5 minute read

The Interview

By Salwa Iqbal

What made you want to pursue poetry? Was there a specific instance where you read something, or was it just some sort of innate feeling pulling you towards writing?


I’ve always liked stories and was the type of kid who spaced out a lot. I loved reading and one day my mom asked me why I didn’t write my own stories and it hadn’t even occurred to me. Poetry came into my life shortly after that. But it was really the encouragement of a few particular people that kept me pulling myself towards writing. My Nana, two English teachers. It still is so much the case still for me, that writing is more about the community around a poem than the poem itself. They’re coconstitutive. It really crystallized in high school. Poems were a way I could pour out emotion from inside me when it got too much, in good ways and in bad ways. But thinking seriously about craft feels more recent. A few influential books for me were Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, Citizen by Claudia Rankine and The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle.

Can you tell me a bit more about the poem? It draws a lot of imagery of what feels like city vs wilderness, or civilization was nature, was this intentional?

I wrote this on the GO train in…2018, I think? It was winter and there was a giant icicle clinging to the bottom of train as it pulled into the station and there was a group of kids on a field trip waiting for the same train as me, just laughing and making a ruckus. I was responding to the wild city in front of me in that moment. Also, being on the edge of the city, on transit, going towards the suburbs. If you’ve been on Lakeshore West before, there is a lot of nature you have to pass through before getting anywhere. I was thinking about teeth and evolution. I missed my niece and nephew.

I know you are also an anthropology student; how does anthropology affect the way you approach writing poems?

Lately I’ve been feeling like the anthropological gaze is almost antithetical to poetry. I say almost because there are moments where the two slide really close together, an attention to detail and the ongoingness of all our interactions. They both feel inverse to specificity and abstraction equally. I chose anthropology for how it fit to poetry but if I think now about how anthropology affected my poetry, it would probably be amplifying the construction and translation. The skeleton and its journey, whether it’s another poem or a herd of goats or my family. Also construction as the histories that condense around anything, right, and translation as the process through which those histories approach us or us them. Grad school has also, like, needlessly intellectualized me. Sometimes I end up thinking circles around a poem instead of just writing it. But it also made me more attentive in a sharp way, in a cataloguing, categorical way. That gaze is a mixed bag. Sometimes it feels incisive, sometimes it feels alienating.

The past year has affected us and our creativity in different ways. How has it impacted the way you write? Did you completely stop writing, or did it make you write even more? I also know you spent some time recently in Kashmir, did your experiences there make their way into any of your upcoming poems?

Oh my god, it totally stopped me in my tracks. It made me realize you can’t write without living and you can’t live without community. I had an almost four month adjustment period where I wrote nothing and I specifically had a writing project to do. Everyone was telling me, “This situation must be perfect for you!” Nothing could be further from the truth. Once I was home in Kashmir and living with family again, the writing slowly came back. And yes, those poems and the experience of being back home for such a long time definitely got in there. A lot of mountains and quiet winter.

We all have that one poem we always go back to, poems that we have memorized and burned into our memory. Poems that inspire us and are special to us. For me it’s a poem called On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. I’m curious is there any poem like this for you?

So many. Also that poem is just beautiful! “And you sailed right into it? / It was love, Titanic said.” A really special poem to me “And Yet I’m Not A Tree” by Heather Christle. I think I’ve read that poem a thousand times and it still gets me. Another one is “Unit of Measure” by Sandra Beasley. Capybaras are my favourite animal! “Small Kindnesses” by Danusha Laméris. I like hats.

I also wanted to congratulate you on the very exciting news of your upcoming debut poetry book, which will be published in spring of 2022! Is there anything you can tell us about it? Are there any specific themes you explore?

Thank you so much! It’s still a work in progress now. There are four sections! There’s one section that is a long erasure poem about Allah and embodiment and one section which is a long prose poem about friendship and family. The title used to be Horizons Behind the Sun. Now it’s Singing. It might still change. It’s been hard to talk ‘about’ the book to be honest because, as someone wonderfully quoted at me the other day, poetry is about something the way a cat is about a house. But I explore questions and feelings around Kashmir, Islam, friendship, diaspora and grief. So much about grief—and love.

Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who also want to pursue/write poetry?

Read as much as you write! Don’t let anyone tell you right from wrong. There’s no such thing in poetry. Trust your gut, follow your desires and have fun. Play. And actually read at least two issues of a journal you want to submit to. Try to be mindful about who you send your work to. Attend lots of literary events: you can find them through local libraries, bookstores, open mics. Find people you trust. Cherish their work with as much as your own. Write for each other.