space between stanzas, can also be felt as a kind of hinge or, to borrow the title of your book and its most prominent trope, a seam. It is this bi-valved quality that I see in the imagery of your work as well. In the lines I quoted of yours above, the cupped hands seem to straddle the divide between empty and full, peaceful and violent, loss and possibility. What do you value in the poetic image, in your poems and in the poems of others?

TF: Man, that’s an amazing and difficult question. It just now occurred to me that one of the reasons I was drawn to the cover art, a painting by Dilara Begum Jolly, was that fruit being split open, that bi-valved quality. The binary image is compelling to me because it releases pressure even as it maintains its tension. Something about that act of tensile release is compelling to me — the desire to see something laid bare complexly, to be surprised by what’s inside something you haven’t opened: both object and concept. I privilege images — and metaphors — that function multiply, that hinge open even as it they can be closed. I love what is mysterious but revealing.

JB: In your Paris Review interview, you mention the couplet as another kind of binary you work with. You say:

There’s something about the couplet that allows you to take two seemingly incommensurate objects and give them room to dwell beside each other. For me, a privileged Bangladeshi American woman interviewing women living in Bangladesh, the couplet became a way to put those concepts in the same space. It became a natural way of delivering the voices of the birangona as I had heard them.
I love that idea, and the couplet is used very artfully in Seam. I also see a few poems that make good use of the tercet. Do you see particular advantages to using the tercet, in Seam or elsewhere?

TF: The tercet is more sinuous than a couplet, the way it can extend an idea or a motif or a movement. I was actually just talking to J. Scott Brownlee about the tercet, and he pointed out that it’s really great for poems that are more narrative in nature, because it can carry a story forward. I like that idea a lot. I hadn’t thought deeply about the advantages of the tercet since I wrote the poems in Seam, so I went back through to see if I could retroactively figure out what I was thinking by using it intuitively. I noticed in a poem like “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief,” for example, the staggered/indented tercet seems to simultaneously allow for a scene to unfold while pushing the action of the poem forward. It makes me consider Dante’s use of terza rima in The Divine Comedy: how the tercet pulls the narrative along. Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce said something really beautiful about Dante’s use of the tercet: he describes it as “linked, enclosed, disciplined, vehement, and yet calm.”

JB: Earlier in this conversation, you said that the speakers of Seam are “working out obsessions,” through “obsessive forms.” One of the most obsessive poetic forms, of course, is the sonnet — and perhaps even more obsessive is the crown of sonnets. Your crown of sonnets, “Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum,” is one of the most remarkable poems in the collection and, to my ear, one of the best poems I have read in a long time. For the reader, here are a few lines:

     … the young girls stand before

the photo of the young woman who swore

she would not become the old woman

crouched low on a jute mat holding

out to you a bangle …

I love the optical illusion of these lines, a reflected image of aging before our very eyes, which then reaches out a hand to us. Can you talk about the genesis of this larger poem, how the obsessive form took hold of you?

TF: Right before I went to Bangladesh, I had to decide what books to take with me. For a book fetishist, it was one of the most maddening decisions to make. One of the books that made the cut was Paul Celan’s collected poems, and I carried it around with me on my adventures in Bangladesh. Reading his poems at the Liberation Museum while I waited for the Independence Day celebration to begin was an astonishing experience — I’d always loved his work, but I’d never considered his particular way of approaching historical trauma in the context of the work I was doing. I underlined the lines that really resonated, and began to write a poem around them. It became clear that I was working on a series of sonnets, which seemed like the right format for trying to render the feeling of moving through those various rooms of artifacts marked by Bangladesh’s violent birth. Celan’s words were the initial fulcrum around which the sonnets circled, and it was through reading him that I realized I was working with a number of obsessions simultaneously. Moving those sonnets towards a crown both rose from the intersections of those various obsessions as well as the desire to challenge myself to write in a form that intimidated me.

JB: Your poems in this issue of Waxwing thrive on a kind of interrogation of the world that, in the Keatsian sense, does not grasp for easy answers but resides in mystery. Can we end our conversation with the poems that have come after Seam? What are you working on these days?

TF: I’m working on a manuscript of poems called Register of Eliminated Villages and a memoir called Kafir. Both feel very different from Seam but are related — what I’m envisioning is a trilogy of works that attempts to understand how the past is relevant to our current moment in its myriad forms and contexts. How can we understand how to be artists and global citizens in the present while being mindful of the past and its effects on us while also looking towards the future? That question serves for me as a bridge between the three manuscripts. I like the challenge of trying to understand how my obsessions and compulsions translate into poems and projects that are distinct and varied but related. I’m also working on some translations, and I continue to co-direct Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May. The breadth and depth of his vision challenges me in general to write with more bewildering specificity and more heart.

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Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO Books, 2014). His poems have appeared in magazines including Ploughshares, New England Review, and The Gettysburg Review; his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter, and Memorious. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.