Beautiful Plurality: A Conversation About the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize




IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, I found myself at the New Museum in New York City, which was housing a special exhibit of Arab artists. On the third floor, taking up an entire room, was the work of poet and artist Etel Adnan, and of her partner, visual artist Simone Fattal. On the walls were pages from Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse — a brilliant piece of war writing — which included scrawled notes and doodles. I took a photo of these pages — without flash, of course — and sent it to two people: Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah. The text stream that followed touched on some of the questions we usually touch on: Why are Arab artists only allowed to speak or take the stage if they have something political to say? Why doesn’t every artist have something political to say? A year later, Chahara and Joudah had secured funding from Etel Adnan and the University of Arkansas Press to start a prize for a first or second book by a poet of Arab heritage. What follows is the first of two interviews focusing on this award and its meaning. Here is part two.

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RANDA JARRAR: Can you each tell us the story of when you first envisioned and started talking about this award?

Fady Joudah

FADY JOUDAH: It was years ago at one of the RAWI (Radius of Arab-American Writers) conferences in Michigan when the idea first crossed my mind. Hayan and I talked about it. It was obviously sitting there, fermenting in his mind as well. It felt natural to think of it in the middle of so many fantastic writers who belonged in one sense or another to Arabic and English. Hayan and I kept coming back to the idea, talking about it more and more. The overwhelming feeling for me was a realization that for some reason or other only a few Arab-American poets were read, and, of those, I am not sure any are read that well, with aesthetic purpose. This means that there are many out there who are given fewer, if any, chances at the gates. Almost a cliché observation by now in American culture — par for the course. It seemed to me, and it is still the case probably, that American writers of Arab heritage are mostly read with a lean duality at best: an either-or end of some spectrum that is largely entangled in a national ethos about what an Arab is (complicated or obfuscated by what a Muslim is).

Of course there are also precedents — most notably perhaps in the black, women, and LGBTQ communities. There’s that range between the foreign and domestic combined with the patriarchal and the racial. Looking at those precedents, I feel enchanted and also dispirited: as if this is some “primary” modus operandi in American culture that one cannot easily circumnavigate, a Catch-22: the dance between centers and peripheries. One can’t expect the culture, or the United States, to which one belongs to see the light alone; it has to be shown the light, but the light can only be shown through certain historically established mechanisms.

Yet in a greater sense, the prize is about belief in art, a love of art. It is restrictive (perhaps conveniently so, for many) to think this is about representation, or cultural anthropology through (or under the guise of) aesthetic means: another mode of cultural hegemony within American heritage. The Etel Adnan Prize is about listening, truly listening to others. And every listening is a community.

HAYAN CHARARA: I remember talking with Fady about a book award at a RAWI conference at the Arab American National Museum. And since then, and until we actually got the prize going, we’ve talked about it often. We both live in Houston, so that makes it easy to do.

And when we meet for coffee, a subject that’s usually on my mind is the fact that, as a group, Arab-American poets receive little attention. The hope, in part, is that a book award may make a meaningful impact in that regard.

For most of us, the business of identity — of being an “Arab-American” poet as opposed to an American poet — feels like a law of physics. It is practically impossible for an American poet of Arab heritage not to be read without identity playing a major role. Too often, identity serves as both an entry and exit point for most discussions or encounters readers have with Arab-American poets, especially because Arab identity is highly politicized. But the fact is, American identity is just as politicized, if not more so.

What I’m sure about now — more than I was almost a decade ago when I edited Inclined to Speak, an anthology of Arab-American poetry — is that an argument can be made for thinking about and discussing all American poets, not just Arabs, in terms of the larger political realities that define us as Americans. For Arabs, that’s already the case, but it’s not so for most American poets.

There’s a reference in Etel Adnan’s biography about her becoming an American poet, and that act, of her identification with American poetry, comes with her resistance to the Vietnam War. When Fady saw this part of her bio, he pointed out to me the anxiety he felt about that association, between Arabs and war — as if it was our fate to be associated with violence, especially with dead Arabs in the picture. What I told Fady — and I think he expected this from me — is that we didn’t get to choose our time, or our fate. This is where we are now. Maybe years down the line those who come after us won’t have to deal with this painful reality.

