Tarfia Faizullah

April 7, 2016

TARFIA FINAL“I was a shy child who saw early that there are, and have always been, many worlds inside this one.”

Bangladeshi American poet Tarfia Faizullah grew up in Midland, Texas. She earned an MFA from the Virginia Commonwealth University program in creative writing. Her first book, Seam (2014), won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Focused around a long sequence “Interview with a Birangona,” the book explores the ethics of interviewing as well as the history of the birangona, Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. Faizullah received a Fulbright award to travel to Bangladesh and interview the birangona.

Faizullah’s honors and awards include an Associated Writers Program Intro Journals Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, a Copper Nickel Poetry Prize, a Ploughshares’ Cohen Award, and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Margaret Bridgman Scholarship in Poetry. She is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Poetry in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. She co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May, and lives in Detroit, MI.

bulbWhat is a poem of witness? What makes it distinct from, say, a poem that recounts a memory, or a poem that engages with an historical event?

I don’t make distinctions between a poem of witness and other kinds of poems. I’m interested in writing poetry that broadly and deeply reckons with both memory and history in the same space. If there is such a thing, perhaps a poem of witness is any poem that does not look away from what is difficult to acknowledge.

bulbIn your book, Seam, how do you imagine the form of a poem helps to advance an argument you’re making?

The form of a poem advances an argument with its shape, which is built from syntax, diction, linebreak, music, narrative, and imagination. A poem that is in its true shape is like all of us: it has consistency and a through thread, but also wild and idiosyncratic deviations from pattern. Arguments are also built like this: it follows a pattern, but it’s the deviation from that pattern that shows whoever is in charge is really thinking through and trying to understand something that isn’t rote or taken for granted. In Seam, I didn’t make arguments as much as I encountered them through the process of trying to both confirm and swerve away from those patterns.

bulbYour book deals with really significant historical and personal material. Why did you choose to express it in poetry instead of another medium?

Poetry is the way I see the world, and how I cultivate that seeing. Any other medium would have been forced and dishonest. In general, poetry is beautifully adaptive because it can encompass many mediums at once—a poem can be a scene in a play, incorporate other approaches to writing like journalism or criticism, and be presented in the air or on the page, for example. I think it is one of our most intuitive and most ancient art forms. I really appreciate poetry’s flexibility and its depth, and find that a poem can encompass many worlds in a small amount of space. In Seam, that capability was a necessity for me in wrangling together that personal and historical material.

bulbWhat role does the “interviewer” play in the book? Why did you make the choice to make the speaker a kind of character in the narrative?

I made the choice to make the speaker an interviewer to give her a specific role. A speaker can say or do anything, really. It was important to the subject matter I was wrestling with to make sure that it was clear that the speaker was there with a specific role, and a specific responsibility to uphold. In this case, that responsibility was to acknowledge the nature of discourse between a question asker and an addressee. Without the “interviewer,” the speaker would be more likely to gaze at her own navel rather than interrogate. That didn’t seem to suit the source material, so I developed a figure who could do the work of questioning herself as well as her interviewees.

bulbHow do you incorporate extra poetic material, and do you think that’s necessary in a poem that seeks to bear witness to something that actually happened?

I believe all poems wrestle with what is necessary versus what is indulgent. I try to get any poem to a place where it says no more or less than what is meant. I don’t think of any poetic material as extra as much as I try to discern where its proper place is, or if it has a place at all. I guess what I’m really talking about here is context. In the case of Seam, I wanted to highlight information about the 1971 Liberation War so that it was clear there was a specific historic context the poems were addressing and considering.

bulbWhat are the ethical dimensions of writing a poem of witness? Were there any moments in this book where you felt an ethical dilemma? Are there parts of the book that might have appeared, or appeared differently, but do not?

I try to avoid didacticism at all costs. I believe we learn more from poems that present rather than preach. In terms of Seam, I stopped writing some of the “Interview with a Birangona” poems in graduate school because I felt strongly that I needed to be in that landscape to really understand and feel those layers of history. I also struggled with the notion of writing from the perspective of another in the first place, particularly someone who had undergone a very specific kind of trauma: rape during wartime. In the end, I felt like it was worth the risk to write towards their experiences and feelings, though I still continue to question whether I approached it in the right way. As for what might have been different: I wrote a few poems that highlighted the perspectives of male speakers, but I felt ultimately that those poems didn’t belong in conversation with the others.

bulbWhat kind of allegiance did you have, in writing this book, to truth-telling? For example, your poem, “100 Bells,” seems to occupy multiple truths at once. How do you balance accuracy and artistic vision?

I’ve come to understand the truth as whatever an individual perceives, processes, and articulates to say. Every story has its myriad perspectives. As you point out, there are many truths, and we each have a say in their making. I try to balance accuracy and artistic vision through craft—it’s through sculpting an argument across and through feeling and experience that the articulation of truth can occur. That balance also stems from a combination of mindfulness and intuition. When I’m taking photographs, for example, I try to pay attention to what may not be obvious or front and center. When my intuition asks me to pivot away from one perspective to another, I try to listen.

 

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In every interview, we ask the following standard questions:

 How did you come to poetry?

