Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

INTERVIEW

Tishani Doshi on Poetry

Aathma Nirmala Dious

Tishani Doshi is a poet, novelist, and journalist, who is currently teaching in the Literature and Creative Writing Program. She was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award in 2018 for her collection of poems Girls Are Coming out of the Woods. Her recent novel Small Days and Nights was published by Bloomsbury in the UK and will appear from Norton in the US next January. A reviewer in for The Guardian described Small Days and Nights as “ a concise novel of staggering depth.” She spoke with us on the eve of her performance at the 2019 Heykayah Festival at NYUAD.

Aathma Dious: You wear many hats as a writer: journalist, fiction writer and poet. Do the disciplines seem separate for you or do they often bleed into each other?

Tishani Doshi: Writing is writing. I think of myself as a poet first, and so there’s an engagement with language regardless of the form I’m working in. But I suppose there’s a different relationship to time across the disciplines. If I’m working on a novel, I tend to be in this tunnel for months and I find I can’t do any other kind of writing, or anything else really. You’re also dealing with time in the novel, which is this huge unwieldy beast. Poetry is more elastic, a poem is its own universe, and there’s a completeness about it that’s very satisfying. Also, I find I don’t need to live in a tunnel to write poems. Essentially, writing is putting one word after the other, but the tricks are different.

AD: How do you know when you are ready to write a new poem? What kinds of things inspire you?

TD: Poems arrive. Recently I’ve been inspired by news stories. I’m fascinated by the fact that we’re living in this age of information but are still no closer to explaining consciousness, that truth and fake news sit side by side, that change is happening at such a torpedo rate. I often think poetry is the one form I have that allows me to respond to all these things. India has also been a fertile place for me in terms of inspiration, and living away from it as I have been this past year, while I’ve been teaching at NYUAD, has allowed me distance to examine what’s going on there—a lot of which is politically quite dark. Poems are a way of reconciling—so when you hear a minister of education saying Darwin was wrong and we have descended for sages and rishis, you know, obviously, that goes straight into a poem.

AD: How did you begin envisioning the dance for the poem “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods”? What comes first, the dance or the poem?

TD: I’m an accidental dancer in that I never had a formal training in dance. I worked with the Indian choreographer, Chandralekha, for many years, and so during that time I was working with someone who had a strong visual expression and I was part of that vision. After she died, I found I was not ready to give up on dance, as I’d been performing for fifteen years, and over that time I had built a physical vocabulary for myself drawing from yoga, bharatnatyam and kallaripayattu. So with “Girls” it was really about finding in movement what I was doing with words, which is to say, finding a way to reclaim the female body.

AD: Looking back on your writing, is there a favorite piece of work or a memory about writing you would like to share?

TD: I was a junior in college when I took a creative writing class which changed the direction of my life. I have few moments in my life which I count as decisive moments, where I recognized even then that this choice was moving me in a different direction. Meeting Chandralekha was one of them, but deciding to become a poet in college was also one of them. I knew then that all the statistics and economics stuff I was doing was fine, but it was never going to be enough. I’m glad I followed my intuition.  

Tishani Doshi

AD: Do you have any poetic influences and what poets are you reading now?

TD: I’m omnivorous and polyamorous and all kinds of influenced when it comes to poetry. This semester I’ve been revisiting old favorites with my students—Wislawa Szymborska, Ada Limon, Bob Hicok, the Beats, and the Bhakti movement among others—and so this is what I’m reading (because obviously there’s no time to read anything else when you’re teaching).

AD: Tell us a little bit about your composition and revision processes.

TD: So—I like to compare it with Indian miniature painting, even though I’m not a painter. The first step is drawing the rough sketch with charcoal, then firming up with a brush and introducing more details, then followed by a thin coat of white primer, then black, then removing the blemishes and burnishing so that the colored pigments can be applied layer by layer. Then, the painting is placed face down and this fuses the pigments into the surface and gives the painting a luster, and HERE the magical step which is called the “khulai,” literally, the opening up, where the painting comes to life, but no, it’s not over, there’s shading, stippling and more burnishing to do, and finally the borders and margins are given and colored in. And between the first and final stage a thousand things can go wrong, and in a less pretty way, that’s the writing process as well.

