Q&A with Saba Keramati, author of Self-Mythology

Saba Keramati is the author of Self-Mythology (The University of Arkansas Press, April 2024). Q&A conducted by Gauri Awasthi, Associate Editor.

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Gauri Awasthi: I am struck by the use of cento as a form in your book. The recurrence of “The Cento for Loneliness & Writer’s Block & the Fear of Never Being Enough, Despite Being Surrounded by Asian American Poets” speaks to building a literary lineage of your own while addressing the desire to be seen, which seems consistent with the themes of your collection. What led you there? 

Saba Keramati: I came to the cento as a form during a moment of genuine writer’s block. I had an MFA workshop deadline, and something that helps me generate new work is to read. The first line of the first cento in this series comes from Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of. The line rattled around in my head, but I felt the line was so perfect that I didn’t have another perspective to add to it. So I decided to write a cento. To reign myself in, I gave myself the parameters of only using lines from Asian American writers. The cento form allowed me to address representation in poetry head-on, and it also expands the “I” in the collection—it is simultaneously my speaker and her lineage of poets, which hopefully allows others to feel equally seen and represented.

GA: In “Self-Portrait as Two” and many other poems, the speaker hints directly and indirectly at the representation of the two halves—Chinese and Iranian—never adding up while addressing the struggle with language. What then were the challenges in conceiving this book, especially as the speaker goes on to express in “World War 3 Is Trending on Twitter”: “Sought refuge so I could learn to write / in English.” 

SK: Poetry appeals to me because it is beautiful. In my own writing, I prioritize the sonic element of my craft. In other words, I try very hard to make the English language sound beautiful. But in doing so, I can’t ignore how language (and yes, even poetry) can also be made odious, or how eloquence can be used for malintent. And so the challenge in Self-Mythology became acknowledging the limits of language, even as my speaker uses English to find and place herself. English becomes a barrier between my speaker and her ancestries. So the question became: how do I hold what English (and by extension, America) has offered my family and me, and still hold it accountable to its contexts?

GA: So poetry does seem a method of accountability to you. Could you speak to this idea more, especially in the context of contemporary American poetry? 

SK: Absolutely. I think the landscape of contemporary American poetry is vast. I try not to make wide-sweeping statements or rules about poetry as a whole, because each writer has their own goals in writing. For me, the goal of my poetry is an extension of the way I live—to be rooted in a sense of justice. I don’t know that I can write poetry devoid of politics, because the way I navigate the world is to be keenly aware that America offers me opportunities to write poetry at the same time that it creates injustices against its own people. 

Self-Mythology is very individualistic. I find most concepts of individualism uniquely American, or Western. So in order to feel okay with writing so much about myself, I had to hold myself accountable to politics, to language, to justice. 

GA: There is a deep sense of conflict and comfort with the lover as best summarized by the speaker in “Nocturne in Which I Give Myself unto Another” where the speaker says, “Do we believe in god / because we want to believe in a good man?” Could you speak to this? 

SK: There are actually very few other people in Self-Mythology, and most of them are my speaker’s family members. The lover figure is one that the speaker has to make an active decision to involve in her life, and he is also the figure who is the most different from her in regards to political identities. So he becomes her foil in a sense, and he also complicates her positionings and beliefs. 

“If I close my eyes, I could pretend it’s just us. / We are just two people in love; there is nothing complicated about it,” the speaker says. And wouldn’t that be nice? To look at America, to look at English, your lover, even a beach, without being conflicted about the politics surrounding it. But this is impossible for the speaker and her hyper-focused eye.

GA: Relatedly, God is a central question that the speaker keeps returning to. In “Devotion” the speaker says, “I touch my own longing, my lust unholy. / This greed makes me powerful. / Should I command he worship me? / A god can do such a thing.” and later in “The Return”,  when the speaker says, “I ask my father if I am covering my hair for god / or for men, and he says, Government, / which feels like he is saying both.” Is there a relation between the blasphemous and the political in poetry for you? 

SK: I love this question, because the answer is an emphatic yes. Organized religion has always been a point of contention for me. Not the acts of believing or devotion, but the ways that men in power and politics have used religion to oppress, harm, and intimidate. The lines you mentioned in  “The Return” probably speak to this most clearly.

GA: The daughter figure is not only the central voice of this book but is also the desire that we often end with – literally in “Relics for My Future,” where the speaker ends with “a daughter for memories.” Is this choice a return, or another form of self-portrait, or a departure, or something else? 

SK: The desire for a daughter in Self-Mythology is a creation story, which emulates the title of the collection. 

GA: Right. The creation story and, very much so, the stories we tell ourselves dominate the world of this book, which leads me to a creation question about the title poem and the title of the book. What came first? Did that poem shape your understanding of the book? Or was the chronology of those decisions not necessary? 

SK: Funnily enough, “Self-Mythology” the poem was originally titled “Creation.” It wasn’t a title that I loved, but it felt at least accurate. At the time, I had another poem in the manuscript (that has since been revised out) called “Myth.” It was a love poem about creation, and I eventually decided that all the creation in the book should come from the speaker herself, an individual self-production or self-creation. But the word “myth” felt key, and when I cut that poem from the manuscript, I knew I had to add its essence back into the book. Thus—“Self-Mythology.” 

It was not until later, when I was listening to the song “King” by Florence + The Machine, that I heard the phrase aloud. And so I wrote the poem “Chimera” against the notion of originality. 

I had written a version of this book in my MFA, and it had a different title then. It was not a title I even liked, but I had a deadline. So for years after graduating, I was revising and writing a book that was called nothing. 

And here I have a confession: titling is one of the most difficult parts of writing poetry for me. So I dreaded having to title the collection. And I’ll admit that I went for a popular convention, which is to title the book after a key poem in the book. What “Self-Mythology” offered, beyond being a key poem, was its hyphenation—simultaneously one and two words—which felt apt for the book. 

Ultimately, I knew what I was writing about before I had its name. But once its name arrived to me, I knew it was the one. 

GA: Self-Mythology was a finalist for the 2023 Miller Williams Poetry Prize. How has your experience been of applying to contests? Any suggestions for writers applying? Or sustaining the writing practice? 

SK: I submitted Self-Mythology to twenty-eight places before I got the call from Patricia Smith. It cost $490 in submission fees from March 2022 to May 2023. With the timing, I ended up withdrawing from nine contests. Throughout that time of submitting, Self-Mythology was named either a semifinalist or finalist in six contests, which did help keep me motivated to continue submitting. 

My advice for those in the throes of submissions right now is just to remember how subjective this process can be. And as such, try to revisit your manuscript every so often and see what you can discern with fresh eyes. I continued revising and reordering the poems in my manuscript even as I was sending it to contests, because that was all I could control during the process.

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