Monday, December 14, 2020

Home Front Practices: a dialogue with E.J. McAdams and Philip Metres



a dialogue with E.J. McAdams and Philip Metres

 This interview took place on a road trip from Woodstock, CT to Hartford, CT on April 24, 2015 to visit activist and Holy Cross graduate, Chris Doucot, at the Catholic Worker house on Clark Street. The night before, Metres had given a poetry reading with poet William Wenthe in honor of poet Robert Cording, who was our mentor when we were students at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. The topic of the conversation was focused on Metres’s 2015 book Sand Opera.


E. J. McAdams (EJM):  Last night, you were giving a reading at Holy Cross where you went to college and got started as a poet. When did you feel like you wrote your first poem and that you were a poet?  Can you remember a poem or a verse that you felt like was the beginning?

Philip Metres (PM): You know, I just had to give a speech to a high school assembly, and one of the things that I had to do was make an argument for English and creative writing as something  worthy of study. I wanted to reach them where they were in their own lives as high school students, because that's where poetry started for me.

I distinctly remember reading T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school when I was a senior in my AP English class, and wondering how the hell this guy knew how I was thinking about things. I totally mind-melded with that dramatization of a person sort of locked in self-consciousness, unable to act: “Do I dare descend the stair?  Do I dare eat a peach?  Do I dare disturb the universe?”  There was something that really appealed to me and my sense of confused masculinity. At that age, you're just raging with hormones. And I was at an all-boys school, and had no way of dealing with this seethe. Prufrock was this invitation to feeling that I wasn't so alone. In my aloneness, I wasn't alone.

That was something that others had struggled with. And I think I've always found in literature, these echoes. Sometimes paralleling my experience. Sometimes very different. But feeling like, in the process of reading, and then writing, that I was not so much…not alone, not in exile. Prufrock, I think, was this, really important poem for me. You know there are other moments too….

EJM: But what about as a writer of poems? 

PM: Yeah, yeah. So I think that like literally after reading that and “The Waste Land,” and some other things, I just started fancying myself a poet. My mom had a Masters in English and loved Wordsworth. So, when I would come home and talk about the stuff I was studying she was totally into it. She was very supportive, and she loved the romance of the poet as an idea, as a myth. And I did too. [LAUGH] I mean it was a way that I could identify myself that would make sense of the very things that made me feel so much an outsider.
I didn't really know what to do with that so literally I just started writing madly. I was numbering them when I started—hundreds of poems. Right around the same time, we went on a vacation and visited the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza and that totally blew my mind. It made me think of “Ozymandias,” which I had just read. The sources for me, the one's that first started making me write, were the classics. I fell head over heels in love with this beautiful girl that my sister knew. My grandfather died, and then I went to Mexico. So, the great primal themes—love, death, encountering otherness, travel, whatever. So I was writing all these poems that were probably terrible, but they were enthused by language. Once you find this kind of medium it's such a beautifully empowering, primitive thing—to be able to use language and have language use you. It was a great organizer of all the chaos that I was feeling inside and outside, not a simple ordering, but a way of making it into music, the way that music is just organized sound. In the same way, poems were organizing all sorts of things for me and giving them sense.

So your question was when do I feel like I really wrote a poem?  I don't know. [LAUGH]  Maybe it took years. I mean every time you're writing a poem, you think this is it—this is the best fucking thing I've ever written.


PM: And I mean if you're doing it right—you know some days it doesn't feel that way—but if you're in the groove, it's the most beautiful trance. Then, of course, the heat cools and you have to deal with its gnarly-ness or it's incompletion or whatever.


If I were ever to write a selected poems, I think the first poem would be “Ashberries.”—probably because it took me so goddamn long to write. And I feel like it says so much…it captures so much that I was unable to capture. The poem literally took me almost a decade to finish. I arrived in Russia in 1992 and was absolutely entranced by the place. Immediately I started working on a bunch of poems, and this was one of them. I had three of the four sections written within a month of being there. It's an epistolary set of poems about encountering this strange place, but there was something missing. Every year, I would bang away on it again and see what could be done. About eight years later, I realized that the terror of the experience wasn't there. The third section of “Ashberries,” which was dealing with that terror, finally came to me and everything came together like iron filings to a magnet.


