Monday, February 11, 2008

Arab American Writing and War, the AWP panel 2008

What better way to kick off the AWP conference than with talk of genocidal wars? (A mere ten minutes before, I saw the estimable Robert Bly trip a young woman's suitcase and shoot her a look that registered on the Richter scale.) Lawrence Joseph, Hayan Charara, Elmaz Abinader, Fady Joudah, Sinan Antoon and I all tried to approach this baggy monster of a topic one hydra head at a time.

Lawrence Joseph developed the critical lens that his poetry books (particularly Into It) illuminate creatively: that, to echo Paul Virilio, "in a state of permanent war, all poetry is war poetry." In a litany of historical dates and events, Joseph tried to get the audience up to speed on what history has looked like for Arabs and Arab-Americans; at the same time, he urged for us to see Arab-American poetry not as a reduction to such political history, but an assertion of the inner life of Arabs and Arab-Americans, as human beings. In a way, all of us struck that common chord.

Poet Hayan Charara brought poetry from his anthology, Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry into the mix, as well as the ADC statement that "so much of what is known [about us] is wrong." And Khaled Mattawa's, that our poetic labors is to "render that image unrecognizable."

Philip Metres (can I speak about myself in the third person without looking like a jackass? probably not)...confessed feeling guilt after 9/11, argued that the Abu Ghraib photos themselves were an extension of the torture, and suggested that we can look to Arab American poetry as a counternarrative of what has transpired here and abroad:
From personal and familial anecdotes of life in war-torn nations in the Middle East, to declassified materials now available, Arab American poetry draws on a global repository of informational, cultural, and literary resources to illuminate, narrate, and give voice to Arab and Arab American experience. These works strengthen our historical memory so that, when the history of the moment is distilled to official sound bytes and images, we have an imaginative archive that obstinately refuses to efface what has happened.

Poet and memoirist Elmaz Abinader provided us with a miniature history of anthologies, journals, and websites organized around or highlighting Arab American cultural and literary production. Among them, the journals Al-Jadid, Banipal, and Mizna. (I'll post her links here).

Fady Joudah's impressionistic piece offered poetry as a transfiguration, as the complex voicing of our own complicity in power structures. As a Palestinian-American, and winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Earth in the Attic (2008), Joudah's formulation, "to be or not to be a victim or the descendent of victims," resonated with a complex power.

Finally, Iraqi-American poet and novelist Sinan Antoon underscored how war is a distant experience for Americans, and that the Iraq War and occupation (and the Gulf War and sanctions that preceded it in the 1990s) have been a dismantling of the cultural and political institutions of Iraq. Moreover, the new U.S. branded Iraq, for Antoon, has replicated the forms and discourses of Saddam's totalitarianism. He left us with a dizzying sense of the true losses of the war, not least of which has been Iraq's cultural patrimony and its collective memory (due to the destruction of official records and museum looting). Sobering stuff.

During the question-and-answer, someone asked whether any of us write about ice cream (and other non-political stuff). Apparently they haven't read much of what we've written. I turned to Fady: "only if it's olive oil ice cream."

Afterward, without Antoon, but with Harvey Hix, we repaired to a coffee shop, where we held forth on the various dignities and indignities. Larry Joseph was in rare form. Orientalism was tossed about like a hot potato--I suddenly worried that perhaps I had Orientalized myself. Obama came up, with pros and cons discussed. Adonis was pronounced better than Milosz. Much conversation over coffee and about coffee and cigarettes. Harvey Hix was treated to quite a show of Arab American poetical (inter)nationalism. Thanks to Hayan for sharing his photos (some of which I could never upload properly) and for all the work on the anthology and on the panel!


Providence said...

This sounds like an excellent panel, well beyond the weird generalities most seem devised to entertain. And I'm talking not only AWP, but MLA, MSA, etc. I greatly appreciate the report!

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Providence. By the way, DAYDREAM NATION is of course a favorite of mine...once, all my friends lay about for an afternoon, with the dusk coming on, listening to the whole of that album. Transcedence. Spirit/desire.

But can you suss out what Mike Watt says in his phone message about Thurston and his missing weed? Did he ever find it?

Anonymous said...


Saw you briefly at AWP from afar but the crowds intervened...sounds like a great--and necessary--panel. Have you read Rob Halper's and Taylor Brady's Snow Sensitive Skin (Atticus/Finch)? Great book engaging the 2006 Israeili-Lebanon war...I'm teaching a seminar this semester called "War poetry" (yes, all poetry written under the conditions of war)--we've read Mandelshtam, Darwish--next up (tomorrow) is Ginsberg, then Duncan, H.D., Elrick, Arigo...

Tyrone Williams

Philip Metres said...

Tyrone, sounds like a great class. I don't know that book, Snow Sensitive Skin...I need to check it out! And hope to catch up with you soon.

Chaerephon said...

From the Sonic Youth song database:

"Watt here, I'm downstairs in this window.. yr uh, punk phone booth.. Thurston, Watt.. Thurston.. I think it's 10:30.. we're callin' from Providence, Rhode Island. Did you find your sh**? You gotta watch the mota, Thurston.. Yr f***** memory just goes out the window. We couldn't find it in the van at all, we were wondering if you looked in that trash can.. when we threw out that trash, man.. with the bag in yr hand, did you dump it? Call later, bye."

Based on my hearing of it I would change "window" to "winda." But that's just me.