Doyali Islam’s second poetry book is heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019). Poems from heft have been published in Kenyon Review Online, The Fiddlehead, and Best Canadian Poetry. Doyali has discussed the value of silence on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition; language, form, beauty, and empathy with Anne Michaels in CV2; and the relationship between poetry and the body on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. She has also been in conversation with Forrest Gander, and you can find their discussion of grief, art-making, and poetry ethics in The Adroit Journal. Doyali lives in Toronto. www.doyali-islam.com

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Kate Finegan: In CV2, you mention that you “put [your] faith in listening.” We so often think of listening to words, to sound, but what is so notable in heft is the silence that runs down the centre of every page, as well as the erasures that bookend each section. What is your relationship to silence—both as a listener and a poet—and how do you bring silence to the page?

Doyali Islam: Thank you for this sensitive opening question, Kate!

Silence is a big part of intuition, which guides my poetry and, more and more, my life. Silence allows for listening—makes room for it—so I try to make room for silence. The fact that you noticed the silence in heft means that you are making room for it, too.

Some of the ways I make room for silence came to me intuitively, although now I understand these practices consciously. I can’t focus if my workspace is cluttered or disordered; the energy doesn’t flow right. I also can’t write with my hair down. It needs to be held back, away from my ears, or I can’t ‘hear’ as clearly within myself. I also always generate new material with the curtains closed. Otherwise, I feel too much interference from the outside world, and it makes it hard to listen to what is coming through me. Similarly, I can’t write if my fingernails and toenails are too long; I keep them short so that they’re not like antennae sensing too much of my environment.

As for my poetry, silence arrives in many ways—even between slant rhymes such as ‘trespass’/’gentleness’ in the poem “tending mint.” More broadly, the volta at the halfway point within each of the split poems in heft swings the reader/listener from the bottom of the left-hand column to the top of the right-hand column. The volta, signified by the slim column of white space, opens the poem to new possibilities, like the hinge of a door. To mix metaphors if I may: this past March, I came across research by Human Microbiome Project about how human skin—for example, the palm—is like a desert. Where is the bacteria—that is, the life? In the creases. This discovery makes total sense to me, and reinforces why I’ve always understood the slim columns of space that run down the centres of my split poems to be fertile and active silences.

I was recently interviewed by the wonderful Shelagh Rogers for CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter, and we talked about listening. I told her that I consider poetry to be a physical art—one that requires a whole-body listening, an empathy. You know how people say sex has less to do with the sexual organs than it does with the mind? I think, in the same way, listening has little or nothing to do with the ears, and more to do with listening viscerally, with the whole body. Since the age of 19, I have wanted to be a massage therapist—to listen in that way, with my hands, my whole body. Well, I just recently came across a compelling TEDx talk by neuroscientist Dr. Claudia Aguirre, in which she states that we actually listen through our fingertips. More astoundingly, Aguirre notes that “the sense of hearing actually evolved through the sense of touch.” My two passions—massage (unheeded) and poetry (heeded)—make total scientific sense together!

But to return to the idea and practice of whole-body listening in my work: I revise by ear and know when a poem is finished because I can ‘feel’ the language I have created working on me sonically and emotionally—me who is its first listener. I never read a poem out loud to another being before I have deemed the poem finished; I’m superstitious that way. Voicing a poem aloud to another being is an act of completion; it brings the work full circle.

As to my erasures, which I call ‘inversas,’ I hid them from the table of contents so that readers would come upon them suddenly, the way a chronic-illness flare arrives in the body, startling and disrupting it. I think of the ‘inversas’ not as bookends—although your interpretation interests me greatly—but as one long fragmented latitude line of my body. The reader/listener leans in with the longitude of their body—their lived experience and empathy.

KF: How did you learn to listen so well to ants?!

