Hala Alyan and Elizabeth Cantwell: A Conversation

Hala Alyan

HA: Elizabeth, I have to start by saying how much I enjoyed this collection. I’m so curious about the process of writing it. Did you start off with a particular image that later shaped the collection? I ask because the repetition of dreamscapes was haunting and contributed to the book as a whole having an otherworldly quality.

EC: Thanks so much, Hala! I’m glad you asked about this – you’re absolutely right that the repetition of the dream world came from a specific image/experience. When I was in elementary school, I began having a recurring dream – the one outlined in various iterations in the book – that really haunted me for a lot of reasons. In the dream, my little brother and I were outside, having a picnic, and he’d always ask me for something — another half a sandwich, some more lemonade, a napkin, something that got me to stand up and walk away from the picnic blanket. And I’d be walking away, getting him this thing he needed, and I’d turn back and see some sort of small animal crawling over to him through the grass. A kitten or a fawn or a puppy or a small chick. And he’d get this huge smile on his face — I think I started having this dream when I was about 10 years old, which would make him 6 or so. And I’d just know in that dream second that something was very wrong. This is also about the part in the dream where I’d become aware that I’d had this dream before and it was happening again. I’d start running back towards the picnic blanket, to tell him not to touch the animal, it was a trap, but it was always too late, and before I could get there the tiny cute thing would transform into a tiger, snatch him up in its jaws, and take him away. And I’d be running after them, that slow awful impossible run you do in dreams, and I’d know I couldn’t save him, and I’d wake up, out of breath, having failed yet again.

Elizabeth Cantwell

Later in life, when my brother began struggling with drugs, alcohol, and a series of stints in jail, the dream came back to me, and seemed somehow prophetic or real or upsetting on a new level, and I knew I had to write about it.

Your book, too, has a lot of dreams in it — and I wonder, because I so clearly had a concrete dream I was playing with — are the dreams you talk about in your book real, or do you sometimes invent dreams for the sake of the device of having a dream? I’ve definitely done both, in the past — I’d love to hear more about where those dreams in Four Cities came from, or just what the device of the dream means to you.

HA: Oh, wow. That is such a poignant and heartbreaking image to have had to return to nightly. Yes, there’s something prophetic about it, and also something tragic in how you were doomed to forget each time, doomed to have it happen all over again.

I’m so fascinated with dreamwork, in life and in art, and I find that many of my poems actually begin with a certain image or symbol that first came to me in a dream. I’ve certainly played around with dreamscapes in writing, sometimes recreating them faithfully, sometimes inventing them entirely. In Four Cities, the dreams I allude to were real. I go through periods of my life, depending on what is happening in my waking world, where I will dream lucidly and, more importantly, remember my dreams very vividly. While writing FC, this was a period of time when I was dreaming very intensely, carrying those dreams around with me daily.

With the collection I’m working on now, a very similar thing has been happening. For the past year, I’ve been remembering my dreams in very intense detail almost every night. And so snippets of them have reappeared in my recent poems, sometimes without me even realizing it’s happening. While it’s not the same dream in different iterations, as in your case, they are often the same themes and images: of drowning, of not saving the ones I love, of new cities that I have to explore on my own.

Has the dream stopped or changed since you wrote the collection? And what was it like to write about something so distressing, so elusive?

EC: Well, that specific recurring dream stopped in early middle school, so I haven’t had it since — if anything, I was surprised to find it bubble back up in my memory when I began to deal with my brother’s problems as an adult. As for what it’s like to write about something distressing and elusive — isn’t that what all writers do, all the time? We’re all obsessed with our own obsessions, writing to purge some elemental horror from our deepest selves that is, in the end, never completely rooted out. Even the poets whose work on the surface seems incredibly calm and self-assured and placid — I’m thinking of Merwin, maybe — once you dig in, it starts to become obvious that there are terrible repetitions and anxieties and dark rooms hovering underneath.

You talked about lucid dreaming, and how that seems to be something important in your writing process sometimes. I definitely had the sense of the kind of surrealism that comes with the not-dream-not-awake state in a lot of your poems. But you ground that surreal dream state so clearly in place. In “After Thunderstorms in Oklahoma,” which I love, you have the reader set clearly in one place (Oklahoma), which then morphs into a memory from another place (Ramallah), which then becomes a surreal forest and the space of dreaming … How did you deal with the ways place can be both fluid and concrete in a collection of poems that so clearly relies on place for structure?

