The poems in City of Rivers—the first full-length collection from 23-year-old poetry wunderkind Zubair Ahmed—are clear and cool as a glass of water. Grounded in his childhood in Bangladesh, Ahmed’s spare poems cast a knowing eye on the wider world. “The ground crumbles under the weight of starlight,” writes Ahmed in “Bonfire at 3 a.m.”
“When reading Zubair Ahmed, I feel as though I am both witnessing and taking part in an ecstatic, lyric experience,” writes Matthew Dickman. “I would follow this poet down any hallway in the world.” Ahmed spoke recently with McSweeney’s editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan about his precocious debut, City of Rivers, the third collection in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSweeney’s: How would you describe your writing process?
Zubair Ahmed: Most of the poems in City of Rivers came from sudden bursts of inspiration. Most likely because I really needed the break from my engineering classes, I sat down to write and the lines wrote themselves. I tend to compose quickly and rarely write for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Otherwise, I lose the poem somehow. I also tend to write late into the night, spitting out a few (generally bad) poems in each sitting. The idea is: the more I write, the more good writing can come out of it.
“Stars” is the only poem in City of Rivers that I wrote on paper. The others were written initially on computer, and then I slowly started migrating to my iPhone, where I composed a lot of the later poems. I always have my phone on me, so shifting my writing to it meant I could jot down bursts of thoughts anywhere! Since I’m a fast texter, it turns out I’m a fast composer, too. This helps me keep track of thoughts as they spill onto Evernote, making sure my mind is in sync with my thumbs. Lately, however, I’ve been switching back to my computer since the larger keyboard allows more room for thinking.
McSweeney’s: Does your background in engineering influence your writing?
ZA: I stumbled upon poetry as something to do that’s not engineering. Initially I thought these two fields wouldn’t intersect, but it turns out that writing images came easily to me since visualizing problems and solutions is part of what it means to be an engineer. I’m a visual learner and possess a very impaired but functional photographic memory. This ability to think in pictures helps me greatly in both fields. But it helps me more in writing since the imagination isn’t restricted by the natural limitations of science and technology.
McSweeney’s: Have there been any notable landmarks or turning points in your development as a poet?
ZA: My writing career was discouraged before I really tried poetry. I took my work in for feedback but instead received a rude awakening. I was told my images were “too ordinary,” that my poems didn’t go anywhere and lacked meaning. I considered not writing poetry after that and didn’t produce anything until I took a poetry class with Michael McGriff. Mike encouraged me to write, read, write, read, and then write some more, while guiding me like a railroad does a train. Subsequently, I took many classes with Mike and fell in love with poetry.
McSweeney’s: What have been the main influences on City of Rivers?
ZA: The prime factors are my sense of homelessness and my not-yet-developed cultural identity. These feelings were amplified and guided by the writings of James Wright, Larry Levis, Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, Don Domanski, and others. I’m a particularly big fan of The Branch Will Not Break by Wright, The Dollmaker’s Ghost by Levis, One for the Rose by Levine, Collecting the Animals by Everwine, and Parish of the Psychic Moon by Domanski.
McSweeney’s: Your poems sometimes start in very “realistic” moments, situations, images—before veering into a surrealistic, imaginative landscape. What does “real” mean to you in poetry?
ZA: To me, real is any image a reader can imagine and populate with his or her own world. Real, in poetry, is anything that can be imagined, felt, and maybe understood. The challenge for me becomes starting off in a landscape that’s concrete but possesses a potential for surrealism and mysticism.
McSweeney’s: What experiences have most contributed to your sensibility as a poet?
ZA: Having spent sixteen years in Bangladesh and seven years in America, along with some time in Europe, I’ve met people from many walks of life. These encounters are my material for poetry, the small moments shared between strangers, friends and love-interests. Travelling and exposing myself to different cultures, languages and traditions has contributed not only to my poetry, but to my growth as a human being.
McSweeney’s: What draws you to poetry? What do you see as poetry’s potential?
ZA: I’m drawn to the imagery in poetry, how it can paint entire pictures with a few words. I struggle to understand how this is possible. I’m also attracted to poetry’s potential to reveal humanity in all its fullness and richness. I’m drawn to poetry that uses simple words to create complex meanings.
Poetry gives me a joy I can’t explain, an amorphous understanding of what makes us human. I think poetry has this potential for everyone—a potential to show people the deepest reaches of culture and language.
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