summonings by Raena Shirali is a poetry collection with prismatic points of view, all screaming for society’s scapegoats to be seen as human again, for their blood—shed in the name of fear—to be seen at all. One of the poems, “at first, trying to reach those accused” describes the author researching the stories of the accused witches and trying to embody them, so much so that she swallows matchsticks, pages, wax, desire, and inevitably herself. The last lines are “i mouthed a name i’d never heard & felt her / like my own ghost. there was no magic: it was not profound.” This interview is a conversation on craft, but really it is an extension of this searing poem. It is about the horror Shirali swallowed in order to utter summonings.
Marah Hoffman: You say in the foreword that your book must be “grounded in the inevitable failure to embody the Other.” Readers can see this grounding in phrases like, “i’m too young / to be telling your story, & privileged.” Can you describe your understanding of ethos in telling these stories and explain how you sought to suffuse this ethos into your speakers?
Raena Shirali: Yeah, absolutely. Such a good question to start off on, and thank you so much for asking it. Ethos is a good word to start thinking about this. I think of it as credibility outside of only writing what you intimately know. That was a nice framework to go into these questions with. I think of the “write what you know” adage to be really limiting, and that is not how I approached the subject matter of this book. So, I modified it. I think ethos is not writing only what you know but speaking truthfully about what you can and cannot know. Letting those gaps in your ability to understand a phenomenon as grave and dire and horrific as this one exist—maybe those gaps are where the ethos comes in.
MH: I love your understanding of the word and what it implies. If we only wrote what we knew, the stories of those without the ability to share them would be lost. That’s why docu-poetry is so important.
RS: It’s so true. Every time I talk to someone about this, they ask, “How does fiction writing play in here?” I don’t think the artistic imagination should stop with only what you experience yourself. Whole genres would get demolished by a narrow understanding of ethos.
MH: You are so honest about what you are seeking to accomplish with your collection. You make it clear all the points of view you are using, and that the book doesn’t necessarily contain answers to the tragedies. Just summonings. Hence the title.
RS: Thank you for saying that. I’m glad it’s working. Always good to hear.
MH: Of course. My second question is about one of my favorite poems, “ghazal against [declining to name the subject].” In this poem, the title, punctuation, and use of brackets subvert the expectations associated with formal verse. The piece is emblematic of the entire collection’s refusal to express in shackles. There is intentionality in the way you utilize formal elements. Would you care to speak about your process for integrating (and extracting) formal elements?
RS: I love the phrasing in this question of “refusing to express in shackles.” One of the beautiful things about being interviewed is that people will say to you the things you have been trying so hard to express but haven’t found the clearest language for. This was one of those moments.
Your question speaks to me for a couple of reasons. It taps into the tension at the heart of writing the book—making these decisions around what formal components are and are not included and subverted. I decided I can’t do this without being extremely honest, extremely forthcoming. This is a huge preoccupation in the writing.
There are a few things to point out in your question. One is the use of brackets. Throughout the collection, brackets refer to research being included from anthropological sources. In this poem, it refers to a part of a quote from Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others. Here, by virtue of brackets being a formal component, it’s explicitly commenting on the theory of looking at violence that is not occurring to you. For me, brackets were an interesting way of showing my work but not to get credit for showing my work, more like showing my work as a way to bring the reader into the web of research I was living in. That formal choice came pretty late actually. I wasn’t sure I was going to use brackets or include this more theoretical language. But it became necessary. There was too much in my head that was not clear in a given poem.
Another important thing to point out is capitalization. Only the names of women who’ve been accused of being witches are capitalized here. That was a very intentional decision to make it clear that they are given more respect. They are real, brave, absolutely vulnerable voices. Everything that came from me felt like it needed to be lowercase.
There’s that play between formal cohesion and experiment throughout the book. The last thing that I’ll say about the ghazal is that it’s one of only a few poems in traditional form included in this text, and that’s because I tend to focus on form more through rhyme and music and sound, rather than through formal constraint. That goes back to ethos. The form itself imposes a constraint, but it only holds briefly. This poem is also a rare example where the subject, women who have been accused and tortured, is named. So the constraint exists, fleetingly, and it, too, is a failure that must necessarily be followed by its dissolution.
MH: Thank you for answering so many parts of that question. It’s clear that your thinking was expansive. Even the capitalizing of letters, it all speaks to the way you are amplifying these women.
RS: A lot of that is where the power of revision comes in. I think that’s so important to say in interviews. This is a very intimidating book. It’s intimidating for me to look at, and it was intimidating for me to revise. There was so much intentionality. Everything has some philosophical meaning behind it. Hopefully, that comes across. But I just want to reiterate that this comes from relentless revision.
MH: I can attest that it does come across. My next question also highlights your intentionality.
