Hala Alyan is participating in the Emerging Writers Festival this week at the University of San Francisco, giving a reading on the 24th and participating in a writers panel on the 25th. Her first book,Atrium, won the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, and her second poetry collection, Four Cities, will be published by Black Lawrence Press later this year. Her third collection, Hijra, recently won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry contest and will be published in the fall of 2016. She resides in New York where she is finishing post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology.
Switchback: How do you decide which poems you’re going to read? Do you feel obligated to read poems from an already published book to please fans, or new work so it’s not always the same thing?
Hala Alyan: I think I like to do a mixture of the two. For me, it’s not just about reading old versus new work, it’s also about making sure that I read a combination of published work with pieces I wrote with the intention of reading aloud. Performance pieces often have a greater emphasis on rhythm and musicality.
SWB: Your second poetry collection, Four Cities, is coming out this year. How did the publication process for this collection differ (or remain the same) from your first collection,Atrium?
HA: I’ve been tremendously lucky with my publishing experiences. For Atrium, it was a matter of meeting a couple of wonderful people who chose to take a chance on my (virtually unknown) work. With this second book, it’s been a matter of being connected with the lovely people at Black Lawrence Press, which likely would’ve been more difficult without a previous publication. My third book Hijra just won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which has been thrilling. So yes—a lot of luck and gratitude.
SWB: Atrium was the winner of the Arab American Book Award in 2013. Did the success and experience of your first book make it easier to write the second? What was it like to sit back down to write another collection?
HA: Certainly any sort of recognition can be both thrilling and intimidating; after the award, I became nervous about having to match a certain standard in future work. But I think that’s mostly short-lived. For Four Cities, there wasn’t a specific moment when I sat down to begin the collection; it was a combination of poems I’d written over one summer where I traveled around. That fall, I began to piece them together and edit.
SWB: At what point while writing each book did you realize a theme emerging? When did the individual poems become the connected unit for publication? Was the process different with each book?
HA: Atrium is full of poems I wrote throughout my undergraduate years, which I ultimately wove together and found, unsurprisingly, a thematic narrative which emerged. For both books, it was a matter of writing pieces and then doing the stitching together later on. With my latest collection, Hijra, it was more conscious—I wrote the poems in a concrete amount of time, with a clearer vision of what I wanted to say and how.
SWB: Atrium begins with a section of poems about each zodiac sign. The section feels a little different from the rest of the book in that it lacks a specificity of narrative in which to ground the reader. What was your reasoning for beginning the book in such a way? Did you know early on that the collection would begin with the zodiac or did that come after the majority of poems were written?
HA: The zodiac poems were written earlier, more rapidly, chaotically even, snippets here and there. It felt apt to open the book with them because they predated the other pieces. But it wasn’t until the publishers approached me about putting a collection together that I began to think about the placement of sections.
SWB: In addition to the zodiac signs, Atrium is filled with allusions to Greek mythology. Was this a conscious decision and if so why?
HA: Yes and no. Initially, I just found myself working with mythology and zodiac and astrology references a lot; once I realized this was happening, I decided to just go with it. I find that if I try too hard to introduce (or refrain from) particular allusions, the writing is stilted and stale. So it’s easier to just lean into it.
SWB: Your poems tend to be structured regularly in terms of stanzas. For example, “Barbie” follows the pattern of couplets with a long and short line until the final stanza. How much thought do you consciously put into whether a poem will be in couplets, tercets, or whatever stanzas? How about the line lengths? To use a cliché, how do you make form as content?
HA: I think for many years, I got stuck on the couplets a lot and content at times was hindered by form. More recently, I’ve been working on opening the pieces up, using space in different ways, letting the work breathe more. For my most recent work, I followed a friend’s advice and experimented with more prose poems; I was pleasantly surprised by how liberating it was not to have to constantly think about form.
SWB: When do you decide when a poem is finished? Is it after a certain number of drafts, or when it just looks right, or do you wait until it gets published to stop revising?
HA: I’m not a big editor, unfortunately. Once I write a piece, that tends to be that. I’ve been working on that—becoming more patient, giving the poems some space and returning them with new eyes.
SWB: You are finishing your post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology. How do you manage the life of a poet with your (for lack of a better term) “real career”? Do you view being a poet as a secondary gig?
HA: As with most things, if you love something enough, it reinforces itself. My reward for writing is the writing itself. Not to say it isn’t difficult; there are times when I have to force myself to sit down and write after a particularly long day. But I’ve never started writing and regretted it. I’ve never yearned for that time back. I don’t see poetry as a secondary gig so much a complementary one. I couldn’t be a therapist if I wasn’t a writer, and vice versa.
SWB: How do you manage finding time to write, revise, give readings and interviews for your poetry while also working on another career? Do you have a specific writing routine to balance the two professions?
HA: Time is definitely the most challenging issue. Sadly, I’ve been doing fewer readings and such because it’s been a busy couple of years for me training-wise. The lovely thing about poetry, however, is that you can do it anytime. I write on the subway, I write during my lunch hour. Fiction is trickier for me; it requires more structure and discipline. In terms of routine, I write for half an hour a day. The days I don’t, I feel antsy and restless, and will usually write even more the following day to make up for it.