Illustration by Harmeet Rehal.
The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, Sarah Ghazal Ali spoke with Kashmiri poet Sanna Wani about her debut collection, My Grief, the Sun, out now from House of Anansi. We invited Toronto-based visual artist Harmeet Rehal to respond to Sanna’s debut. We hope the interview paired with art offers a fruitful, meditative experience as you read.
“Any assertion of meaning is strange and striking.” —Sanna Wani
My Grief, the Sun by Sanna Wani: A Glimpse Behind the Curtain
SA: I’m curious about your relationship to epigraphs and “after” poems, which are particularly present in the first section of the book. I wonder if we could begin with a question of lineage or relationality—are there larger contexts or conversations that you’d say your book emerges from, or joins, or responds to?
Wani: So many. First and foremost, the conversations and books of my life, written in the air. I’ve had to transcribe a lot of interviews and what I’m always struck by is the sheer volume of words we leave behind daily…Is there a more powerful vehicle for verse than a mouth? Every poem starts there for me. Then in text—I am drawn to thinking in terms of the word kinship. I do this thing with friends that I also do with books: I imprint. I fall in love and then circle back endlessly. I did this with Heather Christle’s THE TREES THE TREES, Billy Ray Belcourt’s THIS WOUND IS A WORLD, Yanyi’s THE YEAR OF BLUE WATER, my friend Roha. I like to write in a feeling of nearness. I like the texture of lingering. When I read a good poem, I usually want to write. Many of those after poems were made in feelings like that.
SA: Who is in the bibliography of My Grief, the Sun?
Wani: This is such a lovely question which—forgive me!—I’m going to answer with a plug! But later this spring, maybe in May, I’m doing a feature with the Syllabus project to literally create a syllabus aka bibliography for the book, especially around the themes of the title poem. The restorative properties of grief, the kaleidoscope of love. A sneak peak of that looks like: Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk and Han Kang’s White Book. Some paintings by Remedios Varo. Arooj Aftab’s discography. My mama’s recipe for razma dal.
SA: In section IV, you write, “In the oldest language we know, intention means to stretch. / I am looking for a map. Something to mould touch.” I’m thinking now about how putting together a book can be an act of intention, or a stretching toward. This book is also full of beloveds— friends, contemporaries, and ancestors—and I’m interested in this choice to bring in and name others. Could you speak to this?
Wani: Totally! Thank you for seeing that so clearly. The line, that entire poem really, came out of a phone call and walk I took with my friend Francis early in the pandemic. Most poetry is born in community so it feels natural to me, to want the beloved present and named. There is also a question of privacy and ethics, which comes with naming, which I thought a lot about. I also have a background in anthropology and ethnography which maybe slips through here but I felt the need to share those poems in section four with everyone they named before the book came out. Some writers might think I’m compromising my art there—the Cat Person debate, right—but I just think that, even if the poem is mine first, it is not mine alone. Like any act of love, there needs to be consent. Consent, which is its own kind of intention. Intention, which can be a kind of love.
SA: The four distinct sections (some with subsections within them) are so carefully, thoughtfully rendered—I wonder how you arrived at the right structure, the right order for these poems. How did the book in its current form take shape? How did you bring the poems together?
Wani: I took the advice of a mentor, Canisia Lubrin, and printed everything then laid it out on the floor of our hamam in Kashmir, a room with no sofas, and just stared at everything together until it felt right. It took a few days. My parents were very confused. I would crouch over poems, I would throw poems away, I would decide entire sections needed to go then put them back in. A very physical process. Internally in sections, I paid a lot of attention to the beginnings and endings of poems. I wanted there to feel like there was a thread running through them even as it was unraveling. It became pretty clear pretty quickly which structure felt best because it felt fun. It was playful. I chose the order that got me excited and I’m a nerd so I get excited by patterns, by consistency and loose symmetry. I also only had four visual poems I really loved and so I let those be anchors. Pillars. The broader structure fell into place pretty easily after that. Well, easily might be a stretch. Editing a book can feel a bit like an exorcism, or birth. My friends think I’m unhinged for this but I actually (safely and with supervision) set the entire manuscript on fire after I was done. Great catharsis. I’m an Aries! I love ritual, and drama.
SA: Can you share your journey to publication? How did it all come to be through House of Anansi Press? How long did it take to find a home (or perhaps, the right home) for your book?
Wani: In 2018, I attended the Anansi poetry bash in Toronto because one of my professors was there. I ended up really loving another poet’s work there, Mikko Harvey, and stayed aware of Anansi afterwards. Then in 2019, I applied and received one of the Ontario Arts Council’s Recommender grants via Anansi. I emailed them once the project was done to ask if they’d like to consider it and they did! That was “Forming Glory.” Kevin, my editor, got back to me about six months later and said he loved it but wanted more. We built the book together in the summer of 2021. It was originally something like three different manuscripts. Some of them had been floating around—and been rejected—for years. Some of them were unfinished and kind of remain so. Now they’ve found a life together, in the hodgepodge home of this book.
