When Tarfia Faizullah fell in love with poetry, she wasn’t enamored with the fictive beauty of metaphors or the craftsmanship that goes into forming perfectly metered verse. Rather, she was entranced by its ability to illuminate the world around us on its own terms — in her case, literally so.

“I really loved Emily Dickinson when I was growing up,” she said. “I was sitting in the library and reading her poem ‘A Certain Slant of Light’ and it was, I think, early afternoon, and there was a slant coming through the blinds onto the page and I was like ‘Whoa! That’s a certain slant of light, that’s amazing.’”

She was also fascinated by the act of transcription, by the possibility of having others speak through her voice and her pen. In its earliest incarnation, that fascination looked a lot like plagiarism.

“I didn’t understand that writing something out, like copying it into my notebook and showing it to somebody, isn’t the same thing as writing your own original composition,” she said. “I got caught by my teacher, and at first he was like ‘Wow, you’re such a good poet,’ and then he was like ‘These are from that book that you’ve been copying poems from,’ and I was like ‘Yeah,’ and he said that wasn’t the same as writing your own poems.”

But Faizullah has since learned the difference, and her first book of poetry, “Seam,” might be the long-delayed product of those early studies in the often fuzzy lines between art and life, made all the more visible in the case of translators and transcribers.

Published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2014, “Seam” is built around a series of interviews Faizullah conducted with birangona, women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The collection was published while she studied there as a Fulbright scholar in 2010. The poetry — formally diverse and devastatingly immediate — does much more than simply recount the stories she heard while traveling and meeting women in Bangladesh. Her interview subjects disagree with her, refuse to answer her questions or, rather, respond to the questions they want to hear. She interrogates herself as an interviewer, as a translator of the birangona’s experiences and as a Bangladeshi-American steeped in the same tragedies – but at a distance, as in “Interviewer’s Note, vi.”: “I want / that darkness she stood against / to be yards of violet velvet my mother / once cut me a dress from. Rewind. Play. / Rewind.” And, ultimately, it’s an opportunity for Faizullah to reflect on, learn from and take pride in her own work.

“Sometimes I feel that I could have done it better, and sometimes I feel that I haven’t told as full of a story as I could have. But mainly I’m just proud of it. I’m just proud of what it has been able to do – just really surprised by what it has been able to do,” she said.

Since the publication of “Seam,” the larger poetry community has also recognized what Faizullah and her work can do. The book won a number of prestigious awards for first poetry publications, including the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award and the Crab Orchard First Book Award, and her other works as a poet and academic has won her a Pushcart Prize, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize and a number of scholarships, grants and fellowships. She collaborates with composers, rappers and photographers, works as an editor for a number of notable publications, regularly performs at poetry slams and formal readings, and currently finds herself at the University, serving as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Poetry as part of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. But Faizullah is first and foremost a poet, and she hasn’t taken the time since she finished “Seam” to rest on her laurels.

“I just kept writing the whole time,” she said. “I have hundreds of poems that will probably never see the light of day, because for me, writing poetry is just a daily practice. And I don’t mean the actual act of sitting down and drafting – I just mean sort of moving through the world with the eyes of a writer.”

The name of her next book, “Register of Eliminated Villages,” derives from a list of destroyed Kurdish villages and is set to be published by Greywolf Press in 2017. In it, Faizullah plans to return to the themes of global violence she explored in “Seam.”

“I’m really fascinated by human psychology,” she said. “And I’m really fascinated particularly by how we respond to violence, how we contain it, and how our awareness of such broad violence all over the world, as well as what we see in our daily lives or hear about – how that affects us both emotionally and intellectually. How do we see ourselves? How do we see other people through the lens of the possibility of being able to do harm.”

She considers poetry particularly well-suited to discuss highly charged topics like the violence she addresses in her own.

“Poetry is really magical in that it’s not prose and it’s not song — it’s recitation and it’s oratory,” she said. “There’s a reason why we think of our politicians as orators. And I think poetry is an oratory tradition. So I feel like, just formally speaking, it’s built to be able to convey complex ideas.”

But the discussions Faizullah engages in through her poetry don’t serve to simply reframe issues in an aesthetic light. I asked her what she thought about a line from one of her first favorite poets, Emily Dickinson: “I dwell in Possibility.”

“I think one of the most powerful things about being an artist is the awareness you develop of the world as a series of infinite possibilities,” she said, “and so your life becomes about choices and about discernment. I think the awareness of those choices can lead you to take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise, which can lead you to understanding something about yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise – understanding something about your place in the world, too, I think.”

Her poetry, then, transcribes and expands upon violence, suffering and self-discovery in order to present an alternative, to show us that, even if we can’t forget, the next day need not be the same as the last. It gives us the same advice she hears in Dickinson, the same advice she gives to her creative writing students at the University.

“Yeah, I encourage them to ‘dwell in possibility,’ too,” she said.

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