AD: The UAE government has celebrated 2019 as the “year of tolerance.” Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between poetry and tolerance?

TD: That’s an interesting question. I like to think of literature as being an empathy-enabler, we read because it allows us a way in to the imagination. We can experience other lives, other realities, other worlds. But the strange thing about poetry is that while it is, I think, one of the most honorable forms (there are so few perks to poetry that only the really devoted need apply), there is also a bizarre trend of dictators loving to write poetry. If you take a quick historical inventory of dictators, many of them wrote poetry—Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Hitler—so writing poetry doesn’t automatically make you empathetic. Perhaps if they’d had more successful careers as poets they might not have tortured people so.

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?

TD: I’m just happy to be a part of the festivities. It looks like a great line-up. 

Tishani Doshi performs her dance version of “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods” at a TEDx event in Chennai in March 2018. The poem is read by her with music composed by Luca Nardon.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

Poetry, Prose, and Postscript

INTERVIEW

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. 

Vamika Sinha

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.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at NYUAD and the poetry editor for Electra Street.
FURTHER READING

Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE

Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE

INTERVIEW

Danabelle Gutierrez on Writing Poetry in the UAE

Aathma Nirmala Dious

In November 2018, Danielle Gutierrez and Electra Street poetry editor Aathma Dious were among a group of poets who performed in various galleries at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as part of a celebration of the first anniversary of the opening of the museum. Gutierrez’s poems “My Love as Art” and “The Muse, Frustrated” and Dious’s poem “Pathemari” appeared on Electra Street in February 2019.

In the interview below, Gutierrez talks with Dious about writing poetry in the UAE.

Aathma Dious: Let’s start by talking about your references to famous artists such as Frida Kahlo and Johannes Vermeer in the poem “My Love as Art.”

Danabelle Gutierrez: In the first version of that poem, I make no mention of the names of the artists. However, it seemed like the references got lost from the page to the microphone, so I had to tweak it for performance.

AD: Your reference to art must have played a role when you performed original poetry at the first anniversary celebration of the Louvre Abu Dhabi last fall. Was it different writing for available art pieces at the Louvre Abu Dhabi instead of choosing your own pieces to reference?

DG: It helped that the way that the galleries were divided between the poets was democratic, so I was able to choose the gallery and artwork that I wanted to write about. It was limiting, yes, but I suppose the challenge fueled the inspiration.

AD: Looking back to your work so far, what was your favorite poem to write or your favorite writing memory—and why?

DG: I am supposed to say that my favorite poem is the next one that I’ll write, because in some way it’s true, and it sounds poetic and mysterious. Hahaha. But truly, I think my favorite poems that I’ve written are the ones that magically seemed to write themselves, with little to no effort on my part, it just somehow flowed, and I let it, and it became.

Poet
Danabelle Gutierrez

AD: You mentioned in the bio that accompanied the poems that appeared last February on Electra Street that you have traveled to multiple places since you were young. How has this constant movement informed your writing and poetry? Has it shifted since your “longer pit-stop” in Dubai where you are an expat?

DG: I think the constant moving manifests in the writing in that in a lot of it the speaker of the poem is somehow always seems displaced and is always looking for a place to call “home,” it didn’t really shift when I moved to and stayed in Dubai, because while Dubai does feel somewhat like “home,” I know that it isn’t really.

AD: Right now there is a rise in the arts scene of the UAE, with writing collectives, magazines, open mics flourishing alongside government efforts to open up museums and other such spaces. How has it been navigating your place in this scene, and how different is it from when you first arrived?

DG: I’ve been really grateful because ever since I found the literary scene in the UAE. They’ve been nothing but open and welcoming. And I do love all the different groups, and I am glad that each group is so diverse and has a totally different personality. So in some I love to perform; in others, I just like to attend and enjoy the show.

