18/30: Ten Questions With Fatimah Asghar

Fatimah Asghar

The real joy about my second full year committing myself to poetry was really expanding and hearing so much fresh work from so many voices that were still new to me. There were moments last year that felt like I still had training wheels on a bike at the Tour de France, and I hope that there are always moments like that for me to drink in. Fatimah Asghar is a purveyor of these moments. No one loves risk takers more than I do, I think. It transfers over from my years playing music and watching music. There’s a refreshing break from the norm that I crave. After Rumours, Fleetwood Mac could have made another straightforward pop album and sold a billion copies. Instead, they made Tusk, right? Because as artists, we have the power to take those risks and draw in the audience we want. If you ever have the pleasure of reading Fatimah’s poetry, you’ll pick up instantly on the idea that this is someone familiar with stepping to the plate and taking big swings. However, beyond that, if you ever have the pleasure of SEEING Fatimah read her poems, it is truly an invitation. The way Fatimah honors everything that exists in her poems is a true joy. Something that must be seen to fully be taken in. There is a warmth, even when navigating dark, uncomfortable spaces. But we all come out better. More poets should take such risks. Truly.

Two of your poems, “For Jonylah Watkins” and “Monophobia” stand out to me because they really operate inside these really traumatic moments that you give a voice to. I found myself really blown away by both of them, watching the videos and giving in to allow myself to  let your performance/writing have the message arrive. What place do you feel like you need to go to in order to so brilliantly and effectively give a voice to things that are so heavy?

 

First, I love your work, so I’m really honored to hear you speak so highly of mine, particularly those two poems.

 

So, I start my answer to this question with a quote I recently heard by Mary Oliver that says, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” I love this quote. I don’t think that darkness, or trauma, are things to shy away from. I think that often, we feel that they are, or aren’t given tools to talk about grief properly, or talk about trauma, or confront the reality that we live in a world that is both full of pain and full of light, and that these things can exist in all people.

 

I was born into quite a strange existence; my mother was very sick when she had me and knew that she was going to die shortly after my birth. A few years later, my father died. What does loneliness look like to an orphan? It feels like it has been written into my bones, that it is my blood type. My body is full of wholes I am trying to plug.

 

My writing has always been a way for me to build a home for myself and others like me, to feel less lonely. It doesn’t feel like there is a place I go in order to write like this. I write about feelings that consume me. It doesn’t always feel like a deliberate decision, rather it feels like the natural way of my expression, through trying to make sense of the world around me—both its light and its incredible dark.

 

In the case of Jonylah Watkins and Gordon Northcott, these were both stories that I had read about that I couldn’t shake, for different reasons. I was in a café when I read about Jonylah on the news—I instantly started crying. What world do we live in, that a baby can be shot five times while her father is changing her diaper? After I wrote the poem, a friend told me that Jonylah had actually already survived a gunshot wound; her mom had been shot when pregnant. How does that make sense? How are we not in the streets, rioting about this? It doesn’t make sense to me.  I had to write that poem. I wanted everyone to know what had happened, to not be able to shy away from the world we live in.

 

I got to ask Aaron Samuels about this, but I’m going to cross the question over, and maybe phrase it differently, I hope you’ll forgive me. What has being in the Dark Noise Collective done for you, as a creative, and as a creative of color? I get really excited about the idea of collectives working collaboratively to improve each other as artists and people. And you guys seem to have it down. What does it do for you, personally?

 

Dark Noise is one of my strongest families; I am grateful for them. They do so many things for me—from posting silly memes on my facebook wall, to sending me writing prompts, to actively critiquing my work. But this writing world is hard! Its hard when people don’t look like you or lead lives like yours. Last month, I was having a really hard time and didn’t believe in myself as a writer. The manuscript I am working on shatters me—a lot of it is about sexual assault and it’s hard to go back into that place sometimes. I was really down. And then Nate sent me a beautiful email—he responded to an excerpt from an interview I had sent everyone months before with Ellen Bass. Mind you, when I first sent out this exerpt no one had responded, so I thought no one had read it. She had written about how poetry, the work of it, is so hard, but necessary. That we are writing out some of our darkest parts and the journey to understanding will never be easy. His email to me was one line—“Remember this. And hold this close, love.” I was floored. He reminded me that I had the strength all along.

 

I watched your talk that you did for/with the Nantucket Project, and you mentioned losing your parents when you were young, and being an orphan. Since in a lot of these interviews, I’ve taken a lot of interest in the origins of writers, and the impact it has on their art, this really interested me when I approached the asking of questions for you. Has growing up in the manner you touched on in your talk informed your writing in any way? What thoughts do you have on the connection to any one specific thing/place/time?

