The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Hala Alyan about her latest collection The Twenty-Ninth Year (Mariner Books, January 2019), memory and truth and where they intertwine, and how place becomes a character in our lives and work.
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 Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Brian S: How’s everyone doing tonight?
Brian S: It’s warmed up all the way to five whole degrees here in Des Moines.
Hala Alyan: Hi!
Brian S: Hi Hala! Thanks for joining us tonight and for this excellent book.
Hala Alyan: Thank you for having me!
ALB: Hi Hala! Brian, how are you surviving??
Brian S: I’m mostly staying inside. And then lots and lots of layers when I have to do otherwise.
So, I’ll start off with a question, and then anyone else who has one should join in as well. And Hala, if we ask too much at once, feel free to pick and choose what to answer.
Hala Alyan: Sure!
Brian S: I felt, the more I read this book, that landscape, that place, played a much larger role in this book than I realized the first time I read it. Can you talk some about how you view place as a part of your poetry?
Megan: Ooh, great question. I was wondering the same. The variety of geographical locations adds so much texture to the narrative.
Hala Alyan: I think this book in many ways is all about reclaimed and re-written identities, and exploring the ways in which memory has determined who I am, both my memories and those of others, particularly the women in my family. I can’t think of myself at separate from place. Because I moved around so much, because I’m somebody that developed such intense attachments to cities, I feel like I access different parts of myself depending on where I am. So in some ways it wasn’t even conscious; it was totally natural. If I write about the self, then by extension I write about place.
Brian S: I can relate. I moved a ton when I was a kid, and then again as an adult until recently, and I’ve had the same experience as far as having attachments to places. Do you feel like a different person when you find yourself in a new place?
Hala Alyan: In a new place, I usually feel this like burst of potential, like I’m not quite sure how the place is going to imprint on me yet.
Debby Bacharach: Hi Hala, Debby here. I noticed you used a lot of long lines and prose poems. I was curious why you chose these forms, how you thought they served you, and whether you also felt drawn to fiction? I felt a lot of fiction energy in your work in that I got engaged with a character and wanted to know what happened next.
Megan: I was very intrigued by the forms/structures of the poems “The Worst Ghosts” and “Gospel: Beirut.” Could you please offer some insight into how you conceived of those? For instance, which came first in your mind: the form or content?
Brian S: I had a similar question about “Gospel: Beirut.” It was interesting how I had to learn to read that poem and then to realize there were multiple ways to read it.
Hala Alyan: Thanks Debby! It’s funny because in my first couple of books of poetry, I rarely if ever included prose poems and then got really into it with this collection, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in between that time I wrote a novel, Salt Houses. 🙂
I think that what happened over the last few years is I started to realize that I could play around with form more and give myself permission to create poetry (and fiction for that matter) that sort of bent some genre rules. So my general approach now is I let the piece guide the form, not the other way around. With the longer sentences, the prose pieces, the content of those pieces seemed to ask for that (for me), for longer, less broken-up format.
Megan, Similarly the content of those pieces felt very ethereal and ghost like and like half finished thoughts. Writing it kind of felt like trying to remember a dream that I had a long time ago, which I think really led to that form
“Gospel: Beirut” in particular felt like this loop poem, one where the past, present, and future all become blurred into one.
Megan:That’s what it felt like to read it! It came through the way you intended. :blush: And thank you.
Hala Alyan: Thank you!
ALB: I felt the places came across as characters themselves; is this what you experienced as you wrote or just something that you realized later?
Hala Alyan: Totally something that I realized afterwards! This book in a lot of ways was a surprise for me more than anything. I feel like I wrote a lot of it when I was in a very intense place—so much of it was stream of consciousness, not particularly filtered, and then when I came back and started editing and putting it together I was really surprised by what I found.
Brian S: One of the things I mentioned when I wrote about this collection had to do with memory and that it’s slippery, that it’s not always as reliable as we think or wish it to be. I thought you were doing that with a lot of the poems in this book as well. (I wrote that before I learned that you’re a clinical psychologist, so I hope I’m not talking out of my ass there.) Can you talk some about how you used memory as a trope in this book?
ALB: What else surprised you while you were editing? Also, curious what city you wrote most of this book in?
Hala Alyan: I wrote most of it in New York, but that year I also spent a fair amount of time in the Middle East, in Marfa, Texas, and in Paris.
Debby Bacharach: Brian, I was just about to ask about that, but I had assumed the slipperiness was on purpose and I saw it around the idea of truth, not necessarily memory. Hala, I want to hear what the word “truth” means to you, especially because the poem “Truth” sits as an introduction or epigram to the whole collection. Sometimes the speaker just speaks blunt hard truths, but often she then undercuts them, saying what she just told you is not true.
Hala Alyan: I think more than anything I was really playing with this idea of fabricating memory, which I think is what we do whether we intend to or not. And so here it was a lot more of an intentional play with the idea of remembering, and how every time we remember something we change it. It’s just human nature. And of course when we’re talking about trauma in particular, memory can be really unreliable and incredibly vivid at different points. So some poems are literally written from the perspective of a version of me that wore a different dress or sat in a different bar, or reimagining a memory that has been passed down to me from a parent or grandmother
For me, truth and memory really started to blend into one thing the more I wrote these pieces, as I was initially challenging myself to tell the truth, and then realizing that with many things I didn’t know what the truth was.
