The 2014 James River Writers conference happens this weekend here in Richmond, Virginia. If you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time. Among the many authors, poets, editors, agents, and other publishing industry experts you’ll have the opportunity to hear there is Tarfia Faizullah, a rising star among poets, whose first book, Seam, won the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her list of accomplishments is already formidable, with a host of impressive publications, fellowships, and scholarships to her name. This year she is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in Poetry at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. I had the pleasure of conversing with Tarfia this summer, talking about what makes her tick. She had this to say about the impact of the James River Writers Conference and Richmond as a city had on her as a writer…
I’ve spent a good part of my life longing for spaces in which I wasn’t a weirdo, and when I finally decided to apply to graduate school, it was that longing that ultimately took me to Richmond to attend VCU. I remember driving down Broad for the first time, further and further away from the ubiquitous corporate strips housing the usual Best Buys or fast food restaurants, and closer and closer to the heart of Richmond’s downtown. Nestled there was an unexpectedly rich and welcoming community of arts and letters where I would learn from and grow inside of as both a writer and an artist.
My first year at VCU, I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to attend the James River Writers Conference. There, I sat in rooms beside them listening intently to panels of authors share what they had learned from their own joys and failures, from dedicating a life to the work of the word. I was too half-formed at the time to understand what a gift the scholarship truly was: I was too impatient, too ready to charge forward with my own poems. But I wasn’t so impatient that I wasn’t moved by a panel with local poets Brian Henry and Elizabeth Seydel Morgan. They discussed poetry with verve and thoughtfulness in such a way that made me realize that poetry could vibrate the universe, if we wanted it to. If we let it. Yes, I thought. Let it.
Your description of Richmond, and transitioning from the corporate zone to the heart of Richmond’s downtown, is striking and matches how I remember coming to the city. What part does arrival—does gnosis—play in your poetry?
I want to both understand and appreciate mystery, and I ask my poems to do the same work. In this way, To me, the practice of poetry is arriving—at some version of myself I was heading towards but didn’t know I would become in a world that seems different than the day before. In Seam, I’m always arriving somewhere both geographically and spatially new: a hotel room in a village in Bangladesh, in a kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, along a highway in west Texas.
Do you see this fundamental change—becoming a version of yourself in a world that seems different—as something internal, or as coming from change in the world?
I see it as a conversation between the internal and external—I’m affected by the external, but I try not to let it dictate my feelings completely or for very long. I suppose in a way, I vacillate between feeling anxious about the world’s difficulties and exuberant over its beautiful mysteries.
The urgency you describe with respect to your poetry is understandable, but it seems at odds with the poems themselves. Your lines are so solid, and the women at the core of your first collection, Seam, don’t have stories that feel like they can be rushed. How do you balance urgency and craft?
That’s a great question—one that I consider each time I wrestle with a poem. Sometimes, I can carry a poem with me for a long time: there is the gathering of the materials, considering the connections between them, articulating those connections. My first reader and co-editor Jamaal May and I can take a good long while considering and wrestling with the tiniest components of a line or sentence: we call this getting a poem past-done. Other times, a poem will come as though summoned, and it only takes an edit or two before it gets to that past-done place. Regardless, I always take the time to let a poem rest. To let my eyes rest from it, so I can see it more clearly the next time I look at it.
Your approach to writing and editing sounds deliberate and rock-solid. In addition to these craft steps, what else do you feel is necessary for poetry that, in your words, can vibrate the universe? Can we even quantify that?
Seamus Heaney draws a distinction between craft and technique in his essay “Feeling Into Words.” It’s a terrific distinction, because craft are the tools you can learn such as meter and sound, the processes you can employ, and technique is voice and perspective. You can put the words together with craft, but you need the heart—its myriad concerns, its pulse, its erratic behaviors—to hold them there.
Read Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam to see this brilliant poet at work, and come hear from her this weekend at the 2014 James River Writers Conference.