In celebration of the launch of Another Way to Split Water, poet and author Hari Alluri interviews Alycia Pirmohamed on this debut collection. In investigating this lyrical exploration of stories told and retold, ancestral memories reformed and transformed, and the imagined and reimagined—the two discuss fragmented and wholeness of selves, and the life-span of poems before they metamorphosize into something new.
Join us on Sunday, January 15 at 6pm at Massy Arts Society for this launch, alongside author of Pebble Swing, Isabella Wang, and poet ALHS. Registration is free, open to all and required for entrance.
Hari Alluri: I’m struck by the attentiveness in your poems. How did you first learn to cultivate your attention?
Alycia Pirmohamed: When I first started writing poetry, I let what already held my attention carry forward the work. I think there’s something special about the creative energy of early writing, where you’re not inundated by the language of workshop or critique. In my early poetry, sometimes sentimentality and cliché took the work by storm, and I let myself reside there. There’s so much room for surprise when you write this way. Publishing a collection has made me face that, inevitably, aside from the intent or compulsion to write it, poetry becomes a product in our current system. It is part of a culture and network of commodification and consumption. I’m aware of this tension as I write and read, and I do feel that unease sometimes when the consumption of the page feels like consumption of the self.
HA: I’ve recently returned to teaching introductory creative writing, so please allow my selfishness here: what advice might you offer beginning writers—well, any writers, because I’m always trying to learn as well—about cultivating their attention?
AP: I suppose in terms of specifically cultivating attention – looking toward the strategies of other poets by reading them is always good advice. Perhaps even taking the same poem, or book, and reading it in different spaces. I read a different poem outdoors every day one summer, and I do think I read/connected with those pieces in different ways than I would have otherwise.
HA: In chatting with poet Cynthia Dewi Oka about the way her writing teaches her, and how, sometimes for years after, she’s learning from the things her poems know that she still needs to integrate or activate. If this is something you’ve found, what are some moments from Another Way to Split Water wherein the work has taught you / continues to teach you now?
AP: In sequencing Another Way to Split Water, I was looking at poems I’d written across five or six years and trying to pay careful attention to what themes emerged, what ideas echoed, what motifs threaded through. What I found truly surprising was how a poem I wrote five years ago, a poem I might have felt didn’t really represent who I was anymore, suddenly became so resonant when placed next to a newer piece. Somehow, these poems came to feel new and representative, as if completing the story, or perhaps starting a new one. This was a little reminder, I suppose, to honour my poems and what I might have felt I needed to say at the time I wrote them. It was also a reminder that even a poem printed in a book isn’t static at all – context, our experiences and our backgrounds, our subjectivity at any given moment, will alter its meaning. I think as well as individual poems striking new chords as I return to them, I’ve also noticed my obsessions with different words or motifs throughout the collection. There are strands in this book that didn’t emerge or become clear to me until months after the manuscript was ready. And questioning why my subconscious was so preoccupied with these different aspects really does lead to new answers and learnings about myself.
HA: After winning the CBC Poetry Prize, you noted in an interview: “What influences me most, other than the life experiences I talked about and natural imagery—which is prominent in those poems—is what I’m reading at the time.”
Which books, writing or art (of any form) are holding your attention these days—whether returning to or recently found? Also, what books could folks benefit from reading side-by-side with Another Way to Split Water?
AP: I think Madhur Anand’s Parasitic Oscillations is a really exciting collection. I love the way it weaves together poetic language and scientific observation; this is something I feel like I’ve been trying to achieve in some of my own writing. So, even though I only picked up Anand’s collection a few months ago, it’s a book that I know will continue to impact my own work.
Poets I return to, and that I think I will forever return to, are Bhanu Kapil and Dionne Brand, specifically their collections The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and The Blue Clerk (respectively). In these works, I feel like I’m invited into a space where beauty and complexity reside, where I am both held and challenged.
Two books that have undoubtedly informed my poetics, and that I just can’t stop citing from, are Threads by Sandeep Parmar, Bhanu Kapil, and Nisha Ramayya, and Strange Encounters by Sara Ahmed. There are some books that just completely alter the way you see the world, the way you move through space, the very awareness you have of your own body. In a way (and this probably sounds dramatic), I don’t think I’d be the person that I am today had I never read these two works.
