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The Window Stays Open: An Interview with Poet Asiya Wadud

by Justin Duyao

If the world were in a different state, it would have been an honor to sit down in a physical room with chairs, windows, glasses of water—and without any masks—to talk to Asiya Wadud about her latest publication. The best part about talking to writers whose words you’ve only ever been able to read is the chance to see all their mannerisms, quirks, and particularities, things otherwise relegated to the imagination while reading them. In a sense, witnessing the personality behind the work brings their words to life, as if seeing that living, breathing person somehow enfleshes otherwise bodiless ideas.

I do not, however, believe this would be the case with Asiya. Even though we were only able to correspond via email, her words on the screen—even though not-necessarily-creatively written—are just as vibrant, living, and breathing as her poetry feels. If you haven’t read her writing before, let this humble accolade serve as more than enough reason to start.

Asiya Wadud is the author of Crosslight for Youngbird, day pulls down the sky/ a filament in gold leaf (written with Okwui Okpokwasili), SYNCOPE, and No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body. Her work has been supported by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Danspace Project, Mount Tremper Arts, the New York Public Library, and others. Recent work appears in e-flux journal, BOMB Magazine, Social Text journal, Poem-a-Day, and Makhzin. She teaches poetry at Saint Ann’s School, Columbia University, and at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

On February 9th of this year, Asiya published her latest collection of poetry, No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body, with Nightboat Books. In our conversation below, we discussed her writing process, her influences, and some of the biggest questions she asked, while collating her poems.

Tell me about your writing process, for this book. I understand this is your third collection. How was your experience writing this one different than others? Were some sections or poems harder to write? Did anything come particularly easily?

“The Chorus Opens the Way” is the final chapter of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The chapter opens with these lines: “The chorus bears all of it for us. The Greek etymology of the word chorus refers to dance within an enclosure. What better articulates the long history of struggle, the ceaseless practice of black radicalism and refusal, the tumult and upheaval of open rebellion than the acts of collaboration and improvisation that unfold within the space of enclosure?”

This encapsulates much of where my mind was with this book. It is one that is thinking with choreographers, thinking sonically, thinking with visual artists and dancers. The title, No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body, comes from a line the choreographer Faustin Linyekula said once that stayed with me. In this book, I wanted to make apparent who I was thinking with, as I wrote. The choral quality of this book is different from Syncope, my last collection, and also different from Crosslight for Youngbird, my first collection. Polyphonic sound is a thread that runs through my work; and each time, I am thinking about it in a slightly different way.

This book feels collaborative—all the pieces are written with someone else in my mind. I guess that is often the case with writing, it is responsive and tensile. But this felt like a different effort and a different approach. Some people whose work I was close to in this collection include Dionne Brand, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Torkwase Dyson, Nathaniel Mackey, Chioma Ebinama, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Peter Born. There are others, too—many others.

I had this feeling of not wanting to let this book go. I loved the company it gave me—the intimacy of being close to so many people, by way of being close to their work. I wrote this book in two parts. Some of the pieces were written in 2017, and the rest were written during a residency at Danspace Project from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020.

When did you first meet Okwui Okpokwasili? How did their multi-disciplinary performances guide, frame or inspire your work?

Okwui Okpokkwasili and Peter Born’s work (they usually work collaboratively) has been a pathway that guided me these past six years. I came across Okpokwasili’s work when she was presenting her solo show, “Bronx Gothic,” some years back. I saw an image of her in the paper and was drawn to the focus and can’t-look-away, the looking back, the I-see-you-see-me. I wanted to know more about that gaze, how it showed up in her work. I wasn’t able to make that particular performance, but then I ended up seeing “Bronx Gothic” at New York Live Arts in the fall of 2015, and it ignited a new will, energy, and urgency in me. In the claustrophobic way that I do many things, I started going to everything that Okwui was presenting, all during a moment when there were frequent chances to see her work. I’m always interested in what can happen when repetition is the intent, when you know from the onset that you will engage with a piece multiple times. So I would go to a piece multiple days in a row, trying to sit with the words inside her work and see if I could write from the specific ruptures of Blackness, brokenness, but also future freedom.

As chance would have it, Okwui and I finally met and started working together a couple of years ago. We started by collaborating on a collection of songs and poems called Day Pulls Down the Sky/ a Filament In Gold Leaf. “Day Pulls Down the Sky” is an album-length collection of songs written and performed by Okwui, Peter Born, and Umechi Born. “A Filament In Gold Leaf” are poems I wrote in conversation with the songs (while listening to the songs). The third thread in this collaboration is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which I was reading while deep in a world of Okwui’s songs. Day Pulls Down the Sky/ a Filament In Gold Leaf was published by Belladonna* Collaborative as a book (with Okwui’s song lyrics on the top half of the page and my poems appearing almost as footnotes to each song). It was presented at Danspace Project’s annual live arts festival, PLATFORM 2020: Utterances from the Chorus. The festival takes its name from Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Everything came full circle and Hartman presented work at the festival. But like so many other live events, everything came to an abrupt halt last mid-March in the wake of covid-19.

Donika Kelly wrote, about No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body, that you begin “to ‘peel at the seams’ of what we know and how.” When did you begin asking this question? Is your poetry partly your asking it? Or would it be better described as your answer to it?

I am always interested in what happens right at the place where two things meet or could meet. I am also interested in the ways that we make things cohere in our mind—the bridges we make so two things can be held in accord. In order for two things to be held in accord, we sometimes have to decide that they should be held in accord. It is not obvious that a relationship exists. Seams are places of meeting, they are a juncture. If something is “peeling at the seams,” then it could be clearest, most evident at the seams; it is where it is ringing. The juncture provides a new clarity, maybe in the same way as a mathematical equation, where you are adding two things together. I’m interested in the percussive noise that happens there, the sounds of the seams and the questions the seam can allow us to ask.

Whenever I am working on an essay (and poems too, but in a different way), I think about the questions that are going to make up the core of that essay. I circle around those questions for the length of the piece and often start and end with questions. I imagine an open window where the window is only closed once we have the answer. So really, the window just stays open.