Creator to Creator: Doyali Islam

I really loved listening to Doyali talk about her childhood and poetry in a conversation on CBC’s Sunday Edition. As someone who engages more with the visual arts, I always enjoy hearing stories from people who engage with poetry and their creative process – of using only words and letters to draw out imageries, portraying a particular emotion or experience, or inviting you into their world. And with this interest, I naturally found myself caught up in her poem, “geesturing; or, stopping by woods after work“.

Read my interview with Doyali as she talks about her creative journey and where she finds inspiration for her poetry. She also shares her “favourite” visual artist, Jennifer Hosein! Don’t forget to check out Jennifer’s Creator to Creator and her piece on Doyali here!


Can you tell us a brief background on your creative career? How did you come to poetry?

The word ‘background’ makes for fascinating diction in the context of this interdisciplinary-arts-based interview. It’s prompting me to think differently about my life.

background (n.) – the ground or situation to the rear of what is in front or most engaging of the attention, 1670s, from back (adj.) + ground (n.); original sense was theatrical, later applied to painting (“part of a picture representing what is furthest from the spectator”), 1752. figurative sense is first attested [in] 1854.

(italicization my own)

Photo: Sanchuri Sur

Perhaps my background contains: listening; longing; cacophony; a tense physical musculature; low ferritin levels; shortness of breath; a gauzy imprint of a Bahraini landscape that seems largely beyond my own spectatorship; poetry in the blood, through a grandmother I never knew; Canadian winters; and summer sunlight. Perhaps it has led to a poetic foreground of: spareness; paradox and ambiguity; a taut musculature; ants, birds, and cats; resistance, resilience, and transformation; shadows; and song.

How did I come to poetry? I started writing poetry at the age of seven or eight, with a rhymed and bird-filled poem that I still have to this day. However, whenever someone asks me how I came to poetry, I also think of my friend Tim Robertson’s reflection on his own creative start. When I lived in North Bay, Tim told me that his “first poem” involved being a child, sitting on a rock, and scratching the letters m, o, and m into its surface. Tim tells it more beautifully – but this story really struck me and made me interrogate, rethink, and widen my definition of ‘poetry’. Beginnings – creative and otherwise – are often blurry and/or complex. What constitutes ‘the moment’ and what constitutes ‘the moment before’? What separates them? (Physicists, Buddhists, river, cosmos: answer me!)

In your conversation on CBC’s Sunday Edition, you describe poetry as “not just a reproduction of culture” but as “making some kind of space open and alive for questioning and transformation.” What do you mean by opening up space? What is it about poetry that draws you in? 

In terms of art-making, I guess I don’t believe in leaving things alone! I don’t want to write poems that merely depict things ‘as they seem’ when one isn’t attending closely. I don’t want to reiterate without interrogation the narratives or language that dominant culture has passed down. I value trespass.

The idiom “a picture is worth a thousand words” is true. I’m not a fan of poems that simply depict word by word, in a one-to-one way, something that already exists. Some kind of thinking-through, shift, or metamorphosis – dare I say ‘subversion’? – should take place in the process of writing; otherwise, what’s the point?

I love how poet Aracelis Girmay – who I think is a genius, by the way – seems to reclaim the word ‘news’ toward the end of her Library of Congress interview: “I am amazed by how much people can survive, endure – and how they can go on living, laughing. After thorough devastation, indescribable loss, people’s hearts still beat. People can, still, live. This is perplexing, bewildering news to me.” I read Girmay’s beautiful statement as subversion. I read it as poetry in the guise of interview.

That being said, I try to leave certain kinds of representation to photographers and the 6 o’clock news. (One could argue that even artistic modes driven by hyperrealism make some kind of intervention, through perspective, but now I’m heading into philosophy-paper territory…)

Some of the poems in my forthcoming poetry book, heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019), are grounded in global situations as transmitted through news, photography, and documentary, but I hope that each poem does open up a space – that is, makes the terrain fresh, somehow.

For instance, my Kenyon Review Online double sonnet, “susiya”, found its impetus in b.h. Yael’s documentary, Palestine Trilogy – specifically, the “Even in the Desert” portion. However, my poem risks imaginative trespass through such devices as repetition, metaphor, hyperbole, and anthropomorphism. The poem closes with the lines “see their jaunty / shadows, long in afternoon’s light, knocking / upon a fence, asking it for a dance.” …These lines were a surprise to me, when they arrived in my mind! And this imaginative meeting of shadows and fence is a reimagining of current circumstances. It became a way to point to a deeper truth about humanity and to renew my own hope for our world.

