Teh Talks is a series of iterative conversations between creatives.
This conversation between Jasmine Gui (@jaziimun) and Sanna Wani (@sannareya) has been scrambled and edited with love.
featured image credit: jaye simpson
Sanna’s poetry often feels like a tender unfolding. When I say tender I do not mean weak. I mean more of a willed softness and a quietly balled fist on the cusp of release. When I encounter her writing I slip into a familiar interior landscape. In that place I feel a resonance with an existence I am also striving for, in my own way. It is not exactly a mirror, maybe more like the surface of a still lake.
If you had to describe your current writing space as a landscape, what would it be?
Rolling grassy plains surrounded by the mountains. I’m walking endlessly. It’s clear-skied and bright. Sometimes I stop here and there, to lie down and stare at the sky or to wash my face in the river. I feel lost but I think I’m supposed to. I think I’m trying to find a place to build a home—to pick a mountain in any direction and climb it—but I’ve spent too long overthinking the decision so now I just keep walking and walking. I’m worried I’ve already missed the perfect spot. Every day the sun rises and sets in the same direction. My legs are growing heavier. It won’t be summer forever.
Can you talk about the ideation around “Border poem”? How do you hold that voice in relation to yourself, especially given the immediacy and embodiment of context and content?
Border poem was conceived, so to speak, over chai with Manahil at her house. I think it was early July 2019, just before I was supposed to leave for Kashmir that year and I went to go hang out with Manahil before I left. We found out there that she would be less than a three hour drive from my home in Kashmir while she was visiting Gilgit and other parts of western Pakistan. We both just had this moment where we looked at each other and I was filled with so much sadness that she couldn’t just…come over. Like here I was, at her home, visiting. But halfway across the world, in a place that is a deeper and truer home to both of us in some ways…we didn’t have the same freedoms there. So we decided to write to each other.
I think the narrative speaker’s voice in those letters is something I’ve wondered a lot about. I think it is a formalized voice of my longing. I let my longing into that voice deeply, and I let poetry into my voice because of that longing. I hold that voice in relation to the particular sense of yearning that comes with writing letters itself, with being at a distance from someone you love or want to offer love. I’ve been reading other exchanges in the epistolary genre, like Natalie Diaz’s and Ada Limon’s “Envelopes of Air” and Yanyi’s The Reading, and noticing something concurrent. My friend Francis really loves writing letters. It slows the world down. I think there’s something about a letter that asks the writer to dip into the immediacy of the environment, the particular moment you are embodying. Like a pond. You offer someone your pond. You take a dip together.
In the Town Crier essay, you unpack what ecopoetics look like in your work, and use the word “situate”. I love it but also feel the weight of its labour: our work is always being situated, and we have to draw the boundaries of the work ourselves.
Not to say that weight is negative, and perhaps the absence of such labour would be more harmful, but what do you make of this labour that will seem to always be a part of your work?
I love that you ask this question because I spent a lot of time mulling over that word in the title, in the essay itself. I think other verbs I played with were nurture, grow, position, understand…I think the labour of situating is in flux for me. Sometimes it’s heavy; sometimes it’s a feather. I think that’s because, for me, this situation is partially in our hands, like a choice, and it’s partially not. When I take on the labour of situating my ecopoetics, I take on responsibility for something I cannot fully take responsibility for. I say: here are the ways I can grasp at something much bigger than me. And I risk, in certain scenarios, with certain people, obscuring the fact that this situating is more of an exercise in definition (a checking-into-the-moment, something meant to be written and rewritten, evolving and revolving) than any kind of permanent set up. I like the word situated because I feel like the word rearranged lingers quietly behind it. And I am always ready to rearrange. I am always already rearranging.
I have all of Pink of the Seams in its fine press format. I really love its looseness in a specific sort of way. The single print format lends itself well to the vignette, but also, I think, to an experience of interiority as scattered and attentive. Can you speak to the process of putting those poems together?
Those poems were all written somewhere between 2016 and 2018. The form pairs well to their scattered birth. They are very much condensed; condensation. They felt like raindrops at the time. I was just dipping my feet into the waters of what poetry even was when I wrote them. So I think they hold some of that water (wonder!). Putting them together was less about any kind of thematic overlap than a sense of readiness. Like, here I’m ready, I’m happy with these, I’m ready to take them to the world.
I’m interested in your explorations into the visual poems, thinking of “Relief”, from AAWW. Is there an origin story to these visual experiments? Is there an impulse or goal?
