The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Tarfia Faizullah about her new collection Registers of Illuminated Villages, mystery stories, the nature of evil, and mourning pages.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About your new collection, for some reason I want to start at the end, namely the poem, “The Hidden Register of Astonishment.” Can you talk about that poem’s placement in the book and how it works as a kind of commentary on the rest of the book?
Tarfia Faizullah: Sure. That poem was one of the last ones to go in Registers, and at the time, I was thinking a lot about full albums, and my own upbringing as a CD-listener. I always loved the idea of a hidden track—a reward for a listener’s patience, and devotion. I also think that poem, for me, functions as both a way of looking forward to the future, and so it comes at the very end.
Brian S: That’s what I thought of as well, the hidden track on the CD, though when I mentioned it to someone younger than me, they likened it to the trailers that Marvel movies have taken to embedding at the end of the credits of their movies now, a bridge to the next piece of the universe as it were, and I thought that could work as well.
Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, I was just thinking about those trailers! I love those. Also, the original title of the poem was “The Hidden Hidden Register of Astonishment”—thinking about it now, there’s what’s hidden, and what’s extra-hidden. I think secrets are so interesting—they can be somehow both obvious and invisible at the same time!
Brian S: That’s the conceit of one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, right? “The Purloined Letter,” where the stolen item is hidden in plain sight among all the other letters on the desk.
Tarfia Faizullah: Ah, well—now we’re touching on one of my secret loves—mysteries!
Brian S: I’ve been hooked on them since the days of Encyclopedia Brown.
Tarfia Faizullah: I think what I love about mysteries is also what I love about poems—that there’s always more to unlock, almost like the reader is a decoder. I thought Nancy Drew was pretty great, too—she and Leroy Brown should have teamed up
Brian S: You could say something similar about a work in translation, right? That’s been on my mind a ton for the last couple of years.
Tarfia Faizullah: Yes, absolutely. I think of poetry as a transmission that the writer is attempting to translate or decode—and sometimes, poems can take awhile to decipher. I began writing Registers fifteen years ago.
Brian S: Fifteen years? Wow. And you just kept coming back to it over and over again.
Tarfia Faizullah: I try to remember that some poems take a long time to decode—though sometimes, I get impatient!
Brian S: That gives me hope for some of my own Word documents.
So a brief digression—my episode of chicken pox as a kid happened to occur with a mistaken shipment of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books to my house. They had to be returned, but not for a few days, in which time I read damn near every one of them, being as I was confined to the sofa the whole time anyway. It was heaven.
Tarfia Faizullah: I definitely was ill at times as a kid, and I remember devouring every book I could during those times. That’s an amazing mistake! I think mistakes can also be beautiful and unexpected moments of fate.
Brian S: So if “The Hidden Register of Astonishment” is one of the younger poems in the book, what’s the oldest?
Tarfia Faizullah: Hmm, good question! Let me look.
“Your Own Country” is definitely up there, along with “The Performance of No One’s Fingers.”
Brian S: There are poems I read a long time ago, like as an undergrad, that I feel I just wasn’t ready for or wasn’t old enough for or something, that I’ve revisited and felt like I’ve gotten it. Fiction, too. That happened to me with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Reread it a few years ago and was like, ohhhhhhhhhhh.
Tarfia Faizullah: I totally feel you on that—that’s how my own poems have been for me, and that’s what I love about reading poets who wrote hundreds and hundreds of years ago—that they can break the linear way we think about time, and have conversations across centuries with each other. That idea of not being ready really resonates with me—I’m pretty shy, so there’s an extent to which I’m never really ready! But my curiosity often overrides me shyness, which I’m grateful for.
Brian S: Oh wow. Some days it really strikes me how long ago that day you’re describing in “Your Own Country” was. Like, there’ll be kids graduating from high school soon who weren’t born yet [when the September 11 attacks occurred].
Tarfia Faizullah: Yes, isn’t that wild! And yet that day seems to persist and reverberate into the present in all sorts of ways.
Brian S: I was starting my third year of grad school.
Tarfia Faizullah: I was a sophomore in college! I was brushing my teeth early that morning and had the news on.
Brian S: I was on the bus headed to campus and didn’t know what was going on for a couple of hours. Then on the way home, I saw lines at gas stations a couple of miles long maybe, and I thought, “who thinks something is going to happen in bumfuck Arkansas,” but panic is real.
Tarfia Faizullah: This is all making me think about the idea of disbelief, or denial—or even your experience of not knowing about this event that has continued to be so impactful.
Brian S: Have you seen the Register of Eliminated Villages that’s mentioned in the opening poem?
Tarfia Faizullah: No, I haven’t—I’m not sure, now that you mention it, if I’d want to… but I’m a Gemini, so I might change my mind about that if the opportunity presented itself.
Brian S: I know that feeling and I’m a Scorpio. 🙂 It sounds like a book that would, and I don’t say this lightly, radiate something horrible off of it, made worse perhaps by the illumination. I’d almost be afraid that it would infect me or something. (I watch a lot of sci-fi.)
Tarfia Faizullah: Well, in that same interview with Kanan Makiya, he says something really amazing about that. Let me see if I can find the quote. He says:
Suggesting evil is human doesn’t mean we can always understand it, or doesn’t mean there’s only one way of understanding it. It’s sort of like a great work of art. You can never fully absorb it. it’s got many dimensions, it lives on through time, in different ways.
