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The Best Poems Break Your Heart: An Interview with Ruth Awad

by Emilia Phillips

Emilia Phillips: Set to Music a Wildfire chronicles a family’s migration—through war zones, specifically in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, across oceans and borders into the United States, into each other’s arms and again away—and, in doing so, it renders division and distance, perhaps paradoxically, through the intense, lyric intimacy of persona and apostrophe. Sometimes I’ve gotten stuck on the idea that poetry is a kind of art form that’s always spoken into an empty room, and that the reader (or listener, depending on the mode of experience) only hears the echoes of that initial utterance. A poem is like the tree that falls in the forest that makes a sound even though there’s no one else there to hear it. Do you find that you use poems to bridge distances, including the distances of silence? Does poetry offer you something that nonfiction prose cannot in following this family’s narrative?

Ruth Awad: Thank you, Emilia. You are such a generous and attentive reader, and I’m humbled to see how much consideration and thought you’ve given my work. I think that’s a beautiful way to think about what poetry can offer us: edification into silences carried in our interaction with the world and people around us. For this collection specifically, I was trying to bridge a very real distance in my understanding of my father. I’d always heard him reference the war while I was growing up, but it wasn’t until much later in life that I realized what a traumatic experience that must’ve been for him. And I wanted him to be able to talk to me about it if he wanted to.

My father raised me and my two sisters on his own for a while, and his instinct when we were growing up was to be very protective—to some, it would seem, to an incredible degree. But hearing about his childhood experiences shed more light on that dynamic, and in understanding him better, I could understand my own experiences of being raised by him better. So that is a long way of saying, yes, we are traveling a lot of emotional distance here, including what went unsaid for a long time in my family. I think poetry is the medium for that because it reflects how these stories were revealed: in moments of sudden reflection and openness, in moments in general. To me, poetry is the desired messenger for the power of a single moment.

EP: What an incredible idea: “poetry is the desired messenger for the power of a single moment.” As I look back at your poems, I can’t help but think about some of the crystalline moments—the mother shaving the father’s head in “Love like Samson’s Lion While My Mother Shaves My Father’s Head” or the boy pulling a ribbon from the speaker’s hair and wrapping it “tight until his finger purpled” in “After”—and I can’t help but wonder how you locate these moments for your poems. Is this something that happens in the initial draft, you’ve found the image that resonates, or do you have to whittle away at other, less effective moments to find the one that will echo with the poem?

RA: I almost always begin a poem with that singular moment in mind. It just seems to be the way inspiration comes to me, and it’s what brings me to the page and helps me build the world of the poem in terms of subject matter, tone, etc. Of course there are happy surprises that emerge from the writing, and I try to let a poem take me where it needs to go. And I think this magnetism toward a singular moment is what compels me in reading poetry, too—I’m always looking for an image I can take with me, a moment that belongs to that poem alone.

EP: What is the first poem you wrote in this book?

RA: The first poem I wrote where I was like, Whoa, I could write a whole book about this, was “The Keeper of Allah’s Hidden Names.” I was thinking a lot about the faith I was raised in, the faith my father still practices today, and just how lonely it always made me feel to love God. And so it began with that idea of literally counting —seeking out the tangible evidence of God’s existence, measuring what can’t be measured. In a lot of ways, this book is about what can and can’t be measured, how lonely our love can make us, an idea I’ll probably write toward forever because it’s counterintuitive—love should make you feel surrounded, right? Love is pure, we’re told. And I see truth in that. But it’s also shorthand for a pretty complex emotion. I can’t consider what it means to love someone—or God or a country—and not see the underbelly. There is a kind of devastation when you give yourself fully to something.

EP: Do you ever feel that way about poems, that you are devastated by giving yourself fully to them, either by reading or writing?

RA: Oh, all the time. The best poems break my heart. And my litmus test for whether I’ve written a poem I’m proud of is how much it means to me—did I write something that matches my experience? Did I write it truthfully? If so, it has probably taken a lot of emotional labor to create it. Sometimes that process can really get in the way of meaningful craft, which is why I’m a painfully slow writer, production-wise. I have to step away from a poem for a long time to look at it objectively and revise it for more technical/craft aspects.

EP: The first poem in your collection that broke my heart (there were a few) was the first poem, “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion,” which I read as part calling down of the muse and a kind of creation myth for the rest of the book: “In the beginning, there was an angel with cloven feet who stood by me…” Would you tell us a little bit about the process of writing this poem and why you chose it to be the first poem in the collection?

RA: I love thinking about the poem that way! Thank you for that. I knew I wanted to reconsider which poem opened up the collection—originally it was “Legend of Mount Sannine,” so I was thinking about the importance of centering storytelling at the beginning. But I needed a poem that tonally set the pace for the rest of the book and the themes to come (emigration, assimilation, etc.), and I knew I had to write a new poem to do that. Subject- matter wise, it seemed important that a poem written from my father’s POV open up the collection, too. “Let me be a lamb…” is the last poem I wrote for the book, and I was thinking a lot about voice-driven poems and what makes the best of them world-opening. At the time, I was reading Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s The Crown Ain’t Worth Much and the poem “Dispatches from the Black Barbershop, Tony’s Chair, 2011” really stuck with me for both its voice and storytelling skill.

