“Letting Words Bear Down and Burn” – Interview with Dilruba Ahmed

Associate Editor Jan Bottiglieri interviewed poet Dilruba Ahmed, whose poem “In the Echo Chamber” appeared in RHINO 2011.

Photo credit: Mike Drzal


…Relinquish

your name, your story,

your life. Then sink


to the root of it…

From the poem “Evening in Mendocino”

At the root of things – that is where we expect to find dust, common and elemental. In her book Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, July 2011), poet Dilruba Ahmed helps readers reexamine, and re-imagine, that idea of commonality with each new image of dust – a dusty village road, memory’s dust on a photo album, the sweet taste of cinnamon on a market vendor’s lips – sifting it though her fingers to let the light catch and transform it. Dust is what clings or clouds; it is foreign and familiar, particle and apart, home and afar.

JB: Your bio mentions that you have “roots in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Bangladesh.” Please tell us a bit more about your background.

DA: My parents came to the U.S. from a region of Bengal known then as East Pakistan and later, as Bangladesh. I was born in Philadelphia, and I lived most of my childhood in Ohio and my adolescence in western PA. Much of my family’s early history in America is situated in Philadelphia, so although my family moved to Ohio when I was quite young, Philly is a home of sorts. I’ve never lived in Bangladesh, but the ties to my family’s homeland feel significant nonetheless.

JB: What led you to writing?

DA: I can only guess that the urge to write came in part from being an outsider in small midwestern towns. My parents and my older sisters were interested in creative writing, and my mother in particular was a strong influence on me. She had been active in poetry recitation competitions while she was in Bangladesh, and she continued to read, write, and recite Bangla poetry upon her arrival in the America.

JB: The New York Times book review of your book Dhaka Dust includes this quote from your poem “Dustcover”: “I let the words bear down and burn.” Please tell us more about what you feel gives language this type of transformative power. Do you feel language has shaped your cultural identity?

DA: Absolutely. Bengalis hold the Bangla language very dear to them. It’s a very soft, beautiful, expressive, and poetic language—and a matter of regional and cultural pride and political import. Bangla (Bengali) was my first language, English my second. I grew up in a bilingual household in which, over time, my parents spoke Bangla to my sisters and me, and we responded in English. (To this day, this is typically how we communicate.) While my siblings and I have retained our comprehension of Bangla, our spoken Bangla lags behind.

I think that growing up that bi-cultural and bi-lingual environment deeply shaped my cultural identity—my lived experiences spanned more than the small towns where I grew up, and I was keenly aware of my parents’ “ghost homeland” that seemed to exist just out of reach. My bilingual upbringing also heightened my awareness of language, I think—I discovered early that a very funny story relayed by my mother in Bangla sometimes failed to have the same richness and deliciousness in English, for example; or that certain English words had no counterpart in Bangla. I learned, too, that languages could provide access and power as much as they could create barriers to communication and belonging.

Most enduring were the experiences of hearing my mother recite Bangla poetry with great drama and expression. Much of the language was beyond my reach, but my mother would sometimes translate the formal Bangla into household Bangla, or into English. But without those translations—and even with them—those poetry recitations became incantations. I had a similar experience whenever I heard prayers called out in Arabic. Both of those languages functioned as pure music in my experience—deeply mysterious and powerful music that I could not fully comprehend.

JB: Reviews of Dhaka Dust all mention the sense of place that figures so prominently in your work. Your poem in RHINO 2011, “In the Echo Chamber,” is also very place-specific – but its landscape is the body. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write this particular piece?

 

DA: Long before I had a child, a colleague who was describing her labor and delivery said to me, “I miss being pregnant.” It was an alien thought to me at the time, but it struck me later that the experience of being pregnant was indeed so fleeting and, like so many experiences of parenthood, never to be duplicated in quite the same way.

While I was carrying my son, I felt so…plural. I was continually aware that, for a brief time, I possessed a bodily state that would only be temporary. The cutting of the umbilical cord released that physical bond, but the emotional and psychological bond is indescribable. In parenthood, there’s a kind of nostalgia for the present that’s hard to escape, imbuing many moments with both great sweetness and melancholy. I think of it now as an Instagram effect, in which snapshots taken 2 minutes prior can be transformed into objects of nostalgia, something from the long-ago, unrecoverable past. It’s that “Oh my God, remember when he was just [fill in blank]?” feeling of shock that many parents experience on an ongoing basis.

