Five Questions and Answers with Poet On the Coast Alumna Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Poet Extraordinaire Lena Khalaf Tuffaha at Poets on the Coast this September

What a pleasure to watch Lena Khalaf Tuffaha's poetry as it takes off and travels around the world. From our first meeting at an ekphrastic workshop I taught at the Seattle Art Museum for Hedgebrook, to her participation at Poets on the Coast: Writing Retreat for Women to seeing her accept the Washington State Book Award for her first full length collection, Water and Salt, Lena has been impressing audiences around Washington and around the world.

This September, Lena joins the faculty of Poets on the Coast to teach an afternoon workshop:

Self-Portraits, Selfies,  and Snaps; Exploring Re/new(ed) Forms for Writing the Self

 Self-Portraits, in visual art and in poetry are abundant and offer a rich landscape to explore, question, subvert, and re/define the self. “Selfie” was officially added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2013 and the Selfie is  now considered an art form in itself, with its own museum!  What can  these visual art forms offer us as poets? What does it mean to write a self-portrait, selfie, or snap poem? We’ll explore the blurry boundaries between these forms and use them to generate thrilling and revelatory poem drafts.

SR:  Who are the poets (or other writers) that you recommend? Who do you return to over and over?

LKT: I recommend reading everything. Classics, newly-published works, what you friends are reading, what your favorite indie bookseller recommends. If a writer you admire raves about a book, check it out. And don’t just read; listen. Go to a poetry reading. Watch a video of a spoken word performance if you can’t attend one. If you know another language, even if you’re not proficient, give yourself permission to muddle through poems in that language. I’m always reading in Arabic, in French, and stumbling through original Neruda poems (in the privacy of my own reading spaces). Nourish the sources of sound and prayer in your poetry.

I’m currently obsessed with several hybrid works: Marwa Helal’s Invasive species (Nigthboat, 2019), and a book of essays, All The Fierce Tethers (Sarabande, 2019), by poet Lia Purpura. Books that have awed and thrilled and taught me in recent years include Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Ada Limon’s The Carrying. I’ve spent this poetry month tweeting a poem a day by an Arab American poet, a love letter to my community, and in the process I’ve revisited so many treasures. Books across centuries, from Khalil Gibran to Suheir Hammad to Fady Joudah to Nathalie Handal. In my writing practice, I often return to June Jordan, to Sharon Olds. So many loves, too many to list!

SR: You have (and still are) traveling all over the world bringing your poems to diverse audiences. What have you learned from this experience?

LKT: I’m so grateful for the places Water & Salt has taken me. Next on my agenda is Toronto, where I’ve been invited by Cahoots Theater and playwright Suvendrini Lena to participate in a workshop of her play, Rubble, which is in conversation with my poems and Fady Joudah’s exquisite translations of Mahmoud Darwish. 

This feels like a kind of miracle to me; that from the completely solitary act of writing a poem, I can connect with readers and other artists and that our work can create more spaces of resilient beauty in the world. I’ve also learned that you never know who is waiting to hear your poems, when you’ll meet the reader whose heart needed that poem. If there’s any advice I have, it is to dream wildly and follow your poems wherever they want to take you.

SR: In the years since you first published, WATER AND SALT (Red Hen Press) how would you say your writing has changed?

LKT: Water & Salt was published in my final year at Rainier Writing Workshop, the MFA program at PLU. I think that in many ways, my newer work reflects the conversations I’ve been having inside and outside poetry, the wider and deeper ranges I’ve covered in my reading and maybe (I hope) my willingness to take even more risks in my poems.

SR:  As an alumna of Poets on the Coast, is there anything from the experience that you carry with you? Can you say how it manifests (or womanifests)?

LKT: Absolutely YES! POTC was the first place where I really believed it was possible for me to be a poet. It is a testament to the nurturing woman-focused environment that you and Kelli create every year—the invitation to arrive at the retreat fully as we are, that our art and our lives matter, and that a combination of working at our craft and finding a nurturing tribe matters more than any accolades. I think the way in which this womanifests (<3) in my writing life is my eagerness to create and celebrate all the communities I love and need. It reminds me to reach out when I feel isolated and to cherish the writing life as its own reward.

SR: Who is a poet (dead or alive) that you would wish to meet? Where would you go? What would you ask?

LKT: Mahmoud Darwish, eternal poetry love. I kept missing him, everywhere  I lived. I was never in the right country at the right time to hear him read his poems. And his reading are legendary. I came so close in the summer of 2008 when I moved to Amman with my family, but only a few days after we arrived, he had travelled to Houston for heart surgery and passed away. There aren’t words for the magnitude of the loss. Especially for Palestinian readers, Darwish’s poems map our exile and create a vocabulary of homeland that we wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate his influence on my life.

SR: Do you have any advice to women writers who are just beginning their journey? 

LKT:  Your life matters, your words matter, and we’re all here writing with you, waiting for your poems.

Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women still has a few spaces left. To register and join Lena, Kelli Russell Agodon, Lia Miranda, and me or to find out more, go to Poets on the Coast. This year we meet September 6th - 8th in La Conner, Washington.