Get to Know Winner of Walt McDonald First Book Award Winner: Lubna Safi

We have recently announced the latest winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry. In spring 2022, we will publish Lubna Safi’s Your Blue and the Quiet Lament. Our acquisitions editor Travis had a short chat with Lubna to learn about her approach to writing and unique experience in the poetry world. 

Lubna, can you talk a little bit about how you came to poetry as a genre? Were you a childhood rhymer? An angsty teen? A savvy cool college student? Or perhaps some heretofore unacknowledged poetry stereotype? 

I’m sort of a latecomer to poetry. I was a very prolific child and wrote everything from poetry to prose to plays. I had a sense of artistic wonder that was very much tied to the earth. One of my first poems was about the changing seasons, and I remember that I arranged it on the page as a quadriptych, so very much a visual poet at that age. I think I was probably 9 or 10 years old. I focused on prose as a college student, though I wrote the occasional poem. I didn’t feel I had much authority to be a poet. My relationship to the English language felt patchy. I think this is a feeling that a lot of us who grow up bilingual struggle with. So, I deliberately stayed away from poetry. It wasn’t until I began my graduate studies that I started to write poetry seriously. I was encountering such great writing, from poetry to criticism to philosophy.  

I won’t ask about influences or anything like that, but I am keen to know: Who do you like to read?  

Your question perhaps asks exactly that. It feels like whatever I read is assimilated into my being and eventually influences my writing.  

The archive of my poetry is always fluctuating, but recently I’ve really enjoyed poetry by Anne Carson, Jorie Graham, Gabeba Baderoon, W. S. Merwin, Prageeta Sharma, and Jamaal May. In addition to English-language poets, I read a lot of poetry in Spanish, Arabic, and the occasional French/Francophone. I really enjoyed Juan Ramón Jiménez’s spiritual sonnets and any poem by Mohammed Bennis. I am reading or rereading Lorca. 

Beyond poetry, I’ve been reading a lot of essays. I recently finished John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. I covered that text in notes, I was so inspired! A few days ago, I was reading an entry in a fourteenth-century Arabic dictionary and was moved by its phrasing to write a verse.  

Contemporary poetry can be a bit insular. You’re not coming out of MFA world—although of course you are in one of its epicenters in the San Francisco Bay Area. So there is a kind of insider/outsider thing about you. Does that impact at all your approach to writing?  

I worried, for a long time, about not having an MFA. I seriously considered applying to a program and completing it alongside my PhD. I worried, I guess, that I wasn’t taking my craft seriously, that I could be doing more to deepen my relationship to language. Eventually, I was told that what an MFA really does is give you the time and resources to evolve your craft. I’ve tried to find pockets of time to do that on my own, and there are great writing communities here in the Bay Area, which helps with feeling less like an “outsider.”  

I’ve since lingered on Lydia Davis’s advice to be self-taught, mostly.  

You’re also an academic. Can you talk a bit about your academic foci and how they intersect with your poetry? And—perhaps—how your poetry impacts the academics?  

For my academic work, I spend a lot of time thinking about what poetry is (this question has been with us for a long time). I’m currently working on a dissertation about the ways that critics and poets from the “Islamic West”—a region that encompasses thirteenth- & fourteenth-century Muslim Iberia and modern Morocco—conceived the way that poetry functioned and its role in society. 

I remember a professor who taught a class on poetry and poetics saying: “Imagine what criticism would look like if the literary critic tried to write poetry or a novel, or an art critic tried to paint.” This could probably be taken in a cynical way, but what I understood from it was that our relationship to what we critique would be very different if we came from a shared place of understanding poetic creation. Maybe from a place of wonder.  

But it can be kind of a tricky thing to say in academia that you identify with your subject of study. There’s so much talk of objectivity and distance (which seems to me a kind of illusion to begin with), that appearing to close that gap of objectivity might garner the label of solipsism. But there’s also this huge push against this kind of thinking, especially from departments like ethnic studies and African American studies. It’s this push to reclaim voices that have been undermined by the “objective” stance because they approach their work from a place of direct and personal experience.