 

Growing up as an orphan has definitely influenced my poetry, because it’s influenced my entire being. It is as much a part of my identity as my race, sexuality, gender and class. But it’s bizarre, because no one sees it. Everyone assumes you have parents. Everyday I get asked about my mom and dad because it’s quite a normal topic of conversations—from strangers and coworkers and acquaintances. They just assume. I feel really guilty breaking it to people sometimes, because it introduces a wave of sadness.

 

My mom and dad take on really strong imagery in my writing. Every time I write about water I know I am actually writing about my mom. Every time I write about dreaming or penguins, I am writing about my dad. They show up everywhere.

 

So, I’ve started to write imagined correspondences with them. Imagined letters, imagined apologies, imagined scenes with them. I am allowed to do that because I am a writer, I am allowed to build any world around myself that I want. So why not have them be there with me? Why not let them live there?

 

I’m bad at guessing the motivations for writing. But I’ve really dug your work pretty closely, at least as much of it as I can get my hands on. I’ve read you in journals, I’ve read your chapbook multiple times, I hope I’m not worrying you. I just really like the feeling I get that you write out of some necessity to get the work outside of you. I say this because I think so much of why I write stems from the same thing, and I always wonder if/hope that the writers I love so much also deal with that. How accurate is that, for you?

 

Yes! Yes! Yes! I think my best poems are the ones that have poured straight out of me, when I stop worrying about self-editing and just allow the story that needs to be written a place to live. When I first started writing and encountering poetry, the idea of ‘poetry’ felt really daunting. Therefore, to give myself the space and freedom to write I created a difference in my head about ‘academic’ poetry and ‘performance’ poetry. Academic poetry felt clinical, like it was meant to fit into a certain form or structure or rhyme scheme. It was hard for me to write like that. Performance poetry felt free, felt like I could do whatever I wanted and perform not only in my body, but also in how I placed the words on a page. Of course, those distinctions are arbitrary and not correct. But, for a while, it was easier for me to think about them like that because it allowed me the ability to just be free, to make my art my own and to create a new category for myself that allowed me to pour the work out of myself in whatever way I needed to and not worry if I was fitting into the ‘right’ genre or form.

 

I’ve talked a lot about Chicago with poets, and how even though it is in the Midwest, like Columbus, the poetry scene there seems very other wordly, in the best possible way. What parts of being on that scene have you really enjoyed/how have you been able to benefit?

 

I’ve only lived in Chicago for about a year and a half and I’ve loved being a part of this scene—both in terms of poetry and theater. Like it’s theater scene, Chicago’s poetry scene is rooted in stark realism, something that I didn’t have as part of my voice before moving here. It’s pushed me a lot; I’ve simultaneously pushed against it and let it absorb in my work.

 

Aside from that, the people here are fucking fantastic. It’s been an honor to see people in this scene grow and hear their work. There’s a lot of people here that blow my mind with their art, that take risks and challenge me both in my writing and performance.  

 

I really, really like the ways you examine. The relationship you have with the body, and all of its functions, and all of its movements. For example, you have a poem that I heard last summer about a urinary tract infection, and it really made me happy to hear that experience brought to life in the way you did. You have poems about “granny” panties, about a Brazilian wax. All of this stuff is great, because it shines a lot on topics that aren’t being looked at, and it does it in a way that bends the expectations of how those things are “supposed” to be approached. What drives that part of your writing?

It’s an attempt to eliminate shame around it. There’s a line I have in the UTI poem: “Everyone in the restaurant knows I am leaking suns/ I went around and told them all individually/ I think they should know how badly this hurts.” In general, that’s my mentality when it comes to my body. Everything that my body does is normal and beautiful. If its not, I will make it so. All bodies are perfect; why do we pretend that they aren’t?

I’m Muslim. In Muslim culture, there is deep shame around the way that bodies, especially women’s bodies, are perceived. When a woman is bleeding, she is considered to be dirty. I don’t understand that and I don’t want that to be taught. Once every month, a woman’s body is structured to simultaneously grieve and celebrate. Isn’t that God-like?  Why do we twist that to be dirty, to be shameful?

Something has always stood out to me, in your bio. Every time I see it, my eyes light up a bit, because it seems cool. And when I first saw it, I meant to shoot you a message of some sort to ask you about it. But now, it seems to be as good a time as any. “In 2011 she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS”.  Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

I went to Bosnia on a Fulbright to research the way that structural violence impacts art-making. When I was there, I was overwhelmed by how necessary everyone’s stories were. People would sit and tell heartbreaking stories everyday- over lunch, coffee, cooking, work. I just couldn’t believe it—everyone around me was a poet. And I would ask people about it and people would say “Oh, to be an artist you have to be a ballerina or do opera.” So many people had these really classical ideas of what art was and yet everyone was practicing art everyday.

