Hala Alyan is the author of the new poetry collection The Twenty-Ninth Year. She also has written the novel Salt Houses, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Missouri Review and Prairie Schooner. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?
A: I jotted down fragments and memories and images over the course of several months, and then stitched the collection together over a few weeks during a residency in Marfa (Texas). I then left the poems alone for about half a year, then started editing the pieces properly.
Q: How did you decide on the order in which to place them in the book?
A: To be honest, a lot of the order was decided by my brilliant editor, Jenny Xu. I've learned to trust others with aspects of the writing/publishing process that aren't my strength. Ordering poetry collections is definitely one of them. I like to print all the poems out and play with them on the floor, like one massive jigsaw puzzle.
But by the time I started working with Jenny, I knew the order wasn't quite perfect, and she really stepped in. She came at it with a fresh perspective and saw narratives and emotional chronology that I totally missed. I'm very grateful to her for that.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: It's relatively straightforward, in that the poems were all conceived and written during my literal twenty-ninth year, a time of turmoil and transformation in my life. More metaphorically, the poems often contend with themes of transition, grief, hope and reworking memory, and the idea of the final year of a decade being a time to do both past and future work resonated with me.
Q: What themes do you see running through the collection?
A: Definitely themes of womanhood (i.e. wifehood, sisterhood), as it intersects with dislocation and exile. The collection deals a lot with this concept of re-membering, taking apart and reassembling memory, and in the process changing it. Altering our positionality in our own lives and histories.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on some poetry inspired by my partner's work as a full-stack computer programmer. I've also recently finished the first draft of my second novel, and am starting to storyboard my third one.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just how grateful I am for the attention and care readers have been giving this collection. I've heard from a number of people who have really sat with the pieces, taking in their vulnerability and giving theirs in return. It's an incredibly humbling and restorative feeling.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Hala Alyan.