Safia Elhillo on Crafting the Poetry of “Girls That Never Die” [INTERVIEW]

Poet and author Safia Elhillo is interviewed by James Morehead (host of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast and Poet Laureate of Dublin, CA). Safia discusses how she crafted the poetry for her new Penguin Random House book Girls That Never Die.

Sudanese by way of D.C., Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children and Home Is Not a Country and co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me. Winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, the Arab American Book Award, and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, she is also the recipient of a Cave Canem Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation. Her work has appeared in POETRY magazine, The Atlantic, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day series, among others.

The full interview is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast, edited excerpts from the interview are included below.

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James Morehead: I first became aware of your poetry at a reading where you shared the stage with Olivia Gatwood, and immediately ordered your books. What struck me was how effectively you had the audience leaning in, to catch every word, and how you weave together storytelling and the creation of characters, with rich poetic imagery and abstraction. What role does reciting your poetry play during the writing process?

Safia Elhillo

Safia Elhillo: “I started out as a youth slam poet, so my background is in spoken word and performance poetry. The foundation of any formal training I had as a poet started out in performance. I think for as long as I’ve had a relationship with writing poetry, I have had a relationship with reading my poems out loud. I almost feel smarter as a listener of my own poems than I do as a reader of the poems when I’m in the drafting process. Usually, I will write out my draft and it will look fine to me on paper, and then I’ll start reading it out loud and my ear will catch things that my eyes had no idea about. A few drafts later when I think I’ve taken the poem as far as it can go, the true final stage in the editing process, which has kind of been put on hold for a lot of the pandemic, is reading the poem to an audience. I feel like I never truly hear a poem until I read it out loud to an audience, preferably strangers. It is helpful to try to hear the poem through the ear of someone who might not entirely get my context or where I’m coming from. I’m able to catch things that I may have let off the hook up until that point.”

James: In the poem “Yasmeen”, you write, “i split from my parallel self i split from // the girl i also could have been”. Girls That Never Die includes several contrapuntal poems, and “Yasmeen” is one of my favorites, the form is so perfectly suited to the theme of the poem. What is your approach to making challenging forms like this work, so that the form doesn’t overwhelm the poetry?

Safia: “My first book of poems, which is called The January Children, had been a book that I felt like I’d been writing, one way or another, my whole life up until that point. It wasn’t necessarily an easy book to write, but it held my hand a lot. Every time I sat down to write, I had a loose sense of what I was writing towards or about. Around that time, I wasn’t thinking too hard about inherited forms. After I finished that book I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had to spend a couple of years re-teaching myself how to write a poem. The January Children was a project book that had a lot of conceits and things that held it together, so every time I sat down to write, I essentially had a prompt. After that, for the first time in my life, I didn’t know what to write poetry about because I had exercised all of my obsessions. 

“Form was my way back into poetry in a way that felt a little safer. The stakes were a little lower because I got to exercise in form and be gentle with myself. If I was writing a sonnet and it inevitably failed, I could be kinder with myself and understand that the poem didn’t work not because I personally was a failure, but because I had never written a sonnet before. I really appreciated the way the constraints activated my imagination. I think the freedom of free verse at that point was overwhelming. This idea that I could do anything felt too much. I kind of felt like a newborn baby poet who was very easily overstimulated. So, eliminating a lot of those options felt like a really safe and generative environment to find my way back into a poem. 

“Since that was what I had been up to the past few years, inevitably, there are a lot of poems that are in inherited forms in Girls That Never Die. The contrapuntal in particular is because I spent a lot of time obsessed with Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio and figuring out the magic trick behind how to make the contrapuntal work. I appreciate the contrapuntal in particular because it takes me down to the true essence of what it is to write a poem where you have to measure every single word and make sure it works. There are no casual words in a contrapuntal because it has to work up and down and across. So, it was like constructing a poem brick by brick. I wanted the time and space to luxuriate in the basic elements of what it meant to write a poem again. The contrapuntal felt like the quintessential, slow, word by word, thoughtful poem-making experience.”

James: Yasmeen is also a central character in your wonderful book Home is Not a Country. Like all wonderfully drawn characters I missed Yasmeen after finishing the book. What was the origin of the character and what did you learn about yourself while creating Yasmeen?

Safia: “Home is Not a Country is a novel, and coming to the novel as a poet, I felt like up until that point I hadn’t been allowed to make things up. I was really excited to get to the novel space and start making things up. The first thing I did is give this character the actual name that I almost was given. At first, it was a placeholder and I thought I would come back to it, but it really dug its heels in. None of the story is autobiographical, but a handful of the details I borrowed from my real life. The unnamed culture and country in the book are based on my experience of being Sudanese and being in Sudan. One of the particular textures of my diasporic experience is that I’ve always been obsessed with the alternate version of the story without the original rupture from which my whole life springs. What if my family had not left Sudan? What if I had been born and raised there and never left? What would be different? What would be the same? This was the starting point in trying to envision the story that became the novel. 

