Episode 5: Doyali Islam Reads at TIA House
Jul 29, 2020
This reading was recorded during a TIA House event featuring Doyali Islam in September 2019. Doyali is a 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize finalist, 2020 Ontario Trillium Book Award for Poetry finalist, and 2020 Pat Lowther Memorial Award finalist for heft (M&S, 2019), which CBC Books named as a best poetry book of 2019. Doyali has participated in CBC Books’ Why I Write video 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. Doyali spent a few years in North Bay, Ontario, and is a former Poetry Editor of Ottawa’s Arc Poetry Magazine. She lives in Toronto, Canada. www.doyali-islam.com.
If you enjoy this recording of Doyali Islam’s talk, the poet has also been deep in conversation with Niall Munro over at Oxford Brookes Poetry Podcast (Episode 14).
Sound editing was done by Trynne Delaney, Daniel Zigaro, and Doyali Islam. Show Notes by Trynne Delaney and Doyali Islam. Full transcript to come.
3:23 – Doyali’s opening remarks. (Note to Listeners/Readers: Not included in this recording or transcription is Doyali’s reading of her essay, “A Private Architecture of Resistance”, which she also read as part of her live TIA House Talk. You can find Doyali’s essay in The Manifesto Project, an anthology co-edited by Rebecca Hazelton and Alan Michael Parker.)
5:31 – The poetry reading begins. Doyali Islam reads the following poems:
5:42 — “letter”
6:47 — “the ant”
8:27 — “tending mint”
9:45 — And the BH Yael Documentary Even in the Desert is available here: http://www.bhyael.ca/even-in-the-desert
10:40 – “susiya”
12:37 — “vulva”
13:32 — “v”
14:52 — “moving day”
16:03 — “daniel”
17:02 —“bhater mondo”
18:17 –Doyali references the Syrian poet Adonis: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/adonis
19:15 — “aries [the ram]”
23:26 — “poem for your pocket”
23:50 — more information on Miklós Radnóti is available through the poetry foundation here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/miklos-radnoti.
24:52 – Q&A Conversation begins.
You can read the transcript of the Post-reading Q&A Conversation transcribed by Doyali Islam on our website on Doyali’s podcast page at tiahouse.ca.
Transcript of the Post-reading Q&A Conversation
Larissa Lai: Thank you so much, Doyali. Really, really beautiful. Thank you! Are there questions? Or comments?
Weyman Chan: Well, I just wanted to say I just love how you frame these wonderfully-intimate small things and then leap to the larger picture. And I just wanted to say how I love the movement that way.
Doyali Islam: Thank you! Yeah, I was interested in these poems in thinking about what people do with their hands, and the ordinary little moments in daily life. Do you know Carolyn Forché? If you go on YouTube, Carolyn Forché has a wonderful interview through HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry & Literary Society). So the interviewer was asking Carolyn Forché how did her landmark anthology about witness come about, and she gave this beautiful answer, and part of it was that she had to explain to W. W. Norton what a poet of witness was. And in describing that and in her work of putting together this anthology over – I think she said it took her 13 years to complete it – what she realized was that poets of witness were for her poets who had lived through some kind of turmoil personally – various kinds of house arrest, the Holocaust, other kinds of exile – and no matter what they were writing, they all had a palpable quality to them. And so she called this kind of palpability, that kind of palpability, a poet of witness, or a poem of witness. And what I realized in listening to Carolyn Forché speak was that I would consider my poems to be poetry of spirit, but in a daily sense – so, the spirit of the everyday, not aligned with a particular faith tradition or spiritual tradition, but just kind of a quieter, deeper kind of spirit. And so I was hoping for that to come across in the poems.
Weyman Chan: Almost like a deeper universality –
Doyali Islam: Yeah.
Weyman Chan: – which doesn’t have to be always so specific.
Doyali Islam: Exactly. And I wanted the poems to be very capacious. My partner laughs at me because he says my favourite word is capacious, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted that sense of universality because I wouldn’t want anyone to feel turned away by a poem, but rather invited in.
Weyman Chan: Yeah. Yeah, that’s cool.
Doyali Islam: Did anyone have any other questions, or – ?
