Commentary, Interviews, Recent

Interview // “Portals of a Shared Humanity”: A Conversation with Tracy Fuad

by Kate Sweeney | Contributing Writer

Tracy Fuad’s second full-length collection, PORTAL (University of Chicago, 2024), challenges prescriptive modes of thought around motherhood, place, family, and hegemonic society all within the confines of the formal, historical, and colonial structures of poetry. Tracy’s unique point of view marries technology with nature, traditional forms with lyric brilliance, and confronts the boundaries female identifying poets face writing today with structured elegance. I had the pleasure of talking to Tracy over the course of the last few months as she launched this brilliant work. Among other things we talked about her approach to writing about pregnancy, the sentimentality of motherhood, the many impacts of climate, and the way we perceive our shared humanity. 


Kate Sweeney (KS): The title of the book is perfect. It speaks back to the general feeling of the poet as observer, and the voyeuristic nature of pregnancy, birth, birthing a poem, the poem as transformative, a portal by which we use the container of poetryboth formally and as objectto bring forward place and time. In “Radicality” the speaker says, “I believed in circles, in the potency of future, in holes between places and times.”

Tracy Fuad (TF): Thank you! For the longest time I couldn’t place where the title PORTAL came from, but this spring I’ve been fielding lots of questions about the NEA application and I’m pretty certain, now, navigating that portal was the genesis of the title of PORTAL. Portals abound. The last few years have been a series of harrowing portals. When you go through a portal, you can’t return, at least not as you were, or not to the same world. The second section of PORTAL is a crown of sonnets which take their titles from the framework for the nine thresholds within which humanity can survive: the planetary boundaries. It’s impossible to consider the future without considering the environmental future. This big supra-container in which everything else exists. We’re hurtling toward a door we don’t want to go through, through which we can’t come back. 

KS: Each poem utilizes history, nature, and technology to climb through the truths of self–and the actuality of pregnancy–which is a wildly rapid time of private internal change. It’s almost an anti-nihilism. While the book presents reality on the brink of collapse, there is an undercurrent of hope and joy: “I generated faces of people that didn’t exist and found that I already loved them.” Can you talk a little bit about hope in a time of such uncertainty? 

TF: I spent the first months of the pandemic in Kurdistan, in almost total isolation, living in a compound called Empire World with someone I’d only been dating a few months and a very young activist from Baghdad who’d been stranded with us when the roads were closed. I think this extreme time, which felt almost an experimental mode of living, changed my relationship with joy and pleasure. I think my life became quieter and smaller and this in turn made it easier to recognize and greet joy when it arrived. And it did arrive, almost as if on its own accord, and from surprising sources. During the strictest lockdown in Erbil I learned to drive stick-shift in the parking lot of Empire World. We couldn’t go anywhere, or see anyone, or even walk outside the 1km radius we were permitted, but I remember this acquisition of a new skill produced an almost exquisite pleasure. Small things. I’m not sure that I connect it with a sense of hope. It is something smaller and more humble than that. Hope is projecting into the future, but joy is almost a temporary eradication of past and future, an insistence on a present tense pleasure. This isn’t a pandemic book but I do think it was informed by this reorientation to space and time that happened under the new laws of contagion. I hesitate to call it a collective experience because its weight was born so differentially across social and economic realities. But pregnancy felt at times like a sort of lockdown, too; a reorientation to self, space, time, others. And joy did arrive. At times almost like a bodily function. 

KS: The reality is that we have lived a the future on the brink; the rapid degeneration of society, moral codes of shared humanity are virtually non-existent, the world in environmental collapse, and of course, this book was written largely during the pandemicbut it is not a pandemic focused book. The book grounds the reader in a shared reality. The choices you make to include modern technology and communication in these poems makes this brink even more acute. Is this the way the poems come, or is it a conscious choice you make? 

TF: Both, I guess. I’ve long been interested in how my most intimate experiences are mediated by technology. I first saw my baby’s fingers on the screen of an ultrasound machine. ULTRASOUND! It’s really sound bounced into the body and what is reflected back makes an image. It’s pretty much a poem in itself. And all of these portals, and buttons, and holes we all have to navigate. Learning about death in a text. I planned my first kiss in middle school on AIM the night before. This apparatus is sort of like a container for everything I do, so what I do, takes on the shape of the container, and they aren’t really separate.

