They Turned Into Something Else: An Interview with Safia Elhillo.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Safia Elhillo about her book prize-winning "The January Children" and the process of its making.
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Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Safia Elhillo about her prize-winning book The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), the process of its making and the considerations therein, and how her process of poem-making has moved from singular obsession toward curiosity, experimentation, and play.

TL: So one of the things that interests me a lot about the book is the forms of the poems. Some of them are really symmetrical, and some are a little spread out. How do you come to a form, or how do you approach the form of an individual poem?

SE: While I was writing the book, I don’t know that there was any specific decision made in advance about the form, but I do know that in the writing of the poems, there were some things that just felt non-negotiable to me. I don’t even fully know how to explain it now that I’m out of that space, but I needed all of the lines to be the same length, and I needed the poems to be less than a page long each, though some of that changed when the book went to print because it was not an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper anymore. So much of the book was driven by obsession, and some of the obsessions I could explain and some not so much, and this was one of the obsessions I didn’t really have an explanation for, but it was just as mandatory as all the other concerns were, that the poems had to be neat and exact in their margins and that they could not cross over onto the next page. I would feel like I was in a panic if I would hit enter and the poem would go onto the next page.

TL: That’s interesting too, having to answer for the choices that we make after we make them. The Abdelhalim series, it’s not until I think the last third of the book that we get “why abdelhalim.” So it comes very late in the book and I wonder if you could talk about that in terms of the choices we don’t know we’re making in a poem. How do you square those choices with yourself?

SE: If those choices involve stories that include other people, then I think the responsibility increases because then I’m responsible for doing right by those people and by their stories. It’s a different sort of responsibility. When it’s just me and my own stuff, I’m a little more willing to experiment on myself and to test my own limits around privacy and autobiography, and confession, sure, but the poems, they’re not necessarily entirely confessional or even entirely autobiographical. But I think when I’m dealing with my “I,” I’m willing to put that “I” through a lot more. You know, there’s a mother character and a grandmother character, and I went a little easy on them because they’re not me, and so I have to answer to them, but with me, as long as it was by my own hand, I was willing to test the thresholds of what I could do with my “I.”

TL: Yeah, that makes perfect sense, to protect the people we are necessarily in relationship to who help create the poems, and try not to affect those relationships, or even, not even necessarily the relationships, just the people in real life. That’s important. Thank you.

So a lot of the poems too will deal with the same subject or at least the same obsession. How do you access this same subject or obsession differently, either in drafting or revising?

SE: A lot of the thematic, narrative stuff in the book was already knocking around my head before Abdelhalim Hafiz, but I think what the entrance of this figure did is it recast everything I had already been trying to write, and it gave me a new entry point. It gave me a new population for those poems; it gave me a new eye toward the subject matter; it gave me a nucleus for a lot of the subject matter. So it was almost. . . This analogy might be trash, but sometimes when I go shopping for clothes, I’ll buy a shirt or a pair of earrings or something, and when I bring it home, it suddenly makes the whole rest of my closet make sense, in ways that it didn’t before. So it’s kind of like Abdelhalim Hafiz was that shirt or that pair of earrings. I was already writing about Sudan; I was writing about my family; I was writing about being in diaspora, but those were all disparate threads in my work before that. Thinking about Abdelhalim Hafiz became an organizing principle for all those branches, and it also solidified a lot of that stuff, because I was engaging with kind of nebulous, abstract stuff, like, “what is it to be from anywhere; what is diaspora even,” whatever, whatever. And to be able to assign those feelings to a real person with a real body, to be able to ask those questions of a real person with a real body, changed the scale and the scope of the poems. It helped me talk in the way that I actually talk, because then I was writing towards a person again; whereas when I was trying those poems out before, I was writing towards an idea.

TL: Right, so the intimacy level gets ratcheted up—well, at least, it gets grounded.

SE: It did feel a lot more intimate when there was this character that I then had to imagine a relationship with. Or not even imagine, that I then had to have a relationship with.

TL: Can you talk about the difference between that?

SE: Well, I think at first it was an imagining, where some of the earlier poems were the series where my speaker is interviewing to be Abdelhalim’s girl. That was an early attempt at linking my speaker with Abdelhalim, but also a lot of those poems, I wrote them because I thought would be funny, honestly, and then they turned into something else.

I like to go into something feeling fully equipped, so I wasn’t trying to talk about Abdelhalim or write about Abdelhalim without feeling like I knew everything that was possibly out there to know about him. So, I did a bunch of research on the internet; I downloaded as much of his discography as I could find; I ordered an incredibly bootleg version of the DVD of the Abdelhalim biopic, which arrived after like two months wrapped in ten layers of paper, and I would watch that probably every day. I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s a particularly good movie, but I learned a lot, and it was a very big part of my life. You know, I was watching it day in and day out. I was living alone for the first time as well, so there was this presence now that was as much a part of my apartment as I was, and there was this person whose voice I was hearing everyday, so yeah, I was in a relationship in one way or another. But it’s not like the pretending turned into a real thing. On the one hand, I’m writing these poems where I’m pretending to be in a relationship and constructing that artifice, but on the other hand, just in trying to do right by my research, that’s when the relationship actually happened.

