Brunel International African Poetry Prize – Winner: A Dialogue With Nadra Mabrouk
Nadra Mabrouk is a poet from Cairo, Egypt. She is the author of the chapbook, “How Things Tasted When We Were Young,” published by Finishing Line Press in 2016. Her work has appeared/ is forthcoming in POETRY, RHINO, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, among others. Her work is also forthcoming in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019). She has been recognized as a finalist for the 2017 Brett Elizabeth Jenkins Poetry Prize. Currently, she is a content intern for The Academy of American Poets, and is an MFA candidate at New York University, where she is a Goldwater fellow.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email
Nkateko: Nadra, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Nadra: Thank you so much, Nkateko. I appreciate you for doing this work. I am grateful to be on the shortlist alongside such powerful writers. It has been an honor learning their voices. I was born in Cairo, Egypt, and left when I was nearly seven years of age. I have held onto so many memories, most of which appear in my work. My family moved from El Fagalah to El Haram, then Madinat an Nasr (Nasr City), then finally, my grandmother’s apartment in Shobra, which is where we spent the last couple of years before we left for the United States. When we came to the United States, we often moved, still. I have held on to so many places in my body, and they often appear in my dreams. I have known impermanence for the longest time. Writing has allowed me to engage more closely with uncertainty and stare into its shivering demeanor. And though there was always that instability, I have found pieces of myself in all of these homes, and in doing so, I’ve also pieced together a community of support, starting with my family.
I am humbled by the experience of getting to know new African artists, identifying with their work, and lifting one another up, no matter the distances between us. I emphasise gratitude in my daily life, which is something my mother taught me, and I take time each day to recount all that I am grateful for, especially on days that are more difficult. Community and support are two of the most important essentials I am eternally grateful for, and this shortlist embodies both of these in its core.
Nkateko: Community and support are indeed very important, and I agree that this shortlist epitomizes both. Speaking of community, your work is forthcoming in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019), co-edited by Fatimah Asghar and 2015 Brunel Prize co-winner Safia Elhillo. That strikes me as another beautiful community for you, being part of a compilation featuring work by Muslim writers from all walks of life. Speaking from the perspective of someone who is part of numerous projects that are affirming and encouraging of your identity and heritage, do you have any advice on finding and/or building a writing community? When you started writing, where did you go to find a sense of community, or your “writing tribe” as some call it?
Nadra: Yes, the most moving aspect of Halal If You Hear Me is that it created a safe space for many Muslim voices to coexist, and I am so grateful to Fatimah and Safia for working on this project and bringing it into the world, especially now. This is the best part of a positive and supportive community. It holds and hears and strengthens you, while amplifying your voice. When I started writing, I was lucky to have found my first community in my high school creative writing class at fifteen years old. I found communities wherever I went, and I am especially thankful for The New York State Summer Writers Institute, Florida International University, and the New York University Creative Writing Program. School won’t always be where you find your support system, and I encourage others to reach out and beyond their comfort zones when looking for community. If something is lacking, you can act to fill the void with what is needed. Go to authors’ events in your local bookstore. Start a writing club or a workshop meet-up in a space where you feel safe. If there isn’t a room for your voice to be heard, you can build it. Build the space. You are the most powerful person in your life.
“I have known impermanence for the longest time. Writing has allowed me to engage more closely with uncertainty and stare into its shivering demeanor. And though there was always that instability, I have found pieces of myself in all of these homes, and in doing so, I’ve also pieced together a community of support, starting with my family.“
Nkateko: In “Portrait of Autumn, Spiraling” you speak of the fragility of the body, and it took me back to the dissection hall in medical school, seeing the ligaments that hold the vertebrae of the spine together and then the delicate system of nerves encased in that column of bone. I remember also being much younger and my mother telling me that someone we knew could no longer walk because he had “broken his back-bone” and how I pictured a more brutal breaking than the “twig snapping” that a true spinal cord injury is akin to. “Portrait of Autumn, Spiraling” takes the reader to so many places; the doctor’s office, the running track, the kitchen floor with the narrator’s mother and “mottled bodies of geese.” How did that poem come about?
Nadra: Thank you for sharing your memories. I cannot imagine looking at the body so closely, though I suppose my poetry is how I get closer to it. Our bones are our foundation. You are breaking something of your core.
You are right in mentioning the “fragility of the body,” as that is an overarching theme of my work. The fragility of the human body and often the animal body, as well. One day you are here, full and healthy, the next, you are missed, your voice a cloud.
I wrote “Portrait of Autumn, Spiraling” during the fall of 2018. I was visiting many doctors, and spending a lot of time in physical therapy to deal with chronic lower back pain and inflammation after a fall, while on an already hectic New York schedule. I felt overwhelmed and far from my body, almost as though I were trying to look at it while suspended in the air. I did not understand it, and needed someone else’s help in learning how to handle it. The way my physical therapist spoke about the body while trying to heal me to the best of her ability was touching. She always had interesting analogies to make for different exercises. One time, while instructing me to drop my spine onto the table, she said, “think of yourself slowly dropping a string of pearls on the table.” I’d never thought of the spine in this way before, but realized it was the perfect image. A delicate string of pearls is what my spine felt like, and when I thought about it that way, I learned to move my body with some patience and compassion. In a way, I felt a little liberated. We are all trying to heal, in so many ways. This poem acts as a coming to a greater knowledge.
