A conversation with poet Clemonce Heard and featured artist Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen is a writer, illustrator, instructor and Tulsa Artist Fellow. She was born and raised in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States in 2004. Her work’s been published in the New York Times, Guernica and the Boston Globe, among others, and books include Peace Meals, Waiting for the Taliban, Afghanistan by Donkey, The World is a Carpet, Walking with Abel and most recently, Fisherman’s Blues.


Anna and I met in Stillwater, Oklahoma fall 2017 where we walked, shared an apple turnover and traded stories prior to her reading of Walking with Abel, a book that chronicles the annual migration of Fulani cowboys across the savanna. Since then I’ve also joined the cohort of Tulsa Artist Fellows, & we’ve continued to walk, share meals, music & meditations.


Through our travels down sidewalks, streets and lawns, Anna has taught me compassion. What it means to not only feel but act on her own or someone else’s behalf. This isn’t a surprise as her writing is founded on participation over mere observation. On the willingness to not be a bystander, but rather to stand by waiting for an opportunity to assist.


Anna is currently teaching a memoir-writing course at the University of Tulsa, and working on her first novel. 

Clemonce Heard: Anna, our first encounter was populated with an apple tart, a bit of walking and several stories. In the final section of Fisherman’s Blues you state “Stories. They have kept us afloat since time immemorial.” Who are the storytellers of your family, if any, and how do they influence your affinity for narrative, and ultimately your writing?


Anna Badkhen: My last name, badkhen, means a fiddler, an irreverent jester-rhymer who ad-libs at Jewish weddings: I come from a long line of Yiddish griots. My paternal grandfather was an orchestra conductor in Leningrad and the son of a trumpet player; his uncles were saxophone players, conductors, violinists (fiddlers on the roof) in Odessa and Europe and the United States. My dad and my sister, who are psychotherapists, are the only Badkhens whose careers are not overtly creative, though I would argue that psychotherapists are like editors: they help us investigate and shape our own stories.

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union we had two TV channels, both piping government propaganda, so my entertainment consisted of books, records, and visual art. On our walks, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, and who taught German at a second-tier university (she was married to a Jew and was not a member of the Communist Party, and these two factors had curtailed her career options), would improvise fairy-tales that featured me and the characters from my beloved Soviet version of the Muppet Show.

Which is to say: Who isn’t a storyteller?


CH: Memoir. This is a word you’ve resisted in terms of labeling your work. What is it about “a historical account” that doesn’t quite sum up your writing? And if not memoir, is there another term, perhaps a new term more adequate (I’m sure we could make one)? Lastly, how important is the cataloging of your work, thus, yourself?


AB: I’m just not a big fan of the idea of genre, its limitations. Technically, my nonfiction usually meets the definition of memoir, which is experiential nonfiction. But why pigeonhole? Or: why not come up with a more precise descriptor for each specific book? I would say that my last two books, Walking with Abel and Fisherman’s Blues, are works of magical nonfiction. I would call The World Is a Carpet a lament.


CH: Superstition and myth is a common theme throughout Fisherman’s Blues. “Fisherman are superstitious” Abor Korea says after informing you that the other fishermen faulted you for his lost net. What place, if any, does superstition have in your writing process?


AB: What is myth? And who am I to decree that something is myth and something is not? I enter this world with a set of my own myths, my own beliefs, which, however subtle and however malleable, inform how I see the world. One of my responsibilities as a writer, a teller (and re-teller) of stories, is to be constantly aware of my prejudice, to question my superstitions and to try as much as I can to not allow them to mar my ability to listen and to tell.


CH: We know the blues as, well, blue, a melodic melancholy. George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog, Picasso’s Blue Period, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, so on and so forth. In Fishermen’s Blues the sadness seems rooted in your pirogue mates’ and your own longing to provide for and be close to family, your son specifically. Can you talk about what it was like to write through this longing?


AB: My longing is much more diffuse—I am not even sure longing is the word. Bereavement would be my choice: for the way we treat one another in this world, for the way we abuse one another’s lives and livelihoods. I know some writers write out of anger; I write out of grief.  At the same time, to expose iniquities through high art I also must advance a sense of wonderment that I believe is essential to our sincere involvement in this planet, to being human. In the last poem he published while he was alive, Galway Kinnell wrote: “Before us, our first task is to astonish, / and then, harder by far, to be astonished.” Seeing beauty amidst iniquity seems a tall order but I insist we must—otherwise we will not survive our own history of violence, we will stop falling in love and die off as a species.


CH: I’ve read of elevation and several other setting variations affecting one’s craft, and wonder if there were any differences in writing on the sea versus land.


AB: Absolutely. It’s in the prosody of the book. The heave and collapse of the sentence to match the rise and fall of the sea. I am not trying for that—it just happens. What I witness, what I experience, what I interpret—the myths I create on the spot, if you will—informs the cadences of the writing. Walking with Abel was basically iambic, like the Sahelian landscape my nomadic hosts and I calipered on foot. One of my readers told me reading the Blues made her a little seasick. It was one of the best compliments I have received.


