Interview with Saba Syed Razvi on In the Crocodile Gardens

Julianna DeMicco talks to Saba Syed Razvi, author of the poetry collection In the Crocodile Gardens. Read on to discover Razvi’s perspective on beauty’s role in poetry, her understanding of shared human experience, and her response to the pressure to write poems that express a prescribed identity.

[Editor’s note: The interview below has been edited, including for length.]

JD: Tell me a bit about your background. How do you feel your background influenced In the Crocodile Gardens and your style of poetry?

SSR: My own background or backstory provided much more stability and joy than the world of my poems, I suppose. As a child, I lived in a happy and comfortable home, which doesn’t make for a dramatic story but which probably gave me a backdrop for the exploration of all the drama of imagination. My family home was strict about the world in which we lived, cautious with its dangers, and bold in its encouragement of creative thought and expression.

The curiosity and adventurous energy that motivates my writing is probably rooted in the kinds of stories that swirled around our lives – mythologies from the ancient world, stories of djinni and peris alongside Cinderella, family histories, folklore, Feynman’s blue carpet games and other thought puzzles, riddles about optics in Alice’s Wonderland, delight at Tesla’s ideas and the machinery of man’s design. They held sounds of Urdu qawwalli and Arabic prayer, of Speed Spanish on cassette tape and German over the long-distance phone line, of words in Farsi we would not learn until we were adults and BBC newscasts every evening. And always poetry.

My background is filled with sneaking downstairs with my sisters in the middle of the night to watch “Nightmare on Elm Street,” reading stories with a flashlight under the covers, feasts and dinner parties filled with my mother’s exquisite culinary skills and my father’s attention to opulent hospitality. It is filled with jubilant Ramadan iftaar parties and birthday ice-cream cakes at Chuck-E-Cheese, with henna and libraries, with lullabies in many languages, with writing and performing plays for hundreds of family members, with managing multiple wardrobes for Indian parties or American ones, with my father’s ill health and my mother’s distance from her family in India, with Hyderabad Association parties to build a sense of community and travel on Pan Am when people still smoked in-flight, and with being American but Asian, American but Muslim, American but progressive, ambiguous, adventurous.

I grew up in Texas feeling more American than anything else and mostly unaware or untroubled by my South and West Asian heritage until the political climate changed early at the turn of the millennium. My background is my childhood, but at some point it also became my heritage, and the story I told and retold and examined in the telling. So I suppose that in this version of my backstory, it is easy to see how an awareness of the familiar and the strange, the comfort and the darkness find their way into expression.

The poems in the collection draw upon a world that I experienced in my life or imagined or dreamt – a world filled with myth and magic and mayhem lurking around any corner, with a sense of America infused by the very particular character of Texas, and with the sense of diaspora and Asia weaving it all together. I suppose that the style of the collection turns my own experiences inside out in order to see them from different angles. It reflects the space of the introspective journey that has always informed me – the balance between the felt experience of art and the reasoned one of science.

JD: How would you characterize your aesthetic? Which aspects of your aesthetic do you feel are most prevalent in this collection?

SSR: There are two statements that have always resonated with me in my experience of being, and I suppose that somewhere between them lies my creative aesthetic: Anais Nin’s statement, “Ordinary life does not interest me… I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” And Arthur Rimbaud’s statement, “The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic, and rational derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness. He searches himself. He exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences. Unspeakable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the one accursed – and the supreme Scholar!”

I don’t think there is such a thing as ordinary, unless we are unwillingly to see what is extraordinary about all things. In these poems, and perhaps as a writer in general, I seek to find what is luminous or lacking light in all that my curiosity touches.

In many ways, I think that the point of writing is to express what is inexpressible, to connect one consciousness to another. I think that something of my aesthetic, or what I wish my aesthetic to be, invokes that sense of what is self and what is other and breathes it into a new shape. A trail of breadcrumbs, a line in the sand, a radioactive glow. I think these poems seek to draw attention to whatever life I have lived by drawing attention to the shadows my life has made upon that path.

So if there is a way to describe my own sense of my aesthetic, it would be a candle through a stained glass or a story told through shadow and spinning lantern, a sense of something through something obscured in a deliberately heady manner. Dreamwalking?

JD: What do you feel is the role of beauty in your poems? What is the role of beauty in the aesthetic experience you wanted to create for the reader?

SSR: Many of the poems in this collection contend with the danger, risk, and consequence that comes from an acknowledgment of beauty. I think that the grotesque can be just as beautiful, just as seductive as the lovely.

The poems, stories, and works of art I most love are those that wake me from a sense of complacency, that bring a revelatory experience into focus. In these poems, beauty is what leads the seeker along a quest, propels motion as well as stillness. The poems are restless but also decadent, inviting the reader to stay in the space of the poem but also hastening the reader through it, much like language does with experience.

Because the poems in this collection are concerned with what one finds on any path, the role of beauty is connected to the risk that comes with losing oneself on such a path. I hope that the reader is compelled to follow the clues, the details, the moments that spark something unsettling, that the reader finds something within himself or herself in the compulsive estrangement these elements invite.