One answer is that my mother taught me to recite poems in Bengali and English at an early age. Another is that I was a shy child who saw early that there are, and have always been, many worlds inside this one.

Can creative writing be taught? How?

I think an awareness of language, craft, the history of literary tradition, and one’s own deep and rich interior life in conversation with the exterior world can be suggested, presented, and emphasized. It is up to the writer to accumulate the necessary tools to polish and apply them.

What’s your required reading list? Which five books should everyone reading and writing poetry today know?

Here are 5 texts that I refer to that contain great insights about writing:

MAPS OF THE IMAGINATION by Peter Turchi

NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

STRANGE GOOD FORTUNE by David Wojahn

THE WOMAN WHO WATCHES OVER THE WORLD by Linda Hogan

ART OBJECTS by Jeanette Winterson

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received or your favorite writing quote? What’s your advice for working young writers?

My old art teacher, Jack Hickman, always encouraged us to turn what we were working on upside down. Turning something upside down immediately offers you a different perspective, which can help you see what you’re working on with more objectivity and clarity. Go ahead—turn it upside down!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a second collection of poems, some nonfiction, and a photography project. I also recently took up pastels and collaging, which has been so much fun.

Can you give us a poetry prompt for our students?

METAPHOR AND MATTER: a poetry challenge

“It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” –William Carlos Williams

Part 1:

Write 5 metaphors.

Part 2:

Read 1-2 news article(s) on any current event or issue that strikes your interest. Write two questions you feel are left unanswered by the article.

Part 3:

Highlight any language from the article(s) that strikes you.

Part 4:

List 3 things that frighten you.

Part 5:

Write a poem incorporating 3 of your 5 metaphors, your two unanswered questions, language from the article, and 2 of the things that frighten you.

Pro-Level Bonus Round

Part 6:

Incorporate a scientific concept that is of interest to you. Scientific American is a good place to start.

 

Classroom Portfolio:

Poems

Discussion Questions

  • Listen to Tarfia Faizullah reading her poem, “100 Bells,” on the Poetry Foundation website. How does the poem achieve coherence even as it seems fragmentary? What strands of narrative can you untangle? How do they relate to and inform each other?
  • How does “100 Bells” imagine the importance truth-telling in the poem? How do the poem’s short, declarative sentences promote and cut against that interest?
  • How does the interviewer acknowledge grief in “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief”? What is the nature of that grief? Whom does she acknowledge it to?
  • How does the speaker of “The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief” present her anxieties about being a witness to history, to the tragedies of other people’s lives? What questions do you think are important when writing poems about other people’s lives?
  • Describe the two historical narratives at play in “1971.”  How does Faizullah use landscape to unite them?
  • Why does Faizullah vary the forms between sections of “1971”? How does each sonic or visual arrangement enact her speaker’s acts of witnessing?  You might also describe why you think the poem unfolds as it does, especially given its chronological title.
  • In what ways do Tarfia Faizullah’s selection of poems correspond to her and Phillip B. Williams’s definitions in their Lightbox interviews?

Discussion Questions (PDF)

In-class Activities

Walking in Witness

In her interview, Tarfia Faizullah writes, “Poetry is the way I see the world, and how I cultivate that seeing…poetry is beautifully adaptive because it can encompass many mediums at once—a poem can be a scene in a play, incorporate other approaches to writing like journalism or criticism, and be presented in the air or on the page, for example. I think it is one of our most intuitive and most ancient art forms. I really appreciate poetry’s flexibility and its depth, and find that a poem can encompass many worlds in a small amount of space.”  In this in-class activity, you’ll gather information about a time and a place by using your senses; practice ways of recording; and reflect on how our perspectives shape our writing.

Walking in Witness Activity (PDF)

Prompts

Lightbox Prompt

For this writing prompt, you’ll have to conduct an interview. You might call a grandparent, speak to your roommate, contact someone online, or stop a stranger on campus. Think about what you might want to ask them, jotting down a list of some brief questions, but you might want to let the conversation evolve organically, as well. It’s up to you. You may choose to digitally record (with permission, of course), to take notes, or simply to remember.  Now draft a poem based on that conversation, in which you, the interviewer, yourself, are a character in the poem. How will you present the interviewer? How will you incorporate the information of the interview? For inspiration, you might consult Tarfia Faizullah’s “interview” poems from Seam, but you need not imitate or evoke their style or stance.

Lightbox Prompt (PDF)

Writing Prompt Courtesy of Tarfia Faizullah

METAPHOR AND MATTER: a poetry challenge

“It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” –William Carlos Williams

Part 1:

Write 5 metaphors.

Part 2:

Read 1-2 news article(s) on any current event or issue that strikes your interest. Write two questions you feel are left unanswered by the article.

Part 3:

Highlight any language from the article(s) that strikes you.

Part 4:

List 3 things that frighten you.

Part 5:

Write a poem incorporating 3 of your 5 metaphors, your two unanswered questions, language from the article, and 2 of the things that frighten you.

Pro-Level Bonus Round

Part 6:

Incorporate a scientific concept that is of interest to you. Scientific American is a good place to start.

Writing Prompt from Tarfia Faizullah (PDF)

Tarfia Faizullah Online

1408_SBR_SEAM_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalBuy Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

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