Monday, April 22, 2019

TBR: A Constellation of Half-Lives by Seema Reza

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?

This project began as a series of second-person poems addressing an imagined (though not quite fictional) woman named Khadija, a mother living directly in the path of the Global War on Terror. There are letters to other American civilians, to my sons, to veterans, to my sisters and mother, to people I have hurt and to people who have hurt me. It’s about looking closely and searching what I’ve called “other” for my own reflection.

Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?

The poem I most enjoyed writing (which incidentally might also be the one that gave me the most trouble) was “Reckoning with Impermanence,” a not-quite-crown of sonnets. In 2016 I took a road trip up the coast of California with my then sixteen-year-old son, and was confronted with how tremendous experiences of beauty are also terribly sad. You want to enjoy them, but the whole time you know they are going to end and that gets in the way. But if you didn’t know they were going to end, you wouldn’t appreciate them. I’d been turning this over in my head, but when I took a Split This Rock poetry master class facilitated by poet Danez Smith, I found the space to grapple with this big question, to just ask and ask and ask it. It was terribly difficult to write, but it also helped me understand some things, to make a little more accepting of impermanence.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The collection was one of the winners of the Write Bloody Publishing 2017 manuscript competition, which went in stages—submit 5 poems, wait. Make it to the second round and submit 20 poems. I toiled on that twenty, turned off as much of my life as possible to just write and rewrite, then submitted the set and waited again. The Friday they were supposed to announce the winners I didn’t receive an email so I assumed I’d lost. I went to bed and woke several times with my heart literally hurting—I’d wanted it so badly, I’d worked so hard, I’d felt like the work was so strong. The next morning I dusted myself off and wrote a long reflective piece in my journal about how I got some good poems out of the process and that was the purpose of the entire exercise. I genuinely made peace with it. Then I got an email saying something to the effect of, “We’re sure you know by now that your manuscript was selected…” They’d announced through a video posted to social media, which I hadn’t watched because it was too sad that I hadn’t received an email. What an idiot! So that was the low and the high. Because by the time I realized the book was selected, I had genuinely come to terms with the idea that all that writing and revising I’d done had been for the sake of my own craft, so publication became this gift untethered from the effort.

How did you find the title of this book?

The title of the book is from a poem called “Quartering” and in that poem, the image is a reference to depleted uranium particles in a soldier’s body, the full line is “try not to see the glowing particles of depleted uranium/turning his body into a constellation of half-lives.” As the title it comes to refer to the constellation of lives the poems in the collection attempt to inhabit.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I once heard Brendan Constantine, who is one of the most scholarly, gifted poetry teachers I’ve ever witnessed, say “A poem is best viewed through the lens of its last line.” My drafts are always a few lines past that point, and I return to that bit of advice in editing and cut back to the image I want the reader to look back at the piece through. It’s been such helpful, practical advice, and I pass it along every chance I get.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

To seek surprise is good advice—I’ve found that if I’m traversing familiar ground in my writing, I’m probably not taking any risks or writing anything interesting. In this collection, which I thought was about the role of the civilian in war, and about my experience of motherhood. But I also discovered how much I needed to write about being a daughter, and about the taboo and dangerous experience of female solitude.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Here’s a recipe! it’s actually from When the World Breaks Open, which is my first book. But I swear it’s so delicious. “Chicken Soup”:



READ TWO POEMS, “I Can’t Sleep” & “Muslim Community Center”:


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.