Ancestor vs. Ancestor
The darkness then was darker than we know; it never left the corners of a room, rose velvetly from cellars, where it blinded the potatoes— like curd it formed a film on wooden spoons. Grains of darkness clustered between brothers. Dark moisture kept the cabbage leaves apart. All over the old country, there were nights: no hands, no ground. You’ve never really seen the stars. And what was in it? Specters, wraiths—they spooked the horse. Some things that people did. A continent was dark. It could be what we wanted. Animists, ivory, pith of strange fruits. We must have been, for all intents, asleep. When those nations flickered and were lit, there was no fault to speak of. And we didn’t speak of it.
—Sadiqa de Meijer from The Outer Wards (Signal Editions, 2020). Reprinted with permission.
Rob Taylor: The title poems of both of your poetry collections, Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books, 2013) and The Outer Wards (Vehicule Press, 2020), are about leaving one world behind, and the passage to a new one. Both books feature plane trips and end on images from journeys.
Your experiences as an immigrant from the Netherlands seems to run through everything you write. And yet these are two very different books, born out of distinct times in your life. Can you talk a little about the two title poems, and what each says about the larger collection?
Sadiqa de Meijer: Yes, the title poems both have to do with a ferry crossing that is made difficult somehow—in the first, there’s a storm, and in the second, there’s the question of how to take essential things along. “Leaving Howe Island” is a poem of immigration—the continued arrivals that occur after the initial, physical one; it’s based in a real landscape that the speaker and her family are getting to know. In “The Outer Wards,” the landscape resides in memory, the companions are imaginary, and the crossing is between life and death. The speaker herself has become the ferry operator. Your question leads me to name it: Leaving Howe Island as a book is concerned with geographic migration within familial circles, while The Outer Wards encounters the crossing into death from an inevitable solitude.
RT: Yes – goodness, that hits at the core of the books so well (though it does make The Outer Wards sound darker than it is). In considering “crossings,” your two poetry books are joined by your new essay collection, alfabet/alphabet (Palimpsest Press, 2020), though the crossing it explores is never fully completed: “Language is our fatherland, from which we can never emigrate,” reads the Irina Grivnina epigraph to the book.
You write very successfully about the interplay of English and Dutch in your poetry collections, and yet you turned to essays for alfabet/alphabet. Why essays? In what ways did non-fiction allow you to explore things which felt inaccessible in poetry?
SdM: The question of how Dutch inflected my writing in English was first asked of me in written interviews or in conversation about Leaving Howe Island, so my earliest responses were prose-ish attempts at answers. But they felt like the surface of something unexamined, so in the years that followed, I kept a notebook with thoughts on the subject. That’s the second half of the answer, really; I was having thoughts, which is not how poems start for me. The material—which was anecdotes, analyses of Dutch poetry, perspectives on translation—would have had to be transmuted into poems, whereas it was already very close to essays as the ideas arrived. I do love the essay form as a reader, so I imagine that its voices were stirring in me already.
RT: Poems that start from thoughts seem to be all the rage today—I’m glad you resist that temptation. In a recent interview, I heard you say that your poems start with sound. This didn’t surprise me in the least: the “adorable remora”! The “gulls gash[ing] the sky’s graphite fabric”! The nails that “click and slip against her rainbow abacus”! And in alfabet/alphabet you write, “the sound of Dutch exists like a faint carbon shadow in my English.” It seems like Dutch, or at least the “shadow sound” of Dutch, is there in the germ of each of your poems. Would you say that’s true?
SdM: That’s interesting—that is indeed the sum of those ideas, though I hadn’t reached the conclusion myself, which underscores my feeling that alfabet/alphabet would continue to change with every conversation and passing year if I didn’t draw a line. But yes, I suspect that when I hear a phrase (in my mind or ear) that sounds like the germ of a poem, the awareness is rooted in the depths of me, where Dutch is a major sonic current. Sound then continues to be part of the writing, like an invisible foundational pattern to the process, say as a snail shell keeps growing in a spiral—so I do believe that elements of the germ phrase (its rhythm, pitch, vowel intonations, etc.) would resonate outwards. And that’s probably part of what readers or listeners notice as a Dutch influence.
RT: Yes, I think so. Even if they don’t identify it as such, it’s there, doing its work. In alfabet/alphabet you write of the first poetry reading you attended in the Netherlands, where poets from various countries read without translations: “The sounds that came through the speakers were enigmatic and incantatory, almost like secular prayers.” Do you ever think about your own poems as strings of sound for non-English speakers? If so, how does that influence how you write?
