Interview with Philip Metres

Poems of exile and war, and poems in translation

Interview with award-winning American poet, translator, scholar, and activist Philip Metres

By Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: What does it mean to be an Arab American writer/poet? Or would it be more accurate to be ‘labeled’, simply, a writer/poet?

Philip Metres: Ever since I was young, I was marked as Lebanese or Arab because of my looks, and because everyone in my father’s family or in our Arab Christian Church immediately welcomed me as one of their own. I’ve been told, ever since I was young, that some of my ancestors came from Bsharri, the same village as Kahlil Gibran, and that he visited them in Brooklyn. (We have the letter to prove it! The family also believes that he wrote The Prophet while staying with them at 290 Hicks Street, but I have seen no actual evidence of that beyond a mythic wish.) But what it means for me to be Arab American continues to evolve. It’s never meant just one static thing. Often that’s what happens to immigrants—the Old Country becomes an ossified image of a lost home, even when that home is constantly changing in their absence. For me, being Arab American means I don’t forget that my people come from the Middle East, and that I carry their memories inside my memories, both remembered in the mind and carried in the bone. That I keep in touch with what is happening there, and that I constantly remind people that humanity has no national border. I’m always pleased when I hear Arab or Muslim names in the American public sphere—as artists, journalists, academics, writers, etc. It makes me feel like the United States is changing.

I’ve always felt a kinship with people of color, and particularly with recent arrivals to the U.S. Our experiences are all different, but I feel the Old Countries in the way they hold themselves, the way they move in the world. Being Arab American for me also means that I’m part of a great migration, that my ancestors were intrepid travelers. People, in the end, are not just a nationality. Nations are a temporary political fiction—albeit a highly-militarized and deeply ideological one. So many of us come from many directions, like the four winds. According to my genetic test, some Italian appears to be swimming in my Middle Eastern genes. I wonder who this Italian was. And also, there is some North African in me, some Maghrebi. And some sub-Saharan African. And I haven’t even mentioned my mother’s Irish and German roots. So I am a person of many migrations and journeys, all these ancestors traveling toward and within my breathing, my heart beating, my voice speaking, my hands writing.

RZ: Tell us a little about your experience translating Russian poetry into English. How did it all begin? How did (does) it influence your own writing?

PM: I’m still trying to answer this question for myself. The Russians would call it my fate. This past fall, I spent my sabbatical writing a 90,000 word memoir recalling the year I spent living in Russia during the period of economic transition (1992-1993), trying to retrace my steps into that decision. I’d gotten a Watson fellowship for a year-long independent study project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” which enabled me to live in Russia, translate Russian poetry, and meet and interview contemporary Russian poets.

One secret reason I went to Russia was that poets were powerful there, that poetry mattered to people there. To say poetry mattered to me is to understate the case by half. Reading and writing poetry had altered my life, had become my life, my secret life, the one that was mine that no one could see. Reading Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” simply confirmed what I already knew—that we were broken, and that headless sculptures admonished us to change our lives. Poetry had given me a way to clarify and transform my inner chaos, and the turbulence around me, into something almost beautiful. It mattered so much to me, and so little in this country, I’d wondered if I’d been born in the wrong nation. I’d been learning how the Tsar acted as Alexander Pushkin’s personal censor, after Pushkin got involved with the Decembrists; how Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam to his death in Siberia for writing a poem that made fun of him, and how Osip’s wife Nadezhda committed his entire oeuvre to memory, to ensure that his words would not be forgotten; how Anna Akhmatova’s heroic witness in poetry outlasted even Stalin; and how Russian poets in the Sixties—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Bella Akhmadulina—declaimed their poems to stadium crowds; how Joseph Brodsky was subject to a “show trial” because he was a real poet and the State could not stand that fact. Poets in Russia seemed to be prophets and rock stars, revolutionaries and dissidents. I wanted to find out why. The truth was more complex than I could have imagined.

But it’s true that translating and meeting those poets completely transformed my idea of poetry and its relationship to the political sphere—I became less interested in poetry as a political weapon and more interested in its alternate way of being, both part of but also beyond politics, or rather, beneath all politics. The primal ground of being. Translating poets like Gandlevsky and Rubinstein and Tarkovsky became an education in poetry’s possibilities. I know the poets I’ve translated better than any other poets because I’ve lived inside those sonic language architectures longer than in any other poem.

My new book, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, was occasioned by my return to Russia ten years after I’d lived there. I was flooded by memories as I walked around St. Petersburg, and I needed a way to write about returning to a place where I lived but never felt quite at home. There’s something in me drawn to that feeling of being unhoused, exiled, wayfaring, lost. I can’t explain it.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that you hope that your 2015 poetry collection, Sand Opera, “can help be the start to a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world.” Tell us a little more about that.

PM: The difficulty with poetry is that poetry readers typically resist politically-challenging work, and people interested in politics tend not to read poetry. (In a particularly dark moment, I lamented to a friend that I wrote a book of poems too political for poets and too poetic for political activists.) At the same time, every couple weeks, I get another email from someone who’s just read Sand Opera and wanted to thank me. So I’m very grateful for the fact that it exists.

One thing I’m doing now is I’ve begun a Lenten observance. Every day I’ve been posting a poem from Sand Opera at www.behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com alongside Scriptural readings and dialogue pieces by other poets, writers, artists, and activists. This dialogic, choral project has been a way for me to return to poems that I’ve always felt were only partly mine. Since so many of the poems were themselves documentary in nature, composed of found language, the voices of so many touched by war, it’s almost as if the poems wrote me as much as I wrote the poems. One of the gifts of the Lenten observance has been that it occasioned my getting in touch with some Iraqi friends that I hadn’t spoken to in years, to ask for their contribution. And they have graciously agreed to participate.

But it hasn’t been without poignancy. One Iraqi scholar who has worked in the States for many years asked me about the project, and I mentioned some other Iraqi writers and artists who were participating, as a way to entice his participation. He said, well, that’s good, but Iraqis and Arabs already know the situation. I assured him that there would be a number of Americans who also would be part of it. But to hear him say that, his voice cracking with the weight of sorrow he’s carried for so many years, was heartbreaking. I heard in his voice the weight of a weary exile, unable to lay down his burden. Still trying to convince Americans of the humanity of his people, of himself.

Though I’ve felt self-conscious asking other writers to dialogue with my work, I’m touched by the robust response—as if people were almost waiting to be asked, wanting to add their voice.

RZ: “Art should remain subservient to politics.” What are your thoughts about this statement?

PM: It’s preposterous, but only slightly more preposterous than the American version of this statement, that art must remain free of all politics. Art is not art if it is subservient. Yet clearly art for its own sake is also a dead end.

RZ: In your opinion, what makes a good poem?

PM: Difficult question, because there’s no arguing taste. But for me, if you cornered me, I’d say that it’s a poem that retains some obdurate mystery, something unexplainable that makes me want to return to it, and is never quite exhausted by my re-reading.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

PM: I found it funny and sad that a fellow poet told me that he felt as if he should write more political poetry; as if it were somehow an obligation, a necessary evil to be part of the family of poets. That’s the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, for whom politics is something is necessary but dirties one’s hands. That distance is also a fiction of privilege.