KS: I was really struck with the way you search personal history during a time when the body is totally untethered from historical reality. Pregnancy is such a nebulous space where you are neither alone, nor with another person you can place, but more project the idea of a new person as a sum of all of your experiences. The poems create this tension about what is to come by locating personal history and place. Can you talk a little about how you approached this? 

TF: I think even contemplating the possibility of becoming a parent opened up a lot of different chasms. Bodily, historical, societal, familial caverns. I spent a lot of time interrogating my desire to have a child, where it came from and if it was really “mine.” I’ve always embraced embracing my desires, even when, well, they don’t necessarily align with logic or societal values. I know desire can never be mine alone. It’s always mediated, and I am interested, ultimately, in that mediation. When I accepted, okay, I was going to bring a child into this mess, I knew I needed to look at the mess again and attempt a more honest reckoning of it. Of its facets and how I was enmeshed in them, in their construction, upholding. I mean the personal and collective ugly histories. It’s an ongoing process. 

KS: I’m interested in the way that sentimentality is a societal expectation of motherhood. Not unlike Lauren Berlant’s assertion of the heteronormative female experience as “intimate publics,” but also how we’ve become attached to the idea of motherhood as a kind of desire-object, a means by which we physically produce the fabric of society with a glee and positivity which might be entirely antithetical to our own personality before motherhood descends. 

TF: Yeah, that’s part of the new self that never arrived. 

Something new did arrive, though. It’s this very understated, quiet, sensual bodily pleasure of being together with one’s child. It’s not there all the time but when it appears, usually when I am alone and in close physical proximity with my child, well, I think it must be most akin to the pre-language pleasure we felt when we ourselves were infants and all our needs were met. 

It doesn’t feel sentimental, though, because it isn’t really something I can capture or transfer or even linger in. It just comes through me, and then it leaves. 

KS: It seems to me there is a sort of dual truth that a person becomes a mother, while holding the original identity of themselves as a person separate from the onset of motherhood. It’s not a joining so much as a bifurcation of roles mothers play in society. In this book, you seem to be examining this very thing over the course of your pregnancy. 

TF: I’ve always been very interested in the experience of alienation and if there’s one overarching theme to my workto both of my books, and my other writingit’s this. PORTAL is also situated in the midst of a lot of disorienting changes. I moved from Kurdistan to a tiny town near the Minnesota-Canadian border and then to Berlin and then to Provincetown MA all in the span of three years, during which I also published my first book and got pregnant. 

Motherhood was such a totally foreign and mystical concept to me before I experienced it and I think I sort of mythologized it a bit. It’s a role that our society simultaneously idolizes, rarifies, and demonizes depending on the context. I remember asking the few people I knew who had children whether they felt like they had become totally different people, and everyone said yes. But I am not sure I feel that way. I still feel like myself, which sometimes makes me feel defective. As if, in order to become a mother, it was prescribed that I make a totalizing transformation which requires me to leave something of myself in the past in order to acquire this new self who is more capable of bearing the weight of mothering. 

In a reading this week in San Francisco, Diana Khoi Nguyen saidand I’m paraphrasing herethat the act of mothering is the act of revising the past. She was referring to her own mother, who, she said, began to check out parenting books from the library after her brother’s suicide, long after her children were children. A desire to remediate what has already happened. I was incredibly moved by this idea. I think becoming a parent does transmogrify one’s relationship to the past and the future in a deeply unsettling and impossible way. Diana’s new book Root Fractures floored me, by the wayits examination of the intersection between historical traumas and familial inheritance through poetic form feels totally new. It’s a book I know I will be coming back to for years and years to come.


Tracy Fuad’s second book of poetry, PORTAL (University of Chicago, 2024) won the 2023 Phoenix Emerging Poets Prize. A 2023 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Fuad’s poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review and The New Republic and have been translated into Kurdish, Turkish, German, and Spanish. She lives in Berlin, where she teaches poetry and directs the Berlin Writers’ Workshop.

Kate Sweeney is a Best of the Net Finalist and Pushcart Prize Nominee. She has poems most recently appearing or forthcoming from Poet Lore, The Boiler, Poetry Online, Salt Hill and other places. Kate is an MFA candidate at Bennington Writers Seminars and has a chapbook, The Oranges Will Still Grow Without Us (Ethel).