Hala Alyan is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor at New York University, and writer. She is the author of the novel Salt Houses (2017), winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Arab American Book Award, and a finalist for the Chautauqua Prize. Her latest novel, The Arsonists’ City (2021), was a finalist for the 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize. She is also the author of four award-winning collections of poetry, including The Twenty-Ninth Year (2019). Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Academy of American Poets, LitHub, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her family. Following the release of her latest collection, The Moon That Turns You Back (2024), poet and critic Jennifer Lee Tsai spoke to Alyan about the roles of witness, catharsis, and commemoration in her poetry.

Jennifer Lee Tsai: I’d like to start by saying that I loved reading your book over this last month. It includes an epigraph from Jean Valentine with regard to ‘the thread you have to keep finding over again, to follow it back to life; I know. Impossible sometimes’. How and where did this book begin and end for you? When did you begin writing it and how long did it take you? And how does it connect or depart from your previous poetry collections? 

Hala Alyan: This was written initially in a chaotic, disjointed way, and later took a coherent form. That has a lot to do with the fact that it was written during a relatively chaotic time: during a couple of years where I struggled with infertility and miscarriages, through the pandemic, etc. I think the first poems were probably written in 2019 and the last ones were this past summer. It began with musings around Palestine and ended with musings around the body, which ended up feeling relatively connected as I worked on a fuller manuscript. I think it tells the truth more unflinchingly than my other poetry collections do.

JLT: Your book explores the complexity of diasporic identity, personal loss and grief, and displacement from the body and one’s homeland, in a range of registers and modes. You have also written in several recent essays about your experiences of being Palestinian-American, the role of the diasporic witness, the use of propaganda in times of war and conflict, the danger of false narratives, and the importance of empathy in considering people’s lived experiences. In the context of the current horrors and atrocities which are ongoing in Gaza, what is the role and responsibility of the poet? What is the purpose and function of poetry during these times?

HA:  I think the role of the poet is to make sense of the world through language: to be unflinching in the face of human experiences, even and perhaps especially the painful ones. The poet’s responsibility first and foremost is to the truth – to seeking it out, remaining committed to speaking it and honouring it. In moments like these, the function of poetry is to help fortify and centre us, and to expand our endurance for witnessing suffering, taking action where we can, and being of service to the places and people and causes that matter to us.

JLT: There are so many remarkable poems in the collection which powerfully explore the experience of exile and displacement within the Palestinian diaspora, as well as the historical and ongoing violence and the destruction of war. Could you say more about your connection to Gaza, and the legacy and tragedy of Palestine which has impacted your family history? 

HA: My father was born in Gaza, and his parents were displaced there after being dispossessed of their homes and original villages. I am in the same position as so many diasporic Palestinians: witnessing from afar; belonging to lineages and families that were intentionally dispossessed of their land, houses, and villages; trying to contend with what it means to be connected to a place that we may never see; experiencing survivor’s guilt in face of the horrific destruction, slaughter, and starvation; and knowing that our remembering, our enduring connection, is essential.

JLT: Many of the poems in this collection explore trauma, violence, grief, and loss in relation to women’s experience. Do you feel that writing enables any kind of healing, a sense of catharsis or transformation?

HA: I think it absolutely can. I believe deeply in the power of narrative and creative expression when it comes to facilitating healing. In many ways, so much of my adult life is built around that idea. I also think that one should differentiate in their mind the writing that is done to heal, and the writing that is done to be published. Sometimes the two overlap; often they do not. When I am working with painful material, writing serves the purpose of making sense of the world and helping whatever painful thing is happening to cohere with my larger life. It’s more about processing, and it is a much more intimate experience. I try not to think about audience in general, but when I’m writing cathartically, I’m often considering this to be something only I will ever see. 

JLT: There are many deeply beautiful, evocative, and intensely emotional poems in your book, an intermingling of voices, places, histories, family members, narratives. This is also reflected in the experimental and innovative use of form. There is an array of forms ranging from lyric poems to ghazals, long line and hybrid poems, poems which are interactive and invite multiple interpretations as well as ones which experiment with erasure, text type, and visibility. Could you say something about your use and choice of form in your writing? How do you decide on what form to use? 