A truly memorable political poem is alive because its politics so inhere in the fabric of the poem that it is inseparable from the fact of its being a poem. It’s damned hard to write real poetry of any sort, and doubly hard when it attempts to be political. There is a well-known Arab American poet who writes passionate verse for a righteous cause, and when his book came out, I hoped that it would be brilliant. Although I agreed with him politically, I found only one line in his entire book that I felt was truly alive. One line.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region that burns with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street (i.e. the Arab region)?

PM: Of course there is room for poetry. Now more than ever.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

PM: They are the ongoing conversation that writers and writing are having with each other. Reading them is to sit at the table of that conversation.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers/poets?

PM: The same boring thing everyone else says, probably. Read contemporary poetry and writing, but also the classics (that which is ancient is most new). Read more than you think you need to, because one isn’t original without knowing what has been done before. Don’t be afraid to “cover” (or imitate or argue with) other poems and poets. Write every day if you can. Write as if your ancestors were listening. Write as if the unborn are leaning in to learn the future. Write only because you must, and then write with the joy of this impossible gift of sentience.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

Every day, I’m doing this Lenten observance, which has returned me to scripture, to Sand Opera, and to the work of friends. But in terms of book projects, I’ve got a few that are simmering, that I hope will come to something: “The Flaming Hair of Fate” (the Russia memoir), “Shrapnel Maps” (poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), a book of translations, and a book of interviews with Russian poets.

Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye

“Poetry flourishes in the margins”
Interview with Naomi Shihab Nye
BY REWA ZEINATI

In the world of poetry and writing, the name needs no introduction. In the world of art and photography, Nye has been an active participant, offering image after image, using the tools she uses best: words. Currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she is author or editor of 33 books, including Transfer,A Maze Me, Honeybee, Different Ways to Pray, Yellow Glove, and 19 Varieties of Gazelle, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Born to a Palestinian father and an American mother, she regards herself as a “wandering poet,” which is probably the very best kind a poet, an artist, could hope to be.

RZ: In one of your earlier poems you’ve said, “Love means you breathe in two countries.” How does your background affect who you are as an artist?

Naomi Shihab Nye: It seems it would be impossible for most artists and poets to separate from background. Background is always the soil, the nourishing, complicated earth, we spring out of. What we do with it? Blossoms have many shapes and colors. Our eyes learn to see, through what they have already seen, what they are given to see. And if we are lucky, we never stop looking for more. Truly, I think love means we breathe in EVERY country. Somehow.

RZ: We find a longing in your poetry, a strong sense of exile. Your first experience with your roots was when you were 14 years old, where you lived in Jerusalem for a year and met, for the first time, your grandmother, who had a huge impact on your writing. How did going back (or forward!) shape your craft?

NSN: Well, that’s not quite accurate. My first experience with my roots was when I began to know my father, so, from the very beginning. To live with a restless person, a beautiful, humble, funny, magnificent person who is always longing for his homeland, for justice for his people, marks someone. You can’t pretend it isn’t there, even if you haven’t been there yourself yet.

RZ: How necessary are words? How necessary is art in a fast moving, zero-attention-span, consumerist existence?

NSN: Words are extremely helpful. Art is immensely necessary. A way to slow down, to hold, to connect, to contain – we are never bored and we don’t need anything we don’t already have. Hardly an advertising tool, but a way to live, for sure…

RZ: What do you think about Arabs adopting languages other than their own, mostly by choice, for their writing?

NSN: They are smarter than I am. I think it’s fine.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

NSN: Extremely important. They have given us so many ways to find one another.

RZ: Ironically enough (considering the history of Arab poets!) in the Arab region, poetry is considered at most, a hobby, a pass time. Not a lot of people take poets seriously. (Who makes a living out of poetry they think!) Especially poems by Arabs written in English. How do you recommend this perception be changed?

NSN: I don’t think you have to make a living out of something for it to be crucial. No one makes a living out of staring at the sky, but what would life be like, if we couldn’t do that? A lot of people make a living out of making war, making and selling weapons, and how great is that? I have never been bothered by the sidelining of poetry – poetry flourishes in the margins. Reading Walt Whitman – will restore all the hope anyone has lost.

RZ: Unfortunately, we live in increasingly hostile times, politically speaking. As writers or artists with Arab roots, and those who’ve lived in the Arab world, but have been influenced by the West, there is a cultural dichotomy, a mass schizophrenia almost. If we adopt anything from the West, be it cultural/social/educational, everyone freaks out that we are “losing our culture.” As a writer how do you think we can remedy this dichotomy?

NSN: I think we need to keep sharing our indelible, beautiful habits, customs, graces, details, foods, music, spirits, and nothing does it better than art. Art has a lot to balance out in our world. We should focus on the positive as much as possible – focusing on the negative only erodes our energy.

RZ: As a prolific writer of poetry, essays and novels, what advice would you give to emerging writers/artists in the Arab region, and/or in general?

NSN: Write more! Write on! Read as much as you can, write regularly, find a way to share your work. Wishing you the best! We need your voices!

Interview with Hedy Habra

By Rewa Zeinati

Publications, Paintings and the Multi-language of Art

Rewa Zeinati: Your collection of poetry Tea in Heliopolis was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 International Book Award in Poetry. Your book Flying Carpets won the 2013 Arab American Book Award Honorable Mention in Fiction and was an Award-Winning Finalist for the 2014 Eric Hoffer Book Award in Short Fiction. You won an Excellence in Teaching Award 
at Western Michigan University in 2014. And your individual poems and short stories have been published widely and often. What drives you on?

Hedy Habra: I feel honored and grateful for these publications and awards. I have been studying, writing and also teaching Spanish language and literature for a very long time. I believe that these continued activities stem from an insatiable curiosity and a passion for learning combined with an urge to share and communicate my enthusiasm and love for languages and literature. With each project, I learn a bit more about the world, about others, but mostly about myself. Literature is the best way to transcend one’s reality with its unavoidable ups and downs. Immersing oneself in the virtual space created by fiction or poetry allows for a much richer and more intense life.

RZ: How has being multi-lingual and multi-cultural shaped your craft, if at all? And while growing up, who affected your writing the most, and how?

HH: I was born and raised in Heliopolis, a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt, and was schooled in French, Arabic, and English. I was mainly influenced by French literature and read extensively. I have always loved Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Aragon and Paul Celan as well as most of the classics. I studied Pharmacy in Beirut’s French St. Joseph University, and lived there till the onset of the civil war.

After spending several years in Europe, I came to the United States where I pursued graduate studies in English and Spanish. Some of my favorite poets are T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Tony Hoagland and Mark Doty, but my list would be endless. My favorite author is usually the one I am reading and enjoying at a specific moment. Each great author provides a unique experience. Some of my favorite Middle Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry, and Amin Malouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.