JD: Your poems seem to blend and also unravel different storytelling threads. Why is that important to you? What do you hope your poems gain from that approach?

SSR: The story is how we live our lives, but there are some stories that cannot be satisfied by narrative. There are some stories that simply become refrains in the life of the mind, that haunt our experiences and gestures and sensibilities. In many ways, I think that the only way that we can ever understand each other, humanity, our very individual senses of being alive is through word and wordlessness.

I hope reaching into and separating out of these shared dreamscapes can invoke something of that space between the subjective and objective experience of the psyche in the body. We all know pain, but know it differently. We all know love, but know it differently. But only one who has been bereft can know the ache of such a loss acutely, unless in artful invocation we can bring it into being.

I suppose that my aim is to weave together these dream landscapes in such a way that people can find their way through the familiar to the strange and emerge from it both the same and changed. My favorite literary and artistic works do this: they transcend the ordinary individual experience to put one in a state of connection with the otherworldly truth of the universally human, the kinship rather than the generic aspects of social intimacy. By seeking the experience of wonder, delight, despair, and rapture, I think we can know others as well as we know ourselves, even if we don’t ever know each other at all.

JD: Your book In the Crocodile Gardens has many poems based in both religious and secular mythologies. What sparked your interest in these topics? How do you feel the mysticism of your poems interacts with these mythologies?

SSR: I mentioned earlier that stories filled my formative years – the 1001 Nights and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, family history and genealogy, as well as Shakespeare and the classical canon across not just the Western world but the world itself. I might also add that the plot was never what held my attention as much as the worlds they contained and the character such worlds created. I have always been interested in the esoteric journey within the ordinary and find it a subject with endless patterns to explore.

I was raised in a religious but progressive household, so I think a love of the universal and the divine was braided throughout the experiences and ideas that have shaped my world.

There’s something about religious and secular mythologies that encourages a multidimensional approach to any singularity. Somehow, that sense of multivalence makes anything seem special. Life is complicated, and it is filled with gossip and domesticity, with bills and obligations, but appreciation of artfulness and beauty, of danger and uncertainty and pain give it an individual significance.

What appeals to me about mystical approaches is the manner in which the self transcends isolated experience and becomes aware, present, and removed from social structures and contexts but also fused with a sense of belonging. Myths capture a sense of what is, and I suppose that my particular approach is to create a path which invokes that possibility.

JD: Speaking of this collection, your poem “O Dervish of the Restless Heart” won Independent Best American Poetry 2015 and was nominated for a Rhysling Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association. Tell me more about where this poem came from. 

SSR: The section of the poem included in the Independent Best American Poetry anthology has a somewhat irreverent and playful origin story. I’d resisted talking about and writing about ethnic heritage for a long time and found a voice and an avenue for it in this particular narrative. The couple in the poem finds a connection that transcends a number of expected constructs in order to relate to estranged heritage.

Being Asian American, South Asian American, South and West Asian American, and Muslim American in a world shaped by particular global conflicts is a difficult space to occupy. I’d been pushed to write the typically representational poem by a number of people, asked often about why I “didn’t write about [my] culture” – as if that is in any way an appropriate frame or question – and why I didn’t fit into one frame or another one. This poem grew out of that frustration over some expectation that any identity can be reduced to something other than hybrid, multiple, myriad, nuanced, and individual.

I attended a fantastic party at AWP hosted by Kundiman and Kaya Press – and if you haven’t been to one, they really do throw the best parties – with a Bruce Lee theme. I loved the multiple Bruce Lees all over the place – each reader presented a work by or about Bruce Lee – and how it resonated with my sense that hybridity of being and expression is a compulsion in art.

I started thinking about all the ways in which the discourse about Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, Hyphenated Americans so often demands a rejection of the hybridity that characterizes a broader world view. Those who study world literature, which I love teaching each year, see so many different approaches to humanity that are simply not possible by these reductive means that are expected of any non-white, non-male, non-“normative” writer. So, in this poem, I channeled some of those energies, moods, dreams, ideas, and narratives that made sense in my experience of life.

Saba Syed Razvi is currently an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, Texas. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Offending Adam, Diner, THEThe Poetry Blog, The Homestead Review, NonBinary Review, 10×3 plus, 13th Warrior Review, The Arbor Vitae ReviewArsenic Lobster, as well as in the anthologies Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith, and Sexuality; The Loudest Voice Anthology: Volume 1; The Liddell Book of Poetry; and Political Punch: Contemporary Poems on the Politics of Identity. She has been honored by James A. Michener, Fania Kruger, and Virginia C. Middleton Fellowships. She earned a PhD in literature and creative writing in 2012 at the University of Southern California. Her chapbook of poems Of the Divining and the Dead was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012, and her chapbook of poems Limerence is forthcoming from Chax Press.

Julianna DeMicco is a rising senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically those written during the Medieval Era to those written in the Early Renaissance.

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