Poet Of The Week

Zaynab Tawil

     July 9–15, 2018

Zaynab Tawil is a Syrian-American poet currently residing in Brooklyn. Her poetry, which explores issues such as dislocation, diaspora, motherhood, matriarchy, feminism and war, has appeared in Blind Glass and Ramona Magazine for Girls. She recently graduated from Bates College, where she studied creative writing and psychology, winning the Alice Jane Dinsmore Wandke Award for excellence in poetry in 2015 and the John Tagliabue Prize for creative writing in 2017. This past spring, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Hala Alyan’s Poems of Dislocation workshop.

For Sultanahmet

               January 26, 2016

blood cannot be made beautiful—
not girlblood not boyblood
not blood from the child—not
bursting from the bone not staining on the
skin not flattening the palm—not dry in the
earth not dripping off the beak not buried by the
feather not burning in the sand—not spewing from the
wound not seeping into cotton not flushed out in the
basin not leaking from the cloth—
not rising multiplying not collecting in the
mounds—not henna in the hair not
flicking off the finger not cloaking at the back not
tasted on the tooth not spit against the glass not
near the glass at all—not mixing with the tea not slick against
the dough not soaking in the sugar not pooling
in the spoon—not flat and round not
small and pebbled not thin and streaming not
thin and streaming—not dyeing red the rugs not
making white anew not on the backs of kneeling
not on the ankles too not near the mosque not near my
Lord not in the home of God—
not passing through song, not in the
hollow oud, not staining on the string—
not by the stranger not by my brother not by my
neighbor—not coming off our hands not moving in the
suds not brown and dry and storming that long
steel drain but by the silence of God by the silence of
God by the silence of God by the silence of God.


Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem while sitting at a café near Boğaziçi University; like most poetry, it seemed to come out of nowhere, with no prompting. The first line/draft was penned on a napkin. Once I started, though, the poem took on a life of its own; it wrote itself. That stream-of-consciousness quality of the poem’s structure made it difficult to edit initially, because I was essentially trying to organize my emotions, which were already fraught by the attacks in Istanbul and Turkey in general. For that reason, once the first draft was finished (which looks fairly similar to the final draft posted here) I didn’t revisit the poem for over six months, once I had returned to the US.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on getting some of my poems published, and a short poetry series about intergenerational conflict among the womyn in my family.

What’s a good day for you?

I wake up around 9 AM feeling well-rested. It’s approximately seventy-seven degrees outside and sunny, perfect weather for walking to L’imprimerie (the French café ten minutes from my apartment). I buy an iced latte and a whole baguette for myself, and none of my roommates ask me to share. I head to Irving Square Park, where there’s just enough dappled shade for me to sit with a book without getting too chilly. I have no plans and no one is blowing up my phone. Basically, a good day for me is being able to relax at my own pace.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I came to New York City for a job; the simple, boring answer is that Brooklyn is what I could afford given my entry-level, fresh-out-of-college salary. However, I’ve always been drawn to Brooklyn culturally. The art scene is unlike anything I’ve experienced living elsewhere—for writers, musicians, designers, artists across mediums; I am unendingly impressed by the creativity of Brooklyn residents.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I’ve lived in Bushwick for over ten months now and I love it. The food scene is out of this world, the people are really friendly, and my neighbors were and are so welcoming. The pace and warmth remind me of living in the Middle East; I have visions of my aunts sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes every time I see my neighbors relaxing on their stoop. It’s difficult watching the gentrification of my neighborhood (and recognizing my own role in that gentrification). I’m afraid that gradually the authenticity of the neighborhood will be lost to craft breweries and bougie grocery stores.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Every time I walk into the Myrtle-Wyckoff subway station, I immediately feel like I’m in Brooklyn. There are people breakdancing while I’m trying to reach the turnstiles, womyn selling jewelry and churros, people holding the subway doors open by the strength of God so their friends can hop in. I can’t explain why but that’s Brooklyn to me in a nutshell.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I think a poetry community to me is exemplified by the Yawp workshop I took this spring, led by Hala Alyan. People who encourage you, push you, inspire you through their own work. I think I have found that poetry community with Brooklyn Poets in general. The space is so welcoming and inviting, people across skill levels and experience all come together over their common love of poetry. That’s ideal to me, really.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Again, poets from Brooklyn Poets have been incredibly influential for my style and experimentation—just hearing different kinds of poetry over the past half-year that I’ve been attending has been really inspiring. I wouldn’t be a true poet if I didn’t shout out Walt Whitman, the love of my life, as well.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I was lucky to have two major poetry mentors in college, where I studied creative writing, who helped me form my own distinct voice and broke down my preconceived notions of what poetry “should” sound like. Hala Alyan is a constant inspiration to me, because her backstory feels so similar to my own. Her ability to speak so honestly about the Arab/diasporic experience is enviable. Every time I read Atrium, I feel called to write for hours.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Even though I read this poem for the first time back in February, I still think about “To Go to Lvov” by Adam Zagajewski nearly every day. As a poet who focuses on dislocation and longing, it’s the poem that I’ve always wanted to write. I am also currently reading Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings as inspiration for how to really break out of traditional form and let language take hold of itself (would recommend this collection if you want to have a good, long cry as well). My favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude; even on the fifth read, I am taken aback by its unique, poetic imagery and Gabriel García Márquez’s grasp on language.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Oh, there are hundreds I could name. I love female coming-of-age novels, and have always wanted to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen has been on my list since it came out last year. I actually just forced myself to buy Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, and am FINALLY in the middle of reading Love in the Time of Cholera.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

Usually, I simultaneously start one novel and one book of poetry. I annotate poetry books without fail, but not novels (unless there’s a striking line or moment, in which case I’ll ink up the page). Unfortunately, I have not been a very avid reader this year, given my hectic work schedule, but I try to read poetry at least a couple times a week, even if it’s just opening up a bunch of tabs on the Poetry Foundation site and reading for twenty minutes.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’m inspired by Leslie Harrison’s lack of punctuation, and think I would like to try that for a series of poems (“For Sultanahmet” is the closest I’ve come to this free-form/punctuation-free structure).

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Like most writers, I think cafés serve as romantic and consistent writing spots. I love to write on the subway, especially if I can grab a seat. If not, I usually jot down whatever is forming in my head into my iPhone Notes.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Brooklyn parks, especially in my area, because they’re so family oriented and lively (especially now that the summer has arrived). Brooklyn bars have also proven to be cool places to meet people and build community. Oddly enough, I also love a good Brooklyn grocery store, because you can find nearly any ethnic food you need.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate this life,
And what I need you brought to me,
For every moment within me as good came from you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is everywhere and nowhere—it’s Amman and Istanbul and Seattle, and then it’s something entirely malleable for us to mold; it’s all the potential in the world.