Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC, living in New York City. A Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she is currently completing an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize and is a joint winner for the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. Her work appears in several publications and in the anthologies The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Again I Wait for This to Pull Apart, and her manuscript asmarani has been selected for the 2016 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.
Geosi Gyasi: You once described yourself as a “Sudanese by way of Washington, D.C., by way of Cairo, Egypt, by way of everywhere and nowhere for long”. My question is, where do you actually belong?
Safia Elhillo: Isn’t there a saying that goes something like, “wherever you go, there you are”? I find that sort of outlook helpful whenever I start another “where do I belong” crisis. I’m a third-culture kid, so my original homeland and my host land and where I “belong” don’t necessarily align. I get to choose where I belong, I think. All this to say, I haven’t decided yet.
Geosi Gyasi: At what point in your life did you discover poetry?
Safia Elhillo: Fairly early on- my grandfather is a poet (he writes in Arabic) and my aunt is a poet and playwright, so I don’t remember any exact moment of sort of stumbling onto/into poetry- it just always seemed to be around.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think poetry has a place in the modern world?
Safia Elhillo: Absolutely- I don’t think this need to mine a language to find ways to express ourselves can ever really go extinct. I think the longer poetry is around, the more it evolves and learns to make room for voices that might not be considered “traditional” or whatever- just the more time we spend with it, the more we learn that there is more than one way to approach it. And the older it gets, the more approaches we can learn to take.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles”?
Safia Elhillo: At the time, I was just learning about things like persona and using characters as a voice in poems, and was really excited to try some of those things out. The whole thing sort of started out as a joke, that if I were in the Wu-Tang Clan one of my names would be Susie Knuckles. I was getting a little antsy and bored and felt like all my poems were starting to sound the same, and, as an experiment, tried writing poems “as” Susie Knuckles.
Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering whose photo I see on the cover of “The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles”?
Safia Elhillo: It’s a photo of me trying to recreate the photo on the album cover for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version”
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you choose to tell the stories in “The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles” as a nursery rhyme?
Safia Elhillo: Calling them a nursery rhyme was a kind of celebration of the childlike tone I found in a lot of the poems- Susie Knuckles, to me, feels like a little girl.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of what Warsan Shire wrote about your book, that, “Habibti Safia writes and it leaves a lump in your throat but also honey under your tongue”?
Safia Elhillo: I think Warsan is the sweetest. She really helped encourage me to get the manuscript together when Susie Knuckles was still a floating idea.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever thought about why you write?
Safia Elhillo: There’s not much else I know how to do, first of all. Also, I feel like I get to hear a lot of beautiful moments of misspeaking or mistranslation around my family—this sort of crooked syntax that comes from conceiving of a sentence in one language but speaking it in another—and I just want to make work that honors that and that makes room for this translationese Arabized English I grew up hearing and speaking.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re the poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression. When did you join Kinfolks?
Safia Elhillo: My friend Joshua Bennett started Kinfolks in the summer of 2013, and all the editors joined then.
Geosi Gyasi: As poetry editor, what do you regard as good poetry?
Safia Elhillo: I can really only say what I like—I like strangeness, I like obsession, and I like seeing syntaxes that I’m not used to seeing.
Geosi Gyasi: Again, as poetry editor, do you edit your own work?
Safia Elhillo: I do, and I’m starting to enjoy editing my own work. It’s like sculpting! You find the poem as it’s supposed to be, hidden inside the poem as it was first drafted.
Geosi Gyasi: With regards to your poetry, how is it that you’re able to infuse Arabic with English?
Safia Elhillo: This infusion of Arabic and English is probably as close to my natural way of thinking and speaking as I’ve been able to render in writing so far. When I am around close family, I don’t ever have to stop and translate because if a word wants to come out in English, it can, and if it wants to come out in Arabic, it can, so we end up speaking this mix to each other.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “quarantine with abdelhalim hafez?
Safia Elhillo: It’s part of a series which became my thesis manuscript, where I just imagined lots of different situations where Abdelhalim Hafez and I would hang out and do things, and the poems are how I imagined those situations going.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the New School. Why poetry and why not fiction or non-fiction?
Safia Elhillo: Prose still kind of scares me, to be honest. I prefer the space and silence that I’ve found in writing poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: How would you like to be addressed: Poet or Writer?
Safia Elhillo: Either or, it doesn’t really bother me.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “Watching Arab Idol with Abdelhalim Hafez” was recently published by One Throne Magazine. I’m curious to know if Abdelhalim Hafez is a character you know of in real life?
Safia Elhillo: Abdelhalim Hafez is an Egyptian singer and actor who was like THE original heartthrob. He died in the 1970s and the story goes that all these women were so distraught that he’d died that there was a mass suicide of women after Abdelhalim’s death.
Geosi Gyasi: If you were to name just one writer who inspires you as a writer, who would he/she be?
Safia Elhillo: Anne Carson! Reading her really helps stretch my limitations in terms of form and what I think is possible or doable in a poem.