When I met poet and teacher, Safia Elhillo, I immediately thought: here is a woman who looks like my niece but embodies the wisdom of my old, serene, wise grandma. How the hell is she only 23 years old? Safia has occupied more zip codes in her years on the planet - from Egypt to Switzerland - than some do during a lifetime and conveys a level of maturity, humor and intelligence far beyond her years. Despite claims of having an "immigrant girl complex" due to her pick-up-and-leave upbringing, Safia seems to know exactly where she belongs and has shared the stage with iconic artists from ?uestlove and Black Thought of The Roots to the late Gil Scott-Heron and poet Sonia Sanchez. She's also published a book of poetry via Well & Oftenentitled "The Life and Times of Suzie Knuckles" which she describes in part, as 'a girl-meets-boy story with a colorful supporting cast of deceased rappers and complete strangers.'
I met the lovely and supremely talented Safia to chat about the similarities between Cairo and New York, teaching poetry to kids who don't claim English as their first language, and the bullshit role of the suffering artist.
Tell us a bit about where you’re from and when you began developing a love for poetry.
Where I’m from is the most complicated question. My family is from Sudan and that’s my go to - is that I say I’m from Sudan - but I haven’t actually been there for more than 6 months at a time. I have this immigrant girl complex where I don’t know where I belong, I’m in limbo. When I’m in America, I’m Sudanese. When I’m in Sudan, I’m American. I am trying to exist in that hyphen, Sudanese-American.
My dad worked for the UN with refugees so they would put him in a conflict zone and send my family to whatever country was nearby and safe. So while my parents were together we were kinda chasing [him] around the world. I was born in Maryland and lived in Tanzania, Egypt, England and Switzerland. When I moved to NYC for school, I just stayed.
What made you stay in New York?
I’ve actually been trying to figure that out because I’m not sure if it’s because New York is the only place I’ve ever really lived as an adult. I knew I wanted to go to NYU because of this program they have where you can design your own major. And actually, New York and Cairo have this kind of energy - it’s really charged and it’s what I respond to. I’m quiet and kind of a hermit so if I’m in a quiet place there’s no balance. I don’t feel like I have any external energy to feed off of. New York gives me the energy to get up and get my life. I like that it challenges me to find my own balance, it’s not a peaceful city. You have to make your own peace.
I did an oral history project my senior year where I interviewed a bunch of people from various Diasporas about home and what it means to live in a Diaspora. My mom’s interview was really great. She was saying, ‘I made home’ and I like that idea, that you’re in control of where you feel most at peace and you get to make that for yourself, wherever you choose. I like that New York is loud and chaotic because it shows that I am able to carry home inside of myself and make that peace in myself even in a place like this.
You have such a rich upbringing that I’m sure informs so much of who you are as a writer. Do you only write poetry?
I wrote a lot of papers in school and strangely enjoyed it. Generally, I’m very afraid of prose. I don’t trust myself with it.
What do you mean when you say you don’t trust yourself?
You have to say what you mean in prose and I don’t know how to do that. In poetry you get the luxury of the smoke screen where you can say what you want to say to the best of your ability and it’s up to the people reading it to interpret it. People tend to think we’re [poets] a lot deeper than we are. I loved reading as a kid and I knew I couldn’t speak English but I could read it. When I first got here I had a really thick accent. My introduction to English was through literature so I’m much more comfortable writing than I am talking. When you write you get to write it exactly how you want to before someone else gets to see it. That’s my favorite thing about poetry, the smoke screen.
My grandpa was a poet – he writes poetry in Arabic. He didn’t pursue it as a profession but even to this day, in the middle of a conversation, he’ll just break out into verse. My aunt also writes poetry and she studied playwrighting. She was kind of the artist role model in the family and the first person I saw who actually made a career out of it. Everyone in my family is artistically inclined but tends to go the sensible route. My aunt did really well and it was nice to see that my family always celebrated her work. That made me feel it would be ok for me to go down that route if that’s what I chose to do.
Do you view sensibility and art making as separate things?
I think so. I’m kind of spoiled because this is what I do for my job and it’s also what I do for fun. I’m getting my MFA in poetry and I teach high school students. For some reason, that doesn’t make sense in my head. I grew up thinking that the job wasn’t the fun thing. So I think I’m still holding my breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Art is considered to be this outlet where you go to decompress after a hard day. I have this phrase: ‘if my outlet is my job then what is my outlet?’ If I start to write because it’s what I have to do then how honest is my writing?
Talk to us about teaching. What is that experience like for you being a poet and artist and working with the students?
I teach at two high schools and one is an international high school. One of the high schools is a high school for new immigrant and refugee youth who have been in the US for four years or less. And they are all new English speakers. I love the language and the syntax that comes out of translation-ese English. I think that’s what inspired me to start writing. The way my mom and grandma would say something when they thought it in Arabic first and then translate it would come out sounding like a poem. I get a lot of that in my classroom. The kids will write an expository statement and it will come out sounding like a poem because their sense of syntax – there is a little bit of distance because they don’t know this sentence is supposed to be structured like this. It gives them freedom. One of my students said the other day ‘tired eyes show there is war inside of you’ and we weren’t even talking about poetry. She just said that as a statement. They’re awesome.
