Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022), won the 2021 Hudson Prize. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, and Cosmonauts Avenue. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.
I can count the poets who have made me openly cry in public on one hand, and Raena Shirali is one of them. There’s a particular poem, “At Home, In the Empire,” that does it to me:
…She’s got a bottle
in her hand & the posture
of an immigrant & I won’t rid this book
of our lives…
That’s about when I start to tear up, other immigrant inclinations (e.g., archetypal Russian stoicism) be damned. And even if the she of this poem weren’t me, the poem makes it impossible not to feel struck, whoever and wherever you are, by its ending:
…Women, I want it to be
believable : that we leave the bar, the sky stupid
with gold. That no one follows us home.
This longing for safety, now and into the foreseeable horizon, is such a precarious hope—both here, which is America, and among our lineages, which for Raena is in India.
This poem and the conversation you’re about to read (conducted via email this summer) both offer snapshots of a searching, incisive project: Raena’s second full-length poetry collection, summonings, winner of the 2021 Hudson Prize and published by Black Lawrence Press last month .
summonings brings the ongoing, violently patriarchal custom of witch-hunting in India into exacting and sensitively wrought relief, placing it alongside America’s own need to reckon with its history of deeply-embedded misogyny, its erasure of women’s bodily autonomy, and its pervasive, culturally normative sexual violence. As Raena writes in the foreword: “[M]y unifying experience with both of my cultures is that in neither am I safe—that is, neither one is safe for women.”
In our dialogue and elsewhere, Raena uses the word attempt, alluding to the belief that a poet’s work is never complete. As she conceives of it (like other poets who really Get It, the “It” being why any of us bother mucking around with words, even if said knowledge makes the undertaking slipperier and less epiphanic), poetry doesn’t exist to offer answers, or to bestow empathy as a prize for having engaged with it.
summonings doesn’t turn away from difficult questions—about the implications of persona writing, messy feelings, confronting systems of oppression, and much else. These inquiries and grappling are woven into the poems, and because of this, summonings is all the more challenging and acutely felt.
As has been a pattern in our friendship, I’m so grateful for Raena’s remarkable way of taking what seems ineffable and rendering it expansive, inviting me (and now, you) to attempt alongside her.
Alina Pleskova: Persona poems are, for my money, among the most difficult forms to pull off, and you do it so adeptly and thoughtfully in summonings.
In the foreword, you write that the book “hold[s] that an ethical poetics must be grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.” This “failure” is invoked in a number of ways, including self-reflexive awareness of being an Indian American poet living in the West, taking on the personae of daayans (women in India who are/were accused of being witches)—and the questions and tensions that emerge in this undertaking.
The poem “at first, trying to reach those accused,” for instance, speaks to this directly: “so i bought a candle / to smell like my heritage.” And later: “i could not speak but still i mouthed a name i’d never heard & i felt her / like my own ghost. there was no magic : it was not profound.”
I get the sense that raising all this alongside the persona poems themselves isn’t meant as a self-flagellating mea culpa for writing them. It’s more like you’re making the work of these complex, delicate negotiations visible. How did you come to the decision to prominently include persona poems in this collection? For you, what does it mean to ethically approach persona writing?
Raena Shirali: First of all, thank you for the kind words and for this thoughtful question—one, as you of all people know, I could venture to answer endlessly.
Our dear friend Gala Mukomolova (podcaster, writer of horoscopes & poems & and all things beautiful) recently shared this quote from Svetlana Alexievich’s book Secondhand Time: “No one understands a stranger’s tragedy, God willing you might understand your own.” And I’m thinking about that quote as I consider the soft edges of this line of thinking. What does it mean to try to understand tragedy—either our own, or that of others? In one of the earlier poems in summonings, “on projection,” I write into this question directly:
the gun to my head is ownership.
the gun to my head is
i’m taking the word empathy
& hanging it as on a laundry line
& watching it waver in wind
& not believing in words & also
relying on them.
