Poet Spotlight: Saba Syed Razvi on the interplay between dark and light

In honor of Women in Horror Month — which celebrates women working in the field of horror writing, film, art, etc. — I am stoked to spotlight Saba Syed Razvi.

Saba Syed Razvi is the author of five collections of poetry, including In the Crocodile Gardens (Agape Editions), heliophobia (Finishing Line Press), Limerence & Lux (Chax Press), Of the Divining and the Dead (Finishing Line Press), and Beside the Muezzin’s Call & Beyond the Harem’s Veil (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies and her work has been nominated for several awards. In 2015, she won an Independent Best American Poetry Award.

She is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX, where in addition to working on scholarly research on interfaces between Science and contemporary Poetry, she is researching Sufi Poetry in translation, and writing new poems and fiction.

Your most recent collection of poetry is heliophobia. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

heliophobia by Saba Syed RazviThis collection came about through my experiences in the world, and took shape over a span of many years. I started to write the poems in this collection as a student of literature in a university setting, but not really for any of my classes. For me, writing has always been a way to understand and navigate the world, to experience it with authenticity rather than obligation. It has always been an intimate part of who I am, so my own coming of age found its expression in these passages, easily.

I found myself thinking often of the mythology of the classics I encountered, with their archetypal appeal and their visceral logic. I also found myself shaped by the simple delight of old school Goth Clubs, filled with the elaborate plumage of attire and hair, the masks of makeup, and the exquisite sincerity with which dancing and the vibrant wail of music opened up a sense of living against the inevitable call of death, everything with the taste of duende.

Of course, growing up in Texas, as an Asian American and Muslim American, meant that I was often in many worlds at once; I found that the stories of my own dreams and darkness carried faces, melodies, and narratives that often brought a sense of belonging by way of story or shared memory. In this fusion of spaces and sensibilities, markedly ancient and demonstrably contemporary, at once part of the ordinary and outside of it, visibly able to evade certainty and yet always certainly peripheral, I found that defining anything became a kind of puzzle or quest. I wrote constantly, always capturing aspects of the world around me. And, I wove these ideas together with a sense of dream and diaspora, trance and abandon, definition and composure.

Many of these poems are encounters with literature, art, culture, and subculture, but the poems aim to create a tension between the ordinary discourse of reading through the dominant lens and the painfully intimate joy of connecting through the artifacts and elements of our various interpretations of cultural processes. The collection aims to disrupt the notion of definition as a singularly knowable thing. So, I suppose these poems are some kind of unholy fusion of museums, goth clubs, meditations, and global diaspora — all rewritten through dream logic, in some kind of ink made of the timeless decay of memory!

heliophobia explores the contrast between light and shadow, as well as female power and desire. Are these themes that have appeared in other work often? What draws you to these subjects?

Hmm, yes, the concept of darkness and light, the complex interplay between them that produces rich and alluring shadows, is something very much at the core of heliophobia. And, I do take up the notion of desire and embodiment in most of my work. These are the ideas that guide our experiences: seeking and knowing, longing and taking, thanatos and eros are the elements that move us beyond the complacency of the present.

In many ways, thinking about that interaction leads us to question what kinds of things we are honest or brave enough to bring forth in the darkness — and what sorts of illusions or ideals crumble under the garish light of day. Our culture is dominated by image, icon, and spectacle, most of the world laid out like a banquet for the voyeuristic impulse and the pleasures of seeing and recognizing that which we recognize as knowable. And, yet, to flatten the experience of life into just a sequence of images is to lose so much of living.

We find ourselves returning to other senses when we crave them or need them, but we are so easily led by sight. That notion of what the image is and means to us, how it crumbles under scrutiny or is masked in the periphery really got me thinking about how we see what we see. Understanding and clarity are depicted as actions resulting from the exposure of anything to a great deal of light. Romance is often enhanced by candle-light, when the visual senses have to work just a little harder to yield their fruit, when our other senses insistently demand that we use them. So, too, is the notion of mystery so often provoked by the idea of the blindfold, the restriction, or the constraint. Working to see an image come into focus from the dark, then, is a kind of thrill because it invites us into that moment of recognition.

