Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Hayan Charara

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How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

When I’m writing about a rough experience, I try to get into it deeper than when I was actually in it. I stay in for as long as I can, I get out for as long as I need, and I keep going back until you get a poem. I’m not really sure there’s any self-care involved there. I suppose a person could do worse. But a person could do better, too. 

What do you have to say to those who would suggest your writing is too intense or upsetting?

I heard something on the radio this summer that I could barely understand: a news story touting the fact that a famous British person whose name I didn’t catch (I got the impression she was a celebrity) admitted that she liked to read poetry. First off, this suggests the bad place poetry is in when it becomes necessary to say, “Look! See! She reads poems!” The odd thing, though, was that this celebrity apparently liked to read poetry in order to relax. I doubt I’ve ever read a memorable poem that relaxed me. Elevator music relaxes me. Noise machines also do the job. The silence in my house when my 4 and 5-year olds finally fall asleep, that relaxes me. But a poem? No.

What I’m getting at is not that poetry should upset people. But poems that do not in some way agitate the reader, I’m not sure what they’re accomplishing. I want the poems I write, and those I read, to agitate something in me and in my reader: my mind, my body, my desire to do this, that, and the other. When people say, simply, that they want to be “moved” by a poem, that’s what happens—the poem agitates; it stirs; it does not relax.

I’m not interested in poems that are one step removed from putting me to sleep. Others can be interested in whatever they like. The truth is, I don’t care, ultimately. The fact is, the only time anyone would actually suggest to me that my poems are too intense or upsetting is if they’ve read them—that’s a good start—and if in reading them they find they can’t handle the poems, that’s okay. They should just stop reading, maybe come back to the book later, or give it away. I can appreciate that sort of response. What I don’t understand, even though it happens, is why anyone would actually write me or any other poet to say, “You’re too X, or Y, or Z.” You don’t like it—don’t read it. I’m not holding anyone hostage.

What poets do you identify with, or feel you are grouped with by editors, readers, conference organizers, or educators? What misconceptions do you see about these groupings of poets? Do you feel these groupings can be useful, can be potentially marginalizing or disenfranchising, or can be both?

I’m an Arab American, and for some time now, in America and the world, being Arab comes with a number of character traits a lot of people assume to be inescapable. Over the years, I’ve had to list those traits so many times that it’s worn me out to do so. For those who don’t know the traits, just watch the news or read the paper, and you’ll see (over and over and over) the kinds of Arabs that most Americans “know”—the terrorist, for example, or the misogynist, the anti-modernist, the anti-American, the can’t-be-trusted swarthy guy—a long list of shitheads and assholes who “deserve” to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Whether I like it or not, as an Arab, I’m up against that.

And there are the obvious ways I encounter such knowledge about “us,” everything from being “randomly selected” for security checks at airports (on one particular round-trip flight, TSA searched me six times) to having family and friends (because they are Arab and as such deemed worthy of being destroyed) who live under conditions in which they worry about such things as invading armies (my father, for instance, lives about a mile from the Israeli border, and his town, in his lifetime alone, has been destroyed by the Israelis several times).

But we’re talking poetry. So, let me tell you about something that happened with a poem of mine, “Usage,” the final poem in Something Sinister. It’s a long poem, eight pages, and, to use Marilyn Hacker’s description of it (because it’s precise and better than anything I can come up with), the poem is a “Whitmanian catalogue of what is done to us with daily language.”

I wrote the poem while working on a PhD at the University of Houston. I gave the poem to an older, respected, internationally admired poet who taught at the university. It was his last semester; he was heading to a big school in the Midwest. I won’t name him, even though I don’t think he would give a shit, really, but I’ll say he was not Tony Hoagland or Mark Doty or Nick Flynn. They were good teachers, good people, and took time and care with my poems.

In any case, I took a course with this other poet, a seminar on the work of a few European poets who also wrote about, in part, life during and after wartime. I’d just finished writing “Usage.” I gave it to the poet as my final project. Some time later, he returned it, with a three-word comment: “Why so angry?”

The comment was a waste of my time, especially as a poet hoping to learn something. It was also completely wrong. “Usage” contains 278 lines, less than a handful of which can be read as “angry.” The opposite is true. The poem may be intense, and sometimes upsetting, but it’s lyrical, and rhythmic, and, in some ways, it is ecstatic about life, especially in the face of so much opposition to life.