This year, I’ve also been swept away by debut collections like those from Manahil Bandukwala, Jay Gao, and Sanna Wani. There’s something so invigorating about seeing poets you admire and have followed over the years release their first collections into the world.
I would love if Another Way to Split Water was read side-by-side with collections like Sea and Fog by Etel Adnan, Hard Damage by Aria Aber, and This is a Picture of Wind by JR Carpenter. Probably because these collections have my heart more than anything!
HA: In your wonderful ROOM Magazine interview with Rebecca Mangra, you note that, “In my work, I think the natural world is often used as a way to represent the “self” and the way self moves across different places and different landscapes and different borders.”
Given this, and given the way you connect to the entanglement of multiple experiences in relationship to place and nature, please share a little about what it feels like to be returning to the places that formed some of these poems. What are some of the complications and joys at play for you in this (forgive my alliteration) personal, professional, and poetic return?
AP: What a lovely question, thank you. And in fact, I’m writing the answer to it the very morning after launching my collection in Edmonton, the city where I was born and raised, with three friends who I love and admire: Adriana Oniță, Nisha Patel, and Matthew Stepanic. So, a whole host of related emotions and thoughts have been circling in my head today.
This most recent act of returning has been especially emotional. There’s something unnerving and melancholic, yet genuinely moving, about coming across people and things you know (or knew) intimately, and witnessing their physical and emotional changes. There’s also the way I’ve had to rebuild, or perhaps rediscover, my identity in Alberta, as someone returning to this place after undergoing marked and somewhat immense changes brought on by the pandemic. I am a different person now, navigating a landscape of new griefs and joys and understandings, and yet, I am aware that I am grasping at a time-capsule version of my childhood home. A home where I felt both lost – unsure of my place, unsure of my ancestral history – and safe at various points in time. Overall, it’s bittersweet to see family and friends and places move on without me.
But one thing I’ve talked a bit about over the last few years, is how once I left Alberta, I just couldn’t stop writing about it. The prairies edged into every poem. The skylines, the winters, the mountains, the long highway roads – all of it. A poem would start in one place and would inevitably wind up somewhere in this province. Maybe it’s because the lens with which I write is nostalgic, one that recalls and plays with memory, but as soon as I physically left Canada, my poems began to arrive there.
Sharing my poems with people who live here, who have had similar experiences, who have witnessed similar things, is such a privilege. It was, for example, so incredibly powerful to read a poem about moving to Vilna, Alberta as a child to my family, because my sisters experienced that too. Because they were in the poem as much as I was. And being able to speak to them, specifically, through this artform, was an unparalleled kind of moment.
HA: As a kind of follow-up to that, and shifting from where you grew up to this specific place and reading, I was recently at a Massy Arts Society reading with visiting poet Jenny Liou where this happened: the specificity of place, of people and questions in the room called her to share poems she doesn’t usually share.
Reflecting on this, might there be specific poems in your collection which you might be more called to speak when visiting Vancouver / Coast Salish Territory / the west coast of North America? If so, and if you’re comfortable, would you share the title and a short excerpt of one or two of them here?
AP: I’ve definitely felt compelled to share different poems in different spaces. Sometimes it’s because the poems feel like they’re speaking to specific people in my life, like I mentioned previously. Other times, it’s because the poems were written in or about the places I’m visiting. Choosing poems for audiences is something I’ve discovered I really enjoy. I love the way an environment can pull forward certain feelings and narrative threads from a piece. There are a few times where I’ve adjusted a reading list on the night based on something said, or even the general atmosphere of a room.
I lived in Oregon for a few years, and the Pacific coast appears in this book – actually, it’s appearing quite a bit in my newer work too. But here’s a little excerpt from a poem titled ‘When the Storm Ends:’
It all sinks away—partridges cicadas your skin my own . . .
The city is back, white foam receding into the horizon.
In its wake, it uncovers every imprint: us in Florence,
Oregon, on the Pacific coast
where we laughed at oysters and how alien
they looked gathered and gleaming on wet rocks.
On the same coast, the waves pulled back the sand,
wiping it clean as if nothing had ever occurred—
HA: I loved reading about your next project, the iterations of collaboration at play, the way that collaboration shifts your voice or brings in another voice in “Second Memory,” co-written with Pratyusha, in ROOM.