DI: When I was in university, I took a course on World Religions, and learned that devout Jains wear masks and sweep the path in front of them to avoid inhaling or crushing small insects. I don’t know what kind of sweeping tools they use, or how they prevent the bugs from being injured in the process. (If anyone reading this conversation knows, I would like to learn!) Anyway, I have always been struck by the intention behind that action, which reveals a profound care for living beings—small creatures in particular. I see the same care and reverence for living beings—including trees—reflected in various Indigenous traditions, and in Islamic hadīth (sayings of Muhammad) that state that, even in war, one is not to cut down a fruit-bearing tree, destroy a garden, or uproot or burn a palm tree (which I take to mean any kind of tree – the palm being common to the people who would have initially heard that hadīth).

Why should small beings be treated with less care than larger ones? Poems are small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I, too, am small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I have an affinity for small things and take courage in their resilience.

When Shelagh Rogers interviewed me, I told her that my mother and father spare insects found in the home and release them outside, instead of killing them. Shelagh really took to the idea, as she e-mailed me two weeks later to say that she had been quoting me ever since, and that “many insect lives [had] been spared!” I was on the train to Montreal when I received that e-mail, and thought to myself, “A life spared—what more could a poet want?”

KF: Poetry and creative nonfiction can seem like sister-forms, as poetry so often narrates and interprets true events. Some of the poems in this collection, such as “moving” and “two burials,” explore events that you were a part of or witnessed. Others, such as “ – 41st parallel – ” explore true events that happened to others, sometimes borrowing language, sometimes citing articles or documentaries as inspiration. How do you approach research—both into your own life history, as well as the lives of others—in your writing process? How does poetry help to make sense of true events?

DI: I don’t let myself become caught up in exactly how something happened, or the truth of minor facts, because if I stick to hard truth, the experience a poem conveys might become too narrow to welcome readers/listeners in. So I lie, where necessary, for the sake of the poem. Two examples from heft: in “poem for your pocket,” I chose the term “coffee change” even though I don’t drink coffee, because ‘herbal-tea change’ would have sounded ridiculous. In the same poem, I chose the term “house keys” even though I have lived in a condo most of my life, because ‘apartment keys’ or ‘condo keys’ wouldn’t have had the spondaic brevity or intensity of ‘house keys’ and would also have sounded jarring in its specificity. But perhaps rather than thinking of these writerly choices as ‘lying,’ we can think of them as a letting-go of the poet-self’s ego. Then, poet and speaker/narrator can diverge, such that the poet can hold open a door for whoever needs it.

Speaking of divergence, I am convinced that poetry requires a point of divergence between a poem and its source material, whether that source is a personal lived experience, a photo, a documentary, et cetera—otherwise, what is the point of the poem? It needs to do its own specific and miraculous work. The split sonnet “water for canaries” gestures to this realization when it reflects on an Associated Press photo taken during the July 26, 2014 ceasefire in Gaza: “but which photo can recall the deft // quiet fusing of clavicles into / one auspicious fork – bones hollowing – the / sprout of feathers – ?” I’m by no means a scientist, but I don’t believe dinosaurs went extinct. There is research that states that a certain kind of bipedal dinosaur shrank down and found another way to live—as birds. So “water for canaries” begins in a measure of truth, but rises into a deeper kind of truth—the sheer resourcefulness, resilience, and courage of Palestinian people who rebuild their lives over and over and over again, and the beauty of two men who showed mercy to small creatures—caged birds—even in a time of distress.

I also sometimes lie in a poem to reach a deeper emotional truth, or to present an alternate vision of what might be possible in our world. For instance, in the double sonnet “susiya,” I was inspired by a scene in b.h. Yael’s documentary “Palestine Trilogy” in which Sara Nawajah is dancing, her headscarf caught up in the wind and light. However, in the documentary, the Nawajah clan weren’t dancing outside; they were dancing inside their makeshift tent. And although, as the documentary states, the village of Susiya passes close to The Green Line—the border wall/fence—I use hyperbole in my double sonnet to extend the dancers’ shadows such that they reach the wall. The poem reveals—restores, even—my hope that if Israelis and Palestinians cannot yet meet in friendship or love, perhaps their shadows can. The poem “susiya” diverges from reality in the hopes of creating a better reality.

