still in an exploratory phase or moment in his or her writing life. Someone who is still trying to find their “voice,” as they say. Which, I think, actually, is a complicated quest that perhaps no poet, regardless of how accomplished they are, how much they’ve written, or how old they are, can ever achieve. That might not ever be an achievable quest. I think the implication in “finding” your voice is that your voice is a static thing, fixed and waiting for you to arrive to meet it. I don’t know if that’s ever been true for anyone. To be “emerging,” I would say that you are writing your first poems. You are in your apprenticeship.
Tim Liu often talks about how we think about apprenticeship as a necessary part of pursuing other kinds of art forms. If you are a ballet dancer you put in X number of hours at the studio; it’s expected that you’ll be cultivating your art for years before you reach maturity. If you are an actor you go to an acting conservatory. In theatre, there are rehearsals. He feels, and I think I do too, that there is—wrongly—less of that expectation or there is less attention drawn to that stage for writers. For poets, maybe, particularly.
H: As an emerging poet, do you feel pressure to, well, emerge? I feel like that is one of the side effects of MFAs is that there is this spirit of competition, to get out there quickly.
C: Sure. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some of that. At the age of 30 I’m still very much an emerging poet— though, my passion for, and my engagement with, poetry is hardly new. By now, poetry is a part of my constitution. So I think it’s really important to silence those external pressures (especially around monetizing poetry, which continues to strike me as oxymoronic, though welcome when it happens). Wouldn’t it be a bit unrealistic to think that the couple thousand poets who graduate MFA programs every May in this country are only two or so years away from publishing their first books? Why are we in a rush?
H: “Emerging” in the larger community has been described as poets without books, but also has included poets who have published two books or less. Do you think this is an accurate means of measuring what stage a poet is at in their career?
C: I hear what you are saying. What’s inside that question is whether poets like the two of us could be grouped alongside someone who has a book or two out. I don’t know— I guess there are issues inherent to groupings of any sort— and hearing you ask that question makes me think I should rethink the notion of emerging. Maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with how much you’ve published. Maybe “emerging” is a label that only a poet can apply to his or herself. Many times I’ve heard established poets talk about their first books as “apprentice books.” Jane Hirshfield has talked about her first book, Alaya, very much as an “apprentice book”— and not in a way that she feels regret about it, I think. I’ve heard Marilyn Nelson say this, too, that you don’t really start doing your work until your third or fourth or fifth book.
H: I guess we’ve got a lot of books to write.
C: Or to at least write as many poems that constitute that.
H: You received your MFA from NYU, what responsibility do you think the MFA, or the instructors in the programs have in shaping emerging writers?
C: I think the task of teaching creative writing workshops is enormously challenging. And almost ethically and morally complicated. I mean that really. Any utterance you, as the workshop leader, make about a poem in that sort of setting, first of all, is likely to be taken by the student poet as gospel. The student poet is at such a precarious, if not delicate, place in their writing life, and they are looking for validation as much as they are looking for feedback or guidance. And so they are really going to hold on to what you say, in my experience. So any utterance you make about a poem, I think, really needs to be interrogated based on who you are as a writer, as a person. What experiences have or have not been available to you as a person before even bringing the student’s writing into the equation?
I don’t think it’s uncommon for recent MFA graduates to feel a little lost after they leave their program. You need to really spend time parsing the messages you receive in workshop or in conversation. And to answer the question, the responsibility, I think, is first to try to understand who each of the student poets are and what’s important to them and their work. Identifying what seems like essential components of what they are trying to do that can’t be discarded while at the same time encouraging them to grow and develop. It’s a question of how to encourage a young writer to reach new heights and possibilities without discarding some kind of essential identity or essence they carry.
H: I agree with you. I also think that one of the responsibilities of poet teachers is to help their student poets read diverse books. To read widely.
C: I think diversity in faculty, in student body, in every way, should be a chief concern and responsibility of all MFA programs. Of course. Of course. I was very happy to see how diverse NYU was. I went part-time because I had a full-time job so I spent longer there than most students. And I got to see it grow in diversity during my time. I was very happy to see there were so many brown and black faces, on both sides of the table.
H: I have heard it said that writing poetry is writing your obsessions. What in your writing do you keep returning to? What is it, you think, that your obsessions are trying to discover?
