One possible story of Rasha and AJ is that they met when Rasha submitted a clutch of poems to Strange Horizons in 2018. AJ chose one of Rasha’s poems to publish, but the poem ended up being published under Romie’s shift so they didn’t talk much more after that! This year, Rasha joined Strange Horizons as a fiction editor (even though they spend most of their days on poetry right now) but has been very curious about the goings-on in the poetry division. When we got a chance to have conversations with other Strange Horizons staff, Rasha asked AJ to dance, and below you may read the next chapter of this story.
AJ Odasso: I’m going to start with “Your Oysters,” mostly because, aside from the piece of yours I published in Strange Horizons, it captured my attention first. It’s the final two lines that really did it (“a spasm of hunger open to the current, / a hinged house that anchors the shoreline to itself”), the first time I read through it—made me go back to the beginning and reread the entirety right away.
Rasha Abdulhadi: I’m still at the place in my writing life where it’s a small miracle to me that anyone reads my poems, much less has thoughts and feelings and questions about them, so this is already such a treat! My poems are honored by your thoughtful inquiry and attention. I was pleasantly surprised when you chose “Your Oysters.”
AO: The metaphor of beautiful things often having a less-than-pleasant core is definitely at the forefront, but there are subtleties to certain lines that make me think about them almost in isolation from the piece as a whole. I’d really just love to hear about what you were thinking when you wrote this, and what circumstances led to it.
RA: I tend to think of it as one of my “lighter” poems, but yeah, beauty is probably always endangered and embattled in my writing. Where it came from: as a young overachiever, I remember a high-school guidance counselor telling me that the world was my oyster. After I’d left her office having gotten absolutely no help whatsoever. I feel like so many folks have looked at me in different eras of my life with a hunger for the achievements they long for through me. And I’m a scientist at my core—it’s so early in my training, and I think about the reality of things that are used as blithe metaphors. What I know about that metaphor is that the counselor wasn’t getting sparkly-eyed about oysters: she was coveting pearls. And pearls are not produced for beauty or mating shows or for anything other than protecting the tender oyster body against a tiny irritant that can’t be expelled. So beauty comes from pain, the attempt to protect the self. I think a lot of queer and trans folks, and other folks who feel stranded on the shores of family or other conditions, know something about that move of attempted self-rescue. What I also know about oysters, not internally but in their function in the wider ecosystem, is that they help reduce shoreline erosion in some conditions. And that’s the kind of survival I long for, to be an anchor for everything around me. Not closed around pain, not producing something to be coveted and sold, but open and anchored and in relationship. That’s the story of that little poem which I usually read for laughs in the middle of the war poems before the last two lines. I’m curious what else comes to you through the poem, though, because what I mean is just the departure point and not by any means the limit of what the poem knows or can do in collaboration with a reader. What struck you about this funny little poem in particular?
AO: I actually don’t find it funny at all! The gravitas of it, at least to my perception, is what struck me the most. That, and I’m an inveterate beachcomber, but ... I felt the impact of the expectation that’s put on those of us in marginalized communities, or in multiple, to make something beautiful of our pain. Most of the time, I just flat-out refuse to let beauty be my first consideration when I’m writing poetry about the things I’ve been through. The sound of the language might be beautiful, but I’m aware that I’m daring people to look at hardships, or even agony, and not flinch. So, I think ... poems about hardship that turn expectations about what should be done with hardship always impress me. I was curious if the “anchor[ing] the shoreline to itself” bit was a reference to the erosion prevention function! I remember reading about that in an article and thinking, wow, cool. We hold our communities together whether we realize that’s what we’re doing or not.
RA: Yes, exactly! And that is the precarious, maybe even undocumented, beauty I long for. No pearls to show for it, but delicious. Maybe: it’s also about how messy it is to find beauty, how unpleasant it can be if beauty’s what you’re insisting on looking for, in making art or making work or making life. Hmm, let me not over-dissect this butterfly, but there’s maybe a lot about what I think about life in this poem. You took a sharp knife-point to it!
AO: It feels like a survival poem, too. So much of the verse I’ve written over time, I’ve written just to survive. People say survival is beautiful, but I can’t necessarily say I believe that about survival all the time, either. I truly appreciate art that’s realistic about things like this. It’s not comfortable art, but it’s true art. I don’t like art to make me comfortable, really, at least not most of the time. I don’t want it to sound like I look for suffering in everything, but I look for meaning in suffering. Making art about suffering and survival is about finding meaning, or imparting it. This poem isn’t depressing to me, though. Far from it. I enjoy art that reminds me life is only meaningless if we don’t make our own meaning.