HA: Thank you, that’s so kind of you to say! This is definitely the most experimental book I’ve written so far. I’m a poet that generally doesn’t think too much about the real estate of the page, or structure or format, so this was a real departure for me. It began with taking a poetry workshop where we talked about the ghazal, and challenging myself to write one. I fell in love with the form and what it asked of me in terms of precision and constraint, and then found myself writing several more. In terms of the interactive poem, I have always loved, ‘choose your own adventure’ books, and one day it occurred to me that I’ve never seen it in poetic form. They were really fulfilling pieces to write, albeit very labour-intensive, since you effectively have to write several poems in one, so that whatever choice a reader makes in terms of word or stanza is still coherent.

JLT: Your book combines elements of the confessional and lived experiences. Life and art seem inextricably linked. How do you navigate the boundaries between life and art, the use of autobiography and family history, the relating of authentic and traumatic experiences in your work? How does one both protect and assert oneself?

HA: It’s an excellent question, and I think one that so many of us grapple with when working with the material of our lives. I try to be respectful of the boundaries that other people set in terms of their stories, even if they intersect with mine. I deeply believe in consent when it comes to working with other people’s histories, within reason. I also love poetry because it allows me to engage with the truth and history in expansive ways: I love to play with imagined pasts and futures, to reconsider timelines, to let the trauma speak in its own tongue.

JLT: As a Palestinian-American poet and writer, I was wondering how you see your work in relation to the idea of a lyric ‘I’ or a lyric tradition? How does your hyphenated identity intersect with your writing?

HA: I love poetry because the ‘I’ can be so flexible. There are many poems where the ‘I’ is a stand-in for myself, but many others where it is a stand-in for an imagined self, a past or future version, or some amalgamation. It also allows me to step into voices and perspectives of ancestors and other people within my lineage. I feel remarkably close to people that I have lost when I encounter them through the lyric ‘I’. There are several poems in this book that are written from the voice of my grandmother, who was one of the great loves of my life, and it always felt like an incredibly cathartic and connective process to work on those pieces. 

JLT:  I love the focus on female ancestry and the poems about your grandmother who features and recurs throughout the book. There is both tenderness and reverence in your portrayal of her. In ‘Remains’, we learn that Damascus is:

where my grandmother was born
not Latakia which is where she lived
or Kuwait which is where she married 
or Beirut which is where she is now bone […]

In ‘Interactive Fiction :: House Saints’, ‘The saint says return to your / grandmother she’s / left the door unlocked’. I love the ending of ‘Relapse Dream Ending With My Grandmother’s Hands’, which concludes ‘I kiss the open flowers. I kiss the open flowers. I kiss them with Fatima’s hands.’ Often, it feels as though there is a connection between divinity and transformation with the figure of the grandmother: a desire to return to, connect, and merge with the past in order to become more fully embodied in the present within the context of womanhood. As you’ve mentioned, several of the poems are written in the voice of your grandmother. Could you speak more to any of this?

HA:  Yes, my grandmother definitely feels like a portal into so many things: womanhood, motherhood, love, certain cities. She has become almost a mythical figure that lives along the real flesh-and-blood person that helped raise me. She taught me so much of what I understand about tenderness and patience in the world, and is someone I call upon often when I’m trying to make difficult decisions, because there was a clarity and gentleness that she really personified for me.

JLT: I was wondering about your work as a clinical psychologist and if this informs or connects to your work as a poet, and if so, in what ways?

HA:  I think they’re beautifully complementary kinds of processing, both the therapy work and the poetic work. Being a clinical psychologist has taught me to ask better questions of my writing, to be more precise in my language, to bring more sharpness and clarity to metaphor and structure. Both processes require a certain attentiveness and alertness that I love, and both require a willingness to let the world change you.

