During 2016, the Spotlight Series has (usually) focused on the work of (approximately) two poets per month. This month’s second poet, whose feature concludes this series, is Raena Shirali.
Fox Frazier-Foley: Talk to me about the core of your creative drive and the expression it finds through poetry. There are lots of ways to be creative in this world—what motivates you to write poems, specifically? Additionally, what motivates you to navigate the poebiz landscape?
Raena Shirali: Much of my motivation on a poem-by-poem basis comes from a resistance against silence, as well as a desire to enter into and provide a new understanding of various psychologies. I first fell in love with poetry because of persona, because it provided opportunity to escape my own thoughts (at least, that’s what I thought persona was offering me as a young poet), and I still return to persona or ekphrasis whenever I get stuck. But I think persona provides more than self-discovery by means of vicarious experience. It’s an opportunity to create and cultivate empathy. That’s what makes poetry such a powerful medium—a medium I can’t imagine life without. To loosely quote Casey Jarrin, one of my most influential teachers, poetry is an empathy machine, and everything that fosters empathy is not just worthwhile, but necessary. I think that’s closely related to why I’m excited about the poebiz landscape right now. We’re seeing so many more POC voices, LGBTQ+ voices, marginalized and oppressed voices getting recognition at the Poetry Foundation and Teen Vogue and beyond. That motivates me not just to keep writing, keep remaining dedicated to writing poetry for and alongside my fellow POCs, my fellow women, anyone who has questioned or struggled with their heritage or sexuality—but further motivates me to read and promote those authors actively. How do our fragmented experiences, our traumas, our flawed attempts to articulate those traumas, ultimately add up to our collective consciousness? Our collective empathy? Our capacity to praise, or mourn, or change?
FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
RS: That really depends on where I am in my writing process, but I do make a point to consume art that isn’t poetry every day—whether that’s compiling art on my Tumblr, listening to podcasts, stopping by the Halsey gallery, or reading in a sculpture garden. I’m a firm believer in indirect influence—the confluence of experiences and art forms as the real generative space—as opposed to reading an article and having an immediate reaction in the form of a poem. Don’t get me wrong—social and political issues completely drive my work, but I’ve had to train myself to not let my impulse or initial emotional response take charge in the poem. I have too fierce a reaction to things like gang rape in India—a topic my book addresses extensively—to write the first thing I feel. I have to sit with that violence, and ask how it can speak to, say, a red sculpture smattered with white bird shit I saw a few months ago, or the girls in sorority tees sitting underneath it, talking quietly. I guess my creative influences are those of association and accumulation, which makes sense, considering my experiences with assimilation and camouflaging as a woman of color writing in the South.
FFF: Describe your aesthetic as a poet. What do you value? What do you try to do with/in your work? What, to you, makes cool art/literature? What’s most important for you in a poem, or in a book of poems—as author and as reader?
RS: Aesthetically, I’m always thinking about lineation and enjambment first and foremost, and I especially prioritize fragmentation over symmetry. To me, no poem is really the final word, even if the poem is fulsome in its articulation and conception. It seems almost haphazard to call the poems in GILT complete, in a way, when the notions of fracture, chaos, and fear are so integral to the project. I think that’s my central challenge and preoccupation—to allow individual poems as well as the book to be a liminal space, where answers aren’t accessible to us, because in any instance of violence, what is the answer, really? How do we explore such barren landscapes— landscapes fraught with the aftermath of violence, landscapes where girls aren’t welcome, where girls are the fear-riddled creatures we’ve brought them up to be, no matter the country?
I’ll say that recently, I’ve moved away from more conceptual poetry, and instead, selectively read work with discernible stake. I’m more drawn to art that allows violence its gruesome elements, while also investigating and implicating lyricism in conversation with that violence. That kind of art—poems like Tarfia Faizullah’s in Seam come to mind—should be as visceral as the event it seeks to expand and mold for the reader. Rape, for instance, shouldn’t fit into a template or a box, and we shouldn’t only be willing to engage with similar subject matters when they fit into outlines that make us, as readers, comfortable. I try to practice that belief in my reading, writing, and teaching, but that isn’t to say it’s not hard, uncomfortable work.
Deconstructing language and experience is cool to me. Poems like Franny Choi’s “Pussy Monster” are cool to me, because they’re risky and fun, while also being succinct and brilliant critiques. Any work that challenges convention is cool to me, too. For instance, I’m enjoying watching the lyric essay as a mode shift and mutate and resist definition even more defiantly, especially in work that engages pop culture and is written with the attention to detail and capacity for empathy of Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s “On Serena Williams and the Policing of Imagined Arrogance”. It’s super interesting to me when poetry gets circulated on social media, especially lately around the utterly unfathomable violence against black men and women & the LGBTQ+ population in America. I love that these pieces feel and are more immediate, necessary, and laudable than some of what we, as a culture, still praise canonically. I love watching and being a part (in whatever small way) of that change.
FFF: Tell me, if you’re willing, about something—an experience, a piece of art, anything really—that has fundamentally moved and/or shaped you as a person. What was the experience? What was it like? How did it shape you as an artist/poet?