SdM: You know, I think the reading made that impression on me because of my father’s Muslim prayers at home—I don’t speak Arabic, so one of my earliest and abiding notions of prayer was as enigmatic, lyrical sounds. I haven’t thought of how my own poetry registers with non-English speakers, but for alfabet/alphabet, I did ask English-speaking friends what Dutch sounds like to them. There was quite a consensus in the answers: invocations of other, similar languages (German, French, Old English), a sense of gray moods and weather elements, and a vast number of references to phlegm.
RT: Ha! You’ve lined up here your father’s religious prayers and the “secular prayers” of the poetry reading—do you think of your own poems as secular prayers, and is that part of your attraction to writing them?
SdM: No, I don’t think of my poems as prayers. But prayer as an idea and practice does draw me. I grew up in a mixed religious household (Muslim and Christian) and now I don’t consider myself to be either, but I do have a sense of faith that remains both nourished by and in struggle with what I was taught. I’m exploring some of that in a visual/literary project with a friend who was raised Jewish. I’m fascinated with prayer’s culturally divergent qualities of petition or lament or praise or interrogation, and what that implies about the entity being addressed. This is perhaps evident in that The Outer Wards contains poems exploring the direct address—to death, to a mountain, to a child, to a country, and to a river landscape, for example. It’s a voice that I love for its implied relational world. It is also a natural part of early childhood—in nursery rhymes and picture books, and especially in the child’s sense that all things are animate. Those of us who discard it sustain an enormous loss, and become capable of great harm.
RT: Isn’t that true—children, and their worldviews, can “reset” our minds in such necessary ways. The Outer Wards is full of profound moments of you seeing yourself more clearly through the eyes of your child (“I’ve never / elated anyone // as much as her inside our headlong now,” “I’ve never looked at the back of my hand as intently / as we have examined this street,” “I’m foreign, and she is home”). What has parenthood allowed you to learn about yourself that was previously invisible or inaccessible or muted?
SdM: Well, before I became a parent, much of what I lived and believed was grounded in a sort of communal struggle: I was against things (like patriarchy and racism and poverty and environmental degradation). I took part in protests and organizing and talks, and that was good and important work. I’m still against all the same things, but with the sense of being responsible for someone small and new, I felt an urgent question—I wanted to know what I was for, what I could pass on as things to believe in. The Che Guevara quote goes “…the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love,”—but his preface to that is “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that…” and I believe I’d unconsciously been placing more weight on that first phrase. It was protective; a layer of cynicism over the vulnerability of feeling love and grief for what was under siege. And that has turned—I can still be a marvellous cynic, but my emphasis has shifted to the side of that love, and to risking myself in its name, whether in a playground interaction or a broader, structured campaign.
RT: Let’s risk ridiculousness, then, and talk more about resistance and love. In the essay “heimwee/homesick,” you write of an encounter with a skinhead during a visit to the Netherlands. You note that the Dutch language has compound words for just about everything, but none that can describe that encounter, and that if Dutch is “that animate, evolving language… the medium of all our lives” then it’s “going to have to find the words.”
I’m writing to you during the protests and riots that have followed the murder of George Floyd by the police officer Derek Chauvin. People are still, unbelievably, arguing over the validity of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” though of course their semantic debate is largely subterfuge for a far darker one. English, too, struggles to find the words.
It leads me to wonder to what extent language can save us. How much can the word correct the heart, as opposed to the heart correcting the word?
SdM: That’s such a profound question. I suspect it’s really more about our state of receptivity than the words themselves.
There are also distinctions in who is speaking to whom. When I was twenty-ish and a group of people at a BIPOC event welcomed me to their table with “you look like another mixie,” that last word was new and potent to me. Ethnically and racially, it was so unusual to be named with a term that signalled belonging. Within countless communities, established and transient ones, having a vocabulary for forms of ourselves, for our experiences, is crucial. Among BIPOC people, for instance, a phrase like “white fragility” is such a balancing force to the allegation that naming racism is inappropriate or hostile.
But those are examples of language affirming the heart, and you are asking about correction. I think that words may find their limits there. People can recite the proper terms while their world view remains exactly as it is—that’s widely evident right now in the Black Lives Matter statements from various corporations and politicians, for example. But limits are interesting, kinetic regions. When Dutch newspapers pledge to remove from their vocabulary a standard, antagonistic term for immigrants and refugees, that change won’t automatically overturn any racist ideas in individual readers, but it may gradually raise the public discourse to a more respectful level. And that isn’t nothing.
Of course there are writers who work at those limits so brilliantly. Part of my love for James Baldwin is for his sustained faith in his white-identified readers’ capacity to become receptive to words again—it remains such a generous and unearned gesture.
RT: Do you think the limits of how far language can push us vary from language to language, culture to culture?
