Before the First Book: A Roundtable Discussion

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Sarah Ghazal Ali, Erin L. McCoy, and Tawanda Mulalu are three writers who share a rigorous interrogation and love of sound, history, and lyric. I admire the music and depth in each of their work, the ambition of their projects, and their self-awareness.

Below, I talk with these brilliant poets about their distinct writing rituals, creative dreams, fears, as well as their respective first book projects. In a rare pre-first-book glimpse, Sarah, Erin, and Tawanda share their thinking and creative processes.

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Do you have any writing rituals? What helps you sustain/nourish your writing?

Sarah Ghazal Ali: I have an accumulative, repetitive process; I can’t write without reading first. I need to cart the same five to ten books from room to room and rifle through them constantly, sometimes for weeks or months, before I feel the itch to write. I need to jot down the same quote over and over, pull up a dozen JSTOR articles, and rewrite phrases or entire poems I love by hand. I need some kind of conversation, text, or image to stir my mind. I believe all writing is response of some kind or another, so I find it essential to build and carry familiar little book communities with me to the park, the cafe, the kitchen, even if just to be able to study the covers or feel the pages. You know how children have that obsessive quality where they want to play the same game over and over? I never quite grew out of that, and need to reread, rewatch, and rewrite the same things until the image or text becomes so familiar that something surprising and new unlocks in my brain and prompts me to write.

Erin L. McCoy: I write in the morning, and I start early, usually around 5:30 or 6 a.m., so I can fit it in before work. It’s a way for me to make sure that I won’t be interrupted by the world or by language other than my own and what I bring with me from dreams. It’s really important that I don’t check the news, read emails, or let any of the other distractions of a typical day enter before I start writing, because once they do, the rest of my day will be consumed by them.

For the same reason, I can’t write poetry while listening to music. It’s like trying to sing one song while listening to another. Writing poetry, for me, is always an act of transcribing the music that I’m hearing.

I’m a little less particular when writing fiction. I can work in a coffee shop, and I can work in the afternoon. I try to change the setting for different types of writing. I’m always at my desk for poetry, but for fiction I’ll sit outside or cozy up in this big, furry bean bag chair in my living room. I think it’s just a way of signaling to myself that I’m entering a different kind of mental space.

Tawanda Mulalu: I don’t have any real rituals. Before taking poetry workshops in college, I used to write lots of poems called “Poem” as language experiments. I’d let my mind wander and rhyme random words for me and build associations between different phrases and lines while also trying to not worry or care if they eventually led somewhere meaningful or coherent. I do tend to reach for certain poets, poems when I’m distressed, if that can be said to be a ritual. Once I started taking the college workshops, I began to be really curious about how intentional a lot of my classmates were about their poetry. Before that, I was only able to be intentional about my prose—which failed, rather badly—so tried to transfer that energy into writing poetry. I began attempting to build (haphazard) structures and forms, also rather badly. I also began trying (haphazardly) to not just let my poetry be a reflection of my fizzing brain, but actually be about something real, anything real (principally about me trying to stay alive in a world that isn’t intent on making me—and people who like me—happy; or at the very least, trying not to be not morbidly depressed). None of my attempts to become intentional in my poetry really went anywhere. I did not write a sonnet everyday like I said I would, I couldn’t bring myself to try freestyle-rapping everyday like I said I would, etc. But I always need help to try to be happy in this world. Poetry helps me with this. So, I keep trying to help myself, even if that doesn’t look particularly ritualized.

Tawanda Mulalu 

 

Tell me more about your current project. How/when did this project begin?

McCoy: I’m finishing up two books right now. The first, Termination Shock, explores the dynamics of place and inheritance, asking how notions and fictions of home are constructed and how these situate the speaker within corrosive systems. It explores themes of self-destruction, illness, religious persecution, and escape. It is structured around the orbit of a comet fleeing the sun—a home to which it must eventually return.

Part of me feels like I’ve been working on this book since I was seven years old. I finally compiled my poems into some semblance of this manuscript a few years ago, but many of those pieces have been replaced with new ones. It’s not even the same book. Many of the comet-related poems were written with this manuscript in mind. That’s one thing I feel confident in: giving myself a prompt and then delivering the poem I need to fill out a compilation.

