Welcome to LINE LEVEL: Craft Lessons from Poets of Color, a monthly column in which writer, editor, and educator Joanna Acevedo zooms in on an element of craft from the work of BIPOC poets. LINE LEVEL unfolds in three parts: an excerpt of a poem, followed by a contributor’s note, followed by Acevedo’s own exploration into the poet’s world of language. Guided by a curiosity that yields learning, we are invited to consider historical context, stylistic influences, and more, all the way down to the level of the line. This month, Acevedo discusses “Ghazal as a Favor Denied” by M.J. Gomez from chapbook, Love Letters from a Burning Planet from Variant Lit, 2023.

“Ghazal as a Favor Denied” by M.J. Gomez from chapbook, Love Letters from a Burning Planet 

What should become of Man, begging the angels for one kiss of flame?
Only God’s mercy keeps Him veiled; His visage holds the lust of flame.

At sundown, the pilgrim holds a burning polaroid to his chest.
Sings: Beloved, I forsake this memory in service of flame!

A father, in his grief, leaves to make all others drink of his cup.
His hands a cracked minaret, hands set to burn: a chalice of flame—

The final vestige of his homeland crumbles in a long embrace.
Love blackens his palms—still he craves the lotus petals’ kiss of flame.

What mockery must a second’s infatuation make of me?
Even colorless water was once draped in a great dress of flame!

Satan welcomes the kafir—earthly love binds them still to his side.
Their bodies licked dry—open mouths locked in a long sweet bliss of flame.

When the brazen bull was unveiled, the faithless all wailed in the streets.
Now, they speak not of light—only of heat—when they tell us of flame.

O humanity, do you still desire to leave this world untouched?
O wildfire, do you fear your consumption—or the deep hiss of flame?

Instead, let me tell you this: M. J. does not stand for anything.
Two glyphs lie rusted—a prayer unheard from a palace of flame.

Contributor’s Note // M.J. Gomez

This ghazal functions as a prelude poem to the rest of my chapbook, Love Letters from a Burning Planet, which is organized into 2 sections. While putting together the chapbook, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a prelude that foreshadowed the themes of faith and desire explored in later poems. Incidentally, besides its position as the collection’s prelude, this ghazal also stands out as the only poem written in rigid form, employing much more musical and playful language compared to the free verse most of Love Letters is written in. Most of this poem’s musicality is drawn from the form itself—traditional ghazals originally include a number of unique restrictions, such as a strict line length, internal rhyme (qafiya), and a repeated end word (radeef). While these rules have been both bent and left out by contemporary poets writing in English, I wanted to adhere to the form’s roots in classical Arabic poetry as best as I could, primarily taking inspiration from Agha Shahid Ali, the poet credited with introducing and popularizing the ghazal form in America. Ali argued that a ghazal’s couplets must be self-contained in subject, likening them to “stones on a necklace”, threaded together by the form’s recurring sonic motifs. 

I grew interested in writing ghazals due to this aforementioned autonomy. Many devotional ghazals employ wild, blasphemous imagery, drawing parallels between divine and romantic love, while simultaneously questioning God’s actions and perceived cruelty. I find that these reckless leaps in thought and image are encouraged by the form’s very nature; one is able to fully explore a linguistic obsession through the shifting perspectives of a ghazal’s self-contained couplets. Through this ghazal, I aimed to interrogate the ideas I associate flame with: hellfire (“Now, they speak not of light—only of heat—”), passion (“Love blackens his palms—”), and the inevitable (“do you fear your consumption—or the deep hiss of flame?”).

Craft Lessons from Poets of Color //  Joanna Acevedo

In recent years there has been a recent return to traditional forms of poetry, from sonnets to sestinas, and poets of all kinds have been attempting to recreate some of these forms in a modern way. Many feel that contemporary poetry has been dominated by the confessional poets of the sixties for too long—and the influence of the Beat Generation of the fifties, including cut ups and erasures and other kinds of handling text that to us now feel overdone and boring—is no longer dominant. Millennials and Gen Z can’t be shocked anymore. Formally, it’s difficult to create anything that hasn’t been done before, and even as we continue as writers to innovate, there is usually some touchstone or inspiration that is influencing us, even as we feel totally original in our voices and thoughts and ideas. 