I was on the NYU slam team [competitive spoken word poetry] for four years and before that I was on the DC team and then I coached for a year after that. It was probably one of the most humbling things I’ve done because it taught me not to push my aesthetic on people. My job is not to teach a bunch of kids to write how I write or to like the poems that I write. It’s really about getting to know someone so you know their strengths and how to bring that out. It’s not about me, at all. That’s hard to come to terms with in the beginning and it was great for my own writing too. Whenever you’re around other writers who are doing different work from you it introduces new points of views and new ideas that help you as an artist.
Is there a specific routine you have for your own creative process?
I tend to do most of my writing late at night. I keep a little notebook with phrases and words I overhear that I like. So because I have this phrase bank always available, when I sit down I don’t feel like I’m expected to write a poem from scratch. If I still feel stuck, I’ll read a poem by someone I love or just a piece of writing. I’ll refer to one of my books and re-read a passage and it’s get me re-excited about language.
Sometimes when I’m really lucky, I won’t need to go through the notebook. There will already be something there. The book is mostly for the days where I don’t feel I have something ready and I need to go back. It’s like a cheat sheet.
There seems to be this ease to the way you work. What do you think about the notion that artists need to be suffering to produce art. Is that a necessary part of the process?
That’s what worries me. The official title to my major as an undergrad was ‘Poetry as a Tool for Therapy.’ I was worried that I was kinda being a hypocrite about it. It got to the point where I didn’t know how to write if I was in a good place, at all. Writing became something I did when I was sad. But when I’m happy, I’m too busy being happy. It’s not so much like that anymore. I think of it as a discipline and as a craft. I am branching out and doing more research-based poems where I don’t always have to write about how unhappy I am in my relationship or whatever.
You mentioned you were on a slam team. Was that present with the poets? The idea that it was important to channel your pain into compelling poetry?
I think there’s this culture in slam where you get rewarded for being the most wounded. That was worrisome to me. It was my responsibility to be wounded and I wouldn’t get better until I had documented it and gotten something out of the experience. I was capitalizing off of my own fucked-up life which is not healthy and not conducive to healing. I feel like I had to take a step back and be like, I’m not going to pimp my own sadness. Now that I have removed myself from that competitive environment, I don’t feel the need to exploit my own sadness. If I’m feeling bad my first thought is not ‘oh, I should totally write about this.’ Now I just let myself be present and go through it. It actually makes it easier to get through. I don’t feel the need to wallow in this place until I get a product out of it.
How does that play into romantic relationships?
I feel like I don’t write about love when I am in a relationship. When I am in a relationship and it’s good then I’m too busy being in a good relationship to write about it. It’s only when things aren’t good that I feel like I need to use this outlet. Ideally, when I’m in a healthy and happy relationship then I communicate freely with my significant other. When I’m not as happy, I’m not as inclined to express myself and then that builds up and I begin writing. I’m in a very happy relationship so I haven’t been writing many love poems because I don’t want to be the asshole bragging about my great relationship. No one cares. [Laughs]
That also sounds self-fulfilling. If I believe I need to be in a dark place to create good work then subconsciously, I might want to get to that place to produce that work.
Exactly. I studied trauma a lot so I felt like I was being this big hypocrite. The whole idea to heal from trauma is to finally be able to express what you’ve been going through so you can kind of leave it behind and keep it moving. I felt like I was re-triggering myself over and over so I could get back to that place. That was the only place I felt like I could make good work out of. The good news is that it’s not true. The poem doesn’t have to be about something sad or horrible or traumatic. Subconsciously, I thought the poem had to be dramatically bad to be worthy of poetry, which is kinda bullshit.
So now I’m in a pretty happy place in my life and no one wants to hear a poem about how I’m gong to yoga consistently [laughs] but it’s pushing me to look outside of myself for material. I’ve been dong a series of poems on this old Egyptian love singer. I’m doing a Frida Kahlo series – that kind of thing. I can't get behind this idea of talent. I think it's a springboard at most, and means nothing without work and practice. I am more likely to be compelled by someone who practiced enough to reach a certain point than I am by someone whose talent automatically puts them at that point. Basically, work ethic over talent, every time! There is so much interesting stuff out there and I can be ok and also be writing. It’s less of a self-involved process, which is cool.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s like there’s this collective narrative for artists/creatives that implies you must be miserable to produce great work.
In any kind of art there is this myth of the tortured genius and that is who you need to be to create compelling work. I used to mentor this girl who wrote this line I never forgot, ‘honest poets are never happy people.’ And I really believed that for a while but I don’t think it has to be like that. I think it’s more reflective of your creative ability if you’re able to produce good work that isn’t braggy when you’re in a happy place. It doesn’t have to be a happy poem. I don’t need to write about the great banana bread I made. I understand that - but there is a whole world out there I’m allowed to write about. I don’t only have to write about the deepest darkest corners of my soul. I’ve done that already.