December 16–22, 2019
Ayesha Raees identifies herself as a hybrid creating hybrid poetry through hybrid forms. She was a 2018–19 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and is an assistant poetry editor for the Margins. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, Raees is a graduate of Bennington College and currently lives in New York City. This past summer, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Laura Eve Engel’s Funny, Ha Ha workshop.
Marathons Are Run for Causes
I am running.
God is running after me.
God has a razor.
God wants to shave me.
I stop at Greenwich Village
to feed a pigeon
with a packet of Lay’s:
$2.99 vinegar air & crumbs.
My mother is not here
but once upon a time she was.
God is watching me
being kind to a voiceless animal
even if this voiceless animal
is a fat disgusting pigeon
who spends more time
on the ground being fed
from Shitty Ayesha
than using its God-Given wings
to fly away
to any country
it can ever want.
Shit. In my kindness,
God has approached me
with His razor and a can
of spray paint. He says
if you stay here
you will have to:
1. Shave your head.
2. Spray it yellow.
Listen, God, how about you stay
away from me?
I am aware
of the settling.
Of my mother
There is no azan
here in this city.
Time holds itself together
in brief histories.
In my mouth is a massacre
out of many.
In my bones are the screams
I am safe. Please trust me.
You shouldn’t paint me
when the sun is me.
I am all its rays. Its fevers. Its burnings.
And now God is running.
And I am running after God.
I have got a razor.
I want to shave God.
God is not stopping at any villages.
God is not stopping at all.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Marathons Are Run for Causes” was an exercise to experiment with the formality of form, in this case couplets, by engaging it with a colloquial voice. When this poem was being written, I was in a place where I was trying to shed by questioning institutionalized ideology of creation as well as my own conditioning in it. “How can I allow my poems to be honest,” I asked myself, “in a way they can carry the weight of my political while celebrating my personal?” What I wanted to achieve with the personal in this poem was to enforce a hint of my own personality, which balances an inappropriate bitterness with humor—a practice I have allowed myself where I crack a joke and gain a friend. (Or not.) Yet, this poem is one of the first ones that I was able to muster, a victory of being able to have unconditioned myself enough to give it allowance, but I still am on the journey, and always will be, to keep navigating and discovering more possibilities of self and political authenticities. Humor is a bridge between the said and the meant, and I try to engage with it by will in my work.
In regard to the context of the poem, it has linearity and fixates on the idea of a God-chase which is, maybe, also a lament on trying to shed the guilt of existing and striving and making home in two places at once while realizing the price of settling is the lack of true belonging.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on a series of hybrid poem-paintings.
What’s a good day for you?
Lots of sun. Friends and food. Twilight car drives. A good analysis of a convoluted memory. Parental shade. Peace through discourse. Mountain wind. The kind of snow where every flake is slow and visible. And, unfortunately in light of my Leo sun, attention.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I graduated college and was transitioning into adult life. I was subletting for a couple of months as I waited for my OPT visa to come through. By the time it came, the universe awarded me a yearlong fellowship from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The contract asked me to stay in New York City and concentrate and work on my craft. I ended up staying on. And on. And so on.
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 live in Sunset Park! Apart from an internship stay here and there, it is the only neighborhood I have spent so much time in. In a way, if I think of home in New York City, Sunset Park will be it. It’s beautiful. The heightened parks, the rivered walks, the non-gentrified pockets of family and friends huddled together in loud laughter and cheer in a local eatery. It has been almost two years I have been here, and I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else. As with many landscapes, it is changing, slowly becoming more and more capitalistically branded. Industry City is a towering evil, a borough almost of its own now. But despite that, the core of its heart exists, the Brooklyn Chinatown, the hustle and bustle, it all exists, and I believe it always will.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
It is an insane thing to find a quiet peaceful park and I have found myself in many. This is a good thing.
Do you know how hard it is to go from one place in Brooklyn to another? MTA has filled me with enough frustration to want to run away. This is a bad thing.
