The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our Poet of the Month for October – the quietly-heroic, beautifully wise, Doyali Islam.
Doyali Islam is an award-winning Canadian poet, National Magazine Award finalist, and past Chalmers Arts fellow whose poems and poetics can be explored in Kenyon Review Online, The Fiddlehead, The Manifesto Project, and CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition. Doyali serves as the poetry editor of Arc and lives in Toronto. Her first poetry book was Yusuf and the Lotus Flower (BuschekBooks; out of print), and her current full-length manuscript is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). www.doyalifarahislam.com + @doyali_is
Natalya: Tell me about how you started writing poetry. How old were you? What influenced you to this genre of writing?
Doyali: Do you know the podcast On Being? I was just listening to the unedited version of Krista Tippett’s conversation with Mary Oliver, and Tippett says something astute: “What I know when we put a poet on the air: whether people read poetry or think poetry is important or not, […] they respond to it like a hunger has been met” (4:17 - 4:26).
From the age of seven or eight, poetry has been the only way I have known how to meet my own hunger – to embrace this hunger and, just for a moment while composing, revising, or reciting aloud for myself as I walk, to take the edge off. By the age of nine, I was producing short collections – hand-made chapbooks, of sorts, but large-format – with Bristol-board covers, poems, and accompanying illustrations. My grade-four teacher, Mr. Alderson, would spiral-bind each book for me. Deep gratitude for his actions.
Writing poetry has always felt like an intuitive drawing-near to something mysterious – and to myself. An opportunity for play, inquiry, and transcendence. An opportunity for self-transformation through the manipulation of materials – and by ‘materials’ I mean lived experience, emotion, language, time, and space. Poetry offers me my most essential and instinctual survival tool.
Natalya: I love the stories of your father asking you and your sister to “listen to the quiet” and to speak only about sounds you could hear within the silence. How did that influence you as an artist, and how does it remain a part of your poetry today?
Doyali: Poetry-making has more to do with listening than with writing. Not just an oratory-auditory kind of listening – which is essential to my revision process (to ‘revise’ is to ‘re-vision,’ yet I do it by ear!) – but a deep inner listening that is hard to articulate. Hypersensitivity and introspection. Accessing and forging a connection with oneself. And the counterpoint, perhaps: Mary Oliver speaks of poetry as an act of “listening to the world” or “listening convivially.” I want to think more about her notion, because I have the sense that she doesn’t just mean listening to tangible environmental sounds – perhaps something more akin to mindful and nature-based communion, in the Latinate/etymological sense of “fellowship, mutual participation, and sharing.” But to return to my father’s listening game, auditory attention might have acted as a primer for intense inward listening. Moreover, the fact that my father valued listening and quietude enough to play this game with us probably impacted me as much as the actual exercise.
Also on the subject of listening: often, preceding work on a new poem, an initial verse-fragment will come to me – arrive in my mind intimately and as if out of nowhere. These fragments are like doors: if I don’t record them immediately in my journal or on my cell-phone, I will neither find them again nor be able to access or explore the interiors of the houses/spaces to which they lead. Hm… These fragments don’t arrive through head-on acts of forced thinking, but through a receptivity and sense of embodied ease that is essential to my understanding of ‘listening.’
Slightly ironically, I never write or revise poetry with background music playing, but I’m finalizing these interview responses by hand while listening to Brickhouse Trio (Devin Patten: double bass; Paul Llew-Williams: guitar; Greg Allworth: drums) at Orchard Bar in Bloordale Village! Devin and I were conversing two evenings ago at The Rex, before a Coltrane tribute, about his practice of “deep listening” as a bassist, my practice of “deep listening” – to borrow his phrase – as a poet, and the resonances between them.
Natalya: How does your family and your family history, culture, life, etc. weave its way into your creativity?
Doyali: When my sister – who’s several years older than me – was young, one of her teachers told my parents that she had a poor accent when speaking English. In response to this encounter, my parents stopped speaking Bengali in the home – at least to us children. Growing up in Toronto, my parents only spoke English to me. My sister can still understand Bengali, but has long forgotten how to speak it and was never taught to write it. I don’t even understand the language. To this day, when my parents or relatives speak in Bengali, I have no idea what they’re saying.
Imagine growing up with that palpable sense of linguistic loss, displacement, and alienation – the psychic toll it takes on a child. Bengali sounded and still sounds ugly to my ears, as I have internalized an old oppression. I have never desired to read Rabindranath Tagore, even in translation. All this to say that I clung to English like some kind of raft, and – even as a child – was hyperaware of this fact. From the time I began to write poems, I wanted to wield language – my only language, English – with deftness, sensitivity, and power, and to thus take my place in the world.
Finalizing these interview responses is revealing to me how much my deepest wish is to belong somewhere and how much my poetry emerges from not feeling quite ‘at home’. My own diction points to it: “doors,” “houses/spaces,” and the desire to “take my place in the world.” But, to be clear, I don’t consider myself to be in a liminal place, caught between two cultures or poles. To be in a liminal place, one must know exactly what one is between, and one must be between two things only – not more.
Natalya: What brought you to create the ‘split sonnets’ that you often employ, particularly with “cat and door”?
