Poet Of The Week

Asiya Wadud

     January 2–8, 2017

Asiya Wadud recently completed a collection of poems, crosslight for youngbird, about the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe. She also writes about the spaces where human and animal life forms meet. Asiya holds a masters degree in city and regional planning from the University of California–Berkeley and and in African studies from Stanford University, and her grad school work on place and right-to-the-city informs much of her present writing. You can find her poems in the Felt, Recluse and PEN Poetry Series. A 2016 Brooklyn Poets Fellow who studied in Leigh Stein’s Prose for Poets workshop and also the recipient of a 2017 Dickinson House fellowship in Belgium, Asiya teaches second grade in the daytime at Saint Ann’s School, and English to recently arrived immigrants in the nighttime.

Calais, onward

empire wrought boundless
mollusked isle full light
moored light come light
a sepulcher if not
mark a journey supplicate
pray mohammed
and fatima
pray amira
and insh’allah
a litany
of all the names
of all the men
the women. all
our progeny
every chaos every need
our best maps
what mattered what became
a book of prayers
saved for daylight
and moonlight
and damned light
to retrieve a body
all. these days
we remembered
to make it, to mourn
to mark a journey
a white shrift unsullied
mash’allah my god
can deliver my god
saves face my god
solemn hunter my god
a privation my god
in the light call it, pilgrimage
call it crystalline, call it
empire call it
salt honed call it
calais onward

–Originally published in The Recluse, Issue 12, June 2016.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I recently completed my first manuscript, crosslight for youngbird, which is conversations about the current refugee crisis sweeping across Europe, and the pieces reflect my attempt to situate this crisis historically, on a continuum of other crises.

This poem, “Calais, onward,” sets the collection in motion. I originally wrote the poem for a Cave Canem workshop led by Jason Koo this past spring. The assignment was to write a punctuation-free poem. There were some additional instructions, but the punctuation-free directive got me thinking about how I could propel the action ever forward.

The first version of this poem was much shorter—the overall sentiment and themes were the same, though. I don’t usually wholesale edit my work. For this one, though, I’m glad I slowed down this piece. Sometimes when I’m thinking about ways to slow down and hone in on the movement in a poem, I like to watch Olafur Eliasson’s Movement Microscope, which is a 16-minute movie in which all the most banal, mundane actions are in slow motion: walking between the computer and the kitchen counter; opening a door; closing a door; grabbing a pen from the desktop. I return to this piece often when I’m trying to slow down and really peel back the nuances of a particular feeling.

I also return to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, in which Perec documents the most drab, boring observations of the same corner in Paris over the course of a weekend. This book does the same thing for me as Movement Microscope: it helps me to remember to slow down and really examine the nuances of whatever it is I’m writing about …

By way of background, most of the poems in the collection I just completed are direct responses to news pieces about the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe. I wrote “Calais, onward” after reading “The Wetsuitman” in Dagbladet. I found this story incredibly insightful and it really helped me to better visualize the repeated migration attempts and mounting desperation that often accompanies forced migration.

What are you working on right now?

In my recently completed manuscript, I try and situate my poems in conversation with other pieces about the refugee crisis, a kind of companion account.

I have a Process Space residency on Governors Island through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council that starts in March 2017. With that, I will be working on some new components of my crosslight project: 1) translating the pieces with the help of visitors during my May Governors Island open studios, 2) interviewing recently resettled refugees about their experiences in Berlin and writing new prose poems based on these interviews, 3) assembling a choir to perform some of the pieces in crosslight for youngbird.

Between now and March, I’m going to be preparing for my residency by following the news pretty closely and charting out some pieces that I’d like to write.

I also hope to be working on a few collaborative projects, which are pretty nascent right now, but still exciting for me.

What’s a good day for you?

In the daytime, I teach second grade. Earlier this month, one of the children arrived to school wide-eyed, mouth agape, excitedly pacing around the classroom. I caught his eye and asked him what he was thinking and he said, simply, that he was “so excited.” When I asked him why, he said he was excited “for December, the snow, I’m turning eight, I’ll get to make a snowman, it’s cold out, I’m just so excited … ”

To me, this was the start to a really good day. I love the kids’ generosity of spirit and awe for the day ahead of them, even if the pleasure is abstract, like December, or small, like it’s cold out. It’s a good reminder to turn the same stone over and over and see what about it is new.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Before Brooklyn, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. I love the Bay, Oakland particularly, but after ten years, I was ready for a change of pace and coast. And in the absence of seasons, ten years somehow passed. I finished grad school and was ready for the next steps. Most of the jobs I was interested in at the time were here in New York. So, here we are.