Sharanpal Ruprai (of CV2 Magazine): It’s not a question, but I know there are writers in the room. I heard you speaking in Winnipeg when we had the [CV2] workshop. It’s quite a big gap between your two books.
Doyali Islam: Yeah.
Sharanpal Ruprai: If you could just share a little bit about how you came to collect this body of work, and the eight-year gap between works.
Doyali Islam: So my first book was called Yusuf and the Lotus Flower and it came out with a very small press in Ottawa called BuschekBooks which has since gone out of business, so the book is out of print. That book came out in October 2011. I had put that collection together without knowing that I was assembling a manuscript. Basically I had just been writing every day and eventually I looked at all the poems and I thought to myself, “Oh, these would actually work together very well as a manuscript. But I wasn’t part of the publishing industry, so I didn’t understand anything about manuscripts or how to publish. After realizing that it could be a manuscript, I submitted the manuscript to several presses and eight months later I heard back from one who wanted to publish, and I went with that. So I think, overall, that book came together in maybe the span of two years, maybe three. But afterwards, I felt a lot of scrutiny for my own work in the book. And just because I kept reading and growing my practice and growing my mind and my inquiry, I started feeling very uneasy about those poems and realized that if I ever wrote again I would want to try it a very different way. And so I wanted to give myself a long long time to work on each individual poem in heft and to treat the poem as poem first, not as a manuscript first – because I wanted each poem to be able to stand on its own regardless of context, and to just enjoy the process of being slow and editing. So that’s kind of what happened. So the idea for heft – or, for the parallel poems – came to me in 2010, and it was actually because of a CV2 contest. It was the 35th Anniversary Contest. CV2 wanted writers to submit poems that incorporated the number 35. And I thought to myself, “Okay, how can I use the number 35 in a way that’s not trite, that’s very fresh?” And the idea of latitude lines came to me. So I thought, “Oh okay, I could call it “ – 35th parallel – ”; the poem could be 35 lines long. Each line could be 35 characters, and then I could pull the two places on the latitude line for being on the 35th parallel.” So that was the first poem that came out. And as soon as I wrote that poem, I wrote in my journal, “What if?” – which goes back to my introductory remarks. And I wrote, “What if I wrote a whole series of these poems?” And out of the parallel poems, I thought to myself, “What if I applied this to the sonnet form? And that’s why I started writing the split sonnets that are 7 lines and 7 lines split in half. And then out of that came the “What if?” of, “What if I doubled the sonnet and did 14 lines and 14 lines?” So it was a very slow growth, and I think allowing myself that room to develop and to bring the manuscript out into different trajectories was very beneficial. So I’m happy I gave myself that time. And even still there are things I would change in the book. So it’s never done; the work’s just never done – but I am very happy that I learned more about patience through the process. I find a lot of writers put out collections very quickly, one after the other, so there’s not a lot of room for growth between inquiries.
Weyman Chan: I really like what you said [in your essay] about poetry of resistance, but for you more of resilience. And for me it goes back to, sometimes it’s taken, without me knowing it, 30 years of knowing that same event but never having written about it. That long arc of experience creates in one moment the best thing I could have ever written, because it’s almost like I had to go through a long period of resilience to find the way to say it. And I love that idea.
Doyali Islam: That’s beautiful! Did some of your work yesterday have that long arc?
Weyman Chan: Oh yes.
Doyali Islam: Yeah, I could feel it!
Doyali Islam: There’s one poem in here called “two burials”, and it was about… When I was younger I wanted to – I thought I wanted to be a farmer, and so I told my dad, “I don’t wanna go – I don’t wanna go to university; I wanna be a farmer, and he was like, “No – ”
Doyali Islam: – “No, you need the paper.” So I went to university, but I kept dropping out because I was very unhappy. And anyway, I went to France as a way of appeasing myself. There’s a program called WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms). So I went up into the Pyrenee mountains and stayed with this family who had built their home over like eight years, and they were raising their family up there. Anyway, I had this experience in France; I think it was 2006. And then I knew I wanted to write a poem about that but I kept making false starts and it took 10 years to figure out how to write that poem because –
Weyman Chan: – Only 10 years?!
Doyali Islam: Right?! That’s pretty good by your 30-year mark.
Doyali Islam: The next one I’ll aim for 30 years and I’ll say, “Weyman, I did a 30-year poem!”
