One day I read about the legacy of women in the liberation war, 40 years on– a series of photographs and poems about the birangona or ‘war heroines’. A tapestry of sadness. A tapestry of how life closes its doors on some people and how their faces tell stories that should never be told.
I have always been concerned about how sometimes people use violence as a tool to spread fear. Tarfia’s poems about the raped martyrs of Bangladesh made me sad. I was also surprised that she could address rape, an act that shadows not just a moment but an entire lifetime, in so matter a fact a way and with so much lyricism. This made me want to talk to her and share my conversation with you.
We talked about how sometimes words fail to express the sadness some people experience and and how words were ironically the only way in the end.
Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems and prose appear in Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter,LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as associate editor of Blackbird, and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Copper Nickel Poetry Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and other honors. She lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing and is an editor for Asian American Literary Review and Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.
When you wrote Interview with a Birangona, how did you prepare yourself to translate the rawness of rape into poetry?
The summer before I started graduate school, I didn’t even know the word birangona.
By my first year, it became a word I typed daily into search engines, said out loud to my classmates, and asked questions about to my parents. Birangona was a word I typed, then bolded in the titles of drafts of poems that imagined how a woman who had undergone such trauma might talk about her experiences today. Those first drafts were exercises in imagination and empathy because I was trying to write from the perspective of someone whose life I hadn’t lived.
The more I researched the history that led to both the independence of Bangladesh as well as the coining of the word birangona, the more helpless I felt. At the same time, I felt the limits of my imagination and a moral limit as well: what were the ethics of writing about women who had experienced a horror I never had?
I applied for a Fulbright fellowship to Bangladesh to try to bridge the gap between the poems and the women for whom I was trying to write.
While there, I had the rare fortune of speaking to many birangona, and the women who had previously been abstract concepts of victimhood or blurry thumbnails on my computer screen welcomed me into their homes or regarded me suspiciously, spoke freely or questioned my motives. They were not birangona: they were Farhana, Noorjahan, Sabina. They sprang into the vividness of their own lives.
How I prepared? I’m not sure I did. There were days I couldn’t face trying to render their lives into poetry, days I thought poetry was useless in the face of such horror. There were other days I sat down and drafted and redrafted until the shape of a woman speaking as truly as she could began to appear.
How useful was your experience of having translated Bengali poetry into English for this endeavour?
Translating Bengali poetry made me keenly aware of how language can be both precise and richly nuanced. I’m fascinated by how Bangla was used during wartime: for slogans, for stories and songs, as a weapon, for terms of endearment, as a political tool. The word birangona, for instance, literally translates to “war heroine,” and was an attempt on the part of the new Bangladeshi government to restore honor to women raped during wartime. Many continue to hurl that word as an insult, however, troubling our notions about what a word can mean and how its meaning can be reverted.
Do you think that research is the bedrock of poetry? How much research do you conduct before embarking on a project?
“How do you bottle the lightning, fuse chaos with something that is very rigorously controlled?” I love David Wojahn’s idea of marrying wildness to rigor when it comes to poetry, which is why I tried to strike a balance in Interview with a Birangona between research and imagination. No amount of researching the psychological effects of rape or the 1971 Liberation War could replace witnessing a seam of light on the wall of a birangona’s home.
I don’t think any single aspect of the writing process can be dismissed. What comes to mind is how many roomfuls of material artist Joseph Cornell had to collect in order to create one of his small, carefully constructed assemblages. The hope is that if we allow ourselves to be simultaneously open and deliberate, we’ll be able to both bottle the lightning and release it.
What is your take on the huge amount of poetry being spewed online?
The amount of poetry produced can sometimes feel like an embarrassment of riches, and other times more like a deluge. Regardless, what is true now was true in previous eras: it is useful to read broadly and generously, both backwards and forward. James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover has been as relevant to me as Gilgamesh, and I privilege both 19th century Bengali poetry and the work of so many extraordinary contemporary poets. In the end, good work speaks for itself regardless of the medium through which we receive it.
Any advice for blogger poets about what to read and how to ideate not just singular poems but collections?
I’m just now starting to understand how to assemble a collection of poems. It’s a process that reveals one’s own obsessions across many poems: I had to consider and reconsider the repetition of images, words, concepts, as well as the kind of arc along which to arrange the poems. It’s similar to writing a poem in that it requires dedication, patience, and intent, but different in that it requires broader interrogation.
At what point does the enactment of an obsession become redundant? At what point should a poem be allowed its own purity independent of other poems beside it? What kinds of stories do the poems tell individually, and should the arrangement of poems tell a larger story? Is each poem its own manifesto, or do they collectively assume a deeper argument? What must be carved away and what must remain intact? How do we measure such cutting?
Ultimately, it must be the questions that drive us to write poems, because to have the answers would remove such a necessity. Or, as George Oppen wrote, “All speaks, when it speaks, in its own shape.”
Thank you Tarfia for your illuminating response! A post to cherish indeed.