A Look into Girls That Never Die with Safia Elhillo
Oct 31 ● BY Sara Bawany
On a typically warm Texas Monday afternoon, I meet with esteemed poet Safia Elhillo via Zoom. Just four days earlier, on Thursday, September 15, I had attended her poetry reading at the Texas State University campus, along with her MasterClass for poetry students. At dinner later that evening, a friend and classmate asked her what advice she had for poetry students. “Find your people,” she responded immediately. “That’s the most important thing.”
Intrigued, and contemplating this on Monday, I wait to hear more from her as we begin chatting. Elhillo is back home in Los Angeles, resting after a hectic few weeks of traveling and being invited by various schools, organizations, and poetry admirers, all in awe of her work and excited to support the release of her latest collection of poems. I myself have spent the weekend reading through the books that she signed for me and have been pondering over her latest book, which is a brave unraveling of some very difficult topics.
Sara Bawany: So you released Girls That Never Die in July! How has the reception been so far?
Safia Elhillo: I don’t know honestly. I don’t know if it’s something I know how to look for. The readings have felt good. No one has yelled at me [laughs]. So I think generally positive.
Bawany: How many readings have you had?
Elhillo: When it came out, I did a few book launch events, one here In LA, one in DC—my hometown. I did one in New York City, which is my emotional hometown [laughs]. Then Boston, the San Diego Literature festival, and then Texas State was number six!
Bawany: Wow, that’s great. That’s a lot in two months.
Elhillo: I had the month of August to rest so it was mostly a couple of weeks around when the book came out, but with schools opening for the semester, it’s going to pick back up a little bit.
Bawany: Amazing! I was curious, what was the reception from your particular community, being the Sudanese Muslim community, in general?
Elhillo: I think generally positive. I’ve had some conversations with friends of mine who I know through writing poetry but aside from that I don’t know if I’ve had conversations with people in my life about it necessarily. But so far so good with the community, Sudanese people, Muslim people, I think so far we’re doing okay!
Bawany: This book is definitely heavy! Being Muslim and Sudanese and a woman from the diaspora creates this huge intersection of several different marginalized identities. And talking about violence within those identities and communities is so risky—but you do it so well. What advice would you give to poets within these marginalized intersections around how to gracefully write your truth around that violence without feeding into a particular narrative about your community?
Elhillo: So it’s obviously something I had to think a lot about while writing this book and I think in general, it’s really important for me to always have an active sense of who I’m talking to. I’m not trying to snitch on my community because I’m not talking to anyone except for my community! Everyone else is welcome to eavesdrop, or to listen in, but I’m not really positioning myself to make an outward facing dispatch about violence in my community. I’m trying to have a conversation from—yes a place of grief and mourning—but also from a place of love to my community, to the femmes in my community, and to the people who have experienced this harm.
It does stress me out—the possibility that the things I’m saying might be taken out of context to perpetuate harmful ideas about my community but I also think to not speak because of that fear is just allowing a culture of silence from every end of my life to be perpetuated. All I can really do is try and tend to my own little corner of the culture of silence—and that’s my responsibility. If other people want to tend to their little corner of the culture of silence, that’s great too! But my responsibility is to my patch of grass right here and that’s what I’m working on. I think to say, “Oh, I can’t talk about this even though it’s harmful and even though silence allows things like this to fester and continue”—I can’t talk about this because it might give some racist Islamophobe white supremacists the wrong idea of my community. But then I’m letting racist Islamophobe white supremacists shut me up. So that’s not necessarily me winning either.
I’m not writing poems for anyone who, or I suppose I don’t think the work of my poems is to humanize my community in any way to people who don’t already hold that as a really central belief. So if someone thinks Muslims are “monsters” or Sudanese people are “monsters” or Black people are “monsters,” then I don’t know that it’s my poems that are going to change their mind and also, I’m not talking to those people. Those people are none of my business. I know I’m a human being, my people are human beings—obviously it feels so stupid to say it because it’s true—so I’m not trying to face anyone who is not already seeing me in my completeness and my humanity and trying to change their own minds. I think poems can do the work of changing people’s minds, but I need to write my poems how I’m going to write my poems.
Bawany: That’s a beautiful answer. I know you described your process of writing this book as something along the lines of, “I was good and clean and within the confines of my Muslim girl box for the first couple of books,” and with this one, you stated you “threw that all away” and said you’re going to talk about all this really hard stuff. How do you feel like this book has changed you as a writer?
