Zaina Alsous is an abolitionist, a daughter of the Palestinian diaspora, and a movement worker in South Florida. Her poetry, reviews, and essays have been published in the Boston Review, Bitch Magazine, the New Inquiry, Mask Magazine, Adroit, and elsewhere. She edits for Scalawag Magazine, a publication dedicated to unsettling dominant narratives of the U.S. South. Her chapbook Lemon Effigies won the Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize and was published by Anhinga Press. Her first full-length collection A Theory of Birds won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, and will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in fall of 2019.
Priyanka Voruganti: I’m aware that you had a rather spontaneous “career change,” for lack of a better word, to creative writing. What has that been like? Have you been in Miami most of your life?
Zaina Alsous: I actually only moved here from North Carolina a year and a half ago for this program.
PV: What program?
ZA: I’m finishing my MFA at the University of Miami. It was a little bit impulsive, because I don’t have a creative writing background. I studied Political Science and I worked for the Fight for Fifteen campaign for three and a half years and have just done political organizing since I was seventeen or so. Creative writing is more new for me.
PV: What precipitated that switch? Was it “impulsive” in the way that it came to you in a sort of random moment, or had you been thinking about doing it for a while and the decision itself was more like a shot in the dark?
ZA: I wouldn’t say I made a switch, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. When I tell people in political organizing spaces that I’m a poetry student they go, “Oh, I only talk to organizers!” I will keep doing political organizing work forever. Like, I’m still a member of the Dream Defenders, but it’s not my main waged work. In terms of how I entered poetry in a more serious capacity, for me, it really was about finding the work of folks like June Jordan and Audre Lorde. I think the reason why their work became so seminal for me was because I could see then that not only do they write politically but that they also have this analytic that slows down enough to really pay attention to the world that they’re living in. That’s really what I’ve always desired and why I’ve become someone that inhabits a life of reading and writing. For me, it’s about study. I think poetry is one of the best ways to study.
PV: That’s so interesting. I often feel like conventional spaces for poetry—writing, like classes or workshops or readings—aren’t really grounded in the analytical but rather in the emotional. That’s just my experience, though. I think there are parts of writing and poetry that definitely can be analytical. And you, specifically, tend to find that edge to writing.
ZA: I mean, I think poetry is really, really rigorous. Really intellectually and emotionally rigorous. To be honest, I don’t actually really like writing poetry. It’s not necessarily pleasurable for me. And I really admire the people that find a lot of pleasure in writing poetry, but for me, I take more pleasure in reading, reviewing, and interrogating the work of other people more than producing my own because…it’s hard. I feel the labor of it. For me, and I can’t speak for other people, there’s a lot of synthesis and sifting involved. That can sometimes be really painful.
PV: Do you feel like writing poetry should be hard? If it’s hard, does that mean it’s being done the right way, or the honest way, or that it’s doing justice to whatever you’re writing about?
ZA: I don’t know if I feel comfortable saying that it should be difficult. We’re entering this moment where more people are beginning to think about this question of accessibility when it comes to poetry, accessibility of poetry being in relation to the style of writing of a poem or who’s writing it. We begin to realize that if we have more visible writers of color or more visible and lauded writers who are writing these really simple poems—that makes poetry more accessible. But I don’t know if I believe that’s totally true. So for me, not that I think poetry should be difficult, but if we’re talking about the tools of poetry and what they do for us in the communities we exist in, I think everyone should have access to the tools of producing poetry. That’s a really fundamental thing that I really want, like creating this material availability to workers who want to write. I also think it’s important to locate yourself in a poetic practice. To ask yourself how poetry changes you. For me, poetry has changed me in the way that it’s made me want to show up in the world in a more rigorous way.
PV: What does it mean to “show up in the world in a more rigorous way”?
ZA: It makes me want to pay attention. The thing I love about poetry is that it’s not about being correct. It’s not about winning. So for me, that’s the lens that I want to see manifest in the world. In the world, I want to see that we’re not trying to win, or that we’re not trying to prove that we’re right, but instead we’re just trying to articulate what is happening. And ideally, to relate that to others and other life forms.
