11 Questions with Yena Sharma Purmasir | Interview

Yena Sharma Purmasir is a 22 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. A recent graduate from Swarthmore College, Yena has spent her first year of “real adulthood” doing a year’s worth of service at Hour Children, a non-profit supporting formerly incarcerated women and their children. Yena was the Queens Teen Poet Laureate for 2010-2011 academic year. In 2014, she was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College. Most recently, she learned that she is one of Coffee Meets Bagel’s “top 10% most LIKED members.” She owes all of her success to her family and friends, who not only read her poems, but also continue to help her choose the perfect profile picture.

TM : Yena— you just recently finished your National Poetry Month: 30 Poems In 30 Days challenge. How do you think it went?

YSP : This was my fifth National Poetry Month endeavor and each time I’m just so tired and so proud afterwards. I do think that I was very lazy, this time around. A lot of the poems I wrote, I typed on my phone because I was writing them on trains and subway platforms. The thing about writing 30 poems in one month is that many of them aren’t going to be good. It’s just not possible. But there’s so much visibility, because we’re sharing them on Tumblr. I almost want to have a gentle disclaimer to new readers: please don’t judge me for this! a lot of my stuff is better than this! On the other hand, this challenge is like a diary – kind of. I think sometimes about putting together all the poems I wrote on April 6th across five years, to see how different each year was. I’m proud of these 30 poems, even if I never use some of them for anything else. Even if I don’t like them, they’re still important. I have my favorites from the month, probably at least ten, that I want to submit places and include in my next book. I’m really happy I wrote that poem about my brother and Zayn Malik. I don’t know if I would’ve thought of writing it if I wasn’t writing 30 poems in 30 days.

TM : Can you sit down with intent to just write a poem or do you need to be inspired first?

YSP : Hm, it’s probably a mix of both to be honest. I get a lot of ideas throughout the day. If I’m not careful, I lose them. My friend Anne is a writer with a few novels under her belt, and what I admire about her is how frequently she writes. How she sits herself down and manages to churn out really lofty projects. It was easier for me when I was in college. It’s not even a year since I’ve graduated, but I do feel like working in an office is taking a lot out of me. It’s harder to find that time to sit and write something, to make it as great as I imagined it to be. I do it sometimes, but I also have more unfinished documents on my laptop than I’ve ever had before. It’s a bad habit, to be honest, and one I’m wishing to shake myself out of. I’m planning a “Big Day Poetry Day” for this Saturday- which is literally just a whole day for doing poetry things, writing, editing, sending out submissions. I will say that I think I have it easier than other creators. It doesn’t take me as long to write something. A lot of the poems that are well-received are written really quickly. I think that’s the point of poetry. Audre Lorde talked about this, how poetry was for the poor, for the working class, because it was such a quick form of expression. When I hear about someone who has been working on one poem for days or weeks, I feel worried for them. I don’t think that’s the best way to create, but more than that, I think it starts to drive you crazy. Saying I wait to get inspired sounds lazy, but I’m honestly inspired every day. I don’t mean all my ideas are good, but at least I’m thinking, at least my brain never stops trying to piece together bits of real life and magic. It’s like taking care of a garden. Some of it is nature’s responsibility and some of it is ours. I’m responsible for my writing, which means I need to sit down and roll up my sleeves and do something. If the poem stays in my head, it’s never going to get anywhere else.

TM : How did you come up with the idea for this poem:

“14 of 30”

YSP : There are two answers to this question. First, it was April 14th, and I had to write something. Second, okay – this poem is autobiographical. I wonder about some of the people I have loved and some of the people I have missed. I wonder if they read my blog. I wonder if they bought my book. I wonder if they try to find themselves in my poetry. In some of the things I write, I know I (or the speaker – hey, not everything is autobiographical) sound like I have been the world’s saddest, strongest victim. But that’s not the only way the story can be told. I wanted to write something like I was on the other side of a computer screen. Like I was reading about how this person I loved hurt me and the rest of the world believed I deserved it.

TM : Was the choice to do all capital letters something that happened while you were writing it or something you decided on afterwards?

YSP : I knew I wanted it to be in all capital letters as soon as I had the idea. I felt like it was the kind of angry email you would get from someone you used to whisper to on the phone. Because they wouldn’t be able to yell, all they would have is capital letters. It reminds me a bit of the howlers in Harry Potter. I don’t write too much in all capital letters. In some poems, I don’t capitalize at all. But this one needed that sharp lettering. I think the typography itself looks harsh and painful. I wanted readers to know immediately that this was not going to be a gentle poem.

TM : Would you like to read it aloud?


TM : How do you start writing a poem?

YSP : My creative writing teacher in high school told me that I always end my poems with a punch. Before he said that, I didn’t think too much about endings. But ever since then, I focus a great deal on them. When I start writing a poem, I generally start with some imagery I’d like to include. Typically speaking, these images show up in the first few lines. From there, the poem kind of shapes itself. I know what I’m trying to do in terms of the big picture, but I’m not too particular with the details. I let it flow. Now, I might have some concrete ideas about what I want to happen in the middle. If I do, I try to rein it in. The ending, surprisingly, is something I try to exercise zero control over. Some of my best endings almost write themselves. When I think about my process, I feel like so much of it is actually subconscious. I’m stunned at what themes I weave into a poem, how subtext is present throughout when I didn’t intend for that.

TM : And how do you know when one is finished?