That’s about the time I started to challenge myself to write as many lines as I could that pass what I call the tattoo test. That is, write a line that is worthy of being tattooed on someone. Hanif does this expertly. And not only does he write one line like that—a line that could easily be the last note the poem strikes because it is both resonant and beautifully crafted—but he builds off that momentum. Instead of ending there, he raises the stakes. So then my challenge was to write past the line I’d typically end a poem on. See what happens.

EP: I love this idea that each line has to reach to quality of that kind of permanence. What’s the most perfect line of poetry for a tattoo, if you had to choose one? What is poetry’s relationship to permanence, in your opinion? Is it a lasting or ephemeral art form?

RA: That’s so hard to say! I love so much poetry so deeply that if I had my way, my body would be covered in it. But right now I’m toying with the idea of pairing one of Allison Titus’ lines with a piece for my dog Pete who died in January and was my closest earthly companion for 11 years. The line is from her poem “The True Book of Animal Homes”: “Here they come, the mongrel ghosts of my heart.” It’s a poem invested in the (destructive) nature of the human-animal dynamic, but I see so much hope in that line—I see the speaker’s need to care for and carry these animals. That will always be meaningful to me. And that’s what makes for a perfect, tattoo-worthy line: it’s more than just resonant—it’s a salve. If poetry is doing its job, I’d argue it’s a lasting art form. I think the most profound poetry changes you.

EP: So poetry lasts through its change on the reader? Love that idea, especially how it makes me think about the way that poetry enacts change, becomes an active, as opposed to static, art through reading, either silent or aloud. In reading a poem like “Gulls,” I’m especially struck by the idea of a poem’s form and lineation as a kind of tempoed script for its own reading pace:

Smoke clots.
Fire rushes
back to the earth,

back to minutes before,
back to a man on his balcony
and the missile’s
pointing finger
and the body blistered.

drag themselves
like a dagger
on the waterline.

For me, there’s such charged control over the release of information here and, as a reader, I feel as if I’m physically drawn through the poem, pausing on that “Gulls” before being dragged down into the next line. How do you go about considering form and lineation? Is it a question of modulating the reader’s experience, or of capturing your own intentions?

RA: I think it’s hard to separate the two, the modulation of a reader’s experience and my intentions. My intentions are often tied to how I hope a reader will experience a poem. And so I try to use the tools at my disposal to make sure intent and experience are as closely aligned as possible. Obviously, once work leaves your hands, you can’t exert control over its experience. But I think with precision, with attention to how information is relayed, and with the form of the poem, you can get pretty close. But maybe that’s just a comforting thought I’m holding on to so I can keep doing this work.

EP: I feel like you did this masterfully in those poems that describe violent action, especially those poems set in war zones, like “Surah al-Qiyamah: My Father Talks to God When Syria Occupies Tripoli, 1976” for example. These poems chilled me. What was it like to imagine this intensity of violence? And then to “reimagine” it for the poem? How did you go about approaching this subject matter?

RA: Thank you for saying that. Those poems were difficult for a lot of reasons, but probably first and foremost: I have a lot of reservations about writing about violence. I think it’s almost easy to write “beautifully” about violence and inadvertently glorify it, and I hope I avoided that in this collection. And I also think about the voyeurism aspect—you don’t want to be an onlooker in someone else’s tragedy. So those are the big considerations for me going into these types of poems. I don’t have foolproof advice for avoiding these missteps, either, but for me, it seems you have to turn the empathy dial way up, not only with imagining the violent experience, but with imagining how you would want someone to write about that experience. I tried to let the interviews and conversations with my father (and the friends he grew up with) inform this. I tried to stick to the moments he disclosed. And for historical context, I relied on research (so much research). It’s emotional labor. It’s hard. And it should be hard.

EP: I’ve also wondered if the act of writing about a violence in a certain way, with a certain voyeuristic intensity, also re-perpetrates that violence. I’m also especially interested in a move you make, with varying degrees of subtlety, to find some element of hope in these moments. I’m thinking of that part in the “Surah al-Quiyamah…” poem in which the speaker says, “I love this fleeting world even / as I run through the streets, the heat slung on my back, / shots mottling the window where I bought bread”. How important is hope in your poems? What’s poetry’s responsibility to provide us with a range of emotions, not just those like fear or intense grief that are considered the most “dramatic”?

RA: Oh, hope. It took me a long, long time to realize this element was missing in early drafts of some of these poems. It seems to me hope and survival are so closely related, no matter if you’re considering the civilian perspective from a warzone or a hyper-personal slog through grief. There are some moments that are so removed from hope that it would be disingenuous to shoehorn it in the poem, but when a speaker is focused on survival, it makes sense to me that hope seeps in like light through a curtained window. I think poetry’s responsibility is to create resonance and meaning, and some poems need a comprehensive emotional palette to do that work. And it’s riveting when a poem can make you feel a range of emotions, especially in a short word span. But many poets mine a single emotion to great effect, whether that’s fear or joy or grief. I guess I’m wary of being prescriptive here.