I also think that every American poet should be mentioned in the context of war — every single one. After all, the United States has been at war in one way or other, constant war, for over half a century. It’s what the poet-lawyer Lawrence Joseph and others have referred to as a state of permanent war — and isn’t every poem written in such a state, a war poem and a political poem? Fady’s reply to this was brilliant: he began to envision, to re-vision, the bios of major American poets, so that their bios would read: “she won the Pulitzer Prize in the third year after the US invasion of Iraq” or “he won the National Book Award during the US age of drone wars in Afghanistan.”

Every American poet can be more aware of his or her place in this particular American context. But many of them have opted out. That’s a luxury not available to poets of Arab heritage. The point, actually, is that this luxury is not really available to any American poet. Anyhow, these are the sorts of conversations we were having early on, at coffee shops. You can imagine what the people sitting next to us must’ve been thinking. If they were eavesdropping, that is — and I hope they were.

There’s a new edition of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons with an afterword by Juliana Spahr. In it, Spahr argues, as she’s done before, that Stein’s poems are political and that reading them outside the context of her Jewishness, her queerness, and her fascination with anti-Semites would be foolish. Hayan, the point you’re raising about all American writers being studied or read within the context of war is a very important one. Orwell once wrote that choosing not to be political is a political act in itself. Which brings us back to Fady’s points about the center and the periphery. Why is a prize like this important? Listening, community-making: yes. But why not support Arab-American poets and shepherd them into presses and contests that are open to “all”? I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m sure this is an argument some people still make.

FJ: I think some of us have been doing that, supporting each other into other places. But I think cherry-picking leads to scattered island formations, not even an archipelago. In art, listening as a way of seeing (in John Berger’s sense) is an essential if difficult task. There are a lot of young writers out there who long to feel listened to, to be understood with greater empathy. Instead, they are policed in the name of art.

This possibility of listening, of dialogue, is what got me excited about pursuing the idea of the prize — much more so than the notion of representation, with its power dialectics and surrogates in American culture. I know we live in a contest-laden environment, thanks to the capitalist notion of progress, but there are some serious writers out there and they shouldn’t feel alone — islanded, as it were. And I am not talking uniformity or conformity here. A space for those whose paths may not cross with mine or yours on a personal or aesthetic level becomes all the more necessary.

Yes it is problematic that it is a “prize,” and who knows what this prize may dissolve into in the future, what centrality — but it is also about a real conversation with time, and time is long. The “open to all” that you mention is about a pecking order in a democratic unconscious of representation. Too frequently it’s like presidential primaries. The poet and critic Zaid Shlah wrote a wonderful essay recently, “The Conscripted Metaphor.” In it, he argues that, despite the seeming plurality of poetic diction, it is more homogenous than what meets the eye. It is a language of the State, and the State we belong to is an immense one. Even much of what passes for dissent is in awe of State language. I hope that the Etel Adnan Prize would go beyond the conscripted metaphor. In his essay, Shlah has this lovely quote from Glenn Gould:

When [people] become disrespectful of the immensity of negation compared to system — then they put themselves out of reach of that replenishment of invention upon which creative ideas depend, because invention is, in fact, a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system.

HC: Look, at some point most young poets find out about book prizes, especially the big ones — those that promise them, or at least give them hope for, recognition. And frankly, at some point, you need some recognition to keep from going crazy or becoming bitter or depressed. I read something that fiction writer Fred Leebron said about writing, which sums it up in a hard-to-forget way: “Writing is a war of attrition. Don’t attrish.”

Fleeting as it may be, a surefire way not to attrish is to receive recognition. A book, especially one published as a prizewinner, goes a long way to keep a writer from giving up. So, yes, I’m going to shepherd young poets and writers toward prizes — this one, and most of the other ones out there. And it’s true that a number of Arab-American poets have won first and second book prizes. I mentioned Lawrence Joseph earlier — his first collection, Shouting at No One, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize back in 1982; and Glenn Shaheen won the same prize in 2010 for his first book, Predatory. Eliot Khalil Wilson’s first book, The Saints of Letting Small Fish Go, won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. Hala Alyan’s third book, Hijra, was selected as a winner in the Crab Orchard Series. And of course, Fady is among the book prizewinners with The Earth in the Attic, a Yale Series of Younger Poets selection.

