Tarfia Faizullah

Interviewed by Anna Claire Hodge

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Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, and other journals, and are anthologized in Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Wipf & Stock, 2012). A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as associate editor of Blackbird, and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing and is an editor for Asian American Literary Review and Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

Q: Attending workshop with you during our MFAs at VCU, I was able to see the first iterations of your “Interview With a Birangona” series, which details imagined interviews with Bangladeshi women raped by the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War. Before you applied for a Fulbright Grant, did you already know that one day you would actually conduct those interviews? 

I had no idea. What I did know was that I had reached a point in the writing process where imagining these women’s lives and attempting to render them into poetry seemed ethically irresponsible since so many birangona are still alive. I also wanted to ask other Bangladeshis how they viewed themselves in the context of the war. How do they view themselves globally, particularly with regards to the West? In terms of the birangona, what does it mean to simultaneously be a woman, a Bangladeshi, and an outsider? 

It was additionally important to be in the landscape of Bangladesh itself. The opportunity to interview a birangona in her own home while monsoon season continued to storm outside, for example, was irreplaceable.

Q: How did your expectations change once you met the birangona? Were you surprised by their reactions to you and your work?

It hadn’t occurred to me that they would be curious about me. I was asked very personal questions and expected to answer them. We talked about their memories of the war too, of course, but often times, we spent a lot of time engaged in normal conversation about our lives. How many siblings do you have? What do you like to eat? What is America like? How did you learn to speak Bangla? Are you married? are just some of the questions the birangona asked me.

It wasn’t always light conversation, though. I’m still haunted by the way Fatima, a birangona I spoke with, gestured towards the door behind which she stood while her sister was raped on the floor of their home. Or by the way a birangona who had suffered a stroke and lay dying on a deathbed moaned for her mother while her daughter stroked back her hair. While these experiences ultimately didn’t make it into the poems in Seam, they certainly contributed to the intellectual and emotional space from which I wrote many of the poems.

Q: Poets are often encouraged by mentors to write through their obsessions, or in some cases, implored to cease. What, would you say, are your obsessions, and how does their insistence to be explored inform your writing process?

David Wojahn once told me that we must write from and through our obsessions because our obsessions choose us, not the other way around. Recently I had to admit that I was a junkie for the feeling of writing a poem; I am utterly helpless before the summoned poem that utters itself onto the page.

I am obsessed with nostalgia. The first time I read “The Hill” by Anthony Hecht, I thought, yes, this necessary work of the strange and beautiful ways the past rises, uninvited, into the present. The way we can be both ourselves and those younger selves. The way the present is almost always reaching towards the future even as it is becoming the past.

In one of the poems in Seam, I respond to Nietszche’s assertion that it is “possible to live without memory” by asking, “But is it possible to live with it?” I think I could write poetry my entire life (and I hope to) and still not be able to fully answer that question.

Q: Tori Amos often to refers to her songs as “friends” who have personalities all their own. Some prefer to be performed live, some resist being included on albums. Do you think of your poems similarly? Are there some you prefer to read, some you prefer on the page, or some that have not yet found a home in a manuscript?

As an unabashed Tori Amos fan, this question delights me to no end. I’ve always loved the way she anthropomorphized her own songs, and though I don’t think of my own poems as friends, I do have distinct relationships with each of them.

Some poems naturally lend themselves to being read aloud because they have more emotional or tonal range, and others, perhaps, are more rooted on the page because they are narratively or syntactically more opaque. “Elegy with Her Red-Tipped Fingers,” for example, is a poem I’ve instinctively read in public many times instead of “1971.” Now that I’ve said that, though, it’s clear to me that I have to read “1971” in public in the near future, because ultimately, I think you can compellingly perform any poem you actively connect with. 

I have many poems that didn’t make it into Seam or into the manuscript I’m just now completing. One of the challenges I think we face as poets is being gatekeepers of our own work: how do we measure what a good poem is and how/where/why it belongs in a larger work? I structured both Seam and the other manuscript in such a way that necessitated cutting not just weaker poems, but redundant ones as well. I still love the poems that got axed. They’re homeless now, but maybe they won’t be forever.

Q: Your first book, Seam, forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in 2014, went through a number of titles. Can you discuss the delicate titling process, and how you decided on such a small, quiet word to name a book that details, among other things, such brutal violence? 

The original title was Interview with a Birangona, which eventually seemed redundant since the sequence was already a large part of the manuscript. Heroine was the next working title, but I grew uncomfortable with the implication that the interviewer herself was a heroine.

My friend Amanda Abel suggested Seam after reading the manuscript. I appreciate how simple yet nuanced “seam” is: it’s a one-syllable word that can be defined as a line of junction formed by sewing together two pieces of fabric, a scar, or a band of smooth river water that appears when currents of differing speeds meet. All three definitions of seam repeat throughout the manuscript.

I believe in poetry as a living, breathing, evolving entity, and I’m always interested in discovering new ways to engage with my poems. Titling the manuscript Seam allowed me to re-examine the poems in a new way both as individual works and as part of a larger whole.

Q: While living in Bangladesh and interviewing the birangona, did you struggle with feelings of appropriation? How did you examine your intentions, and did you work with a mission statement, of sorts, in order to stay true to your goal of telling their stories?

“Interview with a Birangona” originally was only composed of persona poems from the perspective of the birangona. Being in Bangladesh made me realize that my voice as an interviewer had to be more present. I added “interviewer’s notes” as a way to give voice to that paradigm, which in turn allowed me to interrogate the distinctions between voyeurism and witnessing. Though the book is now finished, I continue to question whether or not I have the right to speak for women who endured and continue to live with such horror.

What wonderful material, a few people said when I told them about the work I hoped to do. Resisting the notion of our fraught world as “material” has been absolutely crucial to this project. One birangona I spoke with said to me, “So many others have come here to ask us these questions. What will you do with your pen?”

“Could anyone describe this?” asks the woman in Anna Akhmatova’s long poem “Requiem.” It is a question I have asked myself often in Bangladesh, and every poem in Seam is an attempt to answer that question. I return often to Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck,” which so beautifully expresses why I continue to believe poetry has the potential to do the opposite of exploiting complexity—it can, instead, enact and interrogate it further. “The words are purposes./The words are maps./I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail.”

Anna Claire Hodge is a doctoral student in poetry at Florida State University. She received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Glassworks, Makeout Creek, and Copper Nickel, among others.