“I had a lot of questions about what is my essential personhood and what is the consequence of my various experiences, traumas, and ruptures. Especially when I was younger, I found myself continually measuring myself up against this kind of fictional alternate version of myself who was more Sudanese, spoke better Arabic, and overall just had it together more than I did. It was a real test in my particular coming-of-age to learn to just exercise that alternate version of myself and understand there is no alternate version. This is the hand I’ve been dealt. I have some agency in how it all goes down. I get to have as much of a relationship with Sudan as I choose to have and I have the choice to belong or not belong or to participate or not participate. I’m not at the mercy of ‘capital I’ immigration — it’s culture. It is more nebulous and not so beholden to geography. I got to experience the agency of my Sudanese-ness as a choice and as a series of decisions and as a series of more active and agent belongings. In that process, my personal Yasmeen disappeared and was excised. In making this novel, I wanted to recreate the findings of that process, and recreate for a fictionalized diasporic character the process of first obsession, and then exorcism of this perfect idealized alternate non-diasporic self.”

James: In many of your poems you use ampersands to string together phrases. “Profanity” is one of several examples. You write:

“a stranger blows a wet tobacco kiss
through the window         of my taxi

& i deploy    my meager weapons
[dog]           [pig]           [donkey]

& finally       my crown jewel
i pass my tongue across my teeth

crane my neck about my window
& call      [your mother’s             ]”

The word “and” is replaced by ampersands. In other poems you write out “and”. You also bracket words, and use white space. I know from my experience as a poet that every word, sound, phrase, use of punctuation is intentional. Share your thought process for this subtle detail, when you choose to use an ampersand and when you use the full word “and”.

Safia: “Spelling out the full word “and” is a very new development in my poems. Before three drafts into trying to crack Girls That Never Die, my poems, I think without exception, were all written in lowercase, ampersand instead of the spelled out word “and”. I think the ampersand was about economy for me. I’m trying to figure out a way to say the thing in as few words as possible. What I like about the ampersand, and what I think really lends itself to a poem, is that it is a tiny symbol that contains a whole idea and word behind it, and takes up very little space in a line. This is great when I want a poem to be shaped in a very particular way. The ampersand helps the shape and the length of the line feel more malleable. Especially with a word like ‘and’ that comes up a lot, it is nice to have something so tiny.

“In the newer poems that don’t use the ampersands and that do capitalize and do punctuate, my impulse with the subject matter in this book at first was to speak very quietly and hope that no one would actually hear what I was saying because it’s vulnerable. A lot of the early drafts of those poems are lowercase, ampersand, and caesura. I like caesura for the way it introduces silence to a poem, quiets down the whole climate inside the poem, and introduces hesitation to the poem.

“All of the things I used to prefer in a poem presented a problem in the newer poems. These newer poems are where I’m saying really terrifying, vulnerable things that I would like to be able to say quietly, but that defeats the whole point of saying them in the first place. So, if I’m really going to talk about this stuff, I need to speak clearly and loudly. I need to use capital letters and crisp up the poem by using traditional punctuation and spell out “and” to take up as much space as possible, which is very counterintuitive. I thought these poems were ugly for a really long time. The word “and” was so odd to look at, especially after years of getting so used to the ampersand. All of my quieting devices had to go out the window for a lot of the poems in this book. You can tell it’s an older poem in the book if I use ampersands, and the markers of my later poems are the ones that spell out “and” and use capital letters and punctuation.

“I had gotten to the point where it felt like it wasn’t an intentional decision anymore to write all in lowercase. That was just how I wrote and it wasn’t serving the individual poem anymore. A lot of times in this book, I’m speaking from an intersection and a set of experiences that I think historically are very easy to look away from. So with a lot of these poems, I didn’t want to give my reader a chance to opt out. By presenting a paragraph, I spell out everything clearly for the reader. This was an attempt to speak as clearly as I could and remove all of the things that I had in place, that may be very stylish, but that I would sometimes sacrifice clarity or volume for. I haven’t necessarily outgrown that form, but it’s just not what my poems are trying to do right now. It’s nice to have it as a tool among the many tools.”

James: Your books are so impactful to me because of how powerfully you convey experiences that I have not personally experienced. My life experience as a white cis American male is privileged in so many ways. Particularly powerful examples are the pair of “Infibulation Study” poems, and the the poem “1,000” which includes the lines:

“I make up names to hand to strangers at parties.
I trim years from my age & share
without being asked, that I am fifteen,
seventeen, & no one blinks.
No one stops wanting.”

What have you learned from how your audience experiences your poetry, both those with a background similar to yours and those with completely different backgrounds?

