I’ve known Abdul Fattah Ismail for a long time, as we used to both do a lot of volunteer work together, in association with the Notre Dame Club of New York City. I’d see him on Saturday mornings at the University Community Social Services (the “Meatloaf Kitchen”), or we’d end up wrapping an immense number of donated toys for a local Secret Santa program on a December evening after work. I moved to the suburbs, had two kids, and no longer have the time to volunteer in NYC, unfortunately, but he’s still around and helping out. When he’s not at his day job as a digital strategist for Publicis (an advertising agency). Or pursuing his creative writing. He recently published a book of poems, Extended Syllables, so I thought it was about time we got back together to talk about life and poetry and such. We caught up over lunch and cheap beer at the Liberty (a quiet spot during the day, although apparently much more busy when the happy hour crowd arrives), and here’s what he had to say.
Abdul Fattah Ismail
Date: March 29, 2016
Hometown: South Bend, IN
Current town: NYC
Occupation: Digital Strategist and writer
First of all, I really enjoyed reading your poems…so thank you! What have people had to say about your book so far?
It’s been pretty positive. To elaborate, I’m a stereotypical Aquarian. I have a lot of friends, but not as many close and intimate friends, so many people I know don’t know that I write about race, class, and food (food is very important). That’s part of the reason why it took me so long to publish. I had to grow as a person, as an adult. When I first graduated from Notre Dame, at my first job, working for a small social services organization in D.C., I was told, “Live for your gifts.” I try to do that, but it took me a long time to be responsible publicly. I think I’m a good writer and a good communicator, but it took me a while to get comfortable and stand in public. The book has been 20 years in the making.
That makes sense. Once something is out in the public space, people comment, discuss, and criticize.
Criticism can be valuable. You have to consider the source. It can be the beginning of a dialogue, a progress. So I have to think about who it’s coming from, what drives it, and then know how much weight to give it. I used to give more weight to criticism, but now that I’ve accomplished other things, it is easier.
I’m happy with it. I kind of wish I had some illustrations. Maybe the next book.
Will we have to wait another 20 years?
No, I think I’m going to work a little faster.
By the way, have I been calling you the wrong name for the last 10 or 12 years? Isn’t “Abdul” supposed to go with “Fattah” and not be separated? I read a novel called Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which is about a love affair between a retired military man and a Pakistani widow in a small English town (which horrifies their families and the neighbors). In any case, in the book, Major Pettigrew corrects, I think it is his son, that he shouldn’t call one of the other characters just plain “Abdul” because by itself it just means “servant.” So Abdul Fattah is “servant of God,” right?
Yes, but I do go by Abdul! My mother always said it was important to use my whole name. But it’s one of those immigrant themes. How much do you keep of your culture? How much to you keep private and protect of your culture? It’s part of the difficulty in establishing identity. The United States is a new country, it’s only 500 years old. People come here from all over.
I remember that your family is from Sierra Leone. Were you born there or in the U.S.?
I was born here. So I’m a child of immigrants. But very much between two places.
I know you also do “spoken word” readings of your poetry. It is a very different experience for someone to watch something being performed than for someone to read poetry in a book. When you write, do you write something meant primarily to be listened to, or to be read?
To be honest, most of what I wrote, I just wrote. I didn’t consider publishing until after I finished my MBA at St. John’s. I had had a break up of a relationship, which took me down, actually. Now moving forward, I think about an audience a little bit more.
The experience was that I started reading at art galleries and open mikes. Then I really started to consider an audience. But at the beginning, it was all self-reflections and observations.
I went with a print book because some people want something tangible, something I can sign for them. But other people like to read on the Kindle, so I have that available too. I’m learning about entrepreneurship and getting comfortable with selling my work and being confident about my price point.
Some of your poems are a bit more narrative, others more percussive…have you thought about setting any of them to music?
Some of them do seem like they’d make song lyrics. When people read them they do seem to think that they’re very short. So I might do something longer next time. People have a stereotypical idea of what poetry is like. I hope my collection opens them up to a new point of view.
I noticed an awful lot of references in your book that put me in very specific places…fortunately for this reader, I am from New York and I’ve spent a lot of time in South Bend, Indiana, and Chicago, so I think I may have picked up more than some. Was this deliberate on your part…how accessible is your work to people from other places?
Yes, there is some regionality. Those places—I have extensive histories there. And also other places, like South Africa. But at the same time, that’s part of the journey for the reader.
Well, I’ve never been to South Africa, so I probably missed some of your references there. We only know what we know.
Some of the things you write seem very angry, and who can blame you for that? There’s plenty wrong with the world. There are plenty of times when our country doesn’t live up to our ideals, and when human institutions and human beings fail. But you also seem to have a bit of a sense of humor about the way things are. Am I reading you correctly here?
Yeah, that sounds about right. One of my gifts. I get wrapped into injustice. There’s fragmentation: gender and race, and humor and self-awareness.
Do you relate much to other books, movies, etc. about the immigrant experience here? It seems like it’s kind of a familiar story for me…but I know stories about Irish immigrants (my family), and Italian immigrants (my husband’s family), and Chinese immigrants ( through reading a memoir called Fifth Chinese Daughter), and Indian immigrants (reading novels such as Unaccustomed Earth). Americanah is a novel about a Nigerian woman in the U.S., but she ends up going back to Nigeria. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about the experience of coming to the U.S. from Sierra Leone.
