Poet Of The Week

Ashna Ali

     June 13–19, 2022

Ashna Ali is a queer, agender, disabled and diasporic Bangladeshi poet, writer and educator raised in Italy and based in Brooklyn. They are the author of the chapbook The Relativity of Living Well (The Operating System, 2022) and have work published or forthcoming in several journals including the Indiana Review, Sundog Lit, Kajal, Breadcrumbs and Bone Bouquet. They teach workshops on trauma, disability, writing the self, and queer feminism at Liminal Lab and New Women Space.

Author photo by Nicholas Tong

New York, I Love You

 

The mornings that the hot clench fastens

my chest to my belly, I wonder who might

see beyond my big grin bounce, suspect

that my day’s first sound is sputter. It doesn’t

matter. Who among us has not defaulted, by now,

to the permanence of getting by. What good does it do

to say, friend, I am drowning. We have lived for years

like we are not island people. Still, I’ve grown out

my hair, spent my night picking at a guitar

over beers under moonlight. A Chicago poet

told me the wells under my eyes are pain

anthologies, door stopper dense. The whole house

of me has its windows, entrances, exits,

blown open, for good. It happens. Buffeted

and tubular, I am a station thick with commuters,

headless chickens with no destination bobbing my secrets

back at me. How could I be lonely

in this cacophony. My Vermont lover says babe,

you’re made for that city. This filth in which we

refuse to look up but are always gazing

deep in the mirror, begging.

 

⁠—Originally published in Sundog Lit, Spring 2022.

Brooklyn Poets · Ashna Ali, "New York, I Love You"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote this poem in a period of distressing transition in March 2022 when I was between apartments, between relationships, struggling with medical problems and barely managing to keep my teaching job as a result. It’s often in these moments that New Yorkers find ourselves wondering why we put up with high rent, cold weather and punishing labor to stay in this town. Ultimately it’s about knowing full well—at least, this is true for me—that no place else will do, and that often no place else will have us. This poem is an expression of that tension.

What are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on my very first full collection of poetry. It’s exhilarating and terrifying. I’m also writing a prominent photographer’s biography and an essay about the failures of contemporary feminism. And some other things. I’m a double Gemini rising Aries—I get excited about too many things at once all the time.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day brings sunshine. A balance of good solitude and rich company (preferably over food and wine), shot through with equal amounts of music and silence. A good day is when the smaller pleasures in life accumulate gently and without fanfare. They leave the body and mind grateful and sated.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I first moved to Brooklyn in my last year of college as part of a destructive wave of gentrification in 2008–09. I followed a classmate who wanted to share an apartment in Bushwick, which was comparatively affordable back then. I have not lived anywhere but Brooklyn since, though I have moved around a great deal within the borough.

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?

After many years living in Bushwick, Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, I recently moved to Kensington. For those who are unfamiliar, Kensington is a predominantly immigrant and residential neighborhood south of Prospect Park. In the seven months that I’ve lived here, I have fallen in love with it. As a Bangladeshi immigrant, I love being surrounded by my own language and having access to my home foods. I grew up an immigrant minority in Italy and continue to operate in New York spaces where there are few South Asians. By contrast, here a lot of people look a little like me, look a little like my family, and many people speak my mother tongue. I love that Chinese, Bangladeshi, Uzbek and Hasidic communities all live cheek-by-jowl exchanging traditions, foods, words and caring for their families. Everyone pulls out all the stops for Halloween and Christmas. I get the sense that holiday spirit pervades regardless of whether the holiday is culturally relevant to the residents who decorate. The tree-lined quiet and wholesome environment appeal to my old-Italian-man spirit.

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

Last year, a partner and I organized an all-day picnic in Prospect Park as an alternative to Queer Liberation March and Pride events. So many were suffering from social anxiety, exhaustion, long-term illness and other challenges to participation. Friends and lovers from all over Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, hailing from all over the world, young and old, came and broke bread, made art, shared libations and danced until the wee hours during a rainstorm. It was magical! It proved to me that no matter how much capitalism and winter conspire to bring us down, it’s the wealth of our communities that bear us up.