Human history is inherently built on the idea that we take what previous generations have  created and continue to improve on it, teaching and learning on a large scale. For many poets, this means rediscovering forms that may be ancient, but still have huge potential, especially when mixed with some modern influences. We can see this in lots of examples: such as Fat Girl Forms by Stephanie Rogers (Saturnalia Books, 2021) takes the experience of living as a fat woman and applies it to her collection, where each poem is written in a different traditional or invented for, or Killing It (Black Lawrence Press, 2022) by Gaia Rajan, whose chapbook is built around a set of subtle ghazals, or most recently, Sarah Ghazal Ali’s Theophanies, (Alice James, 2024), which brings readings of the Quran and the Bible together to ask questions about faith and womanhood—among other things.

 Each of these handle these forms in a new way, bending and breaking the rules (as Gomez notes in their contributor’s note) but they fall back onto this structure to build a poetic and linguistic landscape that has pathos and vibrancy, a powerful structure that automatically adds dramatic vision to the inventiveness of the work—including in Gomez’s case as we can see in the poem above. Being able to maneuver within this structure can feel limiting—but for many writers, it is also liberating. It can allow for a kind of creativity to open up, as imposed restrictions can allow for writers to continue to push themselves, and go beyond what they initially thought was possible. 

Structure—particularly in a chapbook—can be vital to the success of the project. A chapbook without a clear direction often falls flat. Since they are so short, it’s easy to feel as if a writer can just assemble a number of their favorite poems, but it’s much more than that. Jeff Whitney and Phillip Schaefer’s chapbook, Radio Silence (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) is an excellent example of this kind of control. This chapbook is structured into chapters, which are quite short, but this helps guide the reader through the movements, so to speak, of the work—sort of like swells in music. Alternately, Aricka Foreman’s Dream With A Glass Chamber (YesYes Books, 2016) goes straight through, and with the intense subject matter, the book feels sickeningly addictive—effective but alienating for the reader at times. As Gomez notes, this ghazal is not characteristic of the rest of the work. But it adds an excellent structural element that grounds the reader, and with Gomez’s dynamic and rhythmic writing, we are able to settle into the subject matter of the chapbook more smoothly. The drama of this ghazal, too, allows for a transition into the poetic space; a kind of welcome. 

Gomez shows that he is more than a lyrical stylist when he appears in this poem in the last few lines. This choice to break the fourth wall, so to speak, is an exciting one. Since, as be comments, this is a prelude to the rest of the work, it’s a smart idea to introduce the author and their voice, as well as their expectations for the reader, early on, so we can see if there’s a good match, a proper fit. The seriousness and gravity of the ghazal—this deeply traditional form—begins to break down here as we transition into this lighter moment. However it provides a surprisingly enjoyable contrast. There’s a touch of humor, which is appreciated since we have been in this space with flame and fire and brimstone. This question: “M.J. does not stand for anything,” is curious because it has a dual meaning. Is this a political statement or an explanation of a name given? This question defines the end of the ghazal and opens up the chapbook as we want to read more, and find out what the question means, where it is going. 

In contemporary poetry, when we see such a repetitive or traditional kind of work, we can tend to be turned off. It’s hard to emulate the kinds of language that define these works, since we just don’t speak like that anymore. But when writers choose to take on difficult forms, the more creative they can be, the more successful their projects will be. And Gomez has been especially clever about the way he has brought the ghazal into his work—by mixing this ancient form with more modern language right at then of his poem, we see the expansive possibilities of this form, and all that becomes possible when we mix old with new, bitters with sweet, salty with sour. The juxtapositions are endless—and the more you can innovate, the more exciting your writing will be. 

M.J. Gomez is a Muslim poet who unequivocally supports the movement for Palestinian liberation. He is the author of Love Letters from a Burning Planet (Variant Literature, 2023). His poems are featured in Surging Tide, the Dawn Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, the Selkie, and others. You can find him on Twitter @bluejayverses

Joanna Acevedo

is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Read more about her and her work at

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