KF: In “sites,” we move from Islamic holy sites to a tree and to Dollarama. In this poem, we learn that “love is built / not found” and the narrator says that “our feet together / sanctify” sites. Throughout the collection, togetherness amplifies seemingly mundane actions and details, giving them deeper meaning. Could you discuss the sacred and the secular, the holy and the mundane, and how you bring them together in your work?

DI: This will be a circuitous answer!

In a Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) interview, Carolyn Forché discussed her landmark anthology, Against Forgetting, and explained how she went about selecting the poets for the collection and what she meant by ‘poetry of witness.’ She said, “I wanted to restrict—I had restricted—my gathering to poets who had endured conditions of extremity in the twentieth century, and I had confined myself to poets who had been interned in the camps during the Holocaust, or who had suffered during warfare or under military occupation, or who had been forced into exile, or had been imprisoned or tortured in prison and—in the case of South Africa—poets who had been under banning orders or censorship or house arrest. Poets who had actually been through these things themselves and had somehow survived and had subsequently written poetry. I was interested in what these situations, what these experiences, had done to the poet’s imagination, to the language – and whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether or not one could feel this suffering and extremity in the poems.” So a ‘poem of witness’ comes from a person’s experiences and thus emits a distinct quality or offers a palpable texture, no matter what the poem speaks about or does not speak about explicitly.

What I realized after hearing Forché was that my poetry has a palpable texture to it, too, but with regard to the sacred. My work will probably always have a quality of spirit within it, inherent to it, regardless of whether or not it is overtly spiritual. In fact, my work became much stronger when I started thinking about the spirit of the everyday—sort of the way in which David Bottoms’s “A Walk to Sope Creek” in We Almost Disappear ends with, “Any rock, he allowed, can be an altar.” Or the way in which Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” asks rhetorically, “Tell me, what else should I have done?”

My partner Daniel is a computer scientist, and I asked him if he could create code so that we could find out which words I had used most in the final pass of heft. At 35 occurrences, the most oft-repeated word was ‘hand’/‘hands’ (which makes sense, given my focus on the small acts of daily life), followed by the word ‘mother’ at 29 occurrences. The latter is a great irony: in a book that I consider to be, at its heart, about my father, the word that comes up second-most frequently is ‘mother.’ Or perhaps it’s not ironic that, at only 15 occurrences, the word ‘father’ is comparatively absent. In the poem “sites,” I was grappling with my father’s absence in my life. Dollarama and the pear tree became sites as sacred as Mecca because my father and I went there together and shared in an experience—“togetherness,” as you so beautifully say. Love is, at once, the great mystery and the only clear thing. Love, in its myriad forms, is sacred. The more you pay attention, the more you find the sacred.

And togetherness is the whole point of sharing poetry. A poem is a site of hope. It is subversive and indestructible, because a poem committed to memory is a poem you carry within yourself, invisibly, wherever you go. If my music gets into your blood, you and I are kin. That’s why dictators try to eradicate poets and their work. Creating a site of hope means that a poet is living in irradicable reverberating kinship not only with her current generation, but with unknown future generations—invested in their survival, wellbeing, and transcendence.

KF: Although many of these poems bear witness to struggle, you also inject them with a sense of play—through both language (as in “contract,” with “llarge, her llove of llamas”) and pop-culture references (as in “flare,” with Mean Girls). This is a book, in large part, about burdens. I find that reading about the state of the world, and then bringing that to the page, can often feel like an immense task. How does play fit into your poetic practice, especially when you’re dealing with difficult subject matter?

DI: Play is a refusal to be exiled from oneself.

It is an immense task to bring psychic multidimensionality—multidimensional truth—to one’s work, because it requires acknowledging various parts of oneself and the world, as well as skill in employing literary techniques such as climax and bathos. An expansive psychic register compressed into the language and space of poetry is what I strive for. Daniel teases me because I use the word ‘capacious’ so much, but that is what I want each poem and silence—and heft as a whole—to be: capacious. Levity in a poem can be invitational.

