Tag Archives: poetry

Interview with Marjorie Lotfi Gill by Marta Donati

Marjorie Lotfi Gill was born in New Orleans, spent her childhood in Teheran and lived in the USA before moving to London in 1999 and finally Edinburgh in 2005. She is a poet, performer and creative writing facilitator. She runs Open Book, a project that promotes reading groups for the vulnerable and for adults in the community. She also works with schoolchildren and adults in community settings, exploring issues of journey, assimilation, flight and immigration through her initiative The Belonging Project. Her poetry has been performed on BBC Radio 4, has won several competitions and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has recently published a collection of poems, Refuge (2018), based on her experiences in Iran in the 1970s. More about Open Book can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/open-book/ More about The Belonging Project can be found at: http://www.marjoriegill.com/projects/the-belonging-project/

Marta Donati: Your recent collection of poems, Refuge, is a remarkable meditation on the concept of leaving, be it a house, a country or a family. Could you tell me about the genesis of the collection?

Marjorie Lotfi GillGiven the current crisis around refugees and migrants, I’m often asked to read my poems about Iran and my family’s experiences of living through a revolution, loss and assimilation. I thought it would be a good idea to put all those poems in one place, so that reading them together might give you a more complete picture of how those experiences might change a family, or affect your outlook. The sequence of poems “Pilgrim”, which is loosely based on my father’s life and makes up the second half of the pamphlet, was commissioned by the St Magnus Festival in Orkney to accompany some new musical compositions by Stuart MacRae. I decided to include it because it feels a kind of parallel to the other poems in the pamphlet as it follows many of the same experiences through the eyes of one person.

MD: Refuge seems to be concerned with two different kind of ‘spaces’ that naturally influence each other: the space of the self, which is personal and related to family roots, and the space of politics, which is filled with news reports and photographs. How do you navigate this relationship between the personal and the political?

MLG: In short, I don’t. My poem “On seeing Iran in the news” is making that exact point: I wrote that poem because when people ask me what I think of Iranian politics, I never know what to say because my views are shaped by personal experiences. I’m not trying to make a political statement with the poems, but expose the living breathing world that politics impacts. (The most political poem in the book is possibly “Route”, which was written in a fury at the BBC’s suggestion that one might understand the real dilemmas of refugees by playing an online game.)

MD: You often write in response to art. The poem that gives its name to the collection – Refuge – is written in response to ‘Les Voyageurs’, a series of sculptures by French artist Bruno Catalano. Each sculpture shows a person in motion, holding a suitcase, but missing parts of their body. They are, in a sense, characters you can ‘see through’: they blend with their surroundings. There is a tension between the movement of these bodies, and the sense of disembodiment provoked by migration. Could you say a bit more about your encounter with Catalano’s work and why you decided to write a response to it? Does poetry help you understand and relate to other works of art?

MLG: I wrote “Refuge” because when I first encountered that Catalano sculpture, I immediately recognised the life of a refugee. To me, the sculpture is remarkable because it actually stands, despite missing such a large part of the body, and on first encounter I spent time initially trying to figure out how it worked. That puzzle is true for refugees too: despite having lost so much, they manage to hold on to their suitcases and stand up, keep going. The end of that poem refers both to our unwillingness to allow refugees into our societies (written at a time when refugees are often kept in “camps”) and the inability of some refugees to do more that simply make it onshore, and hope for more for the next generation.

I find that artwork helps me express what I’m trying to say in poetry, rather than the other way around. If I’m struggling with a subject that I want to write about, often the form of an artwork will help me. (This sculpture of an oversized rifle by Cornelia Parker, for example, helped me to articulate the way that we’ve grown accustomed to guns in America in this poem – https://www.rattle.com/the-gun-in-its-holster-by-marjorie-lotfi-gill/.) Of course, the act of observing an artwork closely in order to use it in writing does help me to understand the work better, to consider it more closely, and to draw connections between it and my own experiences, so I’m sure that the result works both ways!

