Condiucted by Shobhana Kumar
What does identity mean to you? How does it translate on the page and off it?
To me, identity is poetry itself. It’s our own juxtaposition, our contrasting strengths and weaknesses, the constantly conflicting moments of success and failure. On the page, it feels like I know who I am. I accept all the things that make my identity, all the highs and lows. After all, it was the page that chose to listen to me during a time when not many else would. Off the page is a little different. I am proud of the progress I have made, in instilling confidence and acceptance into myself. But the real world, as I’ve learned and continue to learn, is not always kind to what is different. As a person who grew up balancing two cultures consistently, not everyone was understanding and accepting of that tightrope walking act. Writing is a way I developed my identity, and learned how bravery and vulnerability often go hand in hand. By sharing our stories with each other, we share our identities. By sharing our identities, we break down barriers, become informed, and gain empathy. I’m simultaneously intertwining how I portray my identity in writing and in person, and I continue to learn from the brilliant writers I love to read.
When reading your work, memories leap at the reader very frequently. They are haunting images, and speak of love and togetherness. How have memories shaped you as a writer?
I’m the kind of person who forgets why I just walked into a certain room, or where I put down the pen I had in my hand literally ten seconds ago. But I can recall the lighting, set up, and mood of a room from seven years ago, or riding my bike without training wheels by focusing on a leaf on the sidewalk. As a writer, my memories have shaped me by helping me focus on the small details, the tiny things that are often overlooked, but which make up an experience. It helps me work on using sensory details in my writing. By incorporating memories, I also weave in nostalgia. I think I feel nostalgic a lot these days, especially as it’s my last year of high school, so I’m recalling lots of childhood memories. I’m very grateful to my family for giving me happy memories throughout my childhood, and for also teaching me to make my own as I grow up.
You speak of music as a powerful influence. One can also see how you engage with language. Can you tell us a little more?
I think it’s beautiful how someone’s voice rises in pitch when asking a question. The breath someone takes between sentences could be considered a measure of rests. I actually don’t think language and music are entirely separate concepts. Our voices, our command of language . . . I’ve come to learn that we humans are such musical creatures. When I write, I hope I write something that is musical, that captures emotion the way music does, with rhythm and dynamics.
In my AP Psychology class, we learned about a theory that suggests that language affects how our brains think. The more languages we expose ourselves to, the more diverse our thinking becomes. I think that also goes hand in hand with listening to others’ stories and identities. I’ve been taking Spanish at school for 6 years now, and I’m learning so much about how emotions and actions are expressed differently. For instance, in Spanish, words are masculine or feminine, but in Farsi, there is no sense of gender in a sentence! That can alter one’s perspective of the world entirely! Growing up in a household where we spoke Farsi, I also try to be innovative, and incorporate a lot of Farsi sentence structure and semantics into what I write in English.
When did you first know that you are a poet? Was it epiphany or did it grow on you naturally?
When I was little, I was that kid who changed her mind on what she wanted to be when she grew up on a weekly basis (I apologize for raising my parents’ hopes when I declared I wanted to be a lawyer one week. The next week, I set my mind on being a fairy). It was around fourth grade that I started writing, and devotedly went to after school Writer’s Club meetings. When I began middle school, I found myself expanding my writing to poetry, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet, just as “someone who liked to write.” I realized I was a poet very suddenly, maybe only a couple of years ago, when I found myself up at 3 in the morning on a school night, frantically scribbling an idea on a piece of scrap paper. The next day, I could barely stay awake in school, but I was very proud of the poem that resulted.
Where do you see your writing taking you? Do you see books of verse, fiction, non-fiction, fantasy?
I think I still have a lot of work to do in terms of improving and learning my writing. I hope to do so by reading and practicing more. In the future, I hope to publish fiction novels and collections of short stories and poetry. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for three years now, and I have successfully completed two projects! I am confident in my ability to work hard and get things done. When I go to college, I want to immerse myself in a writing community, and participate in writing workshops.
Do tell us a little about Arian on an ordinary day, a day perhaps when the Muse does not visit? What is her life about?
I am currently a high school senior, so the majority of my daily life revolves around school. When I’m not doing my homework and studying, I am monitoring my college applications’ statuses with fingers crossed. I definitely think I’m at a pivotal point in my life, and I’m learning to live in the moment. I love painting and playing the violin. On the weekends, I can be found at the local bookstore, volunteering at my community’s nature center, or exploring nearby Washington D.C.
Thank you, Arian. Just one more before we leave you with the Muse. Who are the writers who have influenced you the most? What do you read?
