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.