AD: You are working on your third book, I believe? Is there anything that you would like to share about it and the process?

DG: Tears Across The Earth, my third book, has been in the works for a couple of years now. It has four short stories, and each short story has some poems accompanying it. The process is taking a lot longer, but I am enjoying it, There’s always something new to learn at every turn and something new to discover in every chapter. I am hoping to finally complete it by early next year, but we’ll see.

AD: You’ve won awards for acting at the 48 Hour Film Festival and the Emirates Short Film Festival, as well as from the Film Development Council of the Philippines. How does acting impact your poetry—and vice versa—considering the different demands in each art form?

DG: I feel like film is a lot more forgiving than the stage, if you mess up, you get to do a retake, plus in film, it’s a limited audience, sometimes it’s just you and the director. Performing poetry is still quite hard for me, even after all of these years, it still not my favorite thing to do, I still get very nervous and uncomfortable, not only because I am performing as myself, not as a character, but also because it’s my work and not someone else’s. Thankfully, the audiences that I’ve had the privilege of performing for have been very gracious and for that I am very grateful. 

 

Danabelle Gutierrez is a writer born in the Philippines and raised in Cairo, Vienna, and Muscat. She has been moving from country to country, taking photographs along the way, since she was eight-years old. Her three-decade-long life journey seems to have taken a longer pit stop in Dubai, where she now lives, loves, and writes.

She has been listed among Illustrado‘s “100 Most Influential Filipinos in the Gulf” in 2016, 2017, and 2018; was the recipient of The Filipino Times‘s “Artist of the Year Award” in 2017; and was included in FWN‘s “100 Most Influential Filipinas in the World” in 2018.

Danabelle is the author of I Long To Be the River and & Until The Dreams Come. She is currently working on her third book.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Literature and Creative writing major at New York University, Abu Dhabi. Her first poetry “book” involved folded up A4 papers stapled together with her short poems, accompanied by a bio written by her father and a passport picture at the age of 8.
A soul with a deep love for stories, she performs spoken-word poetry and writes fantasy fiction and personal essays.
  
Her cultural/national identity is a bit mixed-up as a result of  being an Indian (Malayalee) expat born and brought up in Abu Dhabi, an intersection that inspires not just the content but also the mix of English and Malayalam in her work. She’s performed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and at the NYUAD Arts Center’s Hekayah 2018.

Aathma was voted Best New Artist for Rooftop Rhythms 2017-18 season and has written for The Gazelle, NYUAD’s student newspaper. She also enjoys photography, her violin, movies, food, and advocating for POC representation in the arts. 
FURTHER READING

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ART AND ART HISTORY

Interview with Joanne Savio

Interview with Joanne Savio

INTERVIEW WITH
JOANNE SAVIO
February 2017
Joanne Savio talks with her former student Roland Folkmayer about the retrospective of her dance photography and about what she seeks to achieve in a photographic portrait.

RF: What does it feel like having a retrospective of your work?

JS: It’s a very emotional experience. Each of those images have some kind of memory, some more than others. As I looked at the negatives down in my basement—surrounded by, you know, the washer, the dryer, the water tank–working on this very tiny, light table with an old magnifying glass—it wasn’t just picking out images for a show from thousands of negatives of dance, but it was also a visual memoir. I shed tears over some of those images. Some of these subjects are not with us anymore. Some of the assistants that helped me create this work are not here anymore. Awam Amkpa, a friend of mine who is a scholar and artist here, said, “Don’t think of it as a retrospective. Think of it as an introspective,” which I thought was excellent, you know, a good way to look at it.

RF: Absolutely. When you were going through your pictures, how did you know what to exclude, and what to include?

JS: In the film department, as you know, we have the expression “Kill the darlings.” And I had to do that for this show. I kept editing, editing, editing, taking things out, and trying to stand back in my mind, to see how these images converse with each other. Do they have something in common? Is there a gesture? Is there something that would make the images live together as a family? [Laughs.] I still mourn some of the images that I couldn’t fit into the show.

