FEBRUARY 23, 2015
PHILIP METRES is the author and translator of a number of books, including Sand Opera (Alice James 2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (forthcoming 2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Poetic Texts of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (chapbook, Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (chapbook, Flying Guillotine 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (University of Iowa 2007). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the PEN/Heim Translation grant, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Were it not for Ellis Island translation, his last name would be Abourjaili.
FADY JOUDAH: Sand Opera is ultimately a book about love, its loss and recapture, and the struggle in between. Many will completely misread it as another political book of poems, in that reductive, ready-made sense of “political” which is reserved for certain themes but mostly for certain ethnicities. So part of that misreading is due to the book’s subject matter or its Abu Ghraib arias, and also because it is written by an Arab American.
PHILIP METRES: I love the fact that you read Sand Opera as a book about love. The longer I worked on the book, the more I felt compelled to move past the dark forces that instigated its beginnings, forces that threatened to overwhelm it and me. Love, as much as I can understand it, thrives in an atmosphere of care for the self and other — the self of the other and the other of the self — through openness, listening, and dialogue. Because the book was born in the post-9/11 era, it necessarily confronts the dark side of oppression, silencing, and torture. Torture, as Elaine Scarry has explored so powerfully in The Body in Pain, is the diametrical opposite of love, the radical decreation of the other for political ends. The recent release of the so-called “Torture Report,” and the torrent of responses (both expressions of condemnation and defensive justifications) has felt like a traumatic repetition for me. Didn’t we deal with this during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “Enhanced Interrogation” debate? Even now, the political conversation seems to skip over the fact that torture contravenes international law and is a profoundly immoral act, and moves so quickly to debate its merits — whether any good “intelligence” may have been gleaned from it. Why is that the writers who have gained the widest platforms were veterans of the war, some of whom participated directly in interrogation — for example, Eric Fair’s courageous mea culpa December 2014 Letter to the Editor in The New York Times — while Arab voices, like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s, are so hard to find and so marginalized?
Yes, Good Morning, Vietnam, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and now it’s American Sniper. The question of agency is a serious one here. It’s what I call the Oliver Stone syndrome, where the humanity of the victimized is further diluted by the humanity of the victimizer who just can’t let go of their moral agony. Or in Edward Said’s words, it is “the permission to narrate.” Agency belongs to those who have tortured or shot Arabs and lived to tell about it. It is literature’s version of the Patriot Act, behind the mask of “professionalism,” “plurality,” and “experience.” The representatives of power’s soft remorseful side get the front row tickets at the table of public discourse.
The recent events reminded me how dismayed I was by American representations of Abu Ghraib. Take Errol Morris’s documentary “Standard Operating Procedure.” Here was this careful examination of how the prison scandal unfolded, through the eyes of the perpetrators, and NOT ONE of the victims was interviewed. Their presence was merely fodder for the exercise of imperial remorse. And it seems to be happening again.
I should make it clear, at the same time, the important work of American veterans standing up and speaking out not only against acts of abuse or atrocity, but owning complicity with larger structures of oppression. As I’ve learned personally from my father, a Vietnam veteran and Arab American, American veterans carry a particular burden of grief and guilt that makes it complicated for them to speak publicly. We may have already reached the moment where veteran casualties from suicide now have passed combat fatalities. So the war continues for our veterans, something I broach in Sand Opera in a handful of poems: “The Blues of Ken Davis,” “The Blues of Joe Darby,” “War Stories,” “Home Sweet Home,” and “Breathing Together.” The recent work by Brian Turner and Hugh Martin, Roy Scranton’s devastating “Back to Baghdad” in Rolling Stone about returning to Iraq — these are crucial voices in the conversation and for the anti-war and anti-imperial struggle. But we have to face the fact that American culture is addicted to the war story.
My hope is that the veteran writers recognize the platform that our militarized culture grants them, and — as Mark Nowak does so effectively with the unheard in the labor movement — to pull on that stage, as it were, the unheard Arab and Muslim voices that would be treated with skepticism or unheard entirely. In a recent essay, “Meet the Poet-Stranger,” Khaled Mattawa shares a painful anecdote about a reading that he and Dunya Mikhail, an amazing Iraqi poet, did with Brian Turner, at which every single question during the “Q” & “A” afterward was addressed to Brian. That could have been a moment to reflect on and move the conversation in a new direction.
