Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Hayan Charara


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.


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

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Sade Murphy


What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

I’m in an MFA program so I don’t actually read anything. Just this week I finally finished the most recent seasons of ScandalGrey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder in preparation for a new season in Shondaland. I’ve been listening to two playlists on Tidal: Kanye West Deep Cuts and Produced by Kanye West. As problematic and complicated a celebrity as Kanye is, he was the first rapper I ever paid any attention to and his work as a producer is impeccable.

There are so many talented and breathtaking writers that I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the past two years, I just know I’m going to leave someone out, but here goes. First of all every writer in my cohort at Pratt is here to slay, but also Precious OkoyomonJasmine GibsonAdjua GreavesSean Henry-SmithGabriel Ojeda-SaguePaul CunninghamStephon Lawrence are some at the top of my mind.

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

Self-care does not come naturally to me, I’m still trying to figure it out. I let myself feel. I let myself cry. I have a really amazing therapist and I see him as often as I need to. Since much of my work handles trauma I’ve experienced, I’m working really hard on not forcing myself to write or harming myself through writing. Sometimes I need to check for my own consent. Witchcraft, magic. My room is basically the shrine I live in and tend to. Maintaining altars, burning incense, sage and rosemary. Bathing in gem essences and epsom salt. Aromatherapy with essential oils, Sister Spinster tincturesBeyonce’s instagramMy own instagram. Laughing with Sasha. Kissing the flowers in my garden and tending to my houseplants. Hugging my roommates. Neko Atsume. Teaching myself a new skill or trying a new recipe.

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

Shut the fuck up.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

Sasha Banks. You can check out her new new at the Collagist and an earlier posting of her poem, God Bless america over at PBS News Hour.

What needs to change in the educational/academic world, with regard to poetry and writing? What can literary educators do to affect this change? What can students do?

Lol, tldr; #stopallwhitepeople which is kind of my go to first step to improving anything. And, more seriously, care. I’m lucky enough to be at the only (or maybe one of the few) MFA programs where more than half of my peers are women of color and the faculty are invested in a radical and restorative pedagogy. But none of that can matter or be the least bit edifying if the people educating us aren’t as attentive to our needs and vulnerabilities as they are our craft or professionalization as artists.


SADE MURPHY is a poet and artist from Houston, Texas. They are a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and current MFA candidate at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They are the author of Dream Machine (co-im-press, 2014) and self portrait, a chapbook from Birds of Lace. Their work has been published in ActionYes!GlittermobLITSpoon River Poetry ReviewSink Review, and Dreginald.

Source: vidaweb.org

Voices of Bettering American Poetry — Michael Wasson


What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? 

Because of my lack of instant access, I haven’t had the ability to purchase books online for a long time, so when I finally had the chance, I got C. D. Wright’s The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All and have been reading it over and over on my ferry rides. Other than that, Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds has me transfixed & its edges are so worn out & thumb-stained from reading it so much, Murakami’s many books because, well, they’re at every book store in Japan, and I’ve been returning to this book in Japanese: けろけろけろっぴの徒然草, or Kerokerokeroppi Frog’s Essays in Idleness of the Hello Kitty series—some really cute lessons on stillness.

Music’s like water. It’s also great company when you live in such simplicity and silence out on a distant island. And I like to practice my Japanese by sharing music with a music teacher and some friends on the island. Recent things that’ve stuck with me: HitorieYole Yole, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Arvo PärtPerfume GeniusBen Howard’s I Forget Where We Were, Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop’s Love Letter for the Fire, and Saosin just released a record called Along the Shadow with their original singer (of Circa Survive)—Anthony Green—who fronted the band back in the 2003 days, and Schuman’s String Quartet Op. 41 No. 1—thanks to my favorite music source, the lovely Ishidou-sensei.

New/emerging poet: Monica Sok. I first read her at New Republic last November, and her poem “Cambodia” just opened something in me. There’s an unbridled energy, a sort of no-apologies-about-it urgency that’s so clear both in the telling and the stark language: “We sleep / in bed at night / but do not dream” had me thinking of the privilege to even dream a dream through the night when sometimes there are fields, wherever—far away, back at home, or here in my village—where “nothing grows. Nothing.” That emptiness. Memories of stillness, of gathering, and of violence. Incredible. Oh, and her essay “On Fear, Fearlessness, and Intergenerational Trauma” is so powerful and necessary. Read her, please. She’s at NarrativeTriquarterlyOmniverse, and her chapbook Year Zero is out with PSA.

What’s the earliest experience, or stand-out experience, you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you? 

This is such a wonderful question. Because I’m usually so timid and shy, I’m easily frightened. Writing, at first, was a way into the world through language. Lots of curiosity and playing around. But the first time I truly felt I could write into a space that both frightened me but lead me to a moment of discovery was when I was maybe 21. It was a moment where I almost felt like I wasn’t writing but I was being written—& not gently, but being pulled under into a place where I didn’t know if I could learn to breathe again.

It was this poem one night while I was in undergrad—I titled it “Godless Coyote in Love.” It carved out an entrance into a world where all my animal-people feel guilt & shame, are given space to be disappointed in humans, & offered a chance to re-examine their grief. That was the opening for me to start searching the page for my ghosts & dead who never stop telling me—touch us and let us remember the flesh of being alive again. After workshop, my professor asked me, “Did something happen?” So I told him about it. 

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

I listen to a lot of music that stretches the emotions. I go for walks on the island. I drink tea & sit with silence. I run a lot. I watch the ocean move in and out. I speak strands of my ancestral language to myself—as if it saves me. I remember my late grandmother’s words: “Put your hand on your tim’íne. Feel that? That means you’re alive. Remember that.” And my other grandma who told me before I left the States: “Wash the cry from your hair.” I like to replay that moment in my head to remind myself of how I can stay gentle while inside the most frightened versions of myself.

Do you differentiate between poetry/art and “political” poetry/art? If so, how do you make that distinction?

For myself, as an indigenous person, I don’t. I find that language shaped in the mouth of an indigenous person is a unique form of political resistance—no matter the context. There’s a weight of living that I know—a sort of space divided between the living and the dead. I say ’ipsúuski and it means creating or working something with my hands—which is to say I am practicing being worthy of my watchful ghosts. Or I say hands, and the English of it might mean violence or a sensual touch to stay alive. I say animal or myth, and I hear my tribal language—all the sáw sáw and quqú quqú—being translated into this tongue. When I hear body in so many contexts, they each mean something different in the writing of so many people. Our bones we carry are carved out of histories. It’s as deep as DNA. We surrender our current selves to those old ones who gave us this life-hollowed space to stay alive. We say I—and mine means ghost or implies indigenous existence = oxymoron. I don’t know—I’ve never intended to write anything political—but of course, my being in this skin is a political hostility. I never asked for this, but it has become part of every pattern I scribble into the page. Like a language you only began to speak by simply living.

What question do you wish we had asked?

How are you is a beautiful place to start. In any language.


MICHAEL WASSON is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), winner of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. His poems appear in American PoetsDrunken BoatNarrativeDenver QuarterlyPassages North, and Mud City Journal. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad.

Source: vidaweb.org