HA: I love that description of the “dark rooms” that hover within. It’s so accurate. Yes, I think a lot of my work plays with that space between reality and surrealism, particularly because I’m so fascinated with how that space intersects with one’s sense of self. I think physical place (i.e. cities) play such a prominent role precisely because place, in my experience, is both fluid and concrete. In titling the collection Four Cities, I was aware that, in reality, I was actually encountering dozens and, of those dozens, each one was further quartered and slivered because I feel like I have many versions of every city I’ve loved within me: there’s the streets, the physical scents and sounds, but also the different selves I wanted to be (or discarded) in those cities, not to mention the ways I recreate those cities in memory and in dream. So I think that I dealt with that messy contradiction of fluidity versus concreteness by allowing it to exist, rather than trying to tidy it up.

There are certain images that flitted throughout your collection: those of fire, creatures, water, doors. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was how you were able to return to the same elements without it ever feeling tired or repetitive. It was always with a renewed vigor, what felt like a fresh pair of eyes. Could you speak a little about that?

EC: Oh man, the former selves. So many of them, strewn all over. That makes me think of your poem “Push,” which I read a couple different ways – both as a conversation between cities, and as a conversation between different versions of the self in those cities.

And yes! Images. I’m so glad to hear they didn’t feel tired or repetitive. I do think that’s a very real danger of writing a book inspired by a recurring dream — by the end of the book there’s a risk that the readers are going to be like “Okay, seriously, we’re doing the tiger thing again?” I don’t know if I had a real strategy to keep things from feeling redundant other than trying to be true to the feeling of the recurring dream, of déjà vu — you know you’ve had this experience before, but because you know that, the whole thing feels weirder and more unsettling, not ho-hum.

The thing I noticed almost right away in your collection, as far as images go, is that your poems are very busy. You’ve packed them full of objects, things, adjectives. They feel very dense that way. Image density is something that scares me sometimes, but you pull it off really well–how did you find yourself navigating that as you wrote?

HA: What a perfect way to describe it: how the feeling of déjà vu only makes you more unsettled.

alyan_final-250x386I’m an adjective addict. I’m like a cook who oversalts every meal! When I gave my first proper piece of fiction to a writer friend of mine, she said, “Cut most of your adjectives and adverbs. Then cut some more.” In fiction, I think that sort of language can easily stifle the reader, but in poetry it feels more allowed somehow, more forgivable. It’s one of the things I love the most about poetry, how you can take a single tiny thing—a moment, an object, the arch of a lover’s eyebrow—and meditate on it.

I think how I write is very much a reflection of how I think; my mind is always in a state of buzzing, trying to consider every possible angle and incarnation of a thing, always making room for more. My poetry ends up dripping with images. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I think in the past year or so, I’ve tried to see what kind of poetry I can produce with a more minimalist approach to language. It’s been quite a challenging, if at times rewarding, experiment.

My favorite line in you book (my heart!) was: “I’m always opening the door to the same threat/over and over/and every time it looks like love.” It stunned me. So honest, so raw. It got me thinking about the different ways we love and lose, and of course about the way something that appears to be love in the recurring dream (deer, rabbit, etc) ends up being a threat (tiger). Can you speak a little bit more about this idea? Did you intend for it to have so many different meanings?

EC: I feel like we should switch brains for a day in a sort of poetic Freaky Friday. I tend to be extremely wary of adjectives and I try to use only the most minimal and obvious and simple adjectives in my poems … But I really admire poets whose poetry encompasses a wider range of vocabulary and does so while sounding authentic. I would love to stay simple but also get better at describing images. It’s hard. I agree that the idea of meditating on a single moment is what’s alluring about poetry, but the closer I get to something the harder it is, for me, to accurately pin it down with words.

Which maybe speaks to that line you’ve pulled—the more starkly face-to-face with something I am, the easier it is to fail to see it for what it is. As far as what I intended thecantwell-cover5-250x386 line to mean—I actually remember writing that whole poem very quickly without thinking too hard about it, like walking really fast out into the ocean before your brain can tell your body it’s too cold and you have to stop. I try not to mean anything when I write. The poems I draft when I’m trying to mean something feel horrible and cliché and labored. But I can feel it—after the fact—when I’ve written something that’s managed to mean a lot of things successfully.

Don’t you think, in addition to those ideas about loving and losing, or loving the wrong things, that love itself is a threat, even the truest love? There is absolutely nothing more terrifying than the vulnerability you have to take on in order to really love someone. Nothing.