SA: Before I even began to read any of the poems, I flipped through and marveled at how formally diverse your book is. There are visual poems, ekphrastic poems, prose poems, maps, and an entire section of erasure poems that I wouldn’t have recognized as erasures had I not read the note about them in the back of the book. Can you talk about some of the formal choices you implement throughout My Grief, the Sun?
Wani: I’m always really happy when I hear people are keen on the diversity of my work. It makes me feel free to keep wandering. That’s my formal choice, if I’m going to be completely honest: to wander. I don’t plan to try new genres or styles of poems. I usually read or witness something in the genre that interests me, then carry that thought around in my back pocket for a couple of weeks. Then something sparks and I run to a computer or a blank sheet of paper and try it. The third visual poem in the collection, “Reaching”, is a great example of that. I was driving home from my friend’s house at midnight and I could see the shape of my hand in the poem already. The loop of the questions. I took the photo against the wall–all the visual poems are edited photos of my body–and edited it until like 4 am. There are at least sixty versions of that poem. It felt like being possessed. It felt like being alive.
SA: I’d love to hear your thoughts on erasure as practice in general.
Wani: I think a lot about erasure. Like everyone, I’ve read and reread Solmaz Sharif’s essay on it and spent time with Chase Berggrun, Robin Coste Lewis and Srikanth Reddy’s work as well. I have, buried somewhere in my computer, notes for a draft of an essay I wanted to write once. I had a line in the original acknowledgements of the draft I sent Kevin—back when the book was just section two—something about how there was a white man’s voice in that text and how I ate it. Sharif’s idea of erasure is a critical political intervention on the methodology of poetry. But when I think about Forming Glory, and what I was trying to say in that unfinished essay, I think about erasure not as obliteration but decomposition. hiI let van Ess’s text ferment in my voice for, like, two years. What is that term in kombucha making? A scoby? My mind, the bacteria. His voice, the tea. I poured myself into that text. By the end, it wasn’t that my voice had replaced his. His text still exists. It was that I had entered his voice looking for my own. In that kind of synthesis, we had become an entirely new thing, together.
Erasure is connected to after poems too. It was a process of salvage. I like mushrooms a lot and mushroom foraging. In the class I originally wrote these poems as the final assignment for, we learned a lot about histories of mystical Sufism, Muslim scientists and alchemy: people who had fantastic, magical and curious ideas about spirit, body and God. Scholars who were brave and strange and worth remembering and thinking with, buried behind this weird German professor who kept comparing Prophet Muhammed to Dante. My professor, Amira Mittermaier, said something like, “Even as they erased those histories, there’s something rich the Orientalist texts about Islam preserved.” I wanted to take that richness back. I wanted to make it mine.
SA: Yours is a book that holds close the natural world while simultaneously collapsing the less tangible borders between space, time, distance, and the divine. I’m deeply moved by the way these poems center astonishment and inquiry. Every poem beseeches, and I can’t uncouple these poems from prayer. Has faith or devotional / ritual practices of any kind influenced your writing?
Wani: Faith is always what I go back to. Poetry and faith are like twins in me. Usually I can tell them apart—sometimes I am struck by just how similar they are. Have you read that Frank O’Hara poem? “I wear work shirts to the opera”? “The better part of [my heart], my poetry”? That’s how I feel about them, the better parts of my heart. It doesn’t matter how far I feel from my community or my culture. Whenever the world wounds me, I pray. Whenever grace visits me, I pray. And whenever I pray, I feel like I’m inside God’s poems. “Every poem beseeches.” That’s such a precious and astute observation. To be seeking. That’s for sure what I’m doing. On my walks, sitting on my favorite bench, or on my jainimaaz, head bent in sajda. I am waiting to be astonished. It usually doesn’t take long—and even when it does, the slowness is the point. To sit inside a feeling and sink back into the world, like water in water. That’s George Bataille from Theory of Religion: “[The animal] moves [with the world] like water in water.” I am always trying to become the animal. I think God is another name for the world, the water.
Sanna Wani is a Kashmiri settler living near the Missinnihe river (Eastern Ojibwa: trusting waters), on land stewarded since time immemorial by the Mississauga of the New Credit, the Anishnaabeg, the Chippewa, the Wendat, and the Haudnosaunee among many other diverse First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Sanna completed her MA in literary and environmental anthropology from the University of Toronto. She loves daisies.