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, I.S. Jones spoke with poet Saddiq Dzukogi about his new collection, Your Crib, My Qibla. Read on for a conversation about loss, hope, & the page as a place of possibility.
There are some griefs that move through the body, there are some griefs that live inside of it. Grief that one must make space for, a commuter train swelling with passengers. In a sonically lush debut, a father mythologizes the sudden loss of his daughter, Baha, twenty-one days after her first birthday. What could have been a site of anguish and despair becomes paired with hope. Baha lives and she gets to live a thousand lives, she is the “girl who looks like her father.” Grief in Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi is a passageway toward more intentional living. Here, Dzukogi fully understands how finite our time on this earth is and in that understanding has nothing to hold back. This book is no small undertaking. Some people live and die with their sorrow songs still inside them. In his singing, Dzukogi fosters safe passage for us to grieve our own intimate losses.
Your Grief, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi: The Page as Possibility
I.S. Jones: Saddiq, what a book you’ve written. I only have a few questions, and I’m not trying to keep you here all night. First, I want to acknowledge that it takes a lot of skill to write a book as brutal and as marred with loss as My Crib, Your Qibla. But I also want to recognize the hope and the courage involved in undertaking such a project.
I’m curious to hear about how writing a book like this has become a way to keep her alive, possibly over and over? Because I think what is a great miracle about this book is that she gets to live a thousand different lives, instead of just one. In the process of writing, what did this book teach you about grief?
Saddiq Dzukogi: When the whole thing started, it was right after I heard the news of her passing. I had a pen and I just started scribbling in a notebook that I stole from my brother-in-law, because I wanted to just write. I prefer writing long-hand, and unfortunately I had to write this book in a new world where my daughter and I would have conversations on blank pages. Losing her, of course, was something that I wasn’t prepared for. You never think about losing your child. You hope that your own life will be a legacy that you hand over to them when you are moving out of the world. And before that time, I’d always thought about grief in a very weird way.
I asked myself once if I had ever lost anyone close to me in terms of familial ties. My parents are alive; my siblings are alive. Right after I’d asked that question, the very next year, I lost my aunt who, incidentally, Baha is named after. Her name is actually Hauwa. So, when I lost them both, I start thinking what it really means to lose someone. And not just anyone, because what that loss taught me was to see other people more. To acknowledge what’s happening out there in the world. Once, somebody who had read some of the poems I had published in journals was making a comparison between them losing something and my loss. And they said something like, “Oh, I don’t know what losing a child is like.”
After losing Baja, I gained a kind of insight into loss that is immaterial, because loss itself is just an experience. I’m not in the habit of comparing griefs and all of that, but it gave me a insight into what loss itself might mean, regardless of what kind of loss one faces. The book has built a fellowship between myself and people who have lost something in the world, and the world is a constant loop of losses. We are always losing things.
I mean, we are even losing ourselves as we move through the world. When it was all happening, the loss I mean, it was like a lot of chaos, a lot of noise in my head, a lot of regret because I hadn’t even spent a lot of time with her. I was working in another city. But in writing the book, it gave me perspective about life and trying to see people more, trying to understand more, trying to listen more. It might seem weird to describe grief as a gift, but in a way, it has been a gift to me. Despite the hurt, despite the chaos. It continues to teach me to be a better person in the world. A person that at least attempts to really see others, both their joy and in their sadness.
IJ: What you said before about life being loops and loops of grief—it reminded me of the end of Toni Morrison’s Sula where the final line is, “No top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” As I was going through your book, there were a lot of Morrison parallels that I noticed. I don’t know if that was intentional, but I’ll return to that thought.
What I was struck by throughout the book was the narrative style. I’m thinking here of “Song To A Birdwoman,” in which the speaker reflects: “He hungers for her cry, / her first-time voice, but she opens her eyes / instead, eyes like she has taken from mother’s sockets.”
I’m also thinking of “So Much Memory”: “He opens his mind
and lets the leaves be his skin and lets the song fall inside another song. / It mimics his daughter’s voice.” This is also reflected in “Marshmallow”: “His image of love pronounced in a way / she holds onto his big toe rubbing her finger / across its nail. Grandmother says wherever he willed, would become.” This choice of narrative style is a very distinct third-person voice and it feels emblematic of the speaker’s persistent grief. As though the only way the speaker is able to confront the grief is through distance as well as memory. When we get to the second half of the book, Baha opens My Qibla, the second section, with “Don’t despair. It reflects on me. / I am anchored to your feelings. / Inside your body, it spikes when you despair. I think of you in the household and quiet down like a seed in an ovule, / quiet, like a ghost armed with knowledge of death / for the first time.”
For me, reading this poem held the same anguish I felt reading the second half of Tony Morrison’s Beloved where Beloved speaks for the first time. I’m curious about that exchange that happens in the second half of the book, but I’m also curious about how you were able to capture Baha’s voice. Because she was so young when she died, I’m sure she had a personality, but she probably didn’t yet have a voice. And yet the way you captured her, it feels like she got to live the full spectrum of her life through this exchange, which was really apt.
