Under Pressure: Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Letters From The Interior, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her first full-length collection of poems, Water & Salt (Red Hen) won the 2018 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Arab in Newsland,  (Two Sylvias, 2016), and Letters From The Interior (Diode Editions, 2019 ).

Here, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha discusses gardening, embroidery, bibliomancy, and the inspiration behind her latest collection.


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did working on Letters From The Interior take, from conception to publication? 

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: The very first poems of this chapbook began after some translations of Fairuz songs, while I was on retreat at Hedgebrook in 2015. Meadow cabin in April—the light and the silence gave me so much room to be playful, to listen. New textures and eventually whole worlds emerged from lines I had known and sung for years. 

After the Fairuz-pantoums I began to write the Letters. These poems came together more slowly. I kept working on the poems during my years at the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program. Eventually, a full-length manuscript came together, and I’m still refining it. The letters and songs, the rooms in which they echo, however, became Letters from the Interior. 

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you? 

LKT: I love-hate them. Generally speaking, my writing doesn’t follow a strict routine, despite my attempts at creating one over the years. I find there are bursts of time when all the gathering and listening and reading yields poems, and there are silences in between. Sometimes deadlines move the process along, sometimes they create anxiety.

BRP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise? 

LKT: I’m crushing on Palestinian poet Maya Abu Alhayyat. Fady Joudah has beautifully translated several of her poems in the most recent issue of Asymptote and I’m thrilled for English-language readers to get to know her work. 

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing? 

LKT: My morning coffee routine—the same few gestures, the quiet as it brews, the first fragrances and taste. No matter what happens the rest of the day, I have those moments.

Beginning in March, I spend time in the garden. Tending to living things, learning, practicing patience and trying to embrace the myriad ways your best plans might not come to pass and what does might be even more magnificent if you look closely, if you let it.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing? 

LKT: My first mentor at Rainier Writing Workshop, poet Peggy Shumaker, gave us a magnificent send off at the end of our first-year residency. It ended with the sentence: Go forth and lavish! Her talk was about the writer’s time and the work of attention. I have returned to that generous vision of writing so many times. 

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find? 

LKT: I have multiple journals going at all times with different purposes. Some for collecting fragments, some for drafts of my own work, some for words & their etymologies (an idea borrowed from my friend poet Molly Spencer) and a bibliomancy book-of-days, in which I open a book of poems to a page and record that one poem, try to memorize a few lines, just spend some time with it. For my own writing, I always begin with paper and pen, most often in a notebook, but not exclusively.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? 

LKT: It tends to build. There is usually an initial insight—a word, an image, and idea, or even a sensation in time and place. That sets a series of “awarenesses” in motion—maybe it leads to a question, or even a fragment or a line. 

BRP: How did writing a chapbook compare to writing a full-length collection? Can you compare these experiences? 

LKT: This chapbook was a very different experience for me. My previous chapbook, Arab In Newsland, was written with a specific theme in mind, the poems all speak to the experience of being Arab in a world constructed of and by the news industry. This chapbook surprised me; it emerged, sort of like a nesting doll living inside of a larger work.

BRP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer? 

LKT: I want to say thread and fabric because I’m trying to learn Palestinian embroidery, but I am so incredibly slow I can’t imagine ever creating something that would live in a museum! And museums are complicated spaces. So maybe dance. A body in motion that makes something alive, wordless, and vanishing. Something that cannot be colonized, that walls cannot own or contain.

BRP: If you could describe Letters From The Interior in three words, what would they be? 

LKT: One word I’ve recently learned in Arabic:  زمكان zamakaan, translation: place-time. That and memory, and language.

Order Letters From The Interior here!