For Fady Joudah, “All life is an act of translation.” The Palestinian American poet and translator is known as much for his own verse as for his translations of the late Mahmoud Darwish. Joudah is also a practicing physician of internal medicine; he says communication with patients can be complex, and, like his translation work, it can also be “a troubled field of power.”
Joudah has won numerous awards, including the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition for his debut collection, The Earth in the Attic. His recent translation of Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems has been shortlisted for Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. [Editor's Note: On June 13, 2013, Zaqtan's Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me won the Griffin Prize.] This year sees the release of Joudah’s second and third books of poetry. The first, Alight, is a lyrical volume that Joudah described as being in conversation with his first book. The second, Textu, which is being released only as an e-book, is a volume of short poems that he tapped out on his cell phone. Joudah recently spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Houston about Palestinian literature, his admiration for Jackson Pollock, and how Zaqtan’s poetry resembles a séance.
You are known for your translations of Mahmoud Darwish. Ghassan Zaqtan, whose Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems you recently translated, is a very different poet. What drew you to him and his work?
In a sense, exactly that. He’s a very different poet. I’ve said this elsewhere, that the field of translation is a field of power, which is to say not only in what it can achieve, but also in that it is subjected to power from external forces that are applied to it. When you have a poetry like Arabic poetry or Palestinian poetry—that’s just an example, there are other poetries in the world which have to deal with the same pressures—in translation, they’re quickly boxed in or pigeonholed. For Arabic poetry there is Adonis and Darwish, there is Iraq and Palestine, there is politics, war, and imprisonment. In a strange sense the same thing has been done to much of Eastern European poetry. To an extent we only look toward poetry in Poland or Chile or certain places of the world for those kinds of things that supposedly provide us with what we cannot necessarily provide ourselves in English: a bizarre way of looking at oneself and representing someone else. Translation receives a lot of attention if it relates to our idea of what the rest of the world is—a troubled fixity.
I’ve said before that Darwish came to English much the same way that Neruda came to English—in the last decade of his life, all the while he was world famous. What drew me to Zaqtan’s poetry is that as a true artist, he went on carving his own path and designing his own aesthetic. I really was drawn to his ability to pull it off. He was, and he remains, a very austere, delicate poet obsessed with how the dead return to us—the way, for example, W.G. Sebald’s novels address memory and return. His poetry is like the performance of a séance. Once the dead return, it is not just to immortalize their presence but it’s to transform them into something else. You read Zaqtan’s poetry and you don’t really have to know that he’s Palestinian; he’s talking about a lost human time that undergoes an interesting process of metamorphosis, and it is up to you, the reader, to find what that metamorphosis is. I love what happens to wolves and horses and birds and bedsheets and corridors and windows in his poetry.
The “it” in the title, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, refers to poem fragments that he was unable to either obliterate or incorporate; neither body nor vanishing, they haunt him for years, like wings that flap inside his head, as he says in “Black Horses.” He’s able to reassemble fragments into a straw bird: a concrete yet friable existence, a solid work of fragility. The last poem in the book, “Everything as It Was,” is about two and a half pages long, but the first half-page is the whole of a poem he’d written 20 years ago and has known since that it was far from being a poem. He rewrites himself constantly.
Part of the reason why I was drawn to the poetry of Ghassan Zaqtan is because I think it really expands the view of what Palestinian literature has been doing for decades, beyond Darwish. And I think Palestinian literature in general, poetry in particular, has an important place on the world stage, for obvious reasons.
Now that your second and third books are coming out, I’m curious what you think about your own evolving style.
One of the things that I learned from the poetry of translation—and people ask that question a lot, as it is perhaps the closest form of reading that anyone can do of a text—is that a poet must have his or her own lexicon. It’s not necessarily a conscious process, but a process that accumulates spontaneously, and only much later will the poet become aware of [it]. It made me pay attention more to the things that recur in my language—not necessarily because I want to repeat them, but because they accumulate spontaneously, like straws or sediment after a flood. I’ve developed this belief that a poet who’s unable to create his or her own private lexicon probably risks entrapment into literature. I love one of the lines by Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, “the triumph [of the individual] over art.” I think that for me is the essence of writing poetry in translation.
Was Textu an effort to stretch and find your own private lexicon through formal constraints?