When I first discovered Latin American literature, I knew that it was the sort of writing I would like to emulate. My favorite writers are Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Rulfo, for fiction, and Octavio Paz, César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, for poetry, to name only a few. But I admire lots of Spanish and international authors, so it is hard to tell which writers have left an imprint on my work. I am also a great admirer of the fiction of Italo Calvino, Alessandro Barrico and Dino Buzzati, and I try to read them in the original Italian.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

HH: For me, it is a desire to reread the poem over and over again. I am very sensitive to a poem’s music and to the way the language flows. I love poems with striking images that create unusual and unexpected connections but that still won’t reveal it all, letting the reader make the leap and use his (or her) imagination.

RZ: What makes good fiction?

HH: I guess that my preference goes to novels that are well crafted and require the reader’s participation like Mario Vargas Llosa’s fiction. I have read each of his novels several times, always with renewed delight and interest. I love stories that have a surreal or fantastic dimension, that’s why I regularly reread Buzzati, Calvino, Cortázar and Borges. Good fiction is a text that you want to keep returning to, always discovering something new in its pages.

RZ: Some writers dedicate a couple of hours in the morning to write. Some after a jog. Some wait for the evening hours to settle down. What is your process?

HH: I don’t have a specific routine or ritual. Sometimes working in the yard, gardening or walking helps me enter a meditative state that is propitious to writing. It does seem to me that I am constantly writing, with occasional interruptions. And because I also like to write criticism, paint and cook, it is necessary to juggle with time.

I have always kept a journal, and at times, I like to leaf through the pages and highlight some passages that strike me for different reasons and seem to lead me into writing. I always record thoughts, impressions, epiphanies, and have tons of drafts and material that serve as inspiration. Many of my poems are inspired by visual art.

I find myself writing in different languages in my journal. Oftentimes, I work on the same poem in three different languages because some lines would come automatically in a different language associated with new images that I then try to translate, and by doing so I find unexpected ways to express the same thought. This process enriches each version in a reciprocal movement like osmosis.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

HH: I have just finished revising my second book of poetry and sent it to my publisher. Most of the poems in this collection are inspired by paintings. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted a watercolor to illustrate the cover of the forthcoming book, as I did for Tea in Heliopolis. I am also working on a collection of poetry that focuses on my personal connection with the Middle East. Some of the poems are responses to what is going on in the area in an attempt to convey the sense of helplessness that we feel when we see it all from afar.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

HH: Print and online literary journals are very important. I subscribe to several journals, such as Poet Lore, Cutthroat, The Bitter Oleander, Nimrod, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, and read them with great interest. They are a bridge that allows readers to discover a multiplicity of voices and genres, and enables to keep up-to-date with the evolving tendencies of contemporary literature.

RZ: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, or other writers of many native tongues?

HH: I would say that persistence and discipline are indispensable. I think we learn writing by reading. So the more we read, analyze and try to emulate the authors we admire, the better our own writing will become and we will eventually find our own voice. This works for painting as well. Visual artists first learn to copy the classics before developing a distinctive style. Regarding multilingual writers, I would recommend that they maintain their languages alive by reading constantly in the original. Writers should consider this ability as an advantage instead of a hindrance. In addition, every language brings along a wealth of original metaphors, which cross-pollinate and enrich one another.

Interview with Sam Hamod

By Rewa Zeinati

Language, Music, Prayer

Rewa Zeinati: A prolific poet, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, a critical political writer, a healer, an editor, a professor, a blues musician and singer, a spiritual, multifaceted and interfaith religious Muslim leader who ran The Islamic Center in Washington, DC; founder of the internationally acclaimed, Third World News in Washington DC, Ph.D. from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop where you taught and studied—your teaching career also spanning over Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Howard and more—and since the 1960s you’ve published ten books and have appeared in over 200 anthologies of literature worldwide. You are the founder of Contemporary World Poetry Journal- publishing distinct and diverse international voices in poetry. What drives you on?

Sam Hamod: Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet said, “You do not choose poetry, it chooses you.” In my case, I feel that he was correct, that and in the plans of Allah, I became a poet and continue to write; not all by my choosing. If you had asked me when I was young, or even in my early 20s if I’d like to be a poet, I would have said you were crazy.
I am driven by the desire to do the things I want to do, and to add positive things and matter to society. I also feel very blessed. As for my journals, I founded them, Third World News (a weekly and bi weekly newspaper in Washington, DC, which I founded in late 1980-81, I started that newspaper because I felt there were no media voices for the Arabs or Islam, but then I also found out that other third world people needed a voice, so I included those from South America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere); my websites, www.todaysalternativenews.com was a child of Third World News online, but I also used it to speak against the West’s wars against Islam and the Third World, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I started the two literary sites, Contemporaryworldliterature and Contemporaryworldpoetry so that we could publish good quality writers in their own script from around the world. I want to be a “world poet,” and want to publish world-class writers, not just ethnic or weak writers who “lean” on their culture but do not write good poems within or about it.
Incidentally, I have a strong background in rhetorical theory and practice, and even published a paper many years ago, on Arab and Islamic Rhetorical Theory and Practice, A Brief Overview, in 1963.

RZ: Your poetry is rich in language, music, prayer, sound, smells, and scenes, from your country of origin, Lebanon, as well as the Middle East. How difficult/easy was the transition from Lebanon to the US, where you adopted a new culture, new music, new sounds, smells, scenes?

SH: Actually, I was born in Gary, Indiana, but in the house we were in Lebanon, but outside our door, we were in America; thus, in my life, I always lived in at least 2 worlds. I never saw them as a conflict, but as an asset, they complemented one another as far as my vision and understanding was concerned.
I grew up with poor parents, my father and mother ran a boarding house hotel; we lived there and shared it with 40 men from around the world. The men had come to work in the steel mills and railroads around Gary and Chicago. So, I got to hear all these foreign Slavic, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Indian, and other languages as a child, until I was 5 years old. Then my father opened a business in an African-American area, where I heard the blues, and learned different American dialects until I was a teenager when he left that business.
I’ve loved all the Arab sounds, smells, foods, music, culture since I was a kid; we used to go to a small mosque in Michigan City, Indiana many Sundays where we’d learn Arabic and hear discussions about the Qur’an and Islam My grandfather, Hajj Abbass Habhab, was the first émigré to America who went on the Hajj from America. Thus, I had a strong Islamic, Arab background. Later, in the 1960s, my father, Hajj Hussein Hamode Subh, aka Sam Hamod, built a mosque, Mosque El Amin in Gary, Indiana; it became the founding home for the MSA Muslim Students Association, and that later morphed into ISNA. In the 1980s, I became the Director of The Islamic Center in Washington, DC, when it was the focal point of Islam in North America.
I enjoyed it all, all aspects, the good and the bad, but I always trusted in Allah no matter what happened. I learned this from my mother, Zinab Habhab Hamod, though she was no Hajj, she was always a Hajj in her heart and had the strongest belief and appreciation of the gifts of Allah of anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met hundreds of thousands of Muslims and others, but her example and wisdom sustained me through the best and worst of times.

RZ: How has being uprooted from a home country shaped your craft?

