After the Debut: An Interview on Poetic Process with Safia Elhillo

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Getting a debut published, especially as a poet in 2022’s publishing landscape, is a difficult task which requires patience, trust in one’s process, and immense (editorial and otherwise) labor. I couldn’t have imagined surviving the debut publication process without the support of my community, and especially without the process and craft-based guidance of my poetry peers who had already debuted. Oftentimes, publishing a debut can be so tiresome and disillusioning that the writing process beyond the debut is affected. How does one sustain a writing practice as a poet? How does one keep going, in the face of new projects demanding new craft conversations, or when up against an industry which views us as disposable? 

Conversations on process and long-term writerly practice is the foremost concern of this new interview series, which I’m calling After the Debut. Here I interview poets who have published books beyond their debut, with hopes that our conversation may unlock retrospective insight which these newer projects may shed on the process behind former books. Many of the poets in this series have even published in other genres, such as fiction, children’s literature, essays, and more. This series asks poets to return to their debuts, considering the ways poetry has served as an entryway into larger writing practices. This series’ audience is aimed for poets of all ages and experience levels, with the hope that meditation on process may unlock useful things for emerging and long-term career poets alike. 

To kick off the series, I am grateful to be in conversation with one of the poets who has most deeply impacted my own work, and to whom I am forever indebted: Safia Elhillo. I distinctly remember sitting in a poetry slam audience in 2016, feeling mesmerized by the way Elhillo’s performance stitched together poem after poem into a single breath. These poems, moving between the US and Sudan, between Elhillo’s and her parent’s timeline, between Oum Kalthoum and Abdelhalim Hafez lyrics, went on to form the backbone of Elhillo’s groundbreaking debut, The January Children. Here, questions of lineage and the diasporic body become questions of language itself: “they’re worried no one will marry me / i have an accent in every language,” writes Elhillo in date night with abdelhalim hafez, and in another, “we come from men who do not know when they were born & women shown to them in photographs whose children left the country & tried for romance & had daughters full of all the wrong language.” 

These questions and more are explored even further in Elhillo’s recent release, Girls That Never Die, which is the primary focus of this interview. This new collection moves between forms familiar to her debut, such as self-portraits, multi-lingual poems, and poems invested family & myth, as well as newer forms like contrapuntals, memoir fragments, and the groundbreaking longer-form title poem broken up throughout the book’s final section. For a poet whose debut has shaped the contemporary landscape of diasporic, multilingual, and Arabophone poetics, Girls That Never Die manages to push even further into life-shatteringly urgent questions of gender, myth, and cultural stigma, and therein, gives us language which feels, at once, necessarily familiar and completely renewed. 

George Abraham: Ocean Vuong once talked about how there is often a single poem in one's debut which will lead a poet to their second poetry collection. What, if any, was that poem for you? Or was there some sort of other poem or book or work of art which led to the "ahha!" moment or spark that unlocked Girls That Never Die?

Safia Elhillo: There are a few poems throughout the collection that share the title Girls That Never Die, but there’s a long sequence toward the end of the book, which I wrote most of in one sitting in 2017, which was my first indication that I was about to start working on something new. I hadn’t really ever written a long poem before, and wanted to write one just as a formal exercise more than anything, but then this terrifying thing came pouring out. And I remember emailing it to a few of my friends like, help, I just wrote this giant monster poem and I don’t know what to do. At the time of writing it, I was sure I would never publish it, even as I felt it unlocking something. But here we are, five years later, and that sequence feels like the anchor of the whole book, so never say never I guess.

GA: How did your writing process for Girls That Never Die differ from The January Children? What changed or was (perhaps frustratingly) the same? What surprised you most? 