So I guess you could say that in this poem, the body becomes a landscape in which the speaker rues the loss of a particular kind of intimacy that results from the actual birth. Parenthood, in my experience, has often been a complex battle against time’s passing, with life moving at warp speed.

JB: I love the way “In the Echo Chamber” explores shifting ideas of connection and “otherness,” an idea that seems prevalent in much of your work. Can you share with us why those concepts are important to you, and how you address those ideas through your work?

 

DA: “Otherness” of one kind or another characterized many of my life experiences… I tended to feel both connected and apart in multiple contexts—both here in America, where I was born and raised, and in my family’s homeland as well. For example, in certain parts of America, others have expected (and in some parts, still do expect) me to be more “Indian” than I seem to be on the surface, or have been surprised that I’m fluent in English. In some settings, people distinguish whether one is Indian or Bangladeshi; in other settings, we are South Asians. While I was living in the cultural flux of the San Francisco Bay Area, a different set of questions arose about solidarity with all people of color. In Bangladesh, I experienced at times a profound divide, and in other moments a deep sense of belonging.

In my work, I hope I have conveyed how fluid those feelings of connection and alienation can be, whether through a speaker returning to Bangladesh and experiencing the comforts of reuniting with a family split by place and time, or via a narrator moving through an American homeland that is divided by racial tensions.

 

JB: What have you been reading lately?

DA: I have been reading Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God with an interest in unpacking her emotionally brutal distancing effects; Lighthead with great appreciation for Terrance Hayes’ sonic playfulness; and In the Surgical Theater, particularly for Dana Levin’s handling of a father figure in a medical crisis.

________________________________

Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), winner of the Bakeless Literary Prize for poetry awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.  Her poetry has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, and Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry.  Her writing has also appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review blog, the National Book Foundation blog, the Asian American Literary Review, and The Kenyon Review Online.Ahmed holds BPhil and MAT degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and an MFA from Warren Wilson College.  She teaches in Chatham University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

To learn more about Dilruba Ahmed visit her website, or purchase Dhaka Dust here.

Book Prize RHINOs

RHINO Poetry is so proud of our contributors who have won book prizes since their poetry first appeared in RHINO.

John Mann‘s collection of poems, Able, Baker, Charlie, won the 2011 National Poetry Review Book Prize and is scheduled for publication in August, 2012. Two of the poems, “Caritas Defined, Mr. Mann Readies His Clothes” and “Mr. Mann Goes for Shiatsu, Has a Whopper Instead” appeared in RHINO 2003.

Rae Gouirand‘s first book of poetry won the 2011 Bellday Prize for Poetry!  Her poem “Zero at Sea” appeared in RHINO 2009.

Matthew Olzmann‘s first book of poetry, Mezzanines, won the 2011 Kundiman Prize and will be published by Alice James Books in April 2013. His poem “After I Introduce My Brother To Person X, I am Asked if I was Adopted” appeared in RHINO 2011.

M. Ayodele Heath‘s collection Otherness has been nominated for the 2012 Georgia Book of the Year (Poetry). His poem “The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks:  Heath Plantation, 1863” appeared in RHINO 2011.

Matthew Dickman‘s first book, All-American Poem, was winner of the 2008 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry, published by American Poetry Review and distributed by Copper Canyon Press. He was also the winner of the 2009 Kate Tufts Discovery Award for that book, and the inaugural May Sarton Award from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His poem “Drummer Boy vs. Thunder Clap” appeared in RHINO 2003.

And our book prize-winning poets whose poems have recently appeared in RHINO:

Carl Adamshick (RHINO 2009) was selected by the poet Marvin Bell as the recipient of the 2010 Walt Whitman Award for his collection Curses and Wishes, published in 2011 by Louisiana State University Press.

Dilruba Ahmed (RHINO 2011) is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, July 2011), winner of the 2010 Bakeless Literary Prize for poetry, selected by Arthur Sze and awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

Elisabeth Murwaski (RHINO 2011)’s collection Zorba’s Daughter was selected for the 2010 May Swenson Award by the distinguished poet Grace Schulman.

