by Amee Nassrene Broumand
Farah, welcome! Thanks for speaking to me here on Burning House Press. You’re seventeen and not only an accomplished poet, but also the editor-in-chief of Sugar Rascals, your own literary journal for teens. What is it about poetry that calls to you? What role does it play in your life?
Thanks for having me!
Poetry has always been the perfect outlet for my joy, anger, sorrow, and opinions. It means that I can come home after a long day, usually tired, and turn my emotions into something beautiful, something that other people can enjoy and connect with. A relief from the tedious busyness of life, reading and writing poetry forces me to slow down, spend some time in other people’s brains, and relish in the incredible complexities of language. Though it’s occasionally a little draining, if I don’t write for a week, I start to suffocate with words.
The adventure of poetry really calls to me, too. I love the tough questions, defensive answers, confessions, secrets, glorifications, histories, judgments, and other elements that poems can present in a condensed form. I love how you can control this kind of adventure. I love how you can use language to its limit. I love how this kind of raw, pristine communication is of endless potential. And I love how a poem can truly be anything.
“if I don’t write for a week, I start to suffocate with words”
Whereas writing poetry may be “a relief from the tedious busyness of life,” trying to get published or recognized as a poet can be quite stressful. When did you start writing poetry, and when did you start getting involved in the literary scene? Has the literary world met your expectations so far, and if not, how has it failed?
I wrote my first poem in the second grade. It was technically a haiku-writing exercise in my older sister’s summer workbook, but I was so enthralled by the imagery in the example poem that I began to write dozens of my own. I alternated between writing intensely and not writing at all for short periods of time until the summer after ninth grade, when I happened upon a vanity contest online. I submitted to it, and lo and behold, my poem was accepted and published in an expensive little volume. Unaware that the vast majority of submitters were also published, I was ecstatic and excited by the possibilities of publishing, if all you had to do was email someone your poem. I did a lot of research on literary journals and competitions that year, particularly on those that were focused on young writers, and wrote and submitted almost daily. What’s weird about my entrance into the literary world is that I was never too disappointed or stressed out by my frequent rejections from journals—the occasional acceptance was enough to brighten my mood for weeks.
As far as my expectations went, I never really had any to begin with because I was barely aware of the online literary world’s existence. There are few local poetry-related events, journals, and contests where I live, and I attend a STEM-focused school, so it wasn’t often that I would happen upon poetry in the real world in the first place. This is one reason why I found writing to be such an isolating activity after a while—I didn’t really have friends as interested as I was in the literary world, real or online. Besides, it was hard to talk to people that I idolized and occasionally envied, especially so if they were well-known and talented. I was more or less without a community until I attended an online mentorship program, and while it was so wonderful getting to know them, the problem is that someone had to approve of my work, and that really shouldn’t be the case.
Other than the lack of community, I’d say that I didn’t expect there to be a highly competitive environment for awards and similar honours among writers, although I guess I should’ve. Like other teenagers, I’m familiar with the pressure to be successful early in life, with success being measured in a way that lets big organizations judge your art and decide its worth. It’s how the system is, and it’s pretty toxic. I know that it’s hard to take me seriously when I say that because, having won a couple of awards, I’ve benefited from this system, but even before that, writing competitions were always the one thing I stressed about in the literary world. In fact, they still are. It would be easy to pretend that I was always confident in my work and didn’t care for such gatekeepers, but for years I was famished for specifically this type of validation.
I also think the literary world has failed my unconscious expectation that it would fuel me as a poet because I’ve gotten to the point, multiple times, where I was writing to produce, to submit, and to win, even. The quality of my work suffered, writing ceased to an effective emotional outlet, and I experienced burnout, all of which I know sounds very dramatic, but was actually awful. It was really what everybody’s afraid of—becoming a robot, or a slave to the industry. A while after each period of fallout, I would try to rebuild my love for poetry. Friends would give me a pep talk, and I would write because I love to, without a deadline or even a result in mind. I would intentionally not submit anywhere for a few months, with one or two exceptions. This is what I focused on this summer, actually.
“Write for yourself.”
This issue—writing for external validation—is an important one in the writing community, so I very much appreciate your willingness to speak out about it. What has your summer writing experience been like—how does it feel to rediscover your love for poetry? Do you have any advice for emerging writers who wish to avoid burnout?
