Poetry as Translation: A Dialogue With Ladan Osman

Ladan Osman is a Somali-American poet and teacher. She is the author of the chapbook, Ordinary Heaven and poetry  book collection, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony selected for the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize. Her writing appears in a variety of journals such as Narrative Magazine, Artful Dodge, Vinyl Poetry, Prairie Schooner and RHINO. She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Union League Civic & Arts Foundation, Cave Canem Foundation, and Michener Center for Writers. Osman edits for ROAR Feminist Magazine, and curates for The Blueshift Journal.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the magnetic city of Brooklyn in New York, USA by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Ladan, as a storyteller, which aspects of your life experiences do you find yourself needing to translate?

Ladan: A lot of times I am chasing something that is inside of me. I started developing a theory that there are images we carry inside of us, almost like Plato’s essential or original image except it may not be as rigid or even as advanced as that. There are some things in our moment to moment lives, that we carry and attempt to put into language, artifacts, and pieces of writing. I am regularly doing that, to the degree where I feel there’s no clear rest from that. It’s a form of work that’s always happening, in listening and studying, in my dreams and in waking life. Sometimes it’s just a breath or the thrust of the breath, or a melody, that could be encouraged by a song.

There are certain songs I listen to until I start hearing the song in different ways. There are poems I have written listening to songs on repeat (for example: I wrote the last poem in my book listening to Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings”). There’s something about the tone of the song I wanted to understand. It was also opening something in me, so I made myself listen to it over and over again. But then it gets to a point where the song is almost atmospheric, and you are not even listening to it anymore. You are just feeling all the other parts. It gives me the opportunity to deeply listen.

I look at visual art at least once or twice a week.  There’s an invitation that paintings make to me, that is almost tactile.  I am also really drawn to listening to people as they speak. From a young age, people have always been comfortable sharing information with me.  Sometimes it can sound a little bit like a confession. I try to take that very seriously because there’s a lot of loneliness in this world, especially in this heavily-digital area. It’s practicing compassion for others and for myself.

Gaamangwe: How do you navigate the things that are not easily translatable?

Ladan: There is so much  that is not translatable. The acceptance of that is what makes it possible to even try. I think that’s the main thing actually. In art especially, but probably in all areas of life. It is the sincere effort of trying to translate. And there is something in the art that you don’t have control over. It’s going to do its growth and hopefully it does work on you. It does evolve you as an artist and as a thinker. I think of it as human work. Your heart and your mind grows. You feel more deeply connected to the physical world around you. You are a more responsible custodian. You are more self-aware and you connect to other humans. I think, hopefully, the things that we are doing day to day, lead us to greater sensitivity, which can be very painful and uncomfortable but with magnificent reward.

I have learned a lot from other artists. Some of these people are emerging or we haven’t seen as much of their work in publication and exhibitions. The things they have made, very often it seems, were with some difficulty, strain and effort. I think my main goal in life is to be a good artistic citizen. I don’t feel good about myself if I don’t have or make an opportunity to edit, to mentor, to look at a friend’s work. To sit with a work and look at it very carefully, with some generosity.

The thing I return to outside literature is photography. It’s a very productive anxiety because I don’t feel as technically proficient, even if I have the knowledge or the practice. I used to take photos, then stopped for eleven years, and only returned to that in the last six month. It’s been a good exercise and it has taught me to be vulnerable while working in real time.

With photography, you are present. I experience that torment, of not quite being able to make the work communicate what I want it to communicate, but I think that is a form of a gift. It allows me to experience this as a sweet torment and it encourages me to further study. I think it’s just good luck and I have to be mindful to develop whatever it is that I already have, to take emotional risks. Doing something hard, that’s a little bit scary, something that I am not proficient in at all. For me, that’s the best thing.

Gaamangwe: Do you think that there is a piece of work of poetry or photography where you feel like you came close to the perfect translation of whatever it is that you wanted to translate?

