So Is Yours: Nazifa Islam

My novel, My Grandfather's an Immigrant, and So Is Yours will be out Tuesday, September 14, and the pre-sale is going on now! To commemorate the book's release, I'm sharing the "So Is Yours" interview series in which I share insights from other authors about their creative work as well as the role of family in their own stories.

Nazifa Islam is the author of the poetry collections Searching for a Pulse (Whitepoint Press, 2013) and Forlorn Light: Virginia Woolf Found Poems (Shearsman Books, 2021). Her poems and paintings have appeared in publications including Boston Review, Blue Mesa Review, Gulf Coast, Entropy, The Believer, and Beloit Poetry Journal. Nazifa earned her BA in English at the University of Michigan and her MFA at Oregon State University. She lives in Michigan, and you can find her on Twitter @nafoopal.

MICHAEL CHIN: You and I first met through the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University—though our respective tenures as students just missed each other. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about how your experience with this program impacted your writing and your creative life to follow? There’s also an ongoing conversation in the literary community about the value of the MFA, and I’m curious as to what you think about it coming out of your own experience?

NAZIFA ISLAM: Well first off, I have nothing but good things to say about Oregon State’s MFA program. I think the professors are incredibly talented writers who are also thoughtful, compassionate human beings who really care about the welfare of their students. I felt fully supported my entire time in the program—and that’s largely because of Karen Holmberg, Jennifer Richter, and Susan Jackson Rodgers. I had multiple classes with each of them during my two years as a grad student.

I think the goal of an MFA is to improve your writing—just to put it in the simplest terms possible—and I believe that my two years at Oregon State undoubtedly developed my skills as a writer. I was given two years where my main focus was on improving my work. That’s a real luxury and something that doesn’t really happen outside of an MFA program. I still write quite a bit today, but now it’s in the hours after my full day at work or on weekends when I often find myself just wanting to read or watch TV as opposed to spending hours writing and rewriting a poem. MFA programs allow writers to accelerate their own growth. When I look back on my MFA application portfolio, all I see are the many many many flaws. Recognizing that what I once thought of as my best work is in reality far from what I’m capable of accomplishing is possible because I went through the MFA program. The program raised the bar for me when it comes to “good” vs “bad” (or even just “mediocre”) writing. I’m a better writer because of my time at Oregon State. I do think I’d still be a writer without the degree, but I don’t think I’d be as good of one. So I do see MFA programs as valuable. Are they necessary in order to become a better writer? No, I don’t think so. But do they help writers become better and more disciplined when it comes to how they approach their craft? Yes, definitely.

MICHAEL CHIN:You’ve published pretty prolifically from your Virginia Woolf found poems, a collection of which came out in book form this August from Shearsman Books, titled Forlorn Light. Congratulations on all of the success of this project! I’ve seen you write elsewhere a bit about your process and the rules you set for yourself—including excavating poems from paragraphs of The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway and not allowing yourself to add any words or change tenses. I’d love to read a bit about how you started this project? If you were to refer readers to one or two specific poems that feel most representative of the project or most personally satisfying to you, which ones might you suggest?

NAZIFA ISLAM: My friend Phillip Watts Brown, a poet from my grad school cohort, introduced me to found poems back in 2013. He came up with a writing prompt that asked you to write a poem using only the words from select Amazon product reviews. I found that I really enjoyed this writing exercise and that I was pretty happy with the poem I managed to come up with. I think the restrictions of found poems really spur creativity, which might seem counterintuitive; instead of having limitless options for a poem, which can feel really overwhelming or daunting as a writer, found poems can only develop along certain specific parameters. Having those parameters actually makes the writing process easier for me—the paragraph gives me a starting point that I vastly prefer to a blank page. Virginia Woolf’s work explores themes that I’m naturally inclined towards—themes I was writing about before I ever started working on found poems—so her work felt like a natural fit as I started intentionally focusing on found poetry.

“Brim and Break” is a Woolf found poem I found very satisfying to write. The paragraph I used to write it is only 80 words long, so it felt like a real accomplishment to extract a fully fledged poem from it.

“Phantom Weight” is the first Woolf found poem I ever wrote. When I finished it, I felt certain that it was better than anything I’d ever written before. It really surprised me and opened my eyes to the possibility that Virginia Woolf found poems could become a long-term writing project.

MICHAEL CHIN: I love the idea of your work with Woolf as a way of collaborating with—perhaps even communicating with—an author who was important to you, starting with her words and articulating your own ideas and experiences through them. I wondered if you could speak to how the project may have affected your readerly relationship with Woolf—how you think about or understand her narratives or even her syntax? I saw on your website that you are also working with Sylvia Plath’s words, and I’m curious how the process or experience might feel different in this case?

NAZIFA ISLAM: Writing Woolf found poems has vastly increased my understanding of and admiration for her work. She writes beautiful, unexpected sentences and paragraphs and whole novels that make me feel absolutely inadequate as a writer. What she manages to accomplish is far beyond my skills as a poet. Writing found poems meant spending an intimate and extended period of time with her writing. I got to be blown away again and again as I picked paragraphs to turn into found poems. I found myself wondering “How did she do that?” as she gracefully transitions scenes in Mrs. Dalloway or captures the internal chaos of the human mind in The Waves. I’ve loved Woolf’s work since high school, but the last seven years of writing Woolf found poems has made me feel intertwined with her language and thought process. She’s always teaching me something new about what is possible in literature while giving a voice to the bipolar experience that I can only poorly mimic in my found poems.

