Safia Jama was born in Queens, New York to a Somali father and an Irish American mother. She is a graduate fellow at the Cave Canem Foundation, an organization that supports African American poetry, and a graduate of Harvard College. She earned a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry from Rutgers University-Newark and has interned at the Poetry Society of America. Her poetry has appeared in RHINO, Toe Good Poetry, Reverie, The New Sound, Cooper Street, the Offing, and the Cave Canem Anthology XIII.
Safia’s poetic style is subtle in nature. There is an unexpected rawness to her otherwise gentle poems that lingers long after you’ve read the last verse.
Muftah sat down with Safia to discuss her poetic works, what inspires her writing, and how identity informs her creative output. Five poems from her book-length manuscript appear at the end of this interview.
Hiba Zayadin: What inspires you to write poetry?
Safia Jama: Dreams and memories are important resources. Solitude is important. Sometimes, feeling inspired to write a poem means having the pen and paper on the bedside table. I usually carry a little notebook and a pen, and that is the best inspiration.
What are some of the recurring themes in your work? And why?
Once I start listing themes in my work, then I’m using the part of my brain that doesn’t write poetry, so I’d rather not go there. I will say that my poems are very connected to the unconscious mind. I hope that my poems will hit people sideways, the way a painting might bypass thinking, heading straight to emotion. So, there’s an impact, but you’re not sure why or how, at first.
How does identity politics affect or inform your writing?
Identity politics—work that explores race, class, gender, and (other) strands of identity—is what I was born into, growing up female in a mixed-race family. I think it’s a useful term for thinking about works of art, yet not so useful for creating works of art. That said, I’m an editor at Apogee Journal, a publication that puts identity politics at the front and center of its mission. I think that this frees up writers with politicized, or otherwise marginalized, identities to write what they feel like writing.
When did you start writing poetry and what moved you to start?
After I turned thirty, I went around saying I wanted to write “a book.” And after saying that aloud at a brunch, I found myself in a woman of color writing circle, and that really brought poetry into my daily life. In the summer, I’d go to readings in Bryant Park, in New York City. I’d go up to poets and talk to them after readings, and so from there, I heard about Cave Canem, a retreat for black poets that greatly supported the development of my craft.
When I taught high school English, I remember the fear of teaching a poem. As I became a more confident teacher, I allowed my students, and myself, to try writing poems. There were budget cuts, and so we teachers agreed to advise clubs after school, and I took on the creative writing club. And so I spent several years writing each week with a small band of high school students and that was wonderful.
In two of your poems published here, you touch on the significance of your name and the connotations and meanings attached to it. How, if at all, has your name shaped your experience growing up in the United States?
Growing up in the United States, I think I always knew that my name, Safia Jama, would be an epigraph to each poem I wrote, and that people would make judgments about my poems, and me, based upon my name. I would sit and wonder, “How can this poem about swimming in Cape Cod sit comfortably beside my name, which is classically Somali?” So I had to write about my name, to deal with that. And now, I find this tension between me and my name is an important facet of my experience: something to write about, a blank that requires filling. I now realize that my name, like me, is wide open and expansive, despite what mainstream society may suggest.
What do you most appreciate about poetry as an art form?
As an art form, poetry is merciless and pure. You can’t auto-tune a poem. A beautiful font can only do so much for your poem. I like the challenge and the austerity of poetry. I will never get rich by writing poetry, so that frees me up to write what I like.
I also write prose, but with prose you have to draw up a contract with your reader, and solemnly swear, ‘This is nonfiction’ or ‘This is fiction.’ Prose carries lots of baggage, whereas poetry travels light. Each approach has its own pleasures and challenges.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
I like to think in terms of favorite poems, not poets, and my favorite poems change every week, every month, and every year. However, I do love the work of W. B. Yeats, Lucille Clifton, and Emily Dickinson.
I have had the good fortune to learn from great contemporary poets like Cornelius Eady, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Rigoberto González. I very much enjoy the work of my friends. And at readings, I love hearing the poem that was just written—the one the poet is nervous to read aloud.
Five Poems by Safia Jama
I made a safety-sun out of yellow felt
and pinned it
to the sky’s crinkled paper.
My hands are ragged as the sun’s rays.
A single red stitch forms a slightly
MY STARRY NIGHT
I used a postcard for an example.
A little blue, a little black.
Pointy orange stars
dropped in a night lake.
More like lanterns
for a lynching.
My art teacher’s name was Loveless.
I was twelve, nearly thirteen.
The village was mostly forgotten.
Miss Loveless loved my starry night.
A boy in my class took the time
to express envy.
The forest green bay was dark,
I drew in a lighthouse.
WHAT I SAW (16th STREET & AVENUE OF THE AMERICAS)
A tiger lily.
The whole city block, a stopped clock.
One last chord in a minor key.
Dear Miss Loveless,
This morning I saw my starry night,
walking on my way to work.
I felt happy to see the familiar colors
after twenty dull days at the ad agency.
I’m sure it all has something to do with the bad
orange beef I ate last month.
One of the towers is burning.
I gape at the strange glow
and can’t yet see the smoke curling
behind the buildings
A man stops me as I am walking.
That ain’t no accident
That ain’t no accident
his voice full of Bugs Bunny and all the boys of the old white Bronx swimming
in New York rivers.
I sat there burning awhile,
I sat there burning.
I held a strange man’s hand.
I walked all the way home in my sensible shoes.
Did you know? I share a name with Bin Laden’s daughter
I burn still
We watched other families and choked on the smoke from strange grills.
We drank whiskey in the dry heat and planted trees without names.
We thought we saw an oasis in a clock tower but that was a movie.
We crocheted little children.
We heard the school bus groan on the long ride home.
We pitied the unhappy couples shipwrecked in restaurant windows.
We defended the old baseball stadiums and coveted other people’s dogs.
They did not belong to us, but we still missed them.
Perhaps I’m partly to blame,
swallowing the letters of this name.
A secret code on some days,
a capsule of cyanide on others.
Stray syllables get caught in the moat
of alligators swimming under my tongue.
You see, the more I enunciate,
the more I have to explain.
I blow my cover buying a falafel:
the shop owner, an Iraqi, reads my face
before he reads the raised type on my card.
Cue the familiar look,
a feeble flame of kinship.
Sensing the void, he asks
Do you know what it means?
A child reciting state capitals, I say
Fresh, pure, clean.
More than that he says,
lighting the inward eye.
Safia is without a single cloud,
the clearest sky!
Note: The spacing included between and within the poems is intentional.