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‘I write poems when poems come’

  • Published at 09:10 pm January 4th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:13 pm January 16th, 2018
‘I write poems when poems come’
Nausheen Eusuf was a panelist at the Dhaka Lit Fest 2017 where she also launched her debut poetry collection, Not Elegy, but Eros, published by Bengal Lights Books. On November 16, the opening day of the festival, Dhaka Tribune’s Sayeeda T Ahmad caught up with the Bangladeshi poet.

How does it feel to be back in Bangladesh, and especially at the DLF?

It feels wonderful, because the thing is I am Bangladeshi, as opposed to let’s say Bangladeshi-American, and my home is here. I come home every winter and summer in the summer break between semesters and the winter break between semesters. So, I’m very much connected to Bangladesh. And to be able to have a book published and launched at an event like this is just really wonderful. Also, it’s wonderful because this is my first time at DLF. It’s in the middle of the Fall semester, so I’ve never been able to come. BLB [Bengal Lights Books] was kind enough to bring out the Bangladeshi edition of my book. Actually, it was first accepted in the US and then I approached BLB to bring out a Bangladeshi edition so that it would be available here. The work they do is amazing. Their editions. Actually, the Bengal Lights book is the more handsome one, isn’t it? I mean with the flaps and everything? So, there is a standard. It’s an art object.

NYQ Books is your American publisher?

Yes, it is.

Tell me more about Not Elegy, but Eros. How did you start writing it?

Basically, it’s not that I thought: “Okay, I’m going to have a book and I started. Okay, I’m writing poems for my book.” It wasn’t like that. But I have been writing poems for about a dozen years. I did a creative writing master’s at Johns Hopkins [University] a long time ago [2004] and since then, I’ve been writing poems and sending [them] out to journals and getting poems published in journals since 2007. So, it’s been 10 years since I’ve been publishing poetry in journals and over time your work improves. Really, in the last three or four years is when I feel like my work has got into more of what you can call a mature level that is good enough for putting into a book. At that point, when I felt like I have enough good stuff published in good journals to put together a book, that’s when I decided: “Okay, so here’s what I have. How do I structure this into a collection?” So, basically, there’s a kind of an arc in the book which is reflected by the title, Not Elegy, but Eros. It sort of goes from poems that are more about grief and grieving the dead towards poems that are more about living and sort of ....

Celebrating their lives?

Yeah, celebrating life of the living. That’s how the book is roughly structured. I also have it in sections because when you’re putting together a first book, you don’t usually have a whole bunch of poems on one thing. You have poems you wrote about this and that, so the only way to structure it is to put all those in different sections. In that sense, it’s very much a first book.
I draft on the computer, but then once I have a draft, I print out the draft, and then I tinker with it on paper. I like to see it on paper, then cross things out and do things, but first I need to type it out. I don’t use notebooks at all. I work on the computer until I have a complete first draft, then I print it out and tinker with it, and then I fix it on the computer, and then I print it out again.

What type of poems do you write? What draws you to form poems rather than free verse?

Well, I do both actually. I would say I do probably 70% free verse and maybe 30% form. But even if I’m doing free verse, free verse is never free. I forget if Eliot said it or someone else. Even when I’m writing free verse, it’s still informed by the fact that I have written in metre and can write in metre. I think there are a few types of poems that I do well. For instance, I wouldn’t be able to write a nature poem, but there are other types I do well. One type is elegies. I do write a lot of elegies and some are personal elegies and some are public elegies. But form is not the right word. It’s a genre. And, I also tend to write poems that are kind of cerebral and witty and elusive. So that’s another type I write and there’s a section of those. And then I also write poems that are about art, or about forms of art. For example, I have a poem about a musician, I have a poem about a painting, I have a poem about a picture, a photograph, I have a poem about an audio-kinetic sculpture, which is one of those things you see in airports. So, it’s like thinking about poetry as an art by considering other art forms. So that’s another type of poetry that I do.

You published a chapbook, What Remains, in 2011. Tell me about that book.

That book was closer to what I was writing when I was doing my creative writing master’s degree, which was quite a while before that [in 2004]. Back then, I was writing a lot more elegies, and so, poems of grief. Those poems matured a little bit over time. By the time the chapbook came out – it had 20 pages –only about half of the poems were actually written when I was doing my masters, but they were revised, and the other half were poems I had written later. Basically, that book is actually a thematic collection. The whole book is elegies, whereas this collection does not have one unified theme. The chapbook came out of what I was doing as a masters student whereas this is a little more mature.

Notebook or online? How do you start writing and what's your process? 

I draft on the computer, but then once I have a draft, I print out the draft, and then I tinker with it on paper. I like to see it on paper, then cross things out and do things, but first I need to type it out. I don’t use notebooks at all. I work on the computer until I have a complete first draft, then I print it out and tinker with it, and then I fix it on the computer, and then I print it out again. So I go through that stage several times. Putting together the first complete draft is really where 80% of the work is, and then the rest of the 20% is tinkering and perfecting: “Okay, this line is not working,” or “I need to change this word, or this line break.”

Do you incorporate new media into your writings?

New media? For example, there are people who do visual poetry. That sort of thing?

Or social media.

Such as Twitter poems. No, those are newfangled things I don’t do. My poems are more traditional. On the other hand, do I integrate other mediums? Sure. For example, I have a poem in the book which uses a lot of quotations from newspaper articles. It’s a non-poetic medium which I’m incorporating into a poem. It’s called “Shapes of a Suspended Curly Hair.”

It’s a catchy title.

Yeah. Believe it or not, Shapes of a Suspended Curly Hair is the title of a scientific study that was conducted by physicists at MIT in the Sorbonne, and it was published in a physics journal by physics professors. Literally, they were studying the properties of curly hair. It’s a funny poem, obviously, and there are a lot of quotations from sources that I read in order to research the poem because the poem itself is on a non-poetic subject. Basically, I was trying to imitate Marianne Moore. Marianne Moore does it much better in how she incorporates quotations. So I was trying out that method as an exercise.

What are you working on now?

Dissertation, and I’m continuing to write poems and send them out to journals and eventually they find homes. Again, I think the process will repeat itself in another four, five, six years. I’ll have enough good poems that I’ll feel can be put together in a collection and I’ll think about “Which are my strongest poems and then how do I structure them into a collection?” That’s probably how it will naturally work out. In terms of “do I have a specific plan and this is my next project,” no, not really, because the dissertation is what I need to finish. In the meantime, you know, I write poems when poems come. Whenever a poem wants to be written. When inspiration strikes, basically.

How has your work evolved over the years?

In many ways. Every writer goes through a process of improving gradually. Over the course of 10-12 years, I’ve learned to cover more range. Now I can write more types of poems than I could before. I think I’ve also improved in terms of greater depth, meaning emotional depth. They [my poems] take greater risks. The voice is more mature. I’ve also improved in terms of the confidence of the voice. Though, there are other ways in which there’s still more room for improvement.
Sayeeda T Ahmad is a poet. Her first poetry collection, Across Oceans, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2016.