Yes. With Alight, I continued the conversation that was started in The Earth in the Attic, which had some loose threads I wanted to carry to a new destination. To maintain the lyric impulse but lose the punctuation in order to challenge my own relationship to my own lyricism, let alone my readers’ relationship to my own lyricism, is a simple ploy. But more important for me is the dialogue I needed to conduct in order to shed more light as I depart from a particular private chapter in my life. I have become a husband and a father since The Attic. It was a sudden rush and juxtaposition to what I had witnessed in my life before. This is nothing new in the world of letters per se, yet a little new in that my experience relates to a different external world, our world of the nation-state.
Textu is a book of short poems with a twist, a formal constraint that relies on character count on the cell phone as meter instead of the syllable count. Just as reading displaced memory in human time, and printing displaced reading, now visual technology, for better and worse, is displacing print, displacing one facet of many of our own sense of consciousness.
Meter [and] prosody are brilliant in that they go beyond science’s capacity to measure them to an essence or locate them beyond intuition and approximation in the brain. That day may come yet. Meanwhile, we hypothesize about meter and walking in English, or the various gait cadences of a camel in Arabic, etc. Well, what about now: if our vehicle of transportation (toward communication) has changed, even beyond cars and planes, should we not look into a new mathematics of rhythm, perhaps? The character count suggests one example, I think.
The funny thing is that even when you look into why a text message is capped at 160 characters, it’s arbitrary, no different than the quasi-perfection of an iamb or other meters. Some engineers decided that it was within the range of sufficient characters to allow for clear and succinct communication between two people. One day, as I said, science would seek to dissolve the mystery of intuition. And ultimately, Textu is about my desire to write poetry, to force my language into forcing me.
Did you write the Textu poems differently from how you usually work?
I wrote them all on the phone, in three couplets, no punctuation. The character count meter on my phone would guide my word choice, my thought compression, and on the occasion that I wanted to write a poem longer than one text message, I naturally stumbled on the idea that I’d make each section or stanza in that longer poem equal to 160 characters long. Sometimes the experience had the feeling of action painting. I’m a fan of Pollock’s work, his arrival. There were some poems I wrote in one stroke at exactly 160 characters, with hardly any editing, as if the body and brain had embraced the new rhythm. For a whole year this became a physical existence, or sometimes an obsession. The subject matter of the poems is varied, liberating: myth, ars poetica, eros, memory. For a whole year I heard or listened to language, in and out of my head, in intensified short pulses.
You’re a doctor, and so much of the medical lexicon is from Greek and Latin. In order to communicate with patients, you’re often translating this very detailed diagnosis into a form that people can understand, often through metaphor. Not to overintellectualize it, but all your jobs seem very similar.
Well, yes, but I also think that all life is an act of translation. Consciousness is an act of translation. Speech is an act of translation. Life is a translation because perception is a translation. Remember that certain insects have different color perceptions. Bees or wasps don’t remember certain colors. Their reality is not false. Some insects can see spectrums or delineations of color that we can’t, so obviously it is all an act of translation. But communication with patients is also very complex, and is also a troubled field of power, as with translation. It’s hard, and hard work. Our wonderful modern labyrinth of infrastructure risks dehumanization on a daily basis. Sometimes we overcome it; other times we fail and submit.
To bring the conversation back to what you were saying earlier, communication is about metaphor, and with the rise of digital technology and visual culture, that particular role of poetry is a little less vital.
Part of the reason that I got excited about the Textu project was this notion of seeing what poetry can do to reclaim language. We “text” and we know what kind of language we use—often grammatically incorrect, abbreviated, all these emoticons, etc. I’m not saying that those things are bad. I’m saying that it’s really interesting to see what of language is capable of surviving. Of course, on some level, it’s a rhetorical question—but on the text screen this question seems to come to life.
One of my friends told me the idea of the Textu is not limited to that of the short poem or the character count. It’s also a poem written within a medium beyond words. I still resist that notion, but he meant the idea of receiving a short poem that is, comparatively, large, as it fills the whole phone screen, lights up, announces itself with a notification sound, a music or beep of some sort, etc. When I was sharing the Textu poems with my friends, some did express excitement over noticing an actual physical conditioning taking place. The phone rings, a name appears, a particular quality of communication is anticipated, etc. But I return to a simple reality for me. I wrote Textu because I wanted to keep testing my language in a busy day between home and clinic.