Charif Shanahan, photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Sabrina Islam talks to Charif Shanahan about opening up conversations around trauma, poetry as a kind of spirituality, and his poem “Worthiness,” published in NER 42.1.
Sabrina Islam: In your incredible poem “Your foot, your root,” you write, “My mother says I am not African American, I am an Arab. / My friend Solmaz writes It matters what you call a thing.” Elsewhere, you talk about the psychic trauma of multiple colonializations and the complexity around identity in North Africa. Do you find that poetry provides any kind of framework that might help you reclaim your heritage and identity?
Charif Shanahan: My heritage and my identities are my own, whether I write poems about them or not. I think of my work less as a reclamation of my heritage and identity, and more as an articulation of the complexities around my cultural inheritance and subject position/s. The act of speaking within a given social context seems to require that one occupy a position within that social world—and so how does that problematize speaking, in poems or otherwise, for someone who challenges the integrity of those positions simply by existing? I try to take up this question in a poem recently published by the Yale Review.
SI: In “Worthiness,” you write, “On a cellular level trauma is inscribed into the body of the person who survives it, scientists confirm. / Some say the word “trauma” is overused these days to the extent its meaning is diminished. / The intention of the chokehold is to induce an unconscious state.” In your writing practice, how do you grapple with the heaviness of trauma? How do you show yourself generosity?
CS: I show myself generosity precisely by grappling with forces that would otherwise render me silent. It can be an act of generosity (to one’s self and to others) to speak at all.
SI: Then there is also the task of bringing this heaviness to your readers, students, and family: “You’ll have to forgive me for being heavy. / Speaking to you here, like this, is the most difficult thing I can do. / The presence it requires is agonizing, feels fatal.” How do you make room for these discussions in poetry and in the classroom?
CS: I make room for these discussions in my poetry by centering them at times, by being willing to have them at all. What’s the point of making art that risks nothing? That is silent about the aspects of human life most in need of our reckoning? As an educator, I try to make room not just for the “difficult,” but for everything—poems that exist across the full spectrum of human emotion and experience—because that is the truth of what we live. Without a sense of safety, I don’t think it’s possible to discuss meaningfully a poem whose stakes feel very high, and so it’s a priority for me to ensure that each student feels safe, seen and heard.
SI: In a review of your poetry collection in Up the Staircase Quarterly, Margaret Stawowy recognizes an uncompromising sense of the dignity of others in your poetry. In your poem “Single File,” you write, “I don’t mean who we are to each other; I mean / who we are to ourselves.” How do you think about identity and worthiness?
CS: Well, it’s clear that some identities have been rendered less worthy by the terms of the world. That’s a lie, of course. The first and only conferrer of worthiness is yourself.
SI: What does belonging to a physical place mean to you?
CS: I don’t know. I tend to think of “belonging” metaphysically, spiritually. And I don’t know that we can separate physical spaces from their ghosts. If I belong—am at home—anywhere, it’s in my body. But that body, naturally, carries histories, both personal and collective, and has different meanings based on where I bring it, some of which challenge my inhabitation of it.
SI: The line from your earlier collection, “I want to enter my life like a room,” is echoed in “Worthiness.” You once said that the poem is something we can experience in our body and that, although one’s analytical intelligence is often emphasized, our body can also be a guide to understanding and appreciating the poem without the need to articulate what that is. In your experience, does the ritual of encountering and repeating familiar lines of poetry help develop such emotional intelligence?
CS: Yes. The more we encounter an individual poem, the more sophisticated a reader of that poem we become, naturally, though what that means, for me, often has little to do with “the mind.” There is great pleasure for me in close reading and analysis, in breaking the poem down to its constituent parts to see how they come together to make meaning. At once, I think of poetry as a kind of prayer, and the space that poetry occupies in my life is akin to a kind of spirituality. In this way, I try to practice a fullness of reading, rather than a compartmentalization of it; to read—and experience—the poem not just with my mind, but with my entire being.
SI: Are you working on a new writing project?
CS: Yes, I recently completed my second poetry collection. I’ve also been working on a third—a book-length epistolary poem to Whiteness—as well as a collection of essays about mixed-race identity in the US; Blackness in the Maghreb; and the transnational dimensions of racial experience.
SI: Thank you so much for your time, Charif.
Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, 2017), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and the Publishing Triangle’s Thom Gunn Award. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship at Stanford University, and a Fulbright grant to Morocco, among other awards and recognitions. He is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University, where he teaches poetry in the undergraduate and Litowitz MFA+MA programs.
Sabrina Islam, who reads fiction manuscripts for NER, holds an MFA in creative writing from University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. She has received scholarships from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference and the Key West Literary Seminar. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the minnesota review. She currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.