Accepting the Gift, Doing the Work: Angelita Biscotti Interviews Sara M Saleh

By and | 1 February 2022

AB: You take up space in the public eye not just as a marvelous and accomplished poet, but also as an activist. There is a devotional, prayer-like quality to the way you do activism, at least from my perspective. Devotion is always already personal, expressed through lived experience of the self as an offering. It is also somehow, simultaneously, impersonal. Or, ‘beyond-personal’ might be a better word. It can’t be just about ‘me’ it’s always about an ‘us.’ Self and world, if it is even possible to disentangle them. I see this devotional quality in the way you read ‘InshaAllah’ on ABC Radio National. What do you think? Is activism devotional? Is activism poetic?

SMS: Devotion begs the question, devotion to whom or what?

AB: I would like to ask that of you actually – I grew up being a person of faith – the Roman Catholic faith in particular. Even as a lapsed Catholic, or maybe more accurately, a clumsy Catholic, I still find myself seeking to find a way to reconcile queerness, feminism and anti-capitalism with moments in the Bible that sit in my innards still, as well as early memories of how it felt to be cradled in the palm of God. More and more as I listen to Filipino religious hymns, they sound a lot like lullabies and love songs, a quality I don’t see in what I’d call ‘white Catholic music.’ There’s an erotic quality in the way we love God with our music, and a godly quality to the way erotic love is signified in Filipino culture. I also see this in songs about Philippine nationalism, a layered and problematic phenomenon.

SMS: The hopeful in me loved songs that honoured country and ancestry and inspired a vision of us as citizens united (in the context of the Middle East used here for ease-notwithstanding the colonial hangover and the flattening of all the varying faiths and ethnicities), but the cynic in me wondered if these hyper-nationalist songs were a way to distract from our governments’ failures … a certain type of propaganda. Maybe that’s how some people perceive religious hymns?

But I do love them, as a person of faith, I have whole playlists with hymns and lullabies, and I can still think about them critically. But in terms of feeling, devotion and love transcend linguistic barriers, love feels the same in every language.

Growing up in a family and community that has a strong and rich history of oral storytelling, quite a bit of it rooted in faith, I have really come to appreciate this on a very granular level. Our holy book is made of poetic verses called ‘ayahs’, so in the very least, practicing or ‘devout’ Muslims read and recite poetry as often as every single day. The Surahs (chapters) in the Quran are revelations of events and stories and allegory passed down, and long before they were written, they were inherited and recorded and preserved word for word, letter for letter, purely through oral transmission.

So, this kind of devotional storytelling is embedded in our tradition. To be a member of this faith demands of you that you have your own intimate, personal journey with language, its malleability and musicality, rhythm and tone and pacing, within the Quran, which as I said, is itself poetry embodied. Of course, there are teachers and frameworks and rule and ritual but none of that can dictate your own relationship with God and holy text.

Personally, it is ritual that has also taught me to be present, to take my time, to practice introspectivity and to stay grounded in spite of the expectation to constantly produce, to relent to the churn and pressures of this exploitative, capitalist society that is addicted to productivity at the expense of all that I value (family, community, connection, health and well-being – all an amanah, entrusted to us). And so, I think my faith, these values are what drive me, compel me to be in ‘activist’ – a constant state of being.

AB: How has being a poet – in community with other poets – changed you?

SMS: I got into a Facebook argument the other day with someone who had in jest written a status trashing slam poetry, and that really grinds my gears, especially when it’s from people who don’t really know ‘the community’.

I swooped in with a post, a bit of a slam dunk one might even call it (please don’t judge me, Dad jokes are how I cope in iso).

This is a copy/paste of my comment, typos left for authentic effect lol:

I think a lot of folks hold particularly elitist, reductive, and problematic views re ‘slam’ poetry. It’s not your fault, that’s merely playing to the white gaze that many of our arts spaces remain beholden to – Slam isn’t and that’s why they don’t like it. For years Slam poetry has been a safe, open, non-hierarchical, and self-determined space/community in which a lot of young poets of color have felt at home instead of excluded (willfully or otherwise). There’s a reason so many incredible poets of colour started out in performance poetry the same way that I did. A lot of us came up through slam, like I did, and a lot of my own craft today is still influenced by what I learned in those spaces. For so long we have lived hearing that there is a huge distinction between the page poet and the stage poet, and we are buying into the false binary – again, reductive. They’re both valid forms of poetry and there can be and is much overlap anyway.

…We are used to being told that we can only do or be one or the other. And the plot twist is that I don’t need to limit myself to any poetic form. So it is you who is selling poetry short.

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