PV: I’m curious about editing and looking back at old work. This is something that’s sort of always at the forefront of my mind when I’m focused on my writing. Looking back at my old work, I always feel like, “Oh, this is me such a long time ago.” I can’t relate to the person that wrote the poem, even if the person was me a week ago. Is a poem grounded in time? I mean, one is constantly moving past the person who wrote the poem. One is constantly growing, and the poem is sort of stagnant in time. Do you have that same preoccupation with your work?
ZA: Yeah! I have yet to meet anyone who’s not repulsed by their past work. I mean, there are poems in the chapbook (that came out earlier this year) that make me cringe. Recently, I was at this talk and this poet Patrick Rozale said something like, “A book is an attempt.” And I really like that phrasing because that makes me quell the ego a bit. Going back to what I said before, you can’t win a poem. It’s inevitable that poems inhabit a certain time and positionality with where you’re at with your language usage. As much as I can, I try to remind myself that what I was attempting with a certain poem and what I learned from that attempt is way more important than the efficacy of the poem itself. Because if you extract the poem and think of it as an object, who does it need to be perfect for? That’s something a lot of folks will teach in introductory craft workshopping. They’ll say that it’s not really about the poem. It’s about poetry, with the poem being one contribution, one attempt. I think you should never arrive at the place where you feel you’ve done your best work. I hope that there’s always this drive to re-articulate or articulate something new in relation to what you’re learning now. I think that’s where the poetic analytic can teach us how to live in the world, away from linearity and instead towards imagining that this poem, this attempt is a part of a cosmology of reading and writing and sharing.
PV: That’s beautiful.
ZA: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really hard because we’re in a sort of economic system that makes us feel like we always have to be working in order to have value and worth. And that seeps into our creative labor. So it makes sense that there would be this anxiety about our work. But I think it’s important to detach that anxiety from a professionalization of our work and to ask ourselves, “Am I trying to get close to an authentic rendering of what I imagine poetry to be or am I trying to win a prize?” Because those are really different perspectives when you’re trying to build upon a body of work.
PV: I’m curious about how your political background informs your writing. Sometimes I feel a bit silly using the phase “the personal is political,” but I honestly believe it’s full of truth. Reading Lemon Effigies as well as your extensive set of articles in Scalawag and other publications, it’s clear to me that you feel that the political is integral to the personal. Or, the personal is integral to the political. In your opinion, how do these two concepts relate, and how does this relationship manifest in your work?
ZA: I also struggle with that phrase actually, similar to how I struggle with the phrasing that “all poetry is political” or “all art is political,” etc. I think the given is that we are all participants in a larger thing, and that thing is governed by a set of particular power relations, so whether or not we acknowledge or resist those power relations doesn’t change the fact that we exist within them, that we play a role in their maintenance, so of course all of our choices become mediated by political questions. I don’t really spend much time thinking is this political when I read or write but more along the lines of, How does one see oneself in the order of things? Who is there with us? Against us? Are we satisfied? Do we have a demand? I yearn for specificity because the epoch of commodities is frighteningly skilled at stealing concepts and insights that were born from years of struggle and fashioning them to be easy and beautiful, as opposed to honest and dangerous. I think in my writing practice I’ve tried to learn from others who are skilled in exploring their own structural subjugation but only as a means to animate and excavate a larger critique. When I write poetry, I am trying to look for the masses inside of my selves.
PV: In your poem, “On having begun,” in Lemon Effigies, I sense a preoccupation with the historical—with the process of reclamation, or redefinition, or overriding. You speak about “infinite beginnings” being “a compilation / of previously and almost.” Do you find it hard to find the concrete in these “beginnings,” or to solidify what exactly happened, how it happened, and how to rationalize or accept that beginning? Or do you find that history, being painful and often mistold, must be retold or redefined?