Ask yourself: do I love words? – Interview with Kenneth Pobo

Ken Pobo is the author most recently of Ice and Gaywings (winner of the qarrtsiluni chapbook Contest, 2011), Trina and the Sky (winner of the Main Street Rag Chapbook Contest, 2009),

and Glass Gardens (Word Press, 2009).  He teaches creative writing and English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, and has published four collections and twenty chapbooks to date. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as such journals as Fifth Review, Hawaii Review, Atlanta Review, The Fiddlehead, Grain,Nimrod, Colorado Review, Indiana Review, and, we’re happy to say, RHINO 2011. Associate Editor Andrea Witzke Slot interviewed him in February 2012.

AWS: First of all, thank you, Ken, for taking time out of your busy teaching and writing schedule to interview with us here at Rhino.  I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know your work. You are a prolific writer and use a wide range of voices and styles, with each book having a clear focus and/or thematic structure.  I’m curious, though, how you might describe the defining features and writing style of your work as a whole?  Which of your books do you feel best represent you and why?

KP: I have several approaches to writing poems.  I enjoy writing character poems, but I also enjoy observations of the natural world, including the garden, poems about my life as a gay man, poems about growing up.  While I mostly work in free verse, I sometimes work in forms.  More recently, I’ve been working on flash fiction.  Reading other poets, no matter what I’m working on, is helpful.  I am particularly drawn to ancient Chinese poets: Du Fu, Li Bei, Wang Wei, among many others.  I am a reviser.  Sometimes I wish “first thought, best thought” would work for me, but when I draft, I have to almost “talk” the poem through, so much needless verbiage appears.  I work toward a lean, economic line and poem.  At 57, I am still learning how to trust the image, trust the metaphor or simile.

No book/chapbook fully represents who I am as a writer.  Right now, I feel a strong connection with Ice And Gaywings, perhaps because it is most recent, but also because it combines my interest in Wisconsin, my relationship with Stan, and a connection with nature (particularly the Wisconsin Northwoods).  Trina and the Sky took years to write.  At first, I was going to write a suburban satire, a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman done in poetry.  I saw Trina as a comedic figure—until she got more real for me, a person with losses, doubts, and fears, and the poems moved away from my initial ideas.  Characters always change, at least to some extent, as I write them.

AWS: As mentioned, your books use a wide variety of voices and styles. In Trina and the Sky, for example, my favorite of your books that I’ve read so far, you give one woman, Trina, a 3-D persona by letting her speak for herself in first person in some poems but by allowing a third-person narrator to speak for her in the majority of the poems. I want to note, too, how you very successfully avoid sentimentality even when the subject matter could lead us there.  Trina, it seems to me, could be a woman inside many houses in America, and yet she is so entrenched in the details of her life that she can’t see beyond those details.  What do you feel are the major themes, preoccupations, or concepts running through this particular book?

KP:Actually, Andrea, your comments say it very well, better than I could!  I grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.  Trina could fit in there (if she “fits in” anywhere).  Can any of us fully see beyond “the details” of our lives?  I think Trina has a quiet courage and much of her life deals with various kinds of traps.  I don’t think of Trina as an “everywoman” (or her husband Frank as an “everyman”).  She’s a woman who faces difficulties partly due to lack of vital communication between herself, her two kids, and her husband.  It’s almost like the bridges have washed out and she’s calling to them from an island.

AWS: You have succeeded in gaining an audience for your work through many different avenues and publishers.  Your latest chapbook Ice and Gaywings won the qarrtsiluni chapbook contest in 2011, Glass Garden was published by WordTech Press in 2011, Trina and the Sky won the Main Street Rag chapbook contest and was published in 2009, and your chapbook Tiny Torn Maps was published with Deadly Chaps, a book that is available for immediate (and free) download through LuLu.  Tell us about the choices you’ve made when considering contests, small presses, and self-publication. What you think of the publication market today and the opportunities and/or pitfalls for poets?

One challenge that many poets face is the “business” aspect of being a poet seeking publication.  Much time goes into choosing a magazine which, one hopes, will be a good venue for one’s work.  Over the years, I’ve grown a thick skin to rejection.  I get a rejection and tear it into tiny pieces.  Then I’m over it.  One online site I use often is Duotrope.  One could fall into Duotrope searching for possible magazines to submit to and never be seen again.  Hours slip by.  I’m pretty dogged.  When I get work back, I always go over it and see what revisions could be helpful.  That makes rejection more of an opportunity than a negative.  William Stafford said that an editor is your friend if the editor prevents you from publishing work that shouldn’t be published.