Doyali: The ‘split sonnets’ grew out of a poetic form that I invented and which I termed the ‘parallel poem.’ Structurally and conceptually, my ‘parallel poems’ take geographical latitude lines as their basis (eg. “ – 32nd parallel – ” and “ – 31st parallel – ”). After writing a few ‘parallel poems,’ I began thinking more and more about their visual appearance on the page and began wondering what such a split might mean if applied to the sonnet form. I began innovating formally by making the volta – the shift or turn – come at the halfway point – hence, ‘split sonnets’ of 7/7 lines (eg. “cat and door” and “bhater mondo”) and ‘double sonnets’ of 14/14 lines (eg. “susiya”). A second volta occurs at the beginning of the penultimate or last line. Depending on both the poem’s content and the reader’s/listener’s own experiences, the visual ‘split’ takes on different meanings and enacts the various psychic traumas, tensions, and ambivalences that we, as humans, carry. (Oh, and if you’re interested in an in-depth discussion of my forms, check out my Town Crier conversation with E. Martin Nolan.)
Natalya: Speaking of cats, I felt a particular longing for Poncho when I read “cat and door.” Who was Poncho?
Doyali: The most miraculous being! Poncho was my then-husband’s cat. He was 15-years old when my husband and I separated upon leaving North Bay. I never saw either of them again. I don’t even know if the cat is still alive. A few weeks ago, I dreamt that he had passed away, and that his body had become part of a tree – which is what my ex-husband once said he wanted. But I wrote the poem “cat and door” in 2014, when I was living with the cat. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have pets as a child – except for a hamster, which another poem, “two burials,” alludes to – that my relationship with Poncho felt so precious. I used to watch him sleeping, breathing, eating, and grooming, and found all of these daily behaviours nothing short of wondrous.
Natalya: How did heft and sing come to shape? When can we read more of this collection?
Doyali: Publisher and publication date TBD!
More and more, questions about origins bewilder me. laughs I have been working on heft and sing since 2010. Seven years. Ostensibly, the manuscript began as an investigation of form, with the creation of my own original poetic form – the ‘parallel poem.’ However, its impulses are both psychic and global. The manuscript title, heft and sing, comes from a poem-fragment about my father and an ant.
Natalya: When I read your work, and when we communicate back and forth like this, I think often of light-speed – silent energy – and the fluidity of that light-line that blurs but burns the eye/the mind. This makes me think of how your writing is moving like that speed of light, but how it is so fast it appears motionless. Then I think of the rumour that you practice parkour… How are all of these things connected in you as you work? (Or am I just plum crazy?)
Doyali: I am humbled by your words and am delighted – pun intended – to be connected with light. Fame by association! That being said, I associate my work more closely with shadow than with light itself. Shadows take on the shapes of concrete and tangible things, yet maintain fluidity and mystery. And, ultimately, shadows point back to light.
My exploration of the rudiments of parkour was the basis of my Chalmers Arts Fellowship – funded privately by the Chalmers Family Fund and managed by Ontario Arts Council. It was self-directed investigation, and a chance to reinvigorate and question my artistic practice: if I changed the way I moved through space and related to place, how would my poetics change?
Natalya: So many artists have turbulence/trauma/anxiety in their past/present/future. Often it’s what draws us to painting, sculpture, dance, poetry… We seek some kind of calm within the chaos. Can we, as artists, ever be at peace – be still – even as we are so often craving movement and expression?
Doyali: As sentient and interconnected beings, we cannot be fully at peace until everyone enjoys it. I have great respect for indigenous worldviews that perceive all of life – not just human life – to be a web. I am moved by the documentary Witness: The Ecological Poetry of W.S. Merwin, in which the poet himself says, “I think we, as a species, define ourselves by our relation to the rest of life. […] [H]aving broken out of narrower views of existence into seeing that this whole is something that we have to consider as a whole, I don’t think that we can ever go back” (10:28 - 11:38). And I love how the Persian poet Saadi articulates it: “If a part of the body hurts, / All parts contract with pain.” If one looks to recent works such as “poem for your pocket,” “water for canaries,” and “susiya,” one might understand that I make art not only out of personal pain, but out of a sense of collective or global pain. The two things can’t be separated.
In terms of psychic challenges, a yoga teacher once told me that depression is the flip-side of anger. They’re two sides of the same coin. I think I understand how this tension might be so. To relate this notion to art-making, resistance, and resilience, think about Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger,” in which she says, “Everything can be used / except what is wasteful.” (Depending on the circumstance, might we not be able to substitute the titular word “Anger” with “Despair?”) Or think about Mark Doty, reflecting in his micro-essay, “Souls on Ice,” on his poem, “A Display of Mackerel.” I’m thinking now about the broader realm of ‘sadness’ instead of the more narrow clinical notion of ‘depression’ – but until reading “Souls on Ice,” I wasn’t aware that “A Display of Mackerel” had come out of loss; yet why should I be surprised? And what can I say? I’m not happy that this loss existed, but I am deeply grateful for the existence of the poem.
To come full circle and return to my first response about survival, poetry keeps me in this world. If I think about the longing in my own life, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to make this claim.
I fear not death, but pain. And pain is inescapable – so I acknowledge and transmute it. To borrow from my manuscript title, I heft and sing.