January 25–31, 2021
Nardine Taleb is an Egyptian-American writer and speech therapist based in Cleveland, Ohio. She serves as prose editor for the online literary journal Gordon Square Review. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Tinderbox, Yes Poetry, the Knight’s Library, Smoky Blue Literary and Arts Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal and elsewhere. This past fall, Taleb was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Jason Koo’s Silence & Sound workshop.
after election results
the children in my class are split in half like the nation.
One kid upon hearing the results draws the winner
and slashes him with X’s;
the other kid lies happily on the floor smiling like he’s high.
I have a civil war
in my classroom, among dr. seuss books and
These nine-year-olds overwhelmed with passionate ferocity
seem to grow grey hairs.
They insult each other and then go dig holes together.
I just needed a win
because I’ve been holding for years
in my hand [something heavy]
In the streets with my friends
I rise [with my body]
I chaos [with my country]
I choir [with my children]
For a moment I forget [my fear]
my mother in a text: He won He won HE WON
she spells his name with a y
my mother in our living room: I’m always worried you will get attacked at the grocery store and I
feel lighter now
washing dishes my mother smiling at me
like good news my mother sorting the fruit
basket my mother who once removed a tumor
and told me years after
and said it was benign this time
my mother like a bonfire there in my kitchen
washing all my dirty dishes reading the holy book
going to bed her life never (is life ever?)
in my hands
these days my mother
asks over and over, surprised
why do you do that
I think she’s saying
why aren’t you like me
this country has had
a field day with you
my father on the other hand
pronounces bourbon as bur-bone
and he goes to work
and heals his patients
and asks everybody to call him George Clooney instead of Mo
Once he mentioned if he was born
here he could have
gotten into Harvard
Today he buys me the coffee machine I wanted
holds it proudly for me to take
do your thing he says
in the end you must be the one to love your life
I need to believe in something
because in the absence of faith I am not my parents’ daughter
I need to believe I have choices I need to believe
I make those choices myself I need to believe
(as my parents’ daughter I need to believe)
my life is not on a leash
Tell us about the making of this poem.
As part of Jason Koo’s class, we had an assignment to write a poem with no punctuation. I was horrified. No punctuation! But that exercise was actually liberating. I felt that I could also take liberties with form, narration and story. I try to take that approach now with all my poems because I felt like I could be entirely vulnerable and creative. I was also fired up from this past 2020 Election Day, and from a certain personal experience with the kids in my class, so I sort of put all of me on there—on the page.
At the end of the poem, like in a lot of my poetry, I realized that the main characters were my parents. Yes, I’m the voice of the poem and there are stories throughout, but it was the first time I realized how much my parents have impacted my identity. I know it’s obvious that parents are influential on their kids’ lives in some way, but I had to write myself to know myself. So, really, this poem looks like it’s about Election Day, but it’s also about identity and how my parents are infused in that self-discovery.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a short story that has been haunting me for years.
I’m also working on spending more time thinking and practicing stillness. Ocean Vuong, one of my favorite writers, once mentioned that he spends more time thinking than in the actual act of writing. I really like that. I always put this pressure on myself to be creating or writing in some way, but I really believe that stillness and quiet time fuels the creative process. So I’m trying to embrace that more, to be more still.
What’s a good day for you?
Giving a kid at work way more stickers than they need.
Making their parents feel seen.
Answering phone calls from people I love and who love me.
Drinking coffee to a playlist of Novo Amor.
Going on a run. Bingeing on chocolate after.
Reading sad poetry. Writing sad poetry.
Thinking only good thoughts, or at least trying to.
Making my mom laugh.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home is Cleveland. I have lived here since I was three when we moved from my birthplace of Detroit, Michigan. The people are so sweet here; the coffee places are top-notch. My favorite thing about Cleveland is driving down the Metroparks in the fall. Cleveland can be very romantic, I mean it!
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I love Brooklyn. One of my best friends lives in Brooklyn, so it’s very dear to me. My favorite Brooklyn experience, strangely, was seeing Frozen 2 at Cobble Hill Cinemas pre-pandemic. Afterward, my best friend and I went to Mia’s Bakery and had dessert. I had been awake since 4 AM because of my flight that day and could not process the plot of Frozen 2. [SPOILER ALERT] “Hold on,” I kept saying in between bites of apple pie, “did they kill Olaf?” I think my friends had had enough of me that night but we were all very confused and dissatisfied with how we felt after the movie. I loved that we could be up late talking about kid movies among the chatter of other people that were also awake until 2 or 3 AM.