A few things are happening here. One, I’m responding to an idea I heard in a writing workshop long, long ago, that one of my poems felt as though someone were holding a gun to the speaker’s head, and the poem that precipitated from there was thus one of urgency and importance. Meaning, it felt as though the poet’s life depended on the act of writing it. I thought about this often as I began writing the first poems in the book, which were all “far persona poems”—poems written in personae that are far from my conception of self. The far persona poems in the book came out of me first, as opposed to poems like the “summoning” series, written in what I call “near persona. Near persona poems speak from more of a place I can point to and say, “Yes, some portion of an iteration of my identity resides here, in these words.”
Initially, far persona poems felt the most pressing, like explorations of this landscape I had been researching and trying to understand. But they also felt like in their “final versions,” they would still only ever be attempts, and understanding that about them, meeting them on those terms, is part of my reconception of persona writing itself.
But I also thought about what happens to the “gun to the poet’s head” if we flip its meaning; that is, if the gun is the idea that certain topics cannot be written about, or that certain approaches to writing are off limits because they are inherently problematic or unethical. I love your observation that the book “isn’t meant as a self-flagellating mea culpa,” in this sense. It’s also not an experiment to see “how I can get away with writing persona poems.” I genuinely wanted—still want—to explore the art of persona. I resist the idea that art can, or should, be policed or censored, and I clearly do not subscribe to the ideology that persona poems are inherently unethical (for further reading on the complexities of persona poetry, I highly recommend Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate: A Provocation). But of course, I understand the limitations, the risks, and the ethical implications of considering art not as a reflection of reality but as a tool towards understanding the human condition. So I tried to write a book that demonstrated this exact back-and-forth, the space of wrestling with an art form while resisting it, while being drawn to it, while being suspicious of it, while tending to it. For me, the only way to be honest on the page was to include the poems in persona. To show how much is at stake, how there are no answers, there is no embodying, there is actually no self on the page, in the poem, in the book. To show that there is no actual self in art, which is not reality, which is a psychic space defined by what the “self” encounters in the world, the hurts she is altered by, and the systems that define her or her kin or people she cares about. To this, there can be no limitations; in the service of this exploration, there must always be an attempt.
AP: “[W]restling with an art form while resisting it, while being drawn to it, while being suspicious of it, while tending to it.” Yes! One among many things I love about summonings is how these modes co-exist. It all goes into the sauce, so to speak.
Speaking of form: something that kept floating into my head when reading and rereading this book was just like, how did she bring it all together? There are poetry collections that are very steeped in the docupoetics mode and/or ethnography, and ones that are deeply personal/autobiographical, but I’ve encountered very few that embody this elegant weaving of all the above.
I learned so much from summonings—many notes on craft and the gorgeousness of your language, but also context and information that either enhanced reading the poems or was critical to understanding them. The foreword alone is a rich primer; you also include a glossary, extensive endnotes, and source material such as quotes from accused women and survivors.
Poets love to talk about process like it’s mystical. But knowing your beautiful, methodical Virgo mind, I’m certain that a lot of thought and care went into how research and source material is utilized, and how the book is organized. For instance, I found your inclusion of survivors’ quotes as standalone pages to be really powerful—these say what only survivors themselves could, sentiments that couldn’t be relayed secondhand or through a statistic.
How did these elements come together in terms of structuring, integrating research, etc.? Did working with so much research material affect your poem-writing process?
RS: Ah, poets. Never quite sure how we’re balancing the mystical vs. the methodical, always suspecting we might not truly be in control!
As you probably remember from having eyes on this manuscript in its earlier iterations, the amount of research included has fluctuated throughout the years. Actually, when I first began writing the far persona poems, I wondered if they might find their shape as a chapbook. But sharing that smaller grouping with friends quickly resulted in a line of questioning the chapbook was not actively considering: Where is the author in these poems? Should the author be present in these poems? What does it mean to write a project entirely in the mode of far persona in the twenty-first century, given the critical considerations of this particular art form? And how can I incorporate the voices I’m listening to in my research, in a way that, as you so deftly articulate here, “says what only survivors themselves” can—or for that matter, should?
