I got the chance to discuss and dissect with Sheila Sadr, author of Birthday Girl, which came out from Not a Cult in November. You can purchase it here. Both in the physical and mental realm, Birthday Girl asks us to grab our traumas by the hand, and really look at them, whatever the consequence – whether it heals us or shatters us. Sadr wrote with fresh blood and crafted a collection of poems that examines the conundrum of having a body and the relationships it beholds, whether to oneself or others, the curse and burden of having a hyphen in our histories and identities, and of course, the trials of being daughter of immigrants in the United States.
Jacky Linares: Tell me, what was your process in writing Birthday Girl — all of it, from beginning to end.
Sheila Sadr: Not a Cult has a book contest and I submitted to it. But I submitted to it thinking it was like any other poetry submission, where you send a poem in and you get published or not. And then I realized that it was a book contest after I became a finalist, and that was in 2018 and it was their first round. The way that they were doing it was that you had to submit an entire manuscript in a month… Never in my entire life did I think about writing a book.
I never thought about writing a book, and I didn’t think it qualified me to be a poet. I was never in the mindset that a book made me a poet. I still am not.
But essentially, I was like alright, I will put it together in a month but then I found all these spots that needed addressing. I realized that, “Oh I don’t write enough poems, I don’t write enough in general.” And then it was I like, “Oh a poetry book needs to have a story, a theme, a purpose and intention, at least like for me to care about it.” And I didn’t have either of those that first time around. So I lost, and I knew I would lose.
It lit a fire under me to write more and then write with an intention. I was in the shower one day – this is so lame – was in the shower one day, and I was like, “Birthday girl, birthday girl.” I was like, “I could write like a whole chapbook on that.” And then it became a whole book. I submitted again, I did not think I was going to win again. Or that I was going to be a finalist and I was a finalist. By that point, I knew I was going to be writing a book, but it wasn’t because I thought, “All of this is what makes me a poet.” It was more that I knew what I wanted to write about. I had enough stuff. I felt really pulled toward the material.
I remember one of the first things I told Daniel, who’s my publisher in the interview, and I said, “This book is gonna happen whether or not you pick it. Like it’s just gonna happen.” And he says that was one of the main reasons he picked my book in the contest, because I told him it was going to happen regardless of if it was picked or not.
JL: It’s interesting you say all of this, I forgot where I read this, but I remember something along the lines of, “The book exists somewhere… you just have to find it.” Before I had thought about it as this is a thing like a Lego block that I’m building from scratch piece by piece, going, going, going, instead of searching for it.
SS: I am a fan of the notion that it depends on the person and what really catches them. I feel like the pressure to write a book as an artist is unpleasant. It’s not fun and not productive. There were many times I was working on this conceptual book. And I was so tired of focusing on this specific subject, but it needed fleshing out and everything I wrote for I think a year was with this book in mind. Probably two years. I think it really depends on how, what works for you, and what doesn’t, I think building block by block works for some people.
It’s the same thing I do with National Poetry Month. For National Poetry Month, it’s common for people to write a poem every single day. For me, that’s just too much pressure, too much expectation that’s gonna fully burn me out. So what I do instead is every day for National Poetry Month, I just engage with poetry in whatever way I feel comfortable. So if that’s watching a poem, that’s writing a poem, if that’s reading a poem, if that’s taking a break, it’s all part of it.
I really think it’s, it’s just dependent on what kind of person you are.
JL: I think capitalistic tendencies to have something to sell pressures artists in that way.
SS: That’s exactly what it is.
JL: I wanted to ask, why poetry? A lot of the things in this book are framed like, to me, I saw them as a series of photographs. Why not a series of paintings? Or songs? I know you sing well.
SS: I think poetry has been my first love. It has always been my first love. I remember the first poem I ever read. I remember where I was sitting. I remember how I felt, I was in third grade and I read “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer and I was on the floor in my room by my bookshelf. I remember it was from a book What a Third Grader Needs to Know.
Not that no other art does this, but poetry for me, made me see the world differently. Because in the line in “Trees”, it’s like the trees lift their leafy arms to pray. And I mean, I never in my life saw trees as arms, as praying or reaching to the sky like that.
I feel like poems really did that for me. Every time, like some of my favorite movies, some of my favorite books, some of my favorite things, are when I can watch them over and over and I learn something new. Every time I interact with poems, I learn something new. Every time I interact with the poem. Anytime I write a poem. Anytime I read one, anytime I’m in a workshop, every open mic, I’m always learning something new which is why for me I gravitate towards poetry a lot.
But I also think poetry can be a picture, there are a couple poems in the book that are photographs, truly they’re just portraits of things. And they don’t really have a completion, which was something I really struggled with when I was writing it, because I’d be like, “This poem doesn’t feel done.” And then my editor would be like, “Well, what if it just was just a portrait of your parents? Like, why can’t it just be that why can’t this just be a portrait?” I didn’t like it at first, but I’ve come to really respect it.
