Commentary, Interviews, Recent

Interview // “Poetry as a Tool for Discovery”: A Conversation with Sarah Ghazal Ali 

by Aditi Bhattacharjee | Contributing Writer

Sarah Ghazal Ali’s debut collection of poetry Theophanies (Alice James books, 2024) is a meditation on identity—one that encapsulates elements from origin stories—be it through name, faith, country, or gender. The poems in this book are explorations of the self at the intersection of enigmas and expectation, deploying both the musicality of verse and the fervor of form. This collection of poems reaches for a tenable future, showing us what was and what is possible.

Theophanies is rich with questions and myths, summoning voices of figures from stories past and present. Ali weaves a common thread through a dual cultural existence—two languages, two countries, two bodies—one before and one after the Partition. Her poems are in whispered conversation with each other, only revealing a little through each one, holding the awe and surprise of the reader intact until the last page is turned.

I was very grateful to be able to have a conversation about the process of writing this collection via a Google doc.


Aditi Bhattacharjee (AB): Thank you so much, Sarah, for taking the time to do this interview. Congratulations again on your debut collection, Theophanies, that comes out next month. I want to start at the very beginning and would like you to talk a little about the inception of this book—where and how did the idea germinate? 

Sarah Ghazal Ali (SGA): Thank you for the gift of your time, for reading and engaging with the book! Theophanies has been seven years in the making and had a few false starts before taking the shape it’s in today. In undergrad, I took a workshop with brilliant poet and professor Ronaldo V. Wilson, and as a writing assignment one week, he instructed us students to investigate the origins of our given names. I had considered Ghazal (my middle name) before, but never my first name, Sarah. That prompt catalyzed a near decade-long obsession with the matriarch Sarah, and with matrilineage, motherhood, and the gendered body. Though my initial draft for that prompt did not remain in the book, I like to think of it as the bay leaf of the collection—it added something but wasn’t meant to be consumed. 

AB: Wow! I love that analogy. The first poem of the book “My Faith Gets Grime Under its Nails” foreshadows the collection. It reads like a prayer but is also fraught with tension and that tension carries on throughout the book where the narrator is seen contending with her place in history, in her faith, in this world. How did you go about weaving these poems with that common thread?

SGA: What you’ve noticed about contending with one’s place feels particularly true. Nothing in my life has ever felt black and white, or like there’s a clear right and a clear wrong. When it comes to my place in my own faith, my family, or even in my own body, I have this physical sense of teetering, as if someone has just snatched a compass from my hand. So I’m wary, both as a person moving through the world and as a writer, of posturing certainty. It would be a performance, and a bad one. I don’t know that I wove that into my poems consciously, or if it’s a deeply felt and ongoing anxiety of mine that I can’t separate from my creative work. The poems spiral deeper and deeper into my longing for a stable platform, somewhere from which to study and understand what it is to be a woman, a mother, a daughter, a believer. They take me from woman to woman, wound to wound, wonder to wonder. 

AB: In the poem, Sarai, you write “A name is not unlike a sexed body.” and “A name is a condition meant to last, to outlast.” All the names (and there are many) in this collection inform and enrich the reader’s experience. They ground the reader in the narration. How easy or difficult was the process of naming things for you? And at the same time how important was it?

SGA: Naming is something I consciously work to do in my work because my thesis advisor in grad school, the brilliant Ocean Vuong, pointed out that I was too comfortable in early drafts with imprecise signifiers: “body,” “pain,” “suffering,” “tree.” He asked, whose body, and what specific suffering? Which tree, with what leaves? He told me a cut finger is realer than a broken heart, and instructed me to use tactile images to ask tactile questions. In a collection so bound up in women’s names, that begins with my own name, it was necessary to practice speaking clearly and sharply. As a woman of color, I know too how easily I can be misrepresented or spoken over. Part of my insistence in declaring women’s names is to make sure there’s no confusion, and no opportunity for them to be written over yet again. 

AB: Thank you so much for generously sharing this writing advice you received from Ocean Vuong with us. Such a gift! What was an aspect of writing this collection that surprised you the most?

SGA: Revising after the book was accepted for publication was painful. Many of the sore spots that the collection was built off of had not healed, even though there were years between the writing and revising. Naively, I thought writing about what troubled me—patriarchy, violence against women, Partition—would help me put it all in a box (a physical book!) that I could close and move on from. But there is no moving on, or at least not yet. I was surprised, and am still, that the passage of time has not made contending with harm any easier.  

AB: In your interview with Up the Staircase Quarterly and the essay on form in Poetry Foundation, you said that you struggled with writing the ghazals in the collection and consider them failures. I listen to ghazals all the time and read them often and the desire to create something as beautiful has been undeniable. I consider my attempts at it, failures as well. What, according to you, makes a poem difficult to write? Does language play any role in how certain forms transcend the page? 