And so I worked with my friend, who was Bosnian and American, to create Bosnia’s first bi-lingual spoken word group. But, I got to start a spoken-word group in a place where spoken word hadn’t formally existed before- therefore I had an amazing amount of freedom in defining what it was and setting the ‘rules’ for it. Articulating why it was necessary over and over to people who had never heard of it before made me love and appreciate the art form even more. 

Another thing you mentioned in your talk was your relationship with traditional womanhood, growing up. What was the journey like, for you to reshape the ideas you had around womanhood, and how it related to your educations, self-expression, and art?

The journey was really painful. I spent a lot of my life hating myself because I didn’t feel like enough—woman enough or American enough or Pakistiani enough or beautiful enough. There was no definition that I fit into. Being undefined is hard. That’s why poetry is so important to me; it’s allowed me to define and redefine myself, to construct new worlds where I am allowed to be my most free self.

In a lot of ways, the manuscript I am working on is about the reshaping of my mind, the way that I learned love in stages: through family (or its absence), through men, and then through myself. The last one, learning to love yourself, is the hardest. I think that’s something that feels like everyone is journeying towards, loving themselves unconditionally.

What I really like about your work is that there is no urgency, no need to resolve. So many poems that we hear tend to hold, hold, hold, and then rush to the end for a nice/neat resolution. When I read your poems, sometimes, they just end. And if nothing is resolved by the end, nothing is resolved. I dig that, because, in short, I think it reflects the world, and more people need to shine that back in their work. Providing that I’m not entirely missing the mark, what is your relationship with resolution in your poems?

There’s no resolution in my poems because I don’t believe in endings. I was born to a woman who was in the ending of her life; I have to believe that some part of her lives on in me for me to be okay with that. I don’t really believe that things ever end. I think they just change, they just put forth different energy. Therefore, I don’t feel the need to resolve my poems, especially if I don’t see a clear resolution in sight.

My poems are quiet. They ripple; they are a drizzle versus a storm. I don’t think they need to shout their point or roar an ending—not that I think that’s a bad approach. That’s just not how I write. For a long time, I thought because my poems didn’t have standard ‘endings’ they wouldn’t do well in performance or slam. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I feel like I’ve grown into my performance and writing style a lot more. 

Finally, poetry right now is being led by a lot of young, fiercely talented artists who are doing things that really push forward the groundwork that we were given by those who have been doing it since before many of us decided to write, and so many who are STILL doing it, at levels we can’t figure out. I consider you once of the artists ensuring poetry remains relevant. Who are you pushed and inspired by, and what direction do you see poetry being carried in?

 

Right now I am obsessed with Douglas Kearney. I can’t stop reading him. I love Ross Gay. I love Kamau Brathwaite. I love Toni Morrison, Roger Reeves, Adrienne Kennedy and Jan Beatty. I love writing that screams from the page, that makes me feel. I’m also blessed in that some of my closest friends are my favorite writers—Laura Brown Lavoie, Franny Choi, Jamila Woods, Danez Smith, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, Hieu Nguyen, Sam Sax. I love being able to get poems from them in my email, and seeing them all go through the process of writing or creating longer projects, such as manuscripts.

As for what direction do I want to see poetry moving forward—I am most interested in writers that make the everyday poetic. There is a playwright named Stephen Adly Guirgis that writes with such amazing lyrical vulgarity. I am obsessed with that idea; how there is such lyricism and poetics in everyday vernacular—be it cursing, grocery store lists, or conversations overheard on busses. Everywhere is a stage; everyone’s a poet. 

 

Fatimah, thank you so much for doing this. I so look forward to the next time I get to hear some of your work in person.

 

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FATIMAH ASGHAR is a nationally touring poet and performer who is almost always in-between two places. Her literary work hovers between prose and poetry, examining fact through a lyrical lens. Her work has appeared in Drunken BoatWord RiotMuzzle MagazineDecomPFringe and many others. In 2011 she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. Last year she was a Multicultural Fellow at the Steppenwolf Theater, where she worked in the Literary department. She is the co-founder of The Glass City Project, a Chicago-based arts organization that combines poetry, theory, and activism. She currently serves as an Associate Artist for the Redmoon Theater in Chicago, and is helping to produce the Great Chicago Fire Festival.

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