Could you speak a little about which elements of your first full-length collection you’re carrying most intentionally (or surprisingly) into the process of your next one?
AP: Each of the two parts of Another Way to Split Water begin with epigraphs, and I think these quotations kind of provided a dialogue/conversation for the collection as a whole. As I worked on drafts of the manuscript, and the two parts of the collection began to come into view, I came to realise that I was responding to these voices that I felt profoundly impacted by. The poets – Nisha Ramayya, Safia Elhillo, Sun Yung Shin, and Vi Khi Nao – sometimes guided, sometimes complemented, the directions I took. I think of the book as collaborating with these quotations, but also with the work of these poets more generally.
There’s also a poem, You Know It But It Don’t Know You, which was created in collaboration with Tako Taal, a visual artist based in Glasgow. Although technically an ekphrastic poem, I had the chance to meet Tako, see her studio, and chat with her about her past, present, and future works of art. The poem was a direct response to Tako’s short film of the same title, but the process of writing this piece was much more dialogical and involved. It was a wonderful experience, and I found my poetics, my way of writing, implicitly began to transform to meet the collaborative elements behind the poem’s construction. This sort of writing with/to and from another perspective is something I hope carries into my next collection.
On a slightly different note, one of my favourite aspects of poetry is crafting images and pairing words together that I find evocative or compelling. I think these lyrical and imagistic ways of storytelling, where the images strung together build the narrative, propel my first collection, and I think, because this way of writing is what excites me the most, they’ll be carried into my future work as well.
HA: I appreciate your attention to origins, to naming, to gendered and racialized experiences of them, and your necessary subversion of origins at the same time: could you speak a little about these elements of your work? I’m thinking of the way you seem to be writing into a kind of poetics of living without wholeness — perhaps of finding and making or remaking the partialities that hold you.
AP: I think for a long while, I was obsessed with this idea of feeling wholeness. And that in itself carried with it a lot of uneasy definitions of what ‘wholeness’ was, or what I thought ‘belonging’ was supposed to look like. After many years of examining my own uncomfortable internalizations – the way I might have, at times in the past, conflated belonging, or that elusive, complicated feeling of ‘wholeness’, with whiteness and further, with a westernized way of being. A question that rings in my mind constantly, and that I’m trying to explore in my prose as well as my poetry, is: how could I ever feel whole, or fully rooted, in any place where Westernisation, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism, are primary markers of belonging? Where strangeness and belonging, and subsequently feelings of wholeness, are defined in relation to models of oppression. I mentioned Sara Ahmed’s Strange Encounters earlier; this text led to some of this questioning.
I really love how you ask this question: finding and making or remaking the partialities. So beautiful. Yes, I think that’s what it comes down to in a lot of ways. Writing poetry, the act of it, has helped me learn so much about myself. It has opened up infinite pathways toward finding love for myself, and all the things about myself I used to try to hide away. It has connected me with other writers who are navigating these things too. It allows me to explore multiplicity, to see beauty in the confluence of experience, whatever emotional tenors they sometimes carry.
In this vein, I’m drawn to Ann Lauterbach’s ‘The Whole Fragment,’ which reimagines the binary distinction between wholeness and fragment. I love the suggestion that fragments need not be read as a “lament for the lost whole.”
HA: Referring to your CBC Interview again, I love this articulation:
“Poetry is a place for me to find, if not answers, at least more questions that respond to questions that I have about who I am. It’s a place for me to take that otherness or that difference that I feel and reclaim parts of myself or create a world where I do feel like I belong.”
I appreciate the way your work contends with belonging and with isolation, the way that the poems enliven multiple aspects of place, identity, and experience, the way you write through displacement in really connective ways, cultivating spaces of belonging beyond the traditional ones folks can be expected to fit themselves into.
AP: Just a huge thank you for these thoughtful questions! They really made me think in different ways about my own poetics and my collection as a whole. I appreciated this chance to chat with you.
HA: Thank you again, Alycia. To end, let me just quote a couple more moments of your poetry:
From “Fine Art” (GRANTA):
‘Rivers are tangled in nomenclature.’
Is the outer part of a woman her name? Alycia,
I could love your skin if the world forgave its primose.
From “The Fish that Halved Water” (ARC Poetry Magazine, 2020 shortlist):
This is the landmark of ruins I have become: A woman
following every weave of coral reef in search of a true story.