Elhillo: I’m curious to see how it’s changed me as a writer because I haven’t written anything since finishing this one, since this is my most recently completed project. I have since written some loose poems, but it hasn’t changed me in the ways I expected, it’s not like I’m suddenly so brave and breaking taboos with every poem. It’s actually made it so that the kinds of poems I’m primarily writing now are really mundane and small and regular. Like nothing bad happens! I’m not exploring a great rupture anymore; I feel like I’ve exercised a big thing for myself or done the work of naming it for myself, wrote it down, published it, and the world didn’t end. So now that I’ve diffused the bogeyman a little it’s not so pressing for me anymore. I just want to go on a walk and write a poem about that right now.
Bawany: Wow I love that! Not exploring a great rupture but wanting to just write about poems where you’re going on a walk. That’s definitely different!
I was watching one of your interviews a few days back and you said something that really struck me. “Every day I want to write a poem; most days I don’t.” You also named the fact that you have a list of words stored somewhere that you tried to incorporate into your poems. I feel that based on my experience and talking with a lot of other writers, that a lot of us have terrible impostor syndrome around some of our writing practices and that there’s a perception of “what real writers do” and what they don’t. What would you say to that?
Elhillo: If I spent too much time thinking about what real writers do, I would spook myself out of writing a poem ever again. I think I break a lot of writer’s etiquette, like I write on a computer. I know you’re supposed to write by hand because it’s so pure!
Bawany: I feel so validated [laughs]!
Elhillo: [laughs] Yeah, all my poems live on the computer! It’s been years since I’ve seen a poem of mine in my own handwriting. But—that’s what works for me. The line from my brain to the page feels clearest that way. It would be very annoying to stop doing it in the way that feels best because that’s not what I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing. Also, who’s checking? Who needs to know? Except for whoever reads this interview—but who needs to know that I’m not rooting my bare feet into the earth and writing a poem?
Bawany: Or using a thesaurus.
Elhillo: Exactly! I use a thesaurus, I use a laptop, I Google things as I’m writing, it’s fine! I don’t necessarily need to feel like I’m a writer who is outside of time. I’m writing poems in the year 2022 with internet connection Alhamdulillah and a laptop, so why not?
Bawany: That’s very validating because I definitely struggle to feel like a legit writer—whatever that’s supposed to mean—because of certain things I may do like being too rigid in my writing so that’s good to know. I did notice as I was reading some of your books, regarding the use of space in your poems. There is a lot of space in between sentences along with the way the words and poems are set on a page and there’s a shape to them, or a divide between them with the use of space. I’m curious why you do that and what’s the significance of that for you?
Elhillo: It started with The January Children and it happens in Home Is Not A Country; I think I have some loose poems in Halal If You Hear Me, but for that era of my poetry writing life, I was almost exclusively writing poems in all lower case with caesura instead of conventional punctuation. And it was because of a particular tone I was trying to create where I wanted the poems to feel quieter. I wanted them to feel like they were not spoken but being thought, like how a thought will scroll across your head, and what I like about the caesura, is that instead of being a mandatory stop or mandatory pause the way a period or comma is, it’s a hesitation, it’s gentler, it’s softer. And it’s also quite literally a visual moment of silence in a poem which I wanted at the time of writing those poems, to quiet the whole thing down. It felt more intimate for me that way, for the poems to feel the quiet.
But after finishing Home Is Not A Country, I dealt with that formal obsession because I never wanted to see a caesura after that, but with Girls That Never Die, I think because the stuff I’m talking about is a bit more difficult for me, my instinct is to quiet down. So I had to actually oppose that instinct and I didn’t want to give anyone an excuse to look away that didn’t have to do with the content. I didn’t want anyone to be able to dismiss the things I was saying because it was not conventionally punctuated or hard to parse through. I wanted any kind of reader to be able to sit there and listen to what I had to say instead of someone who wouldn’t be a comfortable reader of poetry and would be freaked out about the caesura. The capital letters go where you expect them to go, periods go where you’d expect them to go, so now listen to what I’m trying to tell you.
It felt important to do that because it’s a scary thing to do. And it feels like a new toy now. I really like the crispness of conventional capitalization and punctuation. I like that it makes my poems feel louder, or feel like I’m speaking out loud again. Whereas the other poems were more like my internal monologue written down. Now I’m more interested in a conversation, I’m interested in saying the thing and being heard, so I think it was important for the punctuating, the forms of the poems, things like capitalization and whatnot—all of those were tools that facilitated this new tone which I’m interested in now.
