Ontario-based poet & writer Hollay Ghadery, talks to Sabyasachi Nag about her debut poetry collection.

SN: Several poems in your debut collection “Rebellion Box” (Radiant Press, 2023) either speak to or speak with other contemporary writers working in multiple genres. Was this collection meant to be a conversation with other authors/artists from the start or did it develop into one as you progressed?

HG:  You are right that some of the poems absolutely do speak to and with other writers, but I have not once really registered that I was doing that, so I can definitely say it was not meant to be a conversation from the start. I think I find myself in conversation with other writers, because as writers we shape each other.

However, I also think my speaking so directly to or with other writers is a reflection of this being my first book of poetry, with some of these poems dating back to my years as an undergraduate student. So, 20 years ago. I am, in a way I did not notice when I wrote the poems but can see now, situating myself in the landscape of some of my greatest influences.

But my first book, a memoir of mixed-race mental illness, was not in direct conversation with other writers. Either is my collection of short stories coming out next year with Gordon Hill.

SN: “Heifer” (page 10) was inspired by Night Watch: The Vet Suite, (Invisible Publishing,  2021) – a collection of three novellas that explores the lives of rural vets. In his book  “The Anxiety of Influence’ Harold Bloom argues (and I’m paraphrasing) that poetry that springs from other works might be considered derivative; might be considered lacking newness; he argues that the influence of precursor poets can create anxiety. This collection strikes at the root of Bloom’s argument about “The Anxiety of Influence’. Can you describe your journey as a poet while working on this collection?

HG: I think Bloom might, in some cases, be on to something, but only because all writing can be derivative, period — and it is so important for writers to make sure that if they are creating something that springs from another work, to make sure what they are saying is new. As Adele Wiseman says in her poem, “Instructions from Poems in Progress” (The Dowager Empress: Poems of Adele Wiseman, edited by Elzabeth Greene, Inanna, 2019): “Beware, especially, the false perfection / of the second-hand epiphany.”

Whenever I write anything even mildly ekphrastic, I always ask myself if I am actually adding to the conversation or am deluding myself with those second-hand epiphanies. I strive for the former.

SN: “Yepsen” (page 18) speaks of two different burdens – “The burden: the fork in my blood.” alludes to the speaker’s biracial ancestry and earlier in the same strophe the poem speaks of “The burden of indifference, difference: indefinite standing.” Clearly, the first burden is given and the second is the referent. How must one deal with these two burdens – the burden of what one is and how one is perceived –in poetry?

HG: A wonderful question. I think in the case of the first (what one is), I would say as authentically as possible if one is going to deal with it at all. I would also argue that no one has to deal with anything in poetry. Especially because dealing with the second burden—how one is perceived—is an exhausting, massive, never-ending endeavor. There is no end to the ways people can perceive you, and often, you have no control over how people do. People will read you like they read a book, and like a book, you are a mirror of what they see —what they like and don’t like—about themselves. I don’t feel like it can fall to any of us (poets or otherwise) to deal with these perceptions. This said, as poets, it is interesting to examine them. To poke at the perceptions a bit.

SN: The poem “Cosmic Script” (page 29) is a conversation about death and the afterlife between the daughter (“she doesn’t know what happens when she dies”) and the mother (“it could be anything”). The speaker in the poem is the mother and the poem ends in a metaphorical cliff. What prompted this poem? How should we read it?

HG: This poem is actually a poetic version of a chapter in my memoir of mixed-race mental illness, Fuse, where my eldest daughter comes to me in the middle of the night in a full-blown existential crisis. I live with existential OCD—a type of OCD that involves “intrusive, repetitive thinking about questions which cannot possibly be answered, and which may be philosophical or frightening in nature, or both.” (International OCD Foundation.) These questions—these horrible, terrifying, constant, inescapable questions—hounded me for much of my younger life, and still bother me now, though I am better able to handle them. (Which isn’t to say I can always handle them. I still fall into prolonged, devastating rumination cycles. Just less frequently.) Seeing my daughter experience something similar and feeling that I was not equipped to handle it but had to handle it because no one else was there who possibly could, prompted this poem. As did learning to live with the questions, which is something I am trying to do now. Live with simply not knowing. Which is scary, but also, I have discovered, liberating in some ways.