Sylvia Plath was writing with vastly different intentions than Virginia Woolf. Paragraphs in Woolf’s novels have internal cohesion—they can stand on their own because they’re expressing one key moment in time or one precise feeling. That cohesion translates to cohesive found poems. Woolf’s paragraphs are really suited to the found poem process because they’re clearly striving to get across a singular idea.

I’ve been largely pulling paragraphs from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath for my Plath found poems. These are journal entries. They are about moments in time but not really written for an audience. While my Woolf found poems are about expressing the bipolar experience, my Plath found poems have a much murkier agenda. I comb through paragraphs without any preconception regarding what the final poem will be about. The bipolar experience is alive and well in Plath’s journals, but that experience is not all that she’s focused on. The scope of my Plath found poems feels very different than that of my Woolf found poems. I’ve been more surprised with the poems I’ve managed to piece together using a Plath paragraph than I have been by my Woolf found poems. Writing Plath found poems has forced me to step away at times from focusing on bipolar disorder. Plath is writing about falling in love and going on dates and her ambitions, so of course found poems from her journals will not be stamped with “bipolar disorder” in the way my Woolf poems are. The Plath poems are undoubtedly harder to write, and I don’t feel as connected to them as I do to my Woolf poems.

MICHAEL CHIN: I’m impressed with your capacity for reading; I get the impression you’re someone who simply devours texts. I hope you don’t mind me resorting to a “stat line” to support my claim, but according to Goodreads, in 2020 you read 163 books, totaling 52,413 pages. While I consider myself a reasonably prolific reader, these are numbers I can only aspire to! I’d love to hear a little bit about the interaction between your reading and your writing, and perhaps the role reading has played in your life.

NAZIFA ISLAM: I read for two main reasons: pleasure and research. I enjoy page turners, whimsical or fantastic settings and characters, the ability to immerse myself in another world and subsequently take a break from real life. I’m also always paying close attention to the writing itself when I read. Writers have existed for far longer than MFA programs. If you want to learn how to write better, you should read more and see what you can learn from whatever book you’re currently on. There are gems in almost every book. I started keeping a list of quotes from books—sentences that strike me as lovely or effective in some way—over ten years ago. Each quote is something to aspire to as a writer. I read because I enjoy it and I read because I know doing so makes me a better writer. When you read, you learn something. It’s as simple as that.

MICHAEL CHIN: In addition to being a poet, you’re a visual artist as well. I’m curious if you find these different modes of creative expression inform or enhance one another, or rather if they feel like totally separate enterprises for you? Are there certain factors that dictate whether you’re more inclined to write or paint?

NAZIFA ISLAM: Sometimes I’m in the mood to paint—to do something creative that’s much more tactile and takes physical energy—and sometimes I’m in the mood to write and attempt to capture a thought or idea or feeling through language. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I find myself in one mood vs. the other though. It’s always felt a bit random to me.

I don’t think of painting and writing as particularly related even if there are some levels of overlap between the two. I do think my end goal for both kinds of art is the same: I’m trying to organize chaos—many different variables—into something cohesive. With paintings it’s about arranging color while poems—especially found poems—are about thoughtfully arranging language. I’m striving for harmony in both cases, a final product—painting or poem—that feels whole and balanced. I even consider line breaks in poems for both enjambment and for the overall aesthetic of the poem; the poem has to visually look right on the page before I consider it done.

MICHAEL CHIN: My new book is called My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours and as a tie in to that project, I’m asking other authors about their relationships with family. I’d like to start with grandparents—what kind of relationship you had with yours and how that may have influenced you as a person, or even as a writer? I’d be interested to hear about ways in which other family (be it biological, adoptive, chosen, etc.) may have impacted your identity and your work as well.

NAZIFA ISLAM: I’ve had very limited interactions with my grandparents. Three of them passed away before I even finished middle school unfortunately. And they all lived in Bangladesh while I grew up in Michigan so we didn’t really get to spend a lot of time together. My parents, as immigrants who worked really hard to give their kids more opportunities in the US, weren’t initially thrilled with my choice to dive into creative writing in a serious way. They were concerned about the financial realities of being a writer, which I don’t blame them for at all. As I started publishing more over the last decade, they came around to the idea that maybe being a writer wasn’t such a poor choice. Now my mom’s always thrilled to hear that I have a new poem coming out or that I’ll be participating in a reading. It took a little time, but she’s very much onboard now. I’d like to think my dad would be too if he was still alive. I will note that I also have an 8-5 office job and don’t at all rely on my writing for income.

I have many fond memories of my dad taking me and my sisters to the library and Borders to pick out books. Going to the bookstore was a regular part of my childhood. My dad loved to read and he passed that down to all of his kids. So if I ended up with the writing bug, I think I can at least in part blame that on him.

I tend to write about the experience of having bipolar disorder—how my diagnosis is the lens through which I experience the world. Mental illness isn’t really a topic easily discussed in South Asian communities. Not feeling comfortable talking to my family about my mental health—at least initially, we’ve made some good strides in the last few years—definitely impacted my choices as a poet. Poetry became a way to articulate all the things I didn’t feel I could say out loud.


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