December 13–19, 2021
Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman (she/her) is a biracial Muslim writer, historian, poet and artist. Her first book of poetry, The Raven, the Bayou, and the Willow, is forthcoming from FlowerSong Press in the spring of 2022. She was nominated this year for a Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net anthology, and was a featured performer at “The Art of Intimacy” event organized by Houston Grand Opera and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2019. Her art and writing can be found in journals including WORDPEACE, Mixed Magazine and Crack the Spine, as well as in the Boundless 2021 anthology of the Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival. This past spring, Tamara was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Cea’s On I Go workshop on poem cycles.
san isidro (or, ode to south texas towns that cover their history with planned communities and progressive elementary schools)
the rickety window gives way to a hidden slat in the roof
you can levy off of the oak tree up the up, and up
you sit and watch the sky
the grackles flutter in their packs and as the
ease of an evening smoke soothes you
you imagine that you are that lone bird
who circles above
watching this sleepy street
you wonder what your little body would feel like
until it is you gliding on summer winds
quarantine brought excavators and cranes
to the town’s pristine cul-de-sacs
you and the grackles float over the newly mounded dirt
in search of the dead armadillo
you follow the curve of the bayou
suddenly, oyster creek gives way to a graveyard
there’s a woman there with flowers
you remember her
something familiar about
her shaking hands
you’ve been here before
except the houses that lined the block weren’t here
instead the fields were lined with pecan trees
cramped metal shacks
the people who lived here piled together
you and your grackle friends would
perch in the rusted holes and watch the flies buzz
it smelled like sweet sugar and the sweat
of a texas summer
men yelled and there were sugar
clouds that would roll in when the sun set
you watched men dig holes deep into the earth
until their straw hats disappeared into the black
dumping bodies of sugar mill workers into these mass graves
you never liked human calls, they wailed like lost wolves
as twilight lingered you swore you would never forget how
clear a sunset is reflected in the puddled marshes circling Bulls Bayou
thick white clouds reflected pink in these pools
like the world made of cotton candy
you imagined as a child
the boy who lived in the house with the green door carved
his name into the wet cement
a year after the Brazos spilled into public sidewalks
and drowned malvina’s little boxes
the woman in the graveyard set her flowers down and kissed the gravestone
her ring shines in the light, the same one her father wore
as you lunge for the gleaming object you remember
the girl with the ball of tin foil
she would run across the open field, before they put in the stones
taunting you with her ball of light
when the bodies of her loved ones were unmarked
you settle into the dirt and pick at the white speck of leftover sugar-wind
wondering why even in death they cannot escape
drowned in white
the funeral director was buried among the masses
the land is said to be blessed by saints
isidro—patron saint of farmers
—Originally published in poetically, January 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I had been working on a campaign with the Sugar Land Historical Society during my time at the University of Houston to stop the digging up of a slave graveyard in Oyster Creek. They were trying to build a new elementary school in the place where this mass grave was. There were headstones for later years when individuals who were enslaved at the sugar mill were buried, but underneath them are hundreds of bodies of black and brown workers who were dumped in mass graves. I write a lot with magic or mystical elements and I wanted to convey the despair and the truth of this history through the lens of a grackle moving back and forth in time. The pandemic gave me time to sit and think with these histories and since the town won and took over that area to build a school, I needed a way to vent that anger. To vent the loss of this space and this resting place for so many. This graveyard sits in a neighborhood that grew around it; it’s a piece of my town’s history that is washed away, like so many of the atrocities in South Texas.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the edits for my forthcoming book The Raven, the Bayou, and the Willow and am now completing the artwork that will accompany the book. It’s been such a beautiful, stressful and fulfilling process. I am working on poems constantly and am finally trying my hand at an epic poem series that follows a young girl in the Iraqi desert during the industrial age. She creates an automaton for her caravan and a jinn gets stuck in it and brings it to life. I’m excited to see where this story goes and how these poems form.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is weird these days. I just moved to Oxford, Mississippi, to be with my partner who is in the MFA program at Ole Miss. A good day is when I get to walk through Lamar Park and take in the trees, the sculptures and Lake Patsy. I sit on a bench and journal my surroundings. Making food, reading and drawing all make up a great day for me. Time outside of work to be myself and be creative.