ZA: That poem came to life while I was reading Edward Said’s Beginnings: Intention and Method, drawing on the works of Nietzsche and Vico, among others, which I found to be so startlingly brilliant and creative. It was the first time I had read about “beginning” not necessarily as a position of time or the outset of a chronology but as a recurring aspirational intent—I am seeking to begin. Part of the reason why I found this scholarship so refreshing was it helped me unsettle some of my haunting attachment to authenticating origin stories, which is a fairly common anxiety I share with other children of diaspora, almost as if we don’t have our story straight then we are at risk of losing what we have already lost all over again. But instead, to imagine that by the mere fact of our continuation, we are constantly beginning, felt revelatory to me. I filtered this line of thinking through sieves of memories: moving to a new city hundreds of miles away and a recent heartbreak, to try and locate how the grief and the newness intertwine, every ending a beginning, every beginning made possible from endings. I don’t know if history needs to be retold as much as perhaps it needs to be told with a particular intention, and unfortunately most of our histories have been recorded with the intention of serving the objectives of empire. I think this poem was also my attempt at remembering that to leave a place behind doesn’t necessarily mean it is severed from you, to reconcile the simultaneity of a passing life.
PV: Building off of that last question, does history ever really end? Is the present just a continuation of the past? Rationally, yes, but what does this mean? In “Violence,” you writes, “A window was broken. A window is broken.” Do things ever change? Or is history constantly and indefinitely embedded into the now?
ZA: Reading the world historically and dialectically has made it possible for me to articulate a means of existing in the world beyond mere despair, so I can’t succumb to this notion of history “ending” because that feels like admitting defeat. This poem was written in communion with Frantz Fanon’s “Concerning Violence,” a chapter in Wretched of the Earth, and also thinking about my friends and comrades in North Carolina who had recently torn down a confederate monument. Weeks after their action the entire political landscape and imagination around confederate monumentation had shifted. I was trying to put into language this awareness of contradictions, how our lives are so fundamentally consumed by and shaped by violence: state, gendered, economic, and yet militancy remains one of the only means in which we can reclaim some of our dignity. If nothing else, my years in political organizing have taught me that things change all the time, every second, and these changes aren’t immune to their historic conditions, but the conditions are not an inevitable container. The window broken still remains a window.
PV: In “cinematography,” you say “poetry… survive[s] as [an] incomplete [form] of description.” In the poem, I sense that poetry’s inability to be a fully complete representation of reality or fantasy, or anything at all, is because of destruction. You speak of the destruction of cinemas, the demolition of structures, yet also the oddly specific “color of orgasms.” Where does poetry’s inability to describe come from? And can it be overcome?
ZA: I hope that poetry is always seen as an incomplete form of description, its fallibility is what renders it so generative. What does it mean to have a medium of explanation that isn’t held to the scrutiny of proof? I think that’s what makes poetry relevant and necessary. One of the currents in that poem (“cinematography”) is this question of what gets to remain? If you are part of a group of people that is being systematically erased from land, from language, then questions of the archive take on a particular sense of urgency. Yet, the key crisis of the archive is that it is never possible to collect the full story, so then fragments become consecrated, repurposed and retold, mediated by the same power dynamics as every other aspect of our lives. Poetry doesn’t mind being an unreliable narrator, and I need this kind of space because I can’t live up to the expectations of memory. I want to lie, I want to speculate, I want to fantasize. One of my favorite essays of all time is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be,” and in it she argues that the kind of language we might fasten our radical imagination to, of what a society could be, can’t merely repurpose the language of settler administrators. “Utopia has been euclidean, it has been European, and it has been masculine. I am trying to suggest, in an evasive, distrustful, untrustworthy fashion, and as obscurely as I can, that our final loss of faith in that radiant sandcastle may enable our eyes to adjust to a dimmer light and in it perceive another kind of utopia. As this utopia would not be euclidean, European, or masculinist, my terms and images in speaking of it must be tentative and seem peculiar.” I guess what I’m saying is that poetry feels like the method of the ‘peculiar’—foraging for images and terms of a utopia that has room for all of us in it.