There is a different kind of knowledge that emerges in the obscured spaces, those shaped by the shadows of what is in the way of our easy reach. The allure of the uncertain, the risk, the hidden, and the dangerous orbit around the notion that risk brings relief, brings possibilities beyond what is easily inspected. Just as we are so accustomed to the image, we tend to crave the comfort of texture or touch, the scent of the unfamiliar as much as the sensation that invites us into staying in the revelry of the uncertain. In this space of darkness, what we see is never really certain, and the secret parts of the psyche find opportunities to come out and play. Alongside the interplay of shadow and brilliance, we recognize the shifting shades of who we are in the morning, who we long to be in our dreams. I find this terrain deeply compelling.

Of course, that which compels us also creates inquiry, and any quest bears something for the one who is seeking. This collection deliberately evades an understanding of the centeredness of anything. We trope toward and shrink away from truths in equal measure, out of fear, revulsion, horror, and anxiety. And, yet, desire always finds roots in the dangerous or the forbidden, the untruth of the possible. So, the complex tangle of life is governed by desire, nourished by and broken by power at once.

Nowhere do we see more intensely these elements of female desire and power represented than in the discourse of literary symbolism around the moon and the sun. In the idea of the moon orbiting the earth and the earth orbiting the sun, we see the dance of longing. It is at once ordered and primal. For me, that is as much about the microcosmic atom as the celestial bodies of the cosmos, which of course raises the question of what it is we long for and how we give ourselves over to it. Power implies hierarchy, but expression of desire complicates the role of power by politicizing it through the lens of the body. Female desire and power is often relegated to the realm of shadow, while the patriarchy celebrates the aggressive desires of men; in this collection, I hope that I am able to turn that expectation a little inside out. The female gaze of lust and longing is construed as multifaceted and multidimensional in this collection, the male gaze as one of patriarchal appraisal or scrutiny, but through the interplay of light and dark, the music of the world that exists intimately and immediately and the spaces we must cross to touch the things of the world, I think the poems complicate power and desire by exploring the terrain of belonging, and the contrast between the individual and a collective. I think these poems slip through such elements often. In this book, the body exists in confluence with light and shadow, it shimmers or it obscures, it glimmers in reflection or draws energy inside itself to collapse the refractedly luminous. I think this interplay complicates the ways in which we register and think about desire, that of the body and that of the psyche, not as separate, but as projected upon ourselves and the worlds we create.

What draws you to exploring themes of dark fantasy and horror within your writing? Do your personal fears inspire your writing?

The world is a really scary place. I don’t think that’s something that we can really escape or even control most of the time. In the face of the violence we see within our society every day, it is easy to feel helpless and paralyzed. But, I see horror and fear as something more complex than a recognition of what is truly reprehensible. Literature affords us a space in which we can explore the monstrous and grotesque within us and within the world without the realities of the world in which we live. I think that the literature of the genre must hold us equally in a state of fear and rapture to be truly effective.

I have always been interested in the notion of what is monstrous, grotesque, other, alien, different. And of course, the other side of that is the sublime, the beautiful, the otherworldly. Dark Fantasy and Horror allow us to engage with our senses of the sublime in many different registers. Sure, I love the adrenaline rush or the thrill of the film or the haunted house, but more than that, I find myself fascinated by the spooky stories of the supernatural, the strange, and the monsters that come from the broken parts of our psyches. Because I love to read about the dark, the occult, the mysterious, the weird, the chthonic, and the paranormal, I find myself engaging not only with ideas about what terrifies me, but also with ideas of what matters to me. I give in to a sense of disbelief, easily — because it’s part of the fun, for me, and even though I do love to read, watch, and write horror, I am still likely to react to the jump scares or watch the gory parts through my fingers and scream aloud. After being well and truly terrified in a controlled environment, one feels very acutely a sense of joy and relief. After the fear, there is bliss.

With restraint, some freedom. I do write about the things that frighten me in life and the world, but I think I am also fascinated by my fear, by my inner demons, by the notion of fear itself. Some of these fears, like sexual or domestic violence are easy to understand as frightening, but I have other responses to things that only take on significance because my psyche associates them with other things. Engaging with fear tends to expand one’s personal resilience and strength, and I think that has great value. The ghost story reminds us to stay strong against thoughts of what we will one day be erased from life and memory. The creature story reminds us that what makes us different isn’t always cause for exile from polite society. And, enduring the truely terrifying world of nightmares tells us that we are stronger than we think, that we have the power to survive the torments our demons serve us whenever they can.