In what ways, then, does Sand Opera address the navel-gazing guilt in America over the horror it committed against Iraqis? I mean most of what we read about Iraq, or I should say most American literature that is pushed to the front about Iraq, is about our national imperial humanity. Iraqis remain dead people to pity, ghosts for our Ouija board, and when they have voices it is actually a reflection of how morally virtuous our voices are (as poets, journalists, or novelists). It seems even when they speak, they speak through us. We are the ventriloquists of the dead we kill.
You’re asking a difficult question, one that readers of Sand Opera may have to answer for themselves. (In fact, everything that I say here should be accompanied by an asterisk.) That question of representation has haunted me as well, maybe because I’ve learned about Iraq partly through the frame of the anti-war movement, which often hyperfocuses on Iraqi victimization. Do we still have to go back to Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism — the fact that American perceptions of the Middle East are covered by and saturated with the static of imperial thinking? We have to get past our Heart of Darkness obsession and move into Things Fall Apart, and past that.
When I think about my history with Iraq — this country that I’ve never visited but that has visited me in the eyes and lives of Iraqi people I’ve met and befriended, alongside the roil and static of representations of Iraq — I go back to 1990, during the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, the advent of US-led economic sanctions and the subsequent Persian Gulf War of 1991. I organized a rally against the war on my college campus, the first anti-war demonstration at Holy Cross College probably since the Vietnam War. Just a couple months later, I watched my classmates watching George Bush the First announce that bombing had begun, and the excitement was palpable. The coverage by US media, dogged by conservative accusations that they had lost the Vietnam War or had been unpatriotic, was surreal. It utterly lacked journalistic integrity, and good people lost their critical distance in the patriotic buzz of “smart” bombs and the myth of surgical strikes and a “clean” war. I felt as if someone had stolen my country, that the culture had gone psychotic. The Amiriyah shelter massacre, in which a US “smart” bomb killed 400 civilians in a bomb shelter during the bombing of Iraq, barely made the news.
When the truth of the devastation wrought by those bombings emerged, we learned that US forces targeted civilian infrastructure such as water filtration facilities and the electrical grid, and that we had bombed Iraq into a kind of quasi-Stone Age. According to some UN humanitarian reports, the consequences of bombing and sanctions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, often by preventable disease, due to lack of sanitary water and medicine.
There is this horror. In 1996, on “60 Minutes,” Lesley Stahl asked then-US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright whether the death of half a million Iraqi children [from sanctions in Iraq] was a price worth paying, Albright replied: “This is a very hard choice … but we think the price is worth it.”
I am grateful during my time in graduate school at Indiana University to have gotten involved in the anti-sanctions campaign, meeting and working with peace activists and local Iraqis in Bloomington. We did a number of actions, including raising funds and sending basic medical supplies to Iraq despite the sanctions.
So when I think of Iraq, I think first of Shakir Mustafa and Nawal Nasrallah, two dear friends whom I met in the English Department at Indiana. Shakir was completing his PhD in Irish Literature (another postcolonial country!), and Nawal was working in Bloomington and preparing (literally and figuratively) for her wonderful Iraqi cuisine cookbook, Delights from the Garden of Eden. Incidentally, “Recipe from the Abbasid” from Sand Opera was inspired by that cookbook. When I think of Iraq, I think of the wistfulness of their eyes, the melancholy of exile, the graciousness of their hospitality. That’s partly why I wrote “A Toast,” as a gratitude to the meals that Nawal prepared for us, to honor how they carried their country in exile kitchens.
When I think of Iraq, I think of the Iraqi professor Salih Altoma at Indiana University, who translated Iraqi poets and shared their poems as part of our local anti-sanctions campaign. I think of his wit and passion, how his mouth would come to a froth as he translated the words of poets into the language of empire, the empire squeezing the throat of his country.
When I think of Iraq, I think of Kadhim Shaaban, an older gentleman who always wore a suit and tie. He would take periodic trips back to Iraq with medical supplies and come back laden with stories of the material and psychological devastation he witnessed. One of his stories inspired my poem “one more story” in To See the Earth, which describes his chance meeting with a hungry and scared Iraqi refugee wandering the streets of Amsterdam, looking for her husband, having illegally crossed many borders stowed in a fruit truck.