C: I think I’ve always returned to poetry about identity— and, maybe, the difficulty of identities as we commonly conceive of them. Lately I’ve been writing about my experiences as a mixed-race person. (When I say mixed-race person, I say that with the understanding that there are so many experiences that a mixed-race person can have.) It’s hard to speak about the poems I am writing without also explaining my history, where I come from. My father is Irish-American, he’s really a western European mutt, and my mother is a black Arab from Morocco. It’s hard to know where to even begin!
The truth is, a black identity is something I’ve come to much later in life. For mixed-race people, clear racial identities don’t always present themselves. If you are of two ethnicities, you are often lumped into the group that you most physically resemble. How you feel about your identity and how the world perceives you don’t always match up. In fact, they often don’t. I no longer care how people read my body, although that was a preoccupation of mine for some time. But the core challenge of my experience as a mixed-race person is that my mother does not identify with her blackness, at all.
My mother identifies with her nation, her culture, her religion— as many in Morocco do. Morocco, being a mixed race country— oh, I should say that people often have a misconception of North Africa as “white Africa.” There are multiple black peoples (some Berber!) who are indigenous to North Africa. Black people have always been there. It’s not a result of internal migration. There is also the element— and I say this without judgment and with profound compassion for my mother’s experience— there is also the element of colonialism, and the influence of French occupation in North Africa on the regional psyche. It’s a gross simplification, but in short, you have black people who are colonized in North Africa, who are born into—or have inherited—a national psyche that aspires towards a white Francophone European ideal. Not only of beauty, but of personhood. Personhood.
So, those were my mother’s conditions of origin. Then she immigrates to the United States of America where race has been the most divisive issue in the history of the country. My mother walks down the street and she feels like an Arab, like a Moroccan-American, like a Muslim, like a woman. But the white racist person sees her— and I know this from years of walking down the street with her— as just another n*****. So, I grew up as the biracial child of a white father and a woman who is read as (but does not identify as) black in the nation of my birth.
H: So you are a black man raised by no one who identifies with blackness.
C: Yes. No one in my family, as far as I know, identifies with blackness besides me. And I have two older brothers. And so what happens? The question is, and this is what I’ve been writing into in many ways, and I think is one of the core questions of the book I’m working on, is: what happens when a black person immigrates to the US from a part of the world where blackness has less social import, less cultural import? Where blackness isn’t even an identity and they go to a part of the world where it is?
H: Where it’s perceived as the most important identity.C: Yes. So what happens there? That dissonance was, for me, a source of immense trauma.
H: So how does your father deal with blackness, and the blackness of his children?
C: Well— I was angry at him for a long time. How could you not think that race was something we actively needed to discuss at length? How could you not think that? And I think where I’ve arrived as a person, and eventually in the poems, is finding compassion for my parents. Understanding that they were bewildered by their circumstances, which were handed to them. My mother did not choose to be born into a French occupied territory as a black person. And she’s right, in a way. She’s actually right to resist a label of black identification. She’s right, because that is not a part of the experience native to her.
H: Yes, so for her to come to this country and have the racial history of blackness thrust upon her changes her personhood, her history. It’s a revision.
C: Exactly. It’s a revision. But that revision is also inevitable, despite one’s resistance. If you are a black person in this country you are reminded of it whether you are thinking about it or not. Everyday, all the time. But to answer your original question, my father’s relationship to blackness: he is married to a black person. And I think he won’t rob my mother of the more important identity labels that she holds onto or would offer up before her black skin.
For me, blackness was finally a choice. One I saw I needed to make in order to live. I needed to embrace the blackness that my mother never encouraged us to embrace. And, funnily enough, looking back on my childhood, I can’t help but feel that my experience was profoundly black. I grew up in a Puerto Rican community in the Bronx and studied in white communities. The experience I had of being othered was so formative and so profound that my very notion of self was entirely defined by otherness, by being on the outside. ‘Other’ was all I was. Now, what we called that wasn’t expressly clear.
H: [Laughing] Is there a name for that yet? Being the one thing in the room that doesn’t belong?
C: [Laughing] I think we call that black, Hafizah.
H: That’s the thing, there is so much shame in being othered.