It’s interesting—“documentary” doesn’t have a negative connotation generally, but the register is that—it’s documentary, but it’s what it documents that’s so horrifying. The fact that the text is also physically beautiful and carefully maintained—well, I couldn’t—can’t—stop thinking about that.
Brian S: I think I remember Ta-Nehisi Coates writing something on his blog a long time back where he basically argued that the problem with the way we often use evil as a concept is that we use it to almost excuse people. Like we stop searching for deeper meaning or reasons for why a thing happen and just chalk it up to evil, and I think that fits this register as well.
Tarfia Faizullah: I absolutely agree with that. It’s dismissive, almost—but to understand evil, I think we have to stare at it, and into it, and that means staring directly into and at ourselves, too. It’s overwhelming.
Brian S: Right, the data contained therein would be horrifying and even evil on its own, but the fact that someone took the time and effort to decorate it just adds to the whole thing.
Yeah, it’s like when someone explains away an event by saying the person who did it was crazy. If you do that, you don’t have to do the actual work of figuring out the details.
Tarfia Faizullah: Right, when, in fact, to me, what’s most interesting, and most revealing, is in the details, in what is almost unnoticeable.
Brian S: And your poems are heavy on those kinds of details, some incredibly personal it seems.
Tarfia Faizullah: The Register of Eliminated Villages—and also September 11, and similar events—are both spectacles. And yet the questions I have—whose responsibility is this, why, how? Why such largeness of scale, and what are the tiny roots these spectacles grew from? The questions aren’t answerable—maybe that’s why they interest me…
Tarfia Faizullah: Yes, this is a book that took as long as it did to write because of the personal nature of the details.
Brian S: Can you talk some about the middle section, the Soliloquies? And the black pages that encase it?
Tarfia Faizullah: Sure—do you have specific questions about the middle section?
Brian S: More like how you conceived of it. It stands apart from the rest of the book, and part of that is design but part is the voices.
Tarfia Faizullah: I wrote the bare bones of those poems while I was in Bangladesh, writing Seam, which deals with the voices of raped Bangladeshi women. Registers‘s conception pre-dates Seam, though the two books have always felt oddly connected to me, like siblings. I felt that these particular voices didn’t quite fit in Seam, somehow. Thinking about it now, I wonder if that’s because the nature of the trauma the widows experienced was different—it was the loss of men, in this case, rather than the imposition of them.
When I went back to Registers in earnest after Seam came out, I suddenly saw them differently—they held their own ground—the voices were louder than they were when I had originally written them. To go back to something you mentioned earlier, I suppose I was finally ready for them.
Brian S: What’s the significance of the black pages?
Tarfia Faizullah: As for the black pages—I wanted to mark a bridge from the end of “To the Littlest Brother,” which is set in the present, back into the past. There was originally going to be only one black page, but my editor suggested a second to bookmark the sequence. They’re meant as pages that mourn and commemorate the losses of the men in the village, almost to designate that sequence as a kind of burial ground. Again, this idea of invisibility. The women are speaking, but the men, and their absence, are still felt.
Brian S: Right, I just remembered I’d seen them before, in Jeffrey Pethybridge’s Striven, The Bright Treatise. Mourning pages. They date back to the early days of printing where ink was more expensive, so to print a page in all black was done to show how much a person meant to the printer. That makes so much sense now.
Tarfia Faizullah: Yes! Absolutely. I love that book. I owe him one. Two, technically.
Brian S: That was a book club selection back in 2013. We’ve been doing this a while now. 🙂
Tarfia Faizullah: That’s amazing—those are terrific footsteps to try to follow!
Brian S: Are you working on something new yet? Or are you letting this one wash over you a bit?
Tarfia Faizullah: I am working on something new—or, as with Registers and Seam, concurrently. I tend to work in overlapping projects, though I don’t always know that until later, in hindsight
Brian S: Is it too early to ask for a preview?
Tarfia Faizullah: Like, a poem, or the ideas I’m trying to tackle?
Brian S: The latter. And if you’re not ready to talk about it, don’t feel pressured. We have lots of people who say they don’t want to jinx it by talking about it too soon.
Tarfia Faizullah: Yeah, I also have some superstitious feelings about talking about it too much—though I’ll say that it seems to me that I write to understand, and it seems to me that I’m trying to understand love and intimacy.
Brian S: That’ll do. 🙂
What are you reading lately? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Tarfia Faizullah: I am absolutely overcome by this poet named Alejandra Pizarnik, whose background was Ukrainian, Argentinian, and Jewish. She died at age thirty-six in 1972, and her book Extracting the Stone of Madness is a fucking revelation. I’m really interested, also, in Native poetry right now—there’s a great used bookstore not far from my place, and I just got a collection of Eskimo poetry that I’m loving. In that same vein, I’m reading a poet named Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa, a Finnish Sami poet who was born to a family of traditional reindeer herders. His book Trekways of the Wind is really moving, and includes his drawings, too. I read plenty of contemporary poetry, too, and I’m especially excited about Tommye Blount’s collection, forthcoming from Four Way Books sooner than later.
Brian S: Thanks so much! I’ll have to look for those books. And thank you so much for joining us tonight and for this wonderful book.
Tarfia Faizullah: Thank you, Brian! Really appreciate y’all reading the book, and for making the time to hear my thoughts on it. Sending much warmth and plenty of fist bumps from here!