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10 Questions for Dana Alsamsam

With grapefruits & apricots. Without a cat or a dog.
With my father who wanted a son. With my mother who wanted
nothing but closed lips, nothing but nothing. With my father’s head
shaking slightly. With photographs sealed in boxes in the closet.
—from “Self Portrait With & Without”, Spring 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 1)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I don’t remember when my writing turned into “pieces” per say—but I used to write a lot about trains and bridges.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
My literary lineage has given me so much; particularly queer folx, Muslims, and immigrants or children of immigrants. Some of the most influential of that lineage are Safia Elhillo, Fatimah Asghar, Ada Limon, Ocean Vuong, Chen Chen, Zeina Hashem Beck, & Kaveh Akbar.

What other professions have you worked in?
I work in multiple professions every day! I work in literary publishing as a Senior Editorial Assistant at Ploughshares Literary Journal and Editor-in-Chief of Redivider. I also teach college writing to freshmen at Emerson College. When I’m not working on poems as an MFA candidate at Emerson, I also dance professionally in modern and contemporary styles. Until about six months ago, I was working full time in the specialty coffee industry.

What inspired you to write this piece?
The piece was very directly inspired by Chen Chen’s poem of the same title. I was very taken by the incredible skill implemented in his poem to capture such a wide swath of subject matter and timeline. I had been itching to write a “big piece” for some time—something that would address everything I had been going through and everything I had become because of it. I was specifically thinking about family, ancestry, and how I had lost so much and built so much at the same time. The litany of repeating the words “with” and “without” provided an apt structure to make this largeness meaningful. I am much indebted to Chen Chen and this form for allowing me to say something I hadn’t been able to before, and to take up space.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Yes, I think the concept of home and homeland influence my work quite a bit. For me, those terms are incredibly complex but they are in my writing constantly. Some of these are cities—Damascus, Abu Dhabi, Paris, Chicago, Boston. And some of these are less concrete, like people or smaller places—my little sister, my father, my grandparents, the coffee shops I’ve worked at, my father’s house, certain Chicago neighborhoods, my soul mate’s arms.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Not in particular, but I like to listen to old punk music, or whatever is playing in the coffee shop.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
No, in fact I think this poem was produced on Post-It notes while at work! I’m not sure what I would do with actual free time to develop rituals and traditions associated with my writing.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My soul mate, Zackarya, and then my MFA workshop.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I do work in another art form as a choreographer and dancer of modern and contemporary dance! If I had to choose another one, though, I think makeup artists and costume designers are wonderfully talented.

What are you working on currently?
Right now I’m not working on a defined project as I’m trying to use my time in the MFA to be very generative. My work has been focusing a lot on Syria, the war in Syria, and my heritage. In the past year or so, I’ve fleshed out my own experience and identity as a queer, Syrian-American woman and child of an immigrant quite a bit so I find myself writing through my experience into the world and about the world back into my experience. I’m writing for immigrants and children of immigrants that don’t quite fit the picture of what their parents dreamed for their new lives.

DANA ALSAMSAM is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit, and her poems are published or forthcoming in Bone Bouquet, Gigantic Sequins, North American Review, Tinderbox Poetry, Fugue, The Boiler Journal, Salamander, BOOTH, and others. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow in the 2018 Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices. A Chicago native, she is currently an MFA candidate and a teacher at Emerson College.

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