The first time I went to Sierra Leone it was when I was seven. And at my aunt’s place, she had no electric light. At night there were candles and that was it. And at the same time, my father had bought us a Nintendo, which was a brand new thing. It was in 1988, and I started to get an inkling of how privileged I was. I grew up in the U.S. as a male, as an African-American person, but my father worked in pharmaceuticals, and my mother was an academic. I was very middle class. But people make a lot of assumptions about who I am based on how I look.
There’s one writer I know who writes about immigrants from Sierra Leone. His name is Ishmael Beah. He writes about refugees from the civil war in the 1990s.
I will have to look his work up. I think I am going to have to live to be 120, though, or I will never read everything I would like to read!
At that point you can have your kids read to you.
Or maybe my great grandchildren.
Are you working on anything else? What’s next for your creative writing?
The style in this book was loose. I think I’m going to move away from that. I’m thinking about writing sonnets. Like 100 of them.
A Sonnet sequence, like Shakespeare or Sidney? Fourteen lines, quatrains and couplets?
Yeah. I think it’s time to do something with a restrictive form.
What poets have influenced and inspired you? Shakespeare, then?
Yes, Shakespeare. And LeRoi Jones (also known as Amiri Baraka). One of my professors at Notre Dame, Toni Irving, introduced me to his writing. She’s not at ND any more, but I talk to her sometimes still. And Langston Hughes. And I really like Shel Silverstein. And Dr. Seuss and his Lorax.
And I’m also influenced by comedy. I watched a lot of movies and comedy skits growing up.
Abdul’s next poetry reading: April 4, 2016, New York City
What music has influenced you?
Growing up, there was a lot of music in my house, all different styles. My father listened to reggae, all the rappers like Ice Cube and Scarface, Tribe Called Quest, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, some British artists, rock like Zeppelin and the Doors. The Doobie Brothers, Chicago. A lot of sounds! African music. I’m the oldest kid in my family, so when I was little my parents were young. They’d have parties with music and dancing. Traditional and contemporary music. MTV: I was the age to be about it, and I took in those images. Like the video to Thriller on a loop for hours.
On to another topic, do you have a book recommendation for us? What should everyone read?
Long Division by Kiese Laymon. It’s about experience in Mississippi and Alabama. Looking at the deep south through a modern, contemporary lens.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I love Fargo. I haven’t watched the TV series yet (but I have it on my laptop). The movie is emblematic of my style. Place specific. Urbane and rural. The bleakness of the landscape and the beauty of it. The human errors: human violence, goofiness, eccentricities. We’re just bodies floating in clouds.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
Wow! Not too many regrets. I wish that I’d done more international traveling earlier. I spent a summer in Germany and Brussels and the Netherlands in my 20s, but I didn’t do a backpacker journey to Asia. I still need to hit the Caribbean and Latin America and South America. But, it’s there. My life goal is to visit and immerse in every continent once. Including Antarctica. Yes. Antarctica.
Asia is still there! But as I get older, I get fussier about travel. I don’t want to sleep on the floor of a train station, or have bread and Nutella and cheap wine for dinner. I want to stay somewhere nice and eat well and travel with more style than I did when I was in my twenties. (Problem is, that costs more.)
Do you have any travel plans for the summer?
I want to get back to New Orleans, I haven’t been there in a long time. I may sneak to California and do my normal Bay Area-LA run to see friends along with promoting the book.
You really ought to go to New Orleans right away…isn’t April when they do Jazz Fest?
I know! I don’t think it’s going to happen for me quite that soon. Maybe in the fall for the Prospect Art Biennial Fair. Or spring next year.
So, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My parents gave me a lot of good advice. I’d say “Be independent.” And, “If you don’t know, ask.” They’re a little contradictory, but they’ve served me well.
You have to know when to use both of those.
Can you tell me a joke?
I got two of them now!
Q: What is a simile? A: It’s like a metaphor.
Q: How many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb? A: NOBODY changes ANYTHING!
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have an extroverted nature. But most people don’t know that I have a strong sociopolitical conscience. I believe in civic duty. In high school I worked with grassroots organizations and my church youth group, campaigning locally against nuclear waste and giving service to the homeless. I’ve worked in public service as a CRM fundraiser for places like the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Bailey House, Housing Works, American Field Service (AFS-USA), the American Academy in Rome, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), and many others. People might see me as a music and style guy. But if I’m not out being a fashion dweeb and going to fancy restaurants, I read and watch everything at home (laughs!).
It certainly comes out in your book.
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
I always make my bed. My mother was big on that. Keep your bed clean and your day will be clean! Or something like that. I always make my bed before I leave.
Do you have a favorite celebrity?
I really liked David Bowie. He was chameleonic. An actor, Ziggy Stardust, socially conscious. Attractive, comfortable in his skin. He understood that life was about being open and transparent. He went through all these stages of looks and images and design, I think it represented his je ne sais quoi.
Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! My book! You can check out my website. And also Economy Candy. It’s this old candy shop on the Lower East Side, at Essex and Rivington. It’s got all this old time confectionery and I took photos there and used them in my book. It’s like going to your aunt’s favorite candy store.
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Other Q&As By Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor
Lead-In Image (Jelly Beans) Courtesy of timquo / Shutterstock.com
All Other Images Courtesy of Abdul Fattah Ismail and DeMata Photography