C: Of course. The feeling of shame. That’s really what I’m writing about, too. Shame is actually the thematic glue of my book. Not only racial shame, shame around queerness, being the child of an immigrant. All these shames that one experiences.
H: So this is what you are trying to unpack in your writing?
C: [Laughing] Yes, I’m exploring all of this. And you know, arriving at blackness has been profoundly healing. I’m actually working on an essay about arriving to, or at, blackness. And I hesitate to put it that way because I’ve always been black. But I had been experiencing a kind of exile from blackness. I was estranged. From my own blackness.
For people of color who are educated or acculturated in predominantly white communities, that is a consequence to suffer. Before that even happened, for me, before I even walked into rooms of only white people, I had already been estranged from my blackness. It’s fascinating, truly: the negation of black people in this country comes in so many ways that it can also include the stripping of the label altogether. I didn’t have language to talk about, or define, what I was experiencing. And it took me 26, 27 years to eventually realize that the experience that I had been having all along, every step of the way, was blackness. That was my blackness. For me. That was my negation.
One of the parts of the conversation around race that we tend not to incorporate into the discussion because there is so much pain and grieving, is that all of these racial realities are born out of the most exquisite, complicated fiction that is race in the first place. What are we talking about when we talk about blackness? That question has been explored widely in critical race theory. But, on an everyday level, we are talking about the physical body—whether it qualifies as the fiction we are taught to imagine as the black race.
H: Yes it’s a fiction, but we’ve gone through such lengths to create systematic assurances that this fiction is a reality.
C: Exactly. I hesitate to talk about race as fiction in a time where there are so many atrocities happening around race. Race is extremely real. Race is the most real. But it also is profoundly invented. It is invented. It’s an illegitimate concept with no basis in biological or scientific fact. And yet, it has dictated entire histories. Certainly in this country. Cultures have been born out of this fiction. It’s wild to think about. Lives have been broken, families torn apart. Really, the impact is immeasurable. And yet. And yet. No basis.
H: When did you start writing about all this?
C: About two, two and half years ago. I remember some of my earliest poems were about the challenges of being mixed. When I was writing those poems at 16, 17, 18, whatever. I didn’t understand the full implications of the subject matter in those poems. I certainly wasn’t identifying as black.
H: That’s the amazing thing about writers, we start writing young and eventually we mature our way to the things we need to say. It’s like your psyche trying to save you.
C: Exactly, I should add, that one reason I didn’t explore race in my poems until my late 20s is because I spent much of my early 20s abroad. I lived in Europe for five years and was able to free myself of regional conceptions of race. I was Charif, the American guy. Or sometimes Charif the gay guy.
H: It’s funny (but not really), you accepted your sexuality before your ethnicity.
C: Absolutely. I came out at about 15. I was really young, but I knew that I liked boys. But all of the racial othering that had occurred actually facilitated my process of coming out. I was already so different. I already had such an intense feeling of otherness that it almost didn’t make a difference. It was really easy for me to accept another element of otherness in this chaotic world of otherhood that I was learning to inhabit.
H: You mentioned living in Europe, I understand that you speak Italian and you also do translations?
C: I do. I have translated two poets from Italian into English. Donata Berra whom I met when I was living in Switzerland. I took an Italian course of hers and she very sweetly offered me books by Italian poets she thought I would like and at the end of the semester gave me a copy of her book. I translated some poems from that. I also translated the work of Gëzim Hajdari, an Albanian born poet who has been living in exile in Italy since the 90s. He wrote a book called Corpo Presente, which translates to Body Present. It won the Montale prize in the late 90s and somehow went untranslated, so I translated it. A Public Space recently published a few of those translations.
H: What would you say is the most difficult thing about translation?
C: All of it! It’s an impossible task. People often talk about “translations” not as such, but as “versions” of the original poems, and I think that’s right. There are always choices you have to make that will change the poem, turn it into something else. Also, one of the difficulties is moments of cultural significance not translating across cultural boundaries.
H: As a writer, do you have an ideal way of crafting a poem when it comes to your original work?
C: I don’t know that I have an ideal way of crafting a poem, though maybe it would be more comfortable for me to have one. For me, it’s different every time, as they say, and I think that’s true in terms of every aspect of the poem: not only its genesis and revision, but the formal aspects of the poem— the music, image, through line, metaphor/simile, line, and so on— and making the aesthetic choices that most serve what the poem wants to be.