A pitfall poets face is making the “goal” of publication more important than the growth of craft and the contemplative time that helps a poem to come alive.  A funny thing about getting work accepted is that in poetry there is no arrival.  There’s still a new idea, a new draft—and the work it takes to bring the poem to fruition.  Winning contests is gratifying—and afterwards one goes back to a draft and sees how much more work is needed.

I am pleased that we have print and online journals.  Both have much to offer.  I like how online journals make poetry more accessible than the print world could do.  How amazing to think that someone in India could be reading my poem because it is online.  However, I love the feel and smell of a magazine that one can actually hold in one’s hands.  A print journal feels warmer to me than something on a screen.

AWS: How has social media and new forms of communication and connection affected your life as a poet?

I’m thinking this through right now.  I’m on Face Book and haven’t decided why it has become as much a part of my life as it has.  It is great for connecting writers, though the connection often is in short “status update” snippets.  I’m an email-aholic too.  I find I check email quite often.  I hardly ever write letters anymore.  I have a friend who still has no computer, so I write him letters, but he is the exception.

AWS:You are a very productive poet, publishing no less than 20 chapbooks and four full collections to date.  What is your writing regime?  How do you manage (and balance) the administrative side of writing with the creative side?

KP:It’s fairly simple: butt in the chair.  If I can’t generate something new, I try revising something old.  In that way, I never have “writer’s block.”  Some days are more productive than others, and I think with creativity one learns to respect the ebbs and flows.  If I feel stuck, a prompt helps me.  Sometimes I’ll sit down and look out the window and cull an image from what I see and start writing.  Some of my poems have political content—those are often begun in instant fury over something on the news.  Poems centered on a character can grow numerous once I get more of a handle on who the character is.  Trina, for example, required many more Trina poems to be written than ever got published or published in the chapbook.  They needed to be written for me to better understand her.  I’m fairly bloodless about deleting work that doesn’t feel focused or my commitment to it is weak.  Some drafts just don’t work and never will.

By administrative side, I think you mean making submissions.  That’s pretty much about readiness.  When I think the work is ready to be seen by an editor, I submit it.  I am never sure when I send it out how “finished” it really is.  With book manuscripts, if one comes home, that’s a great chance to see if some poems in the manuscript would better suit a different collection.

I’m a professor and when school is busy, my writing life suffers.  In English and creative writing, the work is so language-centered that when I get home I can feel I lack the energy to create.  I usually get better as the semester goes on, but in those early weeks my writing takes a hit

AWS: Following on from that question:  When did you first start writing and why?  And how has your poetry—and/or your approach to poetry—changed over the years?

KP:I can point to a day: July 4, 1970.  In my family house in Villa Park, we had a ping pong table that my grandfather built himself in our basement.  July is usually a hot month near Chicago and the basement was a cooler location.  I loved (and still love) the popular music of the 60s.  My favorite singer, then and now, is Tommy James (Tommy James and the Shondells).  In 1969, Tommy had hits that were very “peace and love” on the radio (“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball Of Fire”).  I decided to try writing my own song lyrics in this vein. My first “poem” was called “The Open Door” which included the immortal line: “C’mon, let’s unlock our minds.”  The lyrics rhymed and had a chorus.  As I kept writing, I got tired of always having to put in a chorus (ironic since I can’t read music or play an instrument).  I started to get away from a tethering to rhyme.  By the time a year had gone by, I had a sense that writing would be my life.  I started reading other poets.

The excitement I felt when I started creating poems back when I was fifteen hasn’t faded at all.  It’s still great fun—as well as a struggle.  I didn’t write character poems early on.  Those came later.  I’m not sure why.  That happened more when I got to graduate school.  If one wants to write, one needs to do it, not just talk about it or say “Someday.”  Distractions can be abundant and dangerous.  If I’m not writing, I’m frustrated.

AWS: Do you belong to a writing community or group? If so, how has that helped you?