My poetry practice has given me a metaphor for how to live my life. I am so lucky to have had, from an early age, poetry as a survival tool. My practice has been my primary survival tool—one through which I have developed attention and intuition; patience and risk; compassion and discernment; resilience in the face of rejection; and resilience in the face of success. I can now add ‘play’ to this list. What I have realized over the past few years is this: just as I have been able to embody in my poetry the skills of attention and intuition, patience and risk, conviction and discernment, resilience, and play, so too can I learn to embody—practice embodying—these skills in other areas of my life.

And what I’m realizing now is that poetry is the use of conceit—be it structural or linguistic—to get people to listen. My split forms are a kind of structural conceit. The tension between heft’s redacted ‘inversas’ and split forms is another kind of conceit. In her poem “What Kind of Times Are These,” Adrienne Rich writes, “because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees,” and that, I think, was a metadiscursive acknowledgement of the need for a conceit. Play is yet another kind of conceit.

This past year, after writing the book, my life has opened up even more to playfulness and laughter. The other day I started laughing hysterically with Daniel, because he was telling me that his brother told him there were many kinds of apple in the world, but only one kind of banana. For some reason, the fact that Daniel kept repeating the word ‘banana’ in kind of a dull and matter-of-fact way became hilarious. After we calmed down, he said to me, “What have I done to you?”—I guess because he’s noticed firsthand how much more I laugh these days. I am grateful to my pain—my lived experience of chronic illness, and all of the loneliness I have felt in my life—because pain is a catalyst for change. I am finally grateful to be alive because it’s another day, another opportunity, to realize my potential. But I’m also so grateful to be able to laugh with my partner! Laughter is so nourishing.

KF: I laughed out loud at these lines in “sagittarius {the archer}”: “hard to kill…each cut-off head sprouting / two new heads {which is how / writing poems sometimes feels}.” I know this feeling! Which poems in this collection grew the most heads, so to speak? Did the collection itself ever grow new heads? And did the formal restraints of split sonnets, double sonnets, and parallel poems affect this process of cutting and multiplying?

DI: Yes, the forms in heft did emerge as a cut-off head sprouting new heads! In 2010, after creating an utterly-new kind of poetry form, the ‘parallel poem,’ I started thinking, “What if I applied this split form to the sonnet? What if I had the volta come at the end of line 7 and before the beginning of line 8, and what if I enacted that volta through the split form, as in the ‘parallel poems’?” These thoughts led me to further ask myself, “What if I doubled the sonnet and enacted that doubling on the page in the same way that the ‘parallel poems’ exist on the page?” I wanted to experiment, and I did. If I failed, I would fail on my own terms.

In terms of specific poems, “vulva” led to “v.” To return to your earlier question about play, Kate, the playfulness in “vulva”—starting with the lines “sometimes i think of myself as pippin / and my vulva as merry”—empowered me to trespass into subject matter that had previously silenced me through shame and fear. Writing the poem “vulva” empowered me two months later to write “v”—to trespass into an acknowledgement of my lived experience with vaginismus.

KF: Could you speak a bit to the process of putting a collection together? How do you put your poems into conversation with one another?

DI: What mattered to me in heft was intensity, vulnerability, and intimacy. I wanted to risk all that. As in a fashion shoot, where the model must gaze into the lens as though they’re looking beyond it, so must the poet write so intensely, so vulnerably, that the poem breaks through the barrier of the page and comes alive in its intimacy. The intimacy in my poems is what allows a reader/listener to experience a sense of kinship with my work. Kinship between complete strangers—between poet and reader/listener—is a compassionate, incalculable, and irradicable kinship.