Another instance would be my CV2 poem, “water for canaries”, which begins in the realm of the news – with mention of a particular Associated Press photograph – but then lifts itself from this plane to think about and intertwine science, history, and the nature of poetry itself. Poetry is slippery and allows for multiple elements to be talked about, considered, and held in the mind at once.

So why does poetry draw me? My 12 or 20 Questions response to this question still holds true: I like the intensity, musicality, clarity, ambiguity, and flexibility of the form. I was drawn to these elements – or, at least, the first three – from the beginning, but I couldn’t name them or pin them down.

Poetry is capacious. Poems are small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I, too, am small, able to pass unseen, able to hold much, able to affect. I feel reflected in poetry.

You’ve done many readings around the city – would you say these public readings are part of your creative process?

Since I revise my poems by ear – and, thus, pay great attention to sound, lineation, and small silences – I love to do public readings and engage with listeners. However, I’m not one to share in-progress work. Doing so would make me feel too vulnerable.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

I write when something – such as lived experience, memory, or a global situation – feels urgent enough. In my body, this urgency can feel like things pressing in on me, at my heart. I wish I knew what the ‘things’ pressing in on me were. It doesn’t feel like hands – at least, not in the way we understand ‘hands’. So, it is a mystery. Every time I write, it feels like a mysterious process. It also feels like a return – a renewed sense of focus and purpose. Further still, it feels like starting from nothing and relearning my craft.

What are some questions or themes you’re currently exploring, or interested in exploring more?

My second poetry book – heft (McClelland & Stewart, 2019) – is a formally-innovative and lyrical work that has much to do with the complex world we share, and the ways in which everyday persons face a wide array of challenges and resist being claimed. At the heart of this manuscript lies a cluster of poems about my fraught relationship with my father, and the manuscript itself takes its title from a fragment found within one of these poems.

These days, I’m also increasingly interested in personal confession. Perhaps ‘admission’ is a better word. This Magazine just published a poem of mine in its summer reading issue. It’s called “aries [the ram]” – but, in my head, I think of it by an imaginary alternate title: “poem in which the speaker does not look good”!

I would like to, one day, write about the body, but I don’t yet have a language for this kind of poetry. I still seek a way in. At this point, it’s even hard for me to acknowledge consistently or fully that I have a body – to accept all of the emotional and existential implications of that ‘reality’.

From participating at various literary festivals around Canada, or being part of publications like The Unpublished City – how would you describe the literary scene in Toronto, and even broadly, Canada?

Supportive, both locally and nationally! Among other places, I’ve had positive experiences reading at the 2016 Toronto East End Poetry Festival (curated and hosted by Anne Michaels), Wilfred Laurier’s Balderdash Reading Series (curated and hosted by Sanchari Sur), Toronto’s Pivot Reading Series (curated and hosted, at the time, by Jacob McArthur Mooney), Toronto’s Plasticine Poetry Series (co-curated by Susie Berg and Rod Weatherbie and hosted by Nicki Ward), Ottawa’s VERSeFest 2016, and the 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival. It was great to share space with the other amazing readers for each!

I always aim to read/recite the work about which I am currently most passionate. My thinking and hope is that the audience will pick up on this energetic charge and feel invited in to the experience.

In terms of The Unpublished City – curated by Dionne Brand and published by BookThug – I think that this literary anthology is doing some of the interrogative and transgressive work that I tried to explain in my answer to your CBC question above.

What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?

I have a ‘Poet of the Month’ interview with Natalya Anderson of The Poetry Extension, due out in October. I also have a forthcoming interview with Cira Nickel of Canthius – which will be published alongside an audio track of my Canthius issue-three poem, “she testifies”.

I’m also transitioning into the role of incoming Poetry Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine! I feel humbled to be part of this amazing team, and excited to start doing the real work – supporting other poets and building/expanding literary community!

Lastly, what does your identity mean to you?

My identity is ever-shifting.

Extra question for you! What is your favourite noodle? (Because we need more noodle love in this world)

Definitely Korean sweet-potato glass noodles – I think they’re called dangmyeon.


Take a look at Doyali’s works on her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

And check out Jennifer’s portfolio here!


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