Many of the poems I’ve written for my second manuscript, Wrecks, were composed in this way: very intentionally, toward this particular book. Wrecks was inspired by the great auk, a flightless seabird driven to extinction in the mid-1800s. It investigates how the human/nonhuman binary and the dehumanization it enables makes space for violence—against animals and, in contexts of perceived race and gender, against other humans. The auk was often compared to “a man” before being killed; this book explores the ways in which the auk was forced back into the category of the “nonhuman” by her aggressors, and ended up in that uncomfortable in-between called the “uncanny valley.” At the same time, the book seeks to lay bare my own positionality and complicity in systems of dehumanization.

Mulalu: My book is provisionally titled, Please make me pretty, I don’t want to die. The poems within it seem (to me) to be about the failure of intimacy and frequently ask what it means to be (or not be) seen by others and by oneself. They are written from, for, and against: America, Blackness, Sylvia Plath, prettiness, song, poetry, and mind.

I genuinely have a lot of difficulty describing what this book is “about.” I’m personally ambivalent about whether or not poetry collections need to be “about” anything. Having some kind of unifying theme or narrative framework in a collection appears to be a fairly recent invention/expectation in poetry publishing.

I can tell you, however, what I want my book to “do.” I want it to be the sort of book that makes someone want to keep being in the world. During my freshman and sophomore years of college, that book for me was There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker. In my junior and senior years, that book was The Carrying by Ada Limón. Soon after my (virtual, ha) graduation, I was nursing the audio books of Build Yourself a Boat by Camonghne Felix and Runaway by Jorie Graham. Starting my manuscript followed the usual story for someone like me: American anti-Black racism was getting me down (I don’t want to die), diasporic despair was getting me down (I was born in Botswana), an entirely predictable heartbreak was getting me down (I’m twenty-four and I still like people too much), etc.

Of course the book has become something else. It refuses to do what I wanted it to do. That’s fine, I guess. The syntax of the poems is stranger than I originally intended. And there’s so much (too much) in there surrounding the politics of whiteness in “canonical” literature. I also imagine some of the conceptual leaps I make in the poems are a little alienating to someone who takes comfort in poems that have a clearly defined narrative trajectory (I wish I could make myself more readable, but my brain won’t let me). Hopefully, I’m still new enough to this that I can allow myself to be gentle to myself and my voice: whatever strangeness exists in the poems need not be an aesthetic failure, but instead a more true-to-the-feeling expression of what it’s like to be here for me. Anyway, I intend for the next project to make sense.

Ghazal Ali: The philosopher Simone Weil said, “We own nothing in the world… except the power to say ‘I.’” My manuscript in progress, Theophanies, is preoccupied with this notion, and investigates faith, femininity, and belonging by destabilizing and toying with the lyric “I.” It’s a project deeply interested in persona, which I think is a result of my desire to subvert expectations of a single, autobiographical voice. The first poem was written in a workshop in college, when my professor, poet Ronaldo V. Wilson, prompted us to write a poem about the origins of our given names. I wrote a poem investigating for the first time the Abrahamic matriarch, Sarah. I always had a rich relationship to my middle name, Ghazal, but had never considered the origins of my first name. This one prompt catalyzed an obsessive and incessant need to speak to and question the matriarchs of the larger Abrahamic faiths, to the mothers at the heart of sacred history. As a Muslim, my own faith claims origin from Hagar and her sent-away son, so many poems oscillate between Sarah and Hagar.

I’m troubled by the frequent omission of women in Pakistani family trees. When I was first shown my own, I could trace a clean line through every nth grandfather, but grandmothers, aunts, and adjacents were lost to me. There’s no evidence of even my mother, and both my grandmothers passed before I could get to know them. Without a place in history, my manuscript is trying to parable one into being. In the absence of matrilineal elders, the poems are attempting to speak back against time to women I can know—Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Mary, and Magdalene—and peer into inherited holes. I’m trying in this first manuscript to understand my own bewildering “I,” to use it with reverence, and mythologize myself and all my mothers to ensure our survival in a male-dominated world hard at work erasing us, erasing me.