MD: Reading your work, I often felt that art and poetry are somehow telling a ‘truth’ that news, television and reportages are not. One of my favourite poems of the collection is Route, which I read as a particularly angry and frustrated piece. In this poem you respond to BBC’s interactive Syrian ‘journey’: ‘if you were fleeing Europe, what choices would you make for you and your family? Take our journey to understand the real dilemmas the refugees face’. Does poetry represent a kind of ‘activist’ counterpart to the rhetoric of television and journalism in your mind? Would you say it is a healing device?

MLG: I don’t think of poetry as much as a device for healing as an expression or revelation of where we are right now. So that poem, for example, was intended to point out the madness in suggesting that anyone, even someone with life experiences like mine, could ever understand the “real dilemmas refugees face” from the comfort of their living rooms. I’m coming to the conclusion that the job or poetry – or at least one of its jobs – is to hold a mirror to the world, unmask what we’re too busy, or tired or distracted to see. It’s up to the reader to do something with that information.

MD: I’d like to speak a bit about your role as a performer. Do you generally write poetry that is already destined to be performed? What kind of layer of meaning does performing add to your writing?

MLG: I don’t think of performance when I write, but I do want the poems I write to be in my voice. Part of the process is reading drafts of poems out loud, to hear what they sound like (where the natural pauses are, where the line breaks could help with a play on language), and to make sure it sounds like me. (The danger, of course, is that you write the same poem over and over again!) Each time you perform a poem, it’s a different poem because the audience is different, is listening for different things; it would be impossible to write a poem with a particular audience or performance in mind. (That said, I did write “Pilgrim” sequence for performance at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney.

The written form in Refuge is slightly different from that performance draft because I knew the audience wouldn’t have a chance to see it again, and would need things to be a little more laid out, a little more joined up.)

MD: Throughout your career, you have worked with women’s charities, refugee groups, LGBTQ+ groups, disadvantaged children. Your poetry is filled with moments of solidarity: the opening poem of the collection, Gift, narrates a beautiful encounter between your Muslim grandmother and your Methodist mother in Teheran. Could you tell me about your work for and with the community and could you share with me a ‘gift’ you have received, a moment that has proven particularly meaningful to you and your writing?

MLG: My aim in writing with these communities of women (whether it’s refugee and migrant women, or those living with domestic violence) is always to honour their experiences. I don’t regularly ask about difficult times (though of course they often come up), but want to know about the other parts of their lives, to let these women know that they are valued, worthy, that their experiences as a whole person matter. We do that often by writing as a group, weaving the offerings of those around a table into a communal poem, which not only allows those who feel less confident to participate, but also brings the group together as a whole. My latest joy is training others to do this work through Open Book, so we can expand how many groups we can support in the long run.

I have been so lucky with gifts – I am regularly given the gift of trust, when women I’m working with tell me their stories, and trust me to use them wisely. I’m also often thanked by participants for this work, for listening and valuing where they come from, rather than their difficulties – and each one of those bits of feedback feels a gift to be treasured. To offset this kind of intense work, I was exceedingly lucky to be offered the Poet in Residence role at Jupiter Artland, where I was given the precious gift of time, silence and space for two years to walk alone in their woods and write whatever I wanted. Most importantly, I’ve been given the gift of encouragement by my husband, who suggested I return to poetry rather than law when my youngest child went to school, and has made space for my work ever since.

MD: Finally, I am curious to know about the poetry that inspires you and that you would recommend to others. Do you have a favourite poet and a favourite poem?

MLG: I have loved the work of Adrienne Rich since I was in my early 20s – and since then have added others like Sharon Olds and Sinead Morrissey. Philip Levine’s poems, particularly the close up look at the every day, stay with me wherever I go. John Glenday’s poems have a stillness with depth that I admire and return to again and again. And last but not least are the poems of John Burnside; I almost always carry his poems with me because his poems are a good reminder of the duality of our daily life, the inward and the outward.