Bawany: I’m new to the concept of the caesura! How did you come by it?
Elhillo: I think I first got interested in caesuras when I was in undergrad and I read a book by Heather Christle called “The Trees The Trees.” There are a lot of poems in that book that are prose poems with blocks of text, but there’s caesurae scattered throughout the poems. Me and my friends would call them “Swiss cheese” poems and were fascinated by them! I didn’t know you could do that! So for a long time after that all I wanted to do was write a ‘Swiss cheese’ poem. And then I think it was my first year at Cave Canem and the workshop instructor used the word caesura and I wrote it down and tried to pretend like I knew that’s what I was doing the whole time [laughs].
Bawany: I love that honesty. So what I’m hearing is that you saw a thing you liked by another poet and you decided to incorporate it into your poems, just like that. Which makes me think again of how writers think they should be completely original or they should come up with all these new concepts, but we are always borrowing and being inspired by writers we love.
Elhillo: Absolutely. I get nothing from pretending like I invented anything or came up with anything myself. Everything I’ve ever made is a collage of the things I’ve learned from what I like. Everything I know how to do as a poet was taught to me by someone else, whether directly or indirectly. And I have no interest in pretending like I wasn’t taught, that I just figured it out myself and emerged fully formed. I am a poet because I am a student of poetry. And part of being a student of poetry is that I’m a student of other poets. And it’s important for me to always locate myself in that and to cite my sources and to thank my predecessors and to say, “This poem is after this person.” If anyone out there is a true original, had never read a poem by anyone else and still manages to write poems they feel good about, more power to them! But the only reason I write poems is because I like poems. And I like poems because other people write them incredibly well, so that’s where I derive pleasure from it.
Bawany: So on that note, who are some of the poets and writers you find solace in and inspiration from?
Elhillo: Anne Carson has been very important to me for a lot of my writing life. The first book of hers I read was “Autobiography of Red” in undergrad. And afterwards, my takeaway was “Wow you can do whatever you want!” and it’s been that ever since. I really love Patricia Smith. I really love Aracelis Girmay, and I feel like so many of my poems are bootleg trying-to-be-Aracelis-Girmay poems. And then I really love my contemporaries, my peers, my homies. And those are my most active poetry teachers, where for a lot of my coming of age as a young poet, I didn’t have conventional vertical mentorship. There wasn’t necessarily an elder being like, “Here’s what you need to do,” but I was around a lot of young people and young poets and we were all figuring it out together and teaching it to each other. Someone would be like, “Hey guys do you know what a double sonnet is?” and then teach us what they had learned. So to this day, those are who I feel most comfortable posing my poetry questions to. And then I really love Kwame Dawes, who has been a poetry fairy godfather to me. I learn a lot from the poetry of Louise Glück and a lot of the poems in Girls That Never Die started out as prompts in her workshops. She’s also the one who encouraged me toward capitalization and punctuation. I brought my little Swiss cheese poem into workshop and she was like, “Absolutely not. Go write me a prose poem.”
Bawany: Really? Why, what was her reasoning?
Elhillo: She said it felt mannered and it was true because it got to the point where I wasn’t using caesurae and the lower case for any intentional reason that had to do with the specific poem I was writing. It was just like, “This is how I write poems!” So it stopped being on purpose. So it was very helpful because there were still poems I wrote after that that were lowercase that had the caesura but it felt like it was on purpose. Because now, I had to ask myself why and do a formal audit of the poem in a way that I had been very lax with up until that point. I also really love the work of Eavan Bowland; there are so many I’m squinting up at my bookshelf trying to remember who else!
Bawany: It’s okay; that’s a really good list! I have two more questions. How do you edit? How do you edit your books and your poems? What’s your strategy and technique generally?
Elhillo: Usually, it takes several drafts for poems to become themselves. I try not to put too much pressure on myself if I’m making a first draft. If I’m being mannered and I want to use caesura for absolutely no good reason, I give myself permission to do that in the first draft just to get the poem out. I try not to edit as I write because that’s excruciating for me. Starting the second draft, a lot of times it’ll depend on the individual poem, but some recurring things are generally most of my first drafts are in couplets or prose blocks. So the first thing I’ll do for round two—if it’s in couplets, I’ll put it in a prose block and if it’s in a prose block, I’ll put it in couplets. Because usually, when the first draft is in couplets because it already looks like a poem, it can get away with a lot of “bad behavior.” So I just look at it and I’m like, “Well, this poem looks like a poem, so I don’t see the problem here!” And then as soon as I take it out of looking like a poem and it’s just a paragraph, maybe none of those words feel good. It helps me attend to it at the level of the actual word.
