Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Fatimah Asghar
What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”
I think much like American culture, American poetry can be bettered by de-centering Whiteness, Christianity, patriarchy and heterosexuality as the normative framework of the society that we operate. We live in a really exciting age of writers of every generation, many of whom have been overlooked or tokenized because of their sexuality, race, gender, and religion. So many writers are just killing it, writing their asses off, and being ignored because what they represent is a threat to the canon. I think we have to write to get rid of the canon. There are people out there who are bettering American poetry already, we just have to listen.
What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?
I don’t know about the most significant, but I think its pretty amazing to live in an age when a poem can go viral on social media. It’s really cool because writers have more options for getting their work out into the world than they did before social media existed. When you submit a poem for publication it can take months to be read, and many more months for the poem to be published if it accepted. Sometimes the timeline for publishing a poem can be a year, or two years. I think that can be super frustrating because it promotes a pretty archaic idea of the necessity of poetry. Poetry is urgent, therefore we must treat it as such. If the norm in our field is that poems can wait a year or two to be read by a general audience, that’s just strange. What does that say about what we think of the value or impact of poetry, of our own work? I love social media because the impact is immediate. You can post a poem about something that happened that day or a day before, and people can react to it in that same moment. There’s no waiting, there’s no bureaucracy.
VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?
Perhaps it’s because I came up in spoken word, where people could see my physical body every time I shared a poem, but I never want someone to read a poem of mine and not know who I am, how I identify. My identities are beautiful and complicated and important. They inform how I walk through the world, the way that I am treated, the way that I relate to history, a lot of my experiences. Why would I not want someone to know those things about me? It gets tricky when editors and readers start to use your identity traits against you, or to try and tokenize you. You know, the people who are like “Oh she’s not a scary Muslim so I like her.” Or, I had one interviewer try and get me to say that my identity traits were contradictory. That really pissed me off. Just because I don’t fit into your stereotype about what my race, gender, sexuality, religion or class is, doesn’t mean I’m not those things.
FATIMAH ASGHAR is a nationally touring poet, photographer, and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, PEN Poetry Series, The Paris-American, The Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook After was released on YesYes Books fall of 2015.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.