So writing into those lines of questioning began to give the project its current shape, as I considered the percentage of far vs. near persona poems included in the manuscript. Of course, even when writing those far persona poems, I was researching quite a bit, and keeping detailed notes, and even toying with writing an essay describing my writing process. But gradually, those critical questions became indistinguishable from, endemic to, my writing process. I simply could not sit down to write a poem without wondering: Who am I to write this poem? And so the manuscript’s near persona poems, in a very real way, would not exist without the critical thinking and influence of my community—a fact that could easily get lost in a traditional interview-style answer to this question, but is so vitally important to the how and why of this text’s shape and ethos.
To return to the question of mystical vs. methodical, I suppose what I’ve described so far is deeply methodical, even academic. As you note, the research in the text is included within poems, on pages demarcated by a “+” (a kind of informative marginalia), and in extensive front- and end-matter. I wanted to create a world with this text—one that a reader could tether to research in whatever capacity they chose. For the reader who seeks every explanation I’m capable of providing, the Glossary of Terms can be a resource throughout the reading process. For the reader who may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, it’s possible to read the Foreword, then the poems, without necessarily needing the book’s back matter. And the back matter also includes further research that I found integral to the process of writing a given poem, for those readers curious to see the more mystical latticework, the relationship between research and poems as speaks to my writing process—I encountered this quote, and in encountering, I was led to create this poem. It’s important to note that the research within the book was placed there to help guide the reader through the content and to highlight the voices of women who have actually been accused of being witches. That material is not a map to the mystical latticework of the writing process; it was very intentionally placed to highlight the ethical stakes of the text.
As you also know from lending me your ear on this matter time and again (thank you, friend), one of my biggest fears while writing was that the book would not do enough to explain itself. That a reader could encounter the text and then leverage the same line of questioning that the first conception of the project called to mind. But, of course, the risk of including every piece of research within the body of the manuscript itself is that you create an unreadable text, one that is so bogged down by information that it loses the poetry. And because I am so mired in the world of these poems, it was quite difficult for me to get the kind of distance from it that a cold reading would involve. I have a great many friends and mentors (including you!) to thank for their readings of summonings and for offering their honest, frank impressions of previous versions that were, indeed, too informative, too dense, too obviously demonstrating my anxieties around this book (Will you get it, reader? Will you trust me? Will you come explore with me, even if you don’t?).
So the project is process, the project is the mind in the process of learning (and unlearning, and attempting to unlearn) systems of oppression, and the project is evidence of an organizational feat accomplished through and with my community (you should see my process folder for the book—it’s honestly a Virgo’s worst nightmare. There are like three hundred documents called “Research Notes.” It’s shameful).
Finally, I’m thinking of the Libra scales as I reflect finally on your original question; perhaps the project’s appeal lies in its attempt to hold & weigh so many vessels in its inherently limited arms.
AP: Rest assured that no poetry feels lost here! Your consideration of things like what a project is setting out to “achieve” or impart, the author’s presence, ethics of including certain material (and anticipating that the reader may also have such inquiries)—and all that visibly feeding back into the work—feels more honest to me than poetry as a sort of soapboxing. In that framework, the poet is a great Seer and change-arbiter, and the reader emerges on the other side of the poem, morally altered through having witnessed the witnessing. This, as opposed to all of us, complicit in our various ways, and poetry as one (flawed, limited, still worthwhile) mode of exploration. It isn’t the beginning or end of difficult, ongoing work that needs to take place.
This book confronts intractable and horrific realities while resisting tidy, aphoristic sentiments about them, or about the role of poetry generally. I know you have a lot to say about how poetry isn’t an empathy factory. Lay it on us!
