During 2016, the Spotlight Series focuses on two poets per month whose work and consciousness move us, challenge us, inspire us. This month’s first poet is Saba Syed Razvi.
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?
Saba Syed Razvi: Every person alive experiences the world according to his or her own unique circumstances, resources, inherent dispositions, and choices—and, yet, our societies and our media often paint what is seen as successful in narrow and limited terms. Measuring life’s experiences by its successes can be misleading, especially when so much of life’s appeal comes from its broader and more nebulous approaches. What I am most interested in is the liminal, the spaces that are rooted not in collective approval or expression but in individual approaches to life and the things in it—desire and dream and longing, fear and despair, the beautiful and the grotesque, the sublime and the strange, the ephemeral, the in-between, the echoes. Often, these things feel more true and more universal than things expressed as universal to begin with. I think that this sense of a truth beyond fact and praxis finds resonance in myth and fairytale, in folklore and in our ideas about the divine and the seductive. So, I guess I am interested in the knowledge of gnosis and noesis, in the epistemological shadows cast upon the primal experiences longing and the unknown, dream and mystery. Poetry is not a practical choice in a world concerned with money, nor is inherently a tool of another experience of reality, and its aims are to reach between psyches to make connections; I find this nebulous but deeply meaningful connection made possible by art is crucial to the experience of humanity in a world which is, at this time, so filled with darkness and disconnection, with the willing turning of a gaze away from the experiences of deep and impossible suffering.
Any art has the ability to connect people to each other in ways that honor their individual experiences of life, but poetry has special meaning for me, and I gravitate toward it with a kind of personal bias. Words carry layers. They hold ideas and sounds, utterances, feelings, evocations, invocations. They bind us and they revile us. They reveal almost as much as they obfuscate, or perhaps the other way around. A painting or a song feels to me like a game taken into the self, but poetry feels like a game which includes the self and the other, a game of overlapping dimensions and infinite possibilities for both experience and expression. The ideas that we can make an art of something like language that can be used for so many less artful things makes every statement a puzzle; in doing so, it makes it possible to give voice to the impossible, the ineffable, and the otherworldly. For its potential and its potency, poetry is the art that most appeals to me – though I have to say that a good story, a good painting or song or sculpture or dance or film can be just as captivating when done by one whose favor lies that way.
The poebiz landscape both delights and puzzles me. It is at once an arena in which possibility and collaboration is possible, and one in which competition and power struggle is common. I am often surprised to see the ways in which the issues of our ages are advanced through the channels of poetic outrage and uncertainty, but it is also in these spaces that I learn to recognize the intimacies of social value. I applaud the social justice and discourse that has been made possible by the poebiz scene, especially on issues of gender, race, religion, otherness and belonging, sexuality, and accountability. It is delightful to see such progress and such lively, courageous ideological engagement and contest in this arena that is often not associated with such moxie and such potency. I appreciate the ways in which the poebiz arena reminds us that words are powerful and that artfulness can matter, especially when it comes to the things that mark as as human rather than machine or animal.
FFF: What are your influences—creatively (esp in terms of other media/other art), personally, and socially/politically?
SSR: I think my answer to this changes based on my moods. I tend to find myself writing and taking notes all the time, whether I am scribbling in a pocket notebook on a hike or tapping on an app on my phone while listening to life bustle around me. I find that various parts of my life—real or imagined, find their way into the shape at the base of a poem or other. Music of all kinds. Painting. Nature. Social Issues. Dreams. Divination. Myth. Artifacts from Ancient Civilizations. Unsolved Mysteries. Folklore and Legend. Superstitions. World Literature. Graphic Novels and Comic Books. Psychology. Space. Astronomy. Riddles. Lullabies. Scientific Innovation. One of my favorite things to do is wander through museums and look at the various artifacts there, examine the descriptions, research the topics myself and imagine a world that contained them. Lately, my interests also include politics, specifically those politics related to human rights and fair representation of all people.
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?
SSR: This is a really interesting question to me for a lot of reasons, in part because the idea of aesthetic can be so malleable and varied. What I see as lush, indulgent and intimate might be seen as too much for some readers or not enough for some readers; it all depends on preferences, I suppose, and on value. That’s why I love that you followed up the question of aesthetic with value. I personally prefer my language ornate and playful. I like things that feel baroque and multivalent, multifaceted, multidimensional. I like literary art that seeks to invoke what its about and create an atmosphere or mode. I like work that feels incantatory and immersive, a little wild and impulsive. I tend to enjoy work that doesn’t give in to restraint unless it wants to give in to restraint, the excess over the minimalist. But, I also like work that has energy and that feels powerful, that feels like a dream that won’t let you go or a nightmare that you are compelled to explore and relive in the telling of it. I like nostalgia and reverie, ambiguity. I suppose that because I enjoy these things, I sometimes find them in my work—and that’s definitely true of some of my work, especially In the Crocodile Gardens, which invites the reader into a sumptuous experience, or my chapbook Of the Divining and the Dead. I would like to think that the approach I seek is one juxtaposition, of a dark veil of lace through which bright, neon colors shine upward, or like a stained glass window lit by a candle from the other side, the refraction of light and shadow on a wall upon which patterns are cast, a woodcut printed with India ink on silk dyed in swirls of color, and the hint of pattern on the underside of softness. The idea of phosphorescence and luminosity, specifically that in contrast with shadow, drove much of my first manuscript of poems, heliophobia, some of which might be found in my chapbook by Chax Press called Limerence & Lux. I would like to say that my poems reflect my attitude toward hospitality, there is much value in giving opulently and generously, in welcoming your guest to the best of what you can offer, the most that you can give. However, I should also say that I think it depends on the project. For a long time, I have also been working on a collection of poems inspired by advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and cognitive theory; many of these poems focus on restraint and specificity, rather than opportunity and possibility. For me, aesthetic depends on purpose and on the project at hand. My current work seeks to draw from the opulence and decadence of beauty, the intensity which makes the grotesque alluring and seductive, the gaze that can invite as much as it can slice through an intimate moment, the violent assertion of self that the world demands of our waking experiences and the freedom of dream. Perhaps the easiest way to describe how I see my own aesthetic is to say that I imagine writing with luminous color on shadow and waiting for it to fade from sight and to rest on the inside of the eyelids in memory. I hope that my poems will, in some way, make the world seem as unreal and as real as it never can in fact, but always does in the fantastic epiphany of a truth that is felt in the bones.