HA: Yes, yes, yes to poetic Freaky Friday! It’s interesting to me that what we’re essentially talking about is restraint: of self, of language, of self-censorship. I resonate with that idea of stepping into the ocean quickly before your mind can stop you. I feel like that’s what writing is for me in general, always trying to stay ahead of myself, or rather the smart-alecky part of myself that likes to clear her throat and say, “Well, actually, that’s a bit trite, isn’t it?”

I completely agree and would add that the truest love is often the biggest threat. To love is to yourself in something else, even if it’s just the tiniest inch of yourself, and that’s always daunting. Writing about love—as authentic and pure as it might be—is equally scary, because you are simultaneously witnessing and making witness out of the world, putting that process on display. I think there’s something remarkably brave about it, particularly when we’re talking about loving the wrong things.

My final question is about what comes next. What are you working on these days, what’s been effortless about it, what’s been particularly tricky?

EC: That’s a great question! I’ve actually been working today on a document currently titled “new manuscript” so … I guess I’m working on a new manuscript? I’m not really sure what it is yet, but it’s something. I think it’s about halfway done. Maybe not quite.

The things I’ve been writing in the past year or so haven’t been as united in theme as Nights I Let The Tiger Get You — I think that manuscript is really almost a story, and is certainly something you can read chronologically and get a cumulative understanding from. I’m doing more standalone poems right now, rather than working on a more project-oriented manuscript — you know, those manuscripts where it’s like “Every poem is title after a fast food meal!” or “It’s one poem for every day in 1943, but told through the eyes of a dying cow!” I kind of wish I were more project-oriented right now, because in a way that makes your task easier, but I just haven’t had the ability to make myself buy into a uniting theme yet. I bet if someone else were to read these poems, they would immediately identify a few obvious threads tying everything together, and probably I will eventually give all of them to someone I trust and make them tell me what I’ve actually written. But at the moment I’m just writing what I want to write.

What’s been effortless about it? Um, nothing? DO YOU WRITE EFFORTLESSLY? Give me the secret!

I am mostly joking … I guess I do, as I mentioned above, find it effortless to write a poem once I’m in the right headspace and can kind of just open myself up to whatever is going to happen on the page. But, mostly, this “book” (if I can even call it that yet) has felt a lot harder to work towards than Nights. Finding the time and space to get into the poetry mindset feels nearly impossible. I’m not in grad school anymore, I don’t have a stipend expressly for the purpose of writing poems, I have a full-time job that frequently requires night and weekend commitments, a 3-year-old who is currently crawling precariously on the couch behind my shoulders and shooting a Kylo Ren Hot Wheels car across the windowsill … My life is really full of a lot of wonderful beautiful things that have nothing to do with words. And that’s been the challenge and the inspiration for me lately—finding ways to shape this weird and boring and mundane and transcendent life into poetry even when everything about it resists poetry.

What about you? What’s next on your plate?

HA: Okay, I laughed aloud at It’s one poem for every day in 1943, but told through the eyes of a dying cow. Well, whatever form your New Manuscript winds up taking, I’m eager to read it. It sounds like these new poems are taking root in rich, evolving, honest soil, and that’s always a refreshing thing (as a reader; it’s hard as a writer, I know).

I’m working on a collection very tentatively titled “The Twenty-Ninth Year,” which is about, well, my twenty-ninth year. I turned thirty in July, and the year leading up to it was such a strange and difficult and marvelous one. Of all I’ve written, these new poems are probably the most easily “traceable” to me, in that I basically turned myself into a subject of study, and am trying to do it as authentically and unflinchingly as possible. Sometimes, it’s nothing short of impossible. Sometimes, it’s healing and good and I feel cleaner after the poem. We’ll see what the manuscript as a whole looks like, once I start stitching it together. That’s usually my favorite part.

This has been so wonderful, Elizabeth! I can’t wait for your new book. Thanks for letting me into your (lovely) mind.


Elizabeth Cantwell a high school teacher and poet living in Claremont, California. Her first book of poems, Nights I Let the Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), was a runner-up for the 2012 Hudson Prize; she is also the author of a chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press, 2014). Her work has recently been published or is forthcoming in such journals as The Los Angeles Review, PANK, The Cincinnati Review, and Hobart.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals including The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner and Columbia Poetry Review. Her poetry collection Atrium (Three Rooms Press) was awarded the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry. Four Cities, her second collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press. Her latest collection, Hijra, was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2016.

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