Poetry, Prose, and Postscript
Aathma Nirmala Dious
Zoe Jane Patterson and Vamika Sinha are seniors in the Literature and Creative Writing Program at NYU Abu Dhabi. Last year, they founded the online literary journal Postscript; this year, they are each writing creative capstones, Patterson in fiction and Sinha in poetry. They shared some insights into their creative practices in advance of their appearances at the 2019 NYUAD Hekayah Festival.
Aathma Dious: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.
Zoe Jane Patterson: For me, poetry begins with discomfort. You’re about to board a 14-hour flight; babies will cry, your skin will dry out until you look like a sphynx cat, and as soon as you sit on the toilet there will be turbulence. There is nothing beautiful about this situation. But if you write it down you get to control it: you get to sculpt it, make fun of it, and use it to think about other, bigger things. No matter what the discomfort is for me, whether it’s physical or social or internal, if I turn it into a poem then I gain some power over it.
My poems almost always have a narrative thread that runs through them, probably because I tend to see the world through stories. That narrative, or at least an ending, gets formed in the first draft. My first drafts usually over-explain themselves. It takes me a while to let go of stanzas that are slowing things down because of my anxiety that I won’t be understood. Once the poem has been sculpted, I consider each word, shaking it down and swapping it for synonyms. I read the whole thing out loud. It’s also essential for me to show new poetry to a handful of trusted readers. I never feel like a poem is done, but eventually I can let myself leave it alone.
Vamika Sinha: I don’t generally plan my poems, unless I have a bunch of complex ideas I’m dealing with that need a little bit of structuring beforehand. I usually have one central idea or image that pops in my mind, and I’ll put that down and build the poem around it. Not all my poems are short or compact, but I guess most are. I like the challenge that concision poses, the idea of creating as much meaning and beauty within constraint. But to be honest, I don’t think too consciously about length. The poem is as long as I feel it needs to be, as long as I’ve conveyed what I set out to. A lot of it is intuitive.
How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?
ZJP: Poetry can come from lots of places for me. Sometimes I have a fleeting idea and scrawl it down. It can be an image, a contradiction, something absurd, a situation, or a joke etc. Then I go back to it and see if it’s supposed to turn into a poem or short story or be part of a larger piece of fiction. Poems also often come out of my rants and annoyances. I start ranting to someone I love about something that makes me angry or uncomfortable, and those thoughts are later recorded in my journal as the terrible first draft of a poem. Sometimes the same thing happens when I’m ranting to myself in my journal. I get inspired by discomfort, and I often feel the need to write when I encounter injustice. I always want to write when I encounter really great writing or artistry of any kind.
VS: I don’t know if I’m ever “ready” to write a poem. I think I love it enough that it feels natural to always kind of be thinking about writing, in the back of my mind. I’m always coming up with images or scraps of stanzas and putting them down in my phone, wherever I am. And then later, it’ll usually become something fuller, a larger developed poem when I push myself to sit down and write. I get a lot of inspiration from music. I’m actually a trained musician and music was there for me before writing or literature cropped up in my life, that was my main discipline and artistic outlet. I love mixing music with literary form, like jazz poetry for example, and referencing musicians that I think are monumental. My capstone, for example, is named after a song by Solange Knowles. Otherwise, I’m very inspired by movies, theories and books I read, personal emotional experiences, women’s histories, and cities. Also food. And love, of course.
DG: Speaking of food … Vamika, in your Postscript essay “Hungry City,” you write about eating ramen and the ways in which your experience of New York was “shaped by Asian hand.” How did food become central to your writing and your understanding?
VS: I first started thinking about food and writing during my first year writing seminar in freshman year. I took “Street Food” with Deepak Unnikrishnan. I remember not even wanting to take this class, thinking “What’s the point of taking a class called ‘Street Food’ and in a city like Abu Dhabi?” But a lot of people talked well about the professor, so I registered. It was one of the most pivotal decisions I’ve taken at NYUAD. Professor Unnikrishnan became a very important mentor to me over the years, and I learnt so much, not only about writing, but about observing the world and the city in that class. Food is a conduit for larger conversations about our world. Over time, I’ve expanded on my experiences with food in various cities as ways of meditating on urban life, socio-political experiences, cosmopolitanism, and more.
AD: Have you had any fun or memorable food encounters in Abu Dhabi that you’d like to share?
VS: Nothing too exciting. I’ve had a few fun encounters while running the “AD Secrets” column for The Gazelle. A friend and I discovered a ludicrously tiny Game of Thrones-themed sandwich shop in a very random part of the city, and it turned out to be one of the greatest sandwich experiences both of us had ever had in our lives (the place is called “Game of Toast”). In general, I love recording the misspelled menu items in Abu Dhabi cafeterias, stuff like “sea snak” instead of “sea snake” or “saghetti salomon” instead of “salmon spaghetti.” It’s almost as if the typos are a requirement if you want to thrive as a diner here. I also love random quirky things like finding a drink called “Happiness” or existentially confused items like “Small Fish Big.”
