Grappling with Seams: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah

by Ellie White

Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares,The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Honors include a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright fellowship and a Copper Nickel Poetry Prize. In fall 2014, she joined the University of Michigan as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetry.

Ellie White: The first thing I want to ask you is about Texas. I’ve lived in Texas, but I’ve never been to West Texas. What was it like to grow up there?

Tarfia Faizullah: It was complicated. Going through puberty there sucked because I didn’t have a sense yet of what it meant to be South Asian or Muslim for myself. I was being fed a lot of ways that other people were South Asian or Muslim. I wrestled a lot with what it meant to be myself. I went to an Episcopalian private school from the time I was five to the time I graduated from high school. I went to chapel every day and then went home and did Salat with my parents in the evening, so there was a bit of wrestling always happening between who I was during school and who I was outside of it. It was a rough time. But Texas was also this incredible, powerful landscape of mystery and possibility. I learned so much about what it felt like to have freedom because of how big Texas is. It gave me a lot of myself because of how much space there was to be myself.

EW: It does take a long time to get out of Texas.

TF: (laughs) Ten hours and 34 years.

EW: So I’d like to ask some questions about your book, Seam. The first thing I want to know is about the word “seam.” There are a couple different definitions. Since it’s such an important word in your book, what does “seam” mean to you?

TF: I’m really interested in the ways that people are connected and disconnected from each other. I really like the way that word conveys this material image, a stitch in a piece of fabric, as well as the metaphorical idea of a connection that can unravel. When I was in Bangladesh, I saw seams everywhere. One of the definitions of seam that I really love is that it describes the overlapping patterns in a river. The river is a really powerful site in Bangladesh. There is the recurrence of the river throughout Seam in part because a river is, in a way, its own kind of seam.

EW: After reading the book, I could see it was the result of a pretty massive undertaking. You went to Bangladesh on a Fulbright and interviewed these women, the birangona. That must have been a really difficult decision, and I could see anxiety in some of the poems, like “En Route to Bangladesh: Another Crisis of Faith.” Was there any specific moment that led you to decide that you were definitely going to do it?

TF: I wrote a couple of interview poems in grad school, just from my imagination and very limited research, and I hit this ethical wall where I realized I was writing poems, persona poems, from the perspective of these women who, a number of them, are still alive. I applied for a Fulbright, not at all expecting that I would get it. Then, when I got it, I was just like: I guess I’m actually going to go try to do this. So I went, and it was an incredible, kind of awful, amazing experience. But it started really because I hit that wall, and wondered whether I had the authority to write those poems from the perspective of women who underwent something I’ve never experienced.

EW: I noticed there are several poems in Seam that are about reading famous authors while in Bangladesh; Willa Cather, Paul Celan, and others. How did you choose which books to read while you were there? Did you pick them ahead of time?

TF: It’s funny because I was allowed two suitcases for a year in Bangladesh, so a lot of it was dictated by what I decided to take. Most of the authors I wrote about in Seam, I’d read for a very long time and admired. But I had never read them in the context of being in Bangladesh, and I was astonished by how I could see so much of what they had written right in front of me in Bangladesh in this very neat way.

EW: Switching gears a little bit, I want to ask about your career as a writer. You earned your MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009, and your current position, both as the author of an award-winning first book and as a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at The University of Michigan, is where a lot of MFA students hope to be in a few years. I’m wondering if you have any advice for those of us still getting an MFA.

TF: Actually, the first time I applied to graduate school, I didn’t get in anywhere. In the years between college and grad school, I waited tables. I worked at Taco Bell. I worked at a theater. I was really ready to be in grad school when I got there. One of the greatest things I learned was that I don’t know everything, and I’m not supposed to. I was, at that point, willing to learn anything that I could learn from anybody who had anything to teach me. I was one of those annoying students that went to my professor’s office hours and was like, “So, in workshop you said this and I have a question about that.” But after grad school, I waited tables. I chose not to teach comp because I thought it took the part of my brain that made poetry further away from me. But this is a hard question because everybody’s path looks so different. For me, what made the most sense was to do anything I could to give myself the time and space to write, and also to tap into the resources that were available to me in terms of community. I got a lot out of building relationships with other grad students in the program.  I kept writing the poems, kept sending them out, and kept putting my name in the hat for fellowships or residencies or conferences. I’ve pretty much been rejected by everything the first time.

EW: That’s good advice. As much as people tell you not to take rejections seriously, I think it’s hard when they keep showing up. You start really questioning your abilities.

TF: For every acceptance I had, there were ten, fifteen rejections. I had this spreadsheet of submissions and it would read: Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. Acceptance! And then ten rejections; twenty rejections. You keep doing it because you have to, because you privilege it enough to make time for it. Trying to live as a poet professionally is such a strange endeavor, because you have to put yourself out there. You have to advocate for yourself, and that advocacy isn’t always going to work. But my professor said something I thought was great when I first started talking about maybe sending poems out, he said, “It makes the mail interesting.” As long as I thought about it as something that kept things interesting, I didn’t feel like the rejections mattered that much.

EW: Final question: During his craft talk, our visiting writer-in-residence, Michael Ruhlman, said “No one survives in silence.” He said that people need to tell stories in order to live. I’m wondering, in light of the interviews you did in Bangladesh with the birangona, and the way your book seems to be grappling with the ethical side of interviewing, how does his statement strike you?

TF: There’s this Big Boi song that I really love called “Lines,” and he says, “It’s the art of storytelling and I’m only telling mine.” I’m obsessed with this song. For me, poems bear the weight of a lot of difficult things; grappling with trauma, grappling with the differences between voyeurism and witnessing. So I agree with Ruhlman. I saw and felt at times such relief from just being able to say it, from feeling like there is a safe place you can say it. For me, poetry has always been a safe place to say those things. Because you don’t always want to carry it in your body. I saw Arundhati Roy give a lecture yesterday. I really admire her courage in saying the difficult things no matter the personal cost. I think it takes courage, and a difficult kind of courage, to be able to say difficult things.

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Ellie White has been trying to teach people how to hallucinate since 1986. She holds a BA in English from The Ohio State University, and is currently in her second year at the MFA program at Old Dominion University. Ellie became a writer as the direct result of peer pressure from a gang of performance poets in Columbus, Ohio. She has competed in the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational, the Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, the Individual World Poetry Slam, the Capturing Fire Queer Poetry Slam, and the Women of the World Poetry Slam (where she had the distinct honor of coming in 72nd out of 72 poets). Unable to achieve her dreams of fame and fortune in the poetry slam scene, Ellie turned with desperation and determination to The Page. Her poems can be found at FreezeRayWicked Banshee Press,The Misanthropy, and Melancholy Hyperbole.