In The Author's Corner: Danielle Badra
About the Book: Winner, 2021 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. Conversation and memory are at the heart of Danielle Badra’s Like We Still Speak, winner of the 2021 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. In her elegiac and formally inventive debut, Badra carries on talking with the sister and father she has lost, often setting her words alongside theirs and others’ in polyphonic poems that can be read in multiple directions. Badra invites the reader to engage in this communal space where she investigates inheritance, witnessing, intimacy, and survival.
“This is a deeply spiritual book, all the more so because of its clarity and humility. Yet, we cannot walk away from the addictive command that so many of these poems ask us to follow: to read them along plural paths whose order changes while their immeasurable spirit remains unbound. Each poem is a singular vessel—of narratives, embodiments that correspond with memories, memories that recollect passion. . . . Like We Still Speak is a sanctum. Inside it, we are enthralled by beauty, consoled by light, sustained by making.”—Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara, from the Preface
About the Author: Danielle Badra is a queer Arab American poet who was raised in Michigan and currently resides in Virginia, where she received an MFA from George Mason University. Like We Still Speak is her first full-length collection.
Kiera Wolfe: I’d love to start by talking about form. The collection is bursting with language from Facebook posts, translations, notebook entries, Lebanese fables and, most centrally, the poetry of your late sister. How do you approach form incorporating all of these voices?
Danielle Badra: When my sister died, it was urgent that I write with her– that I speak with her again. I found a bunch of poems of hers when I was cleaning out her apartment that I’d never even knew she’d written. In those poems, she discussed feeling like she had died or like she was going to die. Things that I needed to talk to her about. Things that she hadn’t shared with me that I needed to have answers to. The entire process of me writing alongside another voice was really just me trying to connect with my dead. It was like doing some sort of seance. I obsessively wrote like that for three years. I wrote 400 contrapuntal poems with my sister exclusively. By the time I got to grad school, my professors basically said, You need to stop doing this. You can’t write this one way and with this one person for your whole life. Even though you really want to, you have to try to change. That’s where I started to not only change the contrapuntal form, but also bring in other voices. I found my own way to do what they were asking, but to also keep doing what I wanted to.
KW: I love what you say about the contrapuntal poems expanding into 3 poems: the text, your response, and the poem that exists between them. I spent a lot of time with those poems– reading them in different orders each time. There’s a satisfying sense of searching for combinations and always finding them. Even within the genre, there’s variation and experimentation like lines down the center or colons separating the sections. What did that experimentation look like for you in the process?
DB: First of all, I want to say thank you for taking the time to read in multiple directions. I did write them intentionally for people to “choose your own adventure” if you will. To be able to have the reader be part of the process of developing meaning. Experimenting with the contrapuntal was basically everything I did, starting in grad school then developing the manuscript afterwards as well. I had an idea for this book as being a gallery of voices; of my friends, my family, but also poets and artists I admired. I wanted to make a poetic rendering of an artistic gallery of these voices. I put out a call for submissions on Facebook saying, Three months, give me whatever you want. It could be a recipe you love, a comedy routine, a dance routine, any kind of creative expression that speaks to you. My one guideline was that I wanted people to try to speak to their own experience of being marginalized, of living in the margins as I find myself living, in the margins between several different cultures. I wanted to speak with that theme in mind. That was the only guideline I gave people, and I got maybe 40 or 50 submissions from a variety of people– people who I’d known a short time, people I’ve known my whole life. I tried my best to respond to all of them. The contrapuntal form changed for me depending on the content. I found the form really depended on who I was having the conversation with.
KW: What freedoms or limitations do you find working with text in that way? Especially text from people who are so close to you?
DB: It was nerve wracking, especially poems with my family. Those tend to be a little tender. But you can’t edit yourself too much. I made sure to thank everyone at the end of the book because it was a huge part of the process to get people to be vulnerable and open up to me.
The whole purpose of me writing these kinds of poems with my sister was an urgent need to speak to her, but I also wanted to publish her. I wanted to find a way to make her poems publishable. As they came to me, they were not exactly in that form. Part of these dialogues, like with the Facebook posts my mom made, is publishing things that would otherwise not be publishable.
KW: There are a few poems I’d love to hear more about, like The Phillips Collection. For reader context, the main text is two stanzas in a square, surrounded by more lines to form a “frame.”
DB: That’s one of my favorites. Originally, it was just the center part of the poem. When I sent out the manuscript, my editors suggested it be put into a Rothko-type look. That helped me determine the form of it, because it was all just one long block poem at the time. So I chopped it into the two blocks. Then I decided to not only make it look like a Rothko painting with the blocks, but to also use my sister’s last poem that she wrote to form the frame around the block because the poem is about her last day in the Phillips Collection where she worked. About that experience of writing her last poem. So I put that last poem as the frame. It’s very meta. I think it looks great, and it makes me happy because Rachal loved the Rothko room.
KW: Each page turn of this book is such a pleasurable surprise. I’d also like to talk about one of the Station poems, with the vertical lines.
DB: Yes, it’s a chevron. Pointy like the head of an arrow. My father was a Roman Catholic priest for a while, and when he left the priesthood and had children he would still go to our church every Good Friday and deliver his Stations of the Cross. There are 14 stations in that, and so one year I decided to use his stations and create an epic poem for each. I selected just a few to include in this book. In the middle of the arrow, there are words that say “I, too, am marked forever, I carry your image within and without me.” That language is directly from my father’s stations. For each one, I include some of his words. The shape of the poem itself came before I included those words. Essentially, you can read it top to bottom, bottom to top, all the way down from the top to the right, and then back to the left, or really any way you want. I use the lines going down to help direct the reader down rather than left to right. When I read this at readings, the audience is [usually surprised].
KW: When you come up with a concept for a poem, do you find that you think of the form and then that informs the language? Or do you think of the language and then find a form that will present it to the reader in that shape?
DB: It’s different for each poem, but I definitely start with the language. I start forming the language, and usually within a stanza a form will come to me. Then I will continue to build the poem towards the form, but not to the point where it restricts the language. If I do get to that point, I’ll usually stop and consider whether or not I need to abandon the form.
KW: For me, the experience of reading the collection is so tied to images. Their repetition, reinvention, presenting them each time in new ways that are familiar yet expansive. As a writer, how do you approach returning to images, topics, or themes in new ways? Especially in a collection like this, where it’s so explicitly centered around your experience with other people’s words?
DB: A lot of those moments that you find repeated throughout, I ended up adding after the fact when I was doing the final work on the collection after it had been accepted. Once it was all organized, I read the whole thing through again and saw where I could weave together some of these images and bring the book together by introducing them throughout. One of them is figs. One wonderful thing about the Etel Adnan Poetry prize is that you get to work very closely with the editors, Hayan and Fady, after the manuscript has been selected. About a month after my father died, in October 2020, I had an eight hour Zoom session with them to go over, line by line, every single poem in the manuscript. We also decided which poems we thought still worked, if there were any new poems I could write to add to it, or poems that I’d already written that I thought could not be included in this new thing we were creating. I think I had about a month and a half to really polish what was going to be in the final book. In that time, I added a few new poems to draw this string through the whole thing. Hayan and Fady are just excellent editors. It was like a landslide at the end there, but a beautiful landslide. I felt supported the whole way.
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About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.