In her debut poetry collection Hard Damage, recipient of the 2019 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, Aria Aber’s polyglot genius is on full display. And as the Chicago Review of Books accurately asserts, Hard Damage “questions and mourns the idea of citizenship.” Aber asks the reader to bear witness to her moral and spiritual investigation of the impact global war has on the displaced through an intimate, unyielding portrayal of family trauma. Tough-minded, imagistically dramatic, and in profound conversation with literary greats, Hard Damage is an iconic work of poetry that announces Aber as an essential voice.
She and I sat at our computers in our respective apartments early last March and wrote via Google Docs to one another over the course of an evening—an eerie precursor to our current mode of techno-socializing. What I remember most about that evening was my feeling of pure pleasure watching a sharp and agile mind clarify her ideas in real-time—striking out and returning to her words with a precision that yielded revelatory declarations about literary community, the role of the divine in poetry, and the way in which solitude shapes an artist’s life.
Aria Aber is the real deal. Her work is a gift to those of us looking for gracious minds who will lead us in the discussion on what it means to be an accountable, global citizen in the twenty-first century.
The Rumpus: You said in a previous interview that the first book is designed to demonstrate who you are and what your concerns and obsessions are—that you build a door to walk through with for your future books. I’m curious how you developed this concept?
Aria Aber: In one of my first classes during my MFA at NYU many people in my cohort were actively thinking about their first books. We were told that the first book serves as an “introduction” to your voice, a debutante ball in the literary world. But the idea that it is a door through which we walk is an image I came upon while talking to my dear friend, and incredible writer, Fatima Farheen Mirza, who published her debut A Place for Us in 2018. She assisted me during the emotional turmoil of first-book publication, even though she was, in many ways, still going through the process herself.
Rumpus: I was especially taken with your capacity to speak about God in a way that I see few of your contemporaries do. What drew you to this topic?
Aber: It’s not always sexy to talk about God and faith in poetry, but it seems absurd not to do so. I wasn’t raised with strict religion in the house, even though my paternal grandmother is an old-school Muslim and taught me how to pray when I was very young. My maternal side is atheist, and mocks religiosity.
Personally, I’ve always believed in God, or a spiritual nature: it’s my innate belief that there is more to the world than we can see, that there is a benevolent force connecting us to all living beings, and that we have responsibility to each other. My speakers grapple with faith because the world seems like a horrible place, and that responsibility toward one another is, most of the time, not respected.
Rumpus: I watched a documentary last November where a psychologist who helped war veterans overcome their trauma said that PTSD is a “spiritual or moral injury.” And that the injury consists of an impression that either the self is wrong or the order of the world is broken. Do you see yourself working with trauma and the spirit in Hard Damage?
Aber: It seems revolutionary to think of PTSD as an injury to the spirit, and of its consequence as a mistrust in the self or the order of the world. I see this tension in my book without having been able to articulate it until now. The self in Hard Damage is so mistrustful of her own capabilities and beliefs. I also see that concept in a lot of my friends who suffer from PTSD, or went through psychotic episodes, as well as people in my family—there is an eternal struggle between the self and order of the world.
Rumpus: In “Ode to My Hair,” the lines “In plastic bags, you were shipped / next to different names, the past / stored in your filaments like fetuses / in formaldehyde, fragrances distending / as if skin of people huddled / into the eyeless belly of a boat at night” are ones I read and then reread out loud, because I felt that’s how they were intended to be received. I loved the beauty of the music in juxtaposition to the horrific content of the images. With regard to syntax and musicality—could you talk about your process in incorporating these sonic qualities into your work?
Aber: Most of the music in my poems comes to me intuitively; I just follow the sound where it takes me. But during revision, I try to make sure to include a balance of consonance and assonance when there’s excessive imagery present, for example. For softer, more tender lines I would include fewer consonants and more vowels. Vowels, to me, melt the line, elasticize it, and stretch it as far as possible. The consonant accelerates it.
I think that most of the content in the book is horrific, because it stems from a source of trauma and examining war, displacement, and exile. The choice to include beauty—both in imagery and sound—felt like a bold decision to make. Ultimately, I decided that I could not sacrifice beauty: atrocity and beauty always work in tandem, creating an almost unbearable equilibrium.
Rumpus: I recently reread Louise Glück’s Wild Iris and when I came to the poem “Witchgrass” I was blown away by her ability to say two things, so clearly, at once: it is a deeply felt political poem—one of identity and an indictment of bigotry—but also a successful straight read of a plant speaking from the garden. It reminded me of your ability to say so many things simultaneously in Hard Damage. I know you’re a fan of Glück’s—how has she influenced your work?
Aber: I think she has influenced me inevitably in the way I approach syntax and myth. She’s also impacted what I leave unsaid on the page. There’s a lot of elemental pain in her work, a devotion to “universal” themes, like the tortured mind inside the tortured body. Although Glück is not a religious poet—I don’t think many critics would label her as a mystic—there’s something I would call a “spiritual curiosity” in her work––a searching for the interconnectedness of all that exists on our earth.
