“the word ‘asmarani’ is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person.”
Asmarani (Akashic Books/ African Poetry Book Fund, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that influence your writing?
These days: Inadequate Grave by Brandon Courtney, Transit by Cam Awkward-Rich, After by Fatimah Asghar, Her Blue Body by Warsan Shire. But there are so many chapbooks that I love—I am lucky in that so many of my friends are geniuses that write genius chapbooks, and so I have shelves full of these gorgeous little books written by some of my favorite minds.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I love a tight, compact poem, and a tight, compact project. Most of my poems are pretty tiny. I don’t really know where the preference comes from, but whenever I feel myself nearing the bottom of the document page when I’m typing, I start to get anxious. I don’t like to feel like I’ve used too many words.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
Okay so, I’m not sure if this one counts but when I was a sophomore in college I was printing and hand-stapling a little chapbook called Vandalism?! which shortly thereafter went out of print because I ran out of print credit at the library. I don’t really think of that one as a project—it was really just all the (few) poems I’d written up until that point.
In 2012, Well&Often Press put out a chapbook of mine called The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles. That one is, inasmuch as it could be “about” anything, “about” a boy who hurt my feelings and the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It was the first time I’d tried experimenting with different voices in my poems, with persona, and with the mythology surrounding larger-than-life artists that died young, which is still something I like to think about in my work today. That one’s out of print as well, but it was a fun project to work on and serves as a sort of time capsule of my junior and senior years of college, where I was, again, mostly thinking about boys that hurt my feelings and the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard. And now there’s Asmarani, and I also have a tiny chapbook forthcoming from MIEL but that’s so far still too much of a work in progress to be able to describe. But there’s some more Ol’ Dirty Bastard in that one.
What’s your chapbook about?
It’s about the late Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, in which I treat Abdel Halim Hafez as a stand-in for my relationship with the Arabic-speaking world and with my exploration of my own Arabized Africanness in the face of pervasive anti-blackness in a lot of the Arabic-speaking environments I’ve been in. Also it’s about water and being young and sickly in New York City and being an alien and about my parents.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece is an untitled one that begins [did our mothers invent loneliness or did it make them our mothers]. I wrote it in April 2013, on the first day of a 30/30 I was doing with my friend Joshua Bennett. The poem “the lovers” is also from that 30/30, from day 10, and that one is the one I’d consider the real catalyst for this project, because it was the first time I’d really asked any questions about my parents’ relationship and eventual separation, and the mythology surrounding their love story in the ways it’s been told to me by different people.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement was really a team effort, where some very kind friends helped me look at the poems and then helped me talk through it while I figured out how I wanted the story to arc. And I decided to put “everything i know about abdelhalim hafez” as the last poem mostly because I thought it would be funny? And the title has a few different sources—first of all, the word “asmarani” is a term of endearment in Arabic for a brown-skinned or dark-skinned person. Abdel Halim Hafez addressed many of his love songs to “al-asmarani,” the asmarani, the brown-skinned or dark-skinned girl, in particular. (One of my favorite songs of his is called “Asmar Ya Asmarani”—asmar being the original word that asmarani is a diminutive of). And I don’t have to tell you, really, how radical it is to name the darker girl in particular in a culture (and a world, let’s be real) marked by antiblackness. So the title, really, is where I get to pretend to be the asmarani of his songs, the brown girl he is naming when he sings.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Probably “glossary”—it’s a weird little chart pretending to be a poem, and you have to turn the book sideways to read it. But I love it. But it’s weird and my grandparents have told me more than once that it doesn’t make sense (and also that I mistranslated one of the Arabic terms in it, oops).
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
“everything i know about abdelhalim hafez” was the last one, and I knew it was going to be the last of my Abdel Halim poems even as I was writing it, because it felt like saying goodbye. In it, Abdel Halim dies, and I never go back home.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Mahmoud Darwish. Nizar Qabbani, who wrote many of the poems that were adapted into lyrics for Abdel Halim Hafez’s songs. Abdel Halim, obviously. I watched a lot of Arab Idol while writing this, and especially loved when the contestants would cover his songs. I was having a recurring dream featuring the musician Prince and he and I talked about the chapbook a lot in the dreams. I interviewed my grandmother early on in the process, and her interview helped me a lot.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? What were your rituals? What were you obsessed with, that led you to this project?
Safia Elhillo’s first full-length collection, The January Children, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Sudanese by way of Washington, D.C., a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she received an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. Her work appears in several journals and anthologies, including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Author photo by Ahmed Aladdin Abushakeema.
date night with abdelhalim hafez
the story goes my father would never unwrap a piece of gum
without saving half for my mother the story goes
my mother saved all the halves in a jar that’s not the point
i’m not looking for anything serious just someone to watch
my plants when i’m gone (you can sing now if you want to)
they’re worried no one will marry me i have an accent in every language
i want to be left alone but that’s not how you make grandchildren
i can’t go home with you home is a place in time
(that’s not how you get me to dance)
i’m not from here i’m not from anywhere
i mean to say i don’t know that song
(originally published in Apogee Journal)