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

By and | 1 February 2022

AB: Slam dunk indeed.

SMS: Haha, thanks. I am rusty at FB dramas. This is also why it’s upsetting when students complain to me that poetry is not accessible, and they don’t get it. It’s only because art institutions have made it so, elitism has made it so, Eurocentric education has made it so. No one is listening to them, speaking their language, or directing them to different forms of poetry, creating space and safety for them to explore it. Poetry is for the people. It always has been and it should be. That is my hope for it.

AB: While reading ‘Here, There: a Ghazal’, I felt a deep sense of exile. I relate hard to the neither-here-nor-there-ness of being. The accusatory character of authenticity politics (here or there). The dissociative too-much-and-not-enough-ness of being from/of/to everywhere and anywhere. Where do you feel present? Do you feel present in your poetry?

SMS: I wish I could say I always feel present in poetry, the romantic thing to say would be ‘yes’. But aside from my general aversion to absolutes, unfortunately deadlines and bills and the omnipresent pressure to stay relevant sometimes put a dent in that presence and peace of mind. For the most part though, writing, ritual (such as through faith) and movement especially in nature, therapy, a conversation with a beloved all help me recalibrate. I would not want to sacrifice the quality of anything I put out because of these pressures, I want to honour each project/work with the sufficient time and care and sensitivity it needs. However, good intentioned and honourable as we are, that’s not the reality for a lot of writers who, just like anyone, have to deal with competing priorities and difficult choices and the burden of life admin (finances, lack of time, or being sick whilst working to a deadline, as I am right now) and this can mean producing the occasional I am not super proud of this piece.

Also, as artists, I think we don’t always know when to stop. The pressure to make something perfect can be crushing, and sometimes I just want to be free to think, and examine, and analyse and linger and not worry about being forced to make that into something up for ‘consumption’ – I am trying to resist my value or worth being defined by what and how much I produce. That and resisting my own internal spanners – perfectionism siphons creativity.

I hate to play the ‘as the eldest daughter of migrants’ card, but there is ingrained perfectionism and fear of failure cycles I am still trying to unravel and work through unlearning, a lot of performance of model migrant daughter that sometimes is borne out of duty, other times trauma (probably both), and self-betrayal mischaracterised as ‘love’. I am starting to accept, and dare I say, love my mess – all the tangled knots – and there is nothing more liberating than this – even when a lot of people around you don’t like it, or understand it.

And perhaps there’s a lesson in that with poetry. Poems leap from page to page and take you places and it’s not always neat or logical … a different kind of presence.

AB: I hope this interview doesn’t feel like an interrogation/close reading of each poem in your Cordite chapbook! But ‘The Beautiful Terrible’ gutted me. Do you think love is always awkward for poets? Love can be so ephemeral. Poems about love sometimes outlast the love.

SMS: Not at all – I love that you’re vibing with these poems! As a poet, could I ask for anything more?

Poetry requires intimacy and vulnerability, this is necessary but perhaps awkward for some. Poems are a sort of secret you’ve let out into the world that sometimes outlasts the very thing you are writing about – including love. Sometimes a poem is that – an emotion or a moment that I have left and do not wish to return to.

Some things have a shelf life. They should be stuffed at the back of the drawer and only occasionally revisited. I think about this when I reflect on something I wrote years ago. Am I proud? Sure, for the most part. Would I write the same thing today? God, I hope not, I have changed, and I am not that same person – nor in the same time and place and headspace, of that poem.

I also aspire to be a generous writer, thinking the best of my readers … so I think it’s not for me to impose my view and motivations on them and their response to/interpretation of a poetic work of mine. They are in conversation with the poem – not with me … and perhaps, that can be confusing to some. Every now and then I encounter someone who has read a work of mine and then thinks they have access to me or know me that much better. Even though I really appreciate this connection, it’s such an honour to be able to impact someone in that way, I think it can be dangerous if it’s reductive. This also goes to the heart of another question – can you separate the creation from the creator? I think in certain contexts where power, privilege and responsibility come into play, such a neat cleaving becomes a lot harder.

AB: I’m glad you mentioned that ever-present risk of conflating the persona with the person. This calls to mind the tendency for white men writing in the first-person to be assumed to speak for everyone (a universal ‘I’) while women and people of colour and especially women of colour are only ever capable of writing autobiography. Not that autobiographical literature or any of its descendant genres are lesser forms. But surely a poem about love can be just a poem about love, not a poem about someone or someone’s specific experience of love.

SMS: Absolutely – we are reduced to trauma and pain, and therefore memoir/autobiography are the only genres we are permitted to inhabit. This reminds me of an interview I recently read with Kwame Dawes where he talks about this idea of trauma and what makes an interesting person, interesting enough to write, and the importance of good writing. ‘There is no substitute for good writing.’

On love, there’s so many forms of love as we’ve already alluded to (spiritual, familial, friendship), that transcend western notions of romantic love ‘the soul mate’ and are so important especially as we ground ourselves in our communities and collectives of art and creation – and I have been really interested in exploring these them in my works. A lot of my writing is actually about mothers and daughters and the bonds between siblings and female friendships.

Anyway, I always warn the people I love not to piss me off … otherwise they can expect to read about it in my next poem, haha. Same goes for old loves and new.

AB: In the Peter Porter-award winning poem ‘The Poetics of Fo(ur)getting,’ there is this line: ‘We pretend not to notice, this neighbourhood is an obituary / These farewells, these griefs we silence so we do not set ourselves on fire.’ What does your poetry owe the departed – if it owes the departed anything at all? What does poetry do for the living?

SMS: It’s a wretched thing that some people have to wait until death to be afforded any dignity. And some don’t get it in living or in death.

I don’t think poetry owes the departed, I think we do, as poets and storytellers, as caretakers of a poem, and of country, of truth. What James Baldwin says rings true, ‘An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.’

I have been saying this a lot lately, perhaps to remind myself first, poetry can’t and won’t shut down the detention centre down the road or bring down the illegal apartheid wall, but it is imperative for our transformative politics. Poetry creates language and this shapes our thinking, it enables meaningful action to take place. You don’t need a PhD in literature or poetry to be moved by a poetic work. If you enter a poem or story on one side and exist transformed on the other – like walking through a portal – then I believe the poem has done its job. It’s made you feel something. Through poetry you get to inhabit worlds and views that are mistranslated, misrepresented, misunderstood, including those of the departed.

But perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves, it’s not just about how poetry serves us, but how we serve it. And sometimes, poetry and story, feeling and memory, is all you are left with.

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