I wrote and edited the poems in heft over eight and a half years, and ordering was as hard as writing. I spent many days contemplating the positions of certain poems, sometimes spreading printouts on the floor to test various sequences. What did I realize during this period of work? Two primary strategies exist for sequencing any portion of a poetry manuscript—or the parts of a poem, for that matter: amplification (i.e., reinforcement, accretion, extension) and juxtaposition (i.e., contrast, turn, shift). I used both strategies in my book, and this combination yielded necessary tension. These two strategies—or we could think of them as ways of being/acting in the world—underpin everything. Pick anything—cooking, perfumery, dance, music, architecture, massage… In Thai yoga massage, which I’m learning, you might start by applying light pressure to a client, and then continue with slower and deeper pressure. That’s amplification, once the client is used to your touch. But you would work their inner leg, and then switch to working their outer leg. Or you might work on the hamstrings and glutes, and then counter your action by working on the quadriceps. That’s juxtaposition. Amplification and juxtaposition in tension with each other is the nature of poetry. I imagine it’s the nature of every art form or pursuit.

KF: Many of these poems borrow from other poets, as well as documentaries and current events, bringing you into dialogue with others. You also serve as Arc’s poetry editor. How does working with others’ words, both as a borrower and an editor, shape you as an artist?

DI: I had a huge inner debate with myself about whether or not I would use an epigraph at the beginning of the book or at the beginning of sections, and decided against it because I felt epigraphs would act too much as scaffolding or signpost. I wanted the reader/listener to enter the book with no orientation as to meaning or intent. However, I embedded lines into the architecture of certain poems—lines that I’ve borrowed, and in some cases, reworked, from other poets: Miklós Radnóti; Natasha Trethewey; Derek Walcott; John Keats; W.S. Merwin; Randall Jarrell; Lucille Clifton; Adrienne Rich; and T.S. Eliot. I view borrowing lines or line fragments from other poets—with clear accreditation, of course—to be my way of creating my own family tree. Borrowing allows me to reveal my literary kinships, the ones I have come across unexpectedly by reading/listening. My rule for borrowing was that my work could only include borrowings if my poems were otherwise very different, and if I was convinced that the quality of my work was strong enough to hold up against those lines.

As for Arc, I rarely edit poems for the magazine. (Check out my Lit Mag Love interview with host Rachel Thompson for why this is so!) Mainly, I curate a selection of work for each issue, with the help of Arc’s editorial board, the wonderful Associate Poetry Editor France Boyle, and Arc’s national roster of First Readers. But holding a position of power in the industry has shaped my sense of responsibility/ethics, and has sharpened my intuition about who is a true friend and who is simply interested in propelling themselves deeper into the industry. In terms of ethics, it’s my responsibility to give strong poets who come after me—especially poets who face additional barriers to publication—more than what I received in terms of support and celebration. It is my responsibility to celebrate them larger at both personal and industry levels.

KF: Why did you get rid of social media, and how might doing so affect your writing life?

DI: This past May, Daniel and I were in Winnipeg, where I had given a reading and facilitated a CV2 workshop for BIPOC writers. We had a free afternoon before our flight back to Toronto, and Daniel really wanted to try a sensory-deprivation tank. That’s one thing I like about Daniel: he’s curious about everything. Once, in Shoppers Drug Mart, he wanted to know how those makeup dispensers worked. He jammed his fingers back there trying to figure out the spring activation, and it made me laugh. Anyway, after the float pods, we were waiting for our taxi to the airport, and we idly pulled a tarot card from this Osho Zen deck in the rest area. I asked if we should one day get a cat, and the card Daniel pulled was ‘The Burden.’ Paraphrased, the insight on that card was this: what is essential remains essential, what is non-essential remains non-essential; and they cannot be converted—which didn’t settle the cat question but did provide sudden clarity around my use of social media. In that moment I decided to follow my intuition about what, for me, was essential and what was non-essential. Facebook, Twitter… It feels like some strange dream-cloud that I’m now on the other side of. To loop back around to your first question, Kate, the poems in heft were created in silence. The vision for it came long before I joined Twitter. I’m returning into that silence.

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Kate Finegan
Kate Finegan

Kate Finegan lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Witness, SmokeLong Quarterly, Prism, The Puritan, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook 'The Size of Texas' (Penrose Press, 2018). She is assistant fiction editor of Longleaf Review and can be found at http://katefinegan.ink and on Twitter @kehfinegan.

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