Zoe Jane Patterson
AD: Zoe, you grew up in Al Ain. How different is it from Abu Dhabi? Do you find that you treat the two locations differently if you write about them?
ZJP: Al Ain radically shifted my ways of seeing myself and the world. I experienced formative teenage years and milestones there, but more importantly, it shook me out of my North-American suburban mentality. The city is this small dot of an oasis that exists in a vast desert, but somehow, it’s also large in all the worlds it contains and connects to. Al Ain is a city that feels like a small town, so it nurtured me in softer ways than a bigger city might have, and it’s the first home that I fiercely loved. My capstone project, which will hopefully someday become my first novel, is set in Al Ain because of how much I learned there and how much I believe in its magic.
Abu Dhabi is home though; I love walking through the streets here, taking notes of quirky shop names or conversations with strangers. Abu Dhabi has an anonymity and mobility that Al Ain never did: In Al Ain I would never walk through the city center, there was nowhere like the corniche for social mixing. It’s harder to write poetry about Al Ain, because life happens behind closed doors there. Prose has the breadth to yank them open but my poetry struggles. I wouldn’t want to live in Al Ain again; it was a wonderful cocoon and introduction to the world but my younger self belonged there much more than I do. I feel better able to criticize Abu Dhabi, and to sit with its discomforts, which has made for more and better poetry.
AD: For the Hekayah application, you had submitted a poem about Abu Dhabi that, I dare say as someone who grew up there, was quite spot on. Could you talk more about it?
ZJP: Thank you! “Invisible Abu Dhabi” was the first poem I ever wrote about this city, and it came out of a long walk with a friend after dinner, from one end of the corniche to the other. As we walked, the sun started to set, and I thought about all the ways that the city changes when darkness falls. It’s almost as though Abu Dhabi transforms into an entirely different place. I was thinking about Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and was reading a collection of short stories by Murakami called The Elephant Vanishes at the time. As we walked I imagined alternate realities, and at the same time I was uncomfortable with my own position in the city at night. Suddenly home had become slightly sinister, and I wanted to re-enact that shift in a poem.
AD: Vamika, do you find that it is different to write poetry in or about Abu Dhabi than in or about other places places you know like Botswana or New York?
VS: Well yeah, it’s different to write about any city because every city is different from the other. My capstone, which bridges cosmopolitanism with women of color, deals with a lot of how women move differently in every city. Abu Dhabi is different because it’s situated in an Islamic country, with this very transient and patchwork demographic. It’s starkly different from New York, obviously, or Botswana or anywhere else really. The way you interact with others, I’ve theorized, as in any city, depends on what history has produced in that city. UAE history has produced a certain type of population with mixed ethnicities, certain class dynamics, religious realities and laws and rules that affect the way I move in Abu Dhabi. The city’s history overlaps with my individual history too, so as an Indian woman who has grown up in Africa, speaks a certain set of languages, is a certain age etc, or in other words, what my body is as a collection of histories, interacts with the city as a body of histories, and it’s what happens in those interactions that I try to make poetry from, whatever city I’m in. Each city differs because the histories and the way those histories overlap with mine are always different and evolving too.
AD: Do you have any poetic influences? What poets are you reading now?
ZJP: I have two books of poetry that I bring with me wherever I go, one is by Emily Dickinson, the other is by E.E. Cummings. I don’t think my writing is anything like either of theirs, but if I ever need to get inspired I leaf through one of those books. I also turn to poets such as Claudia Rankine, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop and Ted Hughes. Poetry isn’t always inspired by poetry though—a poem I’m working on right now was inspired by Ways of Seeing, which is a collection of short essays by John Berger about looking at artworks. I’m often inspired by artworks and films. Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro remains one of my biggest influences.
VS: I’d say I’m pretty influenced by Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Gloria Anzaldua, Claudia Rankine, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. But also other kinds of writers, including fiction and theory. My favorite writer for example is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is one of the most important books to me as both a writer and woman. Open City by Teju Cole is another major book. I also think a lot about James Baldwin, Edward Said, Langston Hughes, bell hooks and again, musicians and lyrics/rap. I’m heavily inspired by artists like Mac Miller, Solange, FKA twigs, Frank Ocean, Mitski etc. I feel like I’m always having conversations with what these people have wrote in my head and those conversations and thought processes eventually come out in the poems, as ways of thinking and re-thinking, and making and remaking, the world.
AD: Zoe, you write short stories as well. What draws you to that form?
ZJP: I started writing short stories for creative writing workshops. Before that I was always interested in writing a novel, and never really read short stories or saw them as a true form. Once I started trying to write them though I realized how difficult they are to master. You have to create an entire believable world with interesting characters in a short amount of time and you need to drag the reader along with a plot that’s interesting. All of the elements of a novel are in there, but none of the breadth. Writing and reading short stories always makes me feel a little breathless. I write them now as a way of testing ideas for new worlds, and of practicing plot and getting into new characters’ heads. Sometimes I get an idea for a scene and I just write it out to see what happens, and then I realize the scene is unfolding into a plot. The excitement of that almost spontaneous unfolding makes me want to keep writing new stories.