But her poems are also mirror houses—the flower is always both itself and a vessel, and her images and conceits unfold in a way that feels incredibly rich and magical. Her syntax, too, is calculated and exact in the way it reveals information. “At the end of my suffering there was a door” is maybe one of the greatest sentences ever written, syntactically speaking.
Syntax is, I believe, how language thinks. It’s the mind of words. There’s an opulent intelligence to using infinite hypotactic lines to tease and play with the reader’s expectations—something I could talk about for hours. But Glück is subtle. I admire her elegant restraint. When I approach a sentence in my work, I often think of Louise Glück’s sentences and her grammar.
Rumpus: Circling back to the notion of examining the self and the spirit, I’m reminded of a moment in your conversation with American Microreviews & Interviews when you said that therapy, medication, and psychedelic drugs helped you with shame and a reconciliation between your heritage and God. I was curious how psychedelics influenced your writing process?
Aber: In my teens and early twenties, I went through a very hedonistic and self-destructive phase. I grappled with being Afghan, with being from a different culture than most of my friends at the time. I didn’t see myself reflected in pop culture or in the literature I was obsessively reading. All of this happened in a small Catholic town in Germany and people weren’t very politically correct or sensitive at that time.
Most of my life I was faced with subtle and overt racism; I didn’t have the language to define it then. In retrospect, it was traumatizing. Maybe there was an injury of spirit that needed to be healed. Reconciliation with spirituality and God, and my heritage, happened when I went to see a shaman who held an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru. It sounds like a cliched image of a wannabe hippie, but it was one of the most transformative experiences in my life because it reaffirmed my belief in a divine power, and in the intricate connection we have to each other. It was healing. That encounter with the divine provided me with clarity and strength to actually write my book.
Rumpus: Did that experience have anything to do with the moment you recounted in this five-minute interview where you referenced hiking in Peru, saying, “my cynical self suddenly felt a kinship with the ancient idea of pasture?”
Aber: No, those two experiences weren’t necessarily connected. When I went on that particular hike—it was one and a half days long, the hike of a lifetime—I passed a lot of cattle and many shepherds. The idea of bucolic farmland living is, of course, a concept that’s omnipresent in nature poetry but something that never saturated my consciousness because I grew up in urban areas.
When I say I come from a “small town,” I don’t mean a rural place; I mean an urbanized neighborhood. The imagination of my childhood consists of high-rises, buses, dirty elevators, and grey streets. Pasture, a place where humans and animals coexist and take care of each other, and the grass serving as the fertile ground for this coexistence, is, to me, a romantic and simultaneously depressing concept. I think I felt cynical towards nature poetry because I never had a connection to it, but I am learning that part of this disconnection can be the source of inspiration.
Rumpus: I’ve read that when you visited Afghanistan for the first time you didn’t know how that was going to shape your work. How did the expectation of the experience compare to your lived one?
Aber: To be honest, I don’t even remember my expectations at this point, because they seem frail and irrelevant in relation to the stark and absurd experience of being there. Of course, I wanted to feel at home; that didn’t occur at first.
Once I started exploring the city, I repeatedly reminded myself that this would’ve been my hometown if Afghanistan hadn’t been struck by war. It’s a bustling, urban place and it smells like a million things. I felt estranged and fascinated. There’s no feeling comparable to being in a place where everyone speaks your most intimate language. Thinking of it now actually moves me to tears because I didn’t realize what luxury that is; that language is truly what constitutes the concept of “home.”
Unfortunately, I couldn’t explore more than Kabul—I know that Afghanistan is more than its capital, but for now, the skyline consisting of mountains rather than skyscrapers, the dust and dirt and jumble of new high-rises and taxis, the random rose bushes and jasmine trees are what will define the Afghan landscape to me. I spoke to so many people who never had the chance to leave, or who made the conscious decision to return to, Kabul.
In many ways, I wish I had seen the country before I finished Hard Damage, but it would’ve been a different book. Quieter, less angry, much more restrained. Even my anger, I realized, is a privilege. I fell in love with the country in a way that I didn’t think was possible. Reading about the new peace deal between the US and the Taliban devastated me, because it doesn’t, I think, translate to peace for Afghans. It will be peace for the US.
Rumpus: Considering what makes home, “home,” is such a cornerstone project for poets. And the language of home is integral to that investigation. Sharon Choi, who interpreted for director Bong Joon Ho during his award season run for Parasite, wrote an essay for Variety about what it was like to become famous for interpretation. She writes:
A psychologist specializing in bilingual children once told me that most people have a similar brain capacity — if a monolingual knows ten thousand words, a bilingual would only know five thousand in each language. All my life I’ve been frustrated by having to choose one of the two [languages]. The psychologist also added that switching languages involves not the language part of the brain, but the part that controls flexibility in thought.
I’m curious how being trilingual has impacted your ability to create image, or rhetorical arguments, in your poetry?