Point of view is an element that contributes to the power of the text. Considering the varying POVs that summonings adopts, I kept having one word come to mind—alchemic. The frequent yet fluctuating use of the first person plural strikes the root of the collection, which is that we must see ourselves as “we.” We must believe “Any woman’s death diminishes me,” the Adrienne Rich quote that set the scene for the collection. One of my favorite instances of this POV is, “they’ll think by us i mean daayans but you know i mean us : women : mistaken for all kinds of foliage. grasping root. wilting petals. Gentle weed.” Can you explain your goals/motives in using POV?
RS: I think it’s important to say that the first poems I wrote for this collection were personal poems, from the perspectives of daayans, the witch hunter and village priest, the villagers, and the mountains. That came from a prompt that I gave myself to write a personal poem from every part of the landscape that I was encountering in the research. I asked myself, “What does this act of violence look like from in the distance, from above?” I was doing a lot of kaleidoscopic thinking: painting a scene, trying to tell all sides of the story. In terms of why women are hunted, it’s not just misogyny. There are these long-standing inequities that people are desperate to justify. I didn’t want to write a book that was just surface-level. The first way that I thought I would go deeper was point of view.
Once I started doing that, it became clear to me that it’s impossible to access every single part of this landscape. That is where the inevitable failure entered into the project more broadly. Then POVs closer to my own came in as well as poems that are highly lyrical. Thinking about the different speakers isn’t the only method for coming to understand what I’m talking about, and it’s not all I’m talking about. I’m not just discussing India. The poems are cross-cultural.
The shifting POVs felt like the best way for me to encapsulate for a reader what it felt like to write the book, to dip in and out of research. You know how it is. You read something horrible, and then you carry it with you for the rest of your day. It affects the way you interpret the imagery around you, and then of course it’s there with you when you sit down to write.
You also had a great observation about the collective. There is an arc in the book intentionally toward using collective pronouns more, toward the spirit of that quote from Adrienne Rich. The last line of the last poem is that “no one follows us home.” It’s a prayer for all women or anyone who identifies as a woman or anyone who doesn’t feel safe in public, frankly. It’s for us and by us collectively.
MH: As a reader, I noticed the arc of the collective really shifting my thinking. I think it disrupts the reader’s ability to compartmentalize. As you said, the horror sits with you. For the daayans, the pain is constant. The pain we get from reading is only temporary, so the least we can do is feel it.
RS: I completely agree.
MH: My next question gets at the specific symbolism you use to highlight the themes of the text. There are many recurring symbols throughout the collection; my favorite among them is blood. A woman’s blood, specifically menstrual blood, is often a source of shame. Yet you embed strength and identity within it. Can you speak to your choice to use blood as a dominant symbol?
RS: The first thing with blood has to be menstruation. There’s a lot of fear of women’s sexuality and menstruation within the mythologies that inform the cultures where this takes place. There are ideologies I read about that quite explicitly say, “A woman is considered impure if she is menstruating near an image of the gods.” Women are not supposed to go near, into, or around temples on their period. There’s the notion that a woman who is naked and bleeding in public is suspicious and could be a witch. There are those specific and necessitated mentions of the word blood because it is part of the research. But also, I think blood is really important because it is part of what renders the subject of this book more real. I think about Salem first when I’m thinking about a Western audience for this book, which is very different than thinking about an Indian audience. I’m initially considering what kinds of tropes and rumors we have culturally about witches and how often is the visceral reality that someone’s skin is being punctured part of that. There are common myths that will feel familiar to readers. There’s a line that says, “If we float, if we float” which literally refers to a tradition, both in Indian and Western witch hunting, of filling a woman’s pockets with stones and putting her in a body of water and if she sinks, she’s not a witch, but she’s dead; and if she floats, she’s a witch, so you kill her. Those mythologies cover up the reality of the person underneath them. They’re being drowned. There’s a submersion that becomes almost figurative in lore, and not a lot of addressing the true horror. A lot of Indian women who are tortured for this are beheaded. There is a bloodletting and a lynching and a very real violence inflicted on these people. Including blood so often was probably me being a bit heavy-handed, but with a set of realism-fueled intentions.
MH: The subject matter demands there be bloodshed on the pages.
RS: I think so too. There are stories in the back matter of the book. Like the story of a 63-year-old woman who was dragged from her home and tortured and beheaded. These stories do not exist within a Western author’s mythic imagination, and that felt like something to take advantage of. They do exist within some Indian writer’s and reader’s imaginations, and that too felt like something to take advantage of. I wanted to remind people that it’s not some woman whose feet are facing backward, whose braid is wrapped around her waist, who ate husband’s heart. It was an old, innocent woman who was defenseless and was murdered. A big part of me pushing against the idea of witchiness being cool was me using the word blood so often.
MH: Your language definitely encourages readers to see the subjects as women, not witches.
RS: Our position as women is to live in a state of constant shame, in India and in America. That is a reality in both places. There is a defiance in the naming of it as opposed to owning it or claiming blood is sexy—some sort of positive affirmation version of it. There is power even in acknowledging blood is part of our reality, and we exist in a state of constant shame. That’s part of why we are not safe.
