An Interview with Dilruba Ahmed

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos: Your first book, Dhaka Dust, is an impressive debut in many respects. One quality of the book I particularly admire is the ranginess of its voice: sometimes narrative and shrewdly cosmopolitan, sometimes childlike yet aging quickly, sometimes historical, sometimes persona, and sometimes sounding like lyrics reaching us from ancient Greece or Spain or India. What is it, in your mind, that holds this book together?

Dilruba Ahmed: I can only hope that part of what holds the book together is as sense of multiplicity. The book brings together a host of voices, as you point out . . . voices of (mostly) women across generations and contexts—with some voices that lean toward story and some toward song. I hope that the voices and tones delivered by various poetic devices come together as facets of experience—at times harmonious, and other times, contradictory.

If I had to name one thing that holds this book together in my mind, it’s a kind of haunting—a haunting that I began to understand more clearly upon reading, as an undergraduate, Agha Shahid Ali’s lines about discovering an “exit to Calcutta” in Ohio and an “India [that] always exists / Off the turnpikes / of America.” John Keats wrote in his letters that poetry should “appear almost a Remembrance” to the reader – Ali’s lines had that sort of effect on me. In a way, many of the poems that I’ve written over the years have been in response to those lines, which startled me into a state of recognition. In my poems, I also hope that part of what emerges is a longing for the seemingly unattainable – for home and a homeland, for permanence, for language, for a family undivided by time and geography.

JB: You mention Agha Shahid Ali. I recently attended a one-week poetry workshop at UT-Austin and we read Ali’s introduction to his anthology of formal ghazals written in English, Ravishing Disunities. The form is very seductive, at least in part due to its “formal disunity,” as Ali calls it; the ghazal relies on music to hold together its “thematically independent couplets.” I’m curious about your poem “Ghazal” in the collection. It’s a beautiful ghazal, but it does not use a qafia, which is the rhyme preceding the refrain, called the radif. Why did you choose to write a more nontraditional ghazal in English?

DA: While I attended to the ghazal’s strict requirements when I began writing the poem, that particular aspect of the form fell away as I wrote. That’s part of what I love about tackling given forms—sometimes the conventions are strict requirements, and other times they serve as mere suggestion, depending on the direction a poem takes.

In Ravishing Disunities, Agha Shahid Ali emphasizes that a writer must depart “from somewhere . . .” Would he have recognized my poem as a ghazal? I hope so! While my poem, in the end, did not use a qafia, I did attempt to stay true to the spirit and shape of the form—its themes of longing for the beloved, the conflation of the earthly and divine, its non-linear movement, sense of repetition and variation, inclusion of a makhta, etc. (this is when I must reveal that my first name, Dilruba, roughly translates to “stealer of hearts,” which appears as “heart-thief” in the makhta).

I also began having fun with other sonic devices—the repetition of the “er” and “n” and “uh” sounds, the rhythms of stressed and unstressed syllables, variations in the caesuras, etc. Had I not strayed from the ghazal’s qafia requirements, some of the lines that emerged unexpectedly may not have surfaced. As a writer, I find that kind of surprise much more interesting than strict adherence to a particular form.

JB: “Stealer of hearts”! Wow, that is an amazing name. For the record, I photocopied your poem for my peers and teachers in the workshop at UT-Austin, and I think your ghazal stole at least a few hearts.

Another thing I love in your book is the sense of double vision. There is the sense of being in one place and being in another at the same time. There is the particular immigrant experience of visiting a parents’ native land, which is foreign but also a place where the daughter/son might have belonged—and maybe does, a little. There is also, in a poem like “Venice during an Election Year in the US,” a very subtle sense of distance/intimacy, with much political subtext (great use of title in this one!). This sense of double vision that I am trying to describe is, I think, very important for our times. Aside from reading poems, what do you think poets need to do to see the larger world in its parallels and contradictions? What if a poet lives her whole life in a town in southeastern Ohio? (Or, does the poet always have to leave?)

DA: At a recent poetry reading, an audience member described poets as people who have a sixth sense, a kind of super-sensory power that allows them to detect things that are not readily apparent to others. I think that’s probably accurate—that poets possess a kind of hyper-sensitivity to people and places, to relationships and history, to language and its capacity to capture/shape/disrupt experience, and to the collision of imagination and perception in making sense of the world. So maybe it’s just that sensitivity that lends poets the kind of double vision you describe—permitting them to fashion, for example, from two unlike things a powerfu