We're honored to feature new poetry by Youssef Helmi in Issue Two of Orson's Review. Issue Two of Orson's Review will be released on March 19th, 2019.
We're also very fortunate for the time Youssef took to sit down and chat with us about his journey as a poet.
*The following interview involves Orson's Publishing (OP) and Youssef Helmi (YH).
OP: How did your journey with the written word begin?
YH: Some of my earliest memories, from the first or second grade, are of sitting at my parents’ computer and writing these stories (essentially fan-fiction) about Batman Beyond, a cartoon I adored, and after finishing a page or two, I’d have my parents help me look for a floppy disc to save them on. Even when I wasn’t at the computer, I filled up notebooks and scrap paper with stories and comics I drew.
So I’ve always loved trying to connect with others through the written word, but I have to give an unbelievable amount of credit and love to my fourth grade teachers, Mrs. Kobza and Mrs. Biese. Most days they would designate us a time to either read or write, and on Fridays, we were allowed to read to the class what we’d written. I loved this; like, it was addicting to create something and have others immerse themselves in it. It was in that environment my teachers fostered that I was convinced I wanted to write.
OP: Is being a poet your primary occupation?
YH: Officially? No, I’m still a student in my final year (hopefully!) of undergrad. In spirit? I consider being a poet and writer a core part of who I am, and as a result, I treat it like work that should be completed and nurtured diligently and earnestly.
OP: What about “Retelling, but as a Love Poem” are you most proud?
YH: There are lines in this poem I absolutely adore, in both the images they conjure and how they roll off the tongue, but what I’m proudest of is the metamorphosis the poem underwent during the writing process. While still drawing inspiration from Paulo Coehlo’s story, it was originally much…angstier, I guess? It was cold, dejected, and distant. Through writing and revising, I found the jaded lens I was trying to write the poem through (most definitely a reflection of how I felt at the time) to be boring and limiting. In digging deep for the tenderness my speaker was clearly yearning for–essentially the polar opposite of what the poem started as–I stumbled upon something far more interesting and personally delightful.
OP: Tell us about your writing process. Do you approach all pieces of writing the same way?
YH: The first “step” is to actually get in front of my laptop with the intention of writing. It’s astounding the mental hoops I’ll jump through to convince myself it’s not the right time to write: “Oh, my back’s kinda funky and I don’t want to sit in this chair” or “I don’t have enough coffee to get me through a whole writing session, guess I’ll wait ‘till tomorrow!” It’s not that I don’t love the process, it’s just hard. Sometimes I’ll go days without writing anything semi-decent, and that’s intimidating. However, once I’m in the chair and ready, I turn on some music real quiet and let things go their way.
As for how I approach each piece, I’d say each one is different. Usually, I’ll just be writing something (utter awfulness almost always) until *it* appears, and I just follow it to whatever place it wants to frolic in. In this sense, each poem’s kind of like a little miracle unraveling in front of me.
OP: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? How has that impacted your writing?
YH: I think I’ve always wanted to create things that others can really invest themselves in, and from the type of kid I was and the experiences I had, that yearning manifested itself in writing. And, I think this general want (honestly, bordering on obsession, maybe?) to create has impacted my writing in my openness to influence, experience, and inspiration. I’m not opposed to creating and working in other mediums outside of the written word in the future, and as a result, I love looking to those other genres and mediums for how they render their emotions and images, seeing what I can learn for my own art.
OP: Tell us about the biggest sacrifice you’ve made while pursuing writing.
YH: Thankfully, I’ve been provided a relatively easy life where I can afford the leisure of writing with minimal balancing with school, work, and the other juggling acts of daily living. So while this may not be “sacrifice,” the most difficult part of pursuing writing has been sticking with it through the years. When I was young, writing stories and showing them to others, it was cute and people encouraged it. But when you’re older, you start getting told to find a real career, that most writers don’t make it, that you have to be exceptional and lucky to really succeed. Ignoring all that noise and writing until I had results I truly believed were telling me, “You can do this,” was the most difficult part, and I have all the respect in the world for those writers who stuck with it while making far greater sacrifices than I have had to.
