“There Was Fear and Faith”: An Interview with Sanna Wani
Kashmiri poet Sanna Wani and I began conversing over Twitter during the summer of 2020, but I had been aware of her work since reading her poem “Here is Longing” in Hobart in December 2019. The poem is wondrous and deeply moving, like so much of the work in her debut, My Grief, the Sun. Since then, I have become even more awed by the curiosity, imagination, and original lyricism found in her work.
In April 2022, I interviewed Sanna over email about her stunning debut, taking risks, and literary ancestry.
Farah Ghafoor: I’m awestruck by the way faith permeates every line in your debut and admire how you probe not out of doubt and hatred but out of love and devotion. This isn’t common in the poetry world, and the even smaller world of faith-driven work. I hesitate to write about Islam, partially because I know those kinds of poems usually don’t get published.
In a past interview, you’ve spoken about how your undergraduate degree in religious studies led to giving yourself the freedom to reinvestigate Islam through your own eyes. Can you tell me about your journey to writing about faith, especially given the expectations surrounding the subject?
Sanna Wani: Thank you so much for noticing and articulating your observation like this. So deeply, so often, all I want for and from conversations around faith is more of that sense of devotion. You know that interview with James Baldwin where he says has everyone really been in love? If they had, they would behave differently? I feel that way about prayer and people a lot—not just what we imagine as religious people but people too who “leave” religion and just carry or project it differently. If those carryings had more love, would they pray differently? Worship differently?
Wow, my journey to writing about faith: I guess this starts in a few different places. I’ve always been really interested in writing about faith, but I think that crystallized for me when I wrote “Schizotheism”—I was standing at Union after a class in early 2018. I had been in a class with a famous U of T professor, Laury Silvers, and her energy was always just, be brave! Look in! Go for it! But she’s a devout Sufi and so it’s always tinged with this kind of unhinged love. I wondered what that would look like for me. What was the poem about God I was afraid to write? Who was the God I loved and how did They appear to me, when I peeled away my fear or resistance?
What was the poem about God I was afraid to write? Who was the God I loved and how did They appear to me, when I peeled away my fear or resistance?
Obviously, fear does not disappear overnight. I’ve had a lot of anxiety over the second section of the book especially—worry that it will be taken out of context or misunderstood and used in ways that could and would devastate me. You’re pulled in lot of directions when you’re a Muslim writer. You have to navigate not only the expectations your own community might have over your work but outsiders to Islam too—when something is Muslim, it means something in our world that is not easy, that can be heavy, that is complicated. Negotiating how much of that weight to carry—that came with time. But I had to try. There’s this quote that gave me a lot of solace as I moved through those fears and questions; I think it’s from Wittgenstein—faith alone prays.
I could not let the world convince me I had to fear my faith. It is the backbone of my poetry. The societal bullshit—I’d get there. I’d be mindful. But if I didn’t even try? There would be a gaping hole in my poetics. In my self.
I could not let the world convince me I had to fear my faith. It is the backbone of my poetry.
FG: And we’re all so fortunate that you did try! You've made me reconsider both my poetics and my relationship with God.
It’s interesting too that you were most anxious about the second section of the book—the perception of the two long poems would change if they were not written under the lens of morphology and doxology, which you define as a study in the form and glory of language respectively. These erasures of a German Orientalist lecture from the 1980s trace elements of Islam with an inquisitive hand. What was the process of writing these poems, and why did you choose erasure?
SW: Do you think so? Did those definitions feel important in the reading? It’s interesting because I wondered sometimes if having sections was arbitrary: it was hard to separate form or glory. That entire series has gone through at least three heavy revisions, and, in an earlier version, the inner section titles were also tiny poems.
The poems began in a class I took in my final semester of undergrad called Aesthetic of Islam and God, or something like that. It was about how God appears in Islam—the features and shape of God and the theories and history behind that. We read van Ess’s text early on and I decided to do this erasure project as my final project. I had recently read some other erasure that really inspired me to try it—my friend Francis’s final thesis at OCAD was called “Poetry as Prayer” and was these beautiful, delicate erasures of the Bible. I borrowed Chase Berggrun’s R E D from my friend Terry. I had encountered blackout poetry.
Do you ever have those moments in poetry where something feels like it just falls into place? Not just that it’s right, but that it’s almost coming from outside of you, like you’re a conduit for this energy from elsewhere. That’s what making that section felt like. One of Amira’s comments on my final paper, which I wrote in reflection of the project, was that I made it sound sometimes like the poems revealed themselves—very Sufi of me—and it’s because they did. It felt like I was digging, like it was an uncovering of something that wasn’t even mine. Very archaeological. There was something buried there, behind the colonialism and eurocentrism of the palpable Orientalism, and erasure was the perfect tool to unbury it. The deeper I dug into his voice, the more I found a different voice, one that felt like neither mine nor his, coming forwards.
