The Life of a Poem: “Matrilineage [Recovered]” by Sarah Ghazal Ali
Welcome to “The Life of a Poem,” a monthly column at Frontier dedicated to uplifting our previous contributors’ new poems. We love to see how our writers continue to thrive after publishing at Frontier, and we are excited to share some insights into their writing process and what led them to being published at Frontier in the first place.
This poem was previously published in The Seventh Wave.
Tell us about this new poem. How did it come to life?
Sarah Ghazal Ali: In my experience, being a South Asian writer has meant writing into and against an inheritance of silences. My grandparents migrated from India to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition, and that migration continues to impact my family in painful ways. Three of my four grandparents passed by the time I turned one, and their absence was palpable to me growing up. The trauma of Partition was so great that many families refuse to talk about it even today—mine included. I understand this, but as a result I’m deeply anxious about loss—loss of language, of culture, of my family’s history and stories. There’s so much I’ll never know because my elders are gone, and my parents are silent.
On top of this, I learned a few years ago that Muslim women are often excluded from family trees. When an aunt shared ours with me, I was devastated to find that I didn’t exist, that I could locate my uncles and brothers but not myself or my mother. Women’s names are considered part of their awrah, their most intimate features, so kept hidden. She shared a second version of our family tree me soon after that included the women (though this version can only be circulated among women), so it’s not as if I’ve been permanently erased, but I’ve been preoccupied ever since with the reality that so-called “history” is actually histories. That history is riddled with absences and omissions. This poem came out of this preoccupation, and is an attempt to rebuild and nurture a matrilineal family tree in the face of endless silence.
How many times did you submit or revise this poem before its publication?
This poem had a unique journey to publication because it came out of an editorial residency with The Seventh Wave. I’d been dreaming of writing a matrilineal family tree for a while, but the concept daunted me. How would I do the form justice? How could I be sure I was approaching the task with care, that I wasn’t disrespecting or exploiting my family? Then I came across the call for residency applications put out by The Seventh Wave around the theme of “Rebellious Joy,” and something just clicked. Of course reviving a matrilineal family tree was rebellious joy! I knew working with them and talking through this concept under that gorgeous umbrella was what exactly what the work needed, and luckily they felt the same way. The poem went through two revisions with their team and my fellow residents. I’m so grateful for the supportive and collaborative space they fostered to nurture “Matrilineage [Recovered]” into being—this poem absolutely wouldn’t exist otherwise.
What does your poem-writing process look like?
I’m not a writer with a daily writing routine; I only write when I feel the unbearable itch to write. I’m a slow, solitary, and moody writer, so if I stuck to a daily routine with this kind of temperament, I think I’d have absolutely no life away from my laptop and all my loved ones would hate me! When I sit down at my desk, I need to read for an hour or two, then rifle through ten other books before I can actually start to write. I can’t write fragments or leave a poem incomplete, so I stay at my desk until a complete poem is on the page. A couple of times, this has taken six or seven hours, and I truly refuse can’t move from my desk to eat or drink or stretch. If I’m interrupted, I’m in a mood for the rest of the day. It’s an obnoxious process, but who knows, maybe it’ll change over time!
How do you know when you’re ready to submit a poem for publication?
Recently, I’ve been exchanging poems with sweet writer friends via email. Giving and receiving feedback this way helps me get another side of eyes on my work so I’m not sending my poems out recklessly during the post-writing high. I also have a gut feeling about when a poem is truly “ready,” and am learning to better trust that feeling. If my gut says its good, even if I just wrote it a day ago, I’ll send it out!
How do you recharge and regroup from rejection?
Individual rejections don’t bother me anymore, but when I get multiple in a row over a short period of time—that’s what gets to me. I’m a firm believer in a good Netflix binge, and in the healing powers of rereading a beloved book! Sharing highs and lows with writer friends is also really important to me. Often, we’re submitting to or applying for similar things, so it helps me remember I’m not alone in this, and that the rejections are never personal. We’re all doing our best, and when the acceptances roll in, we’re ready to celebrate each other.
Question for our Editor: What do you love about Sarah’s voice? Why did you hit “accept” for her poem “Spectacle?”
Josh Roark, Editor // Frontier Poetry: Sarah has a wonderful talent of bringing big, airy issues of faith into the meat of our daily lives. I love how this poem gets right into the reader’s body, only in order to zoom out a couple thousand of years to Abraham and Isaac—then back in to the speaker’s own childhood, overlapping the biblical story. The energy of that movement, so similar to the energy of prayer, is an exquisite experience and one that needs a deep sensitivity to the grace of language and imaginary experience.
Sarah Ghazal Ali is a poet & editor based in the Bay Area, California. She obtained her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her poems appear in or are forthcoming from Pleiades, Narrative, Waxwing, Tinderbox, and others. Find her at www.sarahgali.com, and on Twitter @caesarah_. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Palette Poetry.
Saba Keramati is a Chinese-Iranian writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. A graduate of University of Michigan and UC Davis, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and appears or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Vagabond City Lit, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @sabzi_k.