A number of years ago I read a newspaper article about the Hajj. The writer described seeing people walking in a line in the group they were travelling with, their hands around the waist of the person in front so they wouldn’t get lost in the crowds of pilgrims.
At around the same time, watching television one evening, I caught part of a program that followed a group during the pilgrimage. At one point the camera panned to a woman the group had taken in – the woman had become separated from her own group and was trying to find them.
This story intrigued me in the same way as the article before it, particularly in the context of Hajj. Both spoke about isolation. I remembered a conversation I had with a friend who had recently returned from Hajj who had described vividly the interactions of the pilgrims while standing on her own in a line surrounded by people from other countries. The conversations I had with relatives about their plans to do the Hajj also often had a focus on them being on their own – whether they would be physically able to go, whether they were healthy enough to travel to and then embark on the pilgrimage, despite the fact that they would be travelling with a group.
I began to write about Hajj. I wrote about a single figure moving through a crowd. I did not think of writing more than one poem, but I continued to write about this figure – and then others. I wrote about people looking at crowds; bodies moving past, struggling with, one another. I found I was writing about the physicality of doing the Hajj. Physicality was as prominent as isolation in all the experiences of the pilgrimage I had heard or read about.
Eventually I had a prose poem sequence set during the pilgrimage, and to create the book I brought this sequence together with poems that I had been working on for a long time that weren’t concerned with Hajj. The language of the Hajj sequence was spare, repetitive; a sort of equivalent of putting one foot in front of the other. The more formally traditional poems were written in a more ornate language. They included different forms I had attempted: sonnets, and a pantoum, for instance. When I brought the two streams of poems together, I liked how there was a strong sense of contrast, of movement in the collection – that it kept on shuffling to and from Hajj; that the language itself was shuffling.
And yet this image of the figure and the crowd ran through all of the non-Hajj poems in some way. These included poems about the migrant, the outsider. I would often look at images of the crowds during the pilgrimage when I wrote about the Hajj. When I was writing the poems that had nothing to do with Hajj, I would look at similar images of crowds of new arrivals to a country, of crowds at Pride.
I wanted to write about Hajj, and not. It’s peculiar to say that now. I was sensitive about telling a single story in a single way, particularly with the title of the collection, particularly at the time of composition. The writing involved many attempts, many (sometimes random) beginnings and endings. There were serendipitous moments in separating or bringing together words, or lines, or poems. As with the figures making their way through the crowds in the Hajj sequence, doing became thinking.
So the collection found its way.