RS: Yes! Yes! This work is arduous; this work is perpetual; and this tool—poetry—is inherently, inalterably limited. This idea is one that Rickey Laurentiis and Solmaz Sharif have spoken about brilliantly, eloquently. Laurentiis: “Is it maybe because this self-implication always (or in many cases) rushes up to the shore of “empathy” that the “tic” can feel cheap? But, probably, empathy actually takes work to achieve. Before that, if I’m speaking for myself, I need to muck through the very real shit of less “noble” feelings, ugly feelings.” I revisited this conversation so often while writing summonings. Phrases stuck out, clung to the mental wall: resist tourism, the public, epiphany, endpoint, wisdom, sameness. What to do with these resistances? The human mind makes connections, wants patterns, craves the answer, desires meaning. So the poet’s mind, too, is susceptible to these patterns, even if it is conscious of wanting to resist them.
Then what? If the poet can never escape “self-implication,” but cannot help but see resonances between one pattern of oppression and another, then what is the poem? Moreover, what is the book?
What happens when those questions result in silence, delete the poem, delete the poet’s sensibility? If the value in poetry is not this—is not to foster empathy (something my younger self is guilty of saying in interviews for my first book), is not to raise awareness (here, too, I am guilty of having changed my thinking over time), is not to educate about a niche topic (something I very much do not want to be pigeonholed as doing—no elevator pitch here, thank you very much, no version of this that can be immediately gobbled up and spat out and made appealing)—then the only way I know to find value is in continuing to ask the question. That is poetry, to me—continuing to ask the question. Turning the stone over in the hand, again and again. Never ceasing that turning. That’s optimism. That’s hope. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from the brilliant minds I’m lucky to have encountered in my reading and writing life. Thank you Solmaz. Thank you Rickey. Thank you Muriel Rukeyser: “No more masks! No more mythologies!” Thank you Audre Lorde: “There Are No Honest Poems About Dead Women.”
AP: And thank you, Raena Shirali, for just dropping your heart’s syllabus in the chat. I hope everyone fully reads that Sharif and Laurentiis conversation especially; it’s eviscerating and wise in equal measure.
To extend grace toward one’s younger selves: a lot of institutional/capitalist/marketing logic or discourse perpetuates the idea that a poetry collection must speak to one (ideally, timely) topic/concern—lyrically, please, with revelations sprinkled in. Then you get to be the poet who Speaks To or is the Voice Of that thing, and look forward to being tokenized and your work flattened, all while being called an urgent and vital voice by self-congratulatory gatekeepers, etc. Now I’m just reiterating conversations we’ve half-shouted across bar booths…
RS: Haha. You are, and I’m nodding without pause, perpetually shaking my fist at the institutional/capitalist/marketing sky! As a young person it is so easy to fall into the trap institutions create for “marginalized writers.” Be The Voice! Cater to White Legibility! Oh, And Also Somehow Still Make Room for Your Art! Don’t Lose Your Soul in the Process! It’s exhausting.
AP: And while we’re on the topic of one’s before selves: your stunning and unforgettable first book, Gilt—and if anyone’s suspicious about these superlatives, they should know that I devoured Gilt before we knew each other, on the rec of mutual friend Cynthia Arrieu-King, who has never held a half-baked take about poetry or anything else—feels in some ways like the start of an exploration that summonings continues. Like this book, Gilt takes up the act of witnessing, the pervasive sense of being between cultures or identities and not fully belonging in/to either, and women’s bodies as sites of horrific violence and abuse (and societal response, or lack thereof.) Some of the poems also focus on witch-hunting in India, as in “dayaan summoning magic” and “black magic” (from the latter: “the village men fear my evil mouth: so-called dayaan / feeding on cattle, stirring dust to stifle crops.”)
How do you view these books in relationship to each other? And how does summonings disrupt or undo—as you started alluding in your response to the prior question, which got me curious!—your conceptions of what a poetry collection sets out to accomplish or communicate?
