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A Guy Walks Into A Zoo: A Text Chat With Peter Twal

Two red and white haired Shih Tzus

Peter Twal’s Our Earliest Tattoos, his first book, won the 2018 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, which is awarded to poets of Arab heritage for a first or second book. A systems engineer, Twal also earned an MFA from the University of Notre Dame.

I sent Peter a text asking him if he’d like to chat about his book, being Arab, and bad jokes. He agreed.

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HAYAN CHARARA: So that people know: Fady Joudah and I selected your poetry manuscript Our Earliest Tattoos, a book of “American” sonnets, for the 2018 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. In the preface, we call the sonnet your “operating system,” your “preferred media platform,” your “echo”—why the sonnet?

PETER TWAL: An OS! I love that you and Fady described my distortion of the sonnet in this way. It immediately calls to mind the many glitches, foregrounded or otherwise, that an operating system inevitably imposes on its users, much like these poems do with their readers. But why the sonnet: one answer is that I’ve​​ ​had a strange fixation on sonnets ever since high school, when I first started writing poems seriously. Something about them, to me at the time, announced that One Was Writing Poetry—silly, I know.

The other answer is Joyelle McSweeney read a draft of a poem from Our Earliest Tattoos in 2014 and challenged me to condense it to fourteen lines. That constraint felt quite freeing, knowing when the poem needed to end, even if I wasn’t sure how to get there.

Here, I’ll liken the sonnet to a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle I adore and carry with me most places. We all know how a completed cube should look, but the algorithms available to you are wholly dependent on the randomized squares. Hence, the excitement: each new poem, a freshly scrambled Rubik’s Cube requiring unique combinations to achieve an end. This conceit, of course, breaks down when you consider that a poem isn’t ever really “solved” (or that some weird combination of colors can be more beautiful than organized rows), but with respect to process, this was a pivotal, albeit personal lens which allowed me to remain hyper-focused on and discerning about my content.

Or, it could all just be me trying to bury the skeletons in my high school sonnet closet.

HC: I appreciate the analogy, especially because I’ve never been able to solve a Rubik’s Cube, which is a sense I have about most of my poems—not really being able to “finish” or “solve” them. They always feel almost done, almost right, but this is something I’ve become comfortable with, just like the Rubik’s Cube I still own but have never and will likely never solve.

I also appreciate it when a poet finds a new way to see his or her own work. You’re right—it is freeing. It can be revealing, too. What has collecting your poems into a manuscript, submitting the manuscript to prizes, winning a prize, and going through an intense revision process revealed to you—about your poems, about yourself?

PT: Oh, man. Thank God for that revision process. The manuscript was aching to break out of its own positive feedback loop. In the months leading up to my learning I’d won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, I’d begun to give up on the manuscript, aware that it needed work but still too attached to what I thought were its essential elements. Voice. Motif. Quirk. If I sat down to edit a poem, I’d end up doubling down on the same elements that were anchoring it in place. Repetition was misconstrued for reinforcement or vision. It’s like vowing to not cut your hair but then looking in the mirror multiple times a day and saying, “It’s getting shorter. I think it’s getting shorter, and I can totally see my eyes better now.”

As an Arab (and a Twal, a family famous for obstinacy), I can be stubborn as hell sometimes; so, you and Fady were godsends. One might think winning a prize means the work is “good enough” as is, but in my case, the real work was about to begin, and I’m unspeakably grateful for that time and attention, post-acceptance. All that to say, on a personal level, this experience has taught me that I need to celebrate myself more and focus on my own trajectory.

Fact: I’m quick to compare myself to others and lose sight of the current moment. That’s bad, but I’m trying to be better.

HC: Let me ask, because eventually you’ll be asked, if the question hasn’t already been asked of you: what do you think it means to be an Arab American poet?

PT: Holy crap. That’s a big one.

HC: It’s not a fair question—but you’ll get asked it a hundred times. Maybe one way to answer is to think of it this way: we can describe the choices we make as “this and not that.” You didn’t choose to be Arab, but you did choose to submit to this award, which is for poets of Arab heritage. Why this?

PT: When I first heard there was this new poetry prize honoring Etel Adnan, an incomparable artist and a queer Arab woman, I was overwhelmed with pride. I felt like we’d all won something, instantly, as a community, you know? Being eligible for the prize was a blessing all on its own, but submitting was, in no small way, to celebrate Etel’s legacy.

Now, allow me to contradict myself. I almost didn’t submit last year! It took a random bit of kindness from Glenn Shaheen to work me out of my slump, but the gist of my insecurity was that I felt like since I wasn’t explicitly engaging with my Arab American experience, the poems weren’t worth the prize. And that’s ridiculous. So much so that I want to take a moment to shout very loudly via text that YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY SUBMIT TO THIS PRIZE AS AN ARAB AMERICAN NO MATTER THE CONTENT OF YOUR WORK. Like, duh. I am 100% engaging with my “Arabness” in my writing, even if not on the surface. My work and person will always be informed by my Arab heritage because I’m alive. It’s the whale in my body’s little lake, the bright star I orbit always.

