June 11, 2018KR Conversations

Dilruba Ahmed

Dilruba AhmedDilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her poems have appeared (or will soon appear) in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, New England Review, and Poetry. Her work has also been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas, 2010), and elsewhere. Her poem “In Everything a Little Remains” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review. Photo credit Mike Drzal.

What was your original impetus for writing “In Everything A Little Remains”?

When I shop for food, I spend a lot of time scrutinizing labels and ingredients due to allergies in my family.  When I first began reading labels closely, it didn’t take long to realize that many of our everyday foods contain unhealthy or even potentially toxic ingredients.  Worse, some of the practices in the food industry are meant to maximize corporate profits at the cost of animal safety and product safety.  Unfortunately, food handling and labeling practices can sometimes gloss over the brutal facts of food processing and production, leaving us—the consumers—in the dark. And many of us are so disconnected from the “story” behind our food that we rarely stop to consider how agricultural and corporate practices might be harming not just our health, but also all living things in the environment.

As I continued reading labels and researching food industry practices, I became more and more horrified by the disregard for animal safety, public health, and the environment. So the poem arose from anxieties about what we think we are putting in our bodies, what actually ends up there, and the short- and long-term ramifications on us, on animals, and on the earth. The poem also gestures toward the failure of the governmental agencies that are meant to safeguard all living things but are subject to corporate influences and their lobbying power among legislators.

Formally, this piece presents itself in uniform four-lined stanzas, creating a repeating and perhaps comforting structure, occasionally counteracting its sometimes jarring contents, such as “In our processed meat, a little human / DNA. In our fish fillet, a little plastic / coated with algae.” How do you feel your chosen form interacts with the lines of your poems and what they communicate?

I hope that the predictable arrangement of stanzas helps to create a kind of counterweight in a poem that intends to destabilize the reader. The other stabilizing elements, I hope, are the repeating refrain from Andrade, “In everything a little remains,” and a fairly consistent use of syntax. In the lines you mention, I think I hoped that the jarring enjambment would create a momentary breakdown, with the return to the repeating refrain serving as a kind of false comfort. Why the impulse to jar the reader even more deeply? Maybe it stems from a reaction to the fact that the negative impact of human activity now outpaces the environment’s capacity to recover.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think I’ve become much more fluid in terms of my approach to revision. I’m more willing to embrace very different strategies for draft work, rather than simply shifting a comma from here to there. I’ve also become less shy about sharing very raw work with my closest writing friends, which means that overall, I’m more willing to be vulnerable both with my work and in my work. Currently, I’m doing a month-long daily poetry exchange of new poems with an old writing friend. Every Friday, we also send each other the beginning of a poem we’ve drafted (along with half the title); we are each then tasked with completing each other’s title and draft poem. It’s a bit like trying to construct a half-built house with tools and architecture someone else has provided: what kind of foundation have they begun for the structure? What type of diction, what kind of tropes? This collaboration has restored a wonderful sense of fun and playfulness to my writing process.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

It’s hard to say—anything from the following could capture my attention on any given day: news headlines, snippets of conversations, songs, poems or prose I’m reading, folk tales, gardening, parenting, dreams, etc. Currently, I’m interested in the ways that various “containers” can give shape to material, especially in ways that alter and modulate tone—for example, medical forms, lists, questionnaires, scientific reports, letters, and so on.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Best pieces of writing advice from mentors: write every day, even when you don’t feel inspired. I also really love these lines from Dean Young to his nephew, Seth Pollins: “Remember . . . you can’t sustain inspiration, you can only court it, and here’s the thing: it happens WHILE you work. It’s not something to wait around for. You have to sweep the temple steps a lot in hopes that the god appears.”

And: If you are willing, time can sometimes become your best editor.

And: Write what you know, but also what you don’t know, into a place of uncertainty. Carl Phillips has written some great insights about this approach in The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination.