“If you walk in the door and ask for a love story, I’m probably going to put Marguerite Duras in your hands. If you ask for science fiction, I’m going to hand you science fiction by a woman of color or by a Cuban writer in translation. If you want to walk out the door with a book hand chosen for you that you would never have picked up otherwise, we’re the place for that.”
We often learn and teach that we should read poetry both on the page and out loud, noticing the differences between the personal, internal reading and the public, vocal one—and your work, I think, really earns that dual experience. I absolutely love reading your poems out loud. Do you think about your work as spoken pieces, or more as page pieces? Or is there no distinction?
For me there’s no distinction: when I’m writing poems I am interested in what they do both visually and aurally. They are “page pieces” in that I think you need to see them on the page to see everything they’re doing with respect to line breaks and form. But yes, they are spoken pieces, too, and I do speak them aloud as I’m drafting and revising. My hope is that my poems can be chewy and interesting on both levels. For example, the Birney poem is a ballad, and I would imagine that someone at a poetry reading might hear that first, but not be sure what it is, then look at it on the page and think, “Oh, OK, I see how that’s working.” Similarly, what fun is a ballad if it just exists on the page? Those things were meant to be spoken aloud (or sung!).
In “Loved Ones,” Zara and Hassan are often speaking without really saying what they’re feeling, or listening to one another without actually hearing what’s being said. There’s a kind of layer of remove between them that I’ve seen displayed in other stories of yours as well. Are you conscious of this layer when writing dialogue? What do you think it offers in terms of characterization?
I think it’s typical of relationships that are in trouble, or show symptoms of trouble, when people have become sucked into themselves so much they can’t hear the other person anymore. When this happens in my stories, people speak but their words glance off each other instead of making contact. What does this tell about them? Probably that they are now in the process of mentally detaching from the other person.
What and/or who are your influences? What are you inspired by?
Is it terrible to say my Instagram feed? I follow a lot of artists on IG; it’s often the first thing I do after my eyes open in the morning, before I even get out of bed. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but it is what it is. Sometimes I try to recreate what someone else has done—right now, I’m into Jared Muralt for his colors, Kim Jung Gi for sheer wow factor, and Nicolas Nemiri and Ashley Wood for their linework. All these guys have great IG feeds.
Felix Scheinberger has also been a big influence on me, ever since I got his book on watercolors. Not that you’d be able to see their influences when you look at my work. That’s partly because I’m not at their skill level yet, but it’s partly because the work I’ve been doing with Edward needs a more abstracted approach and less textural clutter.
In "The Pearl Diver's Son," your short story in our fifth issue, you detail the effect of oil pollution on the diminishing profession of pearl diving off the coast of Khobar, as seen from a young boy's perspective. I was struck by the careful attention to detail about the dhow, diving, and the city in flux as the oil industry began employing large groups of local adolescents. How did you go about researching this period of time and the practice of pearl hunting? I'm especially curious if you began this draft with the story itself or the research?
The history of the Arabian American Oil Company, or ARAMCO (now Saudi ARAMCO) was always lurking around my childhood home, in the form of history and coffee table books that the company produced to document its own meteoric rise. Yet my interest in the subject didn't arise until more than twenty-five years after my father's retirement from the company, where both he and my grandfather worked for several decades. For years, I dismissed my childhood on the oil compound as inauthentic—that somehow my family's story was illegitimate because of its neocolonial origins. Now I see that, for a writer, the subject of ARAMCO's rise is solid gold—rich and fascinating, and tied directly to the fates of two nations, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In “Too Rushed,” your essay in our fourth issue, you write, “It’s 2018, and I’m not here to make a new argument: mental health patients are not more violent than the rest of the population.” Despite the fact that there is considerable research to support your argument, people continue to argue to the contrary, particularly in the wake of national tragedies caused by gun violence. Why do you think this is?
I know this has been said a lot, but: one of the only times that politicians discuss mental health is in the aftermath of a mass shooting. And they usually deliver the this is a mental health issue line in a really soft-spoken voice. It’s so irritating. They steer news coverage away from gun control. It’s not to say that mental health isn’t a factor. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
I admire that in your poem, “A Poem to Remind Myself of the Natural Order of Things,” we aren’t quite sure who—or, I suppose “what”—the you is until the sixth line. I’m curious about why you structured the poem this way—why the “you” is examined before the reader is even sure what we are looking at?
I’ve been having lots of spontaneous conversations about octopuses (octopi? the octopus?) in the last few weeks, probably because when anyone mentions an octopus, I, like a 2nd grader armed with some facts, am eager to put what I know on the table. At any rate, a number of people have articulated an idea that the octopus is the closest thing we’ll get to an alien consciousness on Earth because they are so different from humans. This strikes me as odd—that a species native to the planet would be considered alien because its intelligence developed along a different line than our species, because it is so different from us. In a Western, Judeo-Christian framework, the world is scaled to the human as ideal, and that’s strange to me.
I’m very interested in your use of persona for your “Ghost of Marvin Gaye” series. How did your exploration of Gaye’s persona come about?
I found myself very interested in the afterlife of Gaye, and the way his particular type of death could lead to a set of unanswered questions in whatever the afterlife might look like. I was interested in kind of picking through those questions and trying to unravel them bit by bit. Marvin Gaye is so layered and complex, but it often feels like there's only room for one or two projections of him in the discussion. I wanted to place his ghost in the modern day, in hopes that I could shorten some distance between him and his many narratives.