OP: How many books do you read in a year?
YH: I’m just going out on a limb and saying fifteen or twenty books? This includes novels, short story collections, novellas, translated light novels, and poetry collections and chapbooks. I also read a lot of academic articles for my classes, individual stories and poems from a myriad of journals, and re-read poems and stories from collections I’ve already finished. I’m also inconsistent. I’ll go months without reading more than a book but then read four or five in a month.
OP: Do you attend poetry readings? If so, tell us about the best one you’ve ever attended–what made it so good?
YH: I do! Several venues here in Tallahassee host readings, both poetry and fiction, and when I’m free I try making it out. As for the best reading…I’ll have to give it to the reading Kaveh Akbar gave here in Tallahassee in February (I think) of 2018. It was absolutely breathtaking in both the language and his delivery. In his words and voice there was something so carnal and earnest that it was entrancing to sit there and let the poetry take me where it would. A specific poem that sticks out from that reading is “Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober, It’s How We Beat the Game.” I don’t think I can forget how those final lines chimed in my ears and ran their fingers down my spine.
OP: What do you want most out of your literary community?
YH: I’ve never really been “part” of a literary community, so I can’t really say. I’m familiar with some of the students and faculty in my program, and I follow a handful of my favorite poets on Twitter, but that’s my experience’s extent. However, if I were to find myself in one, I’d like it to be warm and safe. As in, I’m comfortable putting myself and my work out there and others are trusting of me enough to do the same.
OP: Do you believe that an MFA is crucial to success as a writer today?
YH: Well, I still haven’t graduated from undergrad and I don’t consider myself a “successful” writer (yet!), so I’m not too sure what opinion to have on this. A lot of my favorite writers, fiction and poetry alike, have an MFA, but they also work in academia, where that’s more-or-less necessary from what I understand. From conversations I’ve had with professors and grad students at my university, they’ve said the most helpful part of an MFA program is finding a community that’ll help you guide and nurture your own work and ethic. So perhaps that portion is “necessary” in succeeding, but I think one can still find that supporting collective outside of an MFA program, it just may be more difficult.
OP: What do you cross your fingers for as a writer?
YH: When I write something and it’s published for others to see, I cross my fingers that the finished product is completely earnest and true to myself. I loved reading as a kid because I could experience things I otherwise never would, so when I write, I want others to experience that same sort of “second life.” I want others to experience this little world I’m creating but also to gain a little bit of sight into how I see, shape, interpret, and want the world. I guess I hope that with each poem I write, I’m becoming more of an author that a younger me could aspire towards and respect.
OP: Where do you see your journey with the written word going?
YH: In short, everywhere and anywhere I want it to go. I was reading up on Muhammad Ali a year or two ago, for some reason or another, and I came across his quote, “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was,” and since then, I’ve held myself to the standard of those words. If I want to achieve anything with my art, I have to believe that I will succeed when I set out, and this goes for writing outside of poetry and fiction. Like, I am absolutely enthralled by the idea of writing and working in other mediums like film, animation, manga, comics, etc., because these mediums bring their own challenges and possibilities for what I can convey to my audience. If I want any chance of doing those things, I have to believe that’s where this journey will take me. I want to try out and do everything I find interesting with the written word; therefore, I have to see myself doing it all.
Youssef Helmi is an American writer and poet of Egyptian descent at Florida State University where he studies Creative Writing, Political Science, Arabic, and French. His fiction and poetry have been featured in Cleaver Magazine, Scribendi Magazine, the Rappahannock Review, Rigorous Magazine, the Marathon Literary Review, and forthcoming in Track//Four Journal. In school, he is currently focusing on a thesis in the form of a chapbook of ekphrastic poetry. When not writing, he stress drinks flavored lattes, binge-watches seasonal anime, and muses over the musical merits of death metal.
Be sure to check out Youssef’s latest poetry in Issue Two of Orson’s Review.