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Artist Profile Series: afrose fatima ahmed

Erika Enomoto

Communications Manager

Photo courtesy of the artist

Seattle-based poet, travel writer, and embodied writing coach afrose fatima ahmed started journaling and writing poetry when she was eight years old. “I had a chaotic family environment and writing and reading are truly the things that saved me. I would write still, even if no one was ever going to read it. It’s a necessary part of my daily practice, what keeps me sane and grounded,” she shared.

A hybrid Texan-Washingtonian and daughter of Muslim immigrants from India, afrose is the author of four chapbooks, a 2017 Jack Straw Writer, and an alumna of Voices of Our Nations Arts, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color. In 2017, she received a Grants for Artist Projects (GAP) award to complete a tarot card project that she designed titled blood gold and honey, a collection of 120 short prose poems.

“There are three suits: blood, gold, and honey, and also a major arcana, essentially a series of archetypes. The project is really about alchemy: gold, of course, is the goal of traditional alchemy,” explained afrose. “In Jungian psychology, bees and the hive are potent symbols for alchemy as well. And blood represents the alchemy of the human experience, how we transmute ourselves through growth and transformation in a process of achieving our own gold.”

”Broadly, I love tarot and other esoteric practices as a way to tap into my own creativity. And I feel that at this time in particular there is something in the air where a lot of people are turning to tarot in hard times,” said afrose. Each poem in blood gold and honey is interactive and describes a ritual for the reader to perform, rituals afrose describes as “often fantastical and potentially ill-advised.” She hopes that the project will be published as a deck of cards with a book that one can look up the rituals in once they’ve drawn a corresponding card.

In the following Q&A, I asked afrose to tell us more about the inspiration behind blood gold and honey, her vision for the future of poetry, her journey as an artist, and how the GAP award has impacted her career as an artist.

What inspired blood gold and honey?
A few things coalesced in the genesis of this project. I make a living as a street poet, writing poems on the spot on a typewriter for customers. They give me a subject and I run with it. I record these poems and use them as the raw material for my own writing. In the winter after my first season of this work, I began culling through the poems and realized that I use the images of blood, gold, honey repeatedly. As I think maybe Richard Hugo said, “Every writer has their top five words.” These are my top three.

Around this time, I met Anastasia Renee in her capacity as poet-in-residence at Hugo House. She told me, “I know you have 40 poems in you. Send them to me.” I had a decent amount of old work that I could send her, but needed to generate some new work. blood gold and honey began as just one card and ritual, and then three cards and rituals that I sent to Anastasia.

Anastasia introduced me to Natasha Marin, and when I first met with Natasha, the words “blood,” “gold,” and “honey” kept bouncing around in my brain. I told her I wanted to write a book called blood gold and honey even though I didn’t know what it would be about. I remember her response as something very direct and funny, just as she is - something along the lines of, “Well, write the book then.”

How do you envision the future of poetry?
I want poetry to be more accessible, in this embodied sense that blood gold and honey attempts to put out. You can shuffle a deck, pull a card in response to a question, feel as if the answer is really speaking to you. At night, I usually open a poetry book to a random page and read the poem as if it has been divined just for me and what I need to hear in that moment. I hope poetry becomes more prevalent in everyday life - that people open business meetings with poetry, and send poems to their friends, and that we have a Spotify for poems with peoples’ favorite playlists. As much as I am sort of a Luddite, I have been engaging with social media, and the rise of Instagram poets I believe on the whole is a positive development.

What were some of the challenges and milestones that you have encountered as an artist?
I didn’t begin to take my writing seriously (and myself less seriously) until five or so years ago. Throughout my 20s, I constantly put poetry on the back burner in order to be a community organizer or go to graduate school to translate other peoples’ poetry, but really it was my fear that didn’t allow me to prioritize it. I also had to combat both the attitudes of my family of origin that had rigid ideas about what one could do for a living. In my middle-class Indian family, becoming a doctor or engineer were the options. I also was married to a man in my 20s who once said to me that it was not realistic for me to want to be a writer as my job. Honestly, I think his lack of belief in me and a broader world that will support artists was the first death knell of that relationship.

In the last three years, I’ve definitely battled financial issues. Seattle is getting ridiculously expensive, but as a person of color, I really don’t feel that living anywhere else in this state is a viable option for me. Even though I have tons of friends who make it work, it doesn’t seem right to me. I grew up in the Tri-Cities, went to college in Bellingham, and did a two year stint in Port Townsend, so I feel like I’ve explored the options pretty well. The rising costs of living in a tech-oriented city have caused me to go back to full-time work in the last few years, and freelance with grant writing and writing articles on the side, just to make ends meet. Lets just say that I didn’t write a lot of poetry during those times, because I just didn’t have the energy for it.

Do you have any advice for artists looking to take their art to the next level?
Oh, geeze. Um, I guess stay excited. I’m not one for discipline, really. I think it’s the passion and the inspiration and sheer joy of doing the work that gets me back to my desk, my typewriter, my pen and paper all the time. And everything has its season. There are definitely seasons in a writer’s life, an artist’s life. Hibernation, especially in Washington, is a legit season. Working long summer days is a reasonable season. Know what season in your life it is.

When did you first connect with Artist Trust?
I think I first applied for the GAP award in 2015 and didn’t receive it. I wasn’t discouraged. I knew from the experience of myself and other artist friends that sometimes it takes multiple attempts to get the grant or the residency or the fellowship. In 2017, I attended a talk that Artist Trust Program Manager Katy Hannigan gave to help applicants prepare their proposals - that experience was super helpful to me and I remember speaking with her briefly after the event. I told her about blood gold and honey, and she responded really positively to the idea. Even though she was clear that she doesn’t have a role in selection, her enthusiasm really gave me an extra boost of confidence in writing my proposal. 

How has receiving a GAP award impacted your career as an artist?
It’s the first artist grant I’ve ever received. I feel that thats a huge step for me towards being an established working poet. I feel like its put me on the map a little more and Artist Trust has been awesome about reaching out to me with other opportunities for my work. It also has made me more accountable to my project. I don’t have a day job so since I write poems in order to eat and pay my bills, sometimes the unpaid writing that is my deepest, truest soul expression gets put to the side. The GAP award has allowed me to carve time out for blood gold and honey, which is really my passion.

What’s next for you?
Oh, I have like ten chapbook manuscripts that I want to get published, some prose poetry, some collections of ekphrastic poems I’ve written in response to the work of artist Bill Zuk from British Columbia, some collections of the poems I’ve written on the street for people. I want to move back into writing creative nonfiction. I have essays brewing inside me about grief, specifically losing my sister five years ago. About being a Muslim woman artist in Trump’s America. About permaculture and nature connection and how we need to be in relationship to the land for our own healing and for healing the earth. I’m also wanting to return to offering my creative writing workshop “Dancing on the Page: an embodied writing practice” as well as offering writing coaching in a bigger way with embodiment as my main focus.

Learn more about afrose on her website.