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Questions for Fady Joudah
1. Your first book of poems, The Earth in the Attic, just came out from Yale University Press, the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award, selected by Louise Gluck. How does that feel?
It feels great, a life well dreamt or a dream well lived. I hope the book is received well, I naturally think its themes of exile and witness to refugees and displaced people in the world are an unusual event in poetry. I hope I was up to the task aesthetically (though I feel good about that with Gluck backing me up, after all she is not received as a socially engaged poet; although I beg to differ). Exiles (as a step up, descendants of the refugee) and, more urgently, the displaced and refugees are world historical individuals, in Hegel’s phrase…a disclaimer: I am not a Hegel specialist: to my mind they define the horrors of the nation-state, which is still a new concept in the world: 40 million displaced people (not counting the homeless and “disenfranchised” citizens of “stable” states) is a number that can not be ignored. These are people who define the other face of the mirror, the dark side that does not reflect us, or so we think.
2. Your son Ziyad was born on March 27th, 2008. What are you thinking about?
About simple sleep-deprived pleasures, poop and feeding cycles, baby baths, kissable cheeks, family moments, and being witness to a mute consciousness (if you consider his screams mute). How is it that many of us talk so easily of “political” problems in the world without thinking of the children, as Oppen said in his poem “Semite”? (Think/ think also of the children/ the guards laughing// the one pride the pride/ of the warrior laughing so the hangman/ comes to all dinners…) All arguments and debates over the blood of strangers take on a more certain meaning when one thinks of the degree of suffering children go though. But even that “suffering” has become a concept subject to the manipulation of power.
3. Your book of translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, The Butterfly’s Burden, published last year, got reviewed in the British newspapers The Guardian, The Independent, the Irish literary magazine The Stinging Fly, and in the on-line journal Jacket, out of Australia. Few American journals and newspapers have reviewed it. Comments?
I am sure some of this is due to logistics, American enterprise-related; and some of it is due to a lack of awareness of Darwish’s artistic importance to the world of letters. Neruda was only translated and published in English in the 1960’s, only ten years or less before he died, for example. But bringing up Neruda begs certain problematic parallels in the world of poetry, a world that eschews politics but is, nonetheless, governed by it. What is more interesting for me is that whenever Darwish’s work is “discussed” it is not really his work that is discussed, but his circumstance and history (with a capital H), which does a lot of disservice to his art. Fiona Sampson’s Review in The Guardian goes beyond that, I think. It is a delightful review, albeit brief. I also was told recently that a couple of important literary magazine in the US will review The Butterfly’s Burden, so…and I was short-listed for PEN’s Poetry in Translation award for 2007.
4. I heard the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott say, when asked about great American poets, something to the effect that an imperial power can’t produce great art. Any response to that, and can an oppressed country or people produce great[er] poetry? And perhaps a related question, do you, as the son of Palestinian refugees, feel a responsibility to write political poetry? Do people expect you to be a Palestinian and political poet rather than just a poet who is Palestinian and political? Do you like that or mind that? Could you say something about the role of poetry in Palestinian culture/society as opposed to its role in the U.S.? In 10 words or less? (Kidding!) (You can have 20…)
In his Mural (2000), his book-long poem, Darwish says: “There’s no nation smaller than its poem.” And “The earth is a festival of losers, and we’re among them.” Something here echoes what Walcott said, perhaps: there is only poetry of defeat, no poetry (at least not one that’s worth it) of victory, at least in the contemporary world, beyond the archaic anthropologic heroism of Greeks and Trojans, tribes and Kings.
I don’t know what “political” poetry is, unless it is “bad” poetry, propagandist or apologist for injustice. Other than that, it is not “political,” rather it is dignified, humanizing. I don’t feel a “responsibility” to write political poems, I feel a compulsion to address that line where the universal is the personal and the personal, the universal. Being Palestinian almost becomes another’s question of me, and certainly not mine of myself. That question is in many ways one of power, of rewriting “the other.” Thus, what is called “political” poetry, for me, is to humanize the other without stripping them from the right to speak their narrative, or imposing on them my narcissistic projections as righteous poet.
5. You’re an ER doctor and have done two overseas stints with Doctors Without Borders. Here are some lines from a section of your poem called “Pulse,” from The Earth in the Attic, in which a baby dies in its mother’s arms. The “we” here are the mother and the speaker:
We walked back toward each other, we met, we
Read verses from the Quran,
Our palms open,
Elbows upright like surgeons
Which draws a connection between religion (and the poetry of religion) and the surgeon, who works to heal, but here, in this poem, fails to heal. What about poetry’s abilities and failures in the area of healing?