MH: Yes, blood needed to have a presence in the collection. This conversation actually leads us into my next question about how gender exists within the text. Because your collection is concerned with the very real issue of witch-hunting, gender is an important topic. One standout quote about gender is, “here, there is no archetype ungendered.” How did you grapple with notions of gender while composing the collection?
RS: The context within which the word “woman” is being wielded points to a series of Indian and American archetypes, myths, rumors, hierarchies, all of which result in women being victimized. And I want it to be clear that my intention in using the word “woman” is absolutely not to exclude anyone—whether that’s folks who identify with the word, or folks who don’t. In the later poems of the book—when my point of view enters more explicitly and so, too, does the Empire as a setting—I’m referring to anyone who does not feel safe in public spaces. I mean it to be an encompassing word.
Language is not perfect. I think that is one of the tropes of the book. We are so limited in our abilities to understand the highly complex phenomena that dictate the way we move through space and live our lives and write and read and research and have empathy or resist empathy. The word woman is just one word. I’ve encouraged listeners on tour to replace this with a word that they feel most seen by. In some poems, the word woman is very important, and in some poems the word woman is there for cohesion. Who is safe and who is not safe is different in each of these contexts. It’s part of steeping the reader in the discomfort of the research. It’s not pleasant to read how women are seen as less than, to track an evolution of their knowledge being suspicious rather than connected to the environment. The word woman is the word in the research, and so it’s the word here.
MH: I love listening to you discuss language because as I said earlier, intentionality was a word that kept coming to mind while reading. The voices in the poems make the diverse forms of oppression clear. I think that is unifying. Everyone will be alarmed by the suffering. You can’t read the book and not see that it is bringing everyone to the same understanding of pain.
RS: I think that the word alarm is really important. I thought the book had to be as alarming to a reader as it was for me to be a reader of the research. That was why I decided to include research itself. I thought, “Oh, I have to replicate this.” Research needs to be part of it, or the stories would only be artifice and nothing would point to the way we talk about these phenomena culturally. These are stories that we trade in, so the language that we use to even trade in them is really important to replicate and eventually interrogate. But first I had to replicate it.
It is important to note too that this isn’t isolated to India in modern day, in our moment. There are countries in Africa that still have a practice of witch hunting. In some cultures, they are more suspicious of children than women. It’s not always the same. Each place creates its own culture of suspicion, fear, and accusation. It is a way to make peace with living. There is a collective need for a scapegoat, something to explain why life is so awful. How that looks different in different cultures is such a fascinating apparatus to engage with. This book touches on so little of that. It’s a far more widespread, current phenomena than this book could ever hope to address.
MH: There are myriad searing images of female suffering throughout summonings. I personally felt haunted by these images as a reader. What was your emotional journey with this book?
RS: Searing is a good word. I felt seared. I feel seared, perpetually. I think that researching it was a really complicated emotional rollercoaster to go on daily, to pull myself out of whatever otherwise pleasant day I was having and sit with a 400-page book on the social hierarchies in tea plantations in West Bengal. Outside of the research being mentally taxing, it was emotionally searing.
The trick for me is that I write best when I am so enraged or disgusted with an inequality that I cannot possibly move on. That is the most surefire way to get a poem to come out of me. That was true in my first book too. In this book, my struggle was staying focused when I wanted so badly to look away. To get asked, “What’s for dinner?” in the middle of reading and then have to come back to a passage about a woman being killed as part of a land dispute was difficult. The research process, as a result, felt incredibly active. Every word felt like a decision, a decision to continue. Putting the books down felt like how dare I, because I can walk away from this and they can’t. I resisted the need for a break because of exactly what we’ve been talking about, because it feels wrong to complain that reading about a phenomenon is grueling when the phenomenon itself is someone on Earth being tortured.
In many ways, it being grueling is what kept my compass pointing North in terms of ethos, because the ethos was there in the research the entire time. That made certain poems have to exist, like “lucky inhabitant.” The more I researched, the more I realized the experience of the research is part of what the book is trying to capture for readers. I want readers to feel forever altered by what they learned in the text, because it has forever altered me.
Raena Shirali is the author of two collections of poetry. Her first book, GILT (YesYes Books, 2017), won the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award, and her second, summonings (Black Lawrence Press, 2022), won the 2021 Hudson Prize. Winner of a Pushcart Prize & a former Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University, Shirali is also the recipient of prizes and honors from VIDA, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, & Cosmonauts Avenue. Formerly a Co-Editor-in-Chief of Muzzle Magazine, Shirali now serves as Faculty Advisor for Folio—a literary magazine dedicated to publishing works by undergraduate students at the national level. She holds an MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Holy Family University. The Indian American poet was raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and now lives in Philadelphia.
Marah Hoffman is a 2022 graduate with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she works for the Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she enjoys immersing herself in a new and radiant literary community. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her favorite word changes nearly every week.