Nazifa Islam

“I wrote the collection in the exact order it appears in, so the first poem is the oldest.”

niSearching for a Pulse (Whitepoint Press, 2013)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

I’ll admit that I read a lot more full-length collections than chapbooks, though I’m working on getting more familiar with shorter works. Among the chapbooks I’ve really enjoyed are Alphabets and Portraits and Tourmaline by Dorothea Lasky as well as No by Ocean Vuong.

What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?

I’m aiming for balance in my writing—for poetry that is both sharp and pointed in its use of language as well as graceful in how it expresses emotion. I want to write poems that are blunt but thoughtful in how they approach sorrow and fury and grief and joy.

What’s your chapbook about?

The collection focuses on Rosemary as she navigates a life defined by depression. The state of Rosemary’s life and the choices she makes are a result of the depressed lens she sees the world through. The people in her life—both imaginary and real—adhere to the same logic. The collection follows Rosemary’s interactions with the people she loves—who don’t always know how to love her—as well as her attempts to live her life with some semblance of joy. She doesn’t always (or often) succeed, but she tries.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I wrote the collection in the exact order it appears in, so the first poem is the oldest. I remember sitting down and writing it in about five minutes. I didn’t really know where the collection was going to go from those opening lines, but I knew it was the beginning of something.

Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it? 

I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan while I was writing the collection, and was fortunate enough to be in an independent study with Ken Mikolowski at the time. He saw the poems as they were finished and was really central to the revision process. He helped me tighten the language and hone the focus of each poem as well as make sure the collection felt like a cohesive whole. It was long enough ago now that I don’t exactly remember what my approach to revision was. I think it was probably similar to how I approach revision now, but with less perspective. I’m always looking for balance and a strong sense of internal logic in my work. Rosemary’s world is pretty surreal, but it does have its own rules.

How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?

Searching for a Pulse is a story told non-linearly. The narrative aspect made arranging it simpler than it would have been if the poems weren’t so connected. I only realized I’d written it in the order I felt it should be presented when I finished the last poem and it was time to more consciously think about reorganizing. I could tell the narrative’s progression would be stilted and uneven if I tried to rearrange anything. For the title I have to give credit to Lisa De Niscia at Whitepoint Press. I had titled the collection She Wears Grey when Lisa suggested the much more dynamic Searching for a Pulse, which is pulled from a line in the poem “treasure hunting.”

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Those decisions were left up to Lisa at Whitepoint Press, and she really delivered. I’m a big fan of the cover.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of found poems based on Virginia Woolf’s writing. I select a paragraph of text from a Woolf novel and only use the words from that paragraph to create a poem—I don’t allow myself to repeat words, add words, or edit the language for tense or any other consideration. I have over twenty of these found poems written and continue to work on the series. Other writing has been largely put on the back burner for now.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Read. Read often and broadly. That’s how you discover what you like in literature, what inspires you, what makes you pause and go “How did they do that?” It’s also how you learn to write. If you don’t read very much, I don’t see how you can hope to write particularly well.

What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?

While poems in a collection will of course build on one another and amplify one another, they should be able to stand on their own merits in one way or another. Don’t get so lost in the overall project that you don’t focus on making each individual poem shine.

What music do you listen to as you work and write?

I can’t write to music that has lyrics, but I will, on occasion, write while listening to film scores. I often turn to music composed by Dario Marianelli, Danny Elfman, Alexandre Desplat, Phillip Glass, and Howard Shore.

What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?

Elizbeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?

I read by author a lot. If I enjoy an author’s work, I’ll generally comb through their other books because I want more of their voice and style. I also read a lot of older books. If a book’s been around for over fifty years and people are still reading it, there’s probably a reason. I’m always up for a book recommendation. You’re very rarely wasting time when you read a book someone else has enjoyed. I think of my own writing as fitting in with other groups of authors. We maybe write about similar subject matter or share stylistic impulses. I don’t know that I think about myself fitting into the larger literary landscape so much as into small specific niches here and there.

Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?

Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Dorothea Lasky, Anne Sexton, Mary Syzbist, Tennyson, Rilke, Matthew Dickman, Dorothy Parker

Why the chapbook? What made it the right format for your work?

The story I had to tell was exactly forty poems long. It couldn’t be any other length.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

I’m also a painter. I find it really satisfying to create a physical piece of art that doesn’t at all rely on the intricacies of language. Having to depend on basically color alone is a nice break from writing, and it definitely stretches different creative muscles. It’s also great to be able to pick up a painting and hold it in your hands. Even holding a published book of poems doesn’t recreate that same feeling; words are ephemeral in a way paint and canvas are not.

How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the found poem lately. It’s both a blessing and a curse. I’ve almost lost any sense of ease with the broad spectrum of language—I’ve been leaning on the limitations of found poems for so long now. At the same time, I think the poems I’m writing now are among the most honest that I’ve ever written. I’ve always relied on other writers for inspiration, and with my current found poetry project I’ve taken that reliance to another level.

What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?

It’s a grey world. It’s not a joyful world. It’s a small, narrow, grey world that will be familiar to anyone who’s dealt with depression or watched someone deal with depression. Searching for a Pulse is a bit claustrophobic in its scope, but it dives into the intricacies of the space that it inhabits.

What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?

I wrote the final poem in the collection, “the room is paneled in black and white tile,” and knew the story was complete. I’d been searching for an ending. I’d been building a conclusion for a few weeks and knew I needed an actual final poem. I remember walking across the Diag in Ann Arbor one evening when the final sentence of “the room is paneled in black and white tile” came into my head. I immediately knew it was the ending for the collection. It brought everything full circle.

What themes and images “bridge” your work? Have you found that composing a chapbook alleviates these inclinations, or amplifies them?

I write a lot about grief and sorrow and loneliness and memory—how those things are interconnected in strange ways. Finishing Searching for a Pulse felt like the end of one chapter about these themes. There are still plenty more to be written though. I’m still writing about these ideas, just in very different poems.

What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?

I read a lot of fiction. I read more fiction than poetry. I know that all types of writing feed into my creation process—not just poems. I’m drawn more to specific themes than genres or mediums when it comes to what I enjoy reading or what I seek out for inspiration.

Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?

The inspiration for the whole collection came from the Interpol song “Evil.” The first line of the song is “Rosemary, heaven restores you in life.” I heard that song one December morning and the first poem in the collection—“he had a peg leg too”—just popped into my head. I then wrote 41 other poems over the course of the next two months. Thirty-nine of those ended up in the collection.

Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?

Searching for a Pulse is dedicated to “every Sylvia” because I think the collection might strike a chord with Plath fans. I think anyone interested in reading about the experience of mental illness might find something to appreciate in the collection.

*

Nazifa Islam grew up in Novi, Michigan. Her poetry and paintings have appeared in Anomalous Press, Flashquake, The Fat City Review, and The Harpoon Review, among other publications, and her debut poetry collection Searching for a Pulse (2013) was released by Whitepoint Press. She earned her MFA at Oregon State University. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @nafoopal.

www.nazifaislam.com

*

withdrawal is coming

Rosemary’s hands are shaking.
She has beautiful eyes but if you
saw how her hands are shaking
you wouldn’t be envious. She
hasn’t slept in days. That’s what
she told Alice and for once it’s
almost true. She’s had dreams
that are more than dreams for
over a week now and she’s
swallowed pill after small blue
pill for over a week now—first
to try and sleep and then to try
and forget she’s not sleeping.
Nothing has worked as it was
intended though and so her
hands are now shaking. Even if
she could pry the top off the pill
bottle she knows that it’s empty
and that scares her more than
the fact that her fucking hands
won’t stop shaking.

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