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

This is a particularly difficult question on the heels of two years of pandemic life. Poetry spaces are only just beginning to open back up to in-person events, but so much of the community gathered and supported one another in digital spaces since March 2020. We may all be a bit fed up with Zoom now, but I remember weeping with joy at how many poetry fundraisers and mutual aid initiatives sprang up everywhere. Everyone was reading something somewhere, coming together across state lines and contributing time, poetry, labor and money. I was very proud of how much people showed up for each other. Otherwise, my poetry community—or the people whose work I uplift, who show up for my work, and for me—is small, but rich. I am blessed to have them, but also recognize that it was a long journey to build these relationships. It’s not easy!

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

I took a lot of inspiration from Shira Erlichman’s Odes to Lithium and was then a participant in her month-long In Surreal Life workshop. That workshop helped me take myself seriously as a poet. I have been influenced and guided for years by the kindness and work of MC Hyland. Anthony Thomas Lombardi’s work and friendship have become central to how I think about poetry. Hala Alyan’s work floors me, as does her Kan Ya Makan reading series with Sara Deniz Akant, which is a slice of absolute magic.

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

It’s interesting that this question is articulated in the past tense, because though I have evolved significantly since I first started writing, I see my mentors as very much still my mentors! Perhaps this is a symptom of forever imposter syndrome, but I feel always a student. Kay Ulanday Barrett, queer trans Filipinx disabled performance poet, has been deeply supportive of my work and believed in me from the start. They encouraged me to write about the experiences that so many of us assume we can’t write about because they are not accessible enough (not White enough), not palatable enough (offensive to the able-bodied), etc. I will always be grateful for that. Similarly, MC Hyland does amazing work with lyric poetic memoir, which helped me realize that I’m a poetic memoirist, that I write to both feel and document. heidi andrea restrepo rhodes took me under her wing early on, and the investment of her research and poetry in the politics of the otherworldly—ghosts, magical realism, the dark and light spaces of the mind—keeps pushing me toward feeling into those spaces when thinking about disability experience, intergenerational trauma, and pain. Divya Victor has been an important friend and mentor in thinking about what it means to be a South Asian poet in an America that is addicted to its own historical amnesia. Tarfia Faizullah is the first poet I came across whose work addressed the history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and its aftermaths. She also taught me the redundancy of wondering whether the stories poets tell are factual rather than true in more relevant, substantive ways. These are the people who get me excited about their projects, my projects, our shared projects, within minutes of our coming together. That energy means the world to me.

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

Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets completely changed how I think about the sonnet, and also how I think about lyric genres. The stories she tells and the way she paints a picture of community, grief, love, admiration … It left me gobsmacked.

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

There are three enormous tomes on my bookshelf that I feel are staring at me in judgment because I have never read them cover to cover, and instead only dip in and out at random like a dilettante: June Jordan’s Directed by Desire; The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader; and Against Forgetting, edited by Carolyn Forché. Those are the first three that come to mind, but there are of course many more. I am lucky that my roommates don’t hate me for drowning our apartment in yet-unread books.

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?

I mostly read early in the morning or late at night. I almost always juggle multiple books unless I’m devouring something at high speed. I read both physical books and electronic books, though the former are my preference. I read with colorful sticky tabs and a pencil and go back to the pages I’ve marked as I read. I will take notes in the margins of books that belong to me. I pluck particular lines, words and sentences out to place on a notebook page to recall the whole or to reshape to my own ends somehow.

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

I recently took a fascinating workshop on erasure with Leigh Sugar and hope to incorporate the insights she shared into a first set of erasure poems. So much of the thinking I do is about what is being erased and why. Erasures are a challenge to reverse that power dynamic and be the one who can eliminate other people’s words or meanings to create meaning of my own kind. There’s something inherently violent about it that both scares and appeals to me.

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

The subway. Bars.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

My home! And the homes of my friends! As for more public spaces, I love Prospect Park, I love Fort Greene Park and its farmers market, and Green-Wood Cemetery. I love the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden for being an important early summer ritual double-feature of beautiful things every year. I have a handful of bars and event spaces—The Holler, Do or Dive, the Crown Inn, Hinterlands, Starr Bar, Wild Birds—where my friends and I have felt taken care of for years. I love Greenlight Bookstore, Unnameable Books, Berl’s Poetry Shop, the Center for Fiction. Oh, and BAM. I have seen many of the best shows and films of my life at BAM. So many of these places are excellent in their own right for a variety of reasons, but ultimately I love them because they have become essential to the fabric of my life.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate serendipitous glee,

And what I spill over, you are invited to drink,

For every spell you cast to make me good, I bless you I bless you I bless you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because it’s about being oneself to the bone. Because it’s all guts, flash, and fuck you.