I feel myself, as a person, haunted by the darkness in the world, but in my work I can choose to wear it or face it, and I have the choice of how. Beyond contending with the bigger issues of monstrosity and complexity, I think that some of us just really love dancing in the dark. My poems definitely come from a desire to explore the complexities of the human psyche, the ineffable void inside us all, the flip side of the incessant, banal need to demonstrate happiness in our worlds. Something in that darkness speaks through sharp teeth, reminding us of what is really human, what is authentic. I think I could talk about this for a long time, so maybe we can chat another day about this topic in more detail!

How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing? 

I can’t remember a time when I did not write. I know that seems like an easy answer, but writing has really always been an integral part of my identity and my life. My earliest days were laced with poetry and song, with stories of people from imagined pasts. And, I think that the idea that writing can help us to write ourselves and our own stories has always been a part of my experience of culture, is maybe part of all experiences of immigrant culture, diaspora, and decolonization.

I can’t envision a life without writing, whether that output is measured in poems or stories or essays or other things. I suspect that words were my earliest playthings, and they continue to bring me joy. Speaking and performing take on words in a way that contains writing, but the act of writing itself seems to invoke the sacred. To name a thing is to know it, to bring it into being. To name a thing, is to make a word to contain all the essence of that thing. Working with the materiality of words feels like a release of myself into the world, an invocation of the world into myself. I think that maybe I feel most alive and most connected to the world when I am writing about it. So, for me, I guess it’s just a way of navigating the experience of my life.

In more practical terms, I’d say that I began pursuing writing in a professional manner when I decided to go to graduate school and study it. This aspect of connecting literary production to an academic institution probably gave me a sense of stability, when chasing the dream of a being a poet seemed so impractical. I actually started out working on a career in medicine, but found myself feeling limited by the approach to the human and to humanity with which I’d be asked to engage. I found that pursuing an exploration of the psyche by way of the arts, writing in particular suited my sensibility better. Thankfully, my family was supportive of my ambitions and still are. It’s a big risk to dive into a profession that can be so dependent upon the changing tides of cultural moods, but so rewarding, too. I still have a fascination with medicine, science, and technology that has carried over into my areas of study and research.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

I found my way to a sense of writing community first through workshops in the university setting which afforded me a great deal of structure, and later through informal collectives of writers in which sharing work and critiquing it became less academic, more mindful and spontaneous, and even later through professional organizations. These days, I find myself taking great pleasure in literary citizenship in many ways. There is such a sense of delight and engagement that comes with participating in the literary community sometimes, that it folds back in upon itself to energize the individual desire to write, create, express, and perform.

I am always curious about the world, and always writing my way through an understanding of myself and others in it, but while inquiry guides my writing, what prompts me to share work, publish it and perform it at readings, and even reshape it in mind of the zeitgeist, has been a sense of literary community. I’ve found that conferences can be a great place to meet with others, but book festivals, reading events, and even social media have done such interesting work in creating networks for writers. Sure, this can sometimes be detrimental when one is in a vulnerable state, but I find this extroverted mode of engagement to be really instrumental in the construction of community, too! I love to read as much as I love to write, and I think the activities go very much hand in hand — the pleasure of enjoying words and that of shaping words is complementary.

You are have been working on research regarding the interfaces between science and poetry, a subject I find fascinating. Can you tell us a little about this research? What are some of the discoveries that have surprised you?

Having written my doctoral dissertation on this subject, I have to say that it’s one I could talk about for hours! There are endless and interesting connections between science and poetry, not least of which begins with the notion that neither field is monolithic or singular in its expression. The most resonant poetry flirts with the precision we associate with science, and the most cutting-edge ideas that we find in science often seem to be constructed of poetic lyricism. There has never truly been a divide between the two, though we come to see the divide as being commonly accepted. Poetry’s relationship with the natural world and the technology of human possibility always engages with the philosophies of science embedded within those approaches and ideologies. After all, we like to think of science as a way to know things, and knowing things makes us less afraid of them. Or, does it? Sometimes, knowing a thing makes us even more frightened because our abilities to act on that knowledge might be quite limited.

Our understanding of “science” today takes into account things like the information age, and it has definitely changed since the onset of the digital revolution. The technologies and scientific advancements and theories in our worlds have resulted in changes to cognition, awareness, understanding. It is through an understanding of “science” that we can understand the textures of madness or genius, ideas more often associated with the poetic. Of course, poetry has always engaged with ideas from the realm of science, and we can see that in the growth of speculative poetry’s popularity in recent years as well as the popularity of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura in his own time.