CH: A few months ago in Corsicana, Texas you finished the first draft of your first novel. What was some of the satisfaction/vexation you found in writing fiction versus nonfiction?


AB: The answer is in your question: I have never written a first draft of any book before. A nonfiction book comes from a story that already exists; I just have to tell it. Fiction, on the other hand, only exists if I make it so. And remake. And remake. I am on my second draft now, and it is practically unrecognizable from the first.


CH: You’ve been “accused” of being a poet more than once, and rightfully so. Derek Walcott, Natalie Diaz, Ishion Hutchinson are just a few poets whose work you respect. How does poetry inform your writing?

In a similar way, I know you greatly delight in music, preferring instrumentals over vocals. How does language burden instrumentation? Do similar burdens live within language itself? If so, how do you avoid them in your own writing?


AB: Words are meanings, a form of communication, something that affords the integrity of existence. Maggie Nelson wonders if words may be “one of the few economies left on earth in which plentitude—surfeit, even—comes at no cost.” But words can also be filler, they can distract from the complexity of a musical piece. They can be misread, misspoken, misunderstood. Because of that when it comes to words I trust poets the most. Poets are parsimonious, precise: they know words’ worth. Prose can be cheap; a poem must encompass everything, life and death and beyond—just read W.S. Merwin, or Ross Gay, or Ilya Kaminsky. Less is more, but Bashō or Yosa Buson teach us to reach for everything in nothing. I keep on my wall this gift from my friend Carlos Soto Román, a poet from Chile:


L is for Lengua & Lengua is for Language

            for Anna Badkhen


I read somewhere that

there must be a language

for almost everything


German for science

French for politics

Italian for love

English for commerce


I wonder then

what could possibly be

the language of poetry.


The language of poetry doesn’t exist.

The language of poetry is silence.


CH: You have such a way with imagery, one that gives your readers the opportunity to almost inhabit the spaces you lived. Your last three of your six books (Fisherman’s Blues, The World is a Carpet and Walking with Abel ) all include illustrations, most of which (not including Ndongo’s Mami Wata) are drawn by you. I know you’ve drawn since childhood, therefore, what made you include illustrations in the last three books but not the others? What does the negotiation of coupling image and text look like for you?


AB: I began to take art classes when I was eight or nine years old—they started you early in the Soviet Union—and by the time I was in my early teens I was convinced I was going to become a book illustrator. Now I am a book illustrator.

That’s the flippant answer. The more elaborate explanation is this: My first three books are much more documentary than the last; they used photographic illustrations and that was appropriate for the task those books performed. (Besides, Afghanistan by Donkey allowed me to collaborate with the astonishing photographers Thorne Anderson and Javier Manzano.) When I was preparing to write The World Is a Carpet I wanted the book to be about timelessness. How to convey timelessness, besides language? Photographs pin a text to a particular time frame, so there could not be any photographs to accompany that text. I ran the idea of sketches by my editor, the pitch-perfect Becky Saletan, and she loved it. I was hoping also to include a piece of hand-spun, hand-dyed carpet yarn as a bookmark in each copy of the book, but the publisher told Becky it would have been too pricey. But to be honest, if it had been possible, I would have written that particular book longhand and bound it myself. I would have written it with my own blood.

That was my first book with Riverhead. When I signed the contract for the next book, Walking with Abel, hand-drawn illustrations were simply in the contract. I guess Riverhead just assumed that I’d be sketching. Which worked for me: Thorne Anderson, with whom I worked in Iraq in the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion and, later, in Afghanistan, once explained how smoking comes in very handy on such assignments: you are not just standing around waiting for something to happen, you are doing something. Sketching is like that to me: a great way of being busy and seemingly having a reason to be present without really participating. Also, sketching is meditative and absorbing. Like a breathing exercise.

As is smoking, I suppose.


CH: You were recently awarded the nomination-only Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship. Can you describe the honor and what it means to you? Also, what influence has Barry Lopez had on your writing?


AB: I consider storytelling a kind of a curatorship, an invitation to encourage compassion and to challenge the dominant, reductive narrative of the world, often imposed and defined by the Eurocentric assumption of personal deficiency, by colonial values, and ideals and standards established over centuries of white patriarchal hegemony. For more than twenty years I have been documenting the human condition, using high art to expose the world’s iniquities. In the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, the United States, and the former Soviet Union, where I grew up, my exploration of other ways of looking at the world—of different ways of seeing—is an effort to extend ethical concern and moral witness to my audience. This effort has been informed by my hosts and friends, but also by an invisible community of artists whose work helped me adjust my compass bearings. Barry Lopez, one of the most humanistic writers living and writing in the United States today, was one of those artists. I carried his books with me to wars, just as I carried W.S. Merwin and Pattiann Rogers and Ross Gay.

But there is another aspect to receiving this mantle. Our work as writers, as poets, as storytellers, may be rooted in community, but ultimately, writing is such a solitary practice: you never know if anyone is listening. When the world reaches back it feels like magic. That is how I feel about being awarded this fellowship: I feel heard. Sheer magic, such a gift of communality.