The process of returning to writing began very slowly, partially due to some additional school-related burnout. I was so lethargic, I didn’t even feel like reading! I was determined to rise out this grave though, so my first mission was to read the second half of Louise Glück’s Poems: 1962-2012, which is huge, by the way. I chose Glück’s work as a re-entry point into poetry because I’ve always loved her writing, and I thought that the simplistic language she uses could be helpful in re-circuiting my poetry brain. I was also free writing everyday without any expectations regarding the outcomes of my work, so it was a few weeks before I could complete a poem, which was a feat that I was proud of despite my disappointment in the actual work. My writing struggled until the end of August, when my poems finally reached their previous quality.
Emotionally, this journey was hard. It’s really not fun to be dissatisfied with your work for weeks on end when you know you’ve written better whilst still feeling the urge to submit the same work. Free writing helped me organize my thoughts throughout this process though, and made me feel better about my growth. In general, it was really wonderful to rediscover my love for writing. It was like a candle inside me had been lit again, making me happier, refreshed, and positive. I just hope that candle doesn’t burn to the ground any time soon, haha.
I can’t give the best advice about this topic because I’ve fallen for the same pitfall twice, but this is also how I’m going to approach writing from here on out:
1. Be prepared for submission periods! Organize the competitions and literary journals that you want to submit to by dividing up their deadlines by season. I do this in folders on my laptop. The goal here is to try to make more time for writing the season before the season in which there is an onslaught of deadlines. That way, you don’t feel the need to rush and write something you don’t like the night before submissions close.
2. Write for yourself. This is pretty straightforward. Write about topics in your comfort zone and those that are about ten miles from it. Remember, not everything has to be published. It will feel weird sometimes to work hard on something and then not show it off to the public, but that feeling that you need to be constantly productive to be worth something is particularly dangerous for artists and writers. One way I’ve tried to avoid it is by not making goals for the number of times I want to submit each month, and it helps.
3. If the competition or literary journal has a theme, first look at your past poems and free writes to see if it already includes that theme. If not, use the theme as a prompt or an idea that can be referred to before each writing session, just to see if it can spark or further shape a poem. Don’t force yourself to complete a poem about it.
4. You’ll have more opportunities to follow the previous step if you schedule time for writing, especially if you’re busy. For example, I’ve started only writing on weekends because I mostly only have time for schoolwork and extracurriculars the rest of the week. This is to make sure I don’t keep putting it off during the week then feel bad about it, and don’t feel the need to produce more work to make up for it.
“it is through the truth that we understand ourselves”
What do you love about Louise Glück’s poetry? What other writers or creators have inspired you, and why?
Louise Glück was actually one of the first poets I read when I was really getting into poetry a few years ago. I wasn’t very good at interpreting poems at that time, so it was quite a relief when I stumbled upon her work on the Poetry Foundation’s website and finally found something I could understand! I appreciated and still do appreciate how accessible her language is and how her style isn’t very distracting. Although I now love experimental poems because they test me as a reader and push me to try new things in my own work, I still find myself returning to her work due to personal nostalgia and the quality of her work.
I’m continually editing the extensive list of my favourite poets and poems on my blog, and the other longer list of poets whose published works I’ve yet to explore. The prior is mostly for my own use but is also open to anyone else who wants to check it out. To spotlight a couple of poets, I especially admire Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asghar, Safia Elhillo, and Adam Hamze for not only having incredible work but also for having written about being Muslim in America. It’s hard for me to do the same, so it’s encouraging to see established poets write about such shared experiences. Other phenomenal poets and writers that have undoubtedly influenced my writing are Hala Alyan, Ocean Vuong, Averill Curdy, Jess Rizkallah, Hafizah Geter, Nicole Rollender, Cecilia Llompart, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Joshua Bennett, and Kristin Chang among many, many others. I’m particularly attracted to the strong, precise vocabularies and literary devices these poets utilize in their work and personally hope to reach that level someday.
As for artists, it is not often that art influences my work but Kameelah Janan Rasheed and Jenny Holzer’s bold, politically frank displays inspire me to say what I mean in my poems.
It’s heartening and exciting for me, as the daughter of an Iranian immigrant, to see the wealth of new poetic talent coming out of the various Middle Eastern, Southern Asian, and Muslim communities here in the West. Looking forwards, how would you like to contribute to this burgeoning wave of poetry?