AD: Let’s talk about Postcript How did that come about?
VS: We started Postscript mostly by chance in our dorms while we were studying abroad at NYU Paris. It came out of us not taking any literature classes while we were there and sorely missing it.
ZJP: A group of us were sitting in a café, sipping overpriced coffee and lamenting the lack of literature classes being offered by NYU Paris. We were coming to the slow realization that we would have to teach ourselves that semester. Then, someone had the idea to write a poem on our napkins and recite it for the others. These poems were terrible. We decided to keep going by writing a terrible poem every day and posting it in a group chat. It was our own shy way of expressing ourselves and our fears to each other without saying anything out loud. We let the work be bad and ugly, but after a while, we started to write real poetry with urgency. We wanted to share it with more than just each other; we wanted a reason to write and a place where our thoughts mattered. We decided to create that space for ourselves.
VS: We started to write a lot of poems together for fun about our experiences and dilemmas and questions and all the newness we were grappling with while living in France. We decided we want to share this work and our ideas and conversations on a platform, and so our little slapdash creation was spontaneously born. We wrote about the process last year in The Gazelle.
AD: Now that it’s launched, what do you see as the mission of Postcript?
ZJP: Postscript started off as a place for artists and writers whose work might be treated like a footnote, or an addition or amendment to the larger more important stories. We wanted to put those voices in a space together, and to create a network rather than a hierarchy between them. Postscript champions critical work: work that probes, pulls apart and investigates. The result has been submissions from all over the world, from a queer non-binary farmer making collages in Germany, to post-colonial poetry from Trinidad. The network has expanded and grown much more than we expected, and we hope to continue growing it to give space to these important conversations.
VS: We talk about our mission in the Gazelle article, and we’ve also written a mission statement. We’d ideally love to create a print issue by the time we graduate, have some more chapbooks, expand our contributor pool, up our readers etc etc. Basically, keep it going on an upward trajectory where it becomes more and more established.
AD: Tell us about what you’ve done with chapbooks so far.
ZJP: We’ve always wanted to be able to share physical copies of our work. Digital space is convenient, but it also comes with its own sets of challenges. A chapbook is our first attempt at using more traditional methods to disseminate work, and we’re so grateful for our contributors who agreed to be part of this first experiment. The chapbook is called Landing. It starts with the prose-poem “Origins” by Jamie Uy, then “Whole Foods” by Vamika Sinha, “I Want to Wear a Qípáo too” by Samantha Neugebauer, “China Doll” by Tzy Jiun Tan, “Frida” by Zoe Patterson, “Unfeeling Fortunato” by Amal Al Shamsi and “Incessant” by Elyazyeh Al Falacy. It ends with the final line of Elyazyeh’s poem “i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor.” (All of these poems are available on Postscript’s website.) There are also artistic contributions by Sandra Paris, Caitlyn Peck, and Tessa O’Halloran. We think of the chapbook as a microcosm for what we’re trying to do with Postscript as a whole.
AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?
ZJP: I think tolerance is important, but I don’t think it’s the word I’d use to describe what poetry does. Tolerance is about the ability to withstand difference, which is a necessary first step towards true harmony in a young and diverse country like the UAE. But poetry doesn’t just withstand difference: it can probe it, dive into it, push its boundaries and acknowledge its discomforts. Poetry can wrestle with difference rather than simply accepting or enduring it.
VS: As I said earlier, poetry, like any good art, is a way of rethinking and remaking the world around us. That includes social issues, politics, interpersonal relationships. So how do poetry and tolerance intersect? Apart from obvious stuff, like fostering empathy, allowing the reader to inhabit another’s mind and all that, poetry offers us new perspectives, just different angles of looking at the same thing, from meditating on an apple slice to getting catcalled in a foreign city. Of course, prose can do that too. Statistics and research can present the same information. But what’s special about poetry is that it remakes meaning and beauty out of whatever topic it deals with, through the sheer craft of working with language in an innovative and dynamic way. Other writing presents the problem or question, may even provide solutions, but poetry allows us to walk into it, to experience
AD: Is there anything you are hoping to learn from being part of Hekayah this year? Is there anything about the evening that particularly excites you?
VS: I haven’t performed poetry on stage since doing Rooftop Rhythms in freshman year! So I suppose I’m ready to reconfront the idea of going up on stage and sharing my work again now that I’m older and have written more, and with a larger audience.
ZJP: There is always so much to learn from having conversations with other artists. I am particularly invested in the arts scene in the UAE, which is still young and growing. The conversations we have now and the projects we produce can shape the future of the arts in this country. We are creating traditions, and that’s powerful. I’m most excited to share the stage with a group of artists I admire. I’m especially excited to see Professor Tishani Doshi perform, she’s one of my mentors and someone who I hope I can write like someday.