Wombwell Rainbow Interviews
I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
is an Arab-Latino, born in California. His mother is Colombiana. His father was Moroccan. The Alaoui-Fdilis are originally from Fez. His brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins are today mostly in Casablanca and Rabat. His family and heritage are an endless source of inspiration for his varied, dark, spiritual and carnal writings. He has an MFA in Poetics from New College of California. There, he studied Classical Arabic, Spanish Baroque and Contemporary Moroccan poetry. He is also well versed in the most dour and macabre literature of the 19th Century. His poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, 580 Split, Cherry Bleeds, Virgogray Press, Red Fez, Big Bridge, Dusie Press, Paris Lit Up, The Opiate, and nominated for a Pushcart at Full of Crow. Youssef is an original creator of the East Bay literary arts festival “Beast Crawl.” In 2012 he created Paper Press Books & Associates Publishing Company. This press offers several important books of poetry and one poetry and art compendium. Youssef also serves as an Associate Editor for Big Bridge Press.
- When and why did you start writing poetry?
I first started writing poems by accident. My grandfather had given me a typewriter in its own carrying case, a suitcase-like box. I rarely used it until I had a friend come over. We took it out of its box and slid some paper in it and began to interact with it as if the machine could answer our questions. We began writing little poems with it. My friend did not like me in the same way I liked her. She left, but she left me with my old typewriter. We became the best of friends. Writing is an invocational exercise, a reality-bending exercise, a self-affirming exercise.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
My grandfather, indirectly; my friend, directly; and I would add to that my mentor, who handed me Trout Fishing in America when I was 16.
Are you familiar with the book?
Trout Fishing in America
A book “that has very little to do with trout fishing and a lot to do with the lamenting of a passing pastoral America . . . an instant cult classic” (Financial Times). Richard Brautigan was a literary idol of the 1960s and ’70s who came of age during the heyday of Haight-Ashbury and whose com…
2.1 I have heard of it but not read it. I have heard it was groundbreaking. There is such a thing as poetic prose.
Does “Trout Fishing…” even count as poetry? I’m not sure
but my takeaway was that anything goes in writing. surprisingly, I had already been labeled “the writer” or “the existentialist” by my friends. Before I had given it much thought.
Absolutely and so it was. I read the beats soon after. I became interested in books on meditation and spirituality at the same time. It’s difficult to remember everything that I first read.
2’2 What was it about the prose that got to you?
Hm. If i remember correctly, it was that metaphors could be mixed and matched in astounding ways, not necessarily surrealism, but also appreciating the way surrealist texts make my brain feel, by overriding my sense of perception and thus opening new layers of interpretation I hadn’t been previously aware of.
3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?
When I was starting out, nothing meant anything. Then, yes. I understood that there was a “white” sound that I did and do not possess and that’s why i felt a little “outside” of the poetry written in college and grad school. In college, i graduated with a degree in “French”. I should back up real quick to say that I was an English major as an undergrad. one foreign language was required for this degree track. i had grown up with Spanish, but i was interested in French for some reason
So I took French. then I took a program abroad that stretched into a few years of living in Paris. That experience introduced me to my Moroccan identity. I discovered myself in Paris. Then I travelled to morocco, got lost, turned around and went back. My experiences in France and Morocco left me with enough background and knowledge of French to instead change my degree to “French” with a minor in English lit.
So I studied a bit of Moliere as an undergrad, but I was mostly interested in poetry and prose from Cameroon, and Senegal. So I took “French” which led me directly to Africa and African thought.
3.1 Cameroon and Senegal?
mariama ba, camara laye, yes
as a graduate student, I opted for as much independent study as possible and discovered the huge family tree of pre Islamic epic Arabic poetry, the silk road, the troubadours, the Spaniards (monks), and then Moroccan poetry… all the way into the seventies.
3.2 What is it about “African thought”?
The novels and poetry i read told of brilliant peoples who had been colonized and controlled by the French. there was French Africa, British Africa, Belgian Africa, Spanish Africa, Portuguese … the Europeans had come down and sliced Africa into chunks which they could profiteer.
Animism was prominent in the imagery and metaphor. so was repression. so was the bliss of unconquerable personal space and resolve.
