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Interview: Dilruba Ahmed

Three of Dilruba Ahmed's poems appear in the March 2010 issue of the Collagist. She is the author of Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), winner of the 2010 Bakeless Literary Prize for poetry, selected by Arthur Sze and awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Ahmed’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Drunken Boat, and Pebble Lake Review. Her work will also appear in the forthcoming anthology, Indivisible: Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010).

Can you talk about the inspiration for "Venice During an Election Year in the U.S.,” “Cathedral,” and “Rumor”? What was on your mind while you were writing these poems?

"Venice" and "Cathedral" are based in part on my experiences backpacking through Europe with my husband.  We traveled amidst the heightened anxieties about terrorism as well as anti-American and anti-Muslim sentiments--all the while feeling dismayed by the growing popularity of an incompetent leader who had most likely entered office by fraud.  While none of this appears with any specificity in the poem, in Venice I found a landscape that seemed willing to house some of the disillusionment we’d been experiencing.  

During our travels, I especially enjoyed people-watching from the cool, wooden seats of a church just off Brussels' main square.  As an outsider visiting cathedrals in Belgium, Germany, Italy, and England, I found myself fascinated by the idea of religious community and spiritual unity.

"Rumor":  There was, in fact, a woman who jogged along a river trail in southeastern Ohio--or so I heard during my adolescence there.  While I never actually saw her, I remain captivated by the idea of her, especially the notion that her sari—an article of clothing often regarded by Westerners as constricting—could be associated with speed, fluidity, strength, and grace.  She became a mythical figure, writing herself across the sky even as her hair and sari fell loose behind her.  I glimpsed her in the sculpture of the goddess of Victory in the Louvre as well.

“Cathedral” and “Rumor” were particularly evocative because the way they look on paper sort of mirrors the emotional life of the poem: “Cathedral” is very compacted, with short lines and declarative sentences, making itself as inconspicuous as possible; in the swerving lines of “Rumor” one can almost imagine the footfalls of the sari-clad runner. How do you think form affects your subjects? Is structure something you think of in advance, or does a poem tend to find its way as you write?

I typically write all of my first drafts in blocks of rough prose. I might occasionally have a particular line break in mind at this early stage—to emphasize a word, for example, or to create a particular rhythm—but usually what's on the page has no line breaks, no stanzas.  Then I try to let the material sit for a while before I begin to work on lineation, which generally involves cutting, expanding, or otherwise altering the material.  I like to play with the idea of Michelangelo's approach to sculpture:  “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  While I can safely say that many of my rough drafts have little trapped inside at all, I find this quote instructive in terms of discovering the shape of a poem. Does the draft lean toward story or song?  Does it move toward cohesion or disjunction?  Will I serve the poem best in an attempt to emphasize such an inclination or in an effort to create some friction against it?  I try to let the form of the poem emerge from the poem.  In reality, finding a poem’s form is a messy and intuitive process for me, one requiring many, many revisions.

Your work appears in an anthology launching this month, Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry. We see a small bit of that heritage in “Rumor.” Immigrant literature has been gaining quite a lot in popularity these last few years, and there’s been a lot of discussion about what, in fact, ‘immigrant’ lit might mean. Do you see yourself as part of that group of writers? If so, what has it meant to your work or the way you go about a project?

When I was an undergrad, some of the more popular immigrant fiction established simplistic dichotomies:  East/West, restricting/liberating, bad/good.  I wanted to complicate and question those oversimplified categories and began exploring multiple notions of truth, home, and belonging in my poems.  So my earliest writing efforts became an effort to capture some of the complexity of a culturally hybrid perspective.

I remain interested in issues of cultural hybridity, of cultural location and dislocation.  What does it mean to be a Philadelphia-born, Bangladeshi-American, a woman of color, a writer with a Muslim surname raised in small mid-western towns?  Questions like this still shape my writing.  But the literary landscape has shifted dramatically in recent years, and I’m grateful that we can now enjoy a much greater diversity of literary voices and representations.

I’m interested in the fluidity of culture, the idea that cultures shape us as we shape them—and the ways in which that shaping and influencing now takes place on a fast-paced, global stage.

What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently revising my first book manuscript, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011).

Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

I’m thrilled about the following recent and forthcoming titles:  The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss.  The Many Broken Plates of the Mountains by Rose McLarney.  Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Dwayne Betts. Pima Road Notebook by Keith Ekiss. Copperhead by Rachel Richardson.  How to Escape from a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique. Stealing Karma by Aneesha Capur. And I just bought my copy of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black!

References (3)

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    Response: my review here
    Amazing Web page, Maintain the wonderful work. Thanks for your time!
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    Interview: Dilruba Ahmed - Collagist Blog Archive - The Collagist
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    Interview: Dilruba

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