But I want to return to your original question about what it means to be an Arab American poet. At the root of everything my parents ever taught me about Jordan, its culture, and my family history is this singular truth: an Arab is generous. What a beautiful belief by which to define a life! Ours is a storied and central tradition of open-handedness, one in which we offer food, drink, shelter, money, love, faith, and companionship to all we encounter. Even strangers—perhaps most importantly, to strangers. This cannot be overstated. So, for me, being an Arab American poet is tantamount to being generous as a reader, as a listener, as a member of the community, and as a writer. There is, of course, a learning curve to all of this, but I see it as a means of honoring my parents and my heritage, which I take quite seriously.

What about you though? I’ve rambled quite a bit. What does it mean to you to be an Arab American poet? In your last blog post, I was struck (and saddened) by people’s asking you “in what language?” in response to your declaration that you are a poet. What does all this mean to you?

HC: First let me say that I’m glad for Glenn Shaheen’s kindness—the world, not just the poetry world, could use more of it. Glenn happens to be one of my favorite poets. He’s writing poems that matter.

About being Arab American: I’ve written about this, thought a lot about it, revised my thoughts many times. The short answer is: there is no short answer.

I can say this: there is something going on with Arab American poetics—a flourishing, a coming into its own. I suspect this is the case with other genres, too, and other art forms, but I know poetry better. And the growth is astonishing—when you compare how many poetry books came out just in the last two or three years to how many had come out a decade or two earlier, the difference is exponential.

Yet despite what’s going on, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from talking to most poets or critics or editors. They know individuals; they can (maybe) mention a poet or two, and often they’ll name an Arab (not an Arab American) poet. Something similar goes on with poets identified as Muslim American.

On the one hand, it’s true that our numbers are relatively small, compared to other “groups” set off from the group that gets to be called only “American.” On the other hand, the census count of Arabs and Muslims in the American imagination is pretty damn huge. The average American probably hears or sees something about Arabs and Muslims not just every day, but several times a day—and that’s only if they watch the news, much less read books, go to the movies, and so on.

Would you mind sharing one of your sonnets from the book? But, because you seem up for the challenge, let me make this a bit harder. I like what you said earlier—because I think it rings true—about your “Arabness” not being “on the surface” of your poems. To the discerning reader, to a knowledgeable reader, it is in the poems, however complicated and fragmented “it” (this thing called “Arabness”) may be. Would you share a poem that you believe has its roots in being Arab? And, please, don’t feel you must explain how. Let the reader do that.

PT: Can do! But before that, you’re right—it’s quite encouraging to see the new (and established) voices in Arab American poetries coming into the limelight. Something Fady said to me in Houston when I visited was that he hoped, eventually, our excellence would become inescapable. Each day, that feels more and more like our future.

Now, a sonnet. It’s a troubling poem, I think. Maybe one of the weirdest in the book, which is saying something. I don’t think I’ve ever read it aloud to anyone other than my partner, Erin. Anyway, this first appeared in Gulf Coast. Shouts to them for taking a chance on it:

The Moral Kicks In

After the first course, your corsage        flatlines into beautiful      convulsions        It sprouts wings, thorns, claws       
its way up your arm to swallow you goosebump        by goosebump             There is a moment when resurrection        
devours the most devout heart        Deep blue        the ink pen veins blow      up behind my eyes        Patron saint of stifling
anger on the rocks       Patron saint of politely        melting into this      tomato        soup a spoonful at a time
& we speak       in fortune cookie all night        The next dish, a      ventilator        An IV        dripping into something      
already dead        I order two specials        Make the pain remind you of      the one who signed your tiny
gashes today        A struggling creek, your tongue
wriggles out from the baby’s        breath to ask        Were we ever anything
more than       echolocation        Patron saint of the meteor that falls from      the sky:        forgiven, eventually, easily

HC: I hope we can all be “forgiven, eventually, easily.” Can we wrap this up with a lightning round?

PT: Lightning round! Hit me!

HC: Who is your favorite poet?

PT: OH NO. I thought these would be easy! Can I say my favorite poet at the moment? I’ve been devouring Ross Gay’s poetry for a couple months now. And fate would have it that we’d share two flights home from AWP! I said hello to him. We chatted briefly. Very kind human.

HC: Do you write in another genre?

PT: Ha! This one’s simpler: screenwriting. Love it.

HC: What’s your favorite joke?

PT: So, a guy walks into a zoo. He looks around, but it’s totally empty except for a small dog in a single exhibit, and he’s like, “This is a real Shih Tzu.”

HC: That’s funny. It’s also pretty bad. But I’m a sucker for bad jokes. One more?

PT: What do health-conscious zombies eat?

HC: I don’t know.

PT: GRAAAAAINNNSS. I’d also accept BRAAAAANNN, if it came up.

HC: Wow. You should stick to poetry. Any last words?

PT: I think I've done enough damage for now. This has been such a joy, Hayan! Thank you!

HC: Thank you.

Originally Published: March 19th, 2018

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Hayan Charara grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He earned a BA in English from Wayne State University, an MA in humanities from New York University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He is the author of the poetry...