Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Youssef Helmi
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: The poem “How to Walk like an Egyptian” brings the reader into a very personal reflection. How do you balance sharing something so personal while still trying to connect with the reader?
Youssef Helmi: That balance is achieved because the poem is honest, and I think the reader can feel that honesty through the words and holds on to it, though the specifics may be personal to me. Also, while I’m speaking about experiences that are very personal, I’m speaking to struggles that are universal and human. In the poem’s third stanza, the prevailing struggle is that of reconciling complacency and empathy, and that’s where the real connection between me and the reader happens. Like, everyone’s wrestled with that at some point, and it’s something an American reader can really relate to. Especially in 2018 where we as a society and individuals are having to reconcile empathetic thoughts and prayers with inaction–particularly so with issues like homelessness, police brutality, poverty, gun violence, and humanitarian crises all over the globe.
RR: Can you discuss your approach to cultural identity in this piece? How has your own identity as an Egyptian-American influenced your work?
YH: So I’ll address the second question first: For the longest time, I tried divorcing my cultural and religious background from my writing because I didn’t see it as worth writing about. All the literature available to me in middle and high school identified itself differently than I did, and I thought it was because what I’d experienced was uninteresting. So, I tried not writing about it because I thought people didn’t want to read about it. That all changed though when my poetry workshop professor introduced me to the works of Safia Elhillo and Kaveh Akbar (Sudanese-American and Iranian-American, respectively), who were engaging with similar ethnic and religious identities as I was. So, while all my work may not be about identity, I’m allowing the material to carry the mark. As for this piece, I’ve almost always been the only Arab, Egyptian, and/or Muslim kid in my class, school, community, etc., so I wanted to capture this feeling of being the “odd one out” that I soemtimes felt forced into, though that wasn’t how I saw myself. I also wanted to explore the distinction that people sometimes do/sometimes don’t make between Arabs of different nationalities (because, you know with all that’s happening in the news right now, they’re all extremists, right?). Like, the kids in my classes aren’t going to differentiate between the Egyptian or the Iranian or the Kuwaiti, they’re all Arabs, and if I do that as well, is it necessarily a bad thing?
RR: You mention in your bio that you’re studying political science. Does that have any influence on your writing?
YH: Yes, sort of? A lot of my coursework has been about domestic policy, policy evaluation, research methodology (bivariate and multiple regressions, all that good stuff), and theory concerning international relations and conflict escalation. In regards to that, none of it has really made its way into my work. However, the motivation for why I study political science is the same for why I write the types of poems I do. Right now I’m interested in practicing international and/or refugee law in the future because I want to help people who have suffered the horrors of wars and displacement, and I think that sentiment has a great deal of influence on a lot of my work. While this poem itself isn’t “helping” anyone, my hope is it calls people’s attention to a topic and conversation a lot of us would prefer to turn a blind eye to. That said, I’m sure some of the more technical aspects of my academics will start bleeding into my writing, so I can really only hope it’s good when that day comes.
RR: Where did the idea for this poem come from?
YH: So my poetry workshop professor had an assignment this semester where we signed up for The Southeast Review’s February Writer’s Regimen. For the entire month of February, we get emails filled with quotes, writing prompts, riffwords, and recordings of readings, and our professor wanted us to write responses to twenty of these (whether these responses be poems or simply contemplations on the material). One of the daily prompts was, “Find a few cliched turns of phrase or metaphors… …be specific: consider your culture, the town you’re from, your family history etc.” After a few minutes of mulling, the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles popped into my head as something totally ridiculous. It was also something I recall listening to in one of my elementary school classes.
RR: Do you have a daily writing routine? What does it look like?
YH: So before I do any writing, I like to read just to kind of remind me of what a good sentence, what a good metaphor, or what a good image looks like. Sometimes it’ll be whatever I’m reading at the moment, and other times I go back to a few stories/poems/authors I particularly admire (George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Safia Elhillo, and Haruki Murakami are on that list). For the actual writing, it depends on where I am. If I’m out studying or something, I like to grab some source caffeine, listen to some music at a low volume (Alcest, Deafheaven, Interpol), and get to it. If I’m back at my apartment, it’s basically the same thing, except I have this candle with Aimee Bender as a Catholic Saint that I like to light and put next to my laptop while I work (it’s strange but gets the job done). Either way, I try to write for at least forty-five minutes. Often times it takes me writing a lot of garbage to get to something that’s interesting and productive.
Youssef Helmi’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.