RF: So you were looking for—something more like an emotional attachment for you, or some other sort of quality?

JS: I had to say to myself, “Okay. Is this [image in the show] because I’m so attached to this person, and I’m really remembering that moment shooting them? But how will an audience react to this image?”

RF: Why did you choose this twenty-year time frame for your exhibit? Why not shorter, or longer?

JS: That’s a great question. One way to think about it is 1986 was the first dance project I ever photographed, of Merce Cunningham. And there was no budget. I had gone back to school later in my life, at 33, I had already graduated with a degree in English Literature–

RF: Great. [Laughs.]

JS: —and I was then studying at Cooper Union, which is an amazing art school, and engineering, and architecture school in New York. And almost all of the students there were appropriate college age but we became friends. There was one young man there who later became an extremely famous designer and writer, Abbott Miller, who ended up art-directing and designing the beautiful magazine called Dance Ink. He called me and said, “I have this project, a portrait. I think you’d be perfect for it. But there’s really no budget.” When he said the subject was Merce Cunningham, I said, “I’m ready. I’ll go.” And my husband, Jim, went with me as an assistant. So that was the beginning. And even though I didn’t stop shooting dance in 2004, it seemed like the bulk of my work, including my book Vital Grace, as well as most of the work I had done for Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Ink., seemed to finish up at around that point. So it seemed like a perfect chapter to try to illustrate. But I intend to continue shooting dance and taking portraits for the rest of my life.

Portrait of Pina Bausch, Italy, 1994.
Photo by Joanne Savio

RF: How does dance keep you inspired? Why do you think it’s an essential and important topic in your life?

JS: Because for one thing I’m so clumsy. And these incredible, beautiful beings can do something that I cannot do. So the ones that are performance based, it was exciting to shoot. There is some kind of gut reaction about when to press that shutter. Someone who came to my opening said, “That’s a perfect moment with Baryshnikov and Trisha Brown. How did you know to shoot that moment?” But it was the instinct of seeing a beautiful form. I would hear myself gasp behind the lens. For that moment in time I also feel like I’m flying through the air, I am these dancers. But when I stop time for that second, it forces the viewer to study that image. So the image appears important, or it appears that it’s something that needs to be looked at.

RF: That’s very interesting. So you weren’t necessarily capturing a particular moment but could, sort of let it happen?

JS: I’m usually working with these people not as they’re performing for an audience. So I can say, “I want to make sure that I got that jump. Can you try it again?” No one’s saying, “Oh, you should get that.” You know, there’s just something inside of you that feels a moment you connect as human beings, something about that person that’s reminding you of yourself. Like, I’m looking at you now, how you’re holding your hands. I’m looking at your gestures, your eyes. If I were taking a portrait of you right now, I’d be looking for those moments where it would feel right to take that picture.

RF: When I look at these pictures, I wonder—how do you bring out the vulnerability in people?

JS: You know, the first thing is that you try to establish a sense of trust and respect between you and your subject. If it’s someone famous I do research before the shoot, because I want them to know that they’re not just another project to me, that I’m interested in who they are, what was there upbringing like, where were they born. I also feel when a camera is on you, you can feel vulnerable. And I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty. Also, I don’t rush them. It goes back to the class you took with me [“Sound, Image, Story”], when I tried to stress slowing our world down, looking at tiny moments of light, little gestures, a look in the eye, expressions on a face.

RF: How can we practice slowing our world down?

JS: That’s—I’m still— [Laughs.] I’m still struggling with that myself.

RF: Interesting.

JS: When I slow my world down, I don’t tend to fall as much. [Laughs.]

I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty.

RF: Your exhibition is called Grace, and your images were featured in a book called Vital Grace. So I wondered, what is grace to you, in your life?

JS: Even in this context, it’s not just grace in the sense of being graceful, but also in the sense of giving blessings and giving thanks to something. These photos are a way also to honor the people that were willing to sit in front of my camera and willing to show themselves to me. So it’s also a grace in the sense of giving back to these people a blessing of gratitude.