Bawany: That’s a testament to how form makes such a difference.
Elhillo: Oh yeah, form is the whole thing, for me at least. And when I’ve written the first draft of a prose block, I put it in couplets to let some air into it so I can see the words again. It’s hard for me to see the poem one way or another in whatever form the first draft is in so I have to change the form to be able to see the words. At that point, I will start to read it out loud to myself because my ear is better trained as a reader than my eye is. I can hear things I often won’t catch while I’m writing and that helps with the form because for example, a line breaks here but I’m pausing all the way over there; so what purpose is this line break actually serving, is the question I ask myself. It helps me get a sense of what rhythmic things the poem is trying to do, or get a sense of what words feel difficult to say together, which probably need to be separated or needs a synonym. This also helps me get a sense of whether my poem is too long. At some point, I’ll feel like, “Okay, I’ve been reading forever and the poem is still going.” So that means it doesn’t deserve its length yet. So usually reading it out loud is very helpful, I’ll go back in and tweak some things.
I also find it very helpful to read poems to people. So usually, I’ll ask a loved one if I can read it to them. Even if that person isn’t immediately available for me to read it to them—because people have lives [laughs]—even imagining that someone is going to read this poem helps me look at it differently like, “Oh am I really going to use the word ‘thing’ this many times in front of this esteemed person I love? Let me not waste their time and go tweak a few things first.” So it’s almost like it sharpens my ear. If I imagine reading the poem to the teacher I’m most terrified of, it then makes me hold the poem to a higher standard. I thought it was okay when I was by myself at my desk with my computer, but do I want to be seen with this poem in public? If so, here are some things that need to be worked on first.Bawany: That’s really good advice! I’m definitely going to take a lot of that away for myself. Lastly, what advice would you give to young writers, especially young writers of color?
Elhillo: Like I mentioned at dinner—find your people. Poetry has always been about community for me. This might be because I started off on slam teams, but I have no interest in being a poet alone. I only want to be a poet among other poets and among my loved ones and among my community. So find your people, take care of them, and let them take care of you. Ask for help and let them ask you for help. Edit their poems, let them edit your poems, and read to each other. Celebrate each other’s work! If you read a page in a book you really like, text it to someone you love. I think the reason I am able to continue having a relationship to poetry after all these years and the reason it still feels fun is because it’s a thing me and my loved ones can do together. If it was just me alone, who knows? I really do love poems, but there’s a good chance that when I was a teenager newly getting interested in poems, and if it had just been me alone, I can’t guarantee I would have stayed interested. I might have just gotten bored and gone to do something else eventually. But the fact that it’s a way to connect with other people—and this might be corny—but it’s always been a way to engage with my loved ones and I think that’s important. I don’t know if I believe isolation is helpful at all for poetry so I think everyone should, if they would like to do so, find their people.
Bawany: Yes, which is contrary to what the stereotypical image of a poet is!
Elhillo: I’m not a poet in the tower alone; I’m a poet in the group chat. That’s beautiful and I like that.
Bawany: Thanks so much, Safia. Last last question! Did you enjoy the Whataburger in Texas before you left?
Elhillo: I did but they didn’t have the hash browns! So I had fries with my breakfast which I’m not mad about but I also had a honey butter chicken biscuit and it was really good. I should have gotten the second one for the plane now that I think about it!
Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which received the the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets and an Arab American Book Award, Girls That Never Die (One World/Random House, 2022), and the novel in verse Home Is Not A Country (Make Me A World/Random House, 2021), which was longlisted for the National Book Award and received a Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor.
Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, Safia received the 2015 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and was listed in Forbes Africa’s 2018 “30 Under 30.” Her work appears in POETRY Magazine, Callaloo, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-day series, among others, and in anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature. Her work has been translated into several languages, and commissioned by Under Armour, Cuyana, and the Bavarian State Ballet. With Fatimah Asghar, she is co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019).
Her fellowships include a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, Cave Canem, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.