“I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all.”
Sugah Lump Prayer (Akashic Books, 2017)
How do you decorate your writing space?
Right now, I’ve got my favorite embroidered pillow next to me. I decorate sparsely, but I’m always surrounded by a stack of books, my laptop and a water bottle. I keep it as bare as possible as it helps lessen distractions.
Could you share with us a poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
excerpt from Clockwise
Dew or the wetness on a man’s cheek. Find me a distinction.
Both descend at night,
leave by morning.
I want to believe in so much more than this.
I want to say we are more than our geographies of loss
and believe it. Help me believe it.
What is there to write about after exile?
After this dress of loose skin
After the blue sighs of those before us?
Wait for it. Our backs straining into loaded crossbows,
in the meantime.
I think I’ll write about the rain making an industrial disaster
out of your neat face
and that time I used your toothbrush to fix my baby hairs in the sink
and never told you.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
It’s part of a longer poem that helped me interrogate my own understanding of empathy and its limits. The thin and equally monumental line that divides me from those I call kin. Clockwise came out of this need to articulate a kind of cognitive dissonance I feel whenever I witness the televised death and degradation of my people and then think there’s any way to have that recognized and represented on the page. Or that I have to be the one to do it. For me, there’s always been an uncritically indulgent element to the act of observation, especially from the perspective of the diaspora. I wanted to speak to that as much as it could possibly be spoken.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
This question is such a nightmare for me. Chapbooks whet the appetite, and I usually devour them in one sitting. Ladan Osman’s Ordinary Heaven, Kill the Dogs by Heather Bell and Ochre by Gla4 are outrageously good chapbooks.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?
That I love a deceptively simple poem. I’m conscious of having so much going on in my own poems, so I admire poets who can stay true to the exoskeleton of a line and draw something much bigger from it. I also like chapbooks that challenge my own biases around structure and continuity.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Movement. I’m obsessed with movement of peoples, borders, temporality, ideas. Movement and the possibility or impossibility of return. I’m endlessly fascinated with the odds of being a specific person in a specific place at a specific time. The arbitrariness of it all. How displacement is embodied from generation to generation. The terrible joy and pain of never having the luxury of standing still. Why I enjoy the kind of safety I was born into and what makes me different from those who look and speak like me who don’t. The wounds I carry by proxy; what it means to inherit and then assume ownership over traumatic histories and presents that aren’t really yours.
What’s your chapbook about?
It’s about my own movement as well as that of those around me, both across and within borders. The domestic and communal scenes that depict that movement in all its beauty and fraughtness. I use the five Muslim prayers to ground the people and places in my poems; that’s the one thing that stays constant in any Muslim individual’s life. To bow down wherever you may be in the world and face the same direction. Bittersweetness is also a recurring theme, both literally and figuratively. Beyond me having a sweet tooth, I associate sweetness with traditional family gatherings over tea, histories of illness, childhood indulgence and delicious moments stolen away even in the worst of times.
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 is “Grief in HTML.” I wrote it at least three years before the rest of the chapbook. It was during a period of my life that was marked by constant worry about family members who were living in Mogadishu and were always under the threat of violence. Beyond that, what struck me was how mundane we considered it and how desensitised I’d become. To the point of hearing about a bombing and automatically thinking I should probably Whatsapp my father to check if he’s, you know, alive. Or the death of family friends and their still active Facebook profiles. At that point, I started thinking more about mourning as a technology and our own survival strategies as ever evolving.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The poem “Choices,” which is dedicated to my paternal grandfather. He was killed in the civil war. I’ve never met both of my grandfathers but they have always loomed in the background as these larger than life figures who I got to know through stories and photographs.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“If He Wills It” is the one. It’s about a very specific memory that can be interpreted either way. Maybe it’s about a checkpoint. Maybe it’s about a boy. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
This might sound weird but if there’s a line or turn of phrase I’m unsure about, I sing it. I don’t bawl it in the shower or anything like that, but I do repeatedly hum it (Kid Cudi-style) until I make sense of what needs to be changed. It also helps to print your poem and hold it out in front of you at arms lengths just to purely focus on how it looks on the page.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I couldn’t have asked for a better editor. Kwame Dawes is legit one of my favorite poets, so being edited by him was a dream. Akashic Books was fantastic to work with, and it was wonderful being part of an established series like the New Generation African Poets. The beautiful cover art was by the late Eritrean painter Ficre Ghebreyesus. I’m still really hyped about how it all turned out and how smooth the process was.
What are you working on now?
My first full collection. I feel like it will kill me, but I’m willing to die trying.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
You’re always told to do the readings, but it’s important to remember we don’t all read the same way. Think about the baggage you bring to whatever you are reading and how that influences what you take away from it. Find time to read work you dislike or don’t ‘get’. Sharpen your critical scalpel. Trust yourself. Everybody’s winging it anyway.
Momtaza Mehri is a poet, essayist and literary researcher. Her poetry has been featured in DAZED, Buzzfeed, Vogue, BBC Radio 4, Poetry Society of America and Poetry International. She is a Complete Works Fellow and winner of the 2017 Out-spoken Page Poetry Prize. Her chapbook sugah lump prayer was published in 2017. She also edits Diaspora Drama, a digital platform showcasing international immigrant art.