Weyman Chan: Thank you!
Doyali Islam: So, they take their time I guess.
Trynne Delaney: There’s a sort of politics to taking time as well, right? In a context of everything being quicker and capitalism moving everything along quickly and pressure to produce.
Doyali Islam: Yeah, fast fashion and everything.
Trynne Delaney: Fast poetry.
Doyali Islam: It’s funny you say that, too, because after wanting to be a farmer I wanted to be a massage therapist, and I never did it for various reasons, and I’m thinking now of going back to school to become a massage therapist. But part of what I love about it is that it’s so slow and counter to the way that we generally operate in society, and you’re so intimate. In a way it’s very similar to poetry. It’s a one-on-one experience counter to the regular pace and stream of life. I was talking to somebody who’s putting together a manuscript right now, and he has this timeline in his mind of, he wants it out to publishers by a certain date, and he wants it published by a certain date, and I just asked him, “Why? Why do you have this timeline?” And he said something interesting, which is that he doesn’t know what his future will hold and he could not come home tomorrow. Because of who he is, his background and life experience, I do understand that too. Maybe there are some people who don’t feel so safe in their body and they don’t know how much longer they have – not that any of us know how long we have – but maybe for him he has more of a sense of urgency. So I think there are multiple ways of approaching it. For me, it did feel like a resistance to move slowly.
Larissa Lai: Were there other questions, folks? Or comments?
Another Interlocutor: I have a really silly question.
Doyali Islam: No, nothing’s silly!
Same Interlocutor: I was so intrigued with the formatting of your book, and I wondered if you had resistance from [publishers]. Such a structural question. I’ve just never seen a book printed that way before, and so I’m wondering if you had to justify it, rationalize it, put it in context, have conversations with them, or if it was just like, “It works; no worries!”?
Doyali Islam: It was the latter. I was very lucky. So the manuscript was acquired by Dionne Brand for M&S. I had actually send the manuscript to Canada Council for the Arts in 2013 because I needed some money, so I thought, “Let me try to get a works-in-progress grant.” I ended up getting the grant, and when I looked at who was on the granting committee it was Dionne Brand. So it just so happened that later the manuscript ended up going back to her, so I think she already had that kind of initial experience with it. But what was funny was that I didn’t plan for most of the poems to be on their side. I initially envisioned them this way, and the book would be in landscape format, and the poems that run through, which I call ‘inversas’ but which are erasure texts, would still cut through, but the split poems would be like that, so the erasures would be cutting through the middle of them. And what ended up happening with the typesetting in production was that, because of the dimensions the book had to be – and because they couldn’t make it a larger book or a landscape book, my publisher said, “You have several options; you do what you feel comfortable with.” So she said option one is [that] you print the ones that fit upright, upright, and print the ones that don’t fit that way, sideways. The other option is printing them all upright.” But then when it’s a long poem, say it was two pages, it would be like reading down one column; then having to read down that [the second] column; then going back to this [first] column; then going back to that [second] column. And if the poem was three pages, because there was one that came to three, it would be so intrusive to do that. And then the other option was flipping them on their side. So I decided to flip them all, because I wanted the reader to have a flow, and I wanted the erasures – ‘inversas’ – to cut through and I wanted that to be the jarring element. I didn’t want to introduce other elements that were jarring for no reason. But honestly, I feel like it’s one of those serendipitous things where it worked out better because once I turned them on their side, obviously that line was able to pass right through, holding everything together. And because this erasure poem that’s fragmented over the book is about my issues with chronic pain and the body, I felt like it was a way of weaving my personal narrative right through with a thread. So it worked out.
Thank you guys so much. This was just wonderful. You’re all so nice and supportive of each other, and I can feel this genuine sense of care. I’m really honoured to be here.
Larissa Lai: Thank you so much! Thank you for coming. It’s been really wonderful to have you here.
Doyali Islam: Thank you!
TIA House recognizes the generous support of the Canada Research Chairs program and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. We also appreciate the support of the Faculty of Arts and the Department of English at the University of Calgary, where our offices are housed, as well as the guidance of Marc Stoeckle at the Taylor Family Digital Library. TIA House is run by Larissa Lai, Trynne Delaney, Rebecca Geleyn, Isabelle Michalski, and Joshua Whitehead.