There may be others that I can’t remember right now or don’t know. And while this list is impressive, it’s still relatively short. It needs to be longer. There is work out there — by Arab-American poets, by Arab poets writing in English — that we ought to be reading in book form. So, in the spirit of collaboration or good will or whatever you want to call it, one more poetry series among the many already out there is ultimately a good thing. The work is out there, and Fady and I are pretty damn insistent on quality.

Also, as editors, I think we stand out in a few ways. So, yes, it’s true that winning a prize can do wonders for a young poet. It’s also true that a book prize may open doors that might otherwise remain closed — it may even open doors to places that a poet didn’t even know existed. But, the thing is, those doors might open into places you don’t want to enter; you might find people there that aren’t good for you, either as a poet or a human being.

Ultimately, when it comes to the poetry series and the poets who win it, I don’t believe that Fady and I are interested in inviting you to “the party,” if you will. The party isn’t that interesting. The conversations taking place are mostly the same. The people there are mostly the same. The hosts and most of the guests don’t know you or where you’ve been from a hole in the wall. What we’re interested in doing is bringing you into the conversation — the longer one, the bigger one, and, more importantly, the one that no one at the party is having or cares to have or even knows how to begin.

Why Etel Adnan?

FJ: Etel Adnan inhabits and embodies a beautiful plurality that, for me, is about being an Arab. She is as Greek as she is Syrian, as Syrian as she is Lebanese, as Arab as she is French, or American, as much a visual artist as she is a poet. I grew up with an understanding of the necessary impurity of what makes one an Arab, a particular yet multifaceted amalgam of people and cultures. And Etel Adnan, as person and artist, honors that reality in the world par excellence. In today’s necropolitics, there has to be a brightness that resists the sculpting of what Arab is or isn’t.

There’s also the arc of her writing life in the United States. She remained independent, on the margin, yet never a subject, marginalized. It speaks volumes, for example, that almost all her books are published by small and independent presses, including the Post-Apollo press, which was founded by Adnan’s partner, Simone Fattal. Etel Adnan has always been an important artist in any language and medium she touched or that touched her, and she was able to sustain her luminosity mostly from within the system, as Gould suggested. A true testament to art, beyond power and in spite of it. The example of her art’s life is what one hopes the “prize” can emulate.

HC: Barbara Nimri Aziz, one of RAWI’s founders, first brought up Etel’s name with regard to the book award. Barbara and I were talking on the phone around the time I was also reading Sea and Fog, in manuscript form (Kazim Ali, who published it with Nightboat Books, had sent it to me), and I had recently gone back to read The Arab Apocalypse, which I was sharing with some students. It hadn’t occurred to me to name the prize after a person, but when Barbara mentioned her name, Etel struck me as just the right figure, whose life and work would embody the prize as much as any one person or her work can do so.

Also, for a long time, I’d thought of Etel’s work as the kind that explores the depths of what makes us human, which she does by going deep down into myth and memory, and music, art, history, and literature, and of course love, loss, catastrophe, and celebration. If you ask me, she’s one of the great thinkers of our time, and a visionary too. She’s also really the first poet one might call “Arab American,” or, maybe more accurately, she’s the first poet of Arab heritage writing in English — in American English.

But that’s limiting, too, because she’s as much Arab and American as she is French. And she’s not just a poet, but also a novelist, an essayist, and a painter. And until recently, she divided her time between California and Paris, and traveled the world. In other words, it’s very hard to pin her down with categories or identities like “Arab” or “Arab American,” or even “poet.” The breadth of her person, her work, and the spaces she inhabits in the world — these also struck me as just right.

Who is the first winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize?

FJ: Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes. Jess is a young poet from the Boston area who’s living in Brooklyn now and working on a graduate degree at NYU.

HC: the magic my body becomes is her first book. It’s going to be a remarkable debut.

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Randa Jarrar is the author of A Map of Home and Him, Me, Muhammad Ali. She runs RAWI (the Radius of Arab-American Writers) and loves coordinating events and strengthening communities.


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