Ladan: I don’t know how much that has happened. I think sometimes the thing is better than your intention. That’s the most exquisite thing actually. To work with an artifact and to continue to work at it, editing and revising it, placing the work and figuring out the right way. Sometimes that work is more advanced than you and you realize that you have evolved as a human being to meet the expectation of that work. And that has happened to me a few times to the degree where there were poems that came before and poems that came after.

In my book, one of them is “How to Make a Shadow.” I wrote it when I was having a very hard time in Grad School. I didn’t fit in and I was really uncomfortable with the sense of intellectual and class-based evaluations that subtly played out in a space and I was kind of having these nightmares. My jaw was completely locked and my bones were being crushed. It was awful, and I would wake up, and my face would actually hurt in waking life.  And I realized that there was something that I needed to look into but I had no idea what to look at. I was frustrated at this thing and I did recognize some of the language and commentary as racialized, and that’s kind of what made it so difficult to remain temperate and hold my ground in that space.

I didn’t realize at the time but  I was also thinking about all different things and  gathered them  into myself. I was looking at medieval poetry, from where the people were praying for help from the plague and they have a collective vision of a black dog that comes to destroy their religious implement. I was also watching and reading interviews related to Mike Tyson at the time. His coach said that he was a dog, and he really emphasized it,  and said  “a black dog.” It got me thinking of the word “nigger,” which is extremely sensitive, and I grew up hearing that and being called that a lot. At that young age, it was an anger that would sometimes make me feel out of control. But it was an implosion, over and over, because I wouldn’t show anything in class. I would take it with me to other places. I took it to my personal space, to my desk and it was not productive. And so the act of  writing that poem, felt like I was breaking something and taking away something from myself.  At first I had male pronouns, then I went to read it somewhere, and I changed it to female pronouns at the last minute. I was so emotional reading the piece that I almost couldn’t get through because it needed some distance.

It’s not what I started with but somehow it came together. I just think that; everyday try something. It doesn’t actually matter whether everyone understands what a work is doing or to rate it as beautiful or good. I think that if it’s real, then it’s the best that you can do at that time. So I always stand behind my work and say, this is the absolute best that I can do at this time. It can be better but I am not going to obsess over some standard of achievement, even within myself. There has to be a point where you can put it to rest and be at peace with it. Because I think for me when I don’t do that, it opens me up to evaluation outside of myself.  So I just ask myself;  does it do something in the world? And I count myself and my own work as work in the world.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful and necessary. To give oneself the space to be oneself in the moment. I think great art comes from that. The total immersion of the self in the moment, with no second guessing or calculating. The experiences that you translate in poetry often have to do with different themes such as displacement, home, love and longings. Do you find yourself gravitating towards the same kinds of things in photography as well?

Ladan: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I gravitate towards the same things.  I have realized that I am more interested in humans than conceptual things and objects as studies in light. I did not know that I was interested in portraiture of people, especially natural portraiture. I think it requires certain parts of my personality.  It requires a boldness. I wouldn’t say I am shy but some social things are really challenging for me. Because I am not comfortable taking a photo unless I have clear or implied permission from the subject, which requires me to look more carefully and to communicate with strangers at times.

Gaamangwe: What kind of philosophical questions are you exploring with your poetry?

Landan: One of my main questions is subjectivity. There is an interesting article that address the notion of reality, I think it came out in The Atlantic, and it says there is no such thing as a public object. So the way I understood it over time is how we can speak to objectivity. How we could and speak to make work from outside of ourselves. But also how do we deal with questions of connections and a responsibility to each other.  So these questions are playing out much more right now, where the stakes are much higher to this current, political moment. There is such a thing as an American story and there is such a thing as a public story.  

I’m also thinking about what it does to have borders and to have nations. This is the resident or this is the citizen, and this is the migrant who is now a fugitive, or this is the citizen who is now is a fugitive. America has become very messy in the last little while and I  started to think of these notions and how we are philosophically grounding everything on things that are a bit ancient and things based on concepts that a person cannot fully attend to, because they are ambiguous.