SH: My poems come from my heart and experiences; I might see a line or a word, then suddenly a poem starts to come through me. All my life, I’ve always lived in the USA and in Leb’nan, though I wasn’t there in person all the time, I’ve always kept my heart there; thus, there has been no split in me, just double vision, and more. But, I do get upset when I see the fighting between groups in Lebanon; when I was young and went there, everyone was a “cousin” or “brother” to everyone else. Let us hope this fellowship and brotherhood returns, not only in Leb’nan but elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab world.
I am very influenced by what I felt were the great poems of Islamic Spain, Lorca, Darwish, Rumi, Neruda and those who write from their hearts of justice, love, passion and the beauty Allah has bestowed on mankind in the world.

RZ: You’ve said once, ‘At times, I want to speak only of poems, not of “ethnic poems.” But in truth our ethnicity helps shape the way we see and the way we write—so it is a part of what our poems are made of. But a poem cannot lean on its ethnicity in order to keep from falling—a poem must be a good poem on its own.’ What makes a good poem? What makes great poetry?

SH: Yes, I still hold with that statement; we should not “lean” on our ethnic background, but use it as a source, so that it informs who we are, and the emotion should come through in the passion of our poem, but we should not think that a poem is good just because it speaks of our ethnic background or concerns.
As to what a good or great poem is:
A good to great poem should give you an insight, but must be ineffable, that is, no matter how much you like to explain the poem, it will be more than your word, because of the way it moves with language, sound, smell, feeling and the way it makes you feel and realize something in a way that is deeper than you have felt or understood something before reading that poem. A poem may be great if it is only 2 or 3 lines long, or 30 pages long, length is not a determining factor;
Great poetry can be seen in the work of Lorca, Darwish, Qabbani, Adonis, Neruda, Hafiz, Rumi, Hikmet, Eluard, Borges, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and such American poets as the late James Wright, Ethridge Knight, Robert Hayden and such poets alive as Amiri Baraka (no longer with us, may he rest in peace) and Sonia Sanchez .

RZ: After attending Law School at The University of Chicago then returning to Gary to open The Broadway Lounge, where you hired blues giants such as B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Red Foxx, and others to perform, you must’ve been saturated in African American culture where jazz and blues took center stage. You play jazz and sing the blues professionally yourself. You were a poet who carried a 38, a 32 and a 25 calibre Browning. When did you decide you needed to shift gears and change paths? And why?

SH: I went into the bar business in order to keep my father from going back into that business. He had killed a man in self-defense, but I was afraid if he went back, someone might try to take revenge on him, even though he had not been at fault. I didn’t want to open the bar, but my father insisted, so I left law school to protect him and our family. I enjoyed the people, the musicians, and I enjoyed singing with them, because I’d grown up with blues music and jazz. But after 2 years of that I decided that I should leave and become a professor. We had an offer to sell the bar, but my father didn’t want to; he wanted to take it over, so I gave it to him and left, feeling I had done all I could do and felt that if I stayed, after time, someone would either shoot me or I might shoot someone because the economy was getting worse, and I felt myself getting “cold” inside, and I didn’t want that to happen. It was good, but like other things in my life, I decided it was time to move on, and I’m happy I did; it was for the best.

RZ: While growing up, who shaped and affected your writing the most?

SH: I think it was listening to the stories the men all told us at the hotel, my immigrants from South America, Mexico, Europe, Asia, friends of my father from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, etc.), and the Americans, especially those who were “hillbillies,” from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana, as well as stories from my uncles who served in WWII, and the other immigrants I met while growing up. I think the sense of hearing stories, so that I was driven more from “hearing” and “speaking” the sense of “voice”, rather than reading literature that shaped my way of writing. Interestingly, I started college as a business major, but changed into Speech Communications in my junior year at Northwestern University; thus, I have always been more attuned to the oral tradition than the written tradition. But, if you look at the history of great literature, the best poetry always survived best when it would stand up through hearing it aloud (Whitman, Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, Darwish, Lorca, etc.).
Also, with the voice, you always listen for the emotion; then, as a poet, you want to get that emotion into your poems.
I think that music also influenced the way I write; there has to be a lot of rhythm and music through language in my poems. I say this because English is a flat language and you have to create the music in your work to make it come alive. The poems for Ella and Joe Williams, “Joe Williams at the Blue Note” show best what I’m talking about in terms of music; the poem, “Dying with the Wrong Name” best exemplifies my work within Arab/American/Islamic culture in terms of language, food, etc. as does “After the Funeral of Hamad Assam,” (originally published by Perishable Press, After the Funeral of Assam Hamady), where the Muslim prayer, Al Fati’ha’ is in the middle of the poem and necessary to the poem. I deal with the cultural matters in other poems such as “Lines to my Father.” etc.

RZ: You are a descendant of Muslim Lebanese parents, where your faith played a large part in your writing. You were also open to many religious experiences like the Moorish Science Temple and various Muslim sects. How important is it, as an artist, to be open to so many different faiths and cultures and belief systems?
SH: It was always in my nature to learn what I could about everything, whether it was someone else’s culture, religion, food, music, or how to change a washer in a faucet or how to build a house or fix a car. I’ve been taken always by the fact that so many of the world’s great religions, have all pointed to One God, as I’ve found most people are pretty good people; thus, I see the good, and the similarities among people and religions, not the differences.

RZ: What inspires you?

SH: Everything, especially being alive. Each day, each event, different people, different moments, different lines, different poems, stories, songs, sunsets, birds, trees, walking, making love, a beautiful smile, a child’s laughter—just all the things of life inspire me. The poems come from everywhere, but behind it all is Allah. Even doing this interview is inspiring in its own way, but it’s hard to choose poems to send you. You always want to send your very best, but you hope that you next poem will even be better, and at times, the poem that come next is.
Great love and great tragedy, and the possibilities of love and beauty are all inspiring all the time.

RZ: Why did you feel it necessary to establish the platform: Contemporary World Poetry Journal?

SH: As I said earlier, I wanted a truly international journal with excellent writing. [We] had a good response from all over the world with the platform and the other one, www.contemporaryworldliterature.com
No one else had done what we did, but I hope they do; the more good poetry and literature in the world, the better. We never compete with anyone else, only with ourselves to do the best we can, and hope that others add to the beauty and literature of the world, so that we all gain. It is my hope that your magazine will prosper and grow, and grow and grow.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing, themselves in Arabic as well?

SH: No, I think a writer should write in the language he or she is most comfortable in. I’ve seen too many who want to write in both languages, but one or the other is stilted. Your first major language that you hear or speak or work with seems to work best. Even among translators I’ve known, they work best in one of their languages when they write poems or stories not in all. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally I’ve found this to be true.
And, because I prefer to be a world class poet, of Arab Muslim extraction, I don’t want to be limited to be just “an Arab or Muslim poet”; I feel Lorca, Darwish, Neruda exceeded their ethnic backgrounds to be great poets, not just Spanish, Palestinian or Chilean poets; we of a certain background, and we carry that within us and it “informs” who we are, but we are also of the larger world, and must live in the larger world, not be restricted to where we came from; as poets, we must travel poetically as Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo traveled in the world.

RZ: What are you working on now?

