FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH NUAR ALSADIR

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

NUAR ALSADIR: As a very young child, I thought I had ESP because I saw and felt things that no one around me was talking about. I somehow got it into my head that I had to keep it all secret, not let others know what was inside me, but eventually I began to pour my perceptions into writing. My first poem was published when I was nine.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

NA: I was very involved in the arts growing up – I was serious about ballet and piano, used to go to Interlochen over the summer, a famous arts camp where I would spend eight weeks amongst children who thought of art as their life. I remember a dance teacher telling me one day, during class, that I looked like I was pining. Whatever you’re feeling, she explained, you should put into the dance, let it propel your movement. There should be no separation between you and your art. That advice was revolutionary to me, the idea that the dance wasn’t outside of me, there wasn’t a form I was trying to fit my body into, but that the form would emerge through some process of transmogrification when my thoughts and emotions met my body – which may have been what Yeats was communicating through his famous line, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

I knew, after college, I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to get started, so I applied to a couple MFA programs, double-spacing the few somewhat conventional poems I had to make ten pages. I was surprised when I had a choice between schools, and selected NYU, where I studied with C.K. Williams my first semester. One day, he called me at work and asked me to come to his office hours with poems. I’d already brought my best poem to the first workshop the week before and had no idea what to show him. I didn’t want to show him poetry that didn’t look like poems everyone could agree upon, so I chose what I imagined would pass as workshop poems, what I thought he would like. He picked up the poems, flipped through them, handed them back to me and said, ‘See you in class.’ He did an enormous favour for me, ignoring those poems as one ignores the bad behaviour of a child to discourage its repetition. I realised I wouldn’t be able to connect with anyone if I wasn’t willing to risk honest expression. Marianne Moore once wrote, ‘We must have the courage of our peculiarities.’ That precept now guides my process. I’m open to letting my peculiarities reveal themselves, and to exploring whatever they might provoke in myself and others. In psychoanalysis, there’s no subject matter or material that is higher or lower than any other. I approach poetry in a similar way.

After completing my MA in Creative Writing, I was chosen to be a fellow at The Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, which is a seven-month residency with other writers and artists. During that period, I developed most as a writer because I was isolated, living in a barn at the edge of the world. I had the time and space to read, explore what was inside of me, create work that was close to how I thought and felt and to what I wanted to read. I wasn’t worried about the reactions of others.

Later, the influence of the external world on my writing increased. I attended more residencies, at MacDowell and Yaddo, was writing with confidence and conviction, then got pregnant with my first child and poured most of my creative energy into her and, two years later, her sister that followed. The United States had already entered into a number of wars by this time, all of which troubled me deeply, particularly since my parents are from Iraq (I was born in the US and have lived there all of my life). It felt as though two identities within me had gone to war, and I experienced a kind of internal fragmentation. I continued to write, but in pieces – in part because that was what I felt my psyche had become, shrapnel, and in part because of how limited my time was with small children. What was happening around me began to exert a more forceful impact on both me and my poetry. Even though, at the time, I thought of that period as unproductive, it had an enormous influence on my work as I began to realise the extent to which the chaos of the external world – and my internal world – demanded accurate expression. More than ever, the ready-made forms did not feel relevant to me or able to truthfully hold what the world – or I – had become.

I’ve always wished my poetry could be experienced in more dimensions, as life or even an art installation can be, so that the reader would enter the book without the linear unfolding created by reading across and down a page. I’ve tried to disrupt that linear unfolding somewhat with simultaneous texts, but the dimensional limitations of the page are unavoidable. The mind doesn’t have thoughts, see images, hear, smell, perceive in tidy succession, especially in a historical moment that induces fragmentation. That cacophonous chaos, which visual arts often capture so vividly, is exciting to me.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

NA: When writing, I address an imagined reader and, with that reader, create an imagined community. In being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, my imagined community has the potential to not only become real but expand, for me to connect with more people from very different backgrounds, from different parts of the world – which would be very welcome, particularly given the divisiveness of our current political situation. Poetry has the power to help us develop as human beings and as a community by expanding our capacities for expression and understanding. We need poetry now more than ever.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

NA: I put the book together in a short period of time – much of the work within it had already been written – and didn’t show it to anyone until I had a draft and, even then, showed it only to my editor and a fellow poet who is also a friend. It was helpful to be able to let go of what anyone other than my imagined reader would think of the work, to allow the book to become what it wanted to be, to follow the flow of its momentum. But now that it’s in the world, I care deeply about potential readers and the possibility of an expanded community. Why write, if not to connect?

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

NA: I admire writers who reveal their minds, thought patterns, how they associate thoughts and feelings. Subject matter is less important to me than what an individual mind does with whatever is before it – impressions resulting from experience will inevitably be encoded within future thoughts and feelings, even if all that’s available to the reader are the mnemic traces.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

NA: There’s a line from Nietzsche so close to me I’ve had it engraved on a necklace as reminder, ‘Become the one you are.’