“To the Limits of Sight”: A Conversation with Adeeba Shahid Talukder

Adeeba Shahid Talukder is the author of the chapbook What Is Not Beautiful (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). Her forthcoming book, Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, won the Kundiman Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. A 2017 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, Adeeba received her MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Weehawken, New Jersey.


This interview took place via email from January to April 2019.

Steve Bellin-Oka: Your chapbook, What Is Not Beautiful, was published last year by Glass Poetry Press. I’m intrigued by the method set forth by the title—namely, negative definition, or somehow defining something by what it is not. Was that strategy something you began the chapbook with, or did it emerge from the poems as you were writing them?

Adeeba Shahid Talukder: “What is not beautiful was originally a phrase from these lines in my poem “Asymptote”:

At some point you must part
with what is not
what cannot be
in the moon’s tilting

The poem is part of my full-length collection, Shahr-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, which centers around the trauma of my mental disorder. The poem holds some of my anger at my fluctuating states and was, at the time, a way for me to cope with a fall from grace, a disintegration of ideals, and what I felt was a loss of all beauty. I have since returned to this despair many times, including in What Is Not Beautiful, which focuses on the body dysmorphia aspect of it. The phrase, suggested to me by my dear friend José Angel Araguz, spoke to my speaker’s sense of lack, and I think that’s where the negative definition comes in. In my mind, the idea of someone being “not beautiful” is different from their being “ugly,” since it sets beauty up as an ideal, then expels them from its realm.

SB-O: The poems in the chapbook center around your wedding. Marriage ceremonies, especially for women, often mark a transition from one identity to another. The poems in What Is Not Beautiful seem to capture the speaker’s uncertainty and ambivalence about this transition. Could you talk some about that aspect of the chapbook?

AST: For the speaker, marriage has always represented the height of validation, and evidence of beauty and worth. But when, even two months into her marriage, she finds she has not moved farther in her struggle with her self-image, she is both despondent and angry. The poem “Two Months after Our Wedding” is about her finally throwing her wedding garlands into the trash. It recalls the wedding, but also the struggles of the days that follow.

[…] and I cried each day because I could
not feel beautiful, not even
after all this—

The rituals of marriage hold such intense beauty—the adornments, the flowers, the lighting of candles—all of which call attention to how delicate this new connection is, and how fragile. The weight of this ceremony and the uncertainty of it all informs many of the poems in What Is Not Beautiful. But in this vulnerability, she is also discovering herself, and some of poems contain that joy too.

SB-O: The cover of What Is Not Beautiful features a photograph of you looking in the mirror as a young child, and there are many poems in the chapbook that take up the concept of mirroring. For example, in “On Lightning and Rest,” the speaker notes

I am beautiful
Then, if only

 for a moment:
there is
a mirror where my nose
is holy.

And in “Mirror,” the speaker tells us the sky is watching a river and sees herself reflected in it and will never know if it is beautiful or not. Could you talk about this metaphorical strand of mirroring in your work and why it’s important?

AST: I think the mind is a strange thing, and that the mirror is just a surface upon which the mind can be projected. As someone with body dysmorphia, the mirror is often a fraught and difficult space for me; it seems to reflect objective reality, so I turn to it for validation, but what it returns to me is so cruel that I must reject it. When the sky lets go of her reflection in the river, she lets go of the idea of an objective reality to tether herself. It is only in relaxing this constant grasping at the ends of objectivity that gives her rest, gives her the freedom to define her own self.

The mirror in these poems is also the aa’inah of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems:

Perhaps the mirror of the world will clear once again,
perhaps, once again, our gaze will travel to the limits of sight.

Aa’inah has variously been translated as both “mirror” and “looking glass.” When it is occluded, both self-perception and one’s vision of the world are compromised. When it is clear, it becomes possible to see taa hadd-e-nazar, or “to the limits of sight.”

SB-O: In all cultures, the concept of “beauty” is one that can be incredibly restrictive for women. Do you find that as a Pakistani-American woman, you’re held to doubly constrictive standards of beauty—both Pakistani standards and American standards? If so, how does your work address this double bind?

AST: I haven’t really considered it before, but this double-bind does exist. The two facets of my identity hold ideals of beauty that are often at odds with one another, and this was very difficult growing up. It felt impossible to be beautiful in both ways, and my self-image would waver as I considered the conflicting ideas of what was considered desirable. Though I don’t think I address this explicitly, the speaker of my poems does go from considering herself beautiful to considering herself without beauty—some poems assume it in her, but many are about a frantic grasping at the idea, and the acknowledgement that it is out of reach, impossible to know. This moving in and out of beauty’s realm, this sense of its transience, is absolutely informed by the fact that she aspires towards two separate sets of ideals.