EJM: One of the things that Bill (Wenthe) said last night that I thought was interesting was that it's really important for a poet to know another poet who takes their poetry seriously. You talked about how your mother did that. Who was the first poet to take you seriously?  Do you even think it's important? 

PM: My first workshop at Holy Cross was with Cyrus Cassells. That was a great experience for me because I needed to share my work. Poetry was becoming too much a kind of self-congratulatory act. It is dangerous when you write like that. A workshop is still a really good way of making sure that you're not just jerking off. You want a poem to be a conversation, a dialogue. You want it to be this medium by which we encounter the other in ourselves and the others outside of ourselves. I distinctly recall and still have all the drafts where he wrote in red pen that I was being sentimental. Like every one of them has the word “sentimental” on it. I felt a little burned by his critiques and I knew that he favored other poets in the class, which hurt my ego. But itwas not necessarily a bad thing because I saw actually how good the others were, how they were light years ahead of me.

But Bob, Bob Cording, obviously. Cording was the one who took—I mean it was the most beautiful, generous thing—he took my work seriously and took me seriously. And so what Bill said exactly was my experience. When I think about the poems that I was giving Bob, it kind of astounds me that he was able—not to just simply put them in a drawer and say, okay, these aren't very good [LAUGH] you need to write a lot more and a lot sharper than this, but he didn't, he just said this is what I think this poem is about, this is what I think it's doing, this is what I think it needs to do. I'll never forget that great grace that he gave of just being a listener and taking my work seriously.


EJM: So I want you to talk about Sand Opera, which I have seen gestating over the years. How did you get to the point where you knew Sand Opera was in the right form and that you were ready to publish it?  Because it took a while.


PM: It was definitely stages. People like to disparage the idea of poetry projects and they say, “Oh, the poem is a thing,” but I think both ways of exploring poetry are beautiful and important and necessary. I oscillate between them. I have some big general ideas of something I'd like to do, and then there's just these individual things that happen, these individual kind of moments which are poems.

I'm not sure chronologically what the first stuff I wrote for Sand Opera actually is, but I know that  working with the Abu Ghraib testimonies of 2007 was the most important start. I was working through the various drafts that began with testimonies, and then started to work with the Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedure manual. Finally, I began appropriating the language of the testimonies of the US military personnel. When all of that started to come together that was a thing. In a way that is itself a little opera and so that was the thing I felt most strongly about. So almost every summer, I had a different thing that I'd start getting obsessed with.

There were these poems that were told from an Arab-American point of view about 9/11, those are the Home Front poems. I am fascinated by the possibilities of the dialogic. I always like to see poems having conversations with other poems. Instead of just having these Home Front poems be on their own, I put them alongside the testimonies of a guy who was rendered at a black site. It created a nice friction. By then, I had enough poems that it seemed like something, but it went through a lot of permutations—I'm embarrassed to say how many drafts. [LAUGH]


So after it was accepted, I actually pulled out a section and put in two other sections. The editor had one comment, just one comment about the whole book which was that the sequence “Instants” (which I love and I want to put in another book) seems like an odd man out in the collection and I wanted to figure out what to do if I took it out. So I just said okay, I'm going to see what happens if I take it out—the reason it was in there in the first place is it's a poem meditating on lots of the same issues, on the optics of domination and our desire to control our  and the sexual component that's related to that. It tells the story of Edward Muybridge. So there are many reasons why it does connect, but because so many of the other poems were so topically connected, this one just seemed a little off so I took it out. I looked at all the other stuff that I had written and decided that I wanted to do some things that hadn't been done in the book. I wanted to have a greater diversity of points of view and voices and to work with some Iraqi voices that weren't necessarily about the war. Poems like “The Iraqi Curator’s Power Point” is really important to me because it's about this guy who loves this artistic patrimony of Iraq and is devastated by its plunder. There was another poem for Nawal Nasrallah, who's a friend of (my wife) Amy (Breau) and me, called “A Toast” that I wrote for her beautiful cooking.

