“According to you, I’m fuckin’ up
According to you, I forgot thangs
According to you, I’m not down
According to you, I should fry
My hair, my food, and my serotonin
And break my English
But ain’t no reason for that
Not only does North America place the welcome mat
At my feet
My ol’ pa invented it.”
-“Technical Difficulties,” from Extended Syllables
I met Abdul Fattah Ismail almost six years ago, when the fellow New York transplant and writer was one of many people kind enough to offer me guidance on surviving this city while pursuing my creative goals. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my friend was actualizing his own artistic aspirations, and planning to release his first book.
Self-published in March 2016, Extended Syllables examines the many different elements of Abdul’s personal story, in a collection of poems that is part lyrical travelogue and part biting social commentary. Though I knew he dabbled in poetry, as he was publishing his own blog when we first met, Abdulnaby’s Typewriter, I wanted to learn the full story of how Extended Syllables became a reality. I recently sat down with my creative peer to discuss what turned him onto poetry, what led him to publishing the book, and why now more than ever, it’s important to keep the words flowing.
Born in Ohio to parents from Sierra Leone, Abdul spent the majority of his formative years in South Bend, Indiana. Despite the fact that both of his parents held esteemed careers, his father in the sciences and his mother in education, it was clear that South Bend was less than welcoming. He describes learning to deal with ignorance and racial tension growing up as a child of immigrants in the Midwest.
“My parents were educated, and I grew up middle class. I think the general environment was not very accepting of that. I didn’t understand why that existed. We moved here and decided to grow our family at a righteous and proper level. We weren’t a nuisance to the neighborhood. Not that those things matter, but our existence matters too. That’s where you see the manifestation of ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Those are the kind of thoughts I had in my mind and that’s why it’s interesting to see them manifested now publicly. Because those are things I always felt too.”
Abdul found an outlet for coping with these feelings while attending John Adams High School, when his now retired creative writing/journalism teacher, Mrs. Ann Germano, suggested he take a poetry class to “open up and not be too research oriented” in his writing. Abdul quickly found the medium to be therapeutic, and poetry has served as his outlet of choice ever since.
He eventually made it out of Indiana and found his niche in New York, where he has resided for the last 13 years, paying the bills as a digital content strategist. The idea for Extended Syllables began to germinate in 2008, when he started archiving his clips on the Tumblr page, Abdulnaby’s Typewriter. The book project was intended not only to increase his audience, but also to find clarity in his own musings.
“I’ve always been one of those guys who knows what I want to say, but I’m moving too fast to say it clearly. By putting my emotions and observations into a distilled book, it would help clarify how I see the world.”
From a literal standpoint, Abdul displays his visual worldview with succinct imagery. Though the well-traveled author splashes images of global cityscapes across Extended Syllables, his adopted hometown provides the main stage for much of the book. From the Lower East Side to the Upper West, Abdul juxtaposes the grit and glitz of New York on poems like “Beacon Theatre.”
“Broadway Glows/Marquee heat/The West Side/Smells like this/a cupcake…
Down by there/Strollers dodge/Hudson gales/Fresh dog shit/In a dish/
Fluffy Knish/in the can/ Trash, it is/Treasured, it’s not.”
The title Extended Syllables alludes to the book’s compact syntax, as he wanted the poems to read as “concise but illuminating. ” The tight structure proves especially effective on pieces like “Beaconators,” as just one word can hit hardest.
When Abdul was finally satisfied with his choice of clips, he teamed up with Amazon’s CreateSpace, and designer Jennifer Ross to compose the book in print and digital format. As for publicity and distribution, his approach has been very much DIY, tracking potential bookstores in an excel spreadsheet, and drumming up support with local readings.
Given the melodic framework of his poems, it’s fitting that readings of Extended Syllables often feature musical accompaniment. He sounds most at ease when joined by a backing band, as evidenced by one of his strongest appearances, at Bedvyne Brew last September with DJ Amir and Angel Rodriguez on bongos. In the last year, he has also teamed up with a long list of local DJs and musicians like DJ Reborn, Asen James, Bianca, Shawndub, Chela, Mihoko, Melanie Charles, Cellist Jacob Cohen, Olu Odubiro, and guitarist Kelvin Ventura. Abdul sees these collaborations not just as a means to generate attention for the book, but also a way to repay a debt to New York’s creative scene.
“I’ve been immersed in sound my whole life. Being engaged with the creative community [in New York], I felt that was my way to return the gratitude.” If you’re in the New York area, you can catch a reading this week, on Wednesday, March 22 at Ode to Babel, featuring MC Charlie Smarts, sounds by Ill Digitz, and poet Rae Leone Allen.
As Abdul continues working to get the word out on Extended Syllables in 2017, I ask if his work has taken on new meaning since the election, and not just because of the socio-political bent of his work. Writer to writer at this moment in history, do we prioritize security over our dreams? Again, he offers useful advice.
“Security is subjective…As a creative, our ability to transform, inform and persuade the populace is not only more important. Like, this is it. This is what it’s about, using our gifts to resist and enlighten.