Sunday, July 12, 2020

From the Irish Troubles to Trump’s America: Talking Politics and Poetry with Andy Eaton and Philip Metres

From the Irish Troubles to Trump’s America:
Talking Politics and Poetry with Andy Eaton and Philip Metres


Andy Eaton: First of all, I'd like to say thank you again for agreeing to do this interview. I know that readers here in Belfast have appreciated Sand Opera, as do I. There are a few areas I'd love to cover, such as poetic form and invention, religion and faith, poetry in divided societies, violence, war, and also joy, peace, delight. To start us of, we met again recently in Belfast where you were visiting with some students. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you got started with bringing students to Northern Ireland, and how these trips have impacted you, your thinking, and your work?

Philip Metres: I just got back a few weeks ago (June 2017), having led my fourth student/faculty delegation, and it really never gets old. I began leading our Ireland Peacebuilding program at John Carroll University in 2011, when fellow faculty of our Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program started talking about the desire to restart the program, which had begun in 2004. That first iteration, students and faculty spent a month in Belfast and around Ireland studying the Troubles and the peace process; they met with Martin McGuinness, Ian Paisley, John Hume, Gerry Adams, Father Alec Reid, and many other luminaries and leaders of Northern Ireland. But faculty energy had turned elsewhere, and for reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, I agreed to step forward and lead the program. Because of the intrepid and becalming encouragement of our on-the-ground coordinator, Belfast native and anthropologist Raymond Lennon, I took a leap of faith and led a small group in 2011. Where, indeed, can you meet with former paramilitaries and victims, political leaders and peacebuilders, all of whom willing to share their overlapping and often-contradictory stories, in a place where peace and reconciliation have been the dominant narrative for the past two decades?

I'd been studying war-making and peace-making since I was an undergraduate, radicalized by the Persian Gulf War, the devastation of Iraq, and the ongoing occupation of Palestine. I'd taken part in advocating for many lost causes, working for peace and justice at the center of empire, so the opportunity to study a fairly-successful conflict transformation was enticing indeed. Once I arrived, I became utterly smitten with Ireland, and have been teaching Irish literature and film ever since. Many years ago, I met Shakir Mustafa, who was completing his Ph.D. at Indiana University when I was there. I'd met very few Iraqis, and this was the 1990s. I asked him what he was studying. “Irish literature,” he said. I thought it was odd. Irish literature?! Since then, of course, I see how an Iraqi shares a lot in common with an Irishman, given the legacy of the British Empire. But that meeting always stuck with me. In my cynical youth, I thought of Ireland as a rather quaint place, but not of much interest. Was I wrong!

I love your question and feel unable to answer it fully, to plumb its deepest dimension, because I'm very much still trying to work out what it means to me. This time, a full six years after my first visit, I've finally decided to write about it, and have begun drafting some essays. The fact is that it's very difficult to write about a program that one is leading; I feel a deep responsibility both to the program and to the people with whom we have strong relationships. Many of our program contributors share incredibly difficult stories of their lives with us--particularly those who have lost loved ones in the Troubles. Trying to write something that reflects my own experience, and yet doesn't exploit the suffering of people like Alan McBride of WAVE Trauma Centre, whose wife was killed in the so-called Shankill bomb in 1993--that's the challenge. I've noticed that it's very easy for me, in this context, to start writing a triumphalist narrative about peacemaking, but the truth is that the story of the place is far more complicated than that. All dominant narratives elide stories that don't fit in, and if we're interested in telling the truth, we need to mark those elisions.

Still, when I meet people like the Reverend Bill Shaw of 174 Trust, I experience nothing short of radical hope. This is what he said toward the end of our last meeting: “That’s what this space is about. People coming for a concert or coming for a cup of coffee. To make new friends. When we’re in this space, the labels that we carry, like the suitcases, they don’t matter. The fact that I’m a Protestant and you’re a Catholic, or you’re a Muslim or an atheist. Those things do not matter. We make peace in this world when we recognize ourselves in each other. It doesn’t matter how much hatred that our groups have for each other. When we meet at that level, and we recognize something of each other in each other, then we’re changed. We’re never the same. It doesn’t mean that we love each other, or that can spread that love, but we’re changed.”

What first brought you to Belfast, and how have your impressions of it evolved over your years there?

