Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we listen to Sara Akant read poems by Hala Alyan and discuss being a poet in New York and collapsing the boundaries of immigrant–specifically Middle Eastern–stories in American writing. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Hala Alyan for Lyric Essentials?
Sara Akant: Here’s the thing about Hala’s work: it rips up my heart, and immediately makes me feel more like myself. There’s this idea in poetry, that language can transport you to a different world, offer a site or location you’ve never entered, or perhaps a sensibility you haven’t experienced before. But what I gain by reading Hala is a powerful grounding in the mind and the body instead: a return to some internal awareness that I already own. Her poems are filled with raw, stark confessions that refuse to adhere to borders, boundaries, or barriers, and they’re delivered in a bold cadence that sounds like the closest thing to truth as it sweeps through the blood: “There was no family emergency. There was no migraine. I took the twenties. I made him up. I made it all up.”
When I read these lines out loud, I always change the ending a bit. I say: “I made him up. I made the whole — thing — up.” Because by the time I reach that line, I’m fully convinced that what I’m reading is coming from my own imagination, and these words are made for my breath. So there is a creepy sense of self-cleavage, or blurring: some forced form of twinning going on. To put it simply, Hala’s poems make me feel more held and more heard.
I suppose it helps that I know Hala as a person. But in reality, we’re not twins at all. She is Palestinian-American; spent her childhood between countries, and then as an Arab navigating the suburbs of Oklahoma. I’m Turkish-American, and I spent most of my life in the same apartment in New York. Of course, we hold magnetic affinities that are impossible to reduce to language: our hyphenated identities, being the first-born daughter of our Middle Eastern fathers, and our gendered experiences of otherness, both in this country and abroad.
But when I read Hala’s poems, I know her words are collapsing these boundaries — not just for me — but for all of us. She is telling a story that refuses to succumb to simplistic thinking around race, family, gender, love, pain, or nationality. Her poems unabashedly complicate and rename the landscape for anyone who has felt abandoned by two-dimensional language, or politically disavowed. So Hala’s work is urgent for me personally, and it also carries the energy that I want to share with readers right now.
EH: Is there a reason you read explicitly from The Twenty-Ninth Year? What drew you to these particular selections from the book?
SA: Summers are always hard for me, but especially August. Last summer (what does that even mean? I think I mean the summer of 2019), I felt especially displaced and despondent. Upon returning from a trip through Turkey with my father, I found myself unable to shift back into writing, and working, and New York. I knew I had a manuscript to start, but I just couldn’t get on the floor and do the push-ups. I had been between languages and locations, both tourist and citizen, and I was jet-lagged. I couldn’t remember what my voice sounded like. Circumstantially (or did I choose it?) this was also when I lay up in bed and read The Twenty-Ninth Year. The words in the book gently grabbed my hand and snapped my thoughts into place. I could hear myself again. My cultural or emotional hang-over suddenly felt like a monster I could own–an asset as well as a burden–and I began to write. This happens every now and then with a particular book. In August of 2019, The Twenty-Ninth Year was that book.
“New Year” and “The Worst Ghosts” are poems that appear consecutively, about halfway through. “New Year” is a small, dense prose paragraph composed of seemingly outright confessions. It lies, spits out the truth, and then spins masterfully on those words; it turns on its promises and on itself. You’re never quite sure where you are in the poem; whether the speaker is apologizing, is actually on your side, or is about to cut you down again. In a sense, I read it as a poem about gaslighting–the subtle and not so subtle ways that we can gaslight ourselves and others–how we can both betray and be betrayed by our own shame and guilt. “I still dream of what I did to you”: what could be more fucked up, and true? Hala is a clinical psychologist, and it’s hard to beat her at her own game, but I think about abuse a lot, too: abusive relationships, abusive language, manipulation, and the myth of vindication. I really love writing that admits to its own crimes; refuses the binary between victim and offender.
“The Worst Ghosts” also plays with form, and interrupts itself in a totally different way. It’s polyvocal on the page, entering and then abandoning thoughts through a series of interlocking breaths and planes. It captures the iterative, unfinished pain of simultaneity that comes with constant loss and dislocation. The poem slips through your hands and exposes cracks in the narratives that we tell ourselves and others. When the pretty blue-eyed boy appears at the end, you know you’re doomed. It pays tribute to those incongruities and holes.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with readers?
SA: I’m still working on the series of poems I began when I first read The Twenty-Ninth Year. It’s a collection that’s been morphing both slowly and in bursts, but its overall project is to complicate the slippery language of ancestry, translation, and surveillance. At first, I imagined the book as “an elliptical bestiary,” in which a series of fragmented texts orbit around a group of (non)fictional women, both self and other, named and unnamed. But as I’ve shifted away from that direct focus on naming, it’s become hard to know where one manuscript ends, and the next begins. It’s easy for me to get obsessed with structures, adding layers upon layers of poems and framing techniques, because I love thinking about a book as an object, even as it’s continuously dashing away from that stickiness or unity.
When the pandemic hit and we went into quarantine, Hala and I decided to write a “poem-a-day” together. In a large way, this daily creative jolt saved me, especially when it became clear that nothing else would. I’ve translated this tactic into other projects: non-fiction-a-day, dissertation-a-day, etc. Dailiness is great because it takes the emphasis off the finished product, and puts it on the practice, which is also a relationship. I learn so much by reading the work of my friends and communicating like that. Something about knowing both the person and the voice behind a piece of writing offers the grounding and direction I need to, I don’t know, keep going? Stay alive? The secondary result is that I have many more poems than I know what to do with right now, but more importantly, an increased gratitude for the writers that have (directly or indirectly) helped me continue to create.Since we’re on the topic–another fun thing is the Backyard Reading series that Hala and I started in October. We talked about doing it for years, but finally pulled it together and held three energetic, IRL, covid-safe events this fall. It felt extra meaningful to be able to hold the space for something collective amidst all the entropy; and was amazing to read with writers from other creative communities, including poets like Jive Poetic, Theo Legro, and Anthony Thomas Lombardi. The vibe has been really cozy and supportive; full of life.
Hala Alyan is a clinical psychologist and acclaimed cross-genre writer residing in Brooklyn. She is the author of the forthcoming novel The Arsonists City, as well as the historical fiction novel Salt Houses (2017), which won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and was a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. She is also the author of four award-winning poetry collections: Atrium (2005), Four Cities (2015), Hijra (2016) and The Twenty-Ninth Year (2019) which was named the most anticipated release of 2019 by The Rumpus and LitHub. Her work has been published by the New Yorker, the Academy of American Poets, Lit Hub, The New York Times Book Review, and Guernica.
Sara Akant is a Turkish-American writer and educator. Her first collection Babette (Rescue Press 2015) won the Black Box Award in Poetry, and her chapbook Parades (Omnidawn 2014) won the Omnidawn Chapbook Prize. Recent work appears in The Iowa Review, New Sinews, and at The Paris Review. She currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Baruch College online.
Purchase Akant’s poetry collection Babette from Rescue Press.
Read this interview “To Mark the Infinite Language of the Body” with Akant from Heavy Feather Review.
Explore more of Akant’s published works on her website.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/