TL: It sounds almost like a spiritual relationship, in terms of talking to something that cannot quite talk back in the way that we, firmly in the world, understand talking back to mean.

SE: Absolutely. I think, too, the music started to change for me after a while. At first it was just revisiting a lot of the stuff I grew up listening to that I didn’t have a lot of context for. When I was a child, I didn’t necessarily have a vocabulary or a conversation around race in the way that I do now, so the songs changed for me in that way, where one of the central points of access that I drew from the music was that he’s addressing so many of his songs to the asmarani, which is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown skin or dark skin person. When I’m a kid and I’m listening to that I just think “asmarani” is just a term of endearment, and then I grow up an Arabic-speaking Black person and the term “asmarani” changes for me, and I grow up an Arabophone Black person in America and the term “asmarani” changes for me. So now it feels radical to hear him specifying the dark girl, perhaps the Black girl. So after a while, just the sheer number of times he sung the word “asmarani” started to jump out, and that created a whole other facet of the book I didn’t even know I was going to write.

TL: It’s almost like a lack of choice we have in changing, when we’re in relationship to someone else. You’re just there for long enough, and it just happens.
SE: Yup.

TL: Damn.

SE: Yeah it was a weird time in my life.

TL: Yeah, sometimes we need it! So, one thing you said was you thought it would be funny to write these poems. Is that generally how you access a lot of your poems, just by doing stuff you think is going to be fun?

SE: Recently, yes. Sophomore or junior year of high school through my senior year of undergrad, I was competing in poetry slams. It might be because for a lot of that time I was coached badly, and I don’t think this is a blanket statement about the way people write for slam, but I was taught that in a poetry slam setting, the stuff that hurt me was the only thing that was interesting about me—that that was the only stuff I could write about that people would want to hear. So I spent a long time mining my own trauma and writing from the wound. And that’s not sustainable and it was not fun. I think, had I done that for even a year more, I would not be writing poems now because I hated writing poems that way. So this other approach—it helped that later on in that experience I was taking undergraduate poetry classes, and because of just the range of stuff that we were reading, it sort of gave me permission to try other things. And then I would separate, “alright, this is the stuff I’m going to bring to slam practice, and this is my homework for poetry workshop.” Because I was just itching for something new and something that felt different and that felt fun—you know, instead of being like, “what was the thing happened when I was seventeen that really sucked that I could write about.” Then I was like, “wouldn’t it be weird to write a poem in the voice of an imagined alter ego? Wouldn’t it be weird to write a poem about Ol’ Dirty Bastard? Wouldn’t it be funny to write a fictionalized autobiography of myself?” All this stuff I didn’t know I was allowed to be doing the whole time, I was just doing it to entertain myself, to keep poetry feeling fun on one side of my life when it was so not fun on the other side. Now I think for the most part I write from a place of play and experimentation and curiosity. You know, “wouldn’t it be fun if I XYZ?” And I feel like I learn so much more that way and I’m excited and I’m having fun while I’m writing. It feels a lot more sustainable this way.

TL: I totally get that. I write primarily autobiographically, and the most interesting things I think are the most painful things, but they’re not always the most healthy things to keep revisiting in a poem. They become the same story that I tell myself again and again. It seems like we need that place of play in order to change without knowing.

SE: Yeah.

TL: I understand you have a newer project too?

SE: It’s still a weird, tiny little document that I open every couple days and then move some commas around and then I close it. With the philosophy being that I want to work from a place of curiosity and experimentation and play, at some point, I decided that I wanted my next project to be a book-length poem. Coming from a process where I’ve never written a poem longer than a single Word document page, I wanted to do something I didn’t already know how to do.

I could make the case for The January Children being a book I’ve been working on in one way or another my whole life. And then I finished it. I don’t know that that was ever part of the plan. But I finished this thing that I had spent my whole life thinking about. So then that’s out in the world and I wake up one day and I’m like, “Cool, now what?” So I spent most of the year after finishing that manuscript trying to learn how to write poems again. That book was such a north star—every time I sat down to write I knew what I was writing towards—and then I finished it and that north star went out. At first, I would sit down and be like, “What am I gonna write about now,” and that wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I started setting myself a lot of formal exercises. I was writing in a fair amount of invented forms before that, but not a whole lot of existing forms, so I decided I wanted to give myself a little crash course, because that felt like I would be protected by the exercise. So, if I write this sonnet and it sucks, it’s because I’ve never written a sonnet before, not because I don’t know how to write poems anymore. I was writing sonnets, I was writing ghazals, I tried a bunch of sestinas, I’ve tried a bunch of pantoums. A lot of those poems will never go anywhere, but they are very valuable to me because I got my sea legs back that way. For the most part, it’s very easy for me to write when I’m actively obsessed with something because then I have that north star and all I have to do is sit down and look towards it and it points me towards what I’m writing towards. But then when I resolve the obsession or I exorcise it, I’m sort of adrift again. All these exercises and forms kind of gave me my agency back, in that I wasn’t just sitting around waiting for a new obsession to descend on me. Then I could sit down and write whenever I wanted to sit down and write because today I wanna try a sestina or whatever. After a year or so of that exercise, it changed the way I was going to approach any new, large project because now I’m interested in form, and now I’m interested in learning new things and trying them out. I’m bored by the stuff that I already know how to do. And also, I already wrote that book.