YSP : This is going to sound like a really bizarre metaphor, but I mean this in the nicest way. I think creators have this really powerful sense of responsibility for their work. We want everything to be perfect and neat and focused. I don’t have any children, but I imagine it’s a lot like being a parent: wanting your kids to do the right thing and be the best version of themselves and, among other things, never let you down. Once I’ve written the bulk of my poem, I read it over a few times. I change a few words, maybe shift a line break or two. Sometimes I reorder stanzas, a trick from a really brilliant English Lit professor. But I try not to poke at a poem too much. At a certain point, it feels like this is as good as it is gonna get with this poem. If I change it too much, it’s not going to be the same poem – which is fine! But that likely means that I’m not ready to write about this yet. My poem is finished even before I edit it. I know a lot of writers are going to disagree with me. That’s fine. I think editing is important part of the process, but the poem doesn’t need it. I’m the one who needs it. I’m the one who doesn’t want this poem to go out into the world looking like that, giving everyone a bad attitude. I wrote a poem pretty recently and I thought that it was this really benevolent piece. It got a decent response on Tumblr and I thought everyone was on the same page as me. It was my mother who told me that it was not a benevolent poem. She told me it was tough and unyielding. I love that poem, I think it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever written, but maybe it’s not the nice little poem I crafted. Maybe it really is this wild, unforgiving thing. And that’s okay. None of my poems need to be changed. I’m the one who is having trouble. I’m the one who has to learn to let go.

TM : Do you have any examples of notes you’ve taken that have turned into poems?


TM : Would you consider yourself a largely autobiographical poet or do you write a lot of fiction?

YSP : Oh god, so I actually dug through my archive to find a poem I wrote two years ago that could easily answer this question. When I was younger, in high school, I wrote a lot of fictional poems. I mean, there was a lot of truth in what I was writing, but I disguised a lot. I started using a type of code that only I could understand – or at least I thought I did. Looking back, when I reread some things I wrote years ago, even in college, I’m not too sure what I was drawing inspiration from. I do write about things that happen to me and some of it is very explicit. I’ve written about my family, especially my parents and brother, with total honesty. My extended family and I aren’t very close and I feel like some of what I write, if they were to read it, might hurt. For their sake and the fragility of our relationship, I write some fictional poems that could serve as a reflection of my life, but could also just be something I dreamed up. My romantic and sexual poems are really quite scattered. Part of this might be because I started writing these poems before I started dating and falling in love. Some of my poems from my early years of writing had really lofty ideas. I think that’s the sign of a young writer, wanting to write about the whole world, of which we have only seen a fraction. I think I’m an older writer now. I’ve been writing for fourteen years, with the same diligence and discipline. The difference now, I guess, is that some of what I write must be real. That sounds funny, but when I was writing sexual poems at fifteen, everyone knew I was not talking about me. Now, there’s this mystery, because it could be true. I’m very purposeful about this. I don’t like details to match up across poems. If I notice that I keep coming back to the same imagery, I switch something out. I am a private person and I feel very protective over the private things of my life. I have some good friends who have told me that they’re surprised by how vulnerable and expressive my writing is. I think they believe that most of what I write is autobiographical. But it’s not. Or it is. Take your pick. If anyone has ever tried to sketch the course of my relationships with my poetry, I think they’d get confused. The timelines don’t make sense and maybe that’s the point. That poem I was talking about, the one I wrote years ago, here’s how I ended it: “I still don’t think anyone could know me from what I write.”

TM : What would you consider your “break out poem”?

YSP : 2013 was the first year of the Where Are You Poet Contest, held by Clementine von Radic’s press. I submitted my manuscript in July. In September, I received an email saying that I was one of the eight finalists. Each of us had to submit one poem to represent our manuscript. Each of the poems would go up on the Where Are You Press blog. The winning poet would be decided at least partially on how the poem was received. It was kind of no brainer for me. I picked a poem called “The Beauty Radius.” It’s a really personal poem about being a woman of color, struggling with nearly polarized beauty ideals. It took off like wildfire, not entirely by accident. I reached out to some blogs geared for women of color and people of color, not thinking anything of it. I saw the notes rise up so quickly. I received messages from young brown girls, telling me how much it meant to them to read it. This was all before I even won the contest. I remember thinking that even if my book doesn’t get published, 1,000 people had read something I wrote. I know that seems like a small number, but that’s 1,000 people who don’t know me. That’s 1,000 people who had never heard my name before. I love that poem. I love what it stands for and how many people it touched. I love that it’s so personal and honest and yet, other people found a way to connect to it. When I reread that poem now, I’m not even a little jaded. It’s so familiar to me. It’s like looking at my own face in the mirror. It’s the poem that started it all. I’m still proud of it. I think I will be proud of it forever.

TM : And finally, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re currently working on?

YSP : I’m planning big changes for my blog (fly-underground.tumblr.com). I’ve talked to a few friends and other writers on tumblr, but I’d like to keep some element of surprise. In a few weeks, things will look very different. I’m finishing up my first grown-up job in July. I’ll be working at an international youth leadership camp in upstate New York for the summer, but after that, there is endless possibility. I am applying to some writing fellowships and programs. I going to start doing freelance work. I’ll start submitting to more literary magazines. I want to finish up the manuscript of my second book of poetry and really start writing the novel I’ve been outlining for the past year. I’m giving myself about a year to focus on writing. My whole life writing has been on the back burner, that thing that I did in between school and work. Considering that, it’s amazing what I’ve been able to do with my writing – but imagine what I could do if I wasn’t juggling anything else? Who knows! It’s a really exciting time in my life. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Check out Yena on Tumblr and Twitter @YenaPurmasir, and find her first collection of poetry in the Where Are You Press Shop!

Contributing Editor

Trista Mateer is a writer and poet living outside of Baltimore, Maryland. She believes in lipstick, black tea, and owning more books than she can ever possibly read. Known for her eponymous blog, she is also the author of two collections of poetry.