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.