RF: Putting together this exhibit was a long process. What will you take away from this whole exhibition?

JS: I’m still processing it all but it does feel really good to see my work around me. Because it’s like being almost in the company of friends, subjects, memories in my own life. So I walk away from the exhibition feeling very grateful for the life I have.

Joanne Savio’s exhibition Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 continues at the NYUAD Project Space gallery through February 25.

Top photo: Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Images courtesy of the artist.

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

PHOTOGRAPHY
SHORT STORY

Interview with Charles Siebert (III)

Interview with Charles Siebert (III)

INTERVIEW WITH

CHARLES SIEBERT

In the third part of Sebastián Rojas Cabal’s interview with Charles Siebert, the pair discuss the teaching of Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Part III: Teaching 

Teaching full-­time here has been a new experience for me. I’ve only done visiting professorships in the past. I was a bit apprehensive at first about teaching Intro to Creative Writing and have to cover so many different forms, like the personal essay, fiction and poetry. I mean it’s one thing for me to have stuck my nose back into poetry, my roots. I began my writing career as a poet. But it was really exciting today. We’d been doing the personal essay before. It was unbelievable to see how excited everyone was. I’m still getting a little resistance on the writing of it. But the reading of it­­ I think to have six students flipping over T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” you know, a poem that was written back in 1910. They were responding to it like it was a contemporary work. So that was pretty cool. That was fun.

I’m also having them read persona poems, where the poet, you know, takes on the persona of some other person, like James Dickey’s “Lifeguard,” a beautiful poem in the voice of a lifeguard who can’t save a drowning boy. And­­ Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” imagining herself as Lazarus, coming back from the dead. Incredible.

In my feature writing and travel writing courses in which students are asked to compose a long-­form narrative work of creative non­fiction I have to tell everyone, “Stop leading with your premise. This is not an academic paper. Just find the stories that add up to your premise.”
This student down in Ghana kept saying, “I wanna write about the justice system in Ghana and how it’s the antidote to the corruption and nepotism of the government.” I’m going, “Okay, but I don’t want a thesis, okay? Sit in the courtroom. Be an observer. And find the stories that add up to what you just told me. You know, ’cause if you go the other way, you’re gonna write me a term paper. And I don’t want a term paper.”

And that’s what’s been the hardest thing to get across here. And a lot of that’s a function of age. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now at the undergrad level. You know, I too was filled with my premises and my theories and the only escape I got from that was writing poetry. I understand the impulse. It’s not until you get a little older and a little more worldly and do this for awhile, where you’re out in the real world listening to people’s stories. I’m not a reporter. Not by training. I’ve never had a journalism class. But I just figured that stuff out by virtue of wanting to tell a good story. And for telling a good story you gotta ask some questions and you gotta go see things and then give the world back to readers in as compelling a way as possible. But I still miss poetry. There are so many days where I just go, “Should I just go back? You know, just throw all this away?”

Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation.

Photo by Sebastián Rojas Cabal

Q: But do you think training as a poet has somehow fits with your life as a creative nonfiction writer?

A: I was very conscious of form when I wrote poems, else why write it? And I think being highly attuned to and conscious of the form of free verse poems especially, and how it’s shaped, the beginning, middle, end, I think somehow it gave me an instinctual sense of how to structure a long-­form narrative piece. We talk a lot about the structuring of a narrative piece in the feature and travel writing writing classes. So I think that’s one way.

Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it.

The other way that poetry helped is what we discussed earlier about the function of metaphor. That works so well for so many of the kind of pieces I write now because they deal in these unseen landscapes of science. There’s not a piece I write where at one point I’m not talking about things like the neurons that are attached to empathy or that get wounded in trauma or where I’m not talking about cells and the makeup of cells, and where viruses came from.

Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it. Thus, for example, my friend Francisco Goldman, who had me up at his class at Trinity College in Hartford. He asked me, “You know, where did you come up with this line?”And it was something to do with the crooked streams and blown­-out bridges of an embattled psyche or something like that. And of course at the time I was thinking of the first war when we first came up with the idea of shell­ shock and war trauma. Well when one thinks of the First World War you think of those dreary landscapes of muddy trenches and barbed wire. And the blood and rains in crooked streams. So that’s where I came up that image. But that’s what it is, giving a physical shape to unseen inner landscapes. And that’s the challenge of writing today. It really is, that’s what we’re facing more and more. And that’s where poetry couldn’t be a better tool.

Q: What has it meant to you, to be a professor of practice?

A: I still don’t know. When I arrived here and saw that on my door, I just kind of chuckled. I had actually seen it because Judy Miller, who hired me, sent me something very early on, saying—oh, it must have been the contract—“And you’re to be known as a professor of practice.”

And I just went, “What? That’s kind of weird. It makes me sound like all I do is practice. “Yeah, he’s just in his office, practicing.” I guess it fits, in the sense that what distinguishes me from other professors here is I’ve really not lived in and worked in academia for the majority of my life.

So now that I’m teaching it, I can also say I’m doing it. I’m still out there, doing it. And I’m really proud of that. I think it makes me a better teacher. Because I don’t wanna just share my past enthusiasm for this form of writing. I wanna have people seeing me sweat over it now. Because it’s like your struggle. So it makes me a better teacher. I don’t mind talking about myself in class. I don’t wanna do it to a braggadocious sense or anything. I do it only in a utilitarian sense.

I use myself as, you know, a case in point, the guinea pig. This is what this feels like. I tend not to like to teach my writing because there’s so many good writers out there. But I was really happy about getting this parrot piece out. This was one of the few times I’ve had to write a piece like that, you know, while teaching. I wrote another one that wasn’t as complicated while at Columbia last year. Here it was really hard ’cause of the time difference. The week of closing that story I was up until 4:00 in the morning, four nights in a row,

Q: Have you had any ideas for a story based in Abu Dhabi?

A: A couple have perked up. I already knew coming in there was potential with the falcon hospital. And something about displacement and a conversation actually that I had with you—very early on last semester—that I actually thought of incorporating into the opening of a book called The Anatomy of Empathy. I have started writing it from time to time. But I’ve been too busy to get too far with it.
When I first got here I also wanted to start keeping a memoir, or a diary. But I don’t keep diaries. I keep notebooks perpetually, but I don’t keep diaries per se. But I kinda thought, that probably everybody and their mother’s had this idea: “I’m gonna write about a book about teaching in Abu Dhabi or my experiences.” Who knows …

But I do love the teaching and I do like the fact that I’m forced to read a bunch of books or revisit books I haven’t visited in awhile. That’s fun. Although I’m a horribly slow reader. So it’s tough work for me. You know, just like, “Oh, don’t read the whole book. Just read chapter four and five.” And I’m doing that just to give myself a break.

Q: What do you think of teaching classes like Intro to Creative Writing or Future Writing or Travel Writing is doing to you as a writer?

A: I guess the parrot piece answered that for me a little bit. I had to write it here so maybe the classes helped. It’s not just lip service when I say writing a piece takes you back to school in writing every time. And you are a beginner every time. And you feel the same terror every time. You feel the same frustration over your stupidity. You feel the same anger at the ripped up openings, the indecision, the amount of decisions, the same doubts about it. “Am I losing it? I’m losing my edge?” I drive my wife crazy with that.

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

Interview with Charles Siebert (I)

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

Interview with Charles Siebert (II)

SHORT STORY

The Open Door

Interview with Charles Siebert (II)

Interview with Charles Siebert (II)

Siebert and Cabral deep in conversation. Photo: Sebastián Rojas Cabal.

Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation. Photo: Sebastián Rojas Cabal.

Part II. Science

Q: Do you think we’re always looking for metaphors to write about science?

