Books·My Life in Books

Griffin Poetry Prize finalist Doyali Islam on 6 books that have shaped her life

Doyali Islam's sophomore poetry collection heft is up for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize. In honour of her nomination, she shares some of the books that have had a major impact on her life and writing.
Heft is the latest poetry collection by Toronto poet Doyali Islam. (CBC, McClelland & Stewart)

Toronto poet Doyali Islam is a finalist for Canada's biggest poetry honour, the Griffin Poetry Prize, for her sophomore collection heft. The poems in this book explore the notion of home and sexuality as they are shaped by chronic pain and suspected illness.

The Griffin Poetry Prize is an annual $65,000 award that recognizes the best in Canadian and international poetry. The other two Canadian nominees are Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough and How She Read by Chantal Gibson.

In honour of her nomination, Islam shared six books that have shaped her life.

Ant and Bee and the ABC by Angela Banner

The first book in Angela Banner's celebrated Ant and Bee series. This copy belongs to poet Doyali Islam. (Submitted by Doyali Islam)

"My memory doesn't cling to 'what happened' in a book, but small moments and feelings within stories impress themselves upon me. Angela Banner's Ant and Bee and the ABC comes to mind as the first time a story created something within me akin to loss and longing on a character's behalf — even if it was about the voluntary letting-go of and subsequent search for a hat! I have a dream-like hazy memory of being in the living room, my mother reading this story to me as I sat beside her. What I remember sharply, though, is my mother's handwriting upon the page. She had a habit of underlining, in books, words she didn't know, and would write out their definitions in free space nearby. I just pulled out my family's old copy of Ant and Bee — taped together and hand-stitched by my mother to keep the spine intact — and found this note on page 19 in my mother's hand: 

"It was because of my mother's physical interaction — engagement — with Ant and Bee and the ABC that I understood so early on that you could actually mark a book up, and that this kind of marking could make a book even more sacred."

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Malcolm X has been described as one of the most influential African Americans in history. (Library of Congress/Ballantine Books)

"My father, to my recollection, had not one or two but three copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in our home. I don't know how or why he acquired them! He does love a good book or yard sale. Anyway, guessing it would not be missed, I took one copy for myself and marked it up as a teenager. In the documentary J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life, James Runcie asked, 'What's your favourite virtue?' to which Rowling replied, 'Courage.' Courage is why I loved The Autobiography of Malcolm X: I understand 'courage' as a person's ability to transform once their outer lifestyle no longer aligns with their inner light. I was also moved by a short passage in which Malcolm X goes to visit his former enemy West Indian Archie, who is dying. I remember the empathy I felt for Archie, and my awe at Malcolm X's character."

The Canadian writer Austin Clarke in an interview with Malcolm X in late 1963. This full length and uncut interview became part of a two hour documentary that looked at the neighbourhood of Harlem in New York City, which was largely a black ghetto. 30:08

The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw Revolution is a nonfiction book by Masanobu Fukuoka. (Submitted by Doyali Islam)

"I came across Masanobu Fukuoka's The One-Straw Revolution when I was 20, and was riveted. This was the phase in my life when I was in abject despair over my studies, and didn't know what I wanted out of life. I had a yearning to be closer to the earth, and to honour what seemed intuitively and spiritually essential — from ways of eating to energy expenditure. I even went on two WWOOFing adventures in France and Spain! This slim book is an elegant and inspiring autobiography, and, similarly to Malcolm X's, I admired Fukuoka's ability to grow beyond a way of life that felt limiting to him into a more expanded and aligned way of living.

"Fukuoka was a microbiologist who, after an experience of pneumonia and depression, had a moment of enlightenment that reminds me of the Buddha's enlightenment under a fig tree. In his moment of clarity, Fukuoka left his Plant Inspection position with Yokohama Customs Bureau to return to his village home in Ehime prefecture. He started experimenting on his father's citrus trees, and with other crops like rice and barley. It was a sustained experimentation with traditional and natural forms of agriculture, and one with an incredible yield both literally and philosophically: he achieved astounding results with his crops, and created a philosophy and practice called Do Nothing Farming. Do Nothing Farming is not about doing nothing, but about intentionally doing what is essential and wholistic — a distillation. So too do distillation and intent go hand in hand in art-making: it's why I took so much care to be rigorous in my poems in heft

 Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader by Co-editors Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky 

Rethinking Normalcy is a nonfiction book edited by Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky. (Submitted by Tanya Titchkosky, Canadian Scholars' Press)

"It took me nine years to graduate from University of Toronto, due to existential ennui. One of my favourite courses was Dr. Rod Michalko's Introduction to Disability Studies. Rethinking Normalcy was the foundation text for this course, and it helped me understand how the conversation around disability has been shaped by, in large, a biomedical model that portrays difference as personal tragedy, loss and inadequacy that needs to be fixed or overcome.