Aber: I think that the concept of language being the house of being, where humans dwell, as postulated by Heidegger, rings true for many poets, because language is our medium and we need to dissect and interpret it. But if you grew up in exile, and your family spoke a different language to the default language of the country, it adds another dimension to the concept. So it’s quite the visceral experience, hearing the language of your parents spoken by everyone in a country. It felt like an act of unveiling, it seemed almost obscene to me, for a moment. I felt so seen.
The quote by Sharon Choi is fascinating. Oddly enough, I wanted to become a filmmaker for a long time. Even now I want to explore film. I find the visual expression of thought and emotion to be superior to language, even if that’s hard to admit as a poet. Switching languages is incredibly hard, which is why it takes me ages to do translation work. I don’t think I could ever translate my own poems—it’s something I get asked a lot, but I believe that I would never finish.
Rumpus: Does your multilingual experience also influence your capacity for flexibility of thought?
Aber: The knowledge that translation/switching between languages involves the part of the brain responsible for flexibility of thought seems groundbreaking. It makes so much sense! Translation is not “speaking,” it’s more like carrying a thought/an object/an entity from one room into another room.
I believe that every language has its own ghosts and spirits which remain untranslatable. In German, there’s the term “Sprachgeist,” which translates to “Language-ghost” and defines these very particular characteristics of a language and the culture in which it is spoken. Sprachgeist includes proverbs and sayings, but it also includes the “soul of the language,” the soul being colored by linguistic history and etymology.
Having access to three different Sprachgeister, then, provides me with many more images, symbols, sayings, melodies, peculiarities. At the same time, it feels limiting. I will always be a stranger to English. But maybe it is my superpower to examine/experience/explore English as a stranger because it will always remain strange and fascinating to me.
I think that being multilingual, or bilingual even, is an immense privilege for anyone, but especially for poets writing in the English language. Perhaps every writer should learn to speak a second language. Speaking a different language will break down the walls of closed-mindedness and the illusion of America as the center of the world.
Rumpus: You’ve written about your complicated relationship to English, referencing Adrienne Rich, how you know that English is a colonizer’s language, but that it has simultaneously broken down barriers for you. How have you reconciled that?
Aber: I always speak about my fraught relationship with English because many of my American and English contemporaries do not understand my choice to write poetry in English. I love the language as much as I hate it. As a canvas for poetry the possibilities in English feel refreshing and invigorating. Of course, English as a lingua franca is a violent language. It is an oppressor and colonizer and has wiped out many indigenous languages. Hence, every tool we use from the anglophone poetic tradition is inherently violent.
I often think of the ironic yet poignant lines in Solmaz Sharif’s poem “Force Visibility”: “What is fascism? / A student asked me // and can you believe / I couldn’t remember / the definition? // The sonnet, / I said. / I could’ve said this: // our sanctioned twoness.” The sonnet as a restrictive room of tradition and rules, an artifact of colonial European tradition, a marker of high art—it’s a smart and hilarious answer to the question of what exactly constitutes fascism and oppression.
The middle section of my book, “Rilke and I,” examines my own relationship with the violent, exclusive history of a white canon that defines what a poem can do and cannot do. Even if I reject it, I have learned immensely from the canon. I look to many of the canonical poets to learn technique while I wrestle with the complex personalities of some of these poets, for instance Walt Whitman. I still teach these poets, but I make sure to include contemporary writers who challenge their ideas since I want my students to know that they can, and should, write against the canon if they feel compelled to do so.
Rumpus: “Reading Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin” is also an engagement with loneliness and reminded me of the lush, gorgeous way in which Mitski addresses loneliness in her album Be the Cowboy. How has loneliness impacted your poetry?
Aber: I feel flattered to have reminded you of Mitski, whose music I absolutely adore. Loneliness is at the center of everything I do, in my life, but also in my work. I’ve chosen a life of loneliness, it seems. Sometimes it feels like an active choice, sometimes like an arbitrary consequence of the choices I’ve made for other things—I’ve moved around so much since I’ve been nineteen, and I go where my poems take me. Pragmatically, there are more periods of loneliness in my life than periods where I feel connected to a larger community.
Loneliness is perhaps not the same as solitude, because solitude seems like a choice, a spiritual and intellectual choice to take out time to center the self and the mind, whereas loneliness may imply the lack of other people, a wanting condition, one wherein we yearn. Ocean Vuong writes, “Loneliness is still time spent with the world.”
And writing is an inherently lonely activity. It requires you to be still and present and porous to whatever it is you want to say. I don’t think I can write with anyone else present in the room. I am too vulnerable to other people’s energies, their needs. “For loneliness, I keep a stone to kiss,” I write in “Reading Rilke at Lake Mendota, Wisconsin,” and I mean a lot of things: the lapis stone I wear around my neck; the turbah tile, the Shia prayer stone made of clay which represents the soil of the earth; or just a random piece of rock, which has survived centuries and could be coming from a mountain, deep in the earth, or outer space. A stone can seem so uninteresting and banal, but often, these little mineral formations are carved with history, and have survived so much more than we can ever imagine. Maybe we are never truly alone, even in loneliness.
Photograph of Aria Aber by Nadine Aber.