RA: It absolutely is a survival poem. And I, too, absolutely read and wrote poetry as a young person to keep myself alive. Starting at the age of eight! I work with young people who say that poetry has saved their lives, and though it sounds like something we’d tell to funders as a sales pitch, it’s much deeper than that. I used to keep a tiny-font copy of “Life is Fine” by Langston Hughes in my wallet in high school. It became my litany for staying alive. I didn’t tell anyone about this practice until I was much older and the poem had already passed from my wallet to my memory.
AO: When I teach poetry units in writing classes, that’s one of Hughes’s poems that I almost always use! It’s such a fantastic piece. I know “The Weary Blues” is probably on every reading list out there, but students respond incredibly well, incredibly thoughtfully, to that one, too. Also: “Let America Be America Again.”
RA: Yes! “It never was America to me.” A very good antidote to some poisonous contemporary slogans. Hughes has been actively sanitized in textbooks, but his catalogue is so rich, including his very radical communist writings!
AO: It’s a pity that’s been done to his communist writings. I like giving students Emma Goldman excerpts, too, on that note—but that’s not poetry, and I’m getting off on a tangent. Although, no, that’s not true; Goldman’s prose is remarkably poetic. I really regret not being able to read it in anything but translation, at least the pieces not first written in English. Hughes is a writer whose works always take up more than one class session, and that’s as it should be.
RA: Before we move on, let me recommend that Hughes’s “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943” is a very timely poem. “Looky here, America / What you done done— / Let things drift / Until the riots come.”
AO: I feel like all of Hughes’s work is timely. Go read Hughes, everyone reading this, please. Preferably everything he’s ever written. Time beyond well spent.
RA: Here is the point where I feel responsible to offer some queer troubling, though, right? I also give honor to Zora Neale Hurston (herself a very complex figure, whew!) who was really not treated well by Langston Hughes. All the gender-troubles through history and into the present!
AO: Absolutely, it’s imperative to include discussion of Zora Neale Hurston in a discussion of Hughes. Gender trouble is something present in our discussion already to begin with, so I feel like ALL THE INTERSECTIONALITY is warranted. Or at least as much intersectionality as we can fit! How has the work of Black poets influenced your work as a poet?
RA: I owe a great debt to Black poets, and really, we all do. For me, the words of Hughes, Cullen, Giovanni, Amiri Baraka found me as a little brown kid, with a name no one could pronounce, who didn’t yet know their dad was Palestinian but who definitely needed some extra support figuring out how to be a person in the deep South. The expressive, theoretical, and historical work of Black writers and mentors (past and contemporary) still very much guides me, even as I reconnect to my own lineages and senses of indigeneity.
AO: We do, and I’d add to Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, on my list, a Black British poet named Patience Agbabi. Her work has had such influence on what I’ve produced since about ... let me think, when did I first encounter her work while I was living in the UK, probably 2008? We owe Black poets a debt we can’t repay.
RA: I would like us to try. I long for material reparations to Black folks for all those debts. I think we are in one of those cycles where we’ll find out how much we can win!
AO: Speaking of debt and reparations, the other poem I wanted to ask you about is “Monsoon on Diné.” I live in the Southwest—New Mexico, specifically—and this poem captures the landscape, as well as the effects of colonialism on it and on the Native peoples to whom this land rightfully belongs, with such evocative clarity. On moving here almost four years ago, I learned more about this region’s struggles from taking a single course on Diné history and culture than I could have learned from an entire, generic Southwest-focused history degree. The viewpoint that matters here is one that you speak to and honor poignantly in “Monsoon.” I’d like to know more about the conversations you had with Brett, whom you thank at the start of the poem, as you must have learned a great deal from him, too.
RA: Where to start? This poem is an unpaid IOU. It feels tender to talk about it from a place of wanting to be in good relation with the folks who offered so much. Brett is a member of the Iowa tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and was visiting our host on Diné nation, Robert Johnson, then a youth leader in food security movements. I was in a national cohort of youth leaders in the food security field(s, literally), organized by the Food Project in Boston, who were visiting to learn about Diné and Hopi nations’ work to reclaim traditional agricultural methods and crops, and through those, to reclaim sovereignty. From visiting Robert and Brett, I learned to have a different relationship with the deserts in my own lineages, to feel safe and well-resourced in the desert, to be angry at anyone who used the desert as a metaphor for a lack or absence. There are a couple of other unpublished poems I wrote during that visit that map these understandings. Those poems would need to be revised carefully before publishing. I feel very responsible not to write about something that is not my part to share, and I’m still not sure if I got it right here. Some non-Diné folks have written about traditional bioecologies and plant medicine of the Southwest using what they’ve learned for free from folks on the reservation, and then those folks haven’t shared that work or that money back with Diné people. This poem is also tucked inside the folds of another poem of mine, “is Palestine,” in the deep pocket of my anger at stolen water across landscapes and indigeneities.