A: I’ve given talks on the bond between science and poetry. And the reason why what you just asked is really prescient is that poetry is about building a bridge via metaphor from some complex recondite, muddled mixture of emotion and thought. You’re building a bridge out of metaphor, back to sense, to understanding. Science now is defined by all these recondite, arcane, unbelievably complex and often invisible worlds. There’s microbiology, for instance, one of the new landscapes of discovery, from which we need to build a bridge of metaphors back to understanding.

So if someone goes on to me about, for example, chromosome 13 and this whole series of numbered codons on that chromosome, how do you describe that so it’s not just codons? Suddenly you’re thinking of chromosomes as a suburban cul­de­sac with all these mailboxes lining them, the specific addresses of the residents that dwell with our cells and make us us who we are..

You come up with metaphors to give a physical shape and look to these unseen landscapes. And because the world, the visible world, has been fully discovered, and mapped, the next “as yet to be” discovered landscape is our own inner biology. We need armies of writers to build metaphors back from such largely invisible worlds. That’s my feeling.

Q: And what do you think are the biggest challenges of building those metaphors?

A: The challenge is it’s hard. It’s a challenge for the actual scientists, which, in turn, makes my job easier. Because, you know, they need idiots like me to come and ask them the questions, over and over, so even I can begin to understand it. At least enough to build the bridge of metaphor back.

That takes patience on the part of the writer. For an actual scientist—and there are some who are brilliant at doing the very thing that I do—they have the information at their disposal. But it’s hard to be a scientist and hover above your material and all that minutia and be a good writer too.

Examples of these are Oliver Sacks, the British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who writes so poetically and beautifully about science. So there are some out there. Lewis Thomas was one of the forerunners of that, a doctor who could also write very poetically. I think the challenge is just finding the right language to express the poetry. The mandate should be, if you ask me, to make people feel the poetry. Because I believe science is supplanting the old stories now, the creation myths, all the Bible stories, and all the old religions.

I think it’s telling a new story that’s just as wonderful and mysterious. And that is what people who write about this stuff need to try to do, to slowly, incrementally get people not to fear science, and to see how lovely it is. I mean, it confounds me that we live in a time where people are still staring up to the heavens and believing in nonexistent beings, when the real story is looking downward and inward, in the opposite direction, looking into the details of where all biology came from, including us.

That story is the new creation story, and it’s a story that doesn’t preclude people’s religion. It doesn’t shove anybody’s God out the door. But I don’t understand for the life of me why human beings can’t embrace that story for its coolness and its wonders.

Look in that direction: you’re gonna find everything. You’re gonna find everything that people thought they were gonna find looking up there. Eternity exists in the details, or as Blake said, in a grain of sand, right?

Q: But don’t you think scientists have been too intent in killing mystery?

A: Well, no. I think that’s a common belief about what science does. That Oh shit, love is caused and can be traced sometimes to chemical reactions. Everything is explainable. Or the moon’s not made of cheese. It was the physicist Richard Feynman who said something to the effect of “Why is the moon any less poetic because we know it is comprised of methane and ammonia and so on and not cheese” .

So it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean science is reductive. It means it’s reinventing mystery in explosively, excitingly new way. Take consciousness, for example. Are we ever gonna totally explain consciousness?

No, because it will be a million times harder than explaining a great Beethoven symphony. In fact, I believe that those kinds of creations so move us precisely because they open up the biggest and longest window that we can get on the true underlying complexity of our biology and of how we got here.
Four billion years of things happening, from the atomic level to the cellular level and, you know, that’s a lot of history. And people just dismiss that. don’t think there’s anything there? And that’s where it is. If you just look back at that stuff, if you find out where the first complex nucleated cell came from. It’s just ridiculous.

The other day I went to Jack Szostak lecture, Nobel Laureate, on the origins of cellular life. That’s the kind of lecture I go to. It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by that stuff because, when you know the true story of how those cells first assembled, the very beings that allowed us and every other living thing to be here at this moment, it’ll knock your socks off, how it happened.

