Go Into Yourself
A conversation with Safia Jama
Safia Jama is a poet, teacher, and the Nonfiction Editor at Apogee Journal. When I threw her questions about the role of creative writing post Election 2016, the root of a need to negotiate distance from social media, and the degree of integration between her main vocations of writing and teaching, she was kind enough to oblige.
I confess, I initially balked at your question, or bevy of questions. I thought, "I don't want to talk about teaching, I'm a writer dang-it." And then I thought, "Gosh, those are really important, really big questions... but they're too personal." And then I thought, "I have an idea! I'll defer to Rilke, who famously wrote, 'Love the questions.'" But then I kept thinking about it.
how to balance teaching and writing
Certainly, the relationship between the artist's life and the teaching life is something that many poets and artists mull over, mostly venting in private to their partners or to fellow writers in the same predicament. Still others don't waste precious time worrying, and just get on with their work. Yet other sensitive souls wonder, how to balance teaching and writing? It's the question that launched a thousand AWP panels. Or maybe it's the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about?
Early in my writing journey, while I was teaching high school, I took an intensive writing workshop especially for teachers at the New York Public Library. It was taught by the novelist Jennifer Egan, who was a really wonderful teacher. She said something that stuck with me, and which I am absolutely paraphrasing: "There is no other experience that is quite like teaching: it's a surreal, singular experience." Here was an acclaimed novelist telling us, a roomful of classroom teachers, what it was like to teach. Brave move. And yet, she was completely right. She articulated something I had felt but never had grasped, perhaps because she had enjoyed a certain period of time away from the classroom in order to have that realization. (Egan had earlier confided, "I haven't taught a class in a long time," having been busy writing.)
a cordial distance from social media
This comes from a need, and, yes, an ambition, to write literature. Yet right now, I’m feeling a real sense of frustration and disillusionment with our culture that has given so much airplay and free advertising to Donald Trump.
I remember opening up the paper, maybe it was the travel section, a couple months before the election, and there was this splashy feature on the Trump hotel chain. Literally, it was free advertising that downplayed the hate speech surrounding the campaign. I think the New York Times does vitally important work, yet that particular feature angered me. I wonder, is everything—literally everything—about marketing today? Is that the only thing that matters to the people in leadership positions? It’s in the water, and there are too many parts per million, so individual citizens need to step up their humanity game. Many people are realizing that now.
I am trying to remember that feeling of being completely present and alive. Moments of say, turning over a rock and staring at the worm, the roly-poly bug, and just being enthralled. I will admit that I ate junk cereal and watched a lot of cartoons. I loved the Smurfs. Yet like all kids, I had a rich inner life. Some kids are left to their own devices more so than others, and then the imagination flourishes in a kind of benign neglect, like coral reefs that flourished off the coast of Cuba.
While thinking about your question, my high school history teacher, Sylvia Gordon, appeared in my mind. She was an important influence on me. She used to talk about escaping the Nazis during World War II. We read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and learned about how propaganda can effectively drug emotionally fragile nations in the thrall of a charismatic leader. Genocide has happened, and can happen again. We're all fully capable of atrocities. We need to sober up and keep brains clear and humble and we need to seek some deeper integrity. We need to distinguish between important information and a constant barrage of infomercials.
I'm somewhat old-fashioned in that I believe in Rilke’s idea: “Go into yourself.” To me, the most radical change in our society will come from individual people deciding they want to regain their humanity. I think that white Americans, like most, possess a lot of unprocessed trauma, yet because of the power structure in place, they can sometimes side-step the emotional work required to empathize with those who look or sound different from them. As a black woman and a poet, I have been doing quite a lot of emotional work and probably could stand for a break. I decided to log off Facebook for a while, at least until after the holidays, because I need to take better care of myself. That’s my work right now (as well as editing, teaching, and writing).
Sometimes we feel “clogged”
because there is so very much we feel and can’t yet find the words to say. During those times, I paint. Lately, it’s been watercolors because they aren’t inherently poisonous and I can make a watercolor quickly without having time to worry about how it turns out. This time of year—the transition from summer to autumn, autumn to winter—feels deeply haunted to me, and ripe with vivid dreams. During the week of the election, I made a watercolor each night, in bed. I noticed that I had been having strange dreams, and so I decided to encourage my dreams in this way. I set the painting aside, went to sleep, and then looked at it immediately upon waking. I did this for a week, and stopped when I ran out of paper.
any hope of financial gain
I think that investing more time into my writing over the last few years— leaving teaching for a while to pursue an MFA, write, work in the non-profit arts sector, and edit—all of this has made me a better teacher. Here's what I've realized: both teaching and writing require a kind of unconditional love. There is hardly any hope of financial gain when it comes to much literary work, just as writing meaningful comments on student writing is essentially hours and hours of volunteer work, whether or not we admit it. The experience of teaching can be exploitative, taxing, and exhilarating all in one day. The experience of writing is indescribable and unmatched, and that is why people describe both teaching and writing as "a calling."
I think that the best writing comes from the same place—that need, not to receive love but to give love. It's as if each of your students, or each of your poems, is that unanswerable question. You have to love the questions. You will not get the ego gratification that is a neat answer, although neo-reformers want to believe that student learning can be neatly measured en masse, with real literature excised from the curriculum, and punishments and rewards doled out to the teachers based on the results of multiple choice exams about, say, the price of heating oil in the mid-Atlantic states. I remember reading one such passage aloud until I was hoarse. That's the sort of nonsense that's been assaulting our high school students, our children, our educators.
Each student, each poem, is alive and mysterious.
You ostensibly know their names and behaviors, but you don't know if he/she/they will bloom into a tree or calcify into an immovable stump or walk off a bridge in the middle of the night. You do your best with the time that you have, that's all you can do. To try to describe one or the other's impact on your life and work in an honest way is nearly impossible. And that's the poem, unwritten.
Safia's poetry has appeared in RHINO, Toe Good Poetry, Reverie: Midwest African American Review, The New Sound, Cooper Street, and Muftah Magazine.
You can find more from her at
This conversation has been edited. Its structure is presented by the interviewer.