Revisitations: Two Questions with Dilruba Ahmed

AGNI: You use repetition to great effect in your poem “Choke” (AGNI 85). How do you know what bears repeating in your work, and how does the repeated word or phrase change (for you, hopefully for a reader) as you bring it back again? In other words, what do you expect repetition to do?

Ahmed: First, thanks for your kind words about my poem, David! My poem “Choke” is sort of a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer, and a rural Indian farmer. I can’t say I really know what bears repeating in my poems, but in this case, the voice of the interviewer seemed loud and insistent as I wrote, as though the urge to repeat the questions arose from the interviewer’s dissatisfaction with the initial response. So maybe the interviewer’s repetition stems from a desire to both clarify and undermine the farmer’s replies. At the same time, by giving the farmer a chance to reply more than once to the same question, I think I hoped to create a sense of accumulation, with a larger story emerging bit by bit from snippets. I also hoped to convey a kind of layering and revision that would compel the reader to question both the interviewer and the respondent, with the farmer at times responding to the inquiry with a kind of counter-inquiry. In addition to repeating some of the interviewer’s questions and part of the farmer’s replies, I tried playing around with the repetition of the word “choke.” I was interested in thinking about the various connotations and uses of the word, both the physical act of choking or being choked, as well as the more abstract uses of the term in “choke off” or “chokehold.”

AGNI: One of the things that stands out in your poem “The Feast”(also AGNI 85) is your use of camerawork; you use description to move the reader’s attention from the speaker’s father to the food, from the food to the river, and then on to the children, and so on. How conscious were you of this camerawork in the writing process? How did you know what needed attention, and when?

I wrote “The Feast” about a year and a half after my father died of multiple myeloma. I was visiting a new river park with my kids, the kind of picnic spot my parents visited frequently when I was a child. For a long moment, I felt as though I had somehow stepped outside of time as we conceptualize it, as though the past and present had collapsed. While I did not actually “see” him, I felt my father’s presence very deeply in that park. I suddenly became hyper-aware of all of the seemingly concrete, physical details of the setting: the grass, the trees, the moss, the water. But all the while, I was aware of something else happening. The experience was strange but somehow comforting, as though I’d been given a chance to revisit a familiar dream that was meant to represent real life. So I think that, as I wrote the poem, I was compelled to convey the sensory details of the land and water, perhaps as a counterweight to the strange alteration of time that I had felt.

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Photo credit: Mike Drzal

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Poetry. New work is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, Ploughshares, and Aquifer. Her poems have been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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13 thoughts on “Revisitations: Two Questions with Dilruba Ahmed

  1. 7/18/17

    I thank you for the two pieces of poetry in AGNI 85. The presence of the Giant and the Beanstalk was noted. Thank you for the picnic, the watermelon and its carving. Most memorable. ABH

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  2. 7/18/17

    The presence of the rupee suggests the farmer is farming in the third world… How does the life of the farmer compare with the lives of children harvesting cocoa in West Africa? Is there a commonality present? Is there more poetry yet to be written?

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  3. 7/18/17

    How does indentured servitude exist today in the developing worlds of India and West Africa? The truth that child labor exists in Africa today is true in the cocoa producing nations of West Africa. How does this compare with the children of debtors in India? We need to research and write poetry! ABH

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  4. 7/18/17

    Has anyone seen a relationship between the fathers of the two poems, “The Feast” and “Choke?” Do the “magic” seeds of “Choke” compare with the seedless watermelon of “The Feast?” Is the suicide of “Choke” comparable with the delicious taste of “The Feast?” ABH

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  5. 7/18/17

    When I see repetition in a poem, I think “Three times is the charm.” I recall the works of Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allan Poe. They work well for me. I enjoyed the repetition of the questions in “Choke”, it is almost like a mantra, it is welcome, pleasant, intimidating and refined. To ask twice is to repeat for emphasis, while three times calls us to review and look at the words once again, possibly for a new meaning, a foreign language or a new idea. ABH

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  6. 7/18/17

    Regarding camerawork and the poem “The Feast.” The poem appears as a figure, as a circle, with 360 degrees of interpretation, a clear narrative, a complete figure, a complete geometric whole. Though it takes time for the camera to rotate, the sense of “one time” (or once upon a time) makes the circle timeless… ABH

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  7. 7/18/17

    “Please tell the world what is happening here.” is the final line of the poem titled “Choke.” How is the story of the developing world one of doom and despair? How, in what form of writing, should the telling of the Truth be done? Poetry, perhaps yes for one.

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  8. 7/18/17

    Regarding the use of repetition in the poem “The Feast”, Color is very effectively used to form connections between repeating stanzas, a keyword to connect the narrative into a whole. ABH

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  9. 7/18/17

    In the poem, “Choke” is the identity of the “Giant” the many gigantic multinational food conglomerates based in America and Europe? Companies like ADM, Hershey’s, Mar’s, and Nestle’s? Is the poem “True?” I wonder… ABH

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  10. 7/18/17

    ADM, Hershey’s, Mar’s and Nestle’s: are they the three-headed monster or the four horsemen of the Apocalypse? I don’t know, though I do know they are giants! Is this fair? Am I fair? I try to be… ABH

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  11. 7/18/17

    I do feel the presence of America and Europe in the figure of the Giant in the poem “Choke.” Multinational corporations make a large presence in the developing world, a presence felt at the level of the individual farmer. So it is that we as poets must think globally. Be modern. Be free to believe in the stories of modern art and poetry.

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  12. 7/18/17

    Regarding repetition. I expect that the reader will pause, perhaps reread, and be hyper-aware and conscious that something might “be up.” For the farmer and a loan might become a father alone, is the kind of thing a studious reader might pick up on. ABH

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