SGA: I think the trouble arises from being multilingual. If you have access to another language that a form like the ghazal is better suited for, you can see all of the flaws inherent to English in comparison. It’s a translation issue, a music issue. English isn’t musical to my ear, not when I know what’s possible in Urdu, Arabic, Farsi. I can’t speak to all forms, and I know that many will disagree with me, but the ghazal absolutely transcends the page, and English ghazals are all missing that indescribable air of magic, that soul of a poem that sits somewhere beyond intelligence or craft. One of the ghazals in the book is titled “Failed Ghazal,” both because it is incomplete as a single misra or couplet, but also because I wanted it to feel abandoned—for the reader to feel the abrupt wrongness of the attempt the writer made. 

AB: I have eagerly waited for this book since last year and rightly so. Each poem is multi-layered, each word carries its weight, and the sonic landscape is so rich. What did the process of revision look like for this book? And how important a role does revision play in your work?

SGA: Thank you. It is bewilderingly lucky to be read at all, and I’m grateful that the book had something to offer you. As I mentioned earlier, revision was painful, but I was also lucky to be held and supported by my press throughout. Alice James Books has an incredible editorial process. They pair you with another author who has been published with them to have as a buddy of sorts and discuss revisions, and you go through two or three rounds of developmental edits with the team as well. I was paired with Sumita Chakraborty, who is the absolute best, most rigorous, funny, and generous person/poet/marvel on this earth. She had thoughtful feedback and gave me the space to ask frantic questions at odd hours of the night. In general, though, I think revision is where the real writing happens, where the poem grows into a Poem. I found it fascinating and also fulfilling to revise poems to sing together within a cohesive collection. It was very different than revising an individual poem. 

AB: What was it like after you received the news that your book was selected as the Editors’ Choice for the Alice James Award? I am curious from a purely writerly perspective as to what happens to the poet after the project is done and the book is on its way into the world. Does one feel a relief, or is there a void, or does the pressure/excitement of a new project kick in?

SGA: I love this question. There were so many emotions after I got the call—the loudest was disbelief. I feel so lucky still. My book was picked up in early 2022 and is coming out January 2024. The two years in between were strange because I had so much time to doubt myself, but also to dream in every direction. I’m grateful for the time because it gave me space to make peace with the book as an object that is going to live out in the world outside of me, and I’m not sure I would have gotten to that point if the publication timeline was faster. 

I don’t think Theophanies will ever be done. The revision deadline is the only thing that forced me to stop. I could write into these obsessions and inquiries forever. I definitely believe what Valéry said—that a poem (project/book/etc..) is never finished, only abandoned. Maybe that will change post-publication? I haven’t felt ready to write anything outside or beyond Theophanies yet. It feels too close, still. I’m trying to be patient.  

AB: What does your writing process look like? Do you usually know where a piece is headed before you put pen to paper, or do you start with an inspiration and let the discovery happen along the way?

SGA: I am an obsessive, intense drafter. I sit at my desk, rifle through a dozen books, and then begin with an image, word, or phrase that catches my eye or attention.

l’ll stay at my desk until the poem feels complete. I am uncomfortable with incomplete drafts, so my writing process is rather tedious. I can’t let go of the poem until it lets go of me, I suppose. I never know what I’m going to write. It’s very much a process of discovery, of tracing a thought as it begins to bud. 

AB: What is your take on the journey of a poem? Is there any such thing as the perfect poem? 

SGA: What a lovely question for me to chew on. The only thing I’ll call perfect is God. But if I feel breathless or disturbed or shaken by a poem, then I know it has that soul, that quality beyond reason that gives it power. And that power is close to perfection.   

AB: Finally, what is one poetic theory or advice from a mentor that you have found most helpful in your writing practice? How has it changed your craft and/or helped you evolve as a poet?

SGA: Dear Dara Barrois/Dixon offered me this, which I repeat to myself often: inquiry is a form of love. If you really love someone, you aren’t scared to ask them big questions. I was so worried as a young poet that my questions around faith were disrespectful, but Dara assured me that my language was loving, that I led with love. I trust now that love won’t lead me astray. That it will hold it all: doubt, and fear, and desire, and devotion. 

Sarah Ghazal Ali is a poet, teacher, and editor. She is the author of Theophanies (Alice James Books, 2024), selected as the Editors’ Choice for the 2022 Alice James Award. A Stadler Fellow, Tin House resident, and recipient of The Sewanee Review poetry prize, her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, and other publications. She is the poetry editor for West Branch and an incoming Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College. 

Aditi Bhattacharjee is an Indian writer, currently pursuing an MFA in Writing at The New School, New York. Her poems have appeared in Evocations Review, The Greyhound Journal, Sky Island Journal, SLAB Magazine and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in Lunch Ticket, Pile Press and Curlew New York. In her free time, she dabbles in photography.