In her new chapbook ‘What is Not Beautiful,’ poet Adeeba Shahid Talukder examines how love can be a life changing force in life. The winner of the 2017 Kundiman Poetry Prize, Talukder is known in the poetry world for her evocative verses and the strong influence of Urdu poetic traditions on her work.
We had the chance to ask her about her chapbook, her artistic influences and her advice for others who are navigating the early days of marriage.
The Teal Mango: What inspired you to write the poems that make up ‘What Is Not Beautiful’?
Adeeba Shahid Talukder: Most of these poems were composed in the first few weeks of my marriage. Those days, I would wake up before my husband each morning to write. I was going through so much emotionally, and had so much I needed to say.
I entered my marriage conditioned with immensely problematic ideas of women, and because of this I expected so much more of myself than was possible to live up to. Along with this, I had come to accept that all men were dictatorial and negligent by nature; it was what I had seen in so many families. That is, even though my husband and I were in love, I saw myself as having to bear the burdens of being a woman in a patriarchal structure while expecting him to expediently reap its benefits.
Thankfully, my husband did not have the same expectations of me, and turned out to be the most wonderful and caring person I had ever met. He helped me shed these expectations, and taught me each day that I was worthy. I was also dealing with some mental health issues then, and he spent a lot of time comforting me and promising me things would change. In the mornings, he would make me tea and breakfast, and at night he would hold my hand, making sure I fell asleep before he did. Many of the poems in “What Is Not Beautiful” are love poems to him, poems of awe as I discover his kindness and devotion with each passing day.
TTM: You’ve said before that you grew up in a family and culture that talked a lot about beauty and the importance of girls in particular to be as beautiful as possible. How does the title of this collection play into that?
AST: As early as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the mirror and longed to see beauty in myself (the image on the cover, for example, is of four-year-old me, looking at my reflection.) This is because I learned from a young age that a woman had to be beautiful in order to be loved or valued. It’s an attitude that exists in many cultures– books and films geared towards children here send the same message. In my family too, women are constantly judged based on their appearance. At family gatherings, there is pressure for us to keep our hair and makeup flawless, and to make sure we don’t wear an outfit too many times. Acne, weight, and thinning hair are all subjects of scrutiny and gossip.
I internalized this culture of outrageous beauty standards to such a degree that I developed body image issues. As I grew older, I found it more and more difficult to see beauty when I looked in the mirror, and thus began to feel see myself as unlovable and unworthy. The idea of beauty became especially charged when I got married– I needed to feel beautiful in order to believe my husband could love me. The title comes from this longing, this waiting for the mirror to clear, only to be disappointed again and again.
TTM: The poems in this collection center on your wedding and the start of your married life. Weddings (particularly South Asian ones) are often complicated and emotional. Do you have any advice for other South Asian brides who might be reading this?
AST: When I think back to my wedding, it all feels like a blur. I think it’s because I’m not sure I had the chance to properly experience it. I don’t remember much except that it was pretty stressful. I felt like I was just there to be gawked at and evaluated based on my beauty, and it felt overwhelming. It also all just felt like a ceremony to please the family and community more than anything else. There were so many people I barely knew, and others I didn’t even know existed. For many South Asian brides, weddings can feel like an act for others rather than a celebration of love, so I think the most important bit of advice I would have is:
Own this experience and make it memorable for yourself— don’t let standards dictate everything and or let people push you around on what should be one of the most exciting days of your life. Make sure you surround yourself with people you who make you feel loved and safe. And if you can, stay off the stage.
One of the things I remember is that I had my makeup done by a Sephora makeup artist instead of one of the beauty parlors in my neighborhood, sometimes called “Little Pakistan.” I went to get my hair done at one of them later though, and an auntie there told me I looked too dark, and that I would have looked lighter— and thus more beautiful— if I’d had my makeup done in her parlor. She kept saying it too, and at one point I got so angry that I said, with a somewhat raised voice, “Auntie, you’re wrong.” Both she and my mom gasped at my insolence, but she just shouldn’t have been messing with me on my wedding day.
TTM: The impact of Urdu poetry on your style can be seen in your work. Are there any poets (in either Urdu or English) that you consider to be influences on your work?
AST: Some of my major influences are my friends— José Angel Araguz, Katie Willingham, Rajiv Mohabir, Christopher Lucka, Lauren Clark, Tarfia Faizullah, Derrick Austin, and Emily Moore amongst others— whose brave and brilliant poetry inspires me and reminds me that despite all this terror, there is beauty in the world. Their work is my refuge, and a constant source of hope; I am always astounded by the heights to which our language is able to exalt us.
Among other poets I read in English is Agha Shahid Ali, whose use of Urdu within his English poetry taught me that my two languages and identities could converse— that in this, my Self might find peace. The Rebel’s Silhouette, Shahid’s book of translations of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has been transformative and brought greater depth to my understanding of translation and did the work of intertwining my two poetic traditions. Shahid forms an important part of my poetic lineage; it’s one of the reasons I insist on going by my full name.
I also read many poets in Urdu— some classical ones like Mirza Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir, but I am also heavily influenced by the Progressives— among them, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Habib Jalib, N.M. Rashid. I also have had the honor of working with the poet Saiyid Ali Naqvi here in New York, whose poetry is classical and progressive at the same time, and whose intricacy of thought and language has affected my own work in English.
It’s actually pretty difficult not to have at least some poetry swimming about in your mind if you grow up speaking Urdu. In his introduction to “Ravishing Disunities,” Agha Shahid Ali describes Urdu as “the only language [he knows] whose mere mention evokes poetry.” Though I am not sure I agree with the exclusivity, it is true that with Urdu speakers, poetry makes its way even to daily conversation. To quote the right verse on an occasion creates a magic—a moment of connection and a collective epiphany, an exaltation of the mundane to the divine and/or philosophical. Just as often, though, it can just be a source of humor or a charming way to flirt.
TTM: Are there any projects you are working on that you want to tell us about?
AST: I’m currently working on finalizing the manuscript for ‘Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved,’ which is due to come out next year through Tupelo Press. I’m fiddling with the order and writing new poems that I think might further develop and nuance its emotional arc. I am also working on some individual translations of Urdu poems and working towards collecting original work for what I hope will shape up to be another full- length manuscript. Aside from that, I am considering some major translation projects, but right now I need to assess my time commitments and see if they’re endeavors I can take on.
On a separate note, something I’m really excited about is putting myself more out there as a singer. This, too, is inextricably tied to my relationship with poetry. Many Urdu poems are popularized when they are set to music, and I always find myself trying to sing the poems I find most beautiful, the ash’aar, or verses, whose essence I want to embody. It’s the same reason I translate: to converse with what moves me, and to become a vessel for its intoxication.