Where do poems come from?
Meet queer Egyptian poet Rabha Ashry, as she speaks with emotion and candor about her work. Rabha’s poems are filled with themes that resonate with many queer folks, of identity, discovery, and family. Experiences of diaspora also infuse her work with feelings of loss and longing, and the importance of memory.
Entanik: How long have you been writing poetry?
Rabha: I started writing poems when I was nine years old. I remember the first poem I wrote. It was about these glow in the dark stars I put on my wall. I wrote a poem about a cluster of them being a family. I don’t have that poem anymore but I remember writing it and thinking, this poetry thing is really cool. I want to do this and I decided that day that I was going to write poetry, and I just kept writing it.
E: Your poem 15 July 2017 really resonated with me. What are some of the themes in your work?
R: I write a lot about home and family, starting with that first poem being about my family. I write about immigration a lot, more than anything. The poems are always products of my everyday life, my everyday experience. That experience for the past five years has been immigrating here, so the poems have become about immigration. They’re about memory and things that I remember about home that I can’t shake off and the things that I’m forgetting really quickly. Right now it’s the way I’m trying to hold on to what I remember home to be while also creating a home here. I’ve always done that with words, I’ve always done that with poems. It’s the way I see the world, and also the way that I see myself.
E: Does your experience in diaspora, as an asylee, show up in your writing?
R: It does, though I don’t know if it does so explicitly. When I’m writing about my homes for applications and competitions, I write about my experience being an asylum seeker and immigrating that way. The poems themselves are about the experiences that come alongside that, the stuff it triggers, the things that it reminds you of, the things you feel you’re giving up or letting go of or adjusting or changing. It’s not about the logistics of it, it’s not about the technicalities of it. It’s about what it feels like to be living through it. I think it very much informs what my poems do and say. It’s about the pain of saying goodbye to one home, and the growing pains of making a new home, but also the joy of finding that home. If it’s not in my poems, then where is it?
E: Can you talk about your chapbook “loving the alien”?
R: This chapbook is a collection of my favorite poems. I’ve been working on a manuscript since grad school. It was my graduate thesis, and this. chapbook comes out of that manuscript. I chose the poems that had the best shot of making it into the world.
E: And winning the Brunel Prize?
R: It took me completely by surprise because I had no hope that it was going to come through. I thought, there’s no way this is gonna happen for me. I’m just gonna apply. It’s 10 poems, so just send them in. And then I completely forgot about it until they were trying to email me to let me know that I was shortlisted, but I had stopped checking my email,because I was depressed and nothing was happening, nothing was working out. I was just getting rejections, so why check? They found me on twitter, and messaged me. And that was already super amazing, being shortlisted for a prize for African poets. I heard a couple of months later that I won. It blew my mind. It’s the most exciting thing that has happened in my career so far. It felt very validating as a writer to have someone say you’re really good at what you’re doing.
E: A poem from the chapbook that I want to ask you about is Abominations. It’s pertinent to our community and I feel it will resonate with a lot of people.
R: I wrote that poem when I was 20. My junior year of college I had just come out to myself and to everyone. No one was surprised, except me. I was dating my first boyfriend at the time. I said, I’m attracted to women and I think I’m gay. And everyone said, yeah you are, and was really supportive. My sisters, my best friend who was my boyfriend at the time, and a small group of friends, people at college were also supportive. I went to NYU Abu Dhabi, a really liberal school in a very conservative society. I was discovering that part of myself and exploring dating women. I was figuring out what I wanted, what I wanted to do with my body, with myself, and how I wanted to be in the world. I was exploring different ways of being attracted to people, of being intimate with people.
I kept thinking the whole time about how people back home talk about queerness. They say it’s bad and it’s haram and against Islam. I guess in our culture, our religion, that’s not how we do things. What are people gonna think? What are the neighbors gonna say? Think of our family name! I was thinking about the tension between all of these horrible, negative, awful things I grew up being told about queerness, and then the actual thrill and joy of it when you’re living it, and experiencing it with other people. You get told that it’s bad, and then you experience it and it’s amazing. You never want to stop, and thinking about that I wrote Abominations. I was living in the Emirates, a place that’s very actively homophobic. I had this small pocket of queerness in college, with my friends and chosen family and it was a completely different world. It was how we found a family, away from our own families, and a lot of that was going into writing that particular poem.