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?
SSR: I grew up in the Houston metropolitan area where it is possible to find a myriad of cultural and artistic events to attend and experience. My parents often took me and my sisters to various events with them. Among the museums, wildflowers, orchards, symphonies, plays, and libraries, we attended parties held by the Hyderabad Association, such as mushairas. If you’ve never been to a mushaira (or, never heard of one), it’s essentially a gathering of poets which feels like a cross between a featured reading, a poetry slam, and a spontaneous concert. It was at these occasional mushairas, filled with words and forms I didn’t really understand yet and with literary traditions I only later studied, that I was immersed with a love of the communal and joyful aspect of poetry. Often, the younger children and teens would retreat to the back of the ballrooms or auditoriums, or into some lobby or anteroom, and build a sort of commentary apart from and parallel to that of the larger audience. We would tell stories of ghosts or djinni, share dreams and wishes and crushes and struggles, bond over our hybrid cultural identities, our cultural in-betweenness and our ordinary lives, or simply fall into what seemed like an absurdly big family party with its familiarity and its fun and its secret intrigues. People we met here were friends that lived all over the country, friends that we only really spent time with at these events. A floating community, a temporary zone of shared time, a confluence of coincidence. I learned the power of the word in this way, of song—and it reinforced the various stories and songs and performances of my childhood, too. I learned that poetry could be a thing that binds people together who would never otherwise have cause to connect. I learned that community can be joyful as well as judgmental, that life is all about the adventures you choose to create in the spaces created by others around you. Somewhere, in the overlap of these things, I found that poetry had woven itself into my earliest impressions of what it means to connect to other human beings. Even now, when I attend conferences or readings or festivals, I am reminded about the possibility of transcending the ordinary spaces of life by way of words that access the fantastical, the frightful, the intimate, and the beautiful.
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.
SSR: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Conference of the Birds. I think that the former reminds us to value delight and open-mindedness, especially in the face of the unexpected; the latter reminds us that all of our experiences are multifaceted and that mindful reflection upon them creates an awareness that leads to confidence and connection. I have so many favorite books, and I change my mind daily on what I love the most, but today, I think that these are the lessons that we don’t get enough of in our hyper-connected and still alienating experiences of the world.
FFF: Anything you want to talk about pertaining to your art/craft/literary or writing life that I didn’t ask?
SSR: I didn’t talk much about the role of popular culture or cultural criticism, yet, but I do think it’s important—not because of the authority that it contains, but because of its potential for compulsion of the heart and mind. I didn’t talk very much about narrative or academic scholarship, but I have to say that a great deal of my experience as a writer has been shaped by my experiences in the academy and my experience in rebelling against a narrative imposed upon me by the world, rather than presented by myself. I think that a lot of really wonderful poetry is being written today, that much of it contends not only with the worth of one’s voice, but also with the structures of knowledge the seek to contain it. I would like to think that this informs not just my own work, but that of the poets whose work I love to read, the journals and books I most appreciate. Sure, there is a lot of work out that there that seems to be stuck in a past that isn’t as concerned with a real kind of fairness, but I think there’s a lot out there that has chosen to transcend that attitude—and I would like to hope that my voice is among the ones that people will want to hear. The things that people want to hear tend to fall like echoes over the crests and peaks of the terrain that makes up every horizon. Some of the most interesting narrative that is being written today tends to find a place in Speculative or Science Fictional spaces, spaces of popular culture, and I think that’s worth thinking about: what holds resonance on a large scale. One of the things I really love is the television program Doctor Who (and the world of spinoffs and characters and ideas it’s created), and there’s an episode in which The Doctor says something like, “We’re all stories in the end; just make it a good one,” and there’s another episode in which he says, “Nobody really understands where the music comes from . . . when wind stands fair and the night is perfect, when you least expect it, but always, when you need it the most, there is a song.” I just wanted to end on those two statements because I think that in this current moment, poetry lives between story and song—maybe it always has—and, that is just where I want to be, as well because it feels like a space that is full of dynamism and hope, life and dream; I hope that pocket outside of time is where my poems will take readers or listeners, too—and that they enjoy being there, inside those words.
Saba Syed Razvi is the author of In the Crocodile Gardens (Agape Editions, 2016). She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX. Her poems have appeared journals and such as The Offending Adam, Diner, THEThe Poetry Blog, The Homestead Review, NonBinary Review, 10×3 plus, 13th Warrior Review, The Arbor Vitae Review, and Arsenic Lobster, among others, as well as in anthologies such as Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War Faith and Sexuality, The Loudest Voice Anthology: Volume 1, The Liddell Book of Poetry, and is forthcoming in Political Punch: The Poetics of Identity. She has been honored by James A. Michener, Fania Kruger, and Virginia C Middleton Fellowships. She earned a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing in 2012 at the University of Southern California. Her chapbook Of Divining and the Dead was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her chapbook Limerence & Lux was published by Chax Press in 2016.