Safia: “Every time I sit down to write a poem, I’m talking to a very particular set of people. I don’t really know how to write an outward facing ambassadorial poem. I try to write as if I am speaking to someone who already knows exactly what I’m talking about. Someone who shares all my intersections and who knows how it feels, so then we’re having a conversation with that kind of fluency and that particular intimacy. It feels so intimate to talk to someone like they already know what you mean. My hope is that the people I’m speaking to know that I’m speaking directly to them. 

“For everyone else, my hope is that they feel like they’re eavesdropping on a really interesting conversation where maybe they don’t have the entirety of the context and not all the references are immediately familiar. I want my poems to feel like you’re tuning into one half of a phone conversation and you’re using your imagination to piece together the rest. The redactions, erasures, and silences are also compelling and may be emphasizing what is being said with what isn’t being said. I have the great privilege of being a poet in the age of Google, so if I say something someone doesn’t understand, either they don’t get it or they can research more. It is no longer my job to offer an index of all my references and an explanation.” 

James: Your poetry incorporates Arabic and as an English-only speaker I’m immediately curious, using both the context of the poem and translation apps to get a small sense of the language. How do you approach incorporating Arabic into your poetry with a mix of uni- and multi-lingual readers? 

Safia: “Every poem I write exists in two versions. There is the version to be read by the person who knows exactly what I’m talking about and who speaks all of my languages and understands all of my contexts and shares all my intersections. That is version A of the poem. My hope is that version B of the poem is for someone who maybe doesn’t speak or read Arabic or doesn’t fully understand everything I’m talking about, but there is still enough in the poem that is compelling and interesting so there is still something for that person, even if it’s not the full extent of the poem.”

James:  In your book The January Children you write so beautifully:

“& what is a country but the drawing of a line            i draw thick black
lines around my eyes & they are a country    & thick red lines around
my lips & they are a country   & the knife that chops the onions draws
a smooth line through my finger        & that is a country”

Many of your poems explore the fluidity of “home”, and draw from your experiences – real and imagined – in Sudan, the U.S., and beyond. How do you hope your poetry will affect readers? How has writing these poems changed you? 

Safia: “A lot of these poems are a record of my own evolving relationship to belonging and home. I think the word ‘home’ to me feels like shorthand for some ideas around belonging and safety and context and love. I don’t know who has ever gotten that feeling from the nation state, but surely not me. For a long time, all these things hurt me and troubled me and didn’t feel quite right. I got it into my head that everything would feel better if only I could figure out where I was from and by where I was from, I meant a specific country. I felt if I was entirely Sudanese or entirely American, or whatever both of those things even mean because that doesn’t exist as a concept, but as a younger person I thought if I could entirely be one or the other, everything else would be okay. 

“In that fixation and obsession, I failed to appreciate and acknowledge the ways I did belong in all of the communities that had taken such beautiful care of me, loved me, nurtured me, and offered me context, home, and belonging. We’re all the more powerful for being homemade. No one delineated a new border and decided we all belong to each other. I grew up in a very Sudanese community in Washington, D.C.. There are a lot of Sudanese people in D.C. and a lot of East Africans in general. There were several different waves of migration, but what I found so beautiful is that those people sought each other out and didn’t entirely recreate what it was to be in Sudan. They built a hybrid cultural experience that the next generation could be raised into. 

“I think that’s the reason I feel so Sudanese. I never lived in Sudan. I visited a lot, but I’ve never attended school there or stayed for more than three months at a time. Yet, the fact that I feel so Sudanese and such a profound belonging to Sudanese-ness has to do with the people that removed the idea of Sudanese-ness from the geographical fact of Sudan and made it feel more agent and chosen. That is a really helpful way for me to think about the world, my own identities, and my own choices. Some white man many years ago drew a bunch of lines on a map and that is supposed to say something about me as a person? It’s just more helpful and brings me more peace to feel like I have a say in choosing what I mean when I say my people or my home.”

James: Several of the poems share the same name and are spread across the book, “Girls That Never Die” and “Taxonomy” are two examples. After finishing the book I went back and read those threads in sequence, as individual long poems. Were these written at the same time, as units, or were the connections between these poems discovered during the process of editing the poems into a book?

Safia: “Girls That Never Die was meant to be a book-length poem that did not work out. But, there were some pieces that I salvaged from that particular experiment which when folded into the larger manuscript worked better as standalone poems. However, I still felt their ghost relationship with each other. So the shared title is kind of a tribute to a moment where some of the poems used to all be a single poem. When I was going through the book and editing, there were some poems that were not written during that initial book-length poem stage, but still felt like they had a relationship to the Taxonomy poems or the Girls That Never Die poems, so those got added in later.”

The rest of the interview, including Safia reading selections from Girls That Never Die, is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

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