SD: A lot of the writing itself wasn’t by design because I wasn’t really trying to be a poet. I was just trying to find a voice, to scream sometimes. I was looking for a voice to sing, a voice to tells tales that obviously I didn’t get to experience with my child. I take imagination to be an act of rebellion against death. Because even though she is dead, the act of imagining allows for her to persist and to create experiences with me that we otherwise don’t have access to. We just exist in in different existences, for lack of a better word, but even the act of memory, which sometimes is heightened by imagination, is a rebellion against death. The mind shapes the most important part of our existence, which is the ability to create stories. The book is full of yearning for stories. One lost, one that would have been created, and one that’s been created by way of imagination. It wasn’t by design. I am thinking about the parallels that you’re talking about with Beloved and Tony Morrison, which is a huge honor, but I am ashamed to even tell you that I’ve never read anything by Tony Morrison. [laughs]
IJ: [Laughs] You have to remedy this immediately! Goodness.
SD: I should, yeah. This actually reminds me of a conversation I was having with Philip [B. Williams] the other day and he was like, “Yeah, you have to read everything by Tony Morrison.”
IJ: As usual, Phillip is correct. You cannot leave this earth without having read everything she’s written. Sir, you got a PhD, what are you doing? [laughs]
SD: Honestly, I was busy reading a lot of Lucille Clifton. So, I’m doing a lot of catching up which is an exciting journey. Through the PhD, I was exposed to Baldwin and goodness, there is just a lot of catching up to do! But yeah, it’s really good to know that the work is already generating conversation with important voices in the writing community.
And that’s one thing that I am learning about the book, that it’s able to speak to different people, you know, to converse with voices that I didn’t intend to be in the book. The other day I was thinking about what a poem should be. Perhaps, the poem is just a universe that continues to stretch beyond the point of itself, and also stretch in meaning, you know, depending on who it is interacting with.
IJ: So in addition to the parallels between your work and Morrison’s, I’m also struck by the parallels between your work and the poet Douglas Kearney, notably his book Patter. The obvious parallel I see is that you’re both men who are negotiating the sudden loss of a child. The difference is that in Patter, the child was stillborn. In My Crib, Your Qibla, Baha lived to see some part of her life exist in the world.
You both negotiate grief from a perspective that’s not nearly explored enough: how do men negotiate the loss of a child? Especially when you also have to carry both your grief and also Baha’s mother’s grief as well. In the process of writing this collection, I’m curious to know who the other writers are in your lineage that you turn to? If there were other writers, or other kind of artists such as visual artists, musicians, or maybe movies that you watched during the writing process. I’m curious to know how all those influences found their way into My Crib, Your Qibla.
SD: There’s a particular poem [from the book], I think it’s “Wineglass,” that speaks to your question. The process of writing the book…well, at first, it was just one poem every single day for seven months. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted a quiet space to engage with my own memory, my own grief, and the loss of this child and what it meant to me.
Every day, for ten minutes, I would scribble down words about the subject, about her. And I remember when writing “Wineglass,” I had written down three pages of just words earlier in the day. Later that night, I was reading a poem by Sam Roxas-Chua, and I came upon this particular line: “If he had known the sky would inhale you out of him so quickly.” And I was like, “Oh, this speaks to my feeling about this child.” It seemed like something that could go into the poem that I was writing. So I took that line and started from there in the middle of the poem.
I had lines by Phillip B. Williams in the book. I had lines by Jean Valentine, and a couple of other writers but it was the same, it was all in the same spirit. It wasn’t as though I was in the moment thinking about influences or even, writers that I could borrow from, could borrow lines from. In most cases, it’s that when I’m writing the poems or even after drafting, I’ll chance upon a line. When this happens, when I feel like a line speaks to my experience in a weird way, I’ll plug some of those lines into the poems, which is an interesting kind of conversation to be having. I also have a poem after Paul Celan. It was actually a poem that almost didn’t survive the book. The poem is “Elegy,” and it almost didn’t survive because it was driven more by music than meaning, in the literal sense. But then mimicking “Death Fugue,” a famous poem by Celan, gave it meaning in the way that it’s interacting with a different kind of grief, right, one that I haven’t experienced, but the language ultimately is the same.
And so those moments were really exciting for me, to be in conversation with other people who are grieving other things.
IJ: One thing that really surprised me while reading the book is for all the poems underscoring the anguish, what’s also running through them is hope, right? I’m thinking about nostalgia and hope. Going back to what you said about the imagination being a radical act, I’m thinking of the poem, “Measurable Weight”: “In your hands, Baha, your father stands / watching the world. Each cop crows the path / until it blossoms”. And then also in what is probably my favorite poem in the book, “Learning About Constellations”: “Today, Baha is not dead; she is twelve years old, sits beside her flower vase, pressing her thumbs to / the clay, her heart buds into a magnificent sun / waterfalls its warmth all over her satin face.”