SH: It seems I’m trying to finish my memoirs, and have part of them done, and will send you part of it if you wish. The first part is called, “At the Broadway Lounge,” but other parts are underway.
But poems keep getting in the way, as does spring, the beauty of each day, just walking in the sun, or swimming or reading or just the daily matter of keeping up with bills, taxes and life. But I don’t want to miss any of this.
But my major focus now must be on finishing my memoirs otherwise certain things about Islam in America, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Farrakkhan will never be known, or certain Islamic organizations that preceded the MSA and ISNA, etc. I have this obligation in my life, and inshallah I shall be able to finish it well.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

SH: Journals are important if they are good; if they are mediocre, then they are a waste of trees and time, and they add to the distractions of life.

RZ: What advice would you offer emerging writers? (Or musicians for that matter!)

SH: Hope for Allah’s help in whatever you do, and always write or sing from your soul. To become a great writer or musician, you have to have something to say.
Thus, I’d say it is better to live a lot, not go from a B.A. to an MFA because you will rarely have had experiences deep or varied enough to become a good or great writer.
If you listen to B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Joe William, or hear or read Lorca, Darwish, Neruda, Baraka, you will know they’ve lived that life, they are telling you their life, their deep experiences, not some novelty or technique, but something from their soul.
The next best thing to do is to read good writers, great writers, and listen to good and great music, whether it be blues or Um Kulthm, or Fairouz, or listen to a mountain wedding music in Leb’nan or Morocco, or Turkey, an “atabee”, or “taksim” or whatever that will grab your heart and soul, then go on and live, and then write.

Interview with Frank Dullaghan

BY REWA ZEINATI

LOVE, CHILDHOOD AND THE ARAB SPRING

an interview with Dubai-based, Irish poet, Frank Dullaghan

Rewa Zeinati: You have three poetry collections, two haiku collections, you also co-founded the Essex Poetry Festival and edited Seam Poetry Magazine. You are a poetry judge for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. You’ve written award-winning screenplays and short stage plays, and are a regular book reviewer for the Dubai Eye Talking of Books radio programme. You are an Irish poet, born and raised, who is living and writing and publishing in and from Dubai. How did that happen? Why the Arab world?

Frank Dullaghan: It happened slowly and over a long period of time. I’ve been involved with poetry for decades. One can achieve a lot in that time if one works hard. I also think it’s important to give back to the poetry community for the gift of poetry; to encourage and foster others on their own poetic journey. Hence my involvement with the EAFL and their outreach programmes and the various writing workshops I’ve run.

With regards to why Dubai, my story is much the same as many ex-pats: I came here with my job and have stayed because Dubai offers good work opportunities. However, being here has opened a door into Arab culture and has given me wonderful opportunities to be part of a nascent and fast growing art scene.

RZ:Your latest collection of poetry The Same Roads Back (Cinnamon Press, 2014) is replete with loss,war,rebellion, and memory.You write poems about what is happening in Syria, in Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates.You write poems about your childhood and school years in Ireland, to your wife you write movingly, “what else do we need but the surprise of each other?” You write about your children. You write poems dedicated to Lebanese and Palestinian writer friends. I get the sense that the collection, really, is about ‘family,’ and/or ‘home’ in the literal and figurative sense. Is that true? And what does the title mean?

FD: I think most writers have certain themes or preoccupations which infest all that they write. Certainly family friends, and ‘home’ are important to me. I’m less interested in place than I am in people. What is the human condition? What makes us who we are? Why do we love? Where have we come from? What do we want? How can there be so much love in the world and also so much hate? I think poetry is a way of reaching out to find accommodation with the strange times and places we live in; it’s a way of celebrating the impact others have on our lives, and a way of sharing our understandings. I have made some strong and wonderful friendships since I moved to Dubai. These have been connections which have impacted my life. So I think my latest book also acknowledges and confirms this wonder.

Regarding the title, I think it points to a number of things – the act of continually revisiting our preoccupations; our need to investigate our roots, looking for reasons to who and where we are; the desire to reach some safe or final destination we call ‘home’; the completion of the circle, the path that takes us back to the beginning. I tend to go for titles that have a metaphorical quality, one that somehow feels right for the collection.

RZ: From your poem entitled “Dirty Poem” the lines, “there are children with dead eyes/ in the garden,women gone beyond grief./ There are men growing into wolves,/ picking at their teeth. There are bombs.” These gorgeous, heartbreaking lines pretty much sum up what has been happening in the Arab world of late. Has living in the Arab region shaped or influenced your craft?

FD: I don’t think it is possible to live so close to the countries of the Arab Spring and not deal with this in poetry. And I do find it all so heartbreaking. How can anyone watch the massacre in Gaza and not despair of human goodness? How do we manage to live in a world like this? There is so much pain. We must seek out the small, often personal, moments of peace and love. We must hold tight to our friends. Poetry is one way of surviving.

However, I always tend to come at these big themes from the individual point of view. I’m not trying to be some sort of public poet making grand gestures to a future generation. I think my work is quieter than that. But, hopefully, it is powerful nonetheless.

RZ: Has living in the Arab region influenced your perception of this conflict-driven space? What were your preconceptions about the region, if any, prior to living in Dubai?

FD: I think I was probably less aware when I lived outside of Dubai. Proximity does make a difference and friendships with people impacted makes it personal.But I don’t think my sensibilities have changed.They are just better informed.

RZ: What makes a good poem?

FD: Oh there are so many things – clarity of thought and communication, accessibility whilst maintaining depth (multiple layers of meaning), surprise, freshness, the ability to show emotional complexity etc. Of course, what makes a good poem is also a personal thing. I prefer poems that deal with human relationships rather than abstracts, I’d rather have sharp images over clever wordplay. I like the lyrical, a narrative arc, poems with a message that is delivered cleanly and with impact. I dislike poems that have too many classical references, that show off their learning, that are lazy (tired language, cliché, repetition without craft, shock words without thought), or that try to appear cool, have street cred, etc. but lack any kind of originality or substance.

RZ: Describe your writing ritual (if you have one!).

FD: Because I have always had a day job and one, moreover, that has always demanded a lot of my time, I tend to write in short bursts whenever I have the inclination/opportunity. I always have a notebook with me, so you will often fine me in a mall coffee shop,writing.When I can,I try to do a little writing first thing in the morning.That will generally only last for a few weeks before the world sabotages it. But, surprisingly, it often results in some of my best and most sustained writing.

RZ: What are you working on now?

FD: I seem to be writing memory poems again about my childhood and early adult life. And I’ve just completed a pamphlet length set of poems about a missing girl.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

FD:They are very important.They can be a standard of contemporary excellence. They can introduce you to new voices and fresh approaches. They can act as an affirmation of the quality of ones own work. I believe, one absolutely must have published in literary journals before attempting to launch their own collection. If you want to write well, you need to read, and you need to listen to the choir of new voices as well as the established soloists. Not all journals will suit all people. But there are many quality journals out there, Sukoon being one, and local too, that it is always possible to find some you like.  Support for poetry starts with literary journals and small presses. They are the lifeblood. They are what sustains the art.

RZ: What do you think is the role of literature and art in a region that burns with strife and fragmentation?

