Poet Of The Week

Aria Aber

     March 26–April 1, 2018

Aria Aber was born to Afghan parents in Munster, Germany. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best British Poetry, the Poetry Review, Muzzle, Prelude, Reservoir, decomP and others. She has been awarded the New Writing Prize in poetry from Wasafiri as well as fellowships from Kundiman and Dickinson House. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in poetry at NYU, where she serves as a Writers in the Public Schools fellow.

Author photo by Julia Brandt

Azalea Azalea

The morning father boards a plane to Kabul
        I strangle the hours in the law of my lolling
                azalea. Embarrassed by her naked scent,

I’m reminded of my first American morning,
        the yards that were yawning with jasmine
                and evergreens. This is what I want

to excel in: gardens, elixirs of thought,
        no one draping the stench of severed limbs,
                yet the catacomb hymns for me. I prune

leaves, drown soil in the sink like throes
        of a prayer. Dear limen of death,
                stay away from my seat

as I read the news. 21000 pounds,
        weight of 134 of my fathers, the Mother
                of All Bombs eructs acres into

a guttural throb. Mother, what is the order
        of violence? I expect father’s death every time
                he flies home, and sometimes I want him

to dishevel into a mouthful of worms—
        I’d be offered a why to plea to. Indoor azaleas
                prefer shade, imitating roots of trees,

but I don’t know shit about geneses. For eleven
        years I lied about where I’m from,
                ashamed by the music of endings,

that deep hollow bell. How much of my yearly
        tax is spent to bomb the dirt
                that birthed me? Is a question I never

wanted to consider. Let’s fuck while
        a farm in Nangarhar erupts with dead
                cows—bodies—oh, the flies … what I need

to know is how to say non-nuclear without
        having to say azalea, azalea. To look
                at a page without looking away. Let’s fuck

until our bodies decay, let’s practice hard
        for heaven. Under the faucet, the azalea
                perks up her thousand heads as if drunk

on good news, while I google pictures of home:
        every mountain, every forest foregrounds
                a camouflaged man, a rifle. And I cannot see

their faces, who is foreign, who native.

—Originally published in the Margins, August 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

When I read that the “Mother of All Bombs” exploded in Nangarhar, I was mostly repulsed by the name, which is both ironic and lends the bomb an organic biology it does not deserve. Then, of course, I learned that it was basically one step below a nuclear bomb, hence constituting the biggest non-nuclear bomb of its ambit. The fact that my father happened to board a plane to Kabul that very morning just exacerbated my fear while it also foregrounded this privilege that I’m enjoying—a privilege that entails sitting in a safe place and having the tools and time to write lyric poems. Or taking care of my azalea. I grew up in Germany but was born to Afghan refugees; my life was always governed by a sense of homelessness that is so indicative of so many diasporic writers of my generation. Craft-wise, I am mostly interested in the simultaneity of physical privilege and emotional deprivation that comes with exile, so I established the “synchronicity” of different narrative strands.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, I’m completing my first book-length manuscript, which explores the impact Afghan-American relations had on my family’s history, starting shortly before the Soviet invasion. Of course, those political relations have evolved, changed, stalled, etc., but they’re still relevant. Part of that manuscript contains some multilingual work, including lyric / scholarly / hybrid fragments examining my love for Rainer Maria Rilke’s early spiritual poems in Das Stunden-Buch.

What’s a good day for you?

Hours of boring, domestic and safe endeavors. My wild days of partying and intoxicating myself ad nauseam are passé—now I just revel in the simplest pleasures. Waking up to sunlight flooding my recently cleaned room. Making coffee. The smell of cut hyacinths, so ripe they’ll rot soon. Running until I stop being angry. The news without a headline that incites my anger (even if that means refusing to read the news). A day is only successful if I have done some work—even on the weekends. That could be writing, teaching, editing, or serving of any sort. Reading. Listening to Prince. Passing cars blasting music, like a stranger’s intimate perfume leaving you tumbling in a crowd. Calling my parents, laughing, being annoyed. Talking to my sister across the continent. I want to end the day feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally. To know that I have used what I’ve been given: a body and consciousness. Listening to Aaliyah in the bathroom while my cats watch me take off my makeup. You know, the usual stuff—a bath or hot shower; thanking God, while I doze off into the world of my untameable subconscious.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

My MFA at NYU and the fact that most neighborhoods in Manhattan give me anxiety.