What is the function of hope for this collection, and also in your life? I imagine in a way, you have to reimagine your access to hope or what hope looks like for you now in your life.
SD: Each time that I read any of the poems, say in readings or before the book came out in literary journals, there was often a devastating state of fear for me, because I would always be overcome with this great sadness that wounded me. But after a while, especially when the book itself came out, I realized that each time that I read any of the poems, it’s a way of manifesting her presence in the world. And I’m immensely grateful to have that, to be able to hold the book as a kind of extended part of her body that still exists in this world.
What does it mean for a loved one to leave this messed up world? The grief is because I miss her. I miss what we were able to share when she was still present here. But given that I learned so much from that loss, I think of it as a light, and I am keeping her light present in my body. In a book that speaks of great sadness, that light is something to be celebrated. It’s my hope that the mere presence of these poems in the world, even though they speak often of pain, retains that memory is an act of celebration itself.
IJ: Book covers do a lot of work to translate the complexity of a book before it’s opened. I’m curious about the decision behind the cover image of what looks like a brown kaleidoscope, or maybe a prayer mat. What were some of the choices and decisions behind the cover art?
SD: The cover is something that I cannot take credit for [laughs]. It was all Kwame Dawes. I recall that before the book came out, I was concerned about the cover because I’ve seen a lot of covers by Muslim poets in America. Often the covers are something that evoke maybe a minaret, maybe a crescent moon, maybe a picture of a mosque.
And I said, “I don’t want any of that [laughs]. I don’t want anything on the cover that would scream, “He’s a Muslim!” I made sure to communicate that. So, Kwame showed me what he chose for the cover. I saw it and he asked, “Do you like it?” I was like, “Absolutely, I love it.”
Sometimes, you pick up a book and, you know, it’s a great book of poems, but it has a cover that is disharmonious with the poems or the design choices just aren’t working. From then on, I understood, “Oh, it starts from the cover.” You don’t write a great book and then not pay attention to the cover or the book’s font. All of it matters, all of it. Because it’s also a visual artifact. I know that we read them, but you know, it has to speak to the whole work and the book starts from the cover.
IJ: I want to ask you about the choices made in the poem “Observations,” which appears in the second half of the book. There are a series of subheadings that I found really interesting. I’ll be honest that I did my best with Google Translate, which is probably why I was confused about biyu which titles the second section,:“From past, Ba / dying is like moving into a future, / past the street bursting with voices / of people you know, / I am the girl who looks / like her father…”
That moment is very soft, very visual, but I’m curious: what does biyu mean, and what are the other subheadings in this part of the poem doing?
SD: So, this is a place where I was trying to create a form for the poem. I wrote it in bits and pieces. At first they weren’t all part of the same poem, but when I was revising, I looked at this set of small poems, which seemed to be speaking to one another. How could I unite them? I decided to present them as a sequence, as opposed to having them scattered throughout the book. The subheadings are just sections. “Daya” means “one” in Hausa. “Biyu” is “two,” and it continues for 3, 4, 5. I wanted to introduce another language.
IJ: The last poem where Baha speaks in the book is “December.” I’m fascinated with this idea of the speaker creating another life where she could be older. She could be old enough to be lost in a crowd, looking for her father, and something about that is just so beautiful. It goes back to what I said about hope underscoring the grief. “Every weekend, mother washes my clothes and / spreads them on a washing line as if I had worn them / and would do so again.” That’s the last thing she says before we get to the last three poems in the book: “One Year After,” Waterlog,” and “Inner Song.”
I’m curious about the choice you made for those to be her last words, but also why she doesn’t end the book. Instead, the father figure, Aba, returns. I’d love to hear about both of these choices.
SD: So again, there’s just a lot of things that I wish I could take credit for, but [laughs] ultimately, I cannot. Honestly, it just happened, and I wasn’t intending to have the father figure be the one to close the book. I think the book wasn’t finished, right. I wasn’t finished writing it, but I realized that it was finished the day after her death anniversary. I woke up one morning like, “Okay, I’m not going to write any poem again in this sequence.” All of it happened chronologically, by design. There are a lot of things I want to take credit for, but, ultimately, I can’t. I don’t want to say when I was writing some of the poems, it was as if I was possessed by something, but it’s similar, right? Possessed by wanting, possessed by grief, possessed by the chaos of losing someone.
All of the poems, or at least a majority of the poems are a response to those emotions that I was feeling. The only poems that were intentional are the poems where she’s alive. I think they’re about five of those, if I’m not mistaken, that start “Today Baha is not dead.” So those are the only poems that I went into with the intention of writing poems and to specifically try to achieve a certain objective before actually beginning to write.
I wish I could take credit, but, alas, I, can’t, because until you said it, I didn’t even realize that was the last time that she spoke [laughs].
Saddiq Dzukogi was born in Minna, Nigeria, and is the author of Your Crib, My Qibla (University of Nebraska Press, 2021). His poetry is featured in various magazines including Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, and Prairie Schooner. He lives and writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.