Zakia Carpenter-Hall is a writer and teacher currently studying for her MFA at Kingston University. Her work has been published in the Callaloo Journal and Magma Magazine. In addition to the US and the UK, she has lived in Honduras and Kenya. Her favourite sport is swimming and she joined her high school swim team just a month after she learn how to swim. You can find out more about her and her work by visiting: http://zakiacarpenterhall.com/
When and why did you start writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem at thirteen. My teacher had just taught us eighth graders how to write a poem. I don't remember anything from that lesson except that it was outside, the look on my teacher's face when she heard the poem, and what my poem was about. In the US, we sometimes have graduations at the end of eighth grade (year 9). I was one of the speakers for my eighth grade graduation, and I read that poem.
What was the poem about?
This is so embarrassing. But remember I was thirteen. It was about my name, which I have always loved.
What are your particular interests as a poet?
I am still learning what my interests are. The poem that I was most known for in undergrad incorporated some rudimentary astrophysics, and I have found myself returning to that subject matter via Event Horizon in a more nuanced way. Well let's just say I did research this time. Whereas in undergrad I simply wrote what I felt.
Did doing the research help or hinder your writing? Did it change the process in any way?
Research for me, from my perspective, is almost a spiritual practice. It is almost sacred. I think of a line from one of Mark Doty’s poems that goes something like “If study is a form of prayer, she was praying”. And this is largely my mother’s influence. For my mom, lifelong learning is a tenant of her faith. She recently graduated with a PhD, and I grew up in that environment of her being intellectually curious. So regarding poetry, I just didn't realise until very recently, within the last three years or so, the extent to which I could apply research to poetry or use research to write poems. Had I known earlier, I would have used research a long time ago. As far as changing the process, doing research makes it easier for me to write poems; I find it easier to come up with content. Doing research means that I'm not regurgitating the same experiences or the same ideas over and over without any growth or development. Personally, even for people who see research as secular, I think research enhances every form of writing. In my experience, poems require so much fuel – ideas, language, imagery, etc. And it's the research that keeps them going. It's integral to the process and how I spend most of my “writing” time.
Are there any particular themes, ideas or objects that you’re fascinated by or like to explore in your work? If so, what and why?
I'm an ideas person so I always have tantalising ideas for poems or writing projects in general. Lately I've been using poetry as a way to explore topics, feelings, experiences that cannot be known or understood definitively. I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that physics accounts for 4% of the known universe. We might be said to have an internal universe, the body and the psyche, and an external universe, the world at large and everything that is surrounded and connected to that. For me, these worlds are not separate. Via writing
everything is connected and potentially anything is interesting. Writing is a way for me to explore anything and everything. As an undergraduate I chose to study English because I was interested in so many different fields and realised that through literature and writing I could keep exploring different things with each writing project. Perhaps the central theme of my first collection is the black hole because any and everything can be sucked up by them, because they can perhaps be symbolic of an endlessly curious mind.
What attracted you to poetry as a form? Do you write in any other forms?
I don't remember what first attracted me except that it seemed I had subject matter waiting inside of me to be expressed through poetry. I have always been interested in words, their meaning and to an extent their music. I started writing poems long before I started to read them, outside of what I had been assigned in school. And actually I started writing regularly, keeping a journal, when I was about five years old. So my first genre was nonfiction. And I hope to publish a book in creative nonfiction too. But with poetry... the only thing I can say is it just clicked. I had to do it. I couldn't leave it. Some people have to bake, or teach (though I do love teaching), or run... I have to dance and write poems.
That’s interesting that you dance as well. Do you see any parallels between the two forms?
This is a really hard question. When I think about dance, I don't think about it in terms of language. Dance’s medium is the body and images that the body can make, that's its language. The poem’s language is a system of words. I approach them from different ways of knowing. So I really couldn't say.
Science and art are often seen as existing on opposite ends of the spectrum, why did you decide to bring these two things together in Event Horizon?
I think poems are enhanced by contrast, whether it's contrasting ideas or imagery. But I don't see science and art at different ends of the spectrum. If we think about an earlier time in Western history, for example The Renaissance period, Leonardo Da Vinci was one of the most highly regarded artists of that time but also made contributions to science through his observations, drawings, and inventions. In the twentieth century, Albert Einstein played the violin and practiced physics. He also believed in the power of fairy tales. Einstein is credited for saying, ‘If you want your child to be intelligent read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ This was also his advice to a colleague on what to give her son for reading material in order to make help her son pursue the sciences as a career path. (Quoted from BrainPickings). Einstein understood, and I am only at the beginning of this understanding, that imaginative and creative thinking are the underpinnings of all good critical and scientific thinking. So for me it wasn't a matter of bringing the arts and sciences together but using two complementary tools. From my perspective, the two contrasting fields that I bring together in several poems are science and religion. But I wouldn't have brought them together if I didn’t also think that they have a lot in common.
Quite a few of the poems in this collection take on a unique form on the page (specifically From the Church of Gravity, DIY Wormhole…, and Fortune Cookie…) Is how the poem looks on the page, for you, as important as its content, and how do you go about deciding how to present your poems to the reader?
The shape that the poem takes on is the last stage of my creative process. Very rarely it can happen simultaneously as I'm writing the poem. This is what happened with ‘DIY Wormhole’. But mostly, the structure comes last. The shape that the poem takes on the page is meant to help the reader, it's a vehicle for how I'd like the content to be read and received. In terms of how I decide on structure, mainly through reading lots of other poems and other types of text. ‘From the Church of Gravity’ has a form that’s been adapted from biblical scripture. ‘DIY Wormhole’ has a form I’ve seen before, i.e. a repeating line with sections missing, but I adapted this to fit my piece. And ‘Fortune Cookie’ was inspired by a live performance that I had done. I wondered how to translate aspects of that performance onto the page. So through the process of writing ‘Fortune Cookie’, I played around with how to translate the sounds into text. I also thought of the actual fortune cookie slip of paper that is curved inside of the cookie.
Are there any other writers that have influenced your work or your approach to writing?
This is such a hard question. I'm influenced to varying degrees by everyone I read and everyone that I work with. In terms of poets that I've worked with who have most influenced my work and approach are Malika Booker, Francis Leviston, Vievee Francis, Hannah Lowe, Steve Fowler, and Mimi Khalvati. But I could go on for a long time in terms of the poets whom I've worked with and have helped me to improve and see things in a new way. I don't know who my main influences are yet. I think on different days I would give different answers. It's always changing. And maybe it depends on the project.
What is the significance of Event Horizon as the title of this collection and how does it speak of the collection as a whole?
Each poem is a vortex, an Event Horizon, a threshold, or point of no return. Although Event Horizon is defined as a notational boundary around a black hole, these poems also explore “event” in a broader sense – the varying degrees to which an experience can change, destroy and reconfigure us and our lives. The problem with physics for non practitioners is often that “we cannot deliver its secrets with our hands”. But this is a collection that makes the theoretical tangible and thereby brings us closer to ourselves.
What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
Only my dissertation. That's more than enough.
Yemi Dipeolu is writer from London. She previously worked as a Journalist for African Voice Newspaper where she wrote about literature, film, music and culture, as well as news and current affairs. She’s currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University.wordsbyyemi.com