My parents are really conservative and very strict. When they eventually found out, they were very mad, harsh and unforgiving. They’re not in my life anymore. I’m really lucky with my sisters. They’ve always been my biggest support system, my cheerleaders from day one. I had a very roundabout way of figuring out how I identify and I had a lot of different experiences. I took my time to find out what I wanted and what I didn’t want, but I think bi is what I’m most comfortable identifying as.
E: Tell me about your performance of “a love letter to my worst enemy” for our upcoming Endless Pride event.
R: Over the summer I did the Tin House summer workshop, which is a week of workshops and artists talks and lectures and you get a meeting with an agent, an editor, and other support. It was really cool. That poem was written originally as a letter, for a workshop prompt to write a love letter to your worst enemy. I was thinking about who I consider an enemy who I would want to write a love letter to, and the answer naturally was my mother. It’s a letter to my mom, and the video is of me smoking blunts, and she hates that. I smoke. She also hates when I take pictures or videos of myself. She just thinks I’m so vain.
E: Can you talk about. your process as a writer?
R: Sometimes I write poems, and it takes years for them to be done. Sometimes I write a poem and it’s just done, like it was waiting to be written. I feel like not a lot of people talk about how difficult writing can be when you’re not consistently feeling inspired. In grad school, I wrote a ton. I had no trouble writing at all and it was just happening very organically and quickly and I was very prolific. Since grad school, writing has been like pulling teeth. It sucks, but it’s also amazing because sometimes when a poem is really eager to happen, it happens very quickly. Basically my writing process is that I just need the first line of the poem in my head. When I have that first line figured out, once I sit down to write, the rest of the poem is just waiting to happen. I just need that one image, the turn of phrase or interesting contrast. With the first line and a general topic in mind, the poem happens.
I try to use a lot of details that are very personal, that are very particular to me. I mine my memory for details. I’m always telling myself stories about my life. Other people write our story for us all the time. They tell us what our story is. They tell us on the news what we should be feeling or saying, what we should be fighting for, or arguing about. I want to tell my own story. I don’t want someone else to write a book about me. I want to be the final voice on what my life ends up being, I want to write that story because I’m living it. These poems are ways of packaging the stories and making them collectible, like taking pictures.
E: The whole concept of our agency over our own narrative is important for us as SWANA and queer folks.
R: I was reading earlier today about Coptic Christians in Egypt as indigenous people, which of course they are. It had never occurred to me that Coptic Christians are indigenous people. A lot of them don’t consider themselves Arab Egyptians. The writer was saying there’s a distinction between Egyptian and Arab. There was a lot about how the Arabs colonized Egypt and brought in Islam and the Arabic language, and now it’s so intertwined with Egyptian identity when it wasn’t always part of Egyptian identity. Being Egyptian and being Arab, I don’t want to speak for all Egyptians but for the ones I know, it’s come hand in hand for more than a thousand years. That’s because a lot of the Egyptians I know are also Muslim. So, being Muslim and being Arab are also things that go hand in hand for a lot of people. I know that there’s a lot politically for non Arab Muslims. I’m Arab and grew up Muslim, so I don’t know their side of the story but I can guess that people have strong feelings about it.
E: Yes, this is why it’s so important for us to tell our own stories. So what’s ahead for you?
R: I just heard today that a couple of my poems are being published in Postscript, an online literary magazine. So that’s pretty cool. I’m still sending my work out and hoping for the best. In the fall, I’m going to be teaching two classes at DePaul University in Chicago. They’re foundational essay writing classes, and I’m really really excited about that. I’ve been working on the syllabus for the past couple of weeks and carrying books around everywhere. I hate making notes and I love putting together a syllabus. It’s as exciting as writing a poem. It’s a different kind of fun because when you’re putting together a syllabus, you’re bringing different texts into conversation with each other to facilitate a dialogue. You’re bringing all of these different perspectives from the texts into the room, and the students are bringing their perspectives and that’s where the magic happens. And that’s what I’m hoping will happen this fall.
E: Do you have a message you’d want to share with our community?
R: It’s really hard to feel like you belong and we need to find a group of people that make us feel that way. So if you don’t have that group yet, keep looking, because they’re out there. And when you do find them it’s awesome, so really cherish it.
“loving the alien” @blacksunflowerspoetry
Photos: Anahit Cass @kristincassprojects