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

By and | 1 February 2022

AB: I’m curious about your writing process. How does poetry come to you? Or how do you call to it? Does coffee help – and how do you take your coffee if so? Walk me through all the details.

SMS: Slowly sipping my often small, more often large oat flat white is when my day truly begins.

Sidenote: I am dairy intolerant and as much as I tried to like almond milk, I couldn’t (and vindicated since it’s apparently not environmentally friendly). My local barista recommended oat and I’ve been on it since.

My local is a 15-minute walk through a park lined right down the middle with gorgeous trees, like grand flagpoles, so it’s a way to get some morning sun and green and steps in, verily led by the promise of caffeine. As I said, I take the flat white in slowly as it needs to last my walk back home, and then at least another good 60 minutes of writing/working/whatever I am doing.

Sometimes I will make the crappy stuff, like the three-in-one sachets bought from the milk shop around the corner, for my second hit at 11am or 2pm and honestly, no regrets either – I am good with crappy coffee.

A few years ago, a group of us were invited to perform poetry in New Zealand/Aotearoa. As part of the trip, we attended a high school poetry slam competition. Even though at the time I considered myself to be quite ‘knowledgeable’ about New Zealand – in particular its history, the ongoing racism against Maori communities, the Islamophobia – beyond the usual sanitising, whitewashing headlines. I learned so much of the existing racial tensions, intra/inter- community relationships and other complexities listening to youth from various communities. I know Bankstown Poetry Slam has done the same for a lot of people. So really for me, you want to know more about a place, or at least questions pointing you in the right direction? Go to the poets. They’re your front row seat to truth and nuance.

Sometimes a poem comes from an event or a conversation, another art form, like an image or sound, maybe a memory … that’s the trigger. But I wonder if poetry comes to me or if it’s already here, waiting to be excavated. Waiting for me to be ready for it. And that’s the first part of the process – accepting the gift and then doing the work.

It takes precision and rigor and reflexivity and vulnerability. The other thing I will say is, it takes a village. Almost every poem of mine was possible because of a ‘series of communal generosities’ – people in my life who share their stories, wisdoms, insight, or play an integral part in shaping mine.

AB: Accepting the gift and doing the work is spot-on life advice too.

I’m curious about your reading process. You’re a busy human. Work, activism, community service, poetry, and a personal life. Do you have time to read? What/who have you been reading lately?

SMS: I suppose it depends on what you mean by reading – I am always reading, but is it theory or creative fiction? Am I reading for ‘fun’ or for ‘learning’? Does there even have to be a purpose or function? I am not sure I agree with such callous ‘divisions’ myself mind you, because I learn from everything I read, and perhaps there are no categories/labels that do this emancipatory act of reading justice.

AB: Indeed – one doesn’t always have to discriminate between good reading and bad reading. One is always reading. Always a good idea to read expiry dates on food items, or not take too long to open mother’s messages, or check the wattage on electrical products.

SMS: There is a lot to be said about this. Self-care is sometimes ugly and hard – it could look like sorting through bills and getting that thing you’ve been meaning to fix for ages, fixed, or finally going to get a blood test – no less necessary.

But I do understand what you are asking. For a moment there I really struggled to get my creative reading in – and it wasn’t because of activism or the other things you listed. I graduated from law school last August. The course readings were so intense and heavy, whether getting cozy with the Geneva Conventions or endlessly critiquing the criminal justice system. By the end of it, I was too drained to engage in anything remotely ‘creative’ for a while there.

So as soon as I finished, a few friends and I decided to start a book club to get ourselves back on track. It worked for a hot minute. Not going to lie though – I have missed most of the sessions because of the Boycott Sydney Festival campaign, amongst other things … it’s tragi-comedy really. Racism is such a distraction … but I think many of us are addicted to the distraction because who would we be, what would we do without it?

AB: This reminds me of that Toni Morrison quote: ‘The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’ The ability to create art and poetry can exist in a world where racism doesn’t exist. Racism isn’t necessary for us to create art. Anti-racist art exists because doing this art aids our survival, and helps sustain community through difficult times. That said, we’d still have our art in a world where we could finally be done with racism. I wish I could see what that world and that art could be like in a place and time where we wouldn’t have to do the exhausting labour of explaining or defending our existence anymore.

I admire the incredible work done by the Boycott Sydney Festival. Not only did you achieve boycott goals, but you’ve also drawn attention to the way art-washing works, and the way seemingly ‘apolitical’ or ‘neutral’ artistic spaces can actually be very political in the large and little choices they make, the collaborations they seek, the funding they receive, the programming they do, down to design decisions.

SMS: Thank you. The campaign has been a tremendous team effort and such a reinvigorating reminder of the power and praxis of transnational solidarity.

On reading, even though I believe it can be leisurely and relaxing and done for no good reason other than itself, I’ve got to be more disciplined about it as it’s also crucial to the creative process. I am a reader before I am a writer. Now my to-do list has reading just after I wake or before I go to bed – bookmarking my day (pun intended). I really do need to protect this time.

I read almost everything: opinion pieces, articles, and news daily. Twitter threads (surely that is reading?) Oh, revisiting The Sunday Paper so I can properly process the pieces.

And true to my scheduled reading time (I am nailing this thing), I kicked off my morning reading Louise Glück and June Jordan poems.

There are those that I return to regularly, to ground my practice, myself in and that’s bell hooks, James Baldwin, Edward Said, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Gayatri Spivak and Talal Asad – and each return and re-read is different.

AB: Your debut novel is coming out in 2023, with Affirm Press. How exciting! Congratulations. Without giving things away, tell me about the novel-writing process. How has the experience been?

SMS: Thank you so much … it is exciting, and it feels surreal. Most people expect a glamorous response (think: writing under a grand tree as the autumn-hued leaves fall around me and the wind swoops through my perfect hijab (which IRL is never perfect). People don’t always know the grind of it, the discipline it takes to write a book – or perhaps it disrupts the fantasy, which I get can be endearing. But most of the time it’s just writing at first light, grumpy and sleep deprived, so I can make my word count, or writing with loud family in background, writing on a tissue box in the back of a car because my phone is dead and I had a good idea, draft after draft after draft. Difficult? Yes. Frustrating? So much. But not any less enjoyable.

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