When I think of Iraq, I think of the scholar who wrote to me from Baghdad, asking for any recent articles about the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. I think of Nuha al-Radi and her Baghdad Diaries and Salam Abdulmunem (a.k.a. “Salam Pax”) and his blog missives illuminating life in Iraq from 2003. I think of the Iraqi poets and writers translated into (or writing in) English: Dunya Mikhail, Sinan Antoon, Saadi Youssef, Fadhil al-Azzawi, Amal al-Jubouri, and the fantastic recent anthology, We Are Iraqis. And everyone should read Wafaa Bilal’s Shoot an Iraqi, which will break your heart, and Manal Omar’s Barefoot in Baghdad.
They are Iraq to me. They are the Iraq I carry.
There are, of course, other Iraqs, many Iraqs, and one shouldn’t have to say that, except for the fact that Orientalism constantly flattens all of these Iraqs into “something sinister” (to quote our friend Hayan Charara’s poem).
I haven’t even begun talking about the recent Iraq War. Sand Opera began out of a desire to write back against the dehumanizing force of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, but I realized very quickly that writing about the photos would simply reinstantiate the position of Iraqi as objectivized victim, a representation ultimately no more human than the Iraqi as a Saddam-following scimitar-wielding maniac. When I found transcripts of the testimonies of the Iraqis who were abused in Abu Ghraib, I knew I wanted to work with them, to work myself into listening to those voices — voices of great vulnerability, but voices that announce their courageous tenacity and will to live. I talk in great detail about “abu ghraib arias” in “Parsing Arias” (2012) and in an interview for the Alice James newsletter (November 2014), in which one can read in greater detail the process of construction and significance of that mini-opera, part of the larger opera.
And that, of course, was only the beginning. I wanted to avoid staying in that prison, the prison of Abu Ghraib and the prison of misprision, of seeing Iraqis as victims only.
You also address the architecture of violence in your book. Those schematic drawings of torture rooms, for example. The book comes close to embodying the physicality of horror, while the juxtaposing text is so tender and humanizing, and is in the voice of the detained, not the victimizer’s self-absorbed reflective gaze.
In the process of reading and trying to make sense of how the War on Terror was being conducted abroad, I began to be aware of the use of secret prisons for interrogation, what are called “black sites.” (A gruesome and inaccurate depiction of this can be found in the depressingly fawning “Zero Dark Thirty”). One particular article in Salon about the story of Yemeni citizen Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah struck me with force, partly because it included renderings of drawings that Bashmilah had made while in various black sites around the world — probably in order to make sense of where he was and what was happening to him. I wanted to include Bashmilah’s version of those spaces, in all their painstaking detail (right down to the broken-down Russian-made jeep outside one compound). His testimony, taken from the legal case against Jeppesen Dataplan for its complicity in shuttling secret prisoners for the C.I.A., is full of such stunning detail — about the scar on the doctor who examined him, the Rubik’s Cube he was given, the plastic water bottles that revealed what country he was in, the sounds of voices beyond the compound wall — that I wanted his longing to appear in some proximity to the solid walls of imprisonment.
The publishers at Alice James proposed the use of some vellum paper overlays for parts of the book, and we agreed that the language from the testimony should appear as vellum overlays on the black site drawings, which are spread out in the book. The rest of his testimony appears at the end of the book, in a sequence called “Homefront/The Removes,” juxtaposed against my own Arab American experiences of 9/11.
Also there is so much emphasis on music here; the title has opera in it, the opening sequence is an aria. It reminds me of a line from an early Darwish poem: “The music of human flesh.” Is Sand Opera in part also about the cultural construct of art, which is surely a political process one-step removed? In other words Sand Opera denies the exclusion of one form of gaze from another (away or toward politics) and merges both into one. Its truth-seeking does not conveniently sieve art from the politics of its creation.