As I said to my daughter that night (and wrote in Fuse), “If our knowledge is imperfect then our fears are unfounded.” Whatever happens, when we leave this world could be anything—even something really amazing.

SN: The title of the poem “Zendegee Khalee Neest” (page 34) (“Life is Not Empty”) is derived from Sobrab Sepheri’s Persian language original Dar Golestâne. While the practice of integrating non-English words into poetry adds layers of meaning, newness, and richness, how does one reconcile this practice with anxieties about authenticity especially among poets who might appear less rooted in the languages they seek to integrate?

HG: I don’t have these anxieties, really. I am not fluent in Farsi, but I am trying to learn, and learning to recite this poem (badly) is part of my learning process. I cannot speak for other poets, but I am Iranian. My father’s first language is Farsi and I grew up listening to it every day. The sound of this language is rooted bone-deep for me. Whether or not I appear rooted in the language to anyone else has no bearing on whether or not my using the language is authentic.

I do have anxieties about whether or not I am using the best words sometimes, and I always ask multiple fluent Farsi speakers to read my work before seeking publication. I have found, even among fluent speakers, disagreement over certain word choices, and disagreement about the translation. In this case, I can only listen to consensus and my best judgment. As one of the translators pointed out, even when you’re a native speaker of a language, there will often be disagreement about word choice.

SN: The poem “Runaway Universe” (page 39) juxtaposes lines from Constance Beresford Howe’s The Book of Eve with lines from Roy Gallant’s Our Universe. Further into the poem the speaker asks, “Do you realize what submerged identities we women have?” Can you explain the process of constructing this piece? What prompted it? How must it be read?

HG: I cannot presume to prescribe how the piece must be read, since I write poetry for myself and can only speak to why I wrote it as I did, to make sense of what I was feeling for myself. Beresford-Howe’s book is replete with stunning observations and lines about growing older as a woman; that process of becoming invisible but feeling more free and alive than ever. I took notes and underlined passages as I read. Our Universe is a book my grandfather gave me and my brothers when we were younger, and I’d never bothered to read it. But when I did, in the last few years, I was introduced to the idea of a runaway universe—an accelerating universe that will cause galaxies to run away from one another until they are not visible. If this model is correct, billions of years from now, the Milky Way will be a lonely little galaxy surrounded by complete blackness.

It seemed to me the ideas explored in The Book of Eve and the runaway universe prediction described in Our Universe had some strange and poignant similarities.  Eve, the main character in Beresford-Howe’s book, literally ran away from her tyrannical husband and found herself alone. It was painful and wonderful and abundant in its newness —something not afforded to middle-aged women—or ancient galaxies.

Then there’s the fact I live with existential OCD so this idea of a runaway universe–this massive, unknowable thing–terrified me. So, when I wrote this poem, I wanted to champion this idea of being surrounded by uncertainty and learning to live with it—even thriving within it, as Eve did. It comforted me.

SN: The title “Rebellion Box” (page 45) refers to “tiny boxes made from stove wood… carved by prisoners kept at Fort Henry” Why did you choose this as the title poem? Does this poem represent the collection in any way?

HG: The whole collection is a series of poems about feeling trapped and impotent in some way, so yes, the title poem was chosen because I wanted a piece that really symbolized that feeling of being shackled but also, fighting—hoping, dreaming—of freedom, as relative as that freedom may be.

SN: The poem “The Limits of Whiteness” (page 51) argues that people of Iranian heritage being treated as distinctly not-white forces them into “active struggle… agitation…jetsam” …and pushes them into a state of “becoming/by force.” Could you talk a bit more about this piece –what prompted it; who it is addressed to?