H: You are the Programs Director for the Poetry Society of America (PSA). With the programs you curate, what are you trying to contribute to the landscape of American poetry?
C: My chief concern with programs has lately been diversity, frankly. I want not only racial and ethnic diversity, but also aesthetic diversity. I want fair distribution across generations. I want gender representation. Contemporary poetry is complex. It is diverse. An intricate tapestry.
H: It’s also spacious. We can fit all these voices.
C: There are so many strands of poetry that don’t have to do with being white, or middle aged, or male! It brings me great joy that in a recent program we were able to feature Angela Jackson, who—in my opinion—is a completely under-celebrated poet, playwright, and novelist. The life she has lived in writing is so admirable and yet she hadn’t read in NY in seven years. And to pair her with someone as aesthetically distinct as r. erica doyle, whose first book proxy just came out from Belladonna Books and won the PSA’s Norma Farber First Book Award was so exciting. To have two black women. To have queer representation.
On the flip side, I think we have names we know, but whose work we haven’t encountered. The poetry community is vast, but it is also small. It is easy to know the names of people who represent the diverse work out there without having actually engaged with their work.
H: People often think that diversity is this impossible thing to figure out. But, I think the work and programming that you are doing at the PSA proves that diversity is not that hard to incorporate.
C: Thank you! The diversity in my programing reflects my values. I think diversity feels hard for some because many people don’t live diverse lives. If you are white and not living a diverse life, when you think about poets you admire, Black, or Latino, or Asian, or Middle Eastern names aren’t likely to emerge. Because they are not part of your organic life. It’s not so much an issue of the arts or arts administration. One needs to challenge one’s own conditioning.
H: We are two poets of color who participate in a community that is talking a lot about diversity and race. Especially with the release of Claudia Rankine’s latest book, Citizen. Can you tell me your thoughts on how the dialogue is occurring?
C: I don’t really know. I don’t really know how it’s going. I’m glad that it’s happening. And that feels enormous to me. That it’s happening at all. Whether the protests and the marchers will really have an abiding impact is not something I know. It’s something I hope for. So my feeling about it is gladness. Though bittersweet, gladness nonetheless that a conversation is happening.
How devastatingly sad it is, the continual murders of black bodies in this country. Though at some point, at some level you have to stop being surprised. It’s not new; it’s the racial history of this country. Claudia Rankine did an event in LA a few months ago, and during the Q&A the first thing she said, in an almost rhetorical way, because she knew the answer to what she was about to say was yes, and I’m paraphrasing: It’s almost as though the issue is that black people started out in this country as property and we haven’t ever really moved completely away from that fact, isn’t it? Doesn’t it seem that way?
Ten years before my parents got married, their marriage would have been illegal. We are talking about the past as much as we are talking about the present. The past is with us right now. It’s in every room we walk into.
Outside of social media I don’t know how much this conversation is happening save inside communities of color. I’ve spoken to a handful of people about it, but I think for white America it might mainly be a digital conversation. I don’t know.
Just having a real conversation about this topic is so hard. It’s so difficult of course. Because people will say things you don’t want to hear and people will challenge parts of you that you might not even understand about yourself. We’ve all inherited this national pathology. Regardless of how introspective we think we are, or liberal, or committed to social progress. It’s inside all of us. And that I think is part of what makes it so difficult. That there will be times in dialogue around issues of race where you are made to confront something about yourself that you would rather not see.
H: Absolutely. And it’s hard for people of color, too, who are trying to engage in these dialogues with friends and loved ones who exist in the spaces of privilege that marginalize them. It’s like what Claudia talks about when she says that fracture of intimacy.
C: Yes! There’s a huge line. For most people in this country, you are born and you know which side of the line you are on. Either we choose to reach across it, or we don’t. It’s hard work that requires a lot of time and brutal honesty and deep, deep, tremendous compassion.
H: Yes, for others and yourself.
C: And the consequences are also cumulative. That’s what Claudia is doing in Citizen, I think. She inundates you with moment after moment after moment. Which is what you live. You experience five moments of microaggressions in an hour.
H: Does this conflict compel you to write?
