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 powerful metaphor that transforms understanding and helps us see the world anew, or to somehow stand simultaneously here and there.

Must a poet always leave? I don’t think it’s necessarily a requirement. Small towns are full of their own mysteries and contradictions, rich with stories and rife with conflict. A poet who lives her entire life in a town in southeastern Ohio may reside, for example, with the history of decimated native peoples; with the destruction and potential of industry; with ever-shifting race relations that bring generations and neighbors into conflict; and, as anywhere, with the small gestures that make us human and the transgressions that break us down.

It may be difficult to see much of that, of course, or to understand it within a broader context without some distance to provide a sense of perspective. I suppose this is where the “leaving” comes in . . . but I don’t think that travel alone helps writers experience or develop the kind of double vision you describe. It’s possible to leave and return unchanged if one isn’t willing to spend some time with the feelings of discomfort and displacement that can accompany a departure from home. Elizabeth Bishop’s work possesses a keen awareness of this discomfort in poems such as “Questions of Travel,” “Filling Station,” and “Arrival at Santos,” to name a few. Poet Mona Van Duyn, in a poem called “Into Mexico,” writes of the exhilaration of first-time travel but not without contemplating experiences of alienation and discord as well. Jack Gilbert, too, tackles this uneasiness as he describes the “laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta” in his poem, “A Brief for the Defense.” And in “Blackbottom,” Toi Derricotte’s speaker ventures back to the inner-city neighborhood that her family has “freshly escaped,” both mocking the former community and acknowledging her family “had lost [its] voice in the suburbs.” So while it’s problematic to say that the poet must “always leave,” I think that many writers have shown us how travel has the power to be transformative: it jars us out of our complacency, making the familiar strange and the unfamiliar commonplace. Which, of course, is part of the poet’s task.

JB: One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Translating Tagore,” which I read ultimately as an ode to Tagore, the “Mother bird” who feeds words to the speaker, who struggles to translate them. The poem ends with the speaker “in dream” trying to read Tagore’s “curlicued Braille.” The image is wonderful in how it gives textured form to the Bengali language, as a different way to “see” it. I don’t want to ask about your efforts to translate Tagore because the poem already speaks so beautifully of that struggle, but can you talk about Tagore’s influence on your poetry? When did you discover him?

DA: Somewhere in my parents’ basement are a few reel-to-reel audio tape recordings of my mother reciting Bengali poetry along with handfuls of cassette tapes with the same. My mother was deeply involved in poetry recitations and competitions while in school back in Bangladesh, and in my very earliest encounters with poetry I heard her reciting the poems of Tagore, Jibanananda Das, and others. During my childhood in Ohio I would sometimes find her recording her recitations with a tape recorder, or, as an adolescent, I would stumble across an unlabeled cassette that, when played, surprised me with the familiar sound of her voice hypnotically delivering indecipherable verses.

The recordings were always deeply mournful and dramatic, full of great yearning and pathos. I understood very little of it, as most of the poems were written in a more difficult, “textbook” version of Bengali while I was only familiar with the everyday spoken Bengali of our household. My mother would sometimes translate the poems from the difficult Bengali to the understandable Bengali and/or English that I knew, all the while mourning the loss of the poem’s music, spirit, and beauty. In many ways these encounters with Bengali poetry were similar to my experience of hearing Arabic prayers: both contained verses in which something unspecified but significant resided. My lack of fluency transformed my experience of these languages to one of pure music.

So I came to Tagore through my parents, with the layers of translation and without direct access to a beautiful and deeply poetic language. As a result, my introduction to what Neruda refers to as poetry’s “small and mysterious exchange of gifts” was doubly mysterious – it was as though my parents wanted me to love (as they loved) something I couldn’t fully perceive or experience, as though the reading of poetry were a kind of mystical experience I would never fully behold but rather, simply experience secondhand through my parents, who served as conduits to the source. I think these early experiences probably shaped my tendency to write for sound or music rather than for meaning in many of my initial drafts.

JB: Your poem “Return” is a love poem to Pittsburgh, a city – I will concur here – that can be difficult to love, at least for the newcomer. And yet so much poetry comes out of this city; it really does seem to be a poetry-lover’s kind of place. Off the top of my head, there is Jack Gilbert, Jim Daniels, Gerald Stern, Lynn Emanuel. What is it about Pittsburgh that inspires people to not only write poetry, but poetry in praise of Pittsburgh?

DA: I’ll start by saying that Pittsburgh is a very significant place for me, personally: I went to school in Pittsburgh. I fell in love in Pittsburgh. I got married in Pittsburgh to a man who was raised in Pittsburgh. I still have family and dear friends in Pittsburgh and visit regularly. And while my earliest efforts with poetry preceded my studies in Pittsburgh, it is in that city that I began, tentatively, to think of myself as a writer. I owe a great debt to the writers and scholars there who mentored me formally and informally: Judith Vollmer, Shalini Puri, Toi Derricotte, Geeta Kothari, Lynn Emmanuel.

While I lived there, Pittsburgh’s often-dreary weather put me in a pensive mood that inevitably drove me to write. (Upon moving to the sunny West Coast after living in Pittsburgh, I remember thinking I would never write again!) More specifically, if I had to say why poets write in praise of Pittsburgh, perhaps it’s because its charms can go unrecognized. Pitts