Andy Eaton: I can imagine that your role in leading the program does raise difficulties in writing about your time in Belfast, as you say. But I think those kinds of difficulties are probably worth moving through or around when the work is going well. I think Belfast is a place that will benefit from a lot of different people looking at it, myriad voices speaking in and to its legacy. This opinion is based on the reality that Belfast is actually an incredibly diverse city, and the lack of cross-cultural communication is not only between two sides of one argument. I guess I'm sort of hooking up what you are saying here with an answer to your question. When I first came here it was to visit some friends who I had just met in Scotland. I had nowhere to be for the holiday break from grad school, so they brought me over, housed me, fed me, and I was part of the family. I'm still friends with these people, and my experience was largely positive. But it sort of gave me an initial single-layer experience of the area; one community, one cultural set, so to speak. Later, I met my wife through these same friends, and she and I started dating for a couple years after I was back in America, and then eventually I moved here so we could be in the same place. I was able to work on a PhD at the same time, so it was sort of a blend of personal and professional motivations which brought me here. That was in 2011, and since then my impression have changed dramatically.

I don't know, first hand, how it is in the States at the minute, but I lived in the Midwest and in or near Evangelical fundamentalism long enough that what seems to be happening now makes a lot of sense. I heard Shane McCrae in an interview on Commonplace recently say that he realised he had equated liberalism with morality, that he thought someone who identified as liberal was also moral, and that he was surprised to realise this about himself. I could really relate to that, as I'm sure others could, but in particular regarding Belfast. There's a traditional binary, "what side are you on" conversation, but that's a hard one for outsiders, which I think is why a lot of people from elsewhere find it difficult to settle into the culture here. However, there is also a conversation for "outsiders" which sees that side-based conversation as somehow not where it's at, and you have to just transcend it. I think I held that view for a long time without knowing it until recently; like there were these over-simplified value-based soundbites that I could get my head around based on my views, but it never helped me really listen to or see people from here. Last year I got to meet Carolyn Forche, and she sort of called me out on being shy and encouraged me to embrace my ignorance about the history and ask more questions. I think I still have some nervousness about saying where I live if I'm in one part of town, or whatever, but I find that my being American means that I can say, "Oh, tell me about that" or ask questions. With a taxi driver, for instance. But once they learn that I've been here for five or six years, there's a sense that I should know more than I do.

So I guess my impressions have gone from being basic to becoming more complicated. There is a culture of silence and suggestion here which I find always new, exciting and confusing, since I tend toward expression or long conversations. There's a way of speaking which is indirect, nuanced, and clever, and I find I'm always two steps behind it. But I'm enjoying it all the same. The evolution of my impressions, I hope, is toward patience and empathy, but sometimes you realise you have a utopian view and an agenda and need to set that aside for the conversation that's in front of you. I guess that's not a final stage of relating to a place, but it's where I'm probably at at the minute. I like what you've said from Reverend Bill Shaw. Maybe it is a matter of recognising ourselves in others; I just wouldn't want that to mean that what we don't yet recognise loses its importance.

What do you think?  And if I can add other question(s): Now that America is six months or so into its current administration, have you found the vocabulary or the language around heated issues changing? And sort of related, in what ways are you finding that artists and writers are responding; are we in any way in a moment similar to the Vietnam protests (I only mean within the artistic community)? I've heard W.S. Merwin mention that he was telling Robert Bly that if anyone wanted to know what he thought, they could ask him, and it probably wouldn't be a surprise, but he wasn't going to stand up in the street and proclaim a message because people would stop listening. Does that kind of anecdote have any currency to our current moment of "resistance"?

Philip Metres: Andy, your point about looking out for “what we don’t yet recognize” feels like a definition both for poetry and for peacebuilding. Marking the boundaries of the unspoken, the unnoticed, and either coaxing them into the light or acknowledging where one can’t (yet?) go. Thanks for that amendment.

The election itself revealed just how little real dialogue across the ideological divide has been happening; the fact that I and other progressives (and the mainstream media) were stunned by the results is suggestive of a great divide in American society, where left and right have almost seceded from each other (yes, that term may well apply in the metaphorical sense here). The recent shooting of Representative Scalise is yet another reminder that civil discourse and robust debate have deteriorated even further. As much as I’ve had a lover’s quarrel with the United States (its empire, its arrogance, its oligarchic tendencies), the Constitution and its bedrock principles founded in the rule of law are worth defending. I’m as guilty as anyone in avoiding conversations with people with whom I disagree. I’ve been calling my representatives more than ever, however, on a host of issues that are important to me.