SdM: For sure. Writing alfabet/alphabet, and having attendant conversations with people about their mother tongues, taught me that I only have the very beginnings of an understanding how profoundly languages can vary. Within my own realm, the Dutch approach of creating new compound words for culturally new practices or items is an example of language and thought working a particular way; the idea that existing terms, rearranged and coupled, will suffice—which implies that, even as it expands, the language is also already considered complete.
And culturally, so much is at play, including the differences between oral and written traditions. Anything that we store in ourselves to recite has more potential to shape and change us than text on a page. Words also lose power when they arrive in a deluge, as they do in many of our current lives. There are too many, and a great proportion are manipulatively oriented—for me, being a receptive reader or listener these days includes making room for silences, and choosing material that is particular and sincere.
RT: Do you ever wonder what kind of a poet you would have become if the two languages you’d been immersed in were different, say Swahili and Punjabi (two languages spoken by your father)?
SdM: Yes, I do wonder! And writing alfabet/alphabet caused me to really ask myself outright, though of course the answers rest in speculation. My father has often referred to Punjabi and Urdu as flowery and poetic languages—meaning in relation to English and Dutch, I suppose, in which he’s also fluent. When I imagine being immersed in a linguistic atmosphere like that, I feel excitement and curiosity about what poetry would or could then sound like, in harmony and in dissonance with the language itself. I’ll be reading more poetry translated from Urdu and Punjabi, in order to explore that further.
RT: In the essay “xenofobie/xenophobia,” you write “I have not experienced the limits of my languages as the limits of my world, but I am familiar with the sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name.” To me, a poet’s greatest delight comes in discovering unexplored linguistic terrain – places where we don’t have a word or phrase to succinctly capture an experience (so we need to call on the poets!).
The first half of your quote feels in keeping with that delight, while the second half feels counter-intuitive (what’s the poet left to do?). But I suppose discovery unites the two: the poet creates new connections; the language-learner finds a connection others have made and handed down to them. Do you think your attractions to those two acts—creating and discovering your languages—are derived from the same source? Or are they distinct, if complimentary, impulses?
SdM: Yes, I agree that poets work in that border terrain between where language does and doesn’t usually go. But it’s a region that differs for each of us; it depends on which Englishes we speak, on our vocabularies, our courage, our subject matters, our aesthetic. Those things aren’t static—and to me, learning a word for something formerly nameless is simply another small movement of that edge of language. So I would say that the attraction is to a single practice; dwelling at that border and getting to know what is possible there.
RT: A wondrous thing happened to me while in the border terrain for your essay. As an example of the “sweet revelation of finding that the formerly inexpressible has a name,” you provide the example of the Punjabi word jugaad, which translates roughly as “mak[ing] do with what is at hand.” In reading that, I realised that some spirit of jugaad is central to my writing practice and my interest in confessional “domestic” poetry. I write about my own life because I believe it’s important to approach the universal through the particular, but also, I think, in this life-hacky, improvised spirit of “making do with what is at hand.” I limit the “materials” to what I encountered that week, or that day, or that hour, and use that as a generative restraint. Having a word for that was, indeed, a “sweet revelation.” You talk in your essay about the jugaad of your improvised standing desk and light-reflecting takeout container lids. Do you see jugaad in your writing practice as well?
SdM: I love that you had that realization. Yes, you’re right that my writing itself practice qualifies as jugaad—improvised, between interruptions, sometimes on the back of an envelope. When you apply the jugaad idea to subject matter—and of course I can very much relate to being drawn to the confessional and domestic there—it raises the interesting question of what particular problem those makeshift, available materials are meant to solve. Which is almost like asking, what is the purpose of a poem?—for which I have no real answer at this stage of my work, though I do know that whatever it is occurs inside a reader or listener. What about you?
RT: I suppose I react most strongly to the idea that my assemblies of makeshift materials are meant to solve anything! It feels somewhat like starting a poem with thought—it goes against the improvisational spirit in the making. I agree entirely that a poem is “made,” ultimately, inside the reader, so you only have so much control over its design, and its purpose. You just have to construct something sturdy and vital and lively enough to thrive in the “border terrain” between the sayable and unsayable, the writer and the reader.
One way you wrestle with the border between the sayable and unsayable, and between the writer and reader, is by translating your own poetry into Dutch. What does translation allow you to learn about your poems? Do you become more connected to the content, or detached? Are you increasingly channeling the muse or the mechanic?
SdM: There are occasional poetic revelations to translating, but I find the feeling closer to the mechanic, or the mathematician even. And I love it—the inherent conundrums feel as if they bring me right up against the sinews of the language. I make the attempt with other people’s poems as much as my own. Translation reveals the essence of a poem (in the translator’s estimation)—and it’s fascinating to learn that without the upward slant of pitch in one line, for example, or without the three-legged dog in the third stanza, the piece will no longer function.