JLT: The poems about miscarriage and infertility in this collection are devastating. I was really moved by how raw, visceral, and honest they were as well as the bravery it must have taken to write them. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about your process of writing a couple of them, ‘Record’ and ‘Figment’, which seem to draw on medical records. How do you manage to confront such pain and grief in your writing?

HA: It’s interesting because I had totally overestimated when I’d be able to work with the medical records, which goes to show that you have to take certain topics at their own pace. I requested the records a couple of years ago but couldn’t bear to open them for a long time. It was only after my daughter was born that I began to make my way through them. It took time and I tried a few different forms before I settled on the ghostly sort of erasure poem that it ended up being. It was both painful and cathartic to work with the dry language of such a traumatic time in my life, to move the language around, to add and edit.

JLT: The book’s title ‘The Moon That Turns You Back’ is wonderfully resonant. How did it come about?

HA: It is the final line of one of my interactive pieces, a play on the concept of a werewolf. As soon as I wrote that poem, I intuitively knew it would be the title of whatever collection the piece ended up in. I also love how there’s the play on the concept of the word ‘back’ – how the moon can transform you into something you were before, but it can also beckon you to look elsewhere.

JLT: As well as your poetry collections, you have written two novels, Salt Houses and The Arsonist’s City. What possibilities does poetry open up for you? And what does prose and fiction enable? How do you know when your writing needs to take the shape of a poem, an essay, article, or novel?

HA:  I firmly believe that a narrative tells you what form it wants to take, even if it takes a while. There are ideas I had for novels that ended up being short stories, and vice versa. I believe that prose allows for more depth, a more labour- and time-intensive process that ultimately yields whole worlds. Poetry enables more specificity and is often an expansive and playful space for me. I’m unspeakably grateful for the ability to work in different genres; it makes me feel like different parts of me can exist fully.

JLT: Who are your main influences as a writer? What are you reading at the moment?

HA: Some of my favourite authors include Mahmoud Darwish, Melissa Febos, Safia Elhillo, Zeina Hashem Beck, Sara Akant, Sally Wen Mao, Leslie Jamison, Tommy Orange, and many more!

JLT: In the poem, ‘Light Ghazal’, the speaker says, ‘I want you moved by what moves me: God, glass, light’. Could you speak more to the presence of the divine or divinity in this collection?

HA: I grew up intuitively believing in God, and associating God with warmth, tenderness, love. I believe divinity is found in stillness, in attentiveness, in the generosity of being fully alert to the moment. In the collection, divinity often lives alongside the women in my family, alongside nature, water, certain cities at certain times of the day, within the sacred act of remembering itself.

JLT: What is next on the horizon for you? What are you currently working on?

HA: I’m currently working on a memoir that will be published by Simon & Schuster next year. It explores the months before my daughter’s birth, and is a meditation on infertility, diaspora, lineage, and so on. There’s also a novel that I’ve been wanting to return to for a while, about a woman reinvestigating the murder of her college roommates a couple of decades later.

Jennifer Lee Tsai is a poet, artist, critic, and teacher. She is a fellow of The Complete Works, a Ledbury Poetry Critic, and a winner of the 2022 Women Poets’ Prize. Her debut poetry pamphlet is Kismet (ignitionpress, 2019). Jennifer received a Northern Writers Award for Poetry in 2020. Her second poetry pamphlet La Mystérique (2022) is published by Guillemot Press. She is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Bluecoat’s studios in Liverpool. 

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Summer 2024

Issue 108


The Summer 2024 issue, the first of new editor Niall Campbell, contains poetry by Michael Longley, Ian Humphreys, Isobel Dixon, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Helen Mort, and more. The issue also has mini features on the subject of ‘work’, that aim to make connections between the jobs done by poets and its impact on their writing. For the first time, Poetry London is also proud to partner with the Society of Authors to showcase poetry by this year’s recipients of the Eric Gregory Award. Also featured are translations of Laura Wittner by Juana Adcock, Jason Allen-Paisant‘s Stanza Poetry Festival lecture, prose from Joey Connelly, reviews, and an interview between Jennifer Lee Tsai and Hala Alyan.

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