Getting to Know Nausheen Eusuf and hER new book Not elegy, But eros
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
My initial encounters, in middle school, didn’t make much of an impact, and in high school I was a physics buff rather than a literature enthusiast. In fact, I majored in computer science in college. During my last semester at Wellesley, however, I signed up for Frank Bidart’s poetry workshop, kind of on a whim. I hadn’t really studied or written poetry, but just hearing him read poetry was like a religious conversion. He reads with an intensity that almost makes you hold your breath—and I was hooked. It wasn’t the first time I was encountering poetry, but it was the first time that poetry came alive for me and seemed almost thrilling. What a fortunate and fortuitous encounter that was!
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I admire people who have a routine, but I’m not so disciplined myself. I go through periods where I write prodigiously, and other times when I don’t write anything for months. Basically I write when I’m gripped by the urge to write, when there’s a poem in my head that demands my attention and requires that I drop everything else until it’s written. When that happens, I can’t focus on anything other than the incipient poem, and can’t set it aside until I have a reasonably satisfactory draft, which might take a couple of days. After that, the fever subsides and I can return to ‘normal’ life, although I continue to revise, tighten, and tinker for another week or so until I feel like the poem has solidified into its final form.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
All of the above. A poem might be prompted by an image, a resonant phrase, a compelling rhythm or cadence—or even another poem, a story I heard or read, a work of art, or an event. I jot things down as they occur to me, and later rummage through my jottings to see what might serve as the seed from which a poem can germinate. Sometimes the poem takes shape through a process of accretion, building around whatever provided the initial impetus. At other times, the initial image, phrase or idea might serve as a starting point and lead to something else.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
To claim ‘influence’ seems a bit too bold, so I’d prefer to say which poets I gravitate towards, or have imitated or learned from. I think there’s probably a characteristic quality that I admire in each one—e.g. the way Wallace Stevens can be both lyrical and philosophical, or the way Marianne Moore is wildly inventive and eccentric. I’m drawn to the elegiac tone of Tennyson, the verbal density and jouissance of Hopkins, the sense of the tragic in Larkin, the quiet reserve of Bishop, the intimacy and intensity of Bidart, and so on. Sometimes my borrowings are quite conscious, such as a poem about my father (“Shining Shoes”) which is an imitation of Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” At other times, the borrowing is unconscious, and it’s only much later that I figure it out, or someone else notices and tells me. Basically, the poets and poems I admire are like touchstones, and having those voices, tones, rhythms, and registers in my head means my work is probably informed by them even when I’m not aware of it.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book?
The book is titled Not Elegy, But Eros because it’s about moving beyond grief, and affirming life and the living: eros, as the life force, as an antidote to thanatos. That’s the overall arc of the book. The title poem is an elegy for a gay man who was murdered for his activism—i.e. he literally died because he was fighting for the right to love. Even though it’s an elegy, it’s also a refusal to mourn, choosing instead to affirm his life. It became the title for the book since the collection as a whole is also about affirming life rather than just grieving one’s losses.
When assembling the manuscript, I basically picked the strongest poems I had—enough to fill about 50 pages, so that it’s book-length—and then tried to figure out how to structure them into a coherent whole. I got lots of good advice from various people along the way. The over-arching theme, as I mentioned earlier, is the desire to transcend grief and despair through life, love, and art. And perhaps also (since this is a first book, after all) the attempt to find one’s voice and figure out one’s place in the tradition. Of course, that process is never complete, so it’s quite possible (or even likely) that any future collections will also grapple with similar themes.
Read an excerpt from her book here:
At the Heidelberg Castle
Sacked, burned, bombed, struck
by lightning not once but twice,
the red sandstone ruins still stand
stoical above the cobblestone town.
You rattle off the trivia you learned
as a tour guide: the triumphal arch
the prince built overnight; the footprint
of the errant knight who leapt
from high window down to terrace,
his amorous errand undiscovered;
the gunpowder turret that split in two,
sundered but not leveled, not even
by dynamite. I imagine that rending,
the severance it survived, disfigured
but dignified in its ragged genuflection
despite the weather-blackened wall
and the tendriled, moss-encroached,
lichen-crusted years: a heterotopia
of grief I only begin to understand.
I’m sorry, I say. Back on the funicular,
we descend once more the stations
of remorse, back to the busy streets
of the old town below. Schloss. Why
does it sound so like loss, like loss.