And it’s full of every symbolic significance that you can think of. If you really know how a cell first came together, and what the first cell was, you go, “Oh, that’s the blueprint for the first city. That’s the first cooperative. Those early cells were the first cooperatives. I had a biologist say to me once, during an interview, he said, “You know the best way I can describe what the inside of a cell looks to you like?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know the opening to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie, where those cars and trains are going by and little airplanes are flying and everything’s doing this little mission on monorails?.That’s what the inside of a cell looks like. All the parts in our cells are all, like, ‘Oh, I gotta deliver this message,’ ‘I gotta take the trash out. I gotta do this.'”

But originally on Earth there wasn’t any of that. There were just vast slime mats of single­celled bacteria burping oxygen into the air, giving us the oxygen we now breathe. But because they lacked a cell nucleus, they kept making one version of themselves over and over and over and over and over again, for billions of years. For billions of years it was a one­note planet. And then something happened where one bacteria got inside the cell wall of another and got gobbled up by it, but didn’t get fully digested. So the history of  life forming on earth is really a story of indigestion Which ins kind of cool. The life-form that got inside the other one, you know, persisted there and started to perform a function for its new host. And symbiosis developed. And then another thing got inside. And it started contributing its particular functions to the workings of the host, it started to cooperate. And that’s how cells got more complicated. In fact, some scientists now think that the cell nucleus, which contains DNA and RNA and controls cell division and the emergence of complex multicellular life­forms was originally a virus that insinuated itself into an early cell and began to direct its functions. And so that one one cell went over to two and then to three and then to four, and from a one­note planet, a symphony began to emerge, one that would build over the next 3­billion years. And that’s why I went back to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and others. I always think what geniuses like them do is lay bare some of the true fabric of that massively complex original composition called life. That’s my theory.

Q: In many of your pieces about animals, the message always seems to be something along the lines of ‘hey, we should care about these guys too, right?’ But there are many stories out there about human beings that also need empathy, right? And that’s when the choice to write about animals, as opposed to writing about people, strikes me as a little odd. Is there something about that choice that actually makes it easier to care for our own?

A: Absolutely it does. Absolutely. See, because the conceit behind that oft asked question is, “Well, fine to write about animals, but there are bigger problems in the world.” And one of the things that I’m proud of about my animal writing is that this dignifies human beings as well as animals. Because it can only help us to know our bond with the non­us. It extends our understanding. And it especially extends our empathic reach. How could it hurt for us to be more understanding of the commonality, the common bonds we have with all these animals? How could that hurt human beings, even if I’m also getting you to care about the plight of the animal?

I mean, let’s face it. Most of these animals I write about are doomed if not for a fence that we put around them and that means that they’re doomed anyway, because they won’t have any genetic diversity. But most of my pieces stress how there but for the grace or accident of a few neurons go we. That we are them and they are us. And especially with pieces like the one about elephants, the whole dynamic of the piece was you see what’s happening here to them, wilding bands of young elephants raised without the usual parental care because we destroyed the complex social fabric of traditional elephant herds? That’s exactly what happens to war orphans when they’re not raised correctly. Elephants not raised correctly, children who are disconnected from correct parental and societal upbringing, they become wilding bands. Now, that’s not just some bleeding heart animal tights story about save the elephants. That’s a piece about stretching the definition of humanity and the embrace of that.

There are pieces that bring that out more clearly, our commonality with non­human animals. I think that’s why this recent parrot piece touched so many people. Because there are co­characters here. There are wounded war veterans. These guys who go off to war and are just shunted in America afterwards. I mean, they get it twice. They get the trauma of the war and then they come home and they’re just forgotten. And then you have these parrots who are twice traumatized. Traumatized first by being deprived of their flock and their flocking instinct. And then again by being abandoned by the humans who kept them. And now these two entirely different and yet mutually offended beings are helping one another.

So I think that’s why that story helps to dissolve the phony human/animal divide. I’ve learned to not even regard it anymore. I’m not saying we’re elephants. We’re not as good as elephants in a lotta ways. They’re more devout than we are about things. And we’re not whales. But, you know, we sure share a lot with each other. We sure have common motives and makeups. We do.

[Part I] [Part III]

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