And there was another poem quoting a poet’s letter to me. She had just read the book in manuscript, and said she was having a hard time responding to it; she had a friend at Indiana University who was working for the State Department who committed suicide. Her letter shows that there are a lot of people affected by these wars, a lot of people who experience a crisis of conscience. We don't really know why he did it and …

EJM: Well, there's a sense of something nefarious.


PM: Yeah.

EJM: That he didn't do it.

PM: Right.

EJM: Someone did it to him.

PM: Right, yeah.

EJM: Going back through what you've talked about today, it seems like you're often looking for what's missing. Do you think that that's a fair characterization, not only in terms of what's missing from the book, but a real sense of which is the voice that's missing? Is this what drew you in general to the Sand Opera project?


PM: Absolutely. You immediately made me smile because there's something there. I could say a couple of things about that. One is that I'm very interested in works of art that are dialogical in the Bahktinian sense, for example, what Tolstoy does in War and Peace where you see how all these different characters see things from these very different points of view. Everyone talks about Dostoyevsky's dialogism, but I think that Tolstoy is really fascinating too. What has drawn me to poetry is just listening to voices, listening to the still, small voice as they call it or Michael Stipe's singing, “Could it be that one small voice doesn't count in the room?” “Shaking Through” is the song. And when I heard that, I was like yeah, why does one small voice not count? I had an ambition that I wanted the book to be bigger than a protest. The arias were able to do that. I felt like I'm responding to the coherence of this as a work of art, not simply as a response to the Abu Ghraib torture. And so, I always feel like that you know a work of art is getting close to being where it needs to be when it seems way smarter than you are.



PM: Sometimes I read a poem of mine – like I did last night – and think “Who the fuck wrote this?” Literally I was reading it but I couldn’t remember writing it. You know?  I literally don't. I'm like wow, that's a pretty good sentence, a pretty good line.


PM: So I'm sure there's always this feeling, and there are ones that you don't like, but I think that the way the work arrives mysteriously, and if it continues to be a little mysterious too, I think that that's probably a good thing. I love that anecdote, in Dean Young’s book of poetics called The Art of Recklessness. He says that he had a conversation the other day with Robert Hass  in which Hass said that he still really doesn't feel like he knows what he's doing. And then Dean Young says, if Robert Hass says he doesn't know what he's doing, then we need to figure out how to be better at not knowing what we're doing.


PM: And I think that, to me, that's true. That just was such a relief. Because I think of Hass as this sort of encyclopedic mind whose work just seems so deft and magical.

EJM: One of the things that you said just now is that you didn't see this as a pure protest. And, what that makes me think is that I know you study both the tradition of war poetry and the poetry of the resistance to war. You gesture towards what a poetry of peace might be. In particular, your idea of the home front feels like something new in poetry, or at least a place for exploration in our conversation. This past year I read Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad: Or the Poem of Force,” and your poems are exploring force and forces, and how they're put on people's bodies but also how they're put on you at home. We, at home—we're not in the battle. We're not always in the protest. We're at home, and we're moved. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you've been thinking about force and the home front? 

PM: Yeah. Well, that sequence of poems is called “Home Front/Removes.” I wanted to think about the space in which I found myself, in which we find ourselves, which is very often distant from the scene of battle. There's a reflex gesture, in our culture, to celebrate the authenticity of the first person narrative, and that has meant, in our culture, that the soldier's view is the one that is most authoritative and exciting, and closest to the action. But in the process of writing my book Behind the Lines, I wanted to create a critical space and see how poets dealt with this, in a sense, bias. This rejection of the imagination is part of our culture. We are ingrained with a fear of the imagination. Rukyeser talks about that in The Life of Poetry very eloquently.

“Home Front/Removes” is setting alongside each other the domestic and the global. This domestic experience of 9/11 filtered through an Arab American point of view, which is basically my point of view. I just want to say a word about the Removes, though. I was really interested in Mohamed Bashmilah's story, this Yemeni national who was detained and rendered to black sites. I was thinking about the way in which the story that he was telling was weirdly, hauntingly echoing a text that I used to teach in a “Major American Writers” class: Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, an American settler who got captured by Native Americans and was taken from place to place. But it's a book that's a testimony to her keeping the faith amongst these “savages.” And reading this guy's story, I thought, he's Mary Rowlandson, you know?  We're doing exactly what this narrative is militating against and so that's why it's called removes. It's also that she, the reason why I use the word “removes” is that Mary Rowlandson refers to each of her displacements, as removes, which has a kind of geographic and also theological register. I was fascinated by that idea. And also, of course, we are removed in all sorts of ways, so it just seemed like a really interesting kind of binary with home front. Okay, so back to the home front.