The title itself is an erasure of the longer (secret) title, revealed on the title page, Standard Operating Procedure. In the early 2000s, WikiLeaks sent me the Standard Operating Procedure manual for the Guantanamo Bay prison. After hesitating for a moment, wondering whether I should open this file at all, I decided that I had an obligation to read further. What I discovered was a dry document of protocols for running a detention facility; but in some of its details, it demonstrated a remarkable amount of cultural sensitivity — about how to handle a Qur’an properly, and more ominously, how to conduct a proper Muslim burial. The fact that this was the place where Qur’ans would be thrown in the toilet and men forcibly smeared in the face with menstrual blood suggests the gulf between US law (and cultural knowledge) and the conduct of military intelligence and C.I.A. in the War on Terror.
As Walter Benjamin once said, every artifact of civilization is also an artifact of barbarism.
I wanted to mention this first because as I wrote the poems that would comprise Sand Opera, I did not want to succumb to the temptation of aestheticizing the violence, of making the horrors beautiful. The notion that suffering can be redemptive, or that “beauty can save the world” (pace Dostoyevsky) seem to me to be dubious and even dangerous. Yet at the same time, there is no life without suffering, and what would life be without beauty? In writing a book that tried to work with life as I’ve known it during the War on Terror, I could not but enter into the caves of human pain — my own and others’. At the same time, I wanted to write a book that would testify to the persistence and beauty of our tenacity not only to survive, but to live with verve and delve into delight. Personally, the War on Terror has overlapped precisely with my life as a father to two beautiful girls. Everything about this book is asking the question that my daughter asked to me (which I repeated in “Hung Lyres”), when we heard over the radio an Iraqi man keen: “Is that man crying or singing?”
Sand Opera employs the tropes of opera in its structure and themes. The book’s sections, as in classic opera, reference both “arias” and “recitatives,” the two dominant modes of opera, roughly corresponding to lyric and narrative/dramatic modes in poetry. The book isn’t meant to be a libretto, though I imagine it could be staged as a play. The “abu ghraib arias,” for example, is itself actually composed of both blues poems written from the point of view of American military personally and arias written from the point of view of Iraqi detainees, and could be seen itself as a mini-opera.
And yet you take this further. Sand Opera is also a mosaic of poetic forms. The intensity of the music does not let up. It’s as if I have to second-guess my lungs, when to inhale and when to exhale.
The longer I write poetry, the more interested I’ve become in poetic practice as a kind of trance state — or three interlinked trance states of writing, reading, and reciting. We think of the origins of poetry as multiple: its dialogue with the tribe (in the form we come to know as the epic), its dialogue with the gods or others (lyric), its dialogue with action (drama). Is it any surprise that the dialogue with otherness that is the lyric is named for its relationship to the ancient stringed instrument, the lyre? What is music but organized noise, some incantatory relationship between repetition and variation? The first poetry was most likely incantatory, ecstatic, otherworldly — from Sumerian prayers to Sappho’s lyrics, from the Psalms to the shamanic spells transcribed in anthologies such as Technicians of the Sacred.
Sand Opera is rife with poems that employ recursion and even rhyme — some of them in fairly traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet (“Etruscan Cista Handle”), the pantoum (“Testimony”), heroic couplets (“When I Was a Child, I Lived as a Child, I Said to My Dad”), and the sestina (“The Iraqi Curator’s PowerPoint”). And it begins and ends with poem-prayers (“Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” and “Compline”) that aspire to a poetry of trance, opening a door to the spirit world, where we can consult with ancestors who might bring balm to our wounds. In the Catholic tradition, prior to eating God’s body, entering into communion with the Eternal, the believer says: “O Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
As you mentioned, your daughters make beautiful appearances in Sand Opera, speak to that a little, would you? It is perhaps the most touching and exalting part of the book, for me, at least, as a father.
This is where we circle back to the centrality of love. “Hung Lyres,” the sequence of autobiographical lyric poems in the middle of the book, meditate on what it means to be a parent in an age of terror. I think of the vulnerability and tenderness of my daughters’ infant bodies — their pliable and open ears, their sweet noses, their gooey mouths, their alien and familiar eyes. I don’t think my wife and I slept for five years, as they cried themselves awake and asleep in their young babyhoods. We were constantly sleep-deprived, nerve-shot, wired, and yet all we knew to do was to keep on doing what we must do — the nurture, to calm, to feed, to change, to bathe, to press our flesh to flesh.
