with Ilari Pass:
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Ilari: Since I was 10 years old, writing hasn’t always been a great escape for me because I had to think about what to say and how to say it whenever I did write. I hated it…until I heard my mother playing one of her favorite Beatles’ album Abbey Road. From that moment on, I was hooked. I began writing and collecting a lot of journals, writing my heart out about anything and…everything…whatever I was thinking about that moment, which eventually became my great escape. I didn’t have any particular reason, but I wanted to keep my mind stimulated and just write, which I think it was a lot more important than I have anticipated but didn’t know it yet. I realize how I write is a reflection of who I am as a person and how I am perceived by others.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Ilari: My biggest influences are my parents. It was important to them that I read a book every day, as much as possible. They used to tell me stories about their ancestors during the time of slavery, “Once upon a time, black people weren’t allowed to read or write. They died for us so we can live the dream of becoming storytellers.” I never forgot that. My mother used to read to me a different story every night, with some of my all-time favorites, Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, and Peter’s Chair to Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, and many more.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work?
I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. Growing up in the NY, NJ, CT Tri-State Area was a real treat, with just a train ride away to anywhere I wanted to go—it was wonderful. As for writing, I really can’t recollect anything else about my writing experience until I was a sophomore in high school. Three days a week after school, I would go to my father’s place of business where he further demonstrated the power of language at his insurance and travel agency in East Orange, New Jersey. He couldn’t stress enough how important writing is, and how powerful words are. One thing that will always resonate with me, “Everything in life is perfectly balanced. Writing should be done the same way.” I’m a “late bloomer,” so to speak, and my experience of travel away from home greatly improved my written work much later in my life.
Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work that you’ve done creatively so far?
Ilari: My first creative nonfiction piece called “The Color of Pilgrimage.” It’s a story about my traveling to Saudi Arabia with my son for the lesser pilgrimage called Umrah. It gives readers a picture of prejudice and reconciliation, and it also gives insight into a faith tradition unfamiliar to many Americans. And for being a black, Muslim woman, this story is personal, yet rewarding.
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Ilari: Let me be clear on something: I used to hate poetry. I used to hate having to think about the meaning and trying to read between the lines of what the poem meant. However, I was thinking about a friend of mine who passed away several years ago and wrote a poem about him. It is called “Entropy.”
Dawn, the sun sliding
above the mountains. The fog floats
on top the lake, morning dew.
Everything emerges, fresh
and fragrant. Insects burr, the campfire
is almost out: hearing its sizzle and whistle
means a man can leave.
A bird flies, heading to the lake,
disappearing in the fog.
Yes, I think, I see.
That poem, which went through many drafts, eventually appeared in The Penmen Review. Writing the poem helped me rediscover my deep joy in language.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Ilari: Reading and learning different Surahs (chapters) and Ayahs (verses) from the Quran and traveling.
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?
Ilari: I am currently working on my first poetry collection. So, stay tuned.
Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?
Ilari: The Quran is not a work of poetry. However, this is one of my favorite Ayah:
Verily We created man from a product of wet earth; Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators! Then lo! after that ye surely die.
—The Noble Quran; Surah Al-Mu’minum (The Believers) 23:12-15
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
Ilari: My parents helped me first. But later in my life, when I was 42 (sigh) two important people—former writing mentor and poet, M. Douglas Smith, who is deceased, helped me change and shape the trajectory of my writing. One important reminder that he shared with me is to always expect rejections. He said, “If work gets accepted all of the time, more likely this person is not a good writer. And if you think Stephen King got his work accepted all the time, forget it!” What I learned early on working with him is rejection is a part of acceptance. When Smith died, I stopped writing; I lost confidence and I didn’t believe in myself….until…Barrett Warner, author of Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? made a grand entrance into my life. It was like my life and work has been revived. He continues to give me invaluable advice on so many writing techniques—try everything, how to say it, what to say, not to say, etc. But no matter what, he tells me to keep writing, keep revising, keep writing. My favorite experience of his, “I come from the school where I have no imagination, so if I didn’t live it, I can’t write about it. I sort of live the poem before I write it. I don’t feel like I have to die to write about death, but for a long time, I felt that way.”
“This is way I always wanted to write. I am 52 years young and I am still learning and waiting for my muse to tickle me.”
Bio: Ilari Pass holds a BA in English from Guilford College of Greensboro, NC, and an MA in English, with a concentration in literature, from Gardner-Webb University of Boiling Springs, NC. Her work appears or forthcoming in Rat’s Ass Review, As It Ought To Be, Rigorous, Unlikely Stories, Paterson Literary Review, Triggerfish Critical Review, Common Ground Review, JuxtaProse, Drunk Monkeys, Sledgehammer Lit, The Daily Drunk, Rejection Letters, Free State Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and others.