Actually, I do have to say, in light of your comment about seeing some haunting parallels between Northern Ireland and the American Midwest, that the election of Trump and the talk about those “left behind” by globalization echoed hauntingly for me the conversations around loyalism in Northern Ireland. In some respects, weirdly, loyalists and the American redneck nation (for lack of a better term) have a lot in common, in terms of being once-proud members of a socially-conservative working class (sometimes even both Scots-Irish, by the way) that had some ethnic privileges (relative to their black or Catholic neighbors), but who experienced the loss of status during the globalization that began mid-century, when heavy industry gradually migrated to the developing world. They feel that the world has left them behind, and their culture is under siege. They are part of a backlash against globalization, particularly in the developed world (see also Brexit). That’s been the strange thing about the post-Cold War era; globalization’s foes have been scattered. Only Islamic radicalism has really posed anything like a coherent, globalized resistance—and its version is not exactly progressive.

Your question about “resistance” for artists is one that I spent 200 pages answering in Behind the Lines: War Resistance on the American Homefront (2007). However, since it’s been a decade, and the very term “resistance” has in some sense been coopted by the Democratic Party, I do have to say that I’ve felt ambivalence by the sudden memefication of a term that has a complex meaning in the context of colonial and postcolonial struggle. I’ve just completed a book of essays on poetry called The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance, to capture that sense that we need to about more than resistance. In the introduction, I write “In light of the flurry of poetry activity cohering around the term “resistance”—every other journal was devoting an issue to it, and anthologies published, Writers Resist readings and events—we need, more than ever, to consider possibilities and limits of resistance. After twenty-five years of thinking and practicing a poetics of resistance, I found myself oddly resistant to all this sudden talk of resistance. After all, there was plenty to resist during the Obama Administration—drone strikes abroad, police killings of black people on the streets, Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of civilians in Syria, bankers and predatory capitalists running amok around the globe, ongoing accrual of executive power, the buildup of a shadow security state—but these phenomena did not garner much resistance. And also: how will we last for years on resistance alone, if we have built for ourselves a refuge?”

I think what Merwin was addressing is that poets have a calling that moves beyond resistance—as important as political resistance is. I’ve been thinking about poetry also as refuge, as a space that enables the empathic imagination to dilate. To repeat myself: poets need to be engaged in the political arena because they are citizens and human beings, and sometimes that will change how they write. But to write a “political poem” to fulfill some idea of civic duty seems misguided, and a misunderstanding of where truly sustaining poems come from.

Andy, what’s your take on that question? Do you feel far from American political discussion? I imagine that there must be something similar around the Brexit discussions in Northern Ireland.

Andy Eaton: I really appreciate your language of “truly sustaining.” Sometimes it is perhaps too easy to act  though we know we already know what the world is, who we are, and how to be here; at other times, it seems clear that our posture to the world is one of unknowing, of discovery and even wonder—on bad days, horror and shock and outrage. A poetry that is “truly sustaining” seems, for me, tied to the later posture.

It’s been several months since we last corresponded, and the American political discussion(s) seem like a dominant export now. It’s everywhere, or at least there is more of it. I think the recent land grab from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments has just made me feel sick and pushed things over a line I didn’t expect to cross or know was there. I was already astonished and scared and sad but felt like there was hope and resistance. On Tuesday, when the news reached me, I just lay still where I was. It’s so easy to be melodramatic; I was tired from travelling, I was alone. But it just seemed like one more wake-up call, if anyone needed another one, that this is not what a country is for. We or someone is getting something wrong. If we’re fallen, I think it’s a good idea to try not to fall further.

So where poetry comes in, seems clearly on the side of living well, looking outward, which begins with looking inward, and I see that as the place of a practice of poetry. At least that’s what makes sense to me now. How that manifests for each poet, I think will ultimately depend on their personality.

I think what you’re saying about having an agenda for a poem (as I take what you’ve said here) as key. I’m teaching at a university in England, and while my students are great, a lot of them say they have an idea for a piece or say they are struggling with their work, but there’s nothing there yet; they’re trying to know what to write before they write it. Maybe that works for some folks, and there’s definitely something to drafting in your head first, but that’s not really what they mean. They mean if they have a good idea for a story or a poem, they can sit down and write it. I try to encourage them to listen and to pay attention and to grow a vision of themselves, of others and the world. I think that’s something truly sustaining that poetry helps with.

As far as Brexit and Northern Ireland goes, I feel conflicted in vocalising a position, partly because I know I don’t understand it all, and partly because it just seems ridiculous. I was in England this week, and my students told me they knew nothing about Northern Ireland. They don’t know the history. They had not even heard of The Troubles. I was totally shocked. They could not identify Seamus Heaney when his picture was on the overhead.

