Adam Abbas is more interested in what’s muttered after the phone call than the phone call itself. His poems can be found in various publications including The Continuist and Lantern (available here!). His first poetry book, A State, A Statue, A Statute, will be published by the Vancouver-based Steel Bananas Art Collective in Summer, 2014. He lives in Toronto. Twitter: @Adam_M_Abbas.
BWS: Your poem “Enemy” is a sestina, repeating the words “hush,” “lies,” “crunch,” “denial,” “aware” and “turn”, one per line, in a varying order. Where did you discover the form, and why do you like it? What does such “repetition with difference” accomplish in this poem?
Adam: I was first introduced to the form in university via the only creative writing class I ever took. I learned later that I wasn’t supposed to even be in the course, and it was a mystery how I got in. Weird life, but anyway I had a great professor named Michael Helm who taught us different poetic forms, and I took to the sestina as well as the villanelle.
I heard George Elliott Clarke read one of his sestinas years ago and I enjoyed it. I had only written one sestina beforehand, it was for the aforementioned class. I remember writing it in the lunchroom of the bread factory I used to work at, and dealing with my co-workers’ snide comments. But that’s over with.
In retrospect, I think hearing his sestina gave me additional impetus to keep writing my own. They take time and there’s criticism lobbied against sestinas (and form in general) – that they’re more enjoyable for the author rather than the reader, and that they’re not spontaneous and lack verve. But I didn’t feel that way hearing Mr. Clarke, and as we all know, opinion isn’t fact. Speaking of which, can reviewers please refer to themselves in their reviews? Instead of saying “you”, say “I.” It seems like some of them try to angle readers of reviews into thinking that the review’s opinion will be their own as well.
But with regards to the sestina’s style, I think the repetition allows each ending word to adopt a new meaning, and asks for a deeper look into what a word means. Sestinas can break words apart and then fuse them back together. I was drawn to a sestina’s lack of a necessary rhyme scheme found in other forms, with the emphasis being on the end words themselves.
BWS: The prose poem “Love Stories” builds an incredible rhythm through its sentences’ internal rhymes, (e.g., “crowds of people mourned at the bog and swapped Pogs with the pollywogs while the undertaker’s heartbreaker watched from afar for widows with scars…”). How do you see the divide (if there is one at all) between form and content in such a piece? How do you balance the reading experience with a concern for narrative?
Adam: Thank you, that poem also took a long time to write. I’ve always enjoyed trying to create clever wordplay, I think a lot of people do. It’s not really written off as “kitschy” all that easily, it takes effort. Someone told me that he read one of my rhyming prose poems out loud, quietly to himself, to feel the rhythm. That’s an honour. Thank you Zoltan, if you happen to see this.
Form and content are inseparable. I spent a lot of time agonizing over how the poem had to make sense. I didn’t want it to be a blather of rhymes, because that’s lazy and doesn’t give a reader that much respect, I believe. Plus a reader might be in the dark enough already due to some of the obscure words themselves. So as clever as the rhymes might be, they need cohesion and clarity to shine. “Love Stories” is a series of short vignettes, and I worked to make each as logical and intriguing as possible, but still using the rhymes I had created.
There are a few rhyming prose poems in my upcoming poetry book A State, A Statue, A Statute, and two of them are meant to be more of an exploration in wordplay. “Last Night, the Last Night” is about recreating the feeling of driving aimlessly at night, and the beauty and danger to be felt along the way. “Supper as the Linoleum Curls” is meant to reflect the constant chatter of a loud, hedonistic dining area, with one voice and its story cutting through the rest. But with “Love Stories,” it’s meant to weave tales together.
BWS: You’ve written a book of 101 limericks. Tell us more about this form: anything you’ve learned about its history/tradition, its social acceptability, its modern popularity, etc. What is it like to try to write a limerick in our time? Why such an interest in this form?
Adam: It’s just a fun side project I did. I was inspired by David Bateman reading limericks, and I thought it would be fun to try them out. So I wrote 101 of them and I think I’m sick of rhyming now, but it felt amazing at times. Aside from hearing David’s limericks, though, I wasn’t that familiar with the form. Of course there were popular ones, like the man from Nantucket, and I knew that they were supposed to be raunchy to an extent, but that’s it.
I was interested in writing them because of two important issues I wanted to explore: sexuality and humour. But they’re tricky; I wanted to have a good sense of taste and substance about them, but joke around as well, without transforming myself into a caricature by writing them. I also wanted to explore sexuality issues such as the pleasure paradox and the female orgasm, and more serious issues like body image, slut-shaming, the bad boy/nice girl attraction. The limericks don’t heavily delve into these topics — I just wanted them to be fun, informative and fair without being didactic or classless.
Sexuality is hard to write about, in my opinion. I’m tired of sex pushed into my face through constant ads and media. It degrades the importance of the actual act to the point where it’s meaningless and feels like it contributes to an uncomfortable, fake kind of society. It confuses people. Still, it’s an important subject, and I value it, and a lot of us want to read about it. And humour, I like to be funny, I like to make people laugh. I don’t want to create the same tone over and over, either. I like to see people good at one thing, but I also like to see range where it’s appropriate. And I wanted to give people a lighter, witty read, so that’s where the limericks came from. A State, A Statue, A Statute is a much different publication.
And this is a true story: after I finished the first draft of my limericks, I bought a book of them. Started to read them on the subway and was disgusted by how they promoted pedophilia, racism, just the worst. I started to feel gross being around other people with the book on me. It had these two lurid photos of laughing faces on the front and back cover. I threw it out.
Then I started to get concerned that people would think my limericks were the same way, which they aren’t. I didn’t want to promote or make light of homophobia, sexual abuse, racism, violence, et al. It’s disgusting, that’s not who I am. And people’s perception of my limericks might be understood as the ones I bought and read, offensive and dated history. I’m not trying to reinvent the meaning of the limerick — there are plenty of odd, bawdy ones of mine — but they’re not cheering on ignorance like the ones I was exposed to. Everyone may have different opinions of my work, but I didn’t want to offend anyone because that’s not rewarding to me.
BWS: What can readers expect to find inside A State, A Statue, A Statute?
Adam: It’s my first published book of poems, a collection of formal and free verse poetry, mainly formal – rhyming prose poems, sestinas, villanelles, ghazals, haiku. The poems cover a lot, from Sammy Yatim to a man running into a stadium while reciting lines from romance novels to a pet toad. It’s been in the making for awhile. Andrew McEwan graciously helped me edit it — thank you, Andrew, you verified a lot of my underlying concerns — and endless thanks to Karen Correia da Silva, who’s publishing it. It should be out this summer. I can’t give a grand statement, but it’s the culmination of a lot of work and consideration and I hope people enjoy it.
BWS: What are you working on now/next?
Adam: I’m currently working on a book of short stories about the TTC. I’m also starting to prepare to read some books as research for my second novel, for which I’ve been compiling notes these past seven years. I guess this is the official public announcement that a second novel will be coming from me in the future.
And finally, I just want to give a huge thanks to Farzana, BWS and the Ontario Arts Council for this opportunity! And also to everyone who’s given me a chance by publishing me or featuring me at a series, and to all my friends and my parents for the support.
Adam Abbas visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Kate Cayley, Tom Cho and Amanda Leduc. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Amanda: “From Couchsurfing to Cafés: The Magic of the D.I.Y. Book Tour”!