RS: Superlatives, recommendations, and mutuals—you’ve written another tiny précis there on the nature of poetry communities!
There are absolutely thematic tethers between Gilt and summonings—as you note, the two far persona poems in Gilt were written when I first encountered an Al Jazeera article documenting witch hunting in India, in 2013. (Reader, if you’re interested in that piece or in researching witch hunting further, consult the “Notes” section in the back of summonings for full citations).
I’m also loving the way your question has flipped itself on its head—is there a relationship between these two books, or an evolution, or a dialogue? Does one disrupt or undo the other? This is such a fascinating concept. Another wonderfully talented friend of ours, Cynthia Dewi Oka, released a second, revised edition of her book nomad of salt and hard water in 2016; in revising the content of the first, she essentially called into the room the same idea we’re talking about here. Reading nomad was very important to the disruption summonings enacts; it made me look at my first book and wonder: what was I doing there? How has my thinking about what I’m doing in persona poems evolved? I toyed with the idea of making an erasure of my first book for a while, but working on summonings evoked the same lines of thinking in more critical ways. But come to think of it, in some way, it could be read as a partial erasure of Gilt. Which is not to say I regret or don’t stand by the poems in that text! It is to say: books are old versions of ourselves, and authors leave parts of ourselves behind in books. They’re time capsules filled with the paraphernalia of a self we may no longer recognize, or want to.
So, yeah, there’s a maturity here as well, a freedom that can perhaps only come with a second book. As you know, I turned 30 while working on this project. You, Gala, and I were sharing video messages—each of us sitting alone surrounded by our plants reading poems to one another through the ether. The world turned off; for a moment, pressure to publish or perish turned off. In fact, I realized how few copies my first book sold—say, compared to a novel featured on NPR—and that turned off a different sort of pressure. The book can’t—won’t—bring everyone into the room. Its room is small and its room is filled with people like us, people sending their poems out into the virtual space and wondering about the nature of this form of art. In the second book, I’m also no longer working with my MFA thesis (which is how Gilt was born), feeling I must justify the inclusion of varied thematic concerns in the scope of one book. One book that must speak not only for itself, but for me, as a debut poet. I see now that language has limitations, persona has limitations, poetry is, itself, limitation. That realization was completely liberating! This does not have to try to be the book about witch hunting in India. In fact, it never can be the book on the subject. Its goal is not to educate or raise awareness on the subject. It is art; art is frustrating and messy and, frankly, fucking hard. I wanted my second book to take the canvas back off the wall, so to speak. Show us the paint getting mixed, the palette knife crusted over with a color I didn’t intend to enter the painting, but that, of course, flakes off on the brush nonetheless.
Naysayers and lovers of form (sorry, fellow Virgos) will here point to the precision and technical finesse required in constructing the poem. Virgo-minded folks, I, too, agree! Even (especially? you tell me) free verse poems require intense precision and care. The process I’m speaking to here is broader, refers to the conception of a project, its spirit, its soul. If in Gilt I wrote and arranged a text that raised questions, in summonings I’ve pulled back the lens even further—now, I wonder, what questions can I ask of those initial queries? Perhaps this belies the secret of the text—since my very first coursework in poetry, with the brilliant Emily Rosko, I have been obsessed with ars poeticas. What is a poem that does not inquire about poetry’s purpose? That, too, is a question that could unfurl into its own distinct collection of poetry. Onward in failure, exploration, attempt.
Thank you, Alina, my literal muse (reader: see the poem Alina linked in her extremely kind introduction), for this conversation. As ever I’m beyond grateful for your insights and curiosities. (Psst, reader, did you know Alina Pleskova’s debut collection, Toska, is forthcoming in 2023? If you’re still with me at the end of this interview, I insist you locate a copy).
AP: You! Who ends an interview about their dazzling new book by talking about their friend’s book?! Thank you, equally and forever, for your generosity and erudition.