“Ghazal VI,” a poem
Bojan Louis (Diné) is the author of the poetry collection Currents (BkMk Press), which received a 2018 American Book Award, and the nonfiction chapbook Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona (The Guillotine Series 2012). He is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing and American Indian Studies programs at the University of Arizona.
What led you to keep “Ghazal VI” as this poem’s title? Can you talk a bit about the ghazal form for our readers who may not be familiar?
BL: Ghazals don’t traditionally have titles, which was a relief for me to learn since titles can be agonizing to come up with. This also led me to investigate what a numbered sequence of ghazals might look like, much like the movements on a concept album. Two albums that come to mind as I worked on this particular poem are Insomnium’s Winter’s Gate and At War with Reality by At the Gates.
Some basic points of a ghazal are that they can range from five to twelve couplets with no enjambments between couplets. Each couplet is autonomous, tells its own story. The lines must be of the same or similar metrical length, either a syllabic or stressed meter, or a combination of both. Go wild, you know. The first couplet establishes the rhyme and refrain in both lines and then only in the second line of each subsequent couplet. The writer may invoke themselves into the final couplet in the first, second, or third person. For a more in-depth study of the form, I strongly suggest Agha Shahid Ali’s anthology Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English.
MR: How would you describe your past encounters with the ghazal form, both in your poetry and in that of others?
BL: Up until a few years ago it was limited. I read a few during my undergraduate studies thanks to Jim Simmerman. I reencountered the form during my graduate studies, but that was almost fifteen years ago. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began a self-imposed apprenticeship to the form after being overworked and burned out, which I continue now for the same reasons.
MR: In our 10 Questions interview, you mentioned that the ghazal allows you to capture the complexities of pain and historical trauma. Did “Ghazal VI” initially take shape with the form in mind or did you place the poem into the ghazal structure after writing?
BL: The poem took shape with the form and the refrain in mind. Poetic forms can act as containers for subject matter that might be difficult or painful to write about. Rather than focusing strictly on content, subject matter, or meaning of the poem, I turn my attention toward the components asked of the form, which redirects my imagination and focus. Instead of thinking “how do I write about sexual abuse and religion” I possibly considered how image or stress of words will fit in the meter I’ve established, or will that first line establish itself and I follow suit; the line(s) will arrive at the rhyme and refrain. For me, it’s a blueprint. Much like the ones I used to read doing residential electrical work. It’s easier to know what’s possible of the placement and locution that you’ve been given once you start working on the damn house. The rest is troubleshooting.
MR: Although your couplets contain a central theme, their images are distinct and evocative. Did you have difficulty connecting them through the word bellies?
BL: Despite the ever-present uncertainties and small agonies that come with any composition this poem “arrived” fairly seamlessly, as I can recall, though I’d been thinking about writing a poem or a title, a line or an image, that had the word bellies, which I find to be a silly and playfully sensuous word. Then just then dismantling it and turning it inside out.
MR: Traditionally, the final couplet of a ghazal will include the poet’s signature. What impacted your decision to address the speaker’s mother and father (“Shímá dóó shizhé’é”) and to do so in Diné?
BL: Becoming a ghazal-head, and taking it straight to the dome, daily. Turning the signature inside out, for me, was to make it an address. The use of Diné bizaad, a sonic signature.
MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud?
BL: Like any poem or musical composition, it takes some amount of practice and rehearsal. Perhaps to temper the emotional weight of the subject matter, but also to work through the long meter of the lines and the varying stresses. I haven’t been “rehearsing” as much as I used to as I’ve become increasingly less interested in giving readings these days. It’s either a detachment from the process or a lack of detachment from the poem itself.
1.No Parole Today by Laura Tohe (poetry collection about boarding school experience)
2. A recent NYT article: Lost Lives, Lost Culture: The Forgotten History of Indigenous Boarding Schools
3. Winter’s Gate by Insomnium http://www.insomnium.net/discography
4. Ravishing Disunities by Agha Shahid Ali
5. Lost Lives, Lost Culture: The Forgotten History of Indigenous Boarding Schools, a New York Times piece.
6. The tracklist to the album Winter’s Gate by Insomnium, and their other discography.
7. Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English by Agha Shahid Ali, a poetry anthology of over 100 poets writing ghazals, an Arabic form of poetry.