10 Questions for Raena Shirali
- By Abby MacGregor
Up here, you’re just flecks
in the emerald. Which I’d never say
to hurt you. I’m saying a hundred bodies
running through a field chasing one
wind-whipped mustard sari—
—from “the mountains speak to the village”, Winter 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
One of the oldest poems in GILT, “The Downing,” comes from an undergraduate poetry course I took with the extraordinary poet and educator Emily Rosko. One of poem’s craft approaches is anaphora, a tool I’m particularly fond of for its facilitation of accumulation and unraveling. Initially, the piece was not fully committed to its repetitions (I think I used “the way” a few times, but had not leaned in fully yet), and I have Emily’s keen eye and mentorship to thank for recognizing and fostering my penchant for repetition, accumulation, and breathlessness so early in my poetry career.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Recently: Jennifer Chang, Ada Limon, Jericho Brown, Tarfia Faizullah, Alina Pleskova, Bianca Stone. Historically: Anne Sexton, Lynda Hull, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked as a hostess, a barista, a manager at a jewelry store, and a reading specialist doing literacy outreach work in public schools. Right now I’m back in the adjunct pool in Philadelphia, teaching composition and communications.
What did you want to be when you were young?
An archaeologist who discovered things buried, fragile, needing dusting.
What inspired you to write this piece?
“the mountains speak to the village” is a persona piece, wherein the speaker is a mountain range surrounding Jharkhand—one of the few locations in Northeast India where witch hunting is an ongoing practice, and claims the lives of hundreds of women and a few elderly men annually. My current project is an engagement with a variety of personae born of my research into the politics of accusation and the economic instability surrounding instances of witch hunting. The mountains are one of my favorite personae to enter, and really also marked a moment of liberation for me in writing these poems, because they speak from an almost omniscient perspective, and they care as much about any one human as they care about the next (even if their level of caring can’t be measured). They’ve also been around for longer than humans have, so they have seen our cultural mythologies—how they’ve shaped our fears—and how haphazard we can be with our own humanity.
I think there’s also a sense of longing in this particular poem; the mountains envy being alive. They see the spectacle of violence and can’t comprehend wasting one’s time on earth that way. That’s a feeling I have a hard time articulating when I’m speaking in the first person, because it doesn’t quite take into consideration all the nuances of the research I’ve read. But it makes sense as a mountain’s approach. Or, at least, it could. Who knows what the mountains really think.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Definitely; Jharkhand, though I have never visited that particular region in India, is a huge influence for this project. But so, too, are parts of India I have visited extensively—because they ground the work imagistically and texturally. And Philadelphia (where I live now) is a key player in the book, too; thinking about my own agency as an author, especially as it relates to my dipping into and out of place & persona, is something I do on the page quite a bit these days.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I need silence to write. That wasn’t necessarily true for my first book, but is definitely true now. All I have in front of me these days is my notes on anthropological research.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I generally like to write on airplanes, so I try to attend residencies or travel alone as often as possible. A revision ritual I have is to pull up all the poems I’m unhappy with at one time, on my screen, and toggle between them, measuring and considering their shortcomings. It helps me to revise poems in groups, in particular given that this next manuscript is a project book.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My Philly poetry crew! They know who they are, and they are amazing.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I have always wanted to be a painter. I’ve taken classes and am very passionate about art and art history, but unfortunately, I have next to no drawing ability or innate sense of vision when it comes to that medium. Maybe a mid-life crisis will get me there.
RAENA SHIRALI is a poet, editor, and educator from Charleston, South Carolina. Author of GILT, Shirali recently received the 2018 Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award and a VIDA scholarship for Sundress Academy for the Arts’ Residency. Her other honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry, and the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is a co-organizer for We (Too) Are Philly, a summer poetry festival highlighting voices of color. She also serves as Poetry Editor for Muzzle Magazine and Poetry Reader for Vinyl.