SE: Because The January Children was a project book, and I knew in advance that it was going to be a project book, every time I sat down to work on it, I had at least a general sense of what I was doing, what themes I was working with, what my toolkit was, what the conceits were. Which made it a very tidy book. Girls That Never Die was just the complete opposite of that, so messy, so unwieldy. Since The January Children was my first book, and a book that I feel like I’d been working on one way or another my whole life, the way I made that book was the only way I knew how to make a book. So when it came time to write my second collection, the first thing I did was try to write it the way I'd written The January Children. A clear set of themes, a conceit, that kind of thing. And it just wouldn’t work. Then I tried to make it a book-length poem. That didn’t work either. It defied basically every decision I tried to make in advance, every time I was like this is going to be this kind of book.  Whereas The January Children was more of an idea I had in advance, that I then populated with poems, Girls That Never Die came together from the ground up, poem by poem, shaping itself.

I also have much more of a relationship with inherited forms in this book, than I did with my first, because after finishing The January Children I essentially had to reteach myself how to write a poem. And that mostly involved setting myself these low-stakes exercises in form. Because, again, The January Children felt like a book I'd been writing my entire life. And it was my first book, so it was my first experience of finishing a project that I'd been working on for that long, to no longer have it organizing my life. So I felt really unmoored, and like I didn’t know how to write a poem anymore. And one of the ways I found my way back to poetry was by setting myself  formal exercises in inherited forms, which I didn’t have much of a relationship to before that.  So I would sit down to try and write a sonnet, a ghazal, a contrapuntal, for the first time, and when it inevitably failed, it wasn't the end of the world, because I wasn't trying to prove anything to myself about my ability as a poet in general, or my worth, or whatever. It was much easier to be like, this sonnet is bad, not because I'm a terrible worthless poet, but because I've never written a sonnet before. So obviously it's bad. 

GA: Having first met you and your work through slam poetry, I so appreciated seeing the ways your slam work came into The January Children, and vice versa. How has your slam background continued to impact your process of writing, building the formal imagination of, and reading from Girls That Never Die?

SE: I joined my first slam team in the summer of 2008, right at the beginning of my relationship to writing poetry. So the very beginning of any formal training I had as a poet, any instruction, any mentorship, started out in performance. For as long as I’ve been writing poetry, I’ve been reading my poems out loud. And to this day, when I’m drafting and revising a poem I feel smarter, sharper, as a listener of my poems than I do as a reader of the poems. When I’m writing a draft of a poem, it’ll look fine to me on paper, and then when I read it out loud to myself my ear will catch things that my eye completely missed. So while slam, in the sense of competitive spoken word, is not really part of my life anymore, reading poetry aloud absolutely still is. What feels like the true final stage in my editing process is reading the poem to someone. I feel like I never fully hear a poem until I read it out loud to an audience.

GA: You wrote a gorgeous young adult novel in verse, Home is Not a Country, in between your two poetry collections. How did writing this project help, and/or create challenges for, this new poetry project? I read Home is Not a Country and Girls That Never Die as projects with deeply entangled souls, though different formal registers of engagement, especially when reading the prose sections and the contrapuntals throughout!

SE: I wrote basically the entirety of Home is Not a Country while trying to take a break from Girls That Never Die, which had just really been kicking my ass and was just not going well and not working. So it felt nice to spend time in a form that I could be a beginner in, where I had no expectations of myself to do a good job or get it right, and I could just play and experiment and learn. And in learning to write narrative, I learned about plot, cause and effect, things happening, where I don’t know that I had much of a relationship to the word “happen” before that—things were maybe “happening” formally in my poems before that, but I don’t know that my poems had, like, event. And that education spilled over into a lot of the poems that I started writing after that, where I suddenly became interested in a much more narrative kind of poem than I ever had before, and wanted poems that felt like tiny novels or tiny movies. Home is Not a Country also helped me exorcize a lot of my formal obsessions and insistence on things like all-lowercase and exclusively using caesurae in place of conventional punctuation. By the time I was done with that book, I was kind of over the caesura, and really found myself craving the crispness of a comma and period, of a capital letter at the beginning of each sentence. Which immediately changed the texture of the kinds of poems I was trying to write for Girls That Never Die.

GA: What would post-Girls That Never Die you say to pre-The January Children you? Or to poets trying to write their first books, generally?

SE: I would tell my January Children self to really enjoy that sureness and that clarity, because it would be the last time I ever felt like I knew what I was doing.