JL: Do you think that’s because of what we were taught at school?
SS: I think it’s different for every poem, every poem asks something different. It’s up to your gut to see, for example, the poems that I really struggled with, because I felt that I needed to complete them was, “So My Mother was a Child Once” and “Depression is My Daughter and Now I Brush Her Hair.” They didn’t feel done but at a certain point, you have to look at the piece and be like, “Am I just asking this child to be perfect?” and having these like really high expectations.
I think the inclination to complete things is a very natural human one, because we’re always looking for closure. But ever since I’ve kind of let the dust settle on the poems I felt tense about, I actually have come to really respect them. In the sense that, I felt that they were imperfect, and I let them out in the world anyways. Now I think that that’s perfect.
JL: How do you come to terms with being so vulnerable? I mean, you call out people, you have a list of names in here, where it’s like, “Whoa.” Full of heavy material with specific people.
SS: Section two is just like, thick with trauma. It was like a huge fear of mine, to share it. But the whole reason the book exists is because of the two poems. “This is Not a Confessional” and “A List of Eleven”– that whole book exists because of those two poems. There’s no way that book could exist honestly and authentically without those two. It is why I’m healing and it is why I think it is a portion as to why I feel the way I feel about people and why I move in the world the way I do. It’s interesting that you say like, how are you vulnerable like this?
JL: I guess I find it really brave.
SS: I think about that vulnerability aspect because Don’t think I don’t believe in tearing yourself open. Just to tear yourself open. I don’t think that’s healthy. I don’t think that’s safe. I don’t think that’s sustainable.
With “The List of Eleven” it took a lot of inner discussion and a lot of discussion, honestly with Will (Sadr’s partner) to kind of get there. The reason I did it was I thought about, who is this for? I thought I could leave them blank. I could say it’s redacted. And it could say something else about the world, right? But I thought about whom is it serving? If I don’t say their names?
Who I want to empower and who do I want to disempower? Who do I want to have reflect? And who do I not? I also had at some point, someone said why don’t you just change the names to fictional names because they were concerned about my safety. I pushed against that. I say, those who broke consent, which provides a broad range of what that means…
JL: You allow with that line, for me the reader, to imagine anything. And that’s so good, that’s so tactful.
SS: Because we always say “assault” and I hate the word “rape” but like the word rape, and all these things, or coersion. All of these words ultimately land with one meaning, which is breaking consent. And breaking consent can be broken down to, “I didn’t want to do this thing. And this person ignored that. This person lied to me. And we did this thing and this was non-consensual.”
I also wanted to keep the names because I wanted to show how diverse it was, that it wasn’t just men. It wasn’t just white men. It was women. It was women of color. It was queer people, it was trans-people. And I also made a list because people don’t know the statistic that once you have been assaulted, the likelihood of you being assaulted again, or having your consent broken, goes up, like eight times or 18 times – it goes up astronomically.
No one really talks about that, and how horrible that is. And so when I think about this poem, there’s a couple of things happening. I have tried so hard to write poems about these people. I have tried so hard, but all it does is hurt me. This part of my heart isn’t ready for poems yet. And I don’t think it’ll ever be ready. But it is an important part of my story. And it is an important part for people to know. So how do you maintain that boundary with the audience, while still going in with a sledgehammer?
This was how I wanted to do it. I don’t think that an audience needs to be traumatized to know that something bad happened.
JL: Yes, I feel the same way about this poem as I do for “Confessional…” I related to it and I believe it’s a part of being a daughter of immigrants, that experience as portrayed in “Confessional.”
SS: Those two poems were just cathartic for me. I was in such denial of my experience for so long. That poem is the first time I ever acknowledged it. It was a part of a workshop where I was asked to say it any way I can. Saying that because it happened, it’s worth documenting.
I approached “This is Not a Confessional” very much like a historical document. There’s very little feeling in it. If you really read it, it’s just truly documenting. I just went into the prompt being like, well, this happened to me. And I just kept going. And then I realized that there was a lot of knots in this experience that I hadn’t tried to tease out in any way.
JL: “This is Not a Confessional” allows for me, the reader, to return to certain memories and confront the trauma in them. Seeing you put into words this particular kind of violence that one survives made me feel that I was not alone in that hurt. That maybe, in fact, I had been gaslighted – I didn’t make this stuff up. But if you ask our parents, none of it ever happened, right?
SS: It is entirely the reason I wrote it.
JL: I’m sure I’m not the only one who has these kinds of experiences that you’ve sort of tucked away in a little box in the back of your head and you don’t want to think about them.