It’s a bit of both! There is absolutely an origin story. I had been experimenting with the idea of trying concrete poetry for a while. I read Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen and I was utterly blown away. But the ideas weren’t settling. So I went about my life until one day at 1:30 am, I was driving home from hanging out with some friends downtown and the idea struck me. It was that line from “The Glass Essay”: where can I put it down? A series of questions and this particular image of a hand blasted through my brain and I immediately knew what to do. I commute downtown from my home in Mississauga so I am often in the position where I am driving and I want to write, so I called on my good friend Siri and frantically yelled my notes at her. Once I was home, I was possessed. I was up until 4 am making the first drafts. I hadn’t been so inspired that I couldn’t sleep in a long time. So there was definitely an impulse there (which also, in general, rules all my poetry—I very seldom sit down or schedule a time to write) (I keep it scattered and moving with me, with the movements of my body and my environment) (I am also an Aries) but there as also a goal that I kept tucked behind my ear, at the back of my mind. The desire to try this new kind of poetry and a commitment to keeping my body open and oriented towards inspiration whenever it would eventually come crashing down.
What are you reading right now?Space Struck by Paige Lewis, The Hundreds by Kathleen Stewart and Lauren Berlant, and The Deep by Rivers Solomon! I’ve also been reading and rereading Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s essay “Muhammad in Gaza.”
Long before inviting Sanna to do a Teh Talk with me, we’d been oscillating in the edges of each other’s universes, following each other on social media and dropping an ocasional comment. LooseLeaf Magazine had published Sanna’s work and she had read at our launch. I shared Border Poem when it was first published. At that point, I was content with the organic distance between us, even as I recognized a spark of kinship in whatever of Sanna I did encounter. It was the Town Crier essay on “Situating Racialized Ecopoetics” that electrified my impulse to reach out for a longer conversation. Like the aforementioned still lake, now lit up by a meteor.
There’s a constant negotiation, as poets, to think through hard and soft. Where does anger sit in this negotiation for you?
Anger sits wherever anger needs to sit. An authority figure and I had an incident recently where I was discussing how much my angrier I had become in quarantine. She was insisting that it was part of the frustration of the moment and I agreed, but also I didn’t. There was a moment at the end—I hold onto because of how it jolted me, how I disagreed, how I felt it in my gut—where she looked at me and she said, “You’re not an angry person, Sanna. You’re soft.”
I think I have a very gentle countenance as a person, which I am very proud of and which took me a long time to cultivate and practice. I am soft-spoken. I think I am pretty patient. But none of those qualities erase or ease the deep, endless sense of anger I have lived with since I was…maybe thirteen? Eight? Seven? I have been very, very angry for a very long time. This is not an uncommon experience. I used to resent this anger (I sometimes still do) and would have done anything to make it go away. But now I would not want to erase my anger. My anger is a vital part of who I am, who I come from. I never want my anger to hurt anyone. I do think sometimes my anger becomes attached to my pettiness and then I have to spend a lot of time untangling that, my guilt and humility. But my anger is an active part of what makes me gentle or kind or soft or patient. My anger demands I give that to the world and the world give it back to me. It is wired into my sense of justice. There is also a long-standing inquiry, much bigger than me, asking how anger is policed in different bodies. How anger is constructed and used by white supremacy to police—misinterpret, alienate—particular bodies. I’m thinking especially of Black women’s bodies, trans women’s bodies. I can’t help notice how anger continues to persist as a guiding life force, even as it is a heavy burden, as an instinct to demand what our bodies deserve.
Rigidity (which is how I am understanding hardness, and this might not give hardness its due) is what warps anger. It is what turns anger into pride, into ignorance and selfishness. Anger can mix very badly with stubbornness (which I also have, in bucketloads) but it can also offer strength. Maybe hardness is another way to say fixes shape and then I’m like, “What’s the line between what is stubborn anger and what is righteous outrage?” Does the hardness of anger give us something to land on? To cling to? I am always asking a lot of my anger and my anger is always asking a lot of me. In that reciprocity, there is growth. There is power.
Do you address anger directly in your creative writing, and how does it remain or transform in that process?
Oh my god, all the time. One of the best notes I ever got about an angry poem was that I sounded like if the universe was your mom and your mom was mad at you. I think different creative processes interact differently with my anger: my anger hates prose (I just get angrier, to the point where I need to put the journal down and go take a walk), but is soothed in the transformation to poetry. Visual art depends on the place. I was having a hard time painting my anger in Toronto, then I came to Kashmir and knew exactly what to do. Music is one of my favourites. With my piano, I can let my anger crescendo. I can let it build a sound and body of its own. My anger really liked the F sharp minor chord! Of course, none of these inclinations are fixed. Creative practices give my anger a place to rest. To sleep, to expand, to show me what is underneath.
Anne Carson’s line again: where can I put it down? She is addressing grief in that moment but what separates grief from anger? Art is, arguably, one of the few places I can put it down. Anger feels like a flare. Sometimes it’s a bright signal for other emotions, a messenger trying to bring your attention to something bubbling underneath. Anger, like mottled hurt. Like a place reverberating, begging to heal.
Your answer explored the soft of anger, which I love. Now I want to ask about hard joy.