FD: To remind us of beauty. To affirm our humanity. To touch the creative, the human, the positive. To provide a counter- narrative to the small-minded dogmas and hatred of political and religious bigotary.

RZ: You were commissioned to provide the final translations of the poems by His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum,Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. Tell us a little about that.

FD: Yes, that was an unexpected honour at the end of last year. The way it worked was that I was provided with literal translations (I don’t read Arabic) and I worked on those to try and provide a poetic translation that would work for the western ear. The Nabiti poetry written by His Highness is a traditional poetic form from the Gulf couched in the dialect of the Bedouin. In Arabic, it is very complex in its rhythm and rhyming patterns. I did not attempt to reproduce this in the English translations but rather tried to convey the essential message and images of the poems. I was assisted in this by various experts who provided feedback on particular phrases.That said, it is also important to remember that the work includes praise poems for leaders and religious poems which will seem strange to western ears (though, historically, we wrote similar poems). I hope that my efforts captured the essence of the poems. Translation is always only an approximation. However, I believe that the results will be of interest to many and will, hopefully, provide some insight into the poetic works of Sheikh Mohammed. The resultant book Flashes of Verse was published by Explorer Publishing in a beautiful book and can now be purchased locally.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers?

FD: Read, read, read. Read quality and demanding work that challenges your craft. Look for critical feedback not the praise of close friends who believe your work is wonderful. It’s not wonderful. It may be brilliant for the stage you are at in your growth as a writer, but it can always be better. We only grow as writers when we, momentarily, set aside our egos for the sake of improving our craft. There is much to learn. Always. Every day. You never stop. Nor should you.

Interview with Etel Adnan

By Rewa Zeinati

“MORE THAN EVER, OUR ARAB WORLD IN PARTICULAR, NEEDS POETRY AND THE ARTS, NEEDS EVERY FORM OF THE AFFIRMATION OF LIFE”- Etel Adnan

Rewa Zeinati: Etel Adnan, you are a multidimensional writer and artist; an author, a novelist, a poet, and a cultural critic. You have written documentaries and operas, short stories and plays and you are a visual artist in different media. You were born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. You studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley, and at Harvard. In 1972, you returned to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. Your novel Sitt Marie-Rose, published in Paris in 1977, won the France-Pays Arabes award and has been translated into ten languages. At least eighteen works have been published in English. They include The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo Press, 1989); Sea and Fog (Nightboat Books, 2012), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry. In 2011, you received Small Press Traffic’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And, in 2014, you were awarded one of France’s highest cultural honors: L’ordre de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. What drives you on?

Etel Adnan: What drives me on? I really don’t know. Have never been asked such a question ever. I was a turbulent child and remained a restless person. When I enter a house I go immediately to the windows. And I remember when I was about 18 and I had a Russian friend in Beirut (there were many Russian refugees from WWI and their children) and I told her that we were living always projected into the future – a future with no idea or image attached to it – and she agreed with a great melancholy about her. My encounter with poetry came about the same time and age and I thought we were born for reading poetry. Nothing else mattered, of course there were the great French poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire; they really never left me.

What really drives me is the history of our area, the Arab World, and the Islamic World, and mainly because the trouble in them never stops. It’s contemporary History that writes my books.

There are two other major concerns of mine. One is love, the failure in love, due to so many things, and the fact that the first person we really loved haunts forever. There is also my love for Nature, my need for it. So all this can keep me going.

RZ: In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), you began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. In your own words, “painting became a new language and a solution to my dilemma: I didn’t need to write in French anymore; I was going to paint in Arabic.” Then, through your participation in the poets’ movement against the Vietnam War (1959-1975), you began to write poetry in English and became, “an American poet.” What does it mean for you to be self-labeled, or thought of, as an American poet?

EA:- I lived the Algerian war of independence while living in California. I was teaching philosophy, and following the news. It seemed to me then, and I think I was right, that the loss of Algeria was going to be a defeat like the loss of Palestine. Those were the Abdel Nasser years and the dream of Arab unity was a real goal. It remains that it has been a positive model for the Third World, an incredible achievement.

I felt great being an “American poet”, I had a home.

RZ: What makes good art/good writing?

EA: What makes good writing? Many, many things… you can’t tell, in a way. It’s also related to the times we live in. But The “Iliad” is still great writing! There is something that the reader recognizes, the soundness of a rhythm, something convincing, I don’t know. But there is no proof. You do what you can… but there will always be some people that will like it and some that won’t.

RZ: The sun is a central subject in your work. Is it your biggest inspiration? What inspires you?

EA: The sun was a powerful element of my childhood in Beirut. As I was an only child, the world surrounding me was of great importance. The sun particularly, as it is very present over there, and the city had low houses, three floors at most, and I was aware of shadows too… I remember trying to look straight at the sun very often, and my eyes [would] burn and blur, and also in the summer I don’t know how my mother found one of those colonial headgear, all painted white that I saw later in pictures of mostly British people in the colonies and I was then aware that the sun was a very dangerous being and I had to deal with it. So the sun is an omnipresent being in our countries, both beneficial and dangerous. No wonder our ancient gods were led by sun-gods, the pharaohs as well as the Babylonians had as a supreme god, a solar deity.

RZ: You have a way with writing that may appear, to the naïve mind, to be dizzyingly simplistic, yet, in fact, it is superbly full and brilliantly philosophical. I’m always struck by how your lines or sections end; you simply know when to stop writing and let the image or word resonate with the reader; always at the exact right moment, with the exact right word, not a moment too soon or too late. As simple as, “In the morning they all went to the small cages they call their offices. Some of them made telephone calls.” What is your secret?

EA: We are in a period of cut and dry poetry, of minimalism; it has become natural to avoid developement in our writings. It’s both new and very ancient. Look at the Greek pre-Socratics, their thinking is expressed as geometric equations, and it makes it very poetic.

RZ: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy?

EA: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy? Yes and no. There used to be a difference in western philosophy. Western philosophy was involved in the search of some truth, of some system explaining reality. From the English philosophers on, the possibility of reaching absolute statements, statements about the absolute, was dimming. But it’s Nietzsche [who] demonstrated, or discovered himself that philosophical works are constructions, personal constructions that cannot pretend to be any definitive view of reality. That neared philosophy to thinking, brought it closer to intuition, to sudden “revelation”. Heidegger followed that line and ended up asserting that the greatest form of philosophy is to be found in the great poets such as, for Germans, in Hölderlin and Rilke. I very strongly believe, I find that the great Islamic Sufis are theologians/philosophers/poets, the greatest poets of that world.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

EA: Poetry doesn’t need to be political in its subject matter. It’s not the subject matter that’s important, it’s the way you treat it. Of course if you manage to convey the importance of something that gets you, your passion for it, how existential is for example the political/historical situation of your country, or of a country that matters to you, then that text could be poetic. You speak of a rose, or of the situation of Palestine, you can write something that will be a poem. How? It’s up to you, and to the reader… But in a way, everything is political, in the sense that everything says something about you that goes beyond the subject matter, and also that whatever we do affects the world, in minute ways generally, invisible ways, but it becomes part of the becoming of everything that is. In that sense, washing your hands is also a cosmic event.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region bursting with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street?

