Feature Poet:
Tiel Aisha Ansari

Tiel Aisha Ansari is a “Sufi warrior poet” from Portland, Oregon. Her books include High Voltage Lines and Knocking from Inside. Her work has described as “mystic without being cryptic” and “a seamless blend of heart and mind, body and spirit” Tiel responded to questions from Soul-Lit’s co-founder and co-editor, Wayne-Daniel Berard.

Soul-Lit: Can you speak with us a bit about what brought you to poetry? To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca “Of all the genres in all the world, you walked in to this one.”  Why?

TAA: I think it’s fair to say that poetry chose me, rather than me choosing it. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a writer of SF and fantasy, because that was what I loved reading. But throughout my life, at moments of strong feeling, I’ve had spontaneous outbreaks of poetry.

Soul-Lit: One poetic form you seem to enjoy is the ghazal*. (Our co-founder, Deborah Leipziger, also loves this form  -- “its repetition, the way its ending has a puzzle, the fact that the couplets could stand alone”). Tell us about your own involvement with the ghazal?

TAA: The ghazal is one of the ways that I engage with my Sufi heritage. It’s a form widely used by Sufi poets, and of course other poets throughout the Middle East and South Asia. It also lends itself to a blues-like expression, which for me connects to my heritage as a black American on my father’s side.

Soul-Lit: You describe yourself as a “Sufi warrior poet.” How does Islam, and your Sufism in particular, inform your poetry? And what does it mean to you to be a “poet warrior?”

TAA: It was only after I converted to Islam that I really began to write poetry consciously, to train myself in the craft of poetry, and eventually to develop myself as a professional poet, meaning someone who writes, submits for publication, engages in professional poetry communities, etc. I see poetry first and foremost as communication, as helping people make connections with one another, with the natural world, and ultimately with God.

The phrase I use is “warrior poet.” To me, it means that as a poet, I should never be afraid of the truth or of its consequences. This would include truth about myself, or about the world and events in it.

Soul-Lit: Sufi poets of the 13th and 14th centuries are incredibly popular today. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was often said that every poet was “either trying desperately to write like T.S. Eliot or trying desperately to not write like T.S. Eliot!” Does the shadow of poets like Rumi hover over your poetry, if at all?

TAA: Rumi was very important to me personally, in my conversion process, and some of my earlier poetry reflects that. But we have access to so many good poets, past and present, and translated from other languages—if you read widely, then no one poet’s shadow should hover over you.

Soul-Lit: Please speak to us about being a Muslin poet in the present climate?

TAA: Two days ago in my home town, some men intervened to protect a pair of teenage girls from racial and religious bullying. Two are now dead, and one is in the hospital.

Portland is one of the most tolerant places in the country. We’re a sanctuary city. We’re the kind of place where everyone says “that would never happen here.” Well, now it has. And I’m still a warrior poet.

Soul-Lit: Who are the poets you love to read? Who have been your influences as a poet?

TAA: Almost everyone I read—poet or prose writer—has had something to teach me. I have a particular fondness for two Spanish poets, Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado. Yunus Emre is also very important to me.

Soul-Lit: What advice would you give to young poets today?

TAA: The same advice I would give to a poet of any age. READ.

Soul-Lit: Lastly, I know that you have engaged in a number of interviews in your career to date. Is there a question that you always wished an interviewer would ask you?  If so, here’s your chance! Please tell us what that question would be, and feel free to answer it!

TAA: “Isn’t poetry all about self-expression?”

That’s certainly one of the goals of poetry. But what good does it do to express yourself, if no-one hears or understands you? Shouting into a vacuum might make you feel better, but it doesn’t change anything. I believe we’re here to make the world a better place, and poetry is my way into that work.



* A ghazal is a poetic form that dates back to 7th Century Arabia. Ghazals express love, melancholy, and longing and are often sung by musicians. Made up of couplets, (two lines of poetry) the ghazal contains sections which can stand alone. They are united by rhyme and a refrain at the end of each couplet. Rumi, Hafiz, and Frederico Garcia Llorca are among poets who have written ghazals. The last couplet often contains a reference to the poet, which can be hidden in the form of a clue.

Deborah Leipziger