I remember when Adele was born, I was in awe of the beauty of her ears. Her ears, of all things! I guess I couldn’t have imagined that she had ears, curled up in her mother’s womb. And that these beautiful doors to the world could never be shut except by one’s hands. That our bodies are that open, that exposed.
To think that at the same time, people were being tortured by use of constant, earsplitting sound in Guantanamo Bay prison. Such unrelenting noise, with the most ludicrous of soundtracks — the Barney Theme Song, for example: I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won’t you say you love me too. I can’t imagine a more sinister song to play to someone constantly day and night. That shit would drive anyone crazy.
“Hung Lyres” is about the simultaneity of these two realities, in a sense, and ends with something amazing that my daughter once said on a walk after a rainy day outside, when all the worms have been flung or flung themselves onto the sidewalk. One of my favorite poems of yours, “Mimesis” is so simple and so wise, something your daughter said to you. Sometimes poetry is listening, listening to the great listeners.
Just last night, I dreamt that I got separated from my wife and daughter at the airport and ended up in Gaza, alone, and Israeli security was hounding me, accusing me of being a terrorist, trying to force me into a plane back to the US. I was trying to explain to the interrogator that I wasn’t alone, that my wife and daughter would be here soon, but she pushed me into a holding pen — neither in Palestine nor in America. Later, I was walking beneath a large salty dune, and the dune collapsed, covering me completely in sand.
When I woke, I remembered where I was. How easy it is to get drowned in oppression, how easy to get cut off from the resources of our love.
Allow me to return to what you said about our American addiction to the war story. How we don’t recognize that we as a nation are and have been in perpetual war. So much of what empire touches turns to stone, medusa becomes our lot. Yet in spite of that and because of it, what is most celebrated in American letters, its “pop” presence, with all its puns, stifles a meaningful sense of resistance. What is most permissible, most “us,” is what sings our eternal eulogy. Everything else is under the surveillance of “criticism.” It’s as if a bizarre phobia of national death overtakes our vision of what art can do. The art turns tribal but the tribe is massive. The “I” is set down already scripted paths, even for those who argue against the “I.” The paths may be numerous but they have been well trodden: algorithmic bifurcations and diagrams.
Perhaps that fear’s origins may be deeply unconscious. Perhaps Americans have a dim awareness that we may be partly responsible for or complicit in the deep inequities, not only in our own society, but also between our society and those of the rest of the world. And that, if fate were different and I were on the other side of that inequity, I might too come to resent and resist this massive, tentacular, flexible, omnipresent yet nebulous network of power we know as empire. So that fear, that impulse for security, is not necessarily merely some national limbic system reaction or survival instinct, but rather an expression of our own awareness of our complicity with injustice.
Poetry cannot heal these wounds alone; but it’s my primary technology of diagnosis and therapeutic practice.
I am grateful, Fady, to have met you nearly a decade ago through Radius of Arab American Writers, when I submitted some of the “abu ghraib arias” for the RAWI website. Your editorial advice was equally impassioned and surgical, and I immediately felt that I was in the presence of a brother in the work of poetry. And more than that; I’ve found our conversations to be deeply inspiring, challenging me to explore my own wounds and blind spots.
One thing that we’ve done as a community of Arab American writers for each other is to confirm that we’re not alone, and that we’re not crazy. That the society in which we live may occasionally “deny us the grace of rage,” as you said once, quoting another postcolonial writer, Arundhati Roy, but that it won’t silence us or cause us to reduce our complex, irreducible humanity. To believe that we are boxed in by politics is an illusion, though it’s also true that we find ourselves in the dynamics of what Deleuze and Guattari call “minor literature.” There isn’t a theme or a form or a possibility in poetry that should be kept from us. We both have been experimenting with love poetry, and it’s not an allegory for the Middle East!
And “love poetry” may also be a direct expression for the desire to love, simple as that. Phil, the poet Tonya Foster recently reminded me of an important moment in American Letters. I am thinking of the Umbra poets of the early 1960s who were cognizant of their imposed singularities that did not add up to a collective presence. Whenever one of them was invited to a reading, he or she brought others from the group along and read together. In other words, those Black poets were decontextualized from the relation they held within their community and from the relation America at large had with them. So those poets resisted the island existence, so to speak. They were singular plurals and they stood up to make it known. Do you see this repeat itself today regarding Arab and Muslim American poets, for example?
