“If you have not mastered empathy, you are no literary master” – An Interview With Doyali Islam

When I first encountered heft, I was instantaneously drawn to myriad juxtapositions in the book. When I wrote to Doyali Islam in the summer, she responded with characteristic warmth. We spoke about musicality in poetry, form, being immigrants in Canada, changes required in the fields of medicine and alternative healing therapy, and more.

 

SNEHA SUBRAMANIAN KANTA

Congratulations on this exciting year, on producing the magnificent heft and for being a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist, Pat Lowther Memorial Award finalist, and Trillium Book Award for Poetry finalist, Doyali. heft is a book of tangible poems in the sense of its materiality, innate lyrical quality, and invention of form. The reader is allowed to stay, listen, and view the aspects. I’m aware that it took you eight and a half years to write, which is evident through the intense paradigm transposes in the book. What was the process of putting together this book?

DOYALI ISLAM

Thank you so much, Sneha! When writing heft, I was aiming for literary integrity – technique grounded in things like tension and restraint but also imaginative integrity, empathetic integrity.

I have ten handwritten journals of my thoughts while creating heft. The journal entries begin in 2010 and end in 2019 when the book was published. A November 4th 2013 entry reveals that I was thinking about poetry-making as “an exocrinic task” because language is secreted onto “something epithelial, tissue thin” – but today I would say the opposite: poetry is endocrinic – its music and silence entering the bloodstream directly. An insight I had on August 18th 2014 startles me with its lucidity: “Compassion is a poetic act” because it “require[s] imagination, an extension of oneself.” And more clarity on July 31st 2017: “The most disarming thing is tenderness.”

 

SNEHA

The privilege of thinking through ancestral history arrives with reengagements. It is often also an embodiment of resilience from our families in interacting with the world— in pushing forth, forward. This is evident in the lines: “their birds/alive amid debris … a small-throated/mercy.” In what ways does the natural world correspond to this idea of resistance to you?

DOYALI

In the summer, my partner Daniel, who is a huge Katherine Applegate fan (understatement: he can still quote diction from Animorphs), started reading me Wishtree, and it’s absolutely masterful. I think Wishtree’s poetics – not just what the book says, but how it speaks – fits perfectly with your question about the natural world and resistance. Can’t wait to find out how the book unfolds. (Currently at Chapter 23. Daniel and I have a habit of abandoning lots of things halfway: a live performance of Phantom of the Opera. The Golem and the Jinni. Captain Underpants.)

As for poetry, nature and language can cross over to produce meaning – like in my pairing, in “water for canaries”, of the words ‘birds’ and ‘debris’. All of the letters in ‘birds’ are found in ‘debris’. Birds seem fragile but so much of them is muscle. And their hollow bones – their ability to be empty – contributes to their strength.

 

SNEHA

I’m particularly drawn towards the first-generation immigrant experience. I was fascinated to learn about your partner using a code to find out the most repeated word in your book, and that it was “hand” or “hands”. The idea of your mother constantly “using her hands” to engage in labor is of keen interest. As an immigrant, I instantaneously connected to the arrivals and departures, like entering and going out of rooms, inhabiting this slim white column of space as to navigate the world in a poem.

This idea is also central to my immigrant experience: a constant shift, using hands to move luggage, using hands to knead flour, rinse rice, cut vegetables, prepare meals, and so forth. It is like an inheritance, a tradition passed over— unsung labor of everyday. Would you speak about how the experience of being an immigrant bears a correlation to your writing?

DOYALI

When working on the poems that became heft, I was indeed thinking about ordinary hands and what they do: what they share and what they pass down, and the political resistance and spiritual celebration in that. heft is spiritual, but it’s the spirit of the everyday combined with the spirit of witness.

I was also writing the poems in heft with the understanding that the despair that would come over me when I rode the subway in Toronto was because we live in a world in which, at any given time, some beings are suffering – so how can anyone be fully happy? Human hands have the potential for both tenderness and terror, and literature that is working ignores neither. Literature captures the whole spectrum of what we’re capable of, what we do.

Just today I came across a 2018 CBC Arts’ panel in which Salman Rushdie said, “I don’t have a theory of [truth]; I just have an instinct. It seems to me if a human being comes alive on the page, then the reader experiences that person as true. You think, ‘Yes, people are like this.’ And I think that’s what you want from a book as a reader. You want to think, ‘Yeah, this is how we are. This is what we do to each other. And this is what the world is like.’ I think that is one of the pleasures of reading. And so you try to offer that.”

 

SNEHA

In your poem “anise tea”, the lines: “a collision of geographies – three / exiles in one cup”, and “if tea spills, it spills. small catastrophe. / it can be absorbed. he can remake it.” point toward a painful reconciliation with the small tragedies of life, in comparison to the bigger ones. Your poems offer an alternate history, looking at things in a different way, in the way they occupy space on the page, and spill over the column. Could you talk about the invention of this form, the split sonnet – and your disposition when you first began writing it?