EA: More than ever, our Arab world in particular, needs poetry and the arts, needs every form of the affirmation of life. The forces of death are very active, due to the abysmal mediocrity of our politicians, and also due to outside interference. So all we have to counterbalance that evil is to be alive, and to sustain life. Poetry, art, is what will remain of these dark period … I am always comforted by the existence of the great deal of creativity in our countries; they are suffering, but they’re going ahead, they’re surviving, and much more… we will not go under.

RZ: You mentioned once in an interview that, “It’s possible that in the past, unconsciously, people paid less attention to women’s work. Things are changing; there are more and more women curators, and more women gallery owners. It doesn’t mean that they will automatically pay more attention to women’s work, but it’s changing. We can’t complain.” Are things changing fast enough, though, for women writers and artists?

EA: Our region is changing in good directions in spite of all our defeats and destruction. There is a civil society that’s emerging from the ashes of our patriarchal societies. It’s a good sign, even if that society is regularly repressed.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers and/or artists?

EA: Giving advice is usually a pompous affair. If I have to give one, it is “don’t be afraid, go ahead, pay the price it [will] entail, and you will certainly feel free, and probably creative too.

RZ: “Not seeing rivers is also another way of dying.” Do you remember where you were or what was happening around you when you wrote this magnificent line?

EA: River, oh rivers… I don’t know where and when I wrote the line you quote, but it is utterly true… without the sea, the ocean, or a river in my vicinity I am a dying plant.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

EA: Working on what these days? I am painting, mostly. For a whole year, I have a poem already written, NIGHT, following SEASONS and SEA & FOG and I don’t know why I keep it waiting… must reread it carefully and let it go…

RZ: How important are literary magazines, if at all?

EA: Literary magazines are dwindling, for money reasons… and indifference for literature – young people prefer dance, music, where physical goes, but they are indispensable… they keep the pulse of the thinking of a society… it takes courage nowadays to run a magazine or a publishing house for poetry and literature in general.

Interview with Zeina Hashem Beck

Lost to the News
Lost to the News By Nouf Semari, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

By Rewa Zeinati

Cities of longing, memory, love and war

RZ: Your first poetry collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize and will be published in August 2014 by the Backwaters Press, in Omaha, Nebraska. It was selected as a winning manuscript by notable poet Lola Haskins. You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and your individual poems have been published widely and frequently in many distinguished journals across the US. You are on the editorial board of All Roads Will Lead You Home, a new online literary journal by VAC poetry. A mother of two, founder of PUNCH, a monthly open-mic poetry evening, and runner of poetry workshops for adults and children (in Dubai, UAE.) What drives you on?

ZHB: With both poetry and motherhood, one doesn’t know what the driving force is exactly. You just go with it, almost instinctively. The love, the passion, the intuition, and the obsession are there. But one doesn’t know why/how they are there to start with.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all is intuitive (and immediate) in poetry and motherhood. You also learn these things, because they are things you do, not just feel. So, you get up every day, you feed, bathe, and dress your children, and you talk to them, and you play with them, and you love them and hug them, and they drive you crazy, and you are exhausted, and you need a break, and you hope you don’t lose it by the end of the day. In poetry too, it’s about the day-to-day work on something you love: I try to read every day, and think about writing every day, and I revise, and sometimes I obsess, and the poems can drive me crazy as well.

I have to point out though, since I’ve started this simile, that motherhood and poetry aren’t similar in all aspects, and that they don’t always co-exist. Motherhood is something you do with your kids, whereas poetry is something you do alone. Sometimes I abandon my kids for my poems, and sometimes I abandon my poems for my kids. But now I’m digressing. Have I somehow answered the question? I guess I love them (my kids and poetry), and try to be there for them every day.

RZ: Your book To Live in Autumn is set in, and is about, Beirut. You being a Tripoli-native and childhood resident of Tripoli (Lebanon), why Beirut?

ZHB: When I left Beirut in 2006 after having lived there for six years, the poems just kept coming, out of nostalgia, I think. It was like I was summoning the city back to me in writing. After some time, I realized Beirut was a recurrent theme in my poetry, and I took the decision to write the book with the working title Re-membering Beirut. The process took years, during which I also wrote about other things/places (Tripoli among them), but those poems didn’t go into the book. I want to note that some poems in To Live in Autumn are a mixture of Beirut and Tripoli. “Nocturne,” for example, is one of them. “The Old Building” is heavily based on the building I lived in as a child in Tripoli, and the last poem of the book, “Spring,” brings Tripoli into the picture as well.

But why did Beirut keep coming to me in the first place? Probably because I spent my university years there, and those were formative and exciting years for me. Beirut is an inspiring city, and it was new and unfamiliar to me, the eighteen-year-old from Tripoli. It gave me poetry readings, theater, literature (that’s what I was studying), dance, streets, new friends, chaos, and of course, political unrest. So naturally, when I left the city that I had grown to love so much, I felt that longing for it, which I think triggered the writing. The poems in the book eventually moved beyond mere longing and nostalgia of course.

RZ: What do you think makes a good poem?

ZHB: I don’t think there’s an objective list of criteria for a good poem. I’ll tell you what would make me love a poem though: its ability to make the familiar unfamiliar (and vice-versa), its ability to move me (immediately!), and this urge I get of wanting to read it over and over again.

RZ: Do you think poetry and fiction are at all related?

ZHB: Aren’t all art forms somehow related? Good fiction and good poetry should both have the ability to amaze the reader. I don’t read much fiction, but when I do, I’ve noticed that the books I like are the ones with good details, surprising images, and condensed language, all of which are also necessary in poetry. On the other hand, poetry too, is fictional, in its reinvention of the world around us.

RZ: Can good writing be taught?

ZHB: I think you are either born a writer (among other things), or you aren’t. If you do have that innate ability (and better yet, an irresistible urge) to write, then you can definitely learn to write better. The best way to do that is by reading, reading, and reading good writing. And if you’re lucky enough to get feedback from fellow writers you trust, then that helps as well.
6- You’ve recently begun exploring writing in your native tongue, Arabic. How is that different from writing in English, apart from the obvious, of course.

I’ve only just started to flirt with Arabic. I haven’t been writing in Arabic long enough for me to be able to formulate similarities and differences. For now, the creative process feels the same to me in both languages.

RZ: What is your writing process? Are you a morning writer? An after-midnight poet?

ZHB: When I became a mother, I also became a write-whenever-you-can poet. So, when my kids are at school, I do most of my reading and writing in the morning. When they’re on vacation, I do that when they’re not killing each other. But nothing is that systematic of course, and a lot of poems come at unexpected times, as long as I’ve warmed up for them. The writing process you mention is, for me, about this warming up. It involves reading, getting some quiet time, and observing. If I do this every day, the poems will eventually come.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

ZHB: Toward my second collection, I hope.

RZ: The concept of literary journals for Arab writers writing in English is a foreign one. How did you first learn about it, considering that you have resided in the Arab region all your life.

ZHB: When I was a graduate assistant at AUB, a professor of mine gave me the CLMP directory to help him look for potential journals for his poetry. He showed me what to look for in a journal, and explained things like what simultaneous submissions and SASE mean. I ended up ordering my own copy of the directory, going online, and checking out the journals in there that appealed to me, the kind of poetry they publish, and their guidelines. Back then, many didn’t have online submission managers yet (I’m happy that one can now submit to almost any journal online). That same professor also directed me to pw.org, which was also a helpful resource.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

ZHB: Literary journals are vital. They give contemporary writers the chance to showcase their work, and they are where all the good new writing is! I learn a lot about fellow poets from literary magazines, and when I like a poet’s work, I usually end up ordering his/her book.

RZ: What advice would you give promising writers?

ZHB: Read Bukowski’s poem, “so you wanna be a writer,” which starts this way:

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.”

Read that poem, then: read (read, read), write, revise, submit, learn to accept rejection, and repeat all previous steps, as long as it’s “bursting out of you.”

Interview with Nathalie Handal

By REWA ZEINATI

Exploring convivencia

“Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits,” says Nathalie Handal, award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. In this interview, Handal talks honestly about her craft, her role as a woman writer, and what she discovers to be “home.”

RZ:  In your new collection, Poet in Andalucía, you re-create Federico García Lorca’s journey, Poet in New York, but in reverse. What inspired this collection?

NH: Poet in New York is one of the most important books written about the city. Lorca is a poet who continues to call us to question what makes us human. Andalucía has always been the place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge and contend, where Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions remain a mirror of a past that is terrible and beautiful. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York of Middle Eastern roots—and this being a crucial moment in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—I wanted to explore convivencia which in Spanish means “coexistence.” The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture…. It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar…. Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.” So recreating Lorca’s journey in reverse became increasingly important to me.

RZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this collection?

NH: Coming to the understanding that although peace is possible if we desire—because what people want most is to live—we stand far away from that reality. It was challenging to weave hope into the poems, staying true to my vision while also understanding the fundamental forces that continue to lead us into conflict states instead of conciliatory ones.

RZ: How is this new collection, Poet in Andalucía, different than anything you’ve written before?

NH: I had a blueprint, a map of the book before I started it.

RZ: You were listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2011” and one of the “Power 500/The World’s Most Influential Arabs” in 2012 and 2013. Where has your inner strength and powerful voice sprung from? And how do you cultivate it?

NH: Staying faithful to my vision and understanding that every challenge is an opportunity for transformation, and a deeper more fundamental power.

RZ: How are women, writers or not, in your opinion, empowered? How do they get that fierce fearlessness, do you think?

NH: From what they have endured, from those who inspire them, from other women, from love, from that luminous-kickass-energy-force-inside.

RZ: Where is ‘home’ for you?

NH: I suppose I’ve given versions of the same response over the years. Today, I will simply say that home is where you can see the most profound side of yourself.

RZ: You have promoted international literature through translation, research, and the editing of the groundbreaking The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award and the W.W. Norton landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond. How important is it to promote international literature, and why did you feel these anthologies were necessary?

NH: It’s vital—one of the most fundamental ways to understand other worlds; their history, culture, traditions. Coming for the Middle East but also having a global identity, I almost didn’t have an option. Thank goodness I enjoy editing and translating. It’s a tough job.
The Poetry of Arab Women was prepared to eradicate invisibility: to provide an introduction to Arab women poets, to make visible the works of a great number of Arab women poets who are virtually unknown to the West, to make visible many Arab-American women poets who are marginalized within the American literary and ethnic scenes, and to demonstrate the wide diversity of Arab women’s poetry, which extends to other languages besides Arabic and English.
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond was conceived following the events of September 11th, 2001. Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and I started this journey together because we felt troubled by the negative views showcased in the media about the East. Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits. We hope this adds to the ongoing dialogue between East and West. This anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today from the East, bringing together the works of South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. The collection includes 400 voices from 55 different countries writing in 40 different languages. The work included is diverse in style and aesthetic from political, to apolitical, erotic to experimental.

We are currently planning the 5th year anniversary celebration of the publication of our anthology in Hong Kong this summer. Simultaneously, we are launching the Language for a New Century website intended to reach educators and to assist them in adopting and teaching the contents of the book. Beyond this, the LNC site will be an energetic space where teachers, professors, students, readers, poets, and anyone interested in this anthology and the amazing voices from the East can go to for more information.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing themselves in Arabic as well?

NH: We don’t owe our heritage as much as we owe ourselves—whatever it is we feel or need. We can’t force connections and alliances. We have our personal circumstances and histories, and shouldn’t be judged by those realities nor assigned expectations. After all, a person might speak Arabic and not feel connected to the Arab world and culture. And another might not speak the language and feel very linked to his/her heritage.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once in an interview that what makes us human is our ability to answer thoughtfully, and change our minds later. That resonates with many people, surely, many of whom are probably afraid to perhaps voice this resonance. What is it about changing our minds that terrifies us so much? And is this confirmation an integral part of what makes us creative? What makes writers, writers?

NH: It doesn’t terrify all of us. I find it rather reassuring, comforting. As for what makes writers, writers. I can’t speak for all of them, I can only tell you, as a writer, I’m a romantic of sorts in search of an impossible perfect.

RZ: You have been asked this question countless times before, but I will ask you again, forgive me; how do you define yourself in terms of identity?

NH: A Bethlehemite—who is also French and American—with Latin American, African and Asian influences. A Mediterranean who is also very much a city person.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that, “homeland is one thing and home is another.” How so? And do you find yourself constantly in search of one or the other in your writing?

NH: Not any more. They appear and disappear but I’m very clear on what each means to me. Home is the place I have chosen to exist in, my cities, Paris and New York. Homeland is where I am originally from, Bethlehem.

RZ: You’ve lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. You are of Palestinian descent and write in English. Does the Arab in you feel empowered?

NH: I only write in English but my poems include French, Spanish and Arabic words because they are an integral part of my English or maybe I should say, the way I communicate. These languages coexist inside of me harmoniously. Speaking various languages has expanded my interior and exterior world in a multitude of fascinating ways.

RZ: In an increasingly globalized present, where the world seems to be shrinking faster than a new phone app is created, (or maybe not!) and the distinctive, discerning features of each Arab culture seems to be vanishing, how can art reconcile us with the idea that we may become increasingly obsolete? (or maybe not?)

NH: Arab or any other culture will not become obsolete. It’s our fundamental pulse, and we instinctively preserve our cultures. We re-imagine them but will not let them disappear. I don’t see the distinctive features of each Arab culture vanishing. I can recognize certain unifying spaces especially when it comes to social media but every Arab country is graced with its unique and ancient histories, cultures, traditions, art and literature. We continue to cherish, nourish, and add new twists to them. Even if every generation complains that certain elements of their culture have been lost, the essence remains very much alive.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

They are an important meeting field of ideas, minds and creative talent,
where we communicate, challenge, change, learn, and are exposed to a
constellation of voices.

NH: What advice would you offer emerging writers?

Read as diversely as possible, and don’t be in a hurry to publish. If you
persist and are dedicated, you’ll find the bus that will take you to the
terminal where you’re meant to begin your writing life.