RT: It’s exhausting to think of all the ways a poem can fall apart! That’s probably part of why I rarely write long poems. Your poems are usually shorter, too, but you’ve got an eight-pager in The Outer Wards with the sprawling title “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park.” The poem gathers a wide range of thoughts and observations connected to living in Kingston’s Skeleton Park (i.e. it’s got big jugaad energy).
The poem’s jugaad-ian “making do” seems tied to parenthood and how it shrinks one’s world down to this handful of repeated people, places, objects, etc. That world-shrinking is followed by another: the next poem, “Shut-In,” introduces the theme of injury and illness, which is omnipresent through the rest of The Outer Wards.
In “It’s the Inner Harbour…” you describe parenthood as “this submerged world” and note that “I know the minutes as the lichens / on the breakwater know them,” which seems like it could equally apply to the conditions that followed. Do you see connections between the two narrowings (of one’s perceptible world, of clear-headed moments, of time/capacity to write)? Did parenthood in some way prepare you for the more dramatic narrowing to come?
SdM: It’s funny and astute that you noticed the lichen line as you did, because I realize now that unlike the entire rest of the poem it came from later notes based on my experience of time during rehabilitation. One thing the two experiences had in common was that the narrowings held a depth. During those repetitive days, fairly devoid of distractions (I didn’t have a cell phone until my child was older), big things happened in the quiet of the living room, like witnessing a baby’s first amazed look at their own hand, or my own seeing of colours for the first time after much darkness.
RT: Speaking of darkness, it’s everywhere in The Outer Wards, and understandably so. In “Ancestor v. Ancestor,” which opens this interview, darkness “blinded the potatoes,” “clustered between brothers,” and “kept the cabbage leaves apart.” Did early parenthood and concussion cause you to think about darkness more deeply? Differently?
SdM: Yes, for sure, the notion of darkness changed for me, in particular during my recovery. Being in the dark was so many things at once: relieving, isolating, claustrophobic, disorienting, generative, primal. And just as questions about my first language led to a book of essays, I believe this question might only be answerable in book form or at least something book length. It remains an unformed idea for now.
RT: Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry makes multiple appearances in The Outer Wards: in an epigraph to the book, and in the closing lines to “The Roaring Alongside” (that title, too, a quote from Bishop’s poem “The Sandpiper”). And poems of yours like “Formation of a Dragonfly” mix deep attention to the natural world with in-the moment asides (“and a line of is it yellow?– / yes, bright yellow–) in a very Bishop-like way. What draws you to Bishop’s poetry, and what of her do you see present in your own writing?
SdM: It’s true, Bishop is a real presence in the book, including in “Formation of a Dragonfly” as you say. I admire her naturalist observation skills, and her unexpectedly bold surrealism, and I love the quiet, conversational, self-sharpening precision of her language. I find the permission to interrupt yourself and refine a thought—I noticed it also in the work of Bronwen Wallace—so human and intimate. The writer hasn’t reached a conclusion and told us, they’ve invited us to accompany them. I would like that to be true of my work.
On the subject of Bishop’s poetry, I highly recommend Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description.
RT: On the theme of recommendations: if you could alert Canadian readers to the work of one Dutch poet—not necessarily the most famous, but someone who really speaks to you—who would it be, and why?
SdM: Ida Gerhardt! Which isn’t really fair because her work is almost untranslatable. I write of that in alfabet/alphabet because I admire her poetry so deeply; its precise, evocative, and utterly believable conflations of Gerhardt’s landscapes and inner life. I can’t recommend an English translation that I like, but I will keep working on my favourite poems of hers.
I also love the poems of J.A. der Mouw, for their domestic imagery, contemplative spirituality and self-deprecating wit. In this case there is a strong English translation, by John Irons: Full of God and tiny pancakes.
RT: What a title! Another influence on your writing seems to be your writing group, the Villanelles, who you thank in the acknowledgments of both of your new books. Can you talk a little about how that group helped you in developing the books?
SdM: The Villanelles have been together for approximately a decade now, and my writing would be nothing like it is without them. We’re currently a group of seven, and at this stage we’ve celebrated releases of poetry, short stories, children’s books, essays, novels, and more together. We workshop our drafts—usually poems, but sometimes prose as well. There’s a natural flow of honest critique and true encouragement that can happen because we trust each other. Our meetings also take the isolation out of writing. The group is one of my favourite things.
RT: Two books out in one year is no small feat—it’s very reasonable to take a break for a while! That said, you’ve already mentioned potentially writing more about darkness. Do you have any other inklings of what might come next?
SdM: Both books were several years in the making, so really their convergence is a matter of chance. Yes, I am working towards new things (though very slowly in the COVID-induced absence of school and summer camps, etc.). I’ve started a new essay collection having to do with bodies, spirits, and medicines. And some new poems that are a reckoning with mixed ancestry.