I like your metaphor about resisting the “island existence,” which works on a couple different levels. The one I’m concerned with is whether there is any strength in numbers, or whether what Charles Bernstein once called “Official Verse Culture” will baptize one or two of our group as Essential American Poets (Khaled or you or Naomi) and denude the work of its essential postcolonial contexts.
What’s important to remember also about the Umbra poets is that they laid the groundwork for the Black Arts Movement just a few years later, which had a profound impact on American poetry. It forced American poetry to confront its aesthetics and politics of whiteness in ways that still reverberate; every time we see an anthology of American or African-American poetry (think back to the vigorous debate around Rita Dove’s editorial choices for her Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry), the dialogues within African-American poetry (our most American of American poetry, to my mind) emerge again — about the place of politics, about intended audience, about the telos of art. There is now a space and tradition for radical American poetry, and this is one of its primary sources.
It’s been beautiful to see the reception of Claudia Rankine’s important book, Citizen. It appears, at last, we are having a conversation about the insidious psychological damage of racism. I love the fact that that book explores not only various personal punctures of racism (what is modern racism but death by a thousand cuts?), but also the very public meltdowns of Serena Williams (a riposte, no doubt, to the Tony Hoagland affair) and the Algerian soccer star Zinedine Zidane — due to racial attacks. I was shocked when reading Citizen how I kept nodding my head, and seeing connections between it and various poems in your recent book Textu (both in terms of content and form, like a sort of Morse code of the margins slipping into the cells of texts) and Sand Opera, particularly the “Homefront/Removes” sequence, about what it was like post-9/11 for Arabs and Muslims in America. Is America ready to have this conversation? I really hope so.
But back to the big question. I don’t know whether our impact will be similar to Umbra or the Black Arts Movement — that would indeed be stunning. But here’s my modest weather prediction. I believe we are in the opening phase of an Arab American literary renaissance, an “al-Mahjar” 2.0, hearkening back to the early 20th century flourishing of Arab American letters known as the Pen League: Ameen Rihani, Kahlil Gibran, and Mikhail Naimy. The first throes of a revolution. Our elders are Lawrence Joseph and Naomi Shihab Nye and Mahmoud Darwish and Etel Adnan and Adonis and Ammiel Alcalay. I hereby nominate Naomi Shihab Nye as the next US poet laureate. Can you imagine someone more prepared to spread the Gospel of Poetry as a medium of joy, an articulation of our joie de vivre?
But to be a US poet laureate you have to disavow the political, you cannot talk about any issues that trouble imperial politics in Washington or its citizens across the land. As for Citizen, it is about microaggression for the most part, and yes I liked it deeply. But do you think an equally well envisioned book about Ferguson, for example, would reach the same heights in American culture? Assuming, of course, the book is not done two decades from now. There’s a safety in Citizen with which it enters and exits the lungs of the grand American narrative, the permissible. In other words, I think Citizen’s genius is its limitation, its capacity to show us that the permissible in American letters includes, for the most part, the bourgeoisie enactments or representation of racism. Traditionally it has been that when solid middle-class sensibility is moved and affected in America (thus all the fascination with Citizen’s use of the second-person pronoun) that a morality or the illusion of morality begins to shift inside America. This undressing is what I admire about Citizen. The crowd is clapping because it is finally looking in the mirror and sighing at what it sees. As if Godot has finally arrived. It always amazed me how steeped in politics American letters are, yet they remain in “projective identification” about it. It is often the “other” non-citizen citizen or non-American American whose art is “political.”