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 for me now is Oxford, Mississippi. I’ve only lived here a month. I like the town square, Square Books, Lamar Park and the giant forest that surrounds the town. It’s changing more for me because I misjudged this place before I came here. I’m from Houston, but also grew up in a small town just south of the city. This place feels similar to my hometown Sugar Land in the sense that it’s a small town with big aspirations. There are aspects of a big city here, with its somewhat diverse population and varied foods and big-box stores. It’s disorienting but also a comfort that I can find such similar spaces here to those I had back home. I had such a big community back in Houston and I’m still trying to find my place here; it’s a bit harder to get into the community since I am not in the program. Houston is my love, it’s the first place I ever called home and my writing is a love letter to that city as much as it is to the South, Iraq and my conflicting identities.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I have actually never been to Brooklyn. I got to work with Brooklyn Poets via Zoom for my fellowship, so it was nice to see faces from across the country communing in that online space. My impression of Brooklyn is that it’s a conflicted space, and at odds with its history and its future. Gentrification, art, community, music, money and so much more all play a role in what shapes Brooklyn in my eyes. It reminds me a lot of Houston in that sense, but I guess the same can be said for all big cities.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
A poetry community to me is not one place or one group of people. It’s an interconnected national and international space in which both spaces continue to grow and work off each other. Before the pandemic, my community was rooted in Houston with Write About Now, Writers in the Schools, Defunkt Magazine, Space City Underground, Gulf Coast, UH CoogSlam and so many other organizations that brought us together. In the pandemic, my community has grown to include Brooklyn, LA, New Jersey, Seattle and so many more spaces because I have access to them now. I have been able to make friends and connections and share spaces in areas I never dreamed I could before I “made it” in my career. Now, here I am still just starting my path and already I have these connections and spaces. A poetry community is an ever-growing and ongoing space where poets can come together and collaborate, create and share their work.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Audre Lorde, Jason Koo and Cea are the first to come to mind. Through their work I found confidence, a voice and encouragement that my stories are valued and meant to be told. Audre was my first look into the self and how it relates to community, history and identity. I was introduced to Jason’s work when my team at Glass Mountain brought him to Houston for the Boldface Conference, and with his work I saw the melding of the past and the future. His references to Walt Whitman and focus on form helped me learn form. I’m a community-based poet and all of my poetry training came from community spaces and personal study. His work showed me to use form to break it. Cea I met through my fellowship with Brooklyn Poets along with renée kay and they are fantastic poets in their own right, but such great mentors and guides into poetry. I felt so at home with them in class with the rest of my cohort. The way Cea blends music and other art forms with their teaching is beyond inspirational. I can never thank them enough for the work they do and the inspiration they provide me.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Etel Adnan, Lupe Mendez, Cea, Grace Wagner-ODaniel, Khaled Mattawa, Hayan Charara, Cait Weiss Orcutt, Dominique Burk, Aris Kian Brown, Omer Ahmed, Leila Chatti, Amir Safi, Dimitri Reyes, the list goes on. These are people I’m in community with, either in conversation or on the page or on stage, and most times all of the above. Each of them holds a special place in my heart and in my work. Their influence is more than just on the page but in how I conduct myself as an arts activist. How I combine my passion for visual art, history and generational pain into work that means something, that contributes to the fight for equal voice and the mitigation of misunderstanding and injustice.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am currently reading Joshua Nguyen’s Come Clean and this has been another eye-opening experience. Josh is so fluid and dynamic with his words, each poem has such a depth and marrying of pop culture, identity, history, culture, the South and so much more. I wholly understand and am also mystified by his writing. I also just finished rereading Natasha Carrizosa’s Crown, which always gives me such light and guidance. She writes about being black in the framework of latinidad, of her mother, her father and community. As a mixed person myself I find a lot of similarities between our experiences and it is so fulfilling and reassuring to see that parallel in the poetry I read.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
More June Jordan. I’ve read a few poems by her on my own and for a workshop, but I always crave more of her. The way she breaks down and changes the art of poetry is fuel. I always return to some of my favorites. I want to devour her work as a whole. I want more of her.
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 am a go-by-feeling kind of reader and am often reading three or more books at a time all across different genres and forms. So, typically I’m reading a poetry book, a novel (or collection of short stories) and a nonfiction book at the same time. I move between them on a whim when I’ve been oversaturated by one, or need to process what I’ve read, or just get bored and need something new. I have ADHD, so keeping to one book at a time doesn’t really work with me. I do discover my reads at random. Whatever is piquing my interest at the moment is what I’ll read, from poems to classics to fantasy to political commentary to history, and on and on. My library takes up half my apartment at this point. I take notes when a section or line inspires me, or I’m doing historical research for my writing.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
This is a great question. Having an ongoing narrative that is three to four poems long, but each stands on its own. I do have parts in poems, but they are limited to that one poem, not many.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
The park, a forest, on the beach, in a tree. I like to write outside. I write a lot of ecopoetry in tandem with history and identity, so being outside when I write gives me the best inspiration and motivation.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Unfortunately I have never been to Brooklyn, but I’ll say being on Zoom while Cea is in their living room is a space I love! Hopefully one day soon when my book is out I’ll come to Brooklyn and find all the magical spaces.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate time and the space between your shoulder blades,
And what I miss about the rain and clouds when you and I are hidden in the mountains,
For every mulberry stuck in a molar, soft and sweet, I feel the wind fluttering between me as good as your mother’s pho, and you.