Sarah Ghazal Ali

 

What books/records/film/visual art is this project in conversation with? 

Ghazal Ali: Theophanies is mostly in conversation with religious texts, primarily the Qur’an and the Bible. In both, there’s this extraordinary moment where Sarah laughs in disbelief upon learning that she’ll bear a child in her old age. I find that so fascinating—to hear your fate directly from God’s mouth and still be bewildered about it, to question and doubt it. There are a number of poems preoccupied with the audacity of Sarah’s laughter. There are also some ekphrastic poems in conversation with the artists René Magritte and Georges de La Tour. I’m also deeply inspired by Islamic art and architecture. Islam is an aniconic faith, meaning that it rejects the use of icons or visual depictions of figures (statues, paintings of religious figures, etc.). Instead, Islamic art relies on geometric shapes and plant motifs. I’m interested in the politics of representation, and what it means for my work to orbit these sacred, matrilineal elders without attempting to describe or depict them in an embodied way.

McCoy: I’ve learned so much from Aracelis Girmay’s Kingdom Animalia, and from both of Natalie Diaz’s stunning books. Their writing—as well as poems such as Ross Gay’s “The Opening”—does important work when it comes to being thoughtful about the portrayal of animals in poems and not obscuring their complexities for the sake of self-reflexive metaphor. For language and luminous image, I return again and again to Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette, and to Anne Carson’s work, especially Autobiography of Red and “The Glass Essay.”

Many of the poems in Wrecks are in conversation with the drawings of Shanawdithit, the last known member of the Beothuk people, who lived in what is now called Newfoundland. The Beothuk relied on the great auk for food, and seabirds were likely an important part of their cosmology. The genocide of the Beothuk coincides with the eradication of the auk in that region. Shanawdithit’s drawings document the Beothuk way of life and recall some of her most traumatic experiences at the hands of colonists. They’re incredibly powerful works of art.

The bibliography for Wrecks is about eight pages long, but some of the texts I look to the most for inspiration and guidance are Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive and Undrowned, Aph Ko’s Racism as Zoological Witchcraft, and the research of Ingeborg Marshall and Errol Fuller.

Mulalu: Ariel by Sylvia Plath. Especially its title poem, with those terrible lines about my skin: “Nigger-eye / Berries cast dark / Hooks— // Black sweet blood mouthfuls…” It’s my favorite poem. Obviously, this is unfortunate for me and my sense of self as a Black poet. Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B minor. Not because it really has anything to do with my book, but it helped me during a difficult period. The mood of that music took me where I couldn’t help but write about the bitterness I was feeling about America. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata. Again, not because it has anything to do with the book, but there’s something light and painful about that film I’ve wanted to capture in my own work for a long time. Alamo Theory by Josh Bell. He moves through myth and modernity in impossible ways. Runaway by Jorie Graham (again). Because of that long poem “I Won’t Live Long.” Her reading it out loud in a grave whisper. More audio: Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro and Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hearing them at night in my bedroom and staring at the black of my ceiling. How both Parker and Hayes navigate history and prosody in complex, disturbing ways. Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. Because it taught me how to think about home, about leaving home. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets.” Because Jesus can be sexy (though I otherwise dislike church). Every poem Emma de Lisle has written. Her prose poems gleam with an unreal light. Every poem that Edith Enright has written. The formal ambition with which she expresses interiority. Haolun Xu calling me up to talk about another buzzing draft of his. Darius Atefat-Peckham starting an email chain with me called the “Bromance Elegies.” Isabel Duarte-Gray texting me with some theory about how poems work, but mostly her somehow taking me seriously despite myself. Me trying to sing in the shower, or on a walk, but not being able to get the notes right. Songs by Adrianne Lenker because she gets the notes right. Lulwama Mulalu, my sister, for being alive. And so many other things I’m forgetting now. I’m sure I could tell you them if you asked again another day.

 

What is a creative dream that scares you?

Ghazal Ali: I’m a fluent Urdu speaker, but poetic Urdu intimidates me. It’s a language all its own. I want to be able to write poetry entirely in Urdu.