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’m in Bed-Stuy just off Nostrand Ave. It’s loud and weirdly eclectic—I don’t feel comfortable making grand statements about the evolution of this neighborhood. I’m cognizant of my own participation in the gentrification that the locals protest on the weekends. Before I moved here, I was in Bushwick for a year. The industrial feel of Bushwick reminded me of Hackney in London, rife with a sharp wind and deserted ghostly warehouses. Bedford Ave between Monroe and DeKalb reminds me of Berlin, in all the good ways: yuppie cafés, local fruit stands, delis and bodegas and and and. I love the in-between-ness of Bed-Stuy—it feels complex, still; the fact that I can get some gentrified coffee on Bedford but buy $1.50 doubles at the Doubles King on Nostrand.

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

Always, always sitting next to screenwriters: in cafés, at stations, in trains. Crying in the subway. Being hungover. Coming down off something in the blistering sunrise of July, and walking down my Bushwick apartment stairs to encounter a performance artist in a sequined dress and with vampire teeth. Instead of getting coffee, having a conversation with the artist about Paul Celan and the difference between “liking” something and “being obsessed with.” Spontaneity and nuance. Hustling. Oh, and bodega cats! I bought my cat off a bodega that couldn’t take care of him.

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

I’m often alone, and I flourish in solitude, but community is important. It’s necessary to talk about the world and share work and connect. Naturally, I found likeminded people through my MFA program, which actively fosters a community and encourages us to build one outside of it. I loved this experience and have slowly made important literary friendships outside of my program. My experience is still quite heavily saturated with the MFA world, though.

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

My homies and some of my favorite poets ever, Walt Whitman and Biggie. And, of course, my living, breathing, hilarious and dangerously talented other homies, Momina Mela, Jess Rizkallah, Marwa Helal.

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

What are these strange mentor figures and where can you buy them? I’ve never had one. My cat, Prof. Dr. Pushkin, helps me to stop taking myself so seriously. I love watching movies by Agnès Varda, Abbas Kiarostami or Věra Chytilová and imitating their lyricism. Or I read Rilke and Anne Carson and mentor myself through careful analysis of syntax, image, linguistic surprise. But my teachers at NYU have propelled me, of course. Meghan O’Rourke, Catherine Barnett, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ed Hirsch, Terrance Hayes and Sharon Olds have each in their own way helped me dig deeper into my writing, my truth, my language; they are instructing me to never rest and always keep searching.

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

I’m reading Sophie Klahr’s Meet Me Here at Dawn right now. It’s an interesting book, I love the sparseness of her language. But I was particularly blown away by Airea D. Matthews’s Simulacra. She created something very original, very experimental, a living book that breathes with love. She instructs me to take more risks.

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

Too many! The list is infinite. I still need to read a lot of Mahmoud Darwish, Anne Sexton, Noam Chomsky, Neruda, Dickinson. I never finished reading Dante or Milton, so those are the giants I need to tackle.

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?

Physical books. I dip in and out of books easily, I always have seven hundred books in my bags, “just in case.” I take notes on my phone; sometimes in my notebook. But I prefer being transposed into another realm while I read and that means no note-taking. Just breathing and staring at a wall and saying “What the fuck” or “Oh my God” to myself repeatedly or weeping silently in my bed.

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

I’m experimenting with form right now. There’s a real sonnet renaissance happening right now, so that’s productive to think about. I’ve never written in blank verse. Right now, I’m working with a script sequence for my book (all those screenwriters around me and my own fate as a failed moviemaker influence that). So many things I haven’t done yet—I like constraint, be it linguistic, thematic or spatial. I want to explore poetry that thinks through a formal problem. I’m trying to shy away from that which I’ve established as a kind of “style” for myself. The work never stops, huh?

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

The library. On the subway. In cars. In the backseat of cabs. On the plane. In airports. Places of transits; waiting for a friend on a park bench, arriving at the restaurant too early, sitting in the waiting room long after your appointment has finished. At friends’ dinner tables. In my childhood room, or what is left of it. In the beds of loved ones. At bus stops. I love being alone in public places. I love sitting in cinemas and museum cafés and observing people, imagining what their days are like, where they are going, what is inside their bags, who is the last person that has touched them.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Brooklyn in motion. Its abundance of dirt and rot and bloom. Walking around Bushwick off the Jefferson stop with friends and a portable boombox; listening to Rihanna on my way to the subway; cycling up Bedford Ave all the way to Williamsburg. I love exiting BAM cinemas on a balmy evening and walking home. Getting lost in Prospect Park. Finding discarded books under trees. Walking past the family brownstones in Bed-Stuy, saying hi to strangers, flirting with dogs.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate your distances, wisteria,
And what I smother of you, you shall gather again,
For every nearness torn from me as good is blooming you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because nobody asks me where I’m from.