So the book-length poem, it’s going excruciatingly slow because I’m truly learning the form as I go along, but I’m having a lot of fun. I’m also very okay with the fact that it might take some years to come out because I’m not a factory, and I’m also actively trying to learn a new skill as I make this thing, so it’s gonna take a little time and I feel good in that.

TL: Good, I’m glad. Thank you for all of that. I also just wanna say congratulations on the Ruth Lilly, that’s fucking cool, excuse my language. And a general question there: how does it feel now to have that outside support, financially and otherwise, at this moment?

SE: I’m sure it’s always a surprise to anyone who gets that email. I didn’t get the news at a time where I’m feeling necessarily super confident or secure in my work or in my writing, because right now I’m so much in this weird incubation phase where I’m tinkering around in the lab by myself. There’s so little about my process in this moment that is outward-facing that this huge outside prize coming in at this time just feels ironic and hilarious, at the time where I’m writing the weirdest poems of my life that I’m not showing to anyone. So it’s very exciting and strange. The day I got the email, I though it might be a scam so I clicked on it to make sure it came the Poetry Foundation email address. It’s still a huge, strange surprise, and it’s very cool. I don’t super know what to do with it. I think tax season is gonna be hell. But generally it’s very exciting and strange, and came at the time that I felt least primed for it.

And also, we found out not too long after the finalists were announced, but the day they announced the list of finalists—I was teaching a workshop in Chicago—I was wearing a dress that didn’t have any pockets so I had my phone in my bag. I was teaching my workshop and then at some point the participants were doing a writing exercise, so I reach into my bag for my phone so I could set the timer, and I have like a gazillion text messages! And my first thought in this era, in this climate, is, “Oh no, I think I’m being dragged on the internet.” So the first few messages, I opened a few and they just said “congratulations” so I was like, “Okay, maybe I’m not being dragged on the internet but I still have no idea what anyone’s talking about,” and it wasn’t until someone said something about the Ruth Lilly after all these messages saying congratulations and sending balloon emojis and whatnot.

TL: Yeah, you know, it could’ve just been people were happy you were alive and doing what you do and just grateful for you.

SE: Yeah! Are you just congratulating me because it’s Wednesday? Congratulations to you too!

TL: We need those messages too. On that note, are there any other poets you would like to honor?

SE: So I think the very first set of people that I always want to make space for and shoutout are the folks at the African Poetry Book Fund, because they’ve truly been my fairy godfamily in all of this, in that I wouldn’t have a book without them. I was fresh out of grad school with a semi-finished manuscript that was still a couple pages under the minimum for most prizes. I’d done a chapbook with them before and they were like, “The Sillerman is coming up,” and I was like, “Thanks guys but the Sillerman is minimum 50 pages and I have 42, but maybe next year I’ll have 8 more poems, stay tuned.” And not just the editors, but folks like Ladan Osman, who I met at Cave Canem, who was the one who introduced me to the African Poetry Book Fund. A lot of those folks would just be texting me encouragement and not letting me succumb to my post-graduation laziness where I’m like, “I spent 3 years writing poems. I don’t wanna write 8 more poems to finish the book.” So I managed to somehow crank out 8 more pages to make the minimum, and they’ve been a dream to work with, the way they’ve edited the book. Kwame wrote that forward to the book that makes me cry every time I think about it. It really feels like a family, and I’m like their strange, rowdy niece. So they’ve been a lot of fun, and they’ve helped me a lot.

And then, you know, my homies, my peers, my contemporaries. Being in the world and writing at the same time as them is the coolest, weirdest, most exciting thing I could have ever dreamed of. There’s Team Mashallah, which is Fati Asghar, Angel Nafis, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Kaveh Akbar. We’re in a group text and we talk a lot about cool, strange Muslim stuff with each other. And I didn’t have a whole lot of Muslim community growing up, so to have community in them and to have writing community simultaneously, I’m unfairly lucky. It’s nice to have friends that are as weird as you are, and that’s how I feel about the community I get to be in in poetry right now.

Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), recipient of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and a 2018 Arab American Book Award.

Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, she holds a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and an MFA in poetry from the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, receiving a special mention for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. She was co-winner of the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30.” Her fellowships and residencies include Cave Canem, The Conversation, SPACE on Ryder Farm, and a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellowship from The Poetry Foundation.

Safia’s work appears in POETRY Magazine, Callaloo, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day series, among others, and in anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Estonian, PortugueseSlovenian, and Greek, and has been commissioned by Under Armour and the Bavarian State Ballet. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019).

Safia has shared her work on platforms such as TEDxNewYork, the BBC World Service, the South African State Theatre, and Red Bull’s Frontiers.

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