This is my everyday obsession. Our voices are being taken from us. Whose testimony is valid? But I don’t believe in being voiceless. How can it be that we are voiceless and powerless, when we are our own self generating machine to some degree? And so for me sometimes that’s the only thing keeping me okay in the midst of all this racism and prejudice and profound loss of human compassion. I don’t know if we can lose dignity. I think we can attempt to humiliate other humans and make them lose dignity in themselves, and that is a part of what is deeply hurting people. Because if we are going to make a shortcut at concepts that include all of us then it’s so much harder to deal with a person’s full story standing in front of you. That is what makes it easy to treat people as “migrant” and “refugees,” as non- people.  We don’t have the same tangibility and intangibility as them. Some of these issues are really unbelievable. I feel like for months now I have been in one unbelievable moment of tension and commotion.  

Gaamangwe: We are just here watching and it’s surreal. How are you translating this experience emotionally and philosophically? How did the Muslim Ban impact you, especially as a Somali?

Ladan: I was not necessarily responding to this as someone from a nation in the ban but rather as a person responding to what is clearly a human injustice. I am attempting to translate this and it’s not easy. It’s important to share that there is a lot of despair and I understand that people want to personalize those feelings. I am also interested in a sense of public grief. For example, I was in New York waiting on a platform and it was rush hour, and it was completely silent.  People were not saying anything; they were just standing there. Looking at the ground, not doing anything and not talking to each other.  If I attempt to give language to this, it is that it all felt apocalyptic. I am looking at this with a deep sense of disappointment.

When we talk about the Muslim Ban, I think it should have been looked at legally. Not that there haven’t been some really serious shifts in executive powers. I think definitely there was a general sense of trust in the last president when it came to specific actions. I don’t think there was a sense of fear of who could come after.

It’s something that is easy to many of us. We are comfortable with the story that requires less thinking and less effort.  I think trying to convince people that they have no story and that they have nothing and that they have failed their own democracy is actually a very powerful story. That in itself is an attempt and a tactic. I think it’s important to look at that on a personal level because what is disturbing is that people who were in the ban are family, friends, formers students and neighbors.

We need to look at anti-blackness that is playing out even in some of these communities we are part of. Where is it that my mind is colonized? Where is it that I am not a womanist? Where is it that I am not in touch with a sense of anti-blackness?  

I don’t think I have ever been comfortable travelling as an American citizen. It’s hard to travel, even travelling domestically is a challenge. I have been stopped on US flights to prove my citizenship.  It disturbed me how casual people are with their laws and how they don’t understand the law, and that you are afraid to apply the law for your own safety. It’s many layers of dangers.

One of the many things is a sense of discouragement to such a degree that you believe  you have no power, that even your own productivity and your own processing of these things is meaningless and counterproductive.  When there is really an opportunity to question and maybe continue to be an agent for exploration, even in yourself. How can we be ideal citizen? How can we contribute in real and many ways that shift vocabulary?  

I have never been comfortable with this segregation of margins, of being other. It’s really hard even in communities that are sympathetic, that are fighting for justice on behalf of people of color, on behalf of refugees. Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with some of the sanctions because even as they look like they are lifting it’s actually more deeply segregated. I am really disturbed by policies and laws that involve ways that people are treated. I am disturbed by what’s happening in the content of the story, because that’s a deeper violence and that’s something that will outlast the current political moment. This has revealed that we don’t see each other as full human beings that want the same things like a comfortable and peaceful place in our communities. I understand why people are where they are, because how often  has the heart been broken in public, especially for the people who are really invested in the community. We have to give space for disappointment but also unfolding crises many times a day.  The temptation is to hyper localize, I am Black Muslim woman, this is among the worst of the worst. But I recognize that I am in a privileged position. Literacy is a privilege; if you have certain connections and you don’t need an immigration lawyer that’s all privilege, if you can argue for yourself when an official confronts you, if you have parents that trained you how to deal with an official when they ask you for your identification or attempts to be in your space, that’s privilege too.  I can take a walk and think about these things as opposed to just carrying a harmed heart and having to work very hard for someone else, to the point of physical exhaustion.