HG: The poem is addressed to myself, really. It was prompted by publishing Fuse and having multiple people—all men—confront me about how I can call myself biracial when I am Iranian and white. Iranians, they said, are the original Aryan race, and therefore I am just white. I’d heard of this Aryan myth but had no idea people took it seriously. For me, the lived experience of most Iranians is that of being distinctly not white. We are definitely marginalized. I have been called racial slurs because of how I look. As a teenager, I had cosmetic surgery to look less Iranian. So to have someone try to delegitimize my experience like that was unsettling and infuriating.

However, some other Iranian writers who had experienced the same thing recommended I read The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race by Neda Maghbouleh, and it really helped me. She debunks the Aryan myth, explains where it started and sheds light on the lives Iranian people in North America are actually living.

SN: “Why Fatima Killed Her Mother” (page 53) juxtaposes a multiplicity of texts; is rendered in the voice of a former child sex worker and ends with: “I spread my sheets and/they are covered with ash and pilaf. I open/my legs and spill/rosewater.” How did you construct this piece? How did you reach the painfully evocative ending?

HG: A former professor gave me a book about Storyville New Orleans, and in it, there was an interview with a child sex worker. She spoke of how she was a trick baby—so her mother was a sex worker too. She spoke of the life of abuse and violence her mother and men subjected her to with such ease and even said something to the effect of not knowing if she had a good life then, but she knows she has a good life now. I was struck by such anger on her behalf: that she’d been robbed of a childhood. A choice. She’d been robbed of her rage. And I’m all for well-deserved servings of feminine rage.

I later read a book of Persian fairy tales and there is one where a girl kills her mother over nothing really; some silly perceived injustice at her mother’s hand. Something her mother would not let her do was for her protection but the girl interpreted as an affront to her freedom. This got me thinking about mother’s and daughters. About nurture and nature. About how there was injustice in both stories and neither sat well with me. So I rewrote a story I could better live with, and that’s what the poem is.

SN: Can you reflect on any (inescapable) social contexts that might have been inspiring or  generative (or conversely, harmful, or inhibitive) to your writing practice at some point?

HG: I think one of the most inspiring times in my writing life was when I took literature courses in my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I can remember sitting there in class, listening to professors lecture about some writer, and while I was supposed to be listening to the lecture, my mind would come alive with images and stories of my own—and they had nothing to do with what the professor was on about, but that space of rapture in the classroom was inspiring. To this day, I still go to readings and lectures and have to fight the urge not to scurry off to a corner and frantically write. These spaces unlock something in me; something that, as a mother of four humans, two dogs, and three goats, with a full-time day job and often oppressive mental illness, I’m often too far busy to tap into.

SN: How do you become conscious of the craft in your work?

HG: I edit. During my first drafts, I am hardly conscious of craft. Whether it’s a line or a paragraph or a page, I just try to dump the thought or image there: sketch it out. Then, after, I go back and consider craft consciously, though of course, there may have been unconscious considerations of craft during that first draft too. Still, during that editing phase is when I ask myself questions about the choices I made and see if they align with my ideals for craft.

SN: How do you know if a piece of work that you have been working on, is finally completed?

HG: For me, there is always doubt if a piece is truly, finally done, but in general, I think I know it’s ready to be considered by other people when I feel like that invisible thread attaching me to it has gone slack. Has loosened. Usually, when I’m in the midst of writing something, I feel an almost unbearable urgency. I need to get it out now now now. I’m unable to relax. That thread is too tight. But gradually, as I work through edits and drafts and see my words fall into place in a way I don’t continuously question, I begin to be able to breathe again. That’s when I feel it is as completed as it’s going to get in my hands.

Hollay Ghadery (she/her) is a multi-genre writer living in rural Ontario on Anishinaabe land. Fuse, her acclaimed memoir of mixed-race identity and mental illness, was published by Guernica Editions in 201. Her debut collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, was released with Radiant Press in April 2023 and in 2022, its title poem won The New Quarterly’s Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Prize. Hollay’s short-fiction collection, Widow Fantasies, is due out with Gordon Hill Press in 2024. She is currently working on a novel.