DOYALI

I realize now that to speak the word ‘heft’ requires an exhale. Try it. heft. heft. It’s an expulsion of air, a complete emptying out.

I’ve spoken about how I invented my parallel poems, split sonnets, and double sonnets in other places, so I’ll just say here that the split takes on various shades of meaning depending on the poem and depending on who is reading it. In that poem, “anise tea”, I was thinking about Palestinian experiences of nakba – which translates out of the Arabic as something akin to catastrophe.

 

SNEHA

Your ‘astro-poems’ in heft are perhaps one of the most innovate ways of reconciling familial trauma and estrangement. Your poems mix mythology to trace a resolution that transcends all familiar methods. I’m referring to the “aries” here, symbolic of a father figure, ending with virgo, rushing across the night sky to help him. When medical systems fail to deliver a non-linear form of healing, one seeks an internal harmony to address what is going on in the body. Would you speak about the experience of writing of an autoimmune disease, and what systemic changes you would like to see in the world of medical and alternative healing therapy?

DOYALI

In ancient China, doctors were paid when they kept their patients well, and not paid when they were sick.

 

SNEHA

I often return to reengage with “poem for your pocket”. The echo of “love gave his damp / last pages back to sunlight’s keep. Oh yes / yes, it was love announcing in him, i / will find my way to you, i will come back.” There is a conscious engagement with continuum, a quality of being immortal in the sense of love. Would you speak of these small universes we carry in our love, and what tenderness means to you?

DOYALI

I placed “poem for your pocket” first in the book because it captured the essence of my poetics and emitted a certain quality of longing that I hoped would set the tone for the book. People think of longing as sadness or grief, but the very act of longing contains inherent hope – faith, even – otherwise, the longing would cease. It’s why Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks) says in the poem “Love Dogs”, “That whining is the connection”.

I found out after the book was published that the word ‘heft’ actually means ‘notebook’ in German – so the opening poem in the book, “poem for your pocket”, feels fitting now for this additional reason! The poems in heft often use a place or a date for their subtitle, which gives the poems an intimate, diary-like feel. Often, it’s a moment of intimacy that I spy in documentaries, the news, or in my daily life – like a secret I’ve been lucky enough to be made privy to – that I mean by ‘tenderness’. Pre-COVID-19, I would sometimes come across tenderness amid the grating pace of Toronto: a mother braiding her young daughter’s hair on the subway, or two seniors holding hands as they cross the street.

Speaking of hair, there’s a passage early on in Sue Monk Kidd’s superb novel The Secret Life of Bees in which the protagonist reveals: “That night I lay in bed and thought about dying and going to be with my mother in paradise. I would meet her saying, “Mother, forgive. Please forgive,” and she would kiss my skin till it grew chapped and tell me I was not to blame. She would tell me this for the first ten thousand years. The next ten thousand years she would fix my hair.” When I came across that passage in The Secret Life of Bees, I felt so jealous – in the best possible way! I’m laughing now, because I remember saying in my head, “Damn you, Sue Monk Kidd! You nailed it! How can I write something fresh that’s as good as that?!” But that is one way I push myself as a writer.

 

SNEHA

What advice would you give to aspiring poets across the world? I notice you say in a CBC books feature that it is important to read across geographical locales— I thank you for this as someone that has lived, studied, and worked in three different continents, without a singular rootedness to a particular place. I’m especially speaking here in correlation to writers who do not have a mentor, or access to MFA programs, and are without institutional support.

DOYALI

Carry with you one poem you love, and ask yourself why – how – its language works on you the way it does. Early on, I intuitively knew to create my own shorthand. This shorthand served me well when I would scan poems I loved for rhythm, rhyme, lineation, et cetera. I’d use my own shorthand to make margin notes and mark up the page. So, find your own way – the way that feels right for you – to direct your own learning. And when you write, aim to be a master of your craft. Master your craft through technical rigour and empathy. Empathy is part of technique – it cannot be separated from it. If you have not mastered empathy, you are no literary master.

 

SNEHA

My gratitude to you for agreeing to participate in this interview, dear Doyali. We look forward to reading more from you, and cheer you on for your future projects.

DOYALI

Thank you so much, Sneha, for your thoughtfulness here! Endless thanks! And I hope you and your loved ones and readers of this conversation are safe and well.

Doyali Islam 2

Doyali Islam is a 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize finalist, 2020 Trillium Book Award for Poetry finalist, and 2020 Pat Lowther Memorial Award finalist for her poetry book heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Doyali has participated in CBC Books’ Why I Write video-interview series. She has discussed the value of silence on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition; language, form, beauty, and empathy with Anne Michaels in CV2; and the relationship between poetry and the body on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. More recently, she dove deeply into heft through Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre Podcast (Episode 14). Doyali spent a few years in North Bay, Ontario, and is a former Poetry Editor of Ottawa’s Arc Poetry Magazine. Of Bangladeshi and Arab ancestry, she lives in Canada. She is currently in the running for the Partner of All Partners Award. www.doyali-islam.com.

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