KP:I have at various times and they can be enormously useful.  I have writing friends who sometimes share work.  This past summer, for the microfiction chapbook, three writing friends, Margaret Robinson, James Esch, and Michael Cocchiarale, helped me choose which pieces to include.  That was invaluable.  Much of the writing life is solitary—but not all of it.  Anytime someone raises a question, whether I choose to revise or not, is useful.  Strange as it may sound, I include writers who are no longer living in my writing community.  I have a picture in my home office of Du Fu—he’s watching me this very moment.

AWS: Do you regularly perform your poetry? How important is performing for you?  What do you feel are the qualities of a successful poetry reading?

KP:I enjoy giving readings.  I get butterflies before I begin but once I start I relax and give myself over to the experience.  Listeners who listen carefully are helpful.  One thing about “performance” I like in particular is the inclusion of voice and sound, not just the reading of poems with the eyes.  Sound opens up many more dimensions than sight alone.  Each poet has to find his or her own way to bring the work to those who listen.  Early on, I was told “Don’t read so fast.”  That was good advice.  Eye contact helps.  Monotone kills.  Not all poets are great readers and reading styles change with time.  I love Theodore Roethke’s poetry.  When I heard him read on a CD I had to laugh—he sounded so purposefully “dramatic.”  Yet that approach was probably well received sixty years ago.

AWS: How do you feel your role as an educator has affected your work?  What advice do you give to students and/or aspiring poets?

KP: In my case, I think teaching turned out to be a great career choice.  Academia can be a nightmare for some writers—or a wonderful place.  Or somewhere in between.  I teach more by discussion than lecture, and in discussions students will further my own interest in a writer or an idea.  Just last semester, I began class with a writing prompt, and I wrote as the students did.  Now I have a dozen poems/flashes that grew out of that prompt.  We have a small creative writing program at Widener.  This allows teachers to work closely with students and to form a writing community.  I love that kind of connection.  Academia is not the right home for many writers.  I think it was/is a good home for me.

My advice is more about hanging in there, finding ways to keep one’s creativity alive.  Read.  Talk with other writers.  Write.  And don’t worry about if it’s “good” or not, at least not right away.  Play.  Play with language.  Ask yourself: do I love words?  Find other poets who you are crazy about.  I still remember when I was an undergraduate discovering “Binsey Poplars” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Or reading D.H. Lawrence’s Pansies the first time or Sylvia Plath’s poems.  I felt my world breaking wide open.

AWS: This is a question that has always intrigued me (as the answer varies so much from poet to poet), and so I’d love to hear your own personal answer as a way of wrapping up this interview:  Does poetry matter?  Does it count for anything significant in a world where there seems to be few readers of poetry (and yet no shortage of writers)?  What, if anything, does poetry do for writers, readers, and/or our world?

KP: Well, it matters to me and to those who cherish it.  If a poem can change a person, a person’s perceptions, even in a small way, that can matter a great deal.  And what does “matter”—the latest Kardashian “news” flash?  Who won what game?  Poetry offers us a place for meditation and contemplation.  When we share our ideas about a poem, we can better understand each other.  If the readership for it is small, so be it.  This isn’t the Neilson ratings.  Even in our world of quick clicks and texts, many people want to write poems.  Good poetry can deepen our emotional response and awaken us to ideas and observations we might otherwise miss.  Speaking just for me, I feel incredibly lucky that I write.  I’ve been doing it for 42 years now and, if I live to be 100, I hope I’m like Stanley Kunitz, writing practically up to the end.

AWS: Thank you, again, for your time, Ken.  I’d love to end with an example of your work.  Would you give us a poem that you feel represents your best and/or most interesting work to date?

KP: I don’t think I could choose that poem.  Maybe someone else could.  However, here’s a poem that might be a suitable ending.

AWS: I think this is a great choice for an ending. Once again, thank you.  It’s been a pleasure learning more about you and your work.

PICKING FLOWERS IN A HURRICANE

Stay in, stay in,

weather people say.  I look

at our messy dining room table,

a dull sky not quite able

to get in the window.  Rain

intensifies.  I take off my shirt,

grab the scissors, and dash

for the back yard.  Heavy

gusts make zinnias sway.  Gloriosa

daisies quickly surrender to

silver blades.  Already closed,

a blue morning glory—

a boarded-up storefront.  Down,

it comes down, a draping water.

I should be cold,

but it’s like running through

fever.  With enough for

a decent bouquet, I sprint

for the door.  Don’t run

with scissors, mom used to say.