"This book — accessible to both academic and non-academic readers alike — made me realize that what we call 'disability' demands from us that we shift our attention — in part, at least — from the body that we think is in and of itself 'disabled' to the society that disables it. This shift is about attention — paying close attention to constructs about normalcy and ability, and to systems that don't support varied ways of being in the world. Attention — inner and outer listening — is the foundation of my poetic practice.

"Rethinking Normalcy and Dr. Rod Michalko also made me understand that we can and must open spaces pre-emptively to all kinds of bodies — an act that requires a leap of empathetic imagination, which, I realized later, poetry and storytelling require too. The ways in which society thinks about disability — and the ways in which it thinks about other things like gender, age, sexuality, and so-called 'race' — are based on storytelling.

"In subsequent years, Rethinking Normalcy continued to impact my life and work: it helped me to reframe my own lived experience, since age 19, of chronic illness. I realized that, with my undiagnosed illness, I wasn't failing: the healthcare system was failing me. Hence one half of the meaning of my dedication in heft: "for you whose body has slipped through a crack."

So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali, translated by Peter Cole

So What is a collection of selected poetry by Taha Muhammad Ali. (Copper Canyon Press, Bloodaxe Books)

"I love so many of Copper Canyon's poetry books. At one point, half my shelf was Copper Canyon, with W.S. Merwin's The Moon Before Morning, Ted Kooser's Delights & Shadows, Lucille Clifton's The Book of Light and David Bottoms's We Almost Disappear, among others. But Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry book So What is singular. It is invitational, masterful and disarming — and comes from a voice that is, individually and collectively, rarely legitimized in contemporary English poetry.

"What I love about So What is that it makes space for both Ali's original Arabic verse, and Cole's stunning translation. If you are prepared to be undone, read/listen to the poem, Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower and seek out other jewels in this collection, like Sabha's Rope and Tea and Sleep. Also, try to find a way to experience Amer Hlehel's play TAHA, which made me both weep — shaking to the point of feeling my cells were altered — and cheer. Some of my poems in heft speak about the resilience and resourcefulness of people in Gaza and the West Bank, and although one of my great grandfathers was Arab, I am not Palestinian. It is important to me that I amplify the voices of Palestinian poets themselves, since I consider myself an ally."

Against Forgetting: Twentieth-century Poetry of Witness edited by Carolyn Forché

Against Forgetting is a poetry anthology edited by American poet Carolyn Forché. (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

"I came across Carolyn Forché's landmark poetry anthology Against Forgetting when I was living in North Bay, a few years into working in the split forms that eventually became the manuscript of heft. It was by way of an arresting and brilliant Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) interview of Forché that I came to the anthology. I was so moved by Forché's recounting of the story of Miklós Radnóti — and you can imagine my surprise when I bought the anthology, opened it, and found that Radnóti's poem Letter to my Wife had been rendered in a ragged kind of form! I felt like it was a sign from the universe that the work I had been doing with my split forms was indeed vital and urgent, and that I should keep going.

"In the same interview, Forché explained how she went about selecting the poets for the collection and what she meant by 'poetry of witness.' She had 'wanted to restrict — [she] had restricted — [her] gathering to poets who had endured conditions of extremity in the 20th century. […] Poets who had actually been through these things themselves and had somehow survived and had subsequently written poetry. [She] was interested in what these situations, what these experiences, had done to the poet's imagination, to the language — and whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, one could feel this suffering and extremity in the poems.' A lightbulb went on inside me in terms of the idea of palpability, tangibility: my poetry had a palpable quality to it, too, but with regard to the spirit of the everyday — the spirit of small ordinary materials and moments. This is why I was humbled by the Griffin Poetry Prize judges' citation for heft, in which they noted, 'What is beautiful and successful here is the way Doyali Islam takes small moments and gives to them an incredible, sometimes aching, heft.' In terms of my poetics, I felt understood.

"I was also deeply moved and inspired by a very spare poem in Against Forgetting: Zbigniew Herbert's The Wall. The Wall opened me up to poetry's capacity to manipulate time, and led to my manipulation of space in the poem susiya."

Read more in the My Life in Books series here.

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