To celebrate National Poetry Month, we sat down with award-winning poet Hala Alyan, author of Atrium, Salt Houses, and, most recently, The Twenty-Ninth Year, to discuss what inspires her and how she creates her incredible work. Check it out!
3RP: Since 2012, you’ve published four full-length poetry collections, one novel, just completed a second novel, and you’re currently developing a collection of Love Poems by Arab-identified poets. All while also completing your thesis and later working as a clinical psychologist. What drives you to create so prolifically and also continue your work with your clients?
Alyan: I think that writing has always been an important part of my life, and something I rely on to keep me inspired and feeling plugged into myself and the world around me. I do my clinical work for similar reasons — I love it and it makes me feel more human and more alive. In that way there is a real synchronicity between the two careers that I’m constantly grateful for.
Your poetry has always been stunning and deep, with endless searing juxtapositions that lengthen the echoes of each piece you write. How would you describe your poetry writing process?
Thank you! It is still a bit of a mystery for me. Unlike fiction, which I have to approach with more discipline, setting aside some time every day to work, I let poetry tell me when it’s time to turn my attention to it. I know that sounds airy, but it truly has been my experience. I tend to be at my best poetically when I wait until I feel like I absolutely can’t wait a minute longer to start writing. I suppose I play with that a little bit, and usually build up to it by reading a lot of amazing poetry collections, old and new. It helps the writing process feel fresh and restorative. There was a time in my life where I tried to be more prescriptive about writing poetry, and it ended up feeling more dull and stilted.
In both your fiction and poetry, you merge the personal with the political in profound ways. Can one exist without the other?
I don’t believe so. I think especially for those of us with hyphenated identities, those of us who belong to marginalized communities in some way or another, art is more than an indulgence. It is a lifeline. It is a mode of survival. I think the interweaving of the personal and political has never felt orchestrated on my end — it is simply a function of my reality, and so happens quite organically.
So many women appear in your poetry—some likable, some less so, each specific. If you were teaching a class on feminism, how would you describe your idea of it?
I think of feminism as built on the idea of equality and reparation. I believe it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and, frankly, without being intersectional, doesn’t really do much for the most marginalized and vulnerable of communities.
The popularity of poetry is surging, with instagram poetry stars like Rupi Kaur dominating the field, selling more than 2 million copies of Milk and Honey since 2015. Instagram poets are redefining the genre. How do you feel about this trend? Does it alter your approach to writing poetry?
I’m all for more people reading/writing/processing poetry! For me personally, I haven’t actually checked out the work of such poets yet, so it’s difficult to comment too much on it. I imagine that if it increases accessibility to poetry in general, then I like to think that it’s probably a good thing for everyone. It hasn’t impacted how I write personally, just because I’m not really familiar with that world.
Who are the poets that have most inspired you in the past?
You can check out Hala’s work on her website, here. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Hala! And happy Poetry Month, everyone!