Megan: Oh my goodness. So much of writing is what you just described! I love the way you put it.
Hala Alyan: Thank you, Megan!
Brian S: That’s something that we’ve seen come into the public consciousness a lot more lately, right? I’m thinking of the much more public discussion surrounding sexual assault and mostly women telling their stories, and the pushback that comes from people who don’t want to believe them who look at inconsistencies in memory as proof that the victim is lying.
Hala Alyan: Right, which is absurd because inconsistencies in memory often are actually indicative of trauma. That’s how trauma works, as was really beautifully described [by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford] during the hearings a few months ago. There can be certain things that bring you back perfectly to a moment certain parts of your brain that light up when you smell a certain thing or see a certain color, but then other details can be a total fog.
Brian S: I’ve experienced that when I’ve written about being molested when I was a young kid. Some memories are absolutely clear and others aren’t, and sometimes timelines don’t match up even though you’re absolutely sure about what happened.
Hala Alyan: Exactly! It’s totally normal. Memory is an elusive thing in the best of circumstances.
Brian S: And when the circumstances aren’t great, then it gets really hairy, really fast.
Hala Alyan: Absolutely.
Gwen Dawson: Hi everyone, joining late. Great discussion!
Hala Alyan: Hi!
Brian S: With the Gospel poems, did you write those as connected to each other, or as a series, or did they just happen to come together in that way?
Debby Bacharach: Oh my gosh Brian, I keep thinking of related questions. Here’s how I put it: I am new to putting manuscripts together and want to know more about your process. For instance, did you give yourself the assignment of writing several gospels or doing the various steps and then thread them through or did you retitle poems you already had started? I would have not thought to put the steps out of chronological order. I am learning a lot from your structure. I especially love the quotes before sections.
Ooh, good point, Gwen. I want to hear about that, too.
Hala Alyan: I didn’t write them intentionally as a series, but after the fact I realized they were in many ways in conversation with each other. Touching upon similar themes, a lot of times interrupted narratives as well.
Hala Alyan: In terms of process, I generally do free writing for the first iteration of the poems. In this one, I wrote random snippets here and there for a few months and then stitched them all together into coherent pieces over another few months, and then did a round of proper editing.
Gwen Dawson: I was very interested in all the comments in the poems about names. The importance of names. The power of naming someone, etc. “I’m a land waiting for my new, westerly name.” “I stole your name….” “I was a body renamed….”
Hala Alyan: That’s a great question. I think a lot about naming when I write, particularly as a bilingual, bicultural writer. I believe that there an intersection between naming and memory, in that what we call something creates an emotional marker.
Hala Alyan: Particularly in the pieces where I talk about my own name, or the name of lovers, I’m thinking about how being renamed in an immigrant or diasporic context can be at an act of further dispossession.
Brian S: The book we read a couple of months ago, Marwa Helal’s Invasive species, got into that idea/issue of naming as well.
Gwen Dawson: I see what you mean. Can naming something also be a kind of possession of it? Control over it?
Hala Alyan: Absolutely, I believe naming something is a form of control. The biggest example that comes to mind is the tradition of Anglicizing names among immigrants.
Gwen Dawson: Oh, yes. Exactly.
Megan: If it’s not too personal (if it is, please feel free to pass), would you mind talking about how you handle people you know in real life reading your poetry? You write about some very personal and intimate things like self-inflicted hunger, habitual drinking, sexual encounters, etc. In my own limited experience I find that I have no problem when strangers or poetry-world friends read things like this I write, but when I can’t avoid family members reading my work I get horribly anxious despite being almost forty years old. So yes, I will admit this question is more of a shameless solicitation for writerly advice than a question.
Debby Bacharach: I had a corollary question to Megan’s: do you tell people they are going to show up in your poems, ask permission, or just go for it?
Hala Alyan: Well, the great thing about poetry is that it’s not memoir. So I definitely take liberties in the stuff that I’m writing about, and there’s no expectation that the subject matter is true to real life, or an exact representation of what may or may not have happened. Which goes back to the idea of reclaiming and rewriting different endings and playing around with memory. I found that to be a very liberating process. Had these poems been purely autobiographical, I absolutely would be much more anxious about it.
As for people showing up in the poems, I just go for it. Again I don’t really think of this is autobiography or memoir, so I don’t worry about it too much. An exception was my husband, who I did let read the manuscript before I sent it out for publication, because I felt like that was the right thing to do.
Megan: Great insights. Thank you.
Brian S: Are you doing any kind of reading tour with your book? And what are you reading lately? Anything that should be on our radar?
Hala Alyan: A little bit, not as extensive of a tour as with the novel, particularly because it’s the middle of the semester now. But I am doing some Northeastern cities, and a bunch of readings in New York.
I just finished The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. SO GOOD.
Gwen Dawson: By the way, I love love love the quote/epigraph from Louise Glück: “You get home, that’s when you notice the mold. / Too late, in other words.” Is that from a poem of hers?
Hala Alyan: Yes! That Gluck line is from a poem of hers. I LOVE IT.
Brian S: That’s our hour. Thank you so much for joining us tonight Hala, and for your thoughtful answers to our questions.
Debby Bacharach: Thank you!
ALB: Thanks, Hala!
Megan: Thanks again, Hala!
Brian S: Goodnight, everyone! Thanks for joining in the chat.
Hala Alyan: Oh my goodness. THANK YOU!