SB-O: Some of the poems in What Is Not Beautiful are explicitly experimental in their form. For example, “Fall” uses white space so that the poem on the page looks like a headless swan, and the metaphor of a swan is integral to the poem. As well, the first half of the first poem titled “Disorder” proceeds traditionally, with its lines flush left to the margin, before disintegrating in the second half with one-word stanzas and lines and the incorporation of gaps between words. What is it about using white space on the page non-traditionally that attracts you to it?

AST: I never set out to be experimental with white space in any poem. It’s something that seems to happen on its own, when I am so deep into writing that some mental barriers dissolve. The words always start off in traditional lines, but something or other pulls them apart. In general, white space gives me the ability to express pause in a way that a traditional line break does not. It also allows for greater possibility in the relationships between words and lines.

“Fall” started off as a few short lines, but I experimented with it a little because I felt the poem’s form was stifling its words. In this case, I meant for the form of the poem to speak to the slightness expected of me as a woman—this sense of intricacy and fragility, the praise I receive for being soft-spoken. In this poem, I meant for the title to be the swan’s head, but I can definitely see how the swan can look headless!

In the final lines of the first “Disorder,” there is a swift violence that I did not know how to express in any way but through short lines and a simulation of choking or gasping. I think the word “disintegration” is important here, because I feel that there are times when language isn’t sufficient, when it breaks down in response to an intense experience.

SB-O: Speaking of “Disorder,” there are five poems in the chapbook with this title. In addition to the strategy of negative definition that stems from the chapbook’s title, is there a second strategy of definition you’re interested in, such as offering multiple, equally weighted but perhaps conflicting definitions for the same concept?

AST: As someone with bipolar disorder, the idea of mental disorder and instability is one of my greatest obsessions. When I was putting this book together, I wanted this haunting to be clear. Each return—whether an episode or just memory of its terror—has carried a new meaning. In these poems, I’ve gone back to this headspace to think it through, or to create something that can serve as witness.

Some of the “Disorder” poems speak to the violence of the condition—the agitation, the cruelty towards the self. Others come out of a place of depression, disillusionment, and lack of a desire to engage with the world. The last “Disorder” poem is a meditation on God, on feeling His/Her/Their lack in the speaker’s suffering, a need to hold Them closer—physically rather than just in concept.

SB-O: Yes. In that final “Disorder” poem, the speaker states that all we know of God is “what he is not.” And you’ve said in the past that in Urdu poetry, the beloved is a kind of representation of God. Do the love poems in What Is Not Beautiful map a kind of spiritual experience? If so, in what ways?

AST: The concept of God is something I can’t escape from. I think about Him/Her/Them in relation to everything. So much of what I write uses the idea of Them as a base, or conflicts with the idea of Them. Classical Urdu poetic tradition, as you’ve said, blurs the distinctions between the earthly beloved and God, between intense desire and worship. So I’ve always perceived my love for another to be an act of spirituality, an act of prayer. And because I see poetry in a similar way—as a means of accessing the divine—I think any poetic journey I undergo will necessarily be a spiritual one as well.

The speaker of my poems approaches the idea of God in several ways. In the final “Disorder” poem and in “On Leaving,” she is the devotee who seeks salvation from her mental distortions. In other poems, she sees herself exalted by lovers to become the beloved, or God herself—a pedestal she has yearned for, but whose foundations she does not trust. The book maps the speaker’s path towards directing her devotions inwards and finding a place where she is both lover and beloved, worshipper and God.

SB-O: Your first full-length book is set to be published by Tupelo Press very soon. What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

AST: In Shahr-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, I tried, in some capacity, to translate the Urdu poetic world into English in order to work within it. I feel like I’ve always been in a state of translation in this way, and this continues in my work now. Since Shahr-e-jaanaan, I’ve continued to write pieces that respond to famous ghazals, but now, at readings, I sing the original verses in Urdu before reciting the poems that come from them. It gives me a chance to share the spirit of the poetry in Urdu, and the resplendence of the ghazal culture at large. My identities as singer and writer are also inextricable from one another, so this feels like a truer way to share my work with an audience.

Another project I’m really excited about is my collaboration with my friend Christopher Lucka, which involves me writing ekphrastic poems after his gorgeous photographs. Along with this, I’ve been (more literally) translating some rubaa’iyaat by the renowned Pakistani artist and calligrapher Sadequain, and the long prose poem Insaan by Jamiluddin Aali.

Please note: for every chapbook purchased from Glass Poetry Press through September 2019 (full price or pre-sale price), the press will donate $1.00 to RAICES.


Steve Bellin-Oka

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook, 'Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station' (Seven Kitchens Press, 2017). His first full-length book, 'Instructions for Seeing a Ghost,' won the 2019 Vassar Miller Prize and will be published by the University of North Texas Press in early 2020. A 2019-2020 Tulsa Artists Fellow in poetry, Steve lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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