My project in particular examines how some poets who are writing for the page after the onset of the digital revolution are handling the notion of resistance to poetic sincerity, how they’re using elements and ideas of science in their structures to revivify poetic strategies that seem outdated in a world more concerned with meson than metaphor. A couple of examples of books I’m exploring are: Srikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors, which he posits is a kind of guidebook for aliens to human civilization and which utilizes ideas of science in particular to overcome by way of disjunction a sort of sentimentality and sincerity that do not resonate as much with the contemporary zeitgeist as they did in a time when they shaped it; Shanxing Wang’s Mad Science in Imperial City deals with the trauma of the Tiananmen Square Massacre through the lens of physics; Christian Bok’s Crystallography examines what we consider precious to our lived experiences through the lens of pataphysics and geology.

Contemporary writers are doing some amazing things with the integration of scientific ideas and philosophy in poetry, things that really go beyond just a superficial engagement with science as a topic, and examining these choices seems to be telling us something about the importance of poetry in today’s discourse as well as the changing nature of humanity’s awareness of itself! I’d be glad to talk more to you about this another time, of course, but in short — poets are doing some weird things with science, and it really makes us question what we know, what we reach for, what we think of as possible, and how it is we come to know something, at all!

What are you currently reading? Name a poet more readers should know about.

I’m reading a lot of really excellent poetry right now! There is so much out there to enjoy and explore in the world of Speculative Poetry, in particular. I can’t name just one, so I will name a few contemporary writers to really look out for: Fox Frazier-Foley, Jilly Dreadful, Allie Marini, Anna Journey, Sabrina Orah Mark, Andrew Wessels, Neil Aitken, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, Hala Alyan, Jenn McCreary, TA Noonan, Cody Todd (sadly, he passed away, but his book Graffiti Signatures is lovely). There are so many more writers I’d love to mention, but those come to mind right away, as I am reading some of their works right now and thinking about them. I’m also currently reading: Ark Codex +- 0, which is one of the strangest things I’ve ever read and which I am fascinated by; The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; Pretty Marys All in a Row by Gwendolyn Kiste. I have a book by Caitlin Kiernan and another by Elizabeth Hand on my nightstand that I want to get to next.

As the author of five collections of poetry, what advice would you offer to emerging poets about writing and about putting together a collection?

It’s easy to get people to talk about writing poetry and even publishing it, but arranging a manuscript is something that people just don’t talk enough about. As a person who is fascinated by structures and arrangements, I rather enjoy the experience of working with a manuscript in this way, but I think it really is a really individualized process — and, I think it’s important to trust the instinct when arranging a book. Of my collections, two are full-length and three are chapbook-length (though on the longer side of chapbook-length), and none have gone through the same process of coming into being!

So, with heliophobia, I was really interested in navigating a sense of space and I taped all the poems up on the wall of a long hallway in my apartment building to examine them. It’s a strange thing to explain to non-writer residents who walk by and look confused by it all. I moved things around like a puzzle until I started to see patterns emerge and began to work with how to arrange the poems in each section, next. I highlighted words and phrases that I felt carried a certain kind of energy, looked at the visual array of colors that resulted. At a later point, I attached the poems to the ceiling like a mobile and tried to get a different sense of where I needed them to be. I like manipulating things around, so this was a pleasurable experience for me, and I felt like I was walking through the worlds of my book; in doing this, I felt a sense of phases and so the notion of the phases of the moon or the cycles of the sun helped me determine how I wanted to shape these poems. It was a largely intuitive process for me. Some poems that I thought belonged in the collection were removed, and others were modified or edited. I worked well with the editor and designer of the book, and the process of making the book a manuscript honored my individual arrangement and vision; many of our conversations were about layout concerns and book design. This process seemed to be really personal and internal in many ways.