AO: I offer my thanks to Robert and Brett, too, for their generosity to you (and everyone with whom they come in contact, I’m certain). Poets and writers from the Pueblo Nations here in the Southwest are people whose work I’ve attempted to support to the greatest extent I can afford (and that my bookshelf can hold). Desert landscapes are anything but barren.
RA: Indeed! AJ, I’d love to turn to your work—thank you for sharing it so generously with me! I’m curious about The Sting of It as a book—this is your third book-length collection of poetry, yes?
AO: The Sting of It is my third poetry collection, yes, although I’ve lately been questioning where my first two collections stand in comparison length-wise! Lost Books and The Dishonesty of Dreams were published by an independent UK imprint, Flipped Eye, in 2010 and 2014 respectively. Each of those volumes is only 50-60 pages in length, which I guess is the lower end for classification as a collection (what I’m starting to wonder, though, is if they’re actually more like long chapbooks). The Sting of It is my first book with a US imprint, Tolsun Books, and it’s just under one hundred pages ... ninety-six, or something like that. So, as a starting comparison, it’s definitely much longer than the first two!
RA: The line between chapbook and book feels like a place of creative interpretation, and I am of the opinion that you get to count them as you deem fit. Would you talk a bit more about the character of this third collection in the context of the other two you’ve published?
AO: The Sting of It was more consciously crafted as a cohesive volume over a much shorter period of time, the 2015-16 academic year when I was simultaneously pursuing my MFA in Creative Writing and on a teaching fellowship at Boston University. The back half of the book, roughly, is my MFA poetry thesis; it started out with the title Things Being What They Are. The first half of the book, I added after the fact, but those poems are definitely the ones I was writing in the couple years immediately leading up to my MFA. The previous two collections, in contrast, sort of batch together more disparate poems written over 3-4 year periods of time. These books carry thematic similarities across the board—retrieval of lost texts and artifacts, the body as a site of excavation and inscription, anomalies of biology and their intersection with gender identity, and miniature reworkings of/allusions to myths.
RA: Those mythologies definitely peek through into the stories of personal life.
AO: The Sting of It really tightens its focus on the body as a text, a place where illnesses and anomalies are interpreted for better or for worse. It tells a more cohesive story of who I am, who members of my family are, and how the past five years or so have been incredibly challenging at both the level of my personal life and at the level of family life. Mythologies hold it all together.
RA: I appreciate how the speculative becomes so personal in this collection. You have three poems that were published in Strange Horizons before you became editor (or at least were selected for publication). Of those, I was really taken with “The Book of Drowned Things” in particular, which felt like maybe a seed crystal or a thesis statement poem, one that has within it the themes, images, or elements that a whole book or even a whole body of work might wrestle with. And then, when I read The Sting of It, I found this poem nestled between the other two Strange Horizons poems in the book! How does this poem relate to the other two and to the book? Are there things you feel comfortable connecting?
AO: Quite a number of elements in these three poems connect, actually! “The Book of Drowned Things” appeared first, in September 2011, and then “Returning Song” and “Fairy Beekeeper” were published in June 2012 and December 2012, respectively. These poems may be the three oldest poems in the book, as all of them were written in 2011. All three of them were accepted by Strange Horizons well before June 2012, which is when I saw the call for new poetry editors and applied. By all logic, they should have appeared in my 2014 collection, The Dishonesty of Dreams, but they felt somehow “ahead” of the rest of the poems in that book. I felt like maybe I should save them for something better, something more momentous, and The Sting of It turned out to be just that. If nothing else, a poem about a mentor of mine who’s a beekeeper, and who has helped me through some of the hardest years of my life, belongs in a book with the word sting and the silhouette of a bee on the cover! “The Book of Drowned Things” shows the first seeds of disquiet, in my estimation, which makes sense if you consider that it was written right before I left the UK to return to the US. Quite a number of things went wrong for me there, not least of which were a hostile, discriminatory postgraduate academic environment and a (now ex-)spouse beginning to turn abusive. “Returning Song” was written within that same window of growing isolation, with the growing knowledge that my increasingly visible, vocal queerness was the factor to which my abusers were increasingly reacting. Derek Jarman’s films and writings were a comfort to me then, and they still are.
