Bloom: How did you come to writing poetry? Who do you consider your key teachers, and what did you learn from them?
Yahya Frederickson: I don’t exactly know how these interests become interests. Looking back, I can see that I was much too involved in a couple of creative writing assignments: in fifth or sixth grade, I wrote a fake journal by a Minnesota pioneer (I was probably watching too much “Little House on the Prairie” on television); and in seventh grade, I remember writing a humorous story about a skunk being skunky under our cabin just before a community Fourth of July cake and ice cream social. The teacher read it aloud to the class–with unexpected foresight, she read it without mentioning my name. In late high school, a group of friends formed a recreational punk rock band, setting up in a basement when parents were out of town, drinking rather heavily, and recording. After a few sessions, they had exhausted their repertoire of original songs, so I tried my hand at songwriting for them. What I found was that my lyrics became much too elaborately phrased for my screaming, drunk lead-singer friend to handle.
Then in college, after wandering through four different majors without knowing what to do with my life, I took a creative writing class at Moorhead State University (now Minnesota State University Moorhead), and that’s where I began to find myself as a poet. Then I met Mark Vinz, who became, and remains, my mentor and good friend. Mark exposed me to the writers that I didn’t know were around me—James Wright, Robert Bly, and Richard Hugo in particular. I went to the University of Montana for my MFA a few years after Hugo had died; nevertheless, his spirit was still haunting the streets of Missoula. Everyone, it seemed, had a Hugo story or two to tell. From his spirit I learned what a drive out of town can do, to go just for the sake of going. By doing so, a poet can always return with a poem.
I’ve had many teachers that I’d consider good: they expose you to new perspectives and strategies, they teach you to build your poems on your audience’s bedrock, they provide flexibility when you need it, and they kick the chair out from under you when you get too comfortable with yourself.
Bloom: What do you do today to “kick the chair out” from under yourself?
YF: It’s dangerous to kick the chair out from under myself. After all I’m 52! But I think I know what you’re really asking: how I stay fresh, challenged, and engaged. When I feel as though I’m writing the same poem I’ve already written, I try to “break it up,” or use a different writing technique, such as erasure, collage, a form I haven’t tried before, or some other approach that I’ve read about. If there’s no exploration, there’s nothing worth sharing.
Bloom: How would you describe your own philosophy of writing poetry—do you think of yourself as a witness, or is it an act of love, or something different?
YF: Writing poetry is odd. Since almost nobody in the U.S. cares about it and since it makes practically no money, writing poetry must therefore be an act of love. There’s no other reason to do it! If being a witness means noticing details through a lens of sensitivity and justice, I’d like to think of myself as a witness. And isn’t witnessing an act of love? After all, it takes effort, time, sensitivity, and emotional commitment.
photo: Yahya Frederickson
Bloom: What have you learned from the poetry of the Middle East?
YF: I’ve learned that poetry can be more central to culture than it is in the U.S. From North Africa to the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, I’ve met people from all levels of society who hold poetry dear enough to commit it to memory and share it. Even the taxi driver can recite poems! I’m constantly humbled by the generally higher level of poetic literacy I’ve found there. When was the last time that we memorized a poem or recited it from memory to appreciative others?
Also, Middle Eastern poetry has imbued me with a greater appreciation of poetic forms, to “trust the form.” During my earlier years of writing, I wanted to always break down the fence. Now, I can see value in nurturing a poem to grow organically up the fence.
Bloom: What is your revision process? And related to that: The poems in The Gold Shop of Ba-‘Ali must have been drafted some time ago—how did you return to the space of those poems in order to revise?
YF: Gold Shop did evolve over a long period of time—more than twenty years, in fact. Like many first books, Gold Shop embodies a defining part of the writer’s life. It’s been described as a tribute to a part of my life that has held the most meaning so far. Consequently, I was compelled to continue plumbing its depths and gathering all I could from it. Another factor that has drawn out my composition time is that I revise very slowly. I have spurts of revision, but I’ve found that nothing helps me revise better than a period of hibernation; I put a struggling poem to bed for a month or two. And when I wake it up again, inevitably I can see exactly what it needs.
Bloom: Can you speak about your conversion to Islam—you’ve said that you weren’t particularly religious before you lived in Yemen—so you were not rebelling against or rejecting a tradition, is that right?
YF: You know what they say about hindsight being 20-20. Although I wasn’t particularly religious before my conversion, I would say that I was rather spiritual. I remember attending various Christian worship services in Missoula during grad school just to see how they did it; I remember reading about Buddhism (along with Gary Snyder and the Beats) but not really comprehending how to work it into one’s daily life. And frankly, all I’d known about Islam, other than a few pages in a dry textbook, were a few bad examples—several kids during my high school and early college years who felt so out of place in Minnesota or Montana that they downplayed their identity by working against it. It wasn’t until the Peace Corps sent me to Yemen that I saw a whole society of Muslims. Seeing how it worked on a daily level—the calls to prayer five times a day, the fasting during the month of Ramadan, the relative day-to-day security—made me feel that it was a belief system that I could use, that I could work into my daily life, which is where a belief system should be, in my opinion. I found a discipline that felt useful and comfortable. Yemen isn’t perfect—far from it. But I was surrounded by people who treated others well, who lived lives that were simple but fulfilling.
Bloom: Has the Islamic faith and written tradition affected your own writing? I’m thinking of how much Jane Hirshfield‘s Buddhist practice is reflected in her poetry, for example.
YF: Other than the Quran itself (which contains many elements of poetry and was revealed into a society that valued poetry as an art form), I’ve enjoyed some of the poetry of Sufi poets, particularly Jalaluddin al-Rumi. I’ve treasured the translations of Coleman Barks and John Moyne, which, I’m told, capture Rumi’s straightforward Persian. On the other hand, the Sufi cosmology can cross an uncomfortable line sometimes; in my opinion, sometimes they take too many liberties with their images of intimacy with the Divine.
Bloom: As an American with close ties to Yemen, do you have advice for how those of us who don’t have such ties can make sense of the news coming out of Yemen and the way it’s presented by Western media? That is, in addition to reading your book!
YF: I think the rest of the world looks crazy to most Americans. We’re so far away from everywhere, and we’re so enthralled by gazing at our own navels that we can’t see beyond. And many Americans really don’t see much value in doing so. And so here we are. And there they are. I’ve given many presentations on Yemen and Islam to elementary schoolchildren, university students and faculty, church groups, and community organizations, but I’m not sure how much they help change the big picture. Americans want the rest of the world to be quiet for them; oftentimes they don’t understand that they themselves (and their economic and political interests) are major factors in unrest elsewhere. Ironically, what has turned Americans’ heads to wonder about Islam and the Middle East more than anything else is 9/11 and our soldiers’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. I like to think that my book can present the small details and the small lives of individuals that will help give faces to the otherwise faceless.
Click here to read Athena Kildegaard’s feature piece on Yahya Frederickson.
Author photo credit: Ama Frederickson