In the Crocodile Gardens by Saba Syed RazviWhen I arranged In the Crocodile Gardens, I found myself utilizing a very different process. The book changed a few times. I spread the poems out along a long table and looked for patterns, much like I did with heliophobia, but I was more interested in seeing these poems as parts of storyboard rather than a mobile. I worked closely with the editor in chief of the press (Fox Frazier-Foley is the EIC of Agape Editions) to determine how the book would take shape. She saw different patterns and themes emerging in my book, and highlighted them. She also pointed out poems that seemed to fit and others that did not. It was an interesting process because this aspect felt very collaborative; my vision of the book differed from her vision of the book, but examining and exploring hers unlocked certain ideas and elements for me, which shaped the book as a whole. Her editorial instincts really worked well with my sensibility, and I think that the structure and arrangement of the book really grew through our conversations. Not only did I revise certain poems with a new awareness of themes that came from our conversations, but I ordered them to enhance those notions. I actually removed about twelve poems from the collection and added many more. I also worked closely with the designer who laid out the poems and created the cover, Lauren A Pirosko; we found a number of ways to engage with and create the book object through our conversations about layout and design. It was a lot of fun for the three of us to work on the the book object. We left a kind of Easter Egg at the end of the book. The Colophon at the end is actually a set of two poems that tell the story of how the fonts and visual elements came to be, and they were written after the rest of the book was assembled as a kind of celebration. Of course, this kind of engagement was made possible because I connected quite well with the editor and designer, and also because the poems were completed over a long period of time before the manuscript came into production. So, I think the choice of press one makes in turning a manuscript into a book can be quite important.

Each of the three chapbooks were assembled by way of thematic concern. Each collection came from larger projects, and some poems in them were revised into versions that wound up in heliophobia or In the Crocodile Gardens. I think that chapbooks can serve many different functions and can relate to larger projects in different ways. The concerns surrounding each of the chapbooks took on different issues altogether, issues that had more to do with the cohesive representations of the central theme. Of the Divining and the Dead deals with nightmare, prophecy, magic, and apocalypse. Limerence & Lux deals with the darker side of love and lust, the aspects of it that glitter and those that cut. Beside the Muezzin’s Call & Beyond the Harem’s Veil takes up issues of and around the lives of ordinary Muslim Americans, but the nightmare, horror, and speculative elements are rooted in real-world fears as much as in phantasm.

I find that shorter collections like chapbooks can become more powerful by distilling an awareness of thematic content, but that longer collections have more to do with situation and awareness of thematic content within a curated psychic architecture. Of course, I really do think that these notions are highly individualized, and that the process differs from writer to writer. The poems that span these five collections were written and rewritten many times, submitted and changed, and re-examined — one poem that existed in about 22 lines become a sprawling four page poem with several sections when I picked it up again 13 years after I wrote it initially. The poems were written over a period of about 16 years and often changed throughout that time.

My advice to others putting together new collections would be to trust your vision and your sense of what you want to do with a collection, but get some good readers to help you see the things you are overlooking. Every book manuscript is different, and requires a different process. Not every poem that you think will go into a collection will actually go into it, and you might end up writing new ones to fill gaps when you find them. Don’t allow yourself to be so attached that you’re not open to ideas of change; separate the book manuscript from the ideas that generated it, when that is necessary. Pay attention to the overall structure as well as the individual poems, and examine how those speak to each other. Individual poems are about expression and invocation, but I see collections as exercises in structure and orchestration. Most of all, don’t give up if you’re not succeeding with submitting a book right away. Sometimes, books are slow to take shape and time helps them reveal themselves.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I have a few big projects these days that I hope to complete by the end of the year, though they may take longer to get out there in the world. I’ve been working for quite a while on a poetry collection that tells the story of the construction of android. It’s a dark story that engages ideas of simulacra and the real, knowledge and perception, domestic violence, power, gendered values, beauty and the grotesque, and a number of other elements. It’s a sort of cyberpunk narrative, but it plays a lot with form and vocality, and it’s a book-length poem in sections. I hope it will be ready to share with the world very soon.

Additionally, I’m working on finishing up some works of fiction. I have a novel that I have been working on that contends with identity in goth subculture and immigrant culture in Texas (no, it’s not autobiographical); the story involves some dark themes that relate to identity and power within intimate relationships, domestic violence and sexual politics, and it’s a sort of fusion of Southern Gothic and Splatterpunk approaches. I’ve been working on this one for some time, but I hope to finish up work on it this year.

I’m also nearly done with an academic project that we talked about above, so I hope to see that to completion this year, too. I’m the sort of writer that likes to work on many projects at once, and I have other things going that are farther from complete: some stories about the occult, a paranormal romance, a collection of poems about divination and destruction, a book-length ballad about love and war, a murder ballad about a fairy and a ghost, and more that I hope to talk about in the future; I’m discovering that as I write, I am more and more interested in literary horror and speculative lit, so I suspect and hope that the works I complete in the future will be filled with the intoxicating aspects of the macabre.