5 Questions with Doyali Islam

We asked Doyali Islam five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Doyali Islam. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Doyali Islam: As a poet, lived experience—my own and that of others—is crucial to my work, but language is the mat to which I return.

To return to language is to resist in the most deft, complex and powerful way that I can. I like to think about existing language and its potential for poetic yield. I also like to invent words such as ‘geesturing’. (To ‘geesture’ is to gesture at geese!).

As a human seeking to become ever more human, I am moved by friends who are both fantastic poets/writers as well as gentle-fierce, curious and intentional beings: Geffrey Davis, Stevie Howell, Sheniz Janmohamed, Sylvia Legris, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Roger Nash, Soraya Peerbaye, Pearl Pirie, Sanchari Sur, Kim Trainor, Phoebe Wang and Chuqiao Yang come to mind immediately, but there are more.

As for my home life, I take inspiration from minimalism. ‘Minimalism’ is a trendy word these days, but I don’t mean the term in a narrow way. It’s basically an intentional approach to living in which one clears away physical, mental and emotional clutter to distill that which is essential. Poetry-making is not so different.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Islam: I don’t believe in having to write anything; only that which arises as urgent, and compelling enough to invest time, attention and energy into for the sake of intrinsic reward.

Furthermore, I only publish—make public—poems that I think are working and that might have value to others. (I say ‘working poems’ instead of ‘good poems’ because I am trying to avoid the pernicious language of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.)

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Islam: I can’t generate new material in a café or public space. It’s my cat-nature. I need a cozy and familiar environment to be able to work. I wear my bathrobe when I write at home – the stereotypical poet! Clothing irritates me and makes it hard to focus.

These days, I most often work on drafts at my desk which was gifted to me by a friend—thanks, Sue!—during my time in North Bay (summer 2012 – spring 2015). The desk is longer than I am tall and takes two strong people to move it anywhere. I have been minimizing my possessions over the past two years ever since undergoing marital separation and subsequent divorce, but I kept this functional and handsome object.

Today, as I was dusting it, I felt an unexpected joy—sense of epiphany—in the maintenance work. So now I think that maintenance can offer up its own kind of pleasure and reward – what it might mean to polish a cherished kettle until it shines. Then again, perhaps, my perspective reveals a certain amount of privilege.

I sometimes revise by hand. I can print and carry a draft in my purse and work on it while I wait for an appointment, or when I’m on the subway. (I never revise on the bus. I look out the window or listen to the street sounds.) However, I still save and number all of my drafts in Microsoft Word – for example, “site draft52”. For me, a poem usually requires between 25 and 100 drafts.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Islam: I don’t know. I do think it’s important to contribute to the literary landscape beyond one’s own poems whether it be through interviewing/moderating (asking direct questions), curating, reviewing, adjudicating, or editing. Also, I think we all need to be asking, “What is the most important question I can ask myself right now?”

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Islam: My current full-length poetry manuscript is heft and sing. I have been working on it since 2010 and the manuscript is almost complete.

As a collection, heft and sing is formally innovative and lyrical. It contains a section of ‘parallel poems’ – a poetic form that I invented in the summer of 2010 and have been working in since then. One of these ‘parallel poems’ is my contribution to The Unpublished City collection, “43rd parallel”.

The manuscript of heft and sing also contains my innovations on the traditional Shakespearean sonnet, in the form of my self-termed ‘split sonnets’ and ‘double sonnets’. The poem bhater mondo, which was nominated for the 2017 National Magazine Awards, is an example of my ‘split sonnets’.

As for my ‘double sonnets’, the poem susiya, published in Kenyon Review Online, is still one of my favourites as is the poem two burials which won Contemporary Verse 2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35.


Doyali Islam is the winner of Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2016 Poem of the Year Contest, and other poems can be found through CBC’s Sunday Edition, Kenyon Review Online and The Fiddlehead. Her current poetry manuscript is the formally-innovative and lyrical heft and sing, which contains her ‘split sonnets’, ‘double sonnets’, and ‘parallel poems’.

Islam is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!