Lately, I think hard joy is the difficult choices I have to make for my own growth. Hard joy means joy that is not always fun or feels good. One example of hard joy could be the labour I put into a very difficult, very uncomfortable and very necessary conversation with a friend. Hard joy asked that I prioritized the joy of our friendship over the temporary relief of my own silence. Love is not easy so how could joy be? The culmination of that conversation, when we pushed through to the other side and listened to each other and cared for each other’s hurt, was so abundant. There was so much more there. Now our friendship is stronger than ever. I feel like this year has been a series of those conversations, with other people and with myself. I had another difficult conversation—in a deeply different way than the first friend—with a family member just this morning and we agreed that quarantine made it difficult to continue running from things we have been running from for a long time. In those confrontations, there is joy that does not feel like joy. But it can be harvested, can be cultivated. Confront means to border or to bound. We are always becoming a better place for ourselves. We deserve joy that does not break so easily, that will last.
There is one thing I often think about when I read Sanna’s work and that is the laborious process of creating lightness. Sanna’s language moves oh so lightly. But as a fellow poet, I feel the muscle beneath the writing – lithe, responsive, decided. I savour that force in the sounds and cadences of her words. The lines are fluid; they spill and flow and grasp and unfold, and yet, none of these moves are inconsequential. The stakes are high. The performance is meditated. There is something to be said. The saying is necessary. The saying is work. In other words, the saying is also joy.
What do you do when you feel trapped in your writing?
I just stop. I do anything else. I release myself from the pressure of ever writing anything again. I remind myself of what my friend Natalie says to me all the time, which is that I’ll still be worthy and lovable and me if I never write another poem again. I remind myself of what my friend Faith says: she’s someone who writes and reads. I just exist for a while. I watch deliciously bad TV, I dance, I go on a walk. If I really commit to this rest, it is usually never more than a week or so before the urge to write returns. Like a cat! My heart is so much like a cat.
How do you negotiate or distance yourself from people’s expectations of your writing?
Usually, by being in community. I either talk to someone I trust about how those expectations are creeping into my heart or I read. When I read, I am usually reminded of the work I’m actually interested in doing. No one controls or knows what I read except me. That privacy. It is very healing. Some of my writing has that privacy but it’s usually not the writing that people grow to have expectations of. I trust my desire to read in a way that I don’t trust my desire to write. I really latch onto work that moves my heart. Obviously, reading is not free of the conditions of the world that create my distrust in my writing. But there’s also lots I read that I never tell anyone about, reading solely to sustain my self. If I don’t like a book, I’m quick to stop reading unless I come up with a strong reason to commit. This has developed a feeling within me, that moving. Reading feels like an act deeply nestled to my interiority; my interiority, where I want my writing to come from. My interiority – where other people’s (and even my own) expectations are not welcome.
You talk about your interiority as a space where even your expectations are not welcome. I resonate deeply with this. How do you keep this interiority from even your expectations?
Oh this is such a work-in-progress. Some days I am better than others. I think a lot of it is about slowing down. Expectations are so based in my mind that bringing myself back to my body really helps. Monitoring my social media intake helps a lot. I look a lot to other people to set up my expectations usually. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong as other people are very inspiring. Where’s the line between expectation and inspiration? I think expectation is tied intimately together with imagination, that’s the mess of capitalism. As soon as we imagine something worthy, we are expected to produce it. We are taught that it is not enough that I feel a poem coming on and that I speak it quietly to myself in the garden. I must preserve it. What does preservation have to do with expectation then? Do we preserve ourselves through our expectations? Why should we have to? I think in many of the ways expectations get in the way of creation, so does preservation—at least the capitalist mode of preservation that asks us to preserve as a means to produce further.
But wait, wow, that’s a tangent. I was talking about social media. The capitalist ideals of success shaped through the technological vein networks. I sound like my dad. Lately whenever I find myself pulled to spend more time on Twitter or Instagram, I force myself to stop and write a letter to a friend instead. It satiated the same thirst, that social itch, but extends the urge into patience. A letter to a friend is a much more conscious way to sort through my desires and expectations. A letter asks who are you? as you are happening instead of as you expect to become. There are other practices that help me with this slowing down—prayer, physical exercise, memorizing poems. There’s this poem by Yanyi I’ve been trying to memorize lately and there’s one line that really speaks to this conversation: Participation is not production. But sometimes I post a meme of two frogs dancing and call it a day.
What are your favourite ruins?
There are some ruins of a temple in a town called Naranag, which translates roughly to fire spring or spring between the gorge. I think I first went there when I was fourteen? It is crumbling and magnificent, tucked between the tight crevice of two mountains. Some people say it was a temple to Shiva in the eighth century, some people say it was where Jesus was buried, some people say it goes back to the Vedic era of Kashmir over two thousand years ago. There is a feeling in the air of that place, the oldest feeling I’ve ever felt. I’d like to be brave enough someday to visit it at night.
Otherwise? The night. The stars. The moon! There is an almost four hundred year old shark wandering around the Arctic Ocean. The ocean, the most mysterious ruin of all. And then there are poems. Poems are my favourite kind of almost anything.