I think healing in poetry goes back to what I said above, perhaps, it lies in bearing witness, no more or less, in giving or making voice, without dehumanization: in calling a victim or a sufferer by their proper name without ifs, ands, or buts of political jargon. Ultimately poetry, like humanitarian medicine “makes nothing happen” outside the realm of hope (if one recalls how humanitarian medicine fails to treat the “root” of suffering, for example, although it seems a bit wicked to abstract human life in that manner, doesn’t it?)…In other words, one should never stop trying the impossible; and if poetry’s ability to make things happen were probable, then I’d be very weary of it.
I think the discussion over the function of poetry is, to me, half-absurd. Poetry (like Medicine) is often linked to elite and power structures; it is these structures that often “write” us in poetry, and often participate in determining the poet’s “longevity” even if we’d like to think otherwise sometimes. And exceptions do exist, of course. Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic is a fascinating book about the relationship between science and power, humanism and institution; as is Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. Yet poetry, unlike the novel, seems to be more independent of “victory.”
As for your comment about the religious, take Gluck’s Triumph of Achilles, for example. It has more Biblical references than any other of her books. “Religion” does not pop up when one talks about her work. Or if it does, as it might with Franz Wright’s work, then it is “mystical.” I don’t think that this is an example of “the poetry of religion” as you put it.
6. Anglo-American poetic tradition, especially perhaps modern post-Williams, post-Pound tradition, tends to value not only concreteness and the temporal, but often anecdotal circumstance. My sense with Darwish is that, in his poems, a lover may not be a specific lover but something embodying lover-ness; a gazelle may not shit and eat so much as represent grace, or prey; a tree is there not so much to be itself, in all its type and genus and species, but to impart a sense of general treeness. You seem in your own poems to have a nifty way of incorporating both traditions into your poems, the lyricized and symbolic landscape, lets say, with the temporal circumstance. Can you give advice to the Anglo-America-centric reader (such as myself) on how to appreciate Darwish?
I don’t think Darwish’s oeuvre is well known in English. I think of Darwish as a master of language, able to transfer between the gnomic, the absurd, the mythical, and the quotidian in a manner not different from Ashbery’s mixed diction or Palmer’s lyric. There is certain accessibility in Darwish’s poetry but ultimately it is a visceral accessibility. Trees in Darwish’s poetry have names and features and characteristics. When I read his pomegranates I immediately make sense of them (as those my father peels for us). When he speaks of olive trees…I think it is part of his magic, however, that all these specifics are written in a language beyond the specific, that is they encompass the specific yet they are not harnessed by the circumstantial.
Others will draw parallels to Neruda’s work, or Walcott’s or Ritsos’s. Darwish writes about his poetry in his poems: “the mysterious incident” “that inexplicable longing that makes a thing into a specter, and / makes a specter into a thing. Yet it also might explain / our need to share public beauty . . .” I think it is unfair to think of Anglo-American poetics as limited to the concrete or quotidian. Examples of such poetry abound. In The Butterfly’s Burden the reader can see how Darwish’s language moves from the lyric of love poems as a private exile in “The Stranger’s Bed” (what an apt title) to the quotidian in “A State of Siege,” and then to a mixture of both dictions in “Don’t Apologize for What You’ve Done.” All in the span of 5 years. This is what great art is capable of doing.
Fady Joudah is a Palestinian physician living in Houston, Texas, and is an active member of Doctors Without Borders. He is the author of The Earth in the Attic, just published, which won the Yale Younger Poets Award, and is as translator of poems by Mahmoud Darwish the volume, The Butterfly’s Burden.
Mahmoud Darwish, born 1941 in Al-Birwah, British Mandate of Palestine, is a contemporary Palestinian poet and writer of prose. He has published over thirty volumes of poetry, eight books of prose and has served as the editor of several publications, including: Al-Jadid, Al-Fajr, Shu’un Filistiniyya and Al-Karmel. He is recognized internationally for his poetry, which focuses on his strong affection for his lost homeland. His work has won numerous awards, and has been published in at least twenty-two languages. The majority of his work has not been translated into English. He is known for his active work within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Once a member of PLO Executive Committee, he resigned from the Committee and broke with the PLO in 1993 to protest the continuation of the Oslo Accords.