Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Noor Ibn Najam

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

(This question is funny to me because I’m pretty sure I’m considered a “young and emerging” marginalized writer. That said, I am opinionated and nosy and give advice often, so I can still answer.)

The advice I most often find myself passing on, especially to other marginalized writers, is something Gregory Pardlo told my poetry cohort at Callaloo Creative Writer’s Workshop in South Carolina last Summer. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Good: “I’m writing about Columbine.”

Better: “I’m writing about Columbine because I care about how gun violence affects our youth and society as a whole.”

Best: “I’m writing about Columbine because I care about how gun violence affects our youth and society as a whole. I feel passionate about this subject because, when I was a child, I almost accidentally shot my sister while playing with my dad’s gun, and that moment changed something about how I live in this world; it drove me to want to write about Columbine after I heard the news.”

The point: finding the most incisive answer to “why am I writing this” is going to push your work forward. Often, the conversations surrounding what topics marginalized writers want to engage with end up (tone-)policing people who are new to writing. If you want to write 5,000 poems about how cops are murdering Black people and getting away with it, cool. If you want to write 5,000 poems about how pretty sunflowers are, do it. If you want to write some sunflower poems and some poems about police brutality, awesome. If you want to write some sunflower poems that are really about how awful cops are, and some cop poems that end in flowers, that sounds super interesting and I want to read them, please tag me @sonofstars_ when they’re published. Just make sure you understand why, and don’t stop at the first answer that comes to mind. Keep interrogating your intentions. It’s not enough to say you want to write about X because you’re passionate about it, or because it’s relevant to your life. You’re probably passionate about a lot of things, and leaving your laundry until you have to wear your undies inside-out affects your life in very real ways, but instead you’re writing about this. Why?

How do you feel about the ongoing debates concerning “writing outside of your identity?”

Well, to start, I really wish people would be more precise with their language when tackling such (in)tense questions. There are very real consequences when this kind of issue is ignored or not addressed thoroughly. What does it mean to write “inside” your identity? And isn’t every narrator a mask, anyway?

Grumpy semantics aside, though, I do often feel a way when writers take on voices, personas, and topics that they don’t have any (or much) firsthand experience with — but not always. What’s the difference between Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead” and Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To”? To me, the authors’ positionalities is a major factor. Patricia Smith, a Black woman, is a person who is oppressed by the demographic she’s embodying in “Skinhead” (a poem in the voice of a White supremacist/neo-nazi man). This means that a) she can’t benefit from institutional power/privilege that would enable her to cause harm as she speaks on the experience of the fictional skinhead, and b) she has a relationship with the voice she’s embodying. She may not know what it’s like to be a skinhead, but skinheads have an impact on her existence — they hold real, institutional power that affects her life tangible real ways (which she explores by taking on that persona in the poem). By contrast, Carlson-Wee had no business approaching “How-To” the way he did. He is writing from the position of a White man, no matter how many vernacular masks he puts on, and thus it is his responsibility to leverage that privilege and keep in mind, as he’s writing, that he can cause real harm by perpetuating the violence of Whiteness and patriarchy. And, sadly, the poem does perpetuate violence. It draws much of its fuel from flat stereotypes (rooted, again, in institutions that benefit Carlson-Wee.) The demographics the poet chose to engage in his piece (Black people, women, disabled people, HIV-positive people, homeless people…) also don’t have any effect on his life — at least, that’s what this poem is telling us. I say this primarily because Carlson-Wee is not Black or a woman (I don’t know about his abilities, housing, HIV status, so no comment there) and also because the way he engages Blackness, womanhood, poverty, etc. in the piece reveal no further investment in these groups on his part.

I’m not trying to say that it’s wrong to write about anything besides yourself or groups that oppress you, or that every oppressed writer is above criticism. That would be mad arrogant; there are no blanket rules, nor is any writer qualified to make up blanket rules, on “how to be an ethical writer.” But I do want to emphasize that people need to be intentional and take care when writing, period. Whether the subject at hand is animate, inanimate, familiar, or foreign, I believe that writers have a very serious responsibility to examine our relationship to subjects and to treat them justly.

How can a voice be used to amplify other voices?

If you have a voice and you want to amplify another voice, get your hands on a megaphone* and give it to the person whose voice you want to amplify.

*grant money, a secure job, an editorial position, studio space, a residency with a stipend, educational opportunities…

How do we navigate the inherent trauma in using language to decipher the unsayable, without letting it silence us? What is lost and cannot be conveyed writing through hegemonic language?

 A fundamental pillar of my poetic practice is the idea that language cannot adequately hold the tension of human experience; one must “break” it in some way in order to truly express. This attitude is largely drawn from the work and commentary of writers like M. NourbeSe Philip, who has spoken of disobeying and desecrating the rules of (the English) language as an anti-colonial practice. She is a Tobagan woman living in Canada who speaks and writes in English because of the history of colonization on her island of origin. By writing in ways that grind uncomfortably against the restraints and structures of English, Philip makes the examination of the painful history of colonization & its impact on her existence an integral part of her writing.

The art of Philip and others who do the work of “breaking” language (Jos Charles’ collection feeld, desiigner’s mixtape New English) are very much in conversation with a form I invented and am currently experimenting with, which I’m calling a Colonial Fit. “Tries the grammar the arabic to fit the language the english,” which made it into this volume of Bettering American Poetry, is a Colonial Fit — written in English words, but with the grammar of the Arabic language. In this way, English and Arabic are forced to coexist in the language of the piece. They are incompatible, but they both belong in my mouth; I’m a Black person and an Arab; my mother’s side of the family all speak English and my father’s side speaks Arabic. The result of fitting the two languages into a single space is uncomfortable, and it should be. My existence is liminal and inherently dysphoric. I’m trying to experiment with other ways to make the language I use engage the tension of this in-betweenness in fundamental ways. And the exciting thing about using a poem’s structure to express what can’t be said in words is that it frees you to talk about whatever you want in the content of the piece — no matter what I write in this colonially fitted language, it’s going to be put in the context of my biracial identity and all that that entails.

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

Poet, Noor Ibn Najam, pet Diego

This is Diego. You’re welcome, America.


Image of the non-binary poet, Noor Ibn Najam, in an apartment.NOOR IBN NAJAM is a Callaloo, Watering Hole, and Pink Door fellow, and all his friendsí teita. His work has been published in BOAAT, Blueshift Journal, the Texas Review, the Academy of American Poets, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and Winter Tangerine, among others. His chapbook, Praise to Lesser Gods of Love, will be published as a part of the Glass 2018-19 Chapbook Series.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. 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 this anthologies. 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.