SS: I think about this poem. And it is weirdly comforting because it just helped me acknowledge that this is real, like if someone reads this, it looks damning. But the way I approach the realness of this book is that, well if you didn’t want me to write about this, you shouldn’t have done it.
Second, this book is like a character of me. This is a part of me. This is not the whole of me, this is a character and to have that sense of distance is important because people are going to shit on your book, sometimes. People are going to hate it, people are going to be triggered by it, people are going to share things.
Third, my relationships with people I love, even those people in “The List” are complicated, are hard. Some days are better and some days worse. It’s a complex issue. However, I really wanted to show in the book that my family isn’t just bad, that despite there’s this anger and all these negative feelings, that there is also so much love and there’s so much care and tenderness in them.
JL: Yes, and that definitely comes off! There’s a lot of Farsi in here like when you talk about your family, and I wanted to ask you if you, by chance, you feel a sense of guilt when you write in English.
SS: I have something way more racist going on in my brain, which is that I feel guilt putting Farsi words in English poems because I worry about who is listening and if they’ll understand. I also wonder if I am putting Farsi words in a way to exoticize my own way of doing poetry. If it’ll make me cooler or more interesting to put Farsi in my poems, more marketable even.
JL: That’s the other half of the coin.
SS: That is the thing I question. I don’t feel guilty writing in English because I cannot deny that I am an Iranian-American, I have an American education, misinformation that I grew up with – about Columbus Day or Thanksgiving. That is an inherently American experience. The way that I experienced 9/11 is inherently Muslim-American, Iranian-American. So I don’t feel guilt when it comes to that, but I often wonder where the line is, and when am I appropriating my own culture for clout.
But, I’ve practiced this right. It’s a muscle. For example, I when I was writing sexy poems, it was really uncomfortable but then I was forcing myself to do it and then it just became easier to do. It’s just a muscle that you work on and get comfortable using, and that was me with Farsi.
I knew I wanted to use Farsi words more because it is inaccurate to think that I always think in English. I engage with the world in Farsi all the time. I actually never knew the word cucumber because I always heard it as خیار and I didn’t know cucumber until I was twenty-one.
JL: I had a similar experience with the English word broth. I didn’t know what broth was until I was like 20 and in college, eating with other people who weren’t my family. But as with my own writing, I wanted to see how you felt about writing in English, as I sometimes feel that when I write certain things, I feel like I am dangling my Browness for a coin.
SS: Sometimes I feel that too, like I am prostituting my own culture. It doesn’t feel good. But I am in a new phase now where I feel like I am more integrated with my cultural experience and how I operate in the world, though I don’t know if I will fully feel integrated. But I know that the way I love people is very Persian, and the way I function in the world is very Persian.
I’m now in a phase where – I was diagnosed with a chronic disorder about a year ago and the experience with that has taken the forefront of how I move in the world. Now I can look at ableism and invisible illnesses differently. I have something called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which essentially means that two weeks out of the month, I am totally dysfunctional. I have mood swings, I am sleeping at extensive hours, and it was happening for a long time and I never knew what it was.
Then there was the fight with doctors, to convince them that I had a chronic illness–
JL: And that you’re not just some ignorant brown woman exaggerating your pain, acting in dramatic hyperbole–
SS: Exactly. Explaining what PMDD was to gynocologists who should know what it is. That is the new spiritual project I’m on. I don’t think anyone knows what PMDD is anyway. I’m just ready to share the experience of that with the world. My spirit is taking me this way where I want to talk about chronic disorders and mental illness. I’m really excited to speak on it more.
JL: That’s why we read books, so we don’t feel alone. I am thinking about your poem “Depression is my Daughter and Now I Brush Her Hair” in relation to what Melissa Lozada-Oliva once said about her own anxiety, that it’s a relative that lives with her. How has writing about your depression helped you with your relationship with mental illness?
SS: There’s an undercurrent of mental illness throughout the book, and I think the poem is a lot about self-acceptance. I think that when you’re mentally ill or you have a chronic disorder, you feel so frustrated that it doesn’t go away. Frustrated that it’s not eradicated, and you imagine how amazing life would be without it. But I feel that emotionally, the depression got there somehow and if you keep rejecting it, you don’t take the time to take care of it. That rejection is also similar as to when you reject a part of your family or a part of yourself. It compounds the emotion and the experience more by rejecting it. But by looking at it like, “Oh this is a child, a pet, it’s my responsibility to take care of it.” The more I take care of it, maybe the less knots there are in the hair, the more happy the child might be – that was kind of what I experienced with my PMDD.
PMDD has been a journey to accept. Because you look back and you’re like, “Oh, I wasn’t crazy.” And now I have another kid now who had different kinds of needs. Now it’s like, what adjustments can I make to make this kid feel better.