When I’m shocked, I try to take stock. And I realised it goes both ways. They’re all from different areas of England, and I know so little about the places where they are from. However, even though I might want to be fair, there’s not been anything really like the struggles in NI elsewhere in the UK recently. This plus anecdotal experiences—I’ve flown to England from Belfast and been asked if I had adjusted to the time difference (there is none); and I have definitely been in conversation with English people who refer to Northern Ireland as a “different” country, not in the way they would as Wales or Scotland. English people come to Belfast and call it “Ireland”. If someone from the South calls the North “Ireland”, then it’s one kind of statement, and if someone from Britain calls it the same, well it’s a totally other thing. And this I can’t help but interpret through my Americanness. It’s the same country. It’s not the same country. It’s a complicated thing. In full disclosure, the number of people I hear saying “I’m Northern Irish”, and this is a clarifying and sensible thing for them, is increasing. If you come from a divided society, sometimes you get on by making your own identity. I see this as something that Americans have understood on an individual level, and the more it’s something we can share, the better we will be. I think.

I’m not sure how clear I’ve been, and I know I’ll need to edit this down, especially so I don’t sound like I’m hating on the English! But I wanted to give you my honest answers to your questions.

If we can shift back to poetry more directly, in Sand Opera, you have several invented forms or shapes. We spoke about this briefly this summer, but I’m thinking of the poem “Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)” as well as the vellum pages, and how readers might be interested in learning how these shapes came about. Equally, while Sand Opera foregrounds erasure, the book also makes particular use of brackets, parenthesis, and other typographical choices.

It’s clear that your poems are guided by sound, but can you tell us something about your relationship to the page, to the discovery, creation or invention of forms and shapes of poems?

Philip Metres: We live in a moment where there is almost no limit to what one can do on a page, so why not play in that field? Of course, the danger always with experimentation is that one is merely engaging in gimmickry. I like to work the tension between the idea of the poem as an object of sound, and the poem as a visual work, meant to be read on the page. For a number of years, I got infatuated with performance and sound poetry. I was through with difficult and hermetically sealed page poems that required endless textual analysis; I wanted embodiment, feeling, lyricism. Then, suddenly, a fellow writer made me pivot when he said that poetry on the page contains all possible performances of itself. That sense of generativity seemed sweetly beautiful to me. This mute thing that could contain so much music.

Sound means more to me as a poet than ever, particularly since I started writing prose. I love the crazy music of words even more than I did when I began writing, and felt a fever to express and tell stories. I want my poems to be architectures of sound.  

So I want both: I want poems that convey the sensuousness of spoken language, loved on the tongue and in the mouth, and I want poems to live utterly happily on the page.

Andy Eaton: Who are some bands, musical artists, or composers who are important to you?

Philip Metres: How much time do you have? I have a hunch that what one of the vectors that led me to poetry was pop music. Like every kid, I listened to Top 40 and classical rock, but the first concert I saw was Peter Gabriel, thanks to heavy radio play of “Shock the Monkey” in 1982. As crazy as it sounds, listening to Gabriel and others opened a door not only to arty music and intriguing lyrics, but also to the world. From his music, I first learned about Stanley Milgram’s creepy social experiments about submission to authority (“We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37”), Apartheid South Africa (“Biko”), and got introduced to Amnesty International and the whole concept of human rights. His range of songs (from the goof erotica of “Sledgehammer” to the transcendentally grown-up love song “In Your Eyes,” from “Biko” to “Don’t Give Up,” from his amazing soundtrack to “The Passion” to his croaking cover of “The Book of Love” ), his primal weirdness, his political sensibility, the fact that he was of Lebanese descent—all of it captivated me. I could name a dozen others, but it’s fun to go back and think again about Peter Gabriel. Also: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the whole indie rokk scene of the early 1990s. Later, Guided by Voices. I’ve written memoir essays on Fugazi, Bob Dylan, and the Replacements, and I have one to write about Guided by Voices. Songs that inspire me as a writer: “Eight Miles High” by Husker Du (a blistering, primal cover), “Hum Allah Hum Allah Hum Allah” by Pharoah Sanders (wait for that solo around minute nine), and “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane. Each of these are journeys of the soul, through the dark night, and each comes out on the other side.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"Kafr Yar/Babi Qasim": Remembering Babi Yar and Kafr Qassim

"Kafr Yar / Babi Qasim" from Shrapnel Maps braids the testimony of survivors from two hideous massacres, at Babi Yar and Kafr Qasim. I was struck by the weird parallelism between these two survivors, who hid beneath the dead, or inside the arms of the dead, to survive.

May we remember what we knew and did not know, and live to tell others so that this may not happen again.

Thanks to Nahida H Gordon's sister, Samia Halaby, an internationally-known artist, for allowing us to use her work for this video.