You also mentioned “postcolonial” twice so far. I don’t know how to feel about that. How are Arabs, many Arabs, and also many Muslims, postcolonial subjects of American empire and thus of American letters. If anything, many are being recolonized, in classic not neo manner. What is American culture’s track record in managing its postcolonial or colonial (or vanquished) subjects? Is an Iraqi closer to a Vietnamese? Is an Arab American to Anglophone literature what an Indian is, for example? Isn’t there something vulgar about a hierarchy of belonging (within empire) through a classification of suffering the empire? How to categorize a Palestinian vs. a Libyan, an Iranian vs. a Pakistani? The inevitability of what they write, so far as it reaffirms, even if unintentionally, the narrative of our American goodness which, in part, includes in its folds their origin’s shortcomings, their stereotypes. You can see this is such a headache and for so many the best thing to do is to remain so domestic, like a prey preserved in a spider’s casing. The psychologic, in America, is a potent political force. Confessionalism and its descendants (or ancestors) have always been political, at times radical, but often submissive in service of the status quo. After all, “liberation” is individual, at couch-level, we are told.
Fady, as usual you’ve homed in on the essence of the problem, one that will not be resolved by our conversation. As poets, of course, we by nature bridle against the false freedoms and protected zones of the Literary as such. Publication is the auction of the mind, as Dickinson once wrote. Each poem becomes a labor against those offered (preapproved) pathways. The institutions of the Literary are no more liberated than any other institution, subject to internal and external rules, some of which are visible, and some of which are not. In the end, what binds us as poets is our concern for language and its possibilities. The perceived leftism of poetry, related to its position in the post-1960s university culture (as Robert Archambeau has argued), is bounded and rhetorical, to be sure. Every gesture of radicalism, in our absorptive system, seems so quickly domesticated and commodified. So we’re damned by our success or damned by the haters. I try not to worry too much about reception. We know that there will be haters and dismissers, as there are in every field. But let awake people be awake.
In terms of the wider literary question, I come back to the inherent scholarly tension between canonicity and literary history. If canonicity is often the mechanism of hierarchy and exclusion, then literary history may be the mechanism of dilation and inclusion; in this struggle, I hope that I’m part of the operation of inclusion. That’s deeply connected to the question of the postcolonial, moving through the questions in the work not only of Edward Said but also of Gayatri Spivak in her crucial essay “Can the Subaltern Speak.”
Okay, now this has compelled me to put on my critic hat for a moment, to name some names. Our brother Khaled Mattawa, who brought me into the RAWI community, recently received the MacArthur Genius Grant for his poetry and his voluminous translations from the Arab world. You won the Yale Younger Poetry prize and the Griffin Prize for your translations of the inimitable Ghassan Zaqtan and have your third book of poems out. There’s Hayan Charara with two books of poems and the important anthology Inclined to Speak, Suheir Hammad, Farid Matuk, Deema Shehabi, Nathalie Handal, Glenn Shaheen, Samiya Bashir, Matthew Shenoda, Mohja Kahf, Elmaz Abinader, Hedy Habra, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Carolina Ebeid, Angele Ellis, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran, Rewa Zeinati, Priscilla Wathington, Remi Kanazi, Eliot Khalil Wilson. Our work is as aesthetically diverse as we are, which is considerable. I know I’ve missed some people. Every time I turn around another Arab American poet is emerging with a new book of poems — Hala Alyan, Zeina Hashem Beck, Siwar Masannat, just recently — not to mention the phenomenal poets from the Muslim world (and honorary Arab Americans) Kazim Ali, Shadab Hashmi, Ali Hasan, Safia Elhillo, Kim Jensen, Persis Karim, Ladan Osman, Zohra Saed, Solmaz Sharif, Nomi Stone. Marilyn Hacker should be mentioned for her translations and mentoring of Arab American poets and support for Arab poetry. I think of all the many American poets, particularly poets of color (Teju Cole, Claudia Rankine, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Ken Chen) who stand with us, as we stand with them, trying to breathe and speak together.
I haven’t even mentioned our prose writers: Susan Abulhawa, Diana Abu-Jaber, Rabih Alameddine, Ibtisam Barakat, Moustafa Bayoumi, Susan Muaddi Darraj, Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Hisham Matar, Claire Messud, (among others) — each of them dazzling and meditative and hilarious and passionate and profound. And recently I’ve read Tariq Al Haydar, Zaina Arafat, Dina Omar, Zahie El Kouri.
To answer your question: we, too, sing America, in our own way.
Americans will hear not (only) themselves in us, but how they are not themselves alone, and that none of us can continue to live as if our definition of humanity ends at our national borders, at the borders of our skin, or at the borders of our tongue.