I can look at my own sense of responsibility and if I have time to think, and if I have any kind of platform to say anything about it, and how can I do that? It’s not just compassion, it’s tenderness. How can I do this work tenderly? Some of that is looking at my own self. Where is it that my heart has been hardened?  I think one of the main things I have to  do is not have too many bruised feeling to the degree that I get distracted and can’t do work and can’t have a full sense of tenderness for everyone around me. For the people that I cannot have tenderness, I try to at least have questions for them, to work from a space of tolerance, even if I don’t agree.

The things that were happening in the airports, one thing that was very hard is how annoying it is to cause a human being to be scared and to waste time. To put people who don’t know what’s going to happen in unlabeled rooms. Also the administrative chaos, because people had jobs they were going to, family and loved ones to see and their lives were held up over this. Watching all this unfold was deeply uncomfortable. The immigration ban returned me to moments when I was a child and bullied, and how I would often look for a place to privately and freely cry. To experience that as adult was a little scary honestly. To return to the crying that you do when you are in a moment of true heartbreak. I don’t think the impact can be underestimated at all but there are so many people around the world that have hurt feelings.

The enormity of escaping war, of being a citizen in a nation that is being destroyed before your eyes, and of becoming a refugee cannot be understated.  Nobody wakes up and wishes for that.  To be a refugee in a camp and to deal with tons of paperwork, and then to wait for something to shift, and to be told, last minute, that this is not going through or you’ll be turned back and you need to wait 24 hours in a holding room, in an airport is just simply heartbreaking. The surprise and the pain that came from that, let alone the ongoing process which preceded that, is an ongoing, pure disregard for humanity.  I cried for hours because in all of this is the fact that people followed the rules, they filled out the paperwork, they did what they were supposed to do and they had good intentions. How difficult and annoying it is to be told you are invalid to some degree even though you participated in all the things you were supposed to do. Even though I recognize everything that is at stake politically, legally, and philosophically, I can’t get past that very simple delegation, total undermining of human movement. I’m still there. I think I will be for some time.

Gaamangwe: This is such a powerful reflection Ladan. You have expanded my understanding of the depth of this violent act. I really can’t comprehend this cruelty and the total disregard of humanity, over ideas of otherness and countries and belonging.

Ladan: It’s also wasteful because the way I understand it, you can’t take someone away from their humanity. It’s a wasteful exercise.  As humans we struggle to carry our own burden from day to day.  Let alone what’s happening in the community of nation or multiple nations that are in conflict with each other.  So what is the function of all this? It’s just causing problems that should not exist.  And it’s not just about being empathetic and sympathetic but efficiency. If you don’t have a heart, can we also look at this logistically? It’s a waste of resources.

Gaamangwe: So goes the quest for power. Its maddening and terrifying because, apparently in this world, an act of terror is still happening, where now whole cities and countries and human beings are terrified and rattled up.

Ladan: It’s hard. Even though the apocalyptic language is common around this time, people are turning to each other for understanding and comfort.  There is a harmony to what people are feeling, such that even when it’s sad, there is a hope, in that we are in a wavelength together, and maybe there is an opportunity for growth and for tenderness. I know even though it’s not totally logical and doesn’t make sense with my own experience especially inside these questions, I would say I am overall an optimist. I do believe overall in the generative power of good people. And there are tons of those around. If I have a sense of optimism, if I can really get out of my house and go out to connect with other human beings, that’s helping. To be present with people and try to be alright together. To be nicer to each other and to remind ourselves of our vastness. That we have the same complexity and that we each are carrying and navigating that complexity. It makes it a lot harder to put a label on someone and to say this person doesn’t belong, or this thing is a problem that I cannot overcome.

Gaamangwe: I agree. I think if we are speaking on that optimistic note, what this whole moment is doing, is inviting everyone, the whole world, to pay particular attention to other aspects of ourselves, and to truly stretch and immerse ourselves in our oneness.

Ladan: I totally agree. I think for now we just have to survive the day.  Thank you for these illuminating and thought-provoking reflections.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa’s leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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