Friday, May 15, 2020

On Nakba Day, Learn about Palestinians

Today is the day Palestinians remember the Nakba, the catastrophe. To understand the pain that my post caused yesterday, you have to go back to November 1947-1948/9, after the UN Partition Plan was announced, a plan that the Arab League and Palestinians rejected as unjust. What happened during the Nakba led to the expulsion of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, into a massive diaspora of refugees whose fates still hang in a purgatorial balance. Though there may be some debate (cf. Plan Dalet) among historians about the level of planning that went into this process, the cataclysm that ensued has never been adequately acknowledged. It must be acknowledged.
One cannot understand the Palestinian narrative without understanding this elemental trauma. About 400 villages were destroyed in what became Israel, many of them bulldozed, with forests planted over them. In other places, the houses built by Palestinians remain, lived in by Israelis. Most estimate that 4-5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants live around the world. Among them are some of my dearest friends and comrades.
They have written unforgettable stories and poems and painted beautiful art and have created a culture that is distinct and diverse. I invite you to read the classics like Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Edward Said, Emile Habiby, and many others, but also to meet on the page and in life Sahar Khalifeh, Ghassan Zaqtan, Raja Shehadeh, Naomi Shihab Nye, Fady Joudah, Deema ShehabiAnnemarie Jacir, Susan Abulhawa, Nathalie Handal, Suheir Hammad, Susan Muaddi DarrajHala AlyanLena Khalaf TuffahaSahar Mustafah, Adania Shibli, Remi KanaziNyla Matuk, and recently astonishing debut writers like George AbrahamZaina AlsousZaina ArafatTariq LuthunAhmad AlmallahNoor HindiMosab Mostafa, and the many other writers and artists that I have yet to read and meet.
I hope that I have done a measure of justice to the Palestinian story in Shrapnel Maps--but more than that, I hope that it will contribute to their stories being seen and beheld, that we can have real conversations about what a just peace could look like, and that each of us will ask how we are connected to their fates, and what role we might play in that. In many respects, the Nakba continues.
and another in the evening featuring some of these writers, that highlights Palestinian writers, and I encourage you to learn more. 

Here's a poem from Shrapnel Maps that deals with this: 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Returning to Jaffa, thinking of Nahida Halaby Gordon

Today I wanted to lift up the story of Nahida Halaby Gordon, born in Jerusalem, raised in Jafa/Jaffa until age 9, when her family fled in 1948, becoming Palestinian refugees. At the time, Jaffa was the third-most populous city in Palestine. 

Every year, Nahida comes to my course, Israeli and Palestinian Literatures, to share her personal testimony. Seventy years have not lessened the pain when she speaks of her final days in Jaffa, before her family—and other Palestinian families—fled in 1948. Nahida discovered the Haganah flyer in her father’s papers after his death. 

Read the poems, the Haganah flyer, and the Tel Aviv municipal archive note from Shrapnel Maps. What do they tell us, and why do they matter?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

On Rain and Embers: A Conversation between Philip Metres and Ali Nuri

I'm delighted to introduce poet Ali Nuri, an Iraqi American who fled Iraq when he was just seven years old, in 1994, in the post-Gulf War violence and punishment meted out by the regime of Saddam Hussein. His family's long journey of exile brought them from refugee camps to the United States, where they made a new life. His first book of poems offers a window into the challenges and wonders of a life lived on two continents, in two tongues. Poems from the book are interspersed through the interview below. For more information about Ali Nuri, please visit his website

On Rain and Embers: A Conversation between Philip Metres and Ali Nuri

Philip Metres (PM): Ali, I just finished Rain and Embers (2019). The book really seems to be a memoir- in-verse exploring the inner life of a refugee--from someone struggling with displacement and loss, to longing for love and home. I’m wondering if you might share a little about your journey into poetry. Did you get any encouragement from your teachers along the way? 

Ali Nuri (AN): Though I spoke Arabic (the southern Iraqi dialect) growing up, I was really a child without language. I remember my first teacher in the camps who beat me for not being able to read the Quran; I tried to memorize it to stop the punishment, but they caught on quickly. The teachers after that didn't expect much from me, especially my English teachers. My family was granted asylum in 1994, when I was 7 years old. I was immediately placed in second grade, but unfortunately, the public schools I attend from that age on were and still are in poor condition. ESL classes were useless to me—as was most education—due to dyslexia. Despite having good intentions, my teachers were overworked, underpaid, and lacked the resources to run a class of regular students efficiently. I remember one telling me that it was okay to be an average student because it's not as if I was going to be a writer one day. Language has always fascinated me, though—probably because of the alienating experiences I've had with it and not in spite of them.
PM: Ali, what memories do you carry with you about your time as a refugee? What do you hope that you won’t forget, and what do you wish you could forget but can’t? What do you think Americans should know about refugee experience that they might not? 