RS: Language barriers have shaped me more than I care to admit. Growing up, my parents spoke English in the house; and since they actually speak two different dialects of Hindi (Gujaratri and Konkani), and English was more comfortable for them, they rarely spoke Hindi (though, props to my mom, who tried pretty hard to teach us the basics for a year or so in there). So throughout my childhood and adolescence, taking trips to India or visiting family (most of whom speak Gujaratri), I felt this sense of alienation, coupled with a deep desire to fit in (a pretty common narrative for first generation immigrants). It’s interesting because, on the one hand, growing up so blatantly not-white in South Carolina, I wanted desperately to be the antithesis of my family, my heritage, my skin—but on the other hand, I craved a sense of belonging that I must have known, innately, couldn’t be attained by assimilating. I feel that sense of not-belonging in my poems as strongly as I do in my sense of self, and it’s taken years to accept that not-belonging does not mean I have no identity, but rather, that liminality is likely the most significant aspect of my being.
I finally had that realization when I was 22, seeing Fred Wilson’s “Iago’s Mirror” at the Boston MFA, and that was a real turning point in both my poetry and my conceptualization of identity and otherness. “Iago’s Mirror” is this gorgeously ornate series of stacked Murano glass mirrors, but the whole piece is entirely black. Of course, it’s a comment on Othello and blackness above all, but it made me become obsessed with the idea that the act of looking at myself, as a child of immigrants, had been completely altered by the fact of my brownness as other. I mean, at some point growing up, I just stopped explaining what being “Indian” meant. I was always going to be not-quite, and kids explained me away as “definitely being half-white” or “really light skinned for a black girl.” It was exhausting explaining myself, so I just grew totally apathetic. I stopped owning my skin—stopped owning my body, really—and that period of my life is one marked by depression and eating disorders, as a result (subjects that GILT engages with, by the way). “Iago’s Mirror” flipped the lens for me. I was 22, finishing out my first year of grad school, had finally left the South and found a community I felt a part of. And then I saw this piece—one that, it seemed to me, spoke to issues of colorism and diaspora and intersectionality—and I just realized I wasn’t writing about the shit that needed to be written about. I could make the choice to actively embody and promote my identity, not just in my life, but, perhaps more importantly, in my poems. In doing so, I could own the parts of myself that were “too dark.” I hadn’t written a single poem involving my own identity before that point, and now I can’t imagine what my poetry would be without it. That piece of art changed everything for me.
FFF: Name a book or two that you think everyone should read, and tell us a little bit about what makes it/them so mind-blowingly awesome.
RS: It almost feels silly to plug it at this point, but given the state of our current political climate, I feel it bears repeating: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is, by far, the most important text I’ve read in the last year, not just because of its exploration of America’s race issues, but because that is a book that, every time I read it, pushes me—in terms of genre, self-evaluation, grief, cultural critique, praise. It asks that we own the microaggressions committed against us, as well as those that we—inevitably, unintentionally—are implicated in the perpetuation of. I think that’s incredibly brave and important work, and am always thinking about how I can navigate a similar space in my poems. Parts of GILT address the aspects of my upbringing that were and are incredibly privileged, while simultaneously engaging in the racialized body as alienated, perhaps as a direct result of the community that privilege entails or bestows. So, I guess I’ll say that Citizen isn’t just important as a text to hold up in order to say, “Racism exists!” but more so for us to examine our own day to day engagement with and movement through our world, and to be willing to change it, to open the door for other POCs, other LGBTQ+ writers, anyone who has been and continues to be disenfranchised in seemingly quiet ways.
The second book I’ll recommend is a stretch, not because it isn’t an amazing collection of poems, but because it is incredibly hard to get your hands on. Morocco by Matthew Savoca and Kendra Malone Grant was released by Dark Sky Books in 2011, and is currently priced at $361 on Amazon. No joke. So it feels a bit ridiculous to even tell people to seek Morocco out, but I can’t answer this question without doing just that. Morocco is scathingly minimalist, and doesn’t fuck around when talking about fucking around. It taught me to truly own how the body can be equally wrecked by grief, love, and heritage. It’s raw and tender and full of slippery things, and both voices in the affair are represented honestly enough to make the reader uncomfortable. You know how sometimes you see a movie or read a book (The Sun Also Rises comes to mind) where the central relationship is so fucked up that it’s somehow appealing? That’s what these poems are. They’re gorgeous, bright, dead spaces. You can’t help but fall in love with them, even though they’re poisonous and addicting. And you don’t regret falling for them once you have. Find this book. Seriously.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
RS: I guess this is the place where I plug the book! My first collection of poems, GILT, is coming out with Yes Yes Books.
And as an end note, I think it’s important to mention that several of the poems in GILT are persona poems dealing with incredible violence and trauma—something that I am cautious and wary of throughout the drafting and composition process. Leslie Jamison, in The Empathy Exams, borrows this little bit of wisdom from Faulkner that I’ve been obsessing over: “It isn’t enough, but it’s something.” I feel that applies to all art, but to poems where the author has to reach beyond their own set of experiences especially. And I think that’s how I feel about GILT. It isn’t enough to write one collection about this truly wide-ranging set of issues, but it’s a start. It’s something.
Indian American poet Raena Shirali grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where she currently lives and teaches English at College of Charleston. Her first book, GILT, is forthcoming in 2017 with YesYes Books, and her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Four Way Review, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Tupelo Quarterly, Pleiades, and many more. Her other honors include a 2016 Pushcart Prize, the 2016 Cosmonauts Avenue Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2016 Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Prize, the 2014 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, recognition as a finalist for the 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship, and a “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2013. She is currently a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine & will be the Spring 2017 Philip Roth Resident at the Stadler Center for Poetry. You can find more of her work at www.raenashirali.com