A Single Question Interview with Dilruba Ahmed

Natalie Staples

Upon reading Bring Now the Angels, I was first struck by Dilruba Ahmed’s lyric prowess, in other words, her ability to capture a fleeting moment or sensation in verse. In the second poem of the collection, “Feast,” the speaker describes a family picnic before her father’s death– opening with the striking image of him rolling and cutting a watermelon and building to the line, “our lives,/ for a moment, are an untouched/meal.” The oscillation between concrete detail and the larger, more slippery subject of mortality is remarkable. Ahmed’s lyric flexibility allows the collection to occupy several seemingly distinct modes at once from elegy to the intersection between the personal and the political, to the world of folktales and myth. When I was young, my mother read D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths to me several times and I fell in love with those stories. In some of Ahmed’s poems, the reference to folktales is overt; “Choke” explicitly references “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cancer Weather” evokes “Chicken Little” by name, while others, like “Snake Oil, Snake Bite” and “No One Noticed, for a While,” seem to evoke the ethos of a myth or fable.

Northwest Review
How did the language and tone of myth and folktales come into your poems?
Dilruba Ahmed
I am definitely interested in fables and feel drawn to them. But I hadn’t given a lot of thought as to where and how that started. I think has to do with, as Marie Howe puts it, saying the unsayable. I think myth and fable over time have given us a way of articulating aspects of human experience that are universal to us and many times, these stories are meant to teach us something important about the journey of being a human being. I have some interest in Jungian interpretations of myth and some of Joseph Campbell’s writings on myth. I think myth and fable can be a really powerful universal language to get at some of those more mysterious aspects of human experience. Maybe even a strategy to get at that silence — to create a world and a language for parts of human experience that are difficult to explain. Working with myth and fable can also serve as a way to push out of the autobiographical moment so that each poem isn’t necessarily solely based on my experience and my rendering of that experience. Thinking of larger contexts offers me a way to pan out, to broaden the story. In doing so, I hope my poems resonate with other people and are less bound to particular circumstances.

“Snake Oil, Snake Bite” was one of the first poems I wrote after my dad became ill. Upon writing the poem, I realized I was beginning a new manuscript, with new material and new language unfolding. I’d been struggling to write about my evolving sense of mortality from the perspective of both a grown daughter whose parent had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and as the parent of two young kids. The fable-like aspects that emerged were based on a story my mom had recounted many times about her brother getting bitten by a poisonous snake during his childhood in Bangladesh, and the local medicine man’s role in saving his life. This family story took on mythical proportions of it own as I grappled with both my father’s illness and my role as a parent.

In the poem, “Tale,” fable as a genre opened up another way of describing the experience of watching a parent’s health deteriorate over time. I tried to articulate how the role as child transforms over time but in so many fundamental ways also remains unchanged. I think that conjuring fable helped me get at some of my loss and longing.

Unlike the other titles discussed so far, the poems “No One Noticed, for a While” and “Choke” were both instances where fable offered a way to tackle material that was more politicized. Through fable, I could come approach it at an angle. The first poem still remains mysterious to me. I tried to depict a sense of an era passing, foundations crumbling, and dissatisfaction growing, with a bitterness and resignation about how things were unfolding. The poem doesn’t specify a political context but the fable language and structure gave me a way of revealing the idea of evolution and transformation over time– from abundance to scarcity, with growing feelings of being dissatisfied, angry, and resentful.

In “Choke,” the fable structure is more apparent and draws directly on “Jack and the Beanstalk.” While writing the poems that made up my second-book manuscript, I became interested in the idea of an individual up against big, nameless entities (governmental agencies or corporate entities). I hoped to express how powerless the individual is against a mega-corporation, for example. Out that interest grew some poems that were about corruption of various kinds, and “Choke” was directly inspired by Mark Strand’s “Elegy,” a poem in multiple sections. Section two of Strand’s piece works every much in this manner: a brief question followed by brief answer. In part, I hoped to shed light on this story of an individual against a faceless corporation, and to humanize it — to give the little guy a chance to speak, essentially. There was something about that voice of the questioner that was very insistent while I was writing this poem. The repetition came from Mark Strand, but also from the feeling that the questioner was unsatisfied by the answers that were offered.

The second question in the poem reads, “Was there a giant?” and the voice responds, “There must always be a giant.” This exchange goes back to this idea of fable opening up a way to speak an emotional truth and the notion that folktale offered a way of casting a situation in a new light. Many times in myth and folktale there is always a giant, a villain. To me, that fact really struck on a truth of in terms of how things happen economically across the world, especially in this time of global interdependence. For instance, my family is from Bangladesh, and I remember conversations with my father when the garment industries started outsourcing labor to countries such as Bangladesh and India. On one hand, there was a sense of hope that it provided another option for women to have an income flow, and yet, the working conditions were so terrible and so unregulated there was a new source of despair, too. While occasionally a tragedy turns the public eye to those circumstances, the fact of the matter is that our global interdependence has resulted in a global “race to the bottom.” Companies want to outsource labor for the cheapest possible cost and maximum profit. The world of the fable really lent itself to the idea that there’s always someone who seeking to manipulate or exploit someone else.

Fable also offered me a way to talk about the emotional experience of my father’s sudden turn in health as he battled a terminal form of cancer. Initially, I didn’t have a way into writing about the experience. And I was resistant. I didn’t want to tackle work about mortality and illness. I was experiencing shock and denial. The poem “Cancer Weather” emerged from these struggles and felt both strange and true at once.

When I move through the world, I’m interested in everything around me (books, radio, overheard conversations). As a result, when I write, I sometimes encounter odd confluences, strange juxtapositions. While before I used to stifle the weirdness, over the years I’ve been able to lower the volume on those internal sensors and simply let the voices come. I don’t have as much resistance to strangeness now. In some ways, this lowering of defenses or criticism is an effort to invite Keats’ idea of negative capability and to free my mind to play out as it will, without feeling like everything must make sense. In the case of “Cancer Weather,” a voice emerged from these old stories that I’d read and heard as a child, suddenly seeming to fit my emotional contexts.

Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Bring Now the Angels (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), with poems featured in New York Times Magazine, The Slowdown, and Poetry Unbound with Pádraig Ó Tuama. Her debut book of poetry, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and The Best American Poetry 2019 Series. <www.dilrubaahmed.com/writing-lab>

Natalie Staples earned a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Oregon. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in NPR, Able Muse, Birmingham Poetry Review, Terrain.org, and SWWIM Every Day. Her work can be found at natalieannestaples.com