Besides, what in the world do you do with “Why so angry?” I didn’t know if he was commenting about the poem, or about me.

Other than a few friends, this is the first time I’m talking about the incident openly. I left the poet be, too. I never asked him what he meant; I never confronted him. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, really, but I do know that then and now, it’s hard for me not to wonder if his “angry” reading of the poem isn’t tied to the stereotypical image of the “angry Arab”—you know, the terrorist on the news; the flag-burning, dark-haired Arab in the mob; the villain in the movies; the guy we’re all supposed to fear.

If this had been an isolated incident, I would’ve second-guessed myself. But it wasn’t—not for me, not for others I know. People hear anger in the words of Arabs even when there is no evidence whatsoever, even when the voice is utterly compassionate or tender.

It’s possible he didn’t realize what he was saying. So many people don’t have a clue what they’re talking when they talk about Arabs. The things we usually say about Arabs, and Arab men in particular, are already in the air, almost everywhere we turn, so much so we take for granted what we think, say, and feel about them. And, yes, this is true of the way that people speak and think about other groups, but one of the differences, for now at least, is that with Arabs, such remarks barely register. It’s possible to say almost anything about Arabs—to question not only, say, the perceived source of a poem but also to assume that their “nature” renders them suspicious, whether as Americans (are they loyal? can they be trusted?), as fathers and husbands (do they oppress their wives and daughters?) or simply as human beings (do they have the capacity to be reasonable or peaceful?).

Really, it’s a miracle more Arabs aren’t writing angry poems.

What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?

I’ve heard of “Twitter poets,” but I haven’t read any. And if people are writing poems influenced significantly by what they see and read on social media, that sort of thing has been going on for a long time: instead of a Facebook feed, people used to read the newspaper, or hear stories from other people. Hopefully, poets aren’t being heavily influenced by things like user comments or the number of “likes,” hits, friends or followers they have. Those are old problems, too, and social media just delivers them in a new format—a more powerful format, yes, but not entirely new, which is to say that poets can overcome these types of negative influences, if they want and choose to do so.

Social media isn’t entirely bad, obviously. What a poet does with it makes the difference. The most fascinating response I’ve seen so far is Fady Joudah’s Textu, a poetry collection which, for each poem, he imposes a 160-character limit. That’s a formal constraint straight out of social media, but never, not once, do you get the feeling that you are reading texts, or Tweets or Facebook posts. There’s no straining to be witty or overtly clever in the poems, which is a hallmark of social media. There’s no sense that the poems must be read immediately or else lose their impact (the way that so much “communication” functions on social media).

The poems in Textu are, in the strictest sense, formal. The textu is a new form, for sure, and relative to traditional forms, it may be more “loose” and “free” but Joudah works it the way a poet who is an aesthete does: with the aim of using the form to create something that others will judge to be beautiful, striking, eye-opening, and so on. In 160 characters or less, Textu’s best poems expand our understanding of their subjects. I think it’s a brilliant book. If we want to give it credit for inspiring this book, then thank goodness for social media.

On the other hand, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else is around now, they will be all gone one day—maybe not soon, but eventually. Everything that’s come before us tells us that social media will eventually be a relic. These platforms—I think that’s the word—they’re not like the invention of writing, or the screw; they’re more like clay tablets, or paper. In other words, at some point the next best thing will replace social media.

Most poems written right now, they will also be gone. And, honestly, good riddance! Of course, some poems will survive. In 25 or 50 years, in a century or two, a poem here and there will still matter, but I doubt that social media will play a major role in terms of which poems will last the long journey. Maybe there are poems and poets today more “famous” because of social media, or who receive more traffic than not because of it; but these are not the ways we judge whether a poem will go on without us.

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HAYAN CHARARA is a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor. His poetry books are Something Sinister (2016), The Sadness of Others (2006), and The Alchemist’s Diary (2001). His children’s book, The Three Lucys (2016), received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak (2008), an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. With Fady Joudah, he is also a series editor of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. Born in Detroit in 1972 to Arab immigrants, he spent a decade in New York City and in 2004 moved to Texas, where he now lives.

Source: vidaweb.org