Mulalu: That my poems won’t help me feel better. Stupidly, this strikes me as worse than them not eventually lasting in the “canon.” (And yes, I know that the “canon” is fake and racist. But I’d still like to be read after I die. I want this only a little less than having my poems as prayers that can convince my mind to stay alive).

McCoy: I’ve just started writing my first novel, which is exciting and scary. Having any kind of finished product in hand feels so far away right now. I’m doing my best to stop even imagining it, and just enjoy the journey.

Erin L. McCoy

 

Is there an idea about being a writer/artist that you’ve let go of that you used to believe? Or, is there an idea about being a writer/artist you’ve come to believe more strongly?

Ghazal Ali: I’ve only recently come to terms with the reality that I can’t—and don’t need to—write every day. I can’t push myself through a prompt, force myself to sit at my desk, or expect language to pour out of me on command. I need rest, and lots of it. I need to trust my instincts, trust where my mind wanders, trust what catches my eye when I’m on a walk. Something I’m really beginning to believe more strongly is that I’m a writer even when I’m not writing. Time spent away from poetry or outside of it still feeds the work, enriches it in important ways.

McCoy: I think I used to believe that there was such a thing as “the perfect book,” and that I needed to write it. But I’ve seen how many different books feed me and guide me, each in their own way. No single book can accomplish everything, can be meaningful for everyone. Now I’m just trying to figure out the singular thing that each of my books wants to be, and then hold it to its own standards.

Mulalu: I haven’t really let go of anything. I’m still ashamed of all the things I haven’t read, the voices I haven’t heard. Worse still: so many opportunities exist to be honest in my poetry and I repeatedly fail them. Though I hear it’s mostly like this for everyone… But I should read more. And listen to people more deeply when they speak. One last thing: I worked for a while as a teacher assistant at an elementary school with third-graders. Whatever it is that was going on in my kids’ heads when they were dreaming, and writing about their dreams—that’s what I’d like to get back to in my poetry. Insipidly Wordsworthian, I know… But my kids taught me to love myself. They laughed with me when I was ridiculous and substitute-teaching fractions. They wanted to give me hugs even though I scolded them about social distancing. Seeing myself in their eyes made me want to be a better writer. I want to honor this love that they gave me. I think working with kids reveals the horrifyingly simple truth that living matters. So, Black life matters. My life matters. You have to keep going when the people around you believe that life is possible. Often, it is.

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Photograph of Sarah Ghazal Ali by Tariq Anees. Photograph of Erin L. McCoy by Brooke Herbert. Photograph of Tawanda Mulalu by Che R. Applewhaite.

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Sarah Ghazal Ali is a poet and editor based in the Bay Area, California. She obtained her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her poems appear in or are forthcoming from Pleiades, Narrative, Waxwing, Tinderbox, and others. She currently serves as editor-in-chief of Palette Poetry.

Erin L. McCoy has published poetry and fiction inConjunctions, Pleiades, Narrative, West Branch, and other journals. She holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literature from the University of Washington. Her poem, “Futures,” was selected by Natalie Diaz for Best New Poets. She is from Louisville, Kentucky.

Tawanda Mulalu was born in Gaborone, Botswana. His chapbook Nearness was selected as the winner of The New Delta Review 2020–21 Chapbook Contest, judged by Brandon Shimoda. He has served as a Ledecky Fellow for Harvard Magazine, the first Diversity and Inclusion Chair of The Harvard Advocate and as a poetry editor for Peripheries. His writing has received support from Brooklyn Poets, the Community of Writers, the New York State Summer Writers Institute and Tin House. Tawanda’s poems appear in The Denver Quarterly, Lana Turner, The Massachusetts ReviewSalamander, Salt Hill Journal, and elsewhere.


Patrycja Humienik, daughter of Polish immigrants, is a writer and performer based in Seattle, WA. A recent semi-finalist for the 92Y Discovery Prize, her poems are featured/forthcoming in BOAAT, Southeast Review, Passages North, Palette Poetry, Four Way Review, Sporklet, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She serves as Events Director of The Seventh Wave. Her interviews include recipients of the Gloria Anzaldúa Chapbook prize, and the UW Public Lecture, “An Evening with Joy Harjo.” She is working on her first book, Anchor Baby. More from this author →