Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Safia Elhillo

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matters? What brings you joy?

I think I am very gentle with myself—sometimes at the expense of the discipline I may be need. I spend hours in the bathtub, I take naps, I go for walks, I sit in the sun and read novels. I’m a much slower writer now than I was two, three years ago, but my practice feels much more sustainable now. I’m not so interested in writing from the wound anymore—and I think, for a long time, the wound and the hurt and the trauma were my engines. Now I am driven mostly by curiosity, by experimentation, by play. And now writing doesn’t hurt so much—sometimes it doesn’t hurt at all.


What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? Who would you love to collaborate with?

I’ve been indulging in my favorite summer activity: the novel. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is my favorite thing I’ve read all summer, and The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon is up there, too—they’re both technically works of prose, I guess, but both are so lyrical and have felt like an education to me as a poet. I finally read Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved and will never stop being in my feelings, and also am newly encouraged to attempt The Long Poem! I’ve been listening to a lot of Mitski, a lot of Slaughterhouse, and a lot of Maître Gims, and everything I can catch on Shazam while watching Insecure. Also, have not stopped listening to Jidenna’s Boomerang EP since it came out. I’m rewatching Game of Thrones and watching The Great British Baking Show which is very delightful. I’d love for the world to be reading Fariha Roísín, Noor Ibn Najam, and Inam Kang.


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

The best advice I’ve ever received, I received indirectly from the Toni Morrison quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And any advice I have to pass on can all be traced back there—all I can ever suggest is to read, read, read, read, read. Figure out your voice by figuring out your taste, figure out your aesthetic aspirations by figuring out what you respond to in other people’s writing. And then fill in, with your own writing, the gaps (of identity, of style, of experimentation).


photo of author leaning against brick wall with a bookshelf background.SAFIA ELHILLO is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), recipient of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and holds an MFA from the New School. Safiaís work has been commissioned by Under Armour and the Bavarian State Ballet, and has been translated into Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese, Estonian, and Greek. She is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019). Safia is of Sudanese origin and lives in Washington, DC.


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.