Shoes soaked, I run, hard,

crush the blossoms

against my chest,

vase caskets ready.

I just let the poem go – Interview with M. Ayodele Heath

 

M. Ayodele Heath is a graduate of the MFA program at New England College. Heath’s honors include a 2009 Dorothy Rosenberg Prize and a McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech. He has been awarded fellowships from Cave Canem, Summer Poetry at Idyllwild, and the Caversham Centre for Writers & Artists in South Africa and received a grant in Literary Arts from the Atlanta Bureau for Cultural Affairs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Crab Orchard Review, diode, Mississippi Review, Callaloo, The New York Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, and Mythium, as well as featured in anthologies including Poetry Slam: the Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), Java Monkey Speaks Anthology I (2004), and My South: a People, a Place, a World All Its Own (2005). His book of poems, “Otherness” was published in 2011 by Brick Road Poetry Press.

His poem, The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863” appears in RHINO 2011 and you can hear him perform it here. Associate Editor Jacob Saenz interviewed M. Ayodele Heath in late April, 2011.

JS: First, congratulations on receiving an Editor’s Prize in RHINO 2011! It is truly an honor to publish and award such a great poem.  Thank you for submitting it to us, which leads me to ask: what prompted you to submit to RHINO? How did you hear about us?

AH: First, let me say, thank you for believing in the poem, and thank you for the opportunity to showcase it.

I first heard about RHINO in Best American Poetry 2003, when Yusef Komunyakaa selected Susan Dickman’s  poem, “Skin,” from RHINO 2002. I’ve been knocking on RHINO’s door ever since!

JS: I notice on your website (www.ayospeaks.com) you are listed as a performance poet w/numerous awards and honors to your name. As someone who appreciates performance/slam poetry, I am curious as to how you became involved w/slam poetry. Who are some of your influences?

AH: My first experience with a poetry slam was what I would call an eye-opening lesson in the human condition.  In 1995 at a bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead now-defunct bar district, I advanced to the final round with another poet, who, before reading her final poem said to the audience, “I’m not sure what to read, so I’ll let you decide.  I’m gonna read a poem about my pets.  Do you wanna hear about my puppies?  Or my p*ssy?”  The audience went bananas, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how that story ends.  But that poet taught me something very valuable about rule number one of public speaking: Know your audience.

My next significant experience with slam wouldn’t be for another 4 years at the 1999 Southeastern Regional Poetry Slam in Knoxville, TN.  About 40 or so poets from around the Southeast competed in this 3-day competition and I found myself, again, in 2nd place going into the final round of the competition.  This time, the opponent was Knoxville’s Daniel Roop.  But this time, something very different happened.  Daniel was ahead of me by about 2 full points, which is basically insurmountable in the final round of a slam competition.  He took the microphone and proceeded to do a 5-minute long poem, purposefully taking about a 4- or 5-point time penalty.  In other words, he threw the competition.  Three days of competing and this stranger sabotaged himself so that I could win!  I was speechless.  In all my years growing up playing competitive sports, I’d never seen such selflessness.  That gesture—that act—completely changed how I viewed the world of slam.  It shifted my paradigm: I went from viewing performance as an act of receiving to an act of giving.  And it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

My influences are endless.  Here’s a short list: Yusef Komunyakaa, Pablo Neruda, Jean Michel Basquiat, Patricia Smith, Ai, Allen Ginsberg, Ingrid de Kok, Lucille Clifton, Jean Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, Gil Scott Heron, Charles Simic, Fela Kuti, Galway Kinnell, Q-Tip, Andre 3000, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, Lynn Nottage, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes.

JS:  How important is the oral versus the written in your poetry?

AH: To me, poetry, like theater or like music, is first and foremost a performance art.  I start with the premise that the “poem” is a spiritual thing and that what appears in print is only a representation of that spiritual thing; the oral performance is another representation.  Of the two, I see the oral poem as closer to the essence of what that spiritual thing is than the written poem.

That being said, I believe the oral poem and the written poem to be two different experiences with the oral as slightly more important because it is closer to the essence of the poem.   I recognize that there are things which can be done on the page which are difficult to approximate in performance and that there are things which can be done in performance which are difficult to translate on the page.  To try to make the oral and the written the same experience is to fail at both.