Nkateko: “This poem acts as a coming to a greater knowledge.” This is beautiful. In sharing your work, is the hope that others join you on the journey towards “a greater knowledge”? Or do you allow each poem to do what it will? Some people say that they expect nothing from their art except for it to exist; not for it to feed them, take them places or solve any of the world’s problems but only that it exists. I have found that by merely existing, poems do more than what their writers envision. I have read excerpts of Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky online and have thought about the writer’s intention but also the many lives those poems now have beyond the writer, beyond his attempts or intention. Is that the mark of great work, that it goes beyond what we have envisioned?
Nadra: I want to take a moment to thank you again for speaking with me. You are such a thoughtful and close reader of the word, and it’s so great having this conversation with you. I can’t speak to how others experience my work, especially as an emerging artist. But I strongly believe in allowing each poem to do what it will and what it must in this world. I often look at poems as breathing, living pieces of the artist. Each reader will share a different relationship to the work. There will be a different memory brought up each time. There will be a different voice drifting through their minds. How the poem sings and hums will sound differently to every ear and bone. These are moments that go beyond the writer’s control, though we have the sensibility to create the moments, we cannot predict the way the piece will travel into another body. The beauty of the work is in its emotional complexity. We must learn to let it free into the world to do its work. I am currently reading Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle. In the chapter titled “On Sentimentality” Ruefle writes, “Well, for starters, I concede that a poem ought to be well-knit. But knit clothing implies comfortable clothing and a good poem is seldom comfortable; either it vanquishes us with anguish or electrifies us with ecstasy or makes us pause and consider a new sense of the world or unravels us altogether […]” When I read, I look for that electricity. I long for my own discomfort. I long to be brought to tears. Ruefle goes on to write that, “every time I read a poem I am willing to die, insofar as I am surrendering myself to the mercy of someone else’s speech […] you are supposed to be preparing me for my death.” Though I don’t necessarily die every time I read a poem, I yearn to be brought so deep in, I forget the way out.
Nkateko: In your poem, ‘“Let’s Go Get Sammak In Queens And Have An Egyptian Day,” He Says’, the sixth stanza gives me the exact feeling that Mary Ruefle speaks of, that ‘preparing me for my death’ feeling: “Tell me, closer, the Arabic word for the sunken/gasp when a needle lodges itself between lungs.” I know that feeling so well, of my lungs being deflated and the air leaving my body in one go. It accompanies every sudden heartache, every loss, every disappointment. I remember a friend telling me that if I continued to have a physical reaction to every heartbreak, then I wasn’t going to live very long. I want poetry to do this to me. The last poem to leave me that breathless was “Ode To Dalya’s Bald Spot” by Angel Nafis, where she says, “you ever look at a thing/you ain’t make, but become/a mother in the looking?” When I read that, I thought Yes! That’s how I feel about poems. Poetry makes me a “mother in the looking” whenever I encounter someone’s work for the first time, or speak to someone about their work as we have just done. Do you relate to this idea of looking at something you have not made but being made “a mother in the looking’ by it? What is that thing?
Nadra: Your friend is sincere, and they genuinely care about you. I know those physical reactions, too well. If you are ever in New York, or if I am ever near you in South Africa, we need to sit down over some tea to talk about the way the body is consumed by the heart. My appetite is usually the first to take the fall when I am not feeling well emotionally. It isn’t that I forget to eat, but that I know I should and lose the will. When I was a child, my grandmother used to sit me down with a large Big Bird toy over my meals. She used to make it so that Big Bird is also eating with me, enjoying the food. I felt comfort and joy in the company, even if it were make-believe. There were always tricks involved to get me to eat as a child. There was always running away from the plate. I was always weighing myself, charting my growth in elementary school, counting how many chocolate milks I’ve had that week. I find myself reverting back to that child when I am down. I become desperate, torn between the heart that won’t mend and taking care of my body, the temporary house in which the light of my soul is trying to thrive. I could go on. I am more mindful now of that. The heart breaks and then the body wants to break, as well. But we mustn’t lose our willpower, and I hope we have love surrounding us to remind us of our strength in pulling through.
I love Angel Nafis’s work, and I hold that poem in particular very close to me. That is such a powerful line. I believe in that poem, the speaker is looking at their sister, and in that moment, in that gaze, the speaker feels like the mother. “i am witnessing her in whatever/ state her body will allow./ Bismillah to the brain that/ put my name next to her name/ and said look at this girl your/ whole life and know some kind/ of peace.” When my mother brought my little sister home from the hospital, I remember spending so much time looking at her, the way her face contorted, paying attention to the eyelashes that fell when she cried. We have grown now, but my gaze has not changed. My little sister sometimes is my child and she can attest to that. The way we look at those we love and how we see them in different moments of our lives, the way you feel responsible for certain things you are not actually responsible for. The “thing” sometimes changes. I would say, most of the time it is my own work. All of the time, it is my cat. All of the time, it is my sister, my nephew, those who are younger who share a thread of my blood.
Nkateko: I am grateful for your kind words, for acknowledging that I give each poem a thoughtful and close reading. It’s an honour that I get to speak to you about your work. I believe I owe it to every poem and every poet to look closely, to probe, to question. Your work has allowed me to delve into my own memories, has shown me that “there is a kindred to healing” and that is a gift I get to unwrap with every new reading. Thank you for that. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Nadra: Nkateko, thank you for being who you are, and bearing witness to the word and writing it. You are so patient with the work and I wish everyone were as generous and caring with poetry. There is no right or wrong answer. We are here to listen, and to be brought home, or to our knees, in prayer or in awe. We are here. Thank you for being here with me, for continuing to exist in this space, and doing this work. I have faith that someday we will be in the same city, and we can have an in-person conversation in a cafe corner, the world buzzing impatiently outside the door.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.