AN: Beyond the visual memories of surviving in the most inhospitable place on Earth, the overwhelming feeling I recall having was fear. As a child refugee, it was difficult to process the events that had led to my exile as much as what was happening right in front of me. One day I had been sitting under the shade of the fig trees on my grandmother’s small farm; the next, my family was walking silently across the desert with guns often pointed in our direction, en route to an enclosed encampment full of ragged tents where necessities like water and food were rationed under armed guard who were not afraid to “maintain order” using brute force. I hope to not forget the sense of community we somehow salvaged there, how people could still stand up for one another and protest mistreatment by the guards even when they had nothing left to gain and everything left to lose.

I wish I could forget the violence exerted on us, the humiliation, the intimidation, the intolerance. There was so much of it, more than I could ever possibly fathom, even now. How can a child understand that, let alone a stoic adult? You see the violence right in front of you, but it remains unprocessable, swelling like a tumor in your brain that can never be excised but only conceded to. You just internalize that fear and operate on survival mode. Your hierarchy of needs is dismantled for you from the outside, and the inside is so barricaded that your own needs become irrelevant. You are alien to yourself. One day, you leave the cage, but you are still an alien in a different land where you are told that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable to you. In practice, you come to find that such rights are flexible and those in power continue to hold all control, a mere degree or two removed from the tyranny you’ve always known.

That sums up my experience of being a refugee and its lasting effects, and I think every American should be made aware of that. Refugees do not seek refuge from a stable, secure life; we are escaping horrors the American people cannot imagine and seek to live peaceably, extolling the same foundational virtues about the elusive, sacred freedom that every human being deserves. Despite the surface-level differences, at our most unshakable core, we desire the same beautiful, happy, fulfilled world.

PM: Did you take creative writing courses in high school or college? Why did you choose poetry as opposed to some other literary genre?

AN: No, I’ve never taken creative writing classes, but I jumped at the opportunity to take a basic poetry analysis course in college as part of my general education requirements. In high school, my teachers had low expectations of students; one spent an entire year just covering material on To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite the lackluster way in which I was introduced to the written language, I had a certain insatiable curiosity about its power—a power to express with complete abandon, to disarm, to draw out our monstrosities and most vulnerable dimensions and realize they are one and the same.

What first drew me towards poetry was that it felt alien like me. People often comment to me that they feel alienated by poetry rather than intrigued when presented with someone else’s mind puzzle, but that initial alienation was what pulled me into its orbit. I have this perilous need to deconstruct and decrypt language, to find the patterns and strip them bare, discretely categorizing all of that particulate matter while appreciating its psychological innards. Occasionally that effort proves fruitless, but sometimes I read someone else’s poem and it feels like the words are my very own skin reaching to embrace my body from a page. Most forms of writing (especially novels and short stories) focus solely on structure, character, plot, pacing; while some liberties can be taken, the results are often rigid and formulaic. Most play it safe.

Poetry, to me, has a degree of sensuality that shouldn’t be overlooked, taking a no holds barred approach in its expression. It incorporates all of those ingredients found elsewhere in literature without the same social and emotional constraints; there’s room to be abstract, to circumvent form within form. There was an element of limitlessness that drew me in. Words and their negative spaces hold an immense weight, and with poetry, it’s entirely about the words themselves—the way they sound, their arrangement, their utility, their tone. Brevity, when done well, contains an entire world unto itself. A single phrase can carry an almost repulsive danger and a swift softness. Nothing is more rewarding than chipping away at that impossible mind block to find the poem buried in its impossible grains.

PM: Were you happy with how the book was received? 

AN: When it was just about writing and putting my thoughts to paper, I was satisfied. I thought I was fulfilling a life purpose, one that had been calling to me like a siren from the depths for years, one I had ignored over and over again to “become” the person society urged me to become.

In the background, there were always words waiting to be written while I was busying myself with trying to become a more acceptable adult. After the poems were finally written and assembled, I became obsessive about perfecting the basic components of a collection—at one point, I spent 3 weeks locked in one of my rooms with a printer from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. going over font sizes and shapes, comparing every single letter, until I found the one I wanted to use. For me, it was important that the cover matched the writing and conveyed the message I wanted it to convey. In the end, the book was received reasonably well and garnered more attention than my inner critic had been expecting, but that level of perfectionism can become a double-edged sword, leading to constant overthinking and second-guessing. It’s crucial to remind myself that no work is ever truly finished; mistakes are always made in retrospect, but the only way to move is forward. Recognizing the things we would do differently is a sign of growth and dynamic maturity.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Thank You


On the first day of the week,
Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning,
while it was still dark,
and saw the stone removed from the tomb.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
            --John 20
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May the stones be rolled away. May the prisoners be freed. May the tombs be emptied. May the wars end. May the wounds be healed. May we believe. May we have mercy on ourselves and others. May mourning become morning. May we turn to the Light.