It was for sure one of the most spiritual (religious? Devout? I always struggle with this language) writing experiences I’ve ever had.
FG: Now that we’re in the holy month of Ramadan, have you felt that the journey of writing this book changed your relationship to your faith?
SW: I’ve been returning a lot to this hadith lately. Sahih al-Bukhari’s 7405? “The Prophet (SAW) said, “Allah says: ‘I am just as [you] think I am and I am with [you] if [you] remember Me. If [you] remember Me in [yourself], I too, remember [you] in Myself’ and if [you] remember Me in a group of people, I remember [you] in a group that is better than they; and if he comes one span nearer to Me, I go one cubit nearer to [you]; and if [you] come one cubit nearer to Me, I go a distance of two outstretched arms nearer to [you]. If [you] come to Me walking, I go to [you] running.’” My friend posted it and I have reread it almost every day this Ramzan.
My sister and I once had a talk about how my poetry was a gift from God which I should not claim as my own. I was and am still skeptical of that in a lot of ways but, palpably, I feel close to the idea that, if this is a gift I have poured 10% into, I have received a 100% return, a 100, 000% return. I am just full of so much gratitude these days. Writing this book feels like a deep part of my journey of faith because it has deepened my connection not only with the world but the people around me and people I don’t even know. In the writing of it, there was fear and faith. In its editing, in its delivery, in its reception. And I could not have done it without my faith, without the feeling that, even if it was not God's own gift, that God was with me in the making and is with me still.
FG: My Grief, the Sun really is a fitting title. How did you come to it?
SW: It was the title of one of the visual poems originally called "Reaching for my grief, the sun." And it was a section title too: the first section was called "The sun, a wound," and the third, "My grief, the sun." Then, I decided I wanted all the visual poems to be one-word titles, preferably some kind of noun. This meant that I also needed a new title for the titular poem, which was just called gwere, the etymological root of grief. Once this was settled, the choice became obvious: My Grief, the Sun was the title of the book.
FG: The first poem in the book is titled “Masha’Allah”, which is so smart because it both sets the intentions of the book and relays the meaning over your book itself as an act of protection. Was this poem always going to start off the book? How did you go about ordering the poems?
SW: Yes, when I laid out all the poems I had, "Dorsal" and "Masha'Allah" were very clearly and certainly where I wanted to begin. They made my heart jump. I ordered poems by that feeling, by what excited me. I had the second and fourth sections which lived in their capsules and each had a visual poem chaperone. But with the rest, I liked seeing where poems began and ended. And then two threads became clear and those are what made the first and third. They're also loosely chronological. The first section is more recent, mostly 2020–2021. The third is earlier work, mostly 2019–2020.
FG: The fourth and last section, Distances, begins with an epigraph by Robert Hass: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.” Longing ties together the book’s interests in religion, love, and grief, by reaching to close the impossible gaps. Can you speak to your formal choices in the last section, from the inclusion of maps, the prose poem form, and the sections divided into seasons? How did Distances come to be?
SW: “By reaching to close impossible gaps.” That’s such a beautiful description of the function of longing.
The final section of the book began as I was interviewing Kashmiri diasporic women and nonbinary people in the beginning of 2020. It was supposed to be a project on everyday oral history and lived experiences of grief as a condition of diaspora. The mundaneness of Kashmiri people, of family as the first unit of community. As I heard those stories, I realized I could not write them—I could not even listen to them—without first attempting to write my own. So, I wrote. And as I wrote from moments of my own life, I realized it was barely mine at all. There was always someone else there, beginning the poem with me. So, it felt like mapping: a person, a place, a time. Originally the titles of all those poems were the name of the person, the place our conversation occurred, the month. Eventually, I realized I didn’t like those titles (why the Gregorian months? Why the colonial names of places?) and decided instead to integrate the names into the poems and include the maps at the start of each section. They’re not a perfect solution—there are still colonial borders and weird city names and sometimes highways too—but it felt close enough to what I wanted. For the reader to have a sense of being in the world with me—for the distance between each place to emphasize the difficulty and the delicacy.
And as I wrote from moments of my own life, I realized it was barely mine at all. There was always someone else there, beginning the poem with me.
FG: Solmaz Sharif says: “The lives of others are not intellectual curiosities or conceptual playthings—they are lives and if I’m not loving them, then I shouldn’t write them.” Your work is characterized by love, and you’ve mentioned in another interview that you also ask for consent from the folks who inhabit your work. In addition to your immediate community of friends and family, who are your greatest influences? And what are your thoughts on literary ancestry?