So, my job as a “performance” poet is to be as true to the written and the oral independently of each other – like a photograph of an object versus a video of an object.  Each operates according to its own rules, its own physics, but each reaches toward its most accurate representation of that spiritual thing; each strives for its own fidelity.

When I think of my poetic lineage, I think of myself belonging to the ancient tradition of poets which predates a literate public – when the masses experienced poetry via the human voice: the epic poetry tradition of ancient Greece, the izibongo praise poetry of the Zulus, the griot tradition of West Africa.  I generally believe that a poem is not a poem until it is read aloud (though there are exceptions.)  I view the written word as technology that allows a different experience of the ‘spirit’ of a poem – technology no different than the internet or video.  My objective is to use the technology most efficiently and most effectively, regardless of what it is.

JS: As a hip-hop fan, I love that your poem in RHINO, “The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863,” contains many samples.  In hearing the audio version, the samples clearly come through, especially with the great reading you give. I love how the poem starts out as a hymn and progresses into more of a hip-hop song. During the writing process, did you know you were going to use so many samples?  Did one sample lead to another? Do the record companies know you sampled their work (ha!)?

AH:Thanks for recognizing the beginning as a hymn, because I’m not much of a singer!

I had no idea I was going to use so many samples.  The poem was actually borne from a prompt at my first Cave Canem retreat last summer.  Cave Canem is a week-long retreat at the University of Pittsburgh with African-American poets from all over the country.  On the first night of the retreat, the 50-or-so attendees sit in a big circle and give a 2-3 minute introduction of ourselves, saying how we came into this space.  There are generations of poets from age 18 to nearly age 80 expressing isolation and unity and in tears of joy and humility – it’s this incredibly moving experience.

After introductions, we were given a prompt that night to write a poem that night about why we were there.  Alone in my room, I thought of the idea of the circle and what was being passed around that circle… and the wisdom entering that circle from the generations before… and the wisdom that would be carried from that circle for generations to come.  And I sat down in front of my blank sheet of paper… and I thought of hip-hop cyphers… and drum circles… and records spinning… and atoms… and how all of this – this music, this pain, this struggle, this tradition of words – how this energy and data were being cycled around and around.  And so I thought of a charge being passed around the circle.  And my subconscious began humming a hymn from the old Baptist church of my childhood, “A Charge to Keep I Have.”

I had no idea where it was going, and no idea how many samples I would use… but my eyes got wet.  I was moved by the earlier experience of that night… and I was frustrated because here I had this concept for a poem, but I had no idea how to get it on the paper.  So, then I found myself crying tears of wonderment and frustration… and I stared at the screen… and I remembered where I was… in space and in time… and of all the supportive energy I’d felt in that circle… and I decided to just go with it.  Cave Canem is such a safe space for a Black poet – where you don’t feel the need to footnote your experience and explain your cultural references, where you feel a freedom to just be your self.… and I just let the poem go.

It was like a kite I was chasing across a hill in a windstorm… The samples just led from one into another.  And then the interruptions in my process gave me the idea to incorporate scratching… and then stuttering as a performance device.  The first draft finished itself about 3 or 4 in the morning, and one of the first times since I was a child, I, Mr. Logic and Reason, had allowed sound to overtake sense – had allowed myself to write something that I didn’t even fully understand.

And no, the record companies don’t know that I sampled their work.  But maybe they need to know.  I could use the publicity!

JS: Who are you reading lately?  Any writers that get you excited about the future of poetry?

AH: A lot of writers have me excited about the future of poetry.  I’ve recently read Terrence Hayes’ ‘Lighthead, ’ Suheir Hammad’s ‘Breaking Poems,’ Douglas Kearney’s ‘The Black Automaton,’ Adrian Matejka’s ‘Mixology,’ and Christian Campbell’s ‘Running the Dusk.’   I’m looking forward to Rupert Fike’s upcoming debut, ‘Lotus Buffet.’

JS: What are you working on now? Any projects?

AH: Currently, I’m busy promoting my recently-released debut poetry collection, Otherness (Brick Road Poetry Press).  And recently, I completed a video project called ‘Poets Make Black History,’ directed by Reggie Simpson, where I performed 28 poems by African-American poets for Black History month.

JS: Finally, do you have any advice for other poets submitting their work, whether to RHINO or elsewhere?

1)     Read, read, read.

2)     Write, write, write.

3)     Never give up.