Aisha Sharif was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Fall/Winter 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. Letters to Parkway is an amazing epistle thats whispers to the memory of her grandparents, Mama Too and Papa Trees. You can read her series poem in the Fall/Winter 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Aisha Sharif below!
INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, AISHA SHARIF, AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW POETRY EDITOR, TRUTH THOMAS
(Interview conducted via email correspondence in November of 2011)
Truth Thomas: Every time I have a chance to read profoundly well-crafted poetry, I count it all joy. Your series poem, “Letters to Parkway,” rises like sweet bread in a bakery. Thank you for blessing the Tidal Basin Review with your gifts. It is a marvelous and magnetic ode to your grandparents—a multilayered portrait of your vibrant family—of upper-class black family dynamics and of color complex issues. When you embarked upon the composition of this poetic suite, did you plan to address all of those issues, or did they surface naturally in the process of honest reflection?
Aisha Sharif: When I began writing these poems several years ago, I knew that class would be a prominent issue in my depiction of my grandparents. They were a prominent couple in the Memphis social scene during the ‘50s & ‘60s, and that status was reinforced every time I went to my grandmother’s house and saw its decor, met her friends for brunch, heard stories about her international trips, and viewed pictures of her from her youth. Her upper-class status definitely defined her and made me so in awe of her. Yet, the aspect of color was something that did not surface until mid-way through the writing process. In the poems, it was difficult to avoid describing my grandmother’s actions without also describing her physical appearance. I realized that what made her so elegant and refined was not just her class but also her light-skinned color. To put it simply, her color influenced her class. Class and color were ultimately linked in my admiration of her; ultimately, this poetic suite became more than a personal narrative but a reflection of the bigger issues regarding race and class that affect the African-American community.
T: Often, discussions of color complex matters among black folks are about as welcome as tone-deaf singers at the Apollo. How have these light-skinned vs. dark-skinned identity issues impacted you as a writer?
AS: These identity issues have really forced me to be more honest as a writer. When writing it is very easy to hide behind the mask that is the “speaker” of the poem. We can distance ourselves from the very complex issues the poem presents and imply that these are the “speaker’s issues.” Yet, I had to reassess my own views while writing the poem in which Little Bug finds a matchbook with a picture of her grandmother on it. Here, she focuses so much on how her grandmother looks; she’s mesmerized. At that point as a writer, I had to remove the speaker’s mask and just confess that a part of me, Aisha, wanted to obtain that class and poise symbolized through my grandmother’s color. That was a difficult poem to write because I had to face the fact that I harbored some of these color complexes. Did I possess them because of my grandmother? Society? Low self esteem? Was it because through “light-skinnedness” I could hope to attain upper-class status also? That poem was a reality check; I had to be responsible for my own self-perception and be more open in my poetry to addressing these issues regardless of how touchy they may be.
T: At what point did you know that the epistle form would be the form to help propel this narrative, which echoes of Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah and Toni Morrison’s Beloved?
AS: That’s so interesting that you mention Thomas and Beulah because that book really influenced me to adopt the epistle form for these poems. When I was in graduate school at IU [Indiana University], I took a class with Kevin Young on the long poem, in which we read Dove’s book as well those by Anne Carson, William Carlos Williams, and Sylvia Plath. That class piqued my interest in how long poems, poetic series, and novels-in-verse can create and establish a narrative over the course of several poems. I decided to use the epistle form to build my series because it allows the writer to recount stories, events, or personal feelings to a specific addressee. Epistles also serve as a type of documentation of the writer’s life and words. Those two aspects were important for me because these poems needed a real form that would allow Little Bug to recount events from the grandmother’s past and to narrate the events happening in her own life that the grandmother couldn’t experience due to her illness. I felt that using several epistles would help display this intricate story one letter at a time.
T: Deliberateness of the language you use draws readers in like candles on cakes when placed on the tables of children. Indeed, your choice of family names sparkle in the place setting of this series: “Mama Too,” your grandmother; “Papa Trees,” your grandfather; and “Little Bug” for you. To what extent are these names real and to what extent are they kinfolk of the muse?
AS: The names “Mama Too” and “Papa Trees” are actually names that my siblings and I used to refer to our grandparents. The name “Mama Too” replaced the standard title of “grandma” and all of the connotations of being old that come with it. My grandfather was called “Trees” by friends due to his height; he was 6’5”. So, as children, my siblings and I referred to him as “Papa Trees.” But “Little Bug” was a product of the muse – it developed while writing this series. The name seemed to symbolically represent the speaker’s insecurities in light of her grandmother’s great status.
T: Trees represent more than simply statuesque elements of nature to black folks—so many of us have been hung from them. In that sense, your grandfather’s name, Papa Trees, captures a wealth of symbolism. Arguably, Trees become an additional character in the piece. They are ever-present—haunting, much like the unsettled blood of slavery did in Morrison’s Beloved. Again, was it your intention to address the ghosts of slavery that haunt America, or did this symbolism emerge organically in the process of your writing?
