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.