My inner bookworm lights up with happiness when it comes to talking about books. My favorite writers include Suzanne Collins, Tahereh Mafi, Khaled Hosseini, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and the great poets of ancient Persia. I read a mix of modern and classic, but I will devour pretty much everything and anything. One of my favorite series that I could talk about endlessly is The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, who writes about a society dangerously similar to ours with a precise, haunting style. One book that I could say changed my life is Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, which captures the sacrifices and hardships Afghan women endure. I love books with some good social commentary and a unique voice!
Conducted by Nazli Karabıyıkoğlu
When did you first realize your affinity for writing?
I first realized I wanted to write for the rest of my life when I served my first lunch detention.
I was in there for passing notes in class. At the time of my most famous middle school crime, I hardly spoke aloud due to my stutter, so in order to interact I wrote things down. It wasn’t allowed, but it was the sacrifice I was willing to make at the time. Eventually, I was caught, and sentenced to serve a lunch detention in my Language Arts teacher’s classroom.
For her, having lunch away from our friends wasn’t enough. So we had to copy sentences from whatever book she laid in front of us. In front of me: Langston Hughes: A Collection of Poetry.
Scanning it page by page, I copied each poem on the loose-leaf paper in front of me, just as instructed. Eventually, however, I stopped writing and was just reading the book. By the time the class came back, I was halfway finished, with 17 words from the book that I didn’t know the definition to scribbled on my arm.
The next time I was caught for note-passing, it was for writing my own “I, Too” during a lecture.
What is your process for writing poetry and prose?
I have to wait for a time where I (probably shouldn’t) be writing. At sketchy bus stops, I pull out a pen and write a line on my arm. On the train a stanza is formed. Playing UNO with a child at my job, I finish the last stanza. While I’m in a lecture, I copy it all on paper and edit. I like to believe I’m like this because I never turn the writer-part of my brain off, but it’s probably because I just can’t focus [laughter].
When writing poetry, do you write from emotion? What usually inspires you?
I absolutely write from emotion. I don’t think I know a single writer who doesn’t. For me, most of my inspiration comes from super strong emotions. Getting my heart broken after becoming deeply invested in someone, a child making me a Play-Doh dinosaur for Christmas at the local YMCA, watching police brutality cases, my boss remembering my birthday—all evoke strong emotion from me.
What do you want the readers to know about you?
I don’t write for White peoples’ enjoyment. All my work is Black-centered, because I’m Black. All my work is Queer-centered, because I’m queer. I fully believe white audiences can read and enjoy my work, but I will never rely on their enjoyment in order to create or publish.
Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about?
Yeah! Agnes Scott College’s Ignite Poetry Collective is going to CUPSI this year in Virginia, so if anyone wants to follow their journey, follow them on Instagram (@ignite.poetry) and donate to their team’s GoFundMe. I do their “Poetry Night, Open Mic” once a month at Ebrik’s Coffee Room and they’re a group of Black, women/non-binary poets who are killer on stage. I’m also working with Gathered and Grounded for their Future Perfect Project, so readers can catch me at those events, and can follow me on both Instagram and Twitter (@ayeelliottmyguy) for any other upcoming events I’ll be at.
Do you think that magazines play an important role in a poet’s/artist’s publishing career? How do you choose “the right” magazine/ journal? Do you have a dream journal?
I don’t believe magazines play as much of an important role in artists’ careers like they used to. I think social media does. Being on multiple platforms does as well. One of my favorite poets (currently) has hardly been in large journals but has been on digital media platforms such as Write About Now, HBO, Button Poetry, Tedx Talks, Slam Find, Penguin Books UK, plus others—which has helped build her career up substantially by massively increasing her fan-base. Her publishings in lit mags helped, but for 21st-century poets, the readers like to hear voices read their own work before reading it themselves.
That being said, I’m a mix of performing poetry and writing it. I pick out journals to submit my work to the same way I pick out venues to perform at. Is it inclusive? Do they have a diverse staff? Is the journal more conservative than not? If the answers are overwhelmingly yes (and they’re moderate to liberal), then it’s a go to submit. My current dream journal(s) would be a toss-up between the Missouri Review and Nightingale & Sparrow.
Your poem “Moonlight (Coming of Age)” which is published by Human/Kind Journal, has themes revolving between fatherhood, Black identity, and memory. What is your main drive when you are choosing your themes? Which components feed your themes?
My earliest memory regarding race was the murder of Trayvon Martin. I didn’t sleep for weeks, I didn’t wear jackets with hoods for a year, and I haven’t lived since. To this day, Skittles hurt my teeth and Arizona’s are bittersweet. “Moonlight” mirrors the lost childhood of every black child who has had to grow up quicker in order to adjust to a society built off of white supremacy and anti-black institutions. I never forgot the day he died, because from that point on I was no longer a child. My father told me I was now just Black, and that’s what I would be for the rest of my life. And that’s something I’d just have to grow into. I chose those themes because I can never forget. We, as Black people, don’t ever forget.