I also just love walking around Brooklyn Heights in general and looking at the beautiful homes with big windows … which I shamelessly look through and admire.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I really entered the poetry (and writing) community heavily during the pandemic. I felt so isolated, like others, and took shelter in online workshops. Brooklyn Poets was a welcoming home to me and it sparked my craving for more community. Once I realized that there was a huge presence of writers online, I joined Gordon Square Review—one of Cleveland’s literary magazines—as prose editor to continue the work of sharing people’s stories and keeping us connected. I realized my city is full of artists. I was really excited. It means the world to me to find people who will listen to my sad poetry, ha! I think the online poetry community is an example of the very, very good of the internet, and of humans.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
My two mentors from Brooklyn Poets—Joanna Valente and Jason Koo—were really the champions who made me believe in my writing. I didn’t think of my love for writing as more than just a strange obsession. Through their workshops, I realized that I didn’t have to put away my writing after I was done with it; that maybe it could help somebody if I found a place that would publish it. They helped me take liberties in my writing, too, and get more experience.
Ocean Vuong is another poet who has impacted my writing and the way I think. I’ve read and listened to his poem “Not Even This” more times than I’ve said my own name. One of my favorite lines is: “Body, doorway that you are, be more than what I’ll pass through.” He’s talked about language in a way that has mesmerized me, about how language can limit us and also impact our subconscious. I think about the ways my Egyptian Arabic is limited when I speak to my family in Cairo; but also that my cousins know English so well in order to access something that they think they need—more of America, I guess. Another discussion for another time.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Right now one of my poetry mentors is Zac Furlough from Passengers Journal. As I continue to refine my own style, he’s really been real with me on what works and what doesn’t and he really cares about his students. It’s been so awesome revising my poetry in his workshop.
Other poetry mentors were my grandmother, who would always say in Arabic: “I love you more than my two eyes.” I found that ironic because she was blind in one eye. She was always speaking in poetry even when she didn’t know it.
My other family members are also my poetry mentors. They are all storytellers, and I’ve been inspired by them since I was a little girl. I hope I can continue to write about them with integrity and realness.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Ocean Vuong’s poem “Not Even This” is one I can’t talk about enough. This particular poem, read in his voice, has shown me how powerful language and storytelling can be.
Adrienne Rich’s poetry book An Atlas of the Difficult World is a book of meditation for me. Her work is complex, but the lines and images are easy to understand. She made poetry accessible to me, when I was first starting. A few lines from her book, which sits on my bedside:
… These are not the roads
you knew me by. But the woman driving, walking, watching
for life and death, is the same.
Hanif Abdurraqib’s poetry book A Fortune for Your Disaster was the backdrop to my life as I was trying to give myself permission to be honest in my day-to-day life and in my poetry, even if it wasn’t always pretty. His poetry is music, really—listen:
I will not beg for you to stay this time / I will leave you to your wild galloping / I am sorry / to hold you again / for so long / I am in the mood / to be forgotten.
Lastly, Clarice Lispector’s book Água Viva made me realize that it is okay to have a little madness. Her writing feels obsessive and urgent, like she couldn’t help but write things on the page. I use her reflections as meditations, this line in particular:
The world has no visible order and all I have is the order of my breath. I let myself happen.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I want to reread Beloved by Toni Morrison. Also, I have books by Marilynne Robinson after rereading Housekeeping.
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 read several books at once, sort of sampling until I land on one that I can’t let go of. My favorite thing is to read while also listening to the audio, to get the voice of the author. Some poets have such a distinct voice and rhythms to their voice that it changes the entire reading experience (I’m thinking of Leila Chatti, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Hanif Abdurraqib, Jericho Brown and others).
I take notes in poetry books sometimes, underlining lines I really love. Sometimes a poem inspires my own writing, so I’ll jot down notes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I don’t have a certain goal. I think I just want to continue to write as vulnerably as possible because there’s this pressure that your poetry style has to be a certain way for it to be loved. I just hope to be honest.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
My car. I push my seat back, play loud music (folk music, indie rock) and roll the windows down if it’s not cold. It’s kind of like a cocoon for me. I can park my car anywhere—by a coffee shop, a lake, a park—and be somewhere new, but still feel at home because I’m in this space that is my own. I can fill it up with my thoughts. I can still look outside and feel like I’m with the world.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Mostly food places—Mia’s Bakery, Sunday in Brooklyn, Bluestone Lane. Any coffee place, really.
The streets of Brooklyn Heights on a quiet evening, too.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate identity,
And what I clumsily break you forgive,
For every woman in me is as good as all the women in you.