If anything, I’d like my existence as a poet and a veiled Muslim Pakistani-American to mean something to girls like me who are interested in creative writing. Although there plenty of incredible Muslim poets, there aren’t many that look like me, and representation matters!! If I had stumbled upon more established living poets that I could relate to and potentially reach out to, I would have been so much more comfortable in the literary world—and that could have been critical to my growth as a poet. So before I consider poetry, I want to contribute to the Western wave of desi poets just as someone who has made a space for herself in the literary world.
The obvious solution to this lack of content that I want to see is to make it myself, but as I mentioned before, it’s hard for me to write specifically about being Muslim and/or desi, so I guess I’m part of the problem, haha. I can manage dropping Easter eggs of culture and religion into my poems, which is enjoyable and safe for me and beneficial for others, but in general, I just don’t know what to say about these subjects! South-Asian communities also really value privacy and respect, so that must be part of where my reluctance to share my experiences comes from. I’ll advise emerging poets to break through stigma and to have meaningful conversations about difficult topics in their work when I’m doing the same in the future, but for now, it would be a little hypocritical for me to do so. I do applaud the poets who are doing it with ease, however, for their bravery and determination.
I’m hoping to contribute a little more than tidbits soon though, with the religion-oriented project I’m cautiously beginning. The subject matter is very everyday and not very hard to write about—the names of Allah—but I still don’t really know how well it will go, which is also why I don’t want to go too much into detail here. I haven’t given myself a deadline because frankly I would be satisfied with finishing this project at all, even if it takes several years.
Representation is also important behind the scenes. Tell me more about being the editor-in-chief of Sugar Rascals. Your mission statement reads: “We want our readers to witness the work of blossoming, talented teenagers. We want our contributors to expose their voices to the world, and to grow above all else. We want to explore parts of ourselves that we are ashamed or afraid of. We want our imaginations and experiences of day-to-day life to change us for the better. We want you to be true to yourself, and perhaps more importantly, accept yourself for the unique, courageous being you are.” What has it been like for you to shape the journal to fit your vision? Has being an editor changed you as a writer, and if so, how?
Sugar Rascals is still a fledgling mag, so our mission has yet to fully establish itself in our issues, but for the most part it hasn’t been difficult to edit with it in mind because the majority of our submitters send us the kind of work we favour—risky work, specifically. Our issues are places of vulnerability, whether the stories inside are told directly or are depicted through a character. Although so many of us are obstructed by self-doubt and censorship, I always appreciate the effort our submitters put forth to write and illustrate honestly; it is through the truth that we understand ourselves, we heal ourselves and others, we move on, and we become better writers. I’m lucky that other young writers and artists tend to value this too because otherwise, we wouldn’t have a journal.
Any changes I’ve gone through as a writer since I began editing have been subtle but important. For example, I’ve become more objective when editing my own work, whether it is regarding fluency, word choice or cutting out unoriginal ideas or phrases. Although I know the value of peer-editing, becoming more independent as a writer has been more beneficial for me as of late, with everyone occupied with college applications. Being exposed to writing that comes from different experiences and levels of education not only inspires me and gives me hope for the future of poetry, but also reveals the kind of conversations we should be and are having in our communities regarding topics like mental health, body image, and gender identity.
Farah, thanks again for your time! Before you go, what’s the inescapable line, the quotation that’s always burning in your mind?
A line that I probably have tattooed on my heart by now is “my people I follow you like constellations” from Fatimah Asghar’s poem, “If They Should Come for Us”, which was published in the March 2017 issue of Poetry Magazine.
Farah Ghafoor is editor-in-chief at Sugar Rascals and has had poems published in Ninth Letter, alien mouth, and Big Lucks among other places. Her work has been nominated for Best New Poets and Best of the Net, and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Hollins University, the Keats-Shelly Memorial Association, the League of Canadian Poets, and Columbia College Chicago. She believes that she deserves a cat.
About the interviewer: Amee Nassrene Broumand is an Iranian-American writer. Her poetry can be found in Word Riot, Sundog Lit, A-Minor Magazine, Rivet, Windfall, & elsewhere. An avid photographer, she currently she lives in Portland, Oregon & blogs for Burning House Press. Follow her on Twitter @AmeeBroumand.