12th century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi created an iconic, seemingly indestructible work when he birthed the tale of Layla and Manjun. Over the years, the re-telling of the classic story has become a literary staple.
In his debut collection Accretion (Brick Books), Toronto poet Irfan Ali views the saga through the lens of an immigrant family stuck between their traditions and their future. Taking place amid the apartment buildings, crowded sidewalks, and hip hop culture of his hometown, Ali explores the struggle to retain the self as well as the complications of human bonds, leading us on through a journey through the past toward a profound and ultimate acceptance.
We're thrilled to have Irfan at Open Book today, where he discusses the epiphany that inspired his new book, how he learned to let a poem "breathe", and the cost of poetry's emotional labour.
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
Rumi’s “The Guest House.” I know that seems like a corny answer given how frequently that poem pops up on yoga studio Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards with titles like “Live, Laugh, Love.” But I do think there’s a good reason why it continues to be so popular, even 750 years after it was written. I can’t think of another piece that so succinctly accomplishes what I feel is the primary function of poetry: to illuminate our shared internal lives just as science does for the world outside.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Depression. And, just to be clear, I don’t mean that in an angsty, teenage way. Accretion is an almost direct retelling of my most recent (and, inshaAllah, final) suicidal episode, only told in poem and with a few tweaks to smooth out the narrative. The real episode catalyzed an epiphany so life-changing that I can recall the moment it struck almost to the exact minute: between 5:20 and 5:25pm on Monday April 13, 2015. I knew at that moment that my first book had to tell that story and finished the first draft in a manic eight-day span during which I felt possessed at times. Unfortunately, despite all the mystic fervour that fueled the writing, it was initially, as all first drafts are, a pile of garbage.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
My mom can attest that I've always been as keen on math and science as I have art and literature. That dual-pronged passion largely shaped my poetic explorations: the latter helped me figure out what questions I wanted to investigate in my work and the former gave me a structure through which to carry out these investigations. It's also resulted in a similar rigidity in nearly every other part of my life. In my day-to-day, that’s meant routine and a level of organizational intensity that makes most of Marie Kondo’s tidying up strategies redundant. In my poetry, it translates to a constant search for a larger skeleton to affix individual pieces to. Sometimes that comes easily, as with Accretion, where the overall structure made itself known before the writing began. Other times, it’s far more of a struggle. I’m usually a bit miffed when a poem decides it wants to stand by itself.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
Let it breathe. One of the most valuable insights arising from the epiphany that inspired Accretion was how much I’m at the mercy of forces beyond my control. This lack of agency is a recurring theme I’d seen many times before in Sufi and Buddhist writings, but could only ever understand in a sterile way, divorced from reality. Learning to actually implement it was transformative, especially to my practice. After all, writing is a near perfect microcosm of the human struggle for control against infinite potential sources of disruption.
Releasing myself from the immediate need to finish a problem poem has been such a powerful tactic. Often, that surrender (when it’s legitimate and not performative) is enough to coax the remainder of the piece out of the ether. Even when it isn’t, the anxiety averted by deferring to the whims of the poem itself can be its own reward.
What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
Most definitely the way it ends. I like to think of a poem as a transmission medium for larger universal truths. Unfortunately, given the narrow bandwidth of human memory and attention, I’m not sure we’re capable of taking away more than what’s coded into the final moments of a piece. I don’t think that’s a problem unique to poetry either; most of us can probably recall a lot more movie endings than we can openings. I might be biased, though. Colleagues have always told me that my endings—whether they be of poems, stories, or essays—are my strength, so maybe I’m just praising what I know I do best.
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
To write poetry well, I believe we have to access a special part of our beings right at the border between intellect and emotion, language and instinct, and fact and belief. Given our society’s obsession with productivity, I don’t think most people are able to justify the investment of time and energy needed to arrive at that place; even though it’s precisely where we find our most powerful and transformative truths. The best part of being a poet is feeling like you have the license to do that requisite emotional work.
The worst part, though, is the cost of that process. Accessing that part of ourselves means committing to a great deal of honesty, vulnerability, self-reflection, and the sacrifice of our “productive” capacity. As poets, we often like to pretend like we’re always up to that task, that we’re immune to the pressures of capitalism and narcissism. But that’s simply not true. In fact, we may be particularly susceptible to the latter.
Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.