EP: Do you find that the practice of revision allows you to build emotional complexity into your poems? Is it revision that allows for emotional clarity, or does it complicate, even confuse, the emotions initially present in the poem?

RA: I think any time I revisit work, I can spot missed opportunities to develop emotional complexity. For my own process, I usually know what note I’m trying to hit in the first draft of the poem, so revision is where I refine and complicate that attempt. I try not to lose sight of what brought me to the poem in the first place, but I think revision usually tends to make a poem better, not weaker.

EP: Would you also speak to the practice of research in your writing practice? How much research do you do? Can a poet ever do too much research? Too little?

RA: It depends on the project, but I think research can really help a writer think beyond their own perspective, even if they are ultimately writing about their firsthand experience. For example, the second part of the collection deals with my parents’ marriage, something I witnessed most of, but why wouldn’t I ask them about it? It seems almost wasteful not to consider these other points of view. I’m not saying I need to be a scholar in something before I write about it, but I do think it’s better to have more information than perhaps I’ll use. And for the poems that deal with specific moments during the war, too much creative license and reliance on imagination alone would be wrong. It’s sensitive subject matter and it deserves a careful hand. I think, maybe as a general rule, the more sensitive the subject matter, the more a poet should research before they start writing. Being informed is never a bad thing.

EP: To what extent is poetry’s primary work emotional labor? Do you ever feel exhausted by this work, especially when it’s so close to home? I’ve been thinking a lot about how a poem, one that’s so close to some autobiographical or emotional truth, can even trigger old trauma. As poets, how do we go about protecting ourselves in the act of writing our own poems?

RA: I do think poetry is primarily emotional labor—our jobs as poets is to manage emotions in a way that shapes the reader’s experience of the work. Like all forms of emotional labor, it can be both fulfilling and exhausting, sometimes all at once. But I think this investment is how you give your work a pulse. You are completely right to say that writing difficult autobiographical truth can trigger old trauma, and there’s plenty I can’t yet write about for that reason. I don’t have the distance I need to come back from revisiting that quickly. And I think that’s one way we can protect ourselves during the process: know your limits. Know what you can recover from, as best as you are able. Know what will comfort you when you are ready to emerge from the process. For me, focusing on my dogs really helps. Talk about emotional labor. They are constant comfort.

EP: Speaking of your dog, you run an amazing interview series called Pet Poetics. Would you mind talking a little bit about this project and the ways that you see your devotion to animals intersecting with poetry?

RA: My dogs have been such a quiet force in my own writing process, and if being alive has taught me anything, it’s that someone else has probably experienced that before, too. So I wanted to know more about it and started interviewing poets about their work and their pets and how the two collide. I wanted to create a space that honors this unique relationship. If this series is any indication, it does seem that pets are more than companions for many poets. They help make the writing process possible, whether that is by way of inspiration, emotional support, keeping writers on a tighter schedule, or helping in the practice of empathy. The same has been true for me.

As a side note, I kinda hate to think about the person I might’ve become if I didn’t have my first dog, Pete, to pull me away from some of my more self-destructive tendencies. She helped me practice how to put another being before myself. And because I needed to take care of her, I was forced to take better care of myself. I think that development—of empathy, of responsibility, of deeply caring—has probably helped my writing.

EP: Where do you see your writing heading next? What are you at work on, and how is this work similar or different to that of Set to Music a Wildfire?

RA: That’s something I’m still trying to figure out. The loose-leaf poems I’ve been writing lately feel more interior, more willing to look at the self, so that’s a marked shift. I feel like with Wildfire, the impulse was to turn the lens outward. These new poems, which I’ve been calling my feminist love poems, make me feel vulnerable in a way my first book didn’t.

EP: Is the rumor true that the second book is harder to write than the first? What advice would give poets who are working on either their first or second books?

RA: I would say so, but it’s still early on for me. I just had such a clear vision and arc for my first book, and all I know is I want my second to exist. Just exist, ok? Come into being somehow. And I think that can be helpful for poets working on the second collection: just write toward it. Get something done. Assess later. My best advice for writing a first book is to find a reader (or readers, if you’re lucky) who will tell you the truth. My sister was my hardest and best reader for my first book. She was relentless in her belief that I could do better. And she was right. I revised and reorganized with her notes in mind, and her instincts taught me about reader experience and expectation that has helped me be more objective about my work. Thanks for that, Sarah.

EP: Let’s wrap up with something that’s close to poetry but that’s not about poetry. What are you obsessed with at the moment? What questions are on your mind?

RA: I’m just going to answer this truthfully. Pete, my dead dog; her 12th birthday is approaching, and I think about her all the time. I think about the ways animals save us, and the way she saved me. I still wonder if I did enough to thank her.

Emilia Phillips is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks, most recently Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, Boston Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an assistant professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her third book, Empty Clip, will be published by the University of Akron Press spring 2018.