I love all the seasons and for that reason, I’m happy to be back on the East Coast. Every season is special, but I am partial to fall and winter.

When I was looking for a place to live, I was so struck by the allée of trees along Eastern Parkway and knew that I had to live within walking distance of it. It reminded me of being far away, in another country, everything felt so staid.

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 like the juxtaposition of the beautiful, stately Montrose Morris–designed apartment buildings that define the area of Bed-Stuy where I live, and the energy of the neighborhood. I’ve been in Bed-Stuy for three years now and hope I’ll be here for a good spell.

I like my neighborhood’s proximity to Prospect Park and to the more local Herbert Von King Park … talk about an allée. Von King is king of the allée. I like how all the benches are oriented to look out onto the great lawn. That’s where people bask in the warmer months and where the dogs chase their squeaky balls.

The changes to Bed-Stuy are palpable, even in the three short years I’ve lived here. As with a lot of gentrifying neighborhoods, I think the challenge is how to identify, preserve and protect that which is vital to the long term residents of the neighborhood before plans to accommodate new residents are set into motion.

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

My favorite moments are the small hours where the city is waking up. It’s not a particular moment, but it’s the feeling I have when no one is out, really, and you pass a person on the street and there is that early morning brief kinship.

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

Cave Canem, Brooklyn Poets and the Poetry Project have all been important places for me in New York. I want to spend the better part of 2017 working on collaborative projects so I’m sure nurturing a community will take on an even greater role.

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

I will always love Federico García Lorca. Not a Brooklyn poet, per se, but he did spend some time in Brooklyn during his stay in New York. Brenda Iijima is much newer to me, and I’m reading her work now. Also, I can always reread Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed and find something new in it.

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

My first writing workshop was Tracie Morris’s “Grabbing Poetry by the Throat,” which I took through Cave Canem during the fall of 2015. She helped me tremendously, especially in her insistence on thinking about the inherent connections between physical space, movement and that which is written.

Following Tracie’s workshop, I took a class with Jason Koo, also at Cave, and his workshop also really helped me to hone in on some broader themes I was interested in and to find the form that worked best for that project.

Also, I often return to Rilke’s “Widening Circles”:

Widening Circles

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

It’s a good reminder of how to be both narrow and focused on the one hand and receptive and open on the other.

Also, the choreographer and writer Okwui Okpokwasili is someone I always return to because, like Tracie Morris, her work is viscerally felt.

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

Last week I read Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which I liked a lot for its ability to imagine the humanity in three generations of polar bears. It was an interesting and funny and weird exercise in trying to see how something different from ourselves might live and be and think in the world. There are lots of other books that have stood out to me as of late, and that I’ll always return to, like Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed, which I already mentioned, Ruth Ellen Kocher’s Third Voice, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart.

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

I would like to read a lot more Paul Celan than I have read.

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 have a running list of books to read, to which I’m constantly adding new books. I like to read one novel at a time, and I also usually have a book of poems in my bag. The best is when I can sit down and read a whole book of poems in one go. Right now in my bag I have Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal and Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

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

I’d like to work on some erasure poems in which all the text is pulled from headlines of a single day’s news.

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

I like the café on the second floor of MoMA. This past spring and summer, Bouchra Khalili’s “The Mapping Journey Project” was on the second floor, which I went to see many, many times and now there’s another show—also about migration—that’s up: “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter.” Most of what I write about in this moment has to do with migration, return, exile and home, so I like to go to the second floor of MoMA to read and write and sit.

The main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is another place I like to linger. I lead an English conversation group there every Wednesday night, and have for the past several years. I consider that library my anchor. The Bedford branch of the library is my local library, though, so it has a special place in my heart. It dead-ends at Hancock and Franklin—it’s a pretty unassuming building—and if you walk down Hancock on a clear day, you can see it for a few blocks before you get there. It’s a beacon.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I like being outside and my favorite Brooklyn outside is Prospect Park. That park has something for every season, but I particularly love the blazing gold, red and orange leaves on the trees in the fall, followed by winter’s barrenness. And it’s so, so quiet there when it snows. It makes me feel far from the city. It’s such a reprieve.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate lambent rays,
And what I have you have,
For every need: me as good through you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is always expansive to me and I like that quality in a place, always.