SW: Oh, Solmaz ... every time I hear her say something absolutely life altering about poetry, I’m like what else will she say? And she just. Always says something more. A poetry friend once shared with me something she said during a summer workshop which I feel is related to the quote you shared and the ethic of love behind writing. “The only poem worth writing is the poem that knows we will die.” In that knowing, there is love. In writing that love, there is honour—not fucked up misogyny honour but if we could make something new of the word.
I think my greatest influences are first and foremost my family and community. My parents—no matter how much our relationship changes, they’re the two foundations I built a self out of and that self does the wandering and the poetry. My friends—so many friends. And my grandfather, my Nana. He was a forester in Kashmir. He loved gardening and listened to my poetry when no one else cared. He loved pranks and flowers.
Literary ancestry must be related to actual ancestry I always think. I also think about the interview with Safia Elhillo a lot where she says that her contemporaries are also her ancestors. The community I write with makes me just as much as the poets who I looked up to when I began. But if I could just list names now—the most honest answer—I also just love lists—have you read Dionne Brand’s Inventory?
Dionne Brand, Billy Ray Belcourt, Tarfia Faizullah, Alejandra Pizarnik, Yanyi, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Danusha Laméris, Donika Kelly, Diana Khoi Nguyen. Faith Arkorful, Terrence Abrahams, Lily Wang, Em Kneifel, Manahil Bandukwala, Zoe Imani Sharpe, Fargo Tbakhi, Patrycja Humienik, Hua Xi. You, Farah! And so many more.
I also think our literary ancestry is often made in poems as well as poets. There are a lot of poems that are like touchstones for me—“And yet I’m not a tree” by Heather Christle or “Kal” by Fatimah Asghar. Whenever I feel lost, I go back to them. They remind me of where I come from in poetry, where I took root: where I planted the first seed.
FG: On the topic of influence, your Princess Mononoke ekphrasis is just stunning. “Was power the / place or the god? I did not / ask to heal then I did. You / made a promise to die and / you kept it.” I was so undone by this—the mechanics of power and surrender, and yet, magic.
SW: Thank you so much! Hayao Miyazaki is just that guy!!! Have you seen those memes of him, suffering over art? What mood. It makes me think too that literary ancestry is not so literary—all the art we love bleeds into each other. Those poems too were born in literary ancestry and community! My friend and one of my very favourite poets, Sennah Yee, solicited me for In the Mood magazine and it was a wonderful challenge! I’m so grateful to her for helping bring those into the world.
FG: In “Memory is Sleeping”, you write: “In love, the wounds you tend. A wound, a door, a lake, a fence. / Whatever is perpendicular to your becoming. Time is a terrible statue.” Memory evades the mind like a mirage—mutating, rippling. Can you tell me about the role that memory plays in your practice and work?
SW: My friend Em once talked to me about their concern with remembering remembering. This might be my memory now manipulating the encounter, but they asked where we end up if there is this endless distance between what happened which only grows in every reiteration of remembering. This interval, which grows and takes on a life of its own, is to me a place where poetry ripens. Interpretation, right? Or something similar. Poetry and memory are not concerned with truth. They know what happens between us was always already changing. What of the encounter is real? Poetry and memory ask. What of forgetting is still there?
Poetry and memory are not concerned with truth. They know what happens between us was always already changing.
Forgetting too, I think is important here. My friend Harrison once shared his video essay about old movie preservation with me. One of the central questions was what if what we remember, or preserve, is not necessarily what is beautiful and what we forget is not necessarily wrong. Moving out of that premise, which is so laden with so much history and compromise. It felt profoundly hopeful to me, to think of forgetting as built into us, as carrying beauty. Forgetting is the twin to memory after all. They move in similar ways in my work, they both feel like important fish (or maybe whales) in those rippling waters.
FG: Poets are often warned against the use of abstraction in favour of imagery, but your application is so fresh and tasteful. Can you tell me about this element of your craft?
SW: Thank you! Truthfully, this use and element is rooted in the political choice to be frank. To tell, not show. And to be messy and eager and obvious to the reader sometimes. I cannot pretend—I don't want to. I do not think abstraction is nearly as clean as we make it out to be. It's like shooting an arrow, it misses the mark, it leaves a mark, it pierces something, sometimes.
FG: What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?
SW: To reading these days! So many wonderful books are coming out this year. And to writing about reading, like I do in my newsletter. I think I'm taking a hiatus from writing poetry. I think I want to write a novel someday.
Sanna Wani is the author of My Grief, the Sun (House of Anansi Press, 2022). She loves daisies.