C: That’s a hard question for me answer because of the specific racial experience I’ve had.
H: Yeah, I’m sure you are dealing with the racial experience of: what are you? all the time.
C: Yes. I haven’t written a poem about the things that have been happening. I did write a poem about Trayvon after that happened. The crux of that poem is— how I as a black man was writing to a dead black boy knowing that what had happened to him would likely never happen to me because I am of a light complexion. I would never be targeted in the same way. And yet I feel unified to Trayvon in blackness, so profoundly. And so I guess what happens to me when I think about this is deep solidarity in heritage and in blood, is an acknowledgement of the differences within our community.
H: What is your reaction when these events occur? By which I mean, what is your emotional process and does writing help?
C: Does writing help me? No.
I haven’t really written poems about this. But devastating sadness is probably the first response. Anger is probably the second. It’s complicated. I think I’m not even fully aware of how I am dealing with these things, because it’s the fact of these things. Not only black bodies being murdered, not just the fact of that, but your positioning— your racial positioning, your socioeconomic background, or the experiences that are afforded to you.
H: Whose work do you go to for solidarity in facing these times?
C: I recently uploaded a video on #blackpoetsspeakout, which is just so galvanizing. To see how many people have been speaking out. It’s inspiring. The poem I read was, “On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses” by Toi Derricotte, which remains pertinent. Even though it’s 20 years old. It’s a reminder that while black boys and black men are being killed, black women have also suffered the same fate. It’s a tremendous poem.
But, I don’t know that I have been going to poems for solace. I think I use my reading to take me away from some of the realities of this country. To take a breather. Regroup.
H: How do you think art can make a difference in the world?
C: On one hand, it can’t. It just can’t. I know that is a depressing response. But there’s the level of legislation, and not just in America, but globally. There are issues of law. On the other hand, art can affect change by reaching individuals who then go back into the world, changed. Think of how encountering just a single poem can change the way someone thinks about who they are, what they’ve lived. How it can give them an insight into an experience that’s been foreign to them. And how they then walk away from that poem and metabolize what they’ve just experienced in that work. I think that’s a slow process, but is maybe the only process. I don’t know.
H: What writer or book continues to guide you the most?
C: It’s never really been about books of poems for me. It’s been about individual poems. I had a tremendously moving and life-changing experience when I studied with the poet Linda Gregg in college. Her work continues to mean a lot to me. She’s the one who helped me see that within poetry, there was a space for me. I was 19. I had very little experience with poetry before studying with Linda. At the heart of that class was Linda’s encouragement. She said that one of the requirements of being an artist or a poet was to ask big questions about our humanity. We were often talking about the soul or the spirit. The inevitability of death. That we are living and dying at once, as Marie Howe often says. The heart of the conversation was: what are we trying to do here in poems? Why are we trying to do it? Sure, let’s talk about what makes a metaphor good or a simile surprising, but what’s at stake?
H: Is there any theme or topic that you absolutely will not write about? An invisible line you can’t bring yourself to cross just yet in your work?
C: The honest answer to that question is, no. I try to live from a place of brutal honesty, which I find naturally translates, or extends, to my work. I have found that there is a direct parallel between the subject matter of my poems and my own self-awareness— or, maybe more accurately, my own self-possession. Regarding race, for example: until I reckoned with my own mixed origins, acknowledged my own blackness, and truly understood the way that race had affected and continues to affect my family (and everyone), I could never have hoped to write about it in a meaningful way. It required work that happened off the page.
If I haven’t written about a theme, it’s probably not yet part of my consciousness. Topics that are currently of great interest were previously nowhere to be found in my poems— not out of an unwillingness to write about them, per se, but because I had repressed them. Or I had not otherwise fully interrogated what they meant for and about my life.
My therapist who is a total witch in the best way told me recently that one of the conditions of the psyche, one of its characteristics, is that it won’t allow itself to feel what it cannot yet feel. And new pain is actually therefore an indication of growth. Because your psyche has developed in strength to allow you to feel, at last, something which has been floating in the soup of your subconscious, profoundly impacting the way that you live, even though you have been out of touch with it.
We repress what is too violent or too complicated emotionally. It’s a bifurcated experience.
*Read Charif’s poem “Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing” in the Emerging Writers issue of PHANTOM.