I guess I threw the white man canon away long ago, although I read Ashberry, Lux, Gunn. ummmm stuff like that. There are invisible doors to this day.
I did like the English romantics! Keats and Shelley and his young wife who wrote the modern Prometheus.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I make notes. I wake up out of bed, I stop the car, I stand still, I pine out the cafe window and i make notes into my phone. From there, a note might meet some other notes in a word document. That word document is then fleshed out and refined over weeks.
In a day’s work I might only shift two words, or I might think all day about a single word
but it depends on what’s going on. Other times I binge write.
There is no regular daily calisthenic or quota. Fiction writers can wake up at a certain time and crank out 5k words at a time, but really, my work is all in revision and speaking the lines aloud, over and over. They’re songs. I’m a songwriter. I’m also actually a songwriter.
5. What motivates you to write?
Life motivates me to write. i can’t help myself! Iwill say that if someone forbade me to write, I would be very unhealthy, as if i was told that I could no longer sneeze or yawn.
6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I write because it is a function of my brain. The writers I read when I was young influence my lines quite a lot. In my verse I call it “collision of metaphor”.
I won’t point to specific lines and say, “that right there is Kerouac. this is Hesse. this is Brautigan!” because it is and it isn’t. It’s also hamidou Kane. It’s also mariama Baa. It’s also mohammed ben Talha
I read whites first when I was younger because that’s what was easiest to get my hands on
- Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
Egads any list of “who and whom” will be insufficient! must they be alive today? exclusively 21st century writers? Exclusively poetry? What counts as poetry? So many questions!
Salma Khadra Jayyusi compiled a fabulous anthology of Modern American Poetry. Excellent translations! ISBN 0231052723
While in Morocco last, I discovered a young woman, Rachida Madani who wrote Ce qui aurait pu demurer silence ISBN 9791090836457
My mind is blown by Alice Notley! She blends prose and poetry
She shows me that nothing is forbidden, everything is fair game. she bends the concept of line and line cuts. Her volume is vast and she plunders moments of life and love we never knew we had, which brings Philip Whalen to mind as well. same reasons so impressive for me in Jayyusi’s anthology was ‘Abd al-Wahhah al-Bayyati.
N sure if he is living Iraqi poet.
Ah, tomorrow, sweat
tickles, the soul, ardent
Craves flight. My clothes carry
the stain, I wish my soul as pure.
You who drill with your pain the well-hole,
Leaving your mercy in the water,
Making of my words a mouth
To shout in a night without friends,
Drill deeper, your black pain
Will end tomorrow.
Your bread poisoned, eat what your soul
Desires, and may your life be long.”
Just some lines showing the tenderness of soul and repugnance against those who see the land as a product to be bought and sold. Of course I love the poetry of my peers. this is why I began a press. Well I was encouraged to do it, because so many other small presses are shoddy in production and design. i do both, or rather I do it all, including editing
9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
Either you are or you are not. There is no “becoming,” inasmuch as there is no transitional stage. Non-writers do write. Writers do not all write all the time. Not all poets are writers. Not every writer is a poet. I would say to this person “you must be a writer because you are pontificating about writing without actually writing your pontifications. sounds like you ought to write your thoughts.”
how do you become a good writer?
my lovely friend who is an amazing writer told me (i never asked her, she just doles out counsel at any point she deems fit but she’s always extremely cogent) “read every line out loud. if you have trouble reading it, so will your readers.”
how to become a good writer is a good question
how to become a writer is maybe not a very necessary question. just do it, or don’t. you can’t help it if you are or are not actually a writer
10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I am currently writing a handful of poems and two short stories to be sent out into the world. check my instagram for updates on readings, two of them in SF in August… bound to be lots of fun. My aphorisms from Fiercer Monsters were filmed last year in NYC. This year the film was accepted to the Peekskill NY film fest in the Hudson River Valley. The screening is at the end of July. UMMM my novella is still looking for representation or a publisher. Not sure if I can talk about it, but it is very loving and sad and beautiful and takes place 100 years in the future in a mining operation on Autonoe, a tiny Jovian moon. For now, please check out Fiercer Monsters, my book of short fictions on Nomadic Press in Oakland, CA and Critics of Mystery Marvel, my first full length book of poetry, published by 2Leaf Press, NYC