Hi Philip,
Since I first started reading your book I have had Matt 6: 22-23 in my head, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” Over the years I have talked about this passage with a few friends.  It has struck me that the person in the passage thinks he is seeing light but it is really darkness.  He thinks his “light” is good, but it is really evil. I can’t help but feel that this is somewhat true for those perpetrating such horrible acts upon fellow humans as described in your book. They thought they were doing good. They thought that they were seeing light.  Oh, that just makes the darkness more dark. This has been heavy on me until this week when I realized that we are about to remember and celebrate the ultimate example of this. On that darkest of days, those who took Jesus’ life, thought they were doing good by their actions. But thanks be to God that he was able to overcome and turn that ultimate darkness into light. Thanks for taking the time and persevering through the painful task of creating this wonderful book. It is a piece of restoration. It is helping to turn that darkness into light.


Steve Conner

Thank you to everyone who participated in this Lenten Journey, as contributors and readers, both the below participants and Maureen Doallas, who was writing her own poems in response to these poems, and sharing all of it widely.

1.      Luke Hankins & “Compline” (2/10/16)
2.      Hilary Plum & “Illumination” (2/11)
3.      Peter Molin & “Lane McCotter” (2/12)
4.      Paul Lauritzen & “In the name” (2/13)
5.      Tyrone Williams & “The Blues of Javal” and “In the beginning” (2/14)
6.      Timothy Liu & “The Blues of Javal Davis” (2/15)
7.      Hayan Charara & “next day,” (“Animals”) (2/16)
8.      Joe Hoover & Peter Molin & “The Blues of Charles Graner” (2/17)
9.      Shakir Mustafa & “his name is G” (2/18)
10.   Susan Averna & “the third day” (2/19)
11.   Wafaa Bilal & “Handling the Koran”(2/20)
12.   Raymond Lennon & “The Blues of Ken Davis” (2/21)
13.   Marwa Helal & Peter Molin & “The Blues of Lynddie England” (2/22)
14.   Christopher Allen-Doucot & “now I am what I saw” (2/23)
15.   Huda Al-Marashi & “Muslim Burial” (2/24)
16.   Roy Scranton & “Joe Darby” (2/25)
17.   Danny Caine & Marwa Helal & final page of “abu ghraib arias” (2/26)
18.   Solmaz Sharif & “Woman Mourning Son,” (“Drone”) (2/27)
19.   Layla Azmi Goushey & Sarah Browning & “Recipe from the Abbasid” (2/28)
20.   Nawal Nasrallah & “Recipe from the Abbasid”  (2/29)
21.   Nawal Nasrallah & Zeina Hashem Beck & “A Toast” (3/1)
22.   Mary Austin Speaker & Joe Hall & “Home Sweet Home” (3/2)
23.   Pamela Hart & “The Iraqi Curator’s PowerPoint” (3/3)
24.   David Roderick & “Black Site Q” (3/4)
25.   Dunya Mikhail & Salih Altoma & “Asymmetries” (“Bag of Bones”) (3/5)
26.   Naomi Shihab Nye & “Salaam Epigrams,” (“Gate A-4”) (3/6)
27.   Charles Ellenbogen & “War Stories” (3/7)
28.   Philip Metres & “when the bombs fell,” (prose pieces) (3/8)
29.   Danny Caine & “In the cell of else” (3/9)
30.   Amy Breau & “I had no names” (3/10) (prose piece)
31.   Craig Santos Perez on “She asks, is that man crying” (“from understory”) (3/11)
32.   Fady Joudah & “what does it mean” (“Mimesis”) (3/12)
33.   Jeff Gundy &  Dante Di Stefano & “When I Was a Child” (3/13)
34.   Marwa Helal & Angele Ellis & “Black Site (Exhibit I).” (3/14)
35.   Philip Metres & “Love Potion #42” (3/15)
36.   Kim Stafford & Saddam’s Fingerprints (3/16)
37.   Philip Metres & “Etruscan Cista Handle” (3/17)
38.   Paige Webb & Performance Videos of “Cell/(ph)one” (3/18)
39.   Nomi Stone & “what consequence is a body” (3/19)
40.   Deema K. Shehabi & “in the wake of” (3/20)
41.   Becca J.R. Lachman & “I was planning an essay on imagery” (3/21)
42.   Chris Kempf & “You look at me” (3/22)
43.   Hayan Charara & “As if” (“Usage”) (3/23)
44.   Josie Setzler & “On the flight overseas” (3/24)
45.   William Kelley Woolfitt & “so I could pass the time (3/25)

46.   Priscilla Wathington & Harvey Hix & “Compline” (3/26) 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 46: “Let There Be Light”: Compline, + Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 46: “Let There Be Light”: Compline, + Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss,
while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
God saw how good the light was.
God then separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”
Thus evening came, and morning followed—the first day.