An in between? When every day is so eventful, it becomes normal, and I take it for granted.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
For me, a poetry community means allowance. To be able to exist with others in a balance of generosity and care while adhering to individuality. To understand and pay respect to differences while being actively inclusive. It exists in both a realistic space and an ideal feeling. In a lot of ways, I am lucky, and I have drilled myself into the many pockets of possibility where people gather in power of similarities and end up leaving with great respect for each other’s differences. Communities stemming from the wonderful work being done by AAWW, Kundiman, Cave Canem, Brooklyn Poets, Femme Mâché, Women’s Poetry Workshop, Sweet and Sour Readings, Chinatown Soup, EV Poetry Salon and honestly so many more—they’re participating in creation and have shared space every day in Brooklyn. Even if events and organizations occur in other boroughs, the reality is the majority of creatives dwell and swell in Brooklyn. It is where their existences and lives have been allowed and given possibility.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Good lord. So many. Both my peers and those in the celebrity spotlight. Ocean Vuong has been quite important to me when it comes to giving acknowledgement and power to bilingual abilities. Cynthia X. Hua, a friend as well, is also a poet whose work I enjoy greatly. I recently discovered the work of Kristin Chang (Past Lives, Future Bodies from Black Lawrence). Her work has just blown me away. Cindy Tran’s poems are also mindblowing. She does these Yelp-review poems and they are breathtaking. And there are just way too many people out there, I can’t do them all justice.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mentors are those who have been able to say something that has resonated with me at the right time. Therefore, I find mentorship in a lot of people, but do not really have a consistent poet mentor. One person that truly comes to mind was one of my professors from college who joined the literature department at a time when I needed it most. I had just returned from a nine-month escape from America and was on the verge of giving up on poetry and writing. But his classes, his discourse and his conversations, allowed me to have a body in a classroom for the first time. He was extremely inclusive which helped me during that time a lot. Before him, I believed my Othering. After him, I believed better. His work also revolved around prosody, and he allowed me to give as much attention to form as context, and gave allowance to my more technical mindset. Through him, I learned about both context and form. He was one of the most phenomenal educators in my life and he made me a better thinker and poet. I call myself lucky to be his student. His name is Phillip B. Williams.
The community at Asian American Writers’ Workshop has greatly impacted and supported me. Jyothi Natarajan, an intelligent, kind and generous soul, has given me allowance, been extremely present and has mentored me seamlessly by listening and aiding in my unconditioning. Emily Yoon, the editor of the Margins, has been a great mentor to me as I transition myself and my focus towards caring for the literary community through a more editorial lens. And Yasmin Majeed, a dear friend and assistant editor at AAWW, has cared for me in unaccountable ways. I have never met anyone as groundingly intelligent as her, and her every analysis has resonated with me deeply. These mentorings are always less formal and more human. And I wouldn’t be here without them.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Definitely Kristin Chang’s chapbook Past Lives, Future Bodies has been on my mind since I read it.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Infinite Jest! My Brilliant Friend! Olio! It’s not only about time for me. For some books, I want to curate dedicated time and space. This is extremely hard to do in the daily grind.
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?
For me, it differs depending on the genre I am reading, but for both fiction and poetry I must finish a book before starting another, with the only exception being if I am reading a novel and I have a craving for poetry, I will pick up and read a book of poems. Though this happens rarely. For poetry, it is hard to read a collection in fractions. I enjoy sitting down and reading it in one sitting page to page, and making notes (in a separate notebook!) of page numbers and lines that have compelled me which, in the end, allows me to go back to them later and spend more time in deconstruction, asking myself the question of why (why did I pause here?) and what (what was it truly that compelled me?). I think these constant questions I ask myself help me build a more personal relationship with the work I am reading and allow me to remember and reminisce on it later.
With novels, I read for enjoyment. It’s refreshing to read linear prose. I like prose with robust language with sentence structures that balance surplus and constraint. I find a compatible novel and/or prose pieces very healing for I am not as concentrated in analyzing or critically reading them. As a poet, I feel less duty toward them and therefore end up finding great pleasure.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
More experiments in form are always great, but also writing without any constraints would be great too. I do wish somehow to write without the anxiety it is weighted with many times. I also try my best to not just write but also to participate in other forms of expression. In the end, poetry etches into everything, and my work becomes hybrid in nature. So maybe I would like somehow to stay focused on my poems so they all face completion and not abandonment.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Well! I work a terrible full-time job that has nothing to do with anything I care about. This job allows me strange pockets of downtime and I use it shamelessly to concentrate on writing. Some things are easier, such as this interview, or prose criticism, or submittable chaos, but I have edited and written some poems here and there too. It has been a good practice this year, to be able to come to work and actually use the desk and this strange discipline etched from corporate-induced existentialism to do my labor of love. So … erm … yes! I write at my job? I still can’t believe it myself.
Other spaces I enjoy: Poets House is so calming and beautiful. So well lighted! Also AAWW’s office space, because being surrounded by an Asian/Asian American library is extremely empowering for me.
I can only truly enjoy reading at home. Lying down. With a forgotten cup of tea.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Center for Fiction is such a beautiful space, albeit always busy whenever I have been there. I have found the local cafés in Sunset Park to be less busy and more calm, and I have frequented them to write my diary. Most of my favorite Brooklyn spaces are definitely more outdoors: Green-Wood Cemetery has my heart.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate God,
And what I mean is you in zone,
For every distance has conquered me as good as a chance has given you.
Because it holds a home for every kind of identity.