One favourite poem?! Really? It would have to be an Adrienne Rich poem – maybe “Roofwalker” or “Prospective Immigrants Please Note” or likely “What is Possible (for its lines “If the mind were clear/ and if the mind were simple you could take this mind/ this particular state and say/ This is how I would live if I could choose: /this is what is possible.”). The last lines are a challenge to myself that I carry with me


Borderlands, Wounds and Women: On Discovering Chicana Poetry

A guest post by Ph.D student Donna Maria Alexander on discovering her passion for Chicana poetry…

I first encountered the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes, a Chicana, Native American (Chumash), feminist, activist poet, and Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana, lesbian, feminist, activist theorist and poet, as a final year undergraduate student (BA English and Geography). I was researching an assignment for a

module on Race and Representation in 20th American Culture when I stumbled across Lorna Dee Cervantes’ “Poem for the Young White Man Who  Asked Me How I, an Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in a War Between the Races.” As I read this poem, my vision of America became undone and reconstituted with a more complex understanding of issues of race, gender, class and imperialism.

The majority of my studies in American literature in terms of race had focused on African American literature, from slavery to the civil rights movement. In support of my blossoming interest the module lecturer (now one of my doctoral supervisors) recommended several texts including Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa. Through this reading I developed a strong interest in representations of political, geographical and emotional issues in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by Chicana poets. Anzaldúa’s well- known description of this area became the cornerstone of my investigation:

The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds forming a third country – a border culture. Borders are set up to define places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip among a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary (25).

In these lines people become cause and effect, imbricated totally within the mechanics of Cervantes’ and Anzaldúa’s poetry introduced me to 500 years of conquest and displacement and an entire canon of literature that had not previously come under my radar as a student. Of course I knew that Columbus’ arrival to the “New World” didn’t bring the splendour and kindness that people had been originally led to believe; I knew about the onslaught of conquest, partitioning subjugation that produced the America of today. However, I had not at that point been guided by education or my own curiosity to explore this any further. In “Poem For the Young White Man” Cervantes states

Every day I am deluged with reminders

that this is not

my land

and this is my land (36-37).

These lines express in very simple terms the complexity of imperialism experienced by Chicana/os: the confusion of displacement and nationhood paired with the desire for peace while being immersed in socio-political conflict. This tension of simultaneous belonging and exile is a compelling feature of much Chicana literary and artistic expression. The Chicana, lesbian, feminist theorist and writer, Gloria Anzaldúa states

This land was Mexican once,

was Indian always

and is.

And will be again (25).

Again we see a tension between what was, what is and what should be, according to these two writers. In addition to this, both Cervantes and Anzaldúa’s quotes display some poetic techniques that appear to be deliberate to the subject matter at hand. For example, the line breaks in both poems express a resistance to imperialism and its resultant hegemony over Chicana/os in the U.S., while the irregular layout of Anzaldúa’s quote reflects on the complexity of the socio-political situation in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.

In “Poem For the Young White Man” the phrase “my land” is given a line of its own, thus separating it from the negative “not” in the preceding line (36). So, the issue of ownership is highlighted and then reinforced by the line that follows: “and this is my land” (37). The “and” here links the two lines, while the repetition of “my land” as well as the internal rhyme with “and” strengthens Cervantes’ ideological hold over her own identity and position within the U.S. just as the final line of Anzaldúa’s quote denotes a positive movement towards indigenous autonomy of place and self.

Given that poetry, to quote Scott Griffin, “is able to deliver, with just a few lines, the full range of human emotions,” I undertook doctoral research on the poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gloria Anzaldúa due to the elaborate interstices and overlaps of the emotional topography of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that they construct through poetry. In return I have gained a (re)education in the history, politics, geography and literature of the Americas that in the words of Paul Jay have “multiple points of emergence that converge, clash, and reform themselves along the borders of various cultural zones” (182).


Works Cited:

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 2007. Print.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981. Print.

Griffin, Scott. “Poetry: Why it is Important.” Youtube. Youtube. 5 March 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.

Jay, Paul. “The Myth of ‘America’ and the Politics of Location: Modernity Border Studies, and the Literature of the Americas.” Arizona Quarterly 54.2 (1998): 165-92. Print.

Donna Maria Alexander is a doctoral candidate in the School of English and Department of Hispanic Studies, University College Cork. She is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar. Her core research focuses on contemporary Chicana poetry. Her broader research interests include American literature, film and television, feminism, and geography. Before undertaking her doctoral studies in 2010, Donna completed a BA in English and Geography and a MA in American Literature and Film. She has articles published in FIAR and American Studies Today and blogs at Américas Studies. Her Twitter handle is @americasstudies.