On Holy Saturday, we live between Crucifixion and Resurrection, past and future, full of uncertainty and hope. George Steiner once called our modern existence as one of Holy Saturday:  “We know of that Good Friday which Christianity holds to have been that of the Cross.  But the non-Christian, the atheist, knows of it as well – the pain, the failure of love, the solitude which are our history and our private fate.  We know also about Sunday. To the Christian  that day signifies an intimation of resurrection of a justice and a love that has conquered death.   If we are non-Christians, we know of that Sunday in analogous terms – the day of liberation from inhumanity and servitude…. Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday.  Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand, and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other.”

I remember when Amy was about to give birth for the first time, we read somewhere that “you can’t give birth with your head.” I’ve been thinking about my resistances to religion, to the life of faith, trying to remind myself that I can’t give birth with my head. How Guy Picciotto of Rites of Spring once sang: “I said I bled/I tried to have the heart/through the head.” And how Kahlil Gibran once wrote: “Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.”

I’m thinking of light, feeling the light. Just as our days tilt toward the sun, each day growing in strength, the pulsing of life all around us strengthens—the suddenness of greens and birdsong, life, life, life. Despite all the literal and figurative nights we endure, the violence and war and torture and despair and heart-brokenness, there is this pulsing, this turning toward the light, seed-hopeful. We dream of being broken open into what we are meant to become.

I’m thinking of what my Iraqi and Afghani friends have endured at the hands of our empire. Of Shakir, Nawal, Salih, Dunya, Huda, Sinan, Wafaa, Zohra. I’m thinking of those who remain in Guantanamo. Of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I’m thinking of all the victims of war and hatred, of black sites and drone strikes, of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, of prison cells and prison camps, and, closer to home, of racial oppression and sexual violence, of all our hurting hurting others. And the torment we visit upon ourselves. I’m thinking of all of us who find no reason to get up in the morning and nonetheless still get up in the morning, who wake with the light because there is something in us that lives in the light. There is something sleeping in us that rises with the day.

Thanks to Priscilla Wathington and Harvey Hix for their dialogues with “Compline.”

“And We Are Witnesses Of It” by Priscilla Wathington
            -a meditation on “Compline,” from Sand Opera

That     the tomb be opened, glass removed from the observatory’s blood-shot eye, that

we        who stood muzzled while a saw hunted its own dust would

await    a breathing into the dust’s nostrils, a bay of bones conferred

a          new leather to contain the

blessed man, pulp of

hope    remade by its own bloom.

My       fleeced lips unfit to drink this suffering garden of

God     to look into the dusk of olives for the

open    unwrapped body of God

the       prison guards rolled back like a stone 

spine    leavened. Remake the cotton

binding            into garments, forgive us

our       lumbering


On Easter in Palestine, I used to hear my friends and family members exchange this call-and-response greeting in Arabic: “Christ has risen / Truly risen / And we are witnesses of it.” Philip Metres’s poem, “Compline” is the final thought in a sober volume about the multitude of ways we have failed to approach each other as equal creations. It traces our failure of vision and how wed we are to a “spine” way of thinking. The poem acknowledges that this dark day has already been lived by many with long echoes that will spread beyond them and into the night. Despite this, “Compline” blesses its readers with a reminder and invocation: “That we await a blessed hope.” 

--Priscilla Wathington is a consulting editor to the children’s human rights group, Defense for Children International - Palestine. Her poems have recently appeared in Spark and Echo Arts, Sukoon, Mizna and The Normal School. 

“Echoes” by H.L. Hix

My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.

My God, my God, open the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, open the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the spine binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the bonds binding my sight.

Their God, their God, break the bonds binding my hearing.

Their God, their God, break the bonds chafing my hearing.

Our God, our God, break the bonds chafing my hearing.

Our God, our God, break my bonds, repair my hearing.

Our God, our God, break my bonds, restore my sight.

Any God, any God, break my bonds, restore my sight.

All Gods, all Gods, break their bonds, restore my sight.

--H.L. Hix is a poet and the author of numerous books, most recently American Anger (2016).