AS: The symbolism surrounding Papa Trees grew through the writing process. I set out to have him function as a ghost of sorts – this dashing male whose absence was very much like a presence. Little Bug’s inability to recall this man pushes her to construct an image of him, but it is unclear if it is an accurate depiction of the man as he really was or how she wants to perceive him. Having said that, I guess we could say then that Papa Trees functions as a much bigger symbol. He seems to represent that persistent need young people and, particularly, African Americans have to know their roots and the desire to re-figure and construct their history.
T: There is a river of living history that flows in “Letters to Parkway.” Its currents testify to the grand elegance, strength and accomplishments of African-American people (broadcasts that do not often make the news). How did you approach the research that underpins this tribute to family?
AS: I truly believe in William Carlos William’s statement, “No ideas but in things.” Since it was hard for me to actually communicate with my grandmother, who had suffered a stroke at the start of my writing process, I learned more about her through her things. When my family and I cleaned out my grandparents’ house, we stumbled across such an array of items in the attics, basement, and closets: golf clubs, newspaper articles about Papa Trees’ medical practice, dog tags from the Korean war, several pairs of leather opera gloves and wigs, manual typewriters, old bottles of wine, and tons of photographs. I would literally sit on the floor with these things spread all around me and discern from them the types of people my grandparents were. I would allow myself to ask questions, and the poems just developed from them. It was as if I was putting together the pieces of a puzzle.
T: Were you at all transformed by that research?
AS: Yes! My perception of my grandparents definitely evolved. As children, we think of our parents and grandparents as these older figures who exist simply in relation to us. But after this research, I began to see my grandparents as individuals with their own triumphs and struggles. I also understood the impact of widowhood on my grandmother and on women in general. For over 25 years, she lived alone in the same house and never remarried. I wondered whether my grandmother, as well as many other widows, struggled with how she could get back that life she had before her husband died. I became more aware of the roles and identities women during her generation adopted when they married and how those roles and identities changed during widowhood.
T: Speaking of living history, one of the most inventive aspects of your poem is an ingenious incorporation of real life events used as list poems. You offer readers actual records that Mama Too kept of Papa Trees funeral arrangements. That craft element is to this poem what jet fuel is to flying—only this piece does not lose its perch on clouds. What inspired this rhetorical approach?
AS: One day I found an old telegram sent to my grandmother after her husband died. I wondered whether she kept it to remember the day he died and the love she received from friends afterwards. That telegram made me consider all the different people who must have contacted her to send condolences. How did she keep up with all the visitors and tasks that needed to get done before the funeral? Through meticulous lists. Lists allow people to see things in their raw state. And like the epistle, lists allow people to write through complex issues quickly. The records of the funeral arrangements catalogued the people who sent condolences; they also helped Mama Too process what was actually happening to her given the sudden loss of her husband.
T: Your poem reads as though it may be the beginning of a much more ambitious project. Is “Letters to Parkway” part of a larger work—an upcoming collection poems, or perhaps a play?
AS: It is! I began writing the poems about my grandparents as a personal journey through my family history, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that there were bigger issues at hand. I became really fascinated with widowhood and how it affects family members and the widow herself. I have developed two more series of poems written in the voices of other women who are affected by widowhood. These women are also writing epistles to understand their experiences with loss and its effects on the family unit. These three sets of epistles weave in and out of each other and, together, make up one long poem.
T: For all who enter the world of this poem, what legacy would you like it to occupy in the afterglow of its reading?
AS: I would like for it to be a work that gives voice to issues that may be taboo or overlooked: color matters, self-esteem (particularly among African-American women), and widowhood. I would like for it to be seen as a work that tries to utilize poetic form well. My hope is that this collection shows how poetry – and writing in general – can be shaped to suit and reflect the ways in which women think and deal with the issues that affect them.
T: My Sister, the best two-word prose poem I know begins and ends with the words “Thank you.” To embrace your work has been like tasting sweet potato pie. It is filling and warm and always gets people’s attention. Last question: in perhaps 40 years or so, if another Little Bug springs up in your family, what would you like for that child to write about you?
AS: Wow. That’s a great question. Having written this series of poems, I understand better some of the paradoxes surrounding my grandmother’s life, and I would like for my future granddaughter to feel free to write about the paradoxes in my life so that she can better understand me – the good and the bad: my humor and solemnity, my faith and doubt, and, my interest in areas of life that are sad but inevitable, like loss and grief. But whatever the next “Little Bug” chooses to write, I hope that she writes with curiosity.
Aisha Sharif received her MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Much of her poetry and nonfiction explores how religious and gender identities intersect. Her poetry has appeared in Muslim Wakeup!, Touchstone Literary Journal, Poemmemoirstory, Callaloo, and Mythium. She is a Cave Canem fellow and teaches English at Park University in Parkville, Missouri, a short commute from her home in Merriam, Kansas.
Truth Thomas is a musician, poet, educator and Poetry Editor of the Tidal Basin Review.