RA: I’d love to talk about some of those other poems that came later. Throughout The Sting of It, there’s a voice that is simultaneously intimate and perhaps prophetic or transcendent at the same time, a voice very grounded in the specificities of life’s wounds and sweetnesses while also speaking from outside of time. I wouldn’t call it quite confessional because of this otherworldly register that speaks to bodies and ecologies, loves and griefs, lineages carried and broken. I am thinking of poems like “What Stays,” “Bone House,” “Fireflies Gone,” and “Treasure.” Can I invite you to talk about either any of these poems and/or how you think about the poetic voice and the register you write in as a poet?
AO: I’m fascinated by the groupings of poems you’ve chosen, likely because some of them aren’t necessarily connections I had yet consciously drawn myself. “What Stays” is definitely a poem about bodies as artifacts and what we might learn about lives and loves on the basis of bones’ positions in a grave. I recall writing that one in response to a news story about two skeletons that had been excavated just outside of Verona, Italy; they’d been dubbed Romeo and Juliet because they were turned toward each other and embracing. I had never seen anything like this before, and I’ve spent quite a lot of my life fascinated by archaeology. I’ve never been that comfortable with looking at human remains, although skeletons seem to be a notable exception to that rule. I feel more at ease with bone than flesh, and that these skeletons expressed more emotion in their positioning than I had experienced in a very long time pushed me to speculate about what their relationship to each other might have been in life. I wanted to imagine what one might say to the other if they could speak, what they might have said to the other while they still could. From there, “Bone House,” “Fireflies Gone,” and “Treasure” definitely dig more into my experience of growing up with the knowledge that I was different somehow, both in body and in orientation. Queerness was certainly present in me from early childhood, when I was far more comfortable identifying with male characters like Ernie from Sesame Street, yet at the same time I took great pleasure in playing with gender ... and the one time of year I could do that was at Halloween. “Fireflies Gone” documents how it blew my mind when my grandmother told me that the old Red Riding Hood costume she’d dressed me in was my dad’s. He’d gone as a girl for Halloween when he was about my age, which at the time was seven or eight. Tomboy that I was, dressing up as Red felt like being in drag, and I delighted in the knowledge that I could present just about any way I wanted. “Bone House” and “Treasure” are more painful than the other examples, if only because one speaks of feeling trapped in a relationship as the walls were closing in, and the other speaks of growing up as one of four AFAB kids in a family of five (my sisters and I have a brother), and how I was both spoken of and treated differently than my three sisters, who are all younger than I am. Sometimes the different treatment resulted in positive things; other times, not so much. I must have been a difficult firstborn to navigate. I suspect that I still am. My health and neurotype have both made it difficult for me to stray too far from particular types of ties and support, which I’m lucky I have even though my family doesn’t always understand my experiences.
RA: There’s one more poem I’m curious about: “Katadesmos,” which feels like a small trans/queer epic. It has a scale to it that moves beyond the page. How did this poem come to be and take the form that it did?
AO: “Katadesmos” is something I’d been waiting to include at least since I wrote it in early 2014. The Dishonesty of Dreams had gone to print just before I wrote this one. I’m playing with the concept of katadesmos, those curse tablets found all throughout the ancient world. This poem is, in fact, one of those, or as close as I can get in a modern context. I had grievances to air against someone who mistreated me and a handful of my friends, and at the community level, that mistreatment had terrible repercussions. I can be vengeful, and I don’t think I hide that fact. I’m patient, but only up to a point, and the fastest way to incite my wrath is to wrong people close to me. Writing that mini-sequence was cathartic, but it’s notable that the instigator just ... vanished, dropped off our virtual radar, not long after I completed the piece. I spent a few weeks on it, which is unusual for me; I write prose quickly, but verse even quicker.
RA: I’m curious what role, if any, queer or trans experience had in composing this ritual curse?
AO: What my friends and I had in common in that situation was certainly queerness (neurodivergence most notably, but several of us are trans and nonbinary in addition). Being a shapeshifter from childhood onward felt like it came in handy, if only because I played difficult to pin down in some of the social interactions. I also served as the central point of contact for others who’d experienced similar, and once we knew how many of us there were ... yes, as the poem suggests, that tower fell. I can’t help but feel this poem resonates in our present circumstances, as we see so many people banding together to say: enough is enough. The poetry world’s response to Black Lives Matter has also, out of necessity, become a response to the Poetry Foundation’s inadequate stance and long history of unethical treatment of BIPOC. We are stronger together than apart. Hopefully we can tear down this tower, too, and then rebuild it.