EJM: One section of your book is called “Home Front/Removes,” but let me throw out that I think there is an element of the whole book that might be called a “home front practice.” I know on your blog
Behind the Lines: Poetry, War, & Peacemaking you have wrestled with the question of, what can a poem do?  what can a book do? what can a poet do?  And I felt like there was a gesture in the book to almost embody a kind of home front practice or a way that we could all position ourselves toward the violence and oppression in our world. Is that fair?  Do you see the other poems at all fitting into a kind of home front practice? 

PM: Oh absolutely. The first poem is an invocation. It is a kind of prayer and then we move right into the arias. But then the next section, it begins with a poem which is sort of a classic American depiction of the domestic scene in which a guy is picking up the newspaper outside who sees an image of this woman, this Iraqi woman mourning in the paper. And I really self-consciously wanted to move us to that space which is where most of us find ourselves most of the time: we're encountering war through a newspaper or something online. And so that was a really explicit attempt to acknowledge my place-ness on the home front.

And just as a term, it goes back to that thing that Paul Virilio says which is that the real war is the endless preparation for war, which he gets actually from William James, who, in his essay, The Moral Equivalent of War from 1910, which we read in Professor Michael True's class at Holy Cross, says the exact same thing. James was saying at that time that we need to think about where the war is starting and where it's permeating. Because we live in this society where a huge percentage of our taxes is going to not only defense but security, and then paying down interest on our excessive expenditures, and, quote unquote, defense and security. We need to think of the home front as a site of, as a part of, it's a part of battle space, really. I mean, not just the political battle, but all the ways in which we're constantly being interpolated into a kind of imperial subjectivity.


I listen to NPR, where you can hear multiple sides of stories and critiques, but the energy and the social force of the project of so much of journalism has maintained the cold war consensus about how we talk about what it is that the United States is. We're constantly being immersed in it. Because I'm interested in the Middle East and have this Saidian critique of Orientalism, it's so obvious. You start to see the ways in which there's some kind of little gesture pandering toward these other points-of-view, but ultimately, it often feels self-congratulatory – “We're interested in you,” you know?  “You representative of all you other, you know, brown people.” 

EJM: So that's interesting. Someone could in a very surface way read your book like that. Talk a little bit about what you are doing that's undermining that potential to pander.

PM: I think that that's the thing that I wrestled with the most, ethically. The most primitive version of this question is: are you benefiting in some way, from writing about the suffering of others? And are you positioning yourself as an authority on speaking about those others? Those are the most important questions to ask. That's what Spivak was asking in “Can the Subaltern Speak.” She's saying, you liberals who think that you are representing unrepresented positions, you think you're giving voice to people but you're doing what she calls epistemic violence to them. You are not representing them. You are—I don't think she says benefiting from them, but you're missing the target. You're not hearing what you need to hear. And what I love about where she's coming from is this Derridian ethics that's basically saying there's a certain impossibility to the project of representation. You're constantly either relying on a transcendent thing, or you're cutting something out. I think that's a fair criticism of the work. I mean, any time you start representing, you can be engaging in epistemic violence. It's the question of the frame.

EJM: When I read your book, epistemic violence is not what's coming across to me.

PM: Well, that’s good.

EJM: Clearly, from what you just said, you wrestled with the questions that Spivak raised. So how do you think that ethics and framing comes across at the level of the writing, at the level of language, at the level of the page. How did you challenge facile readings?  Because it seems very successful.

PM: [LAUGH]   Well, one thing is that the book employs what we would call investigative poetics, or documentary poetic kinds of approaches which enable you to start thinking about focusing on the dominant, official narrative that's doing erasure.

There was this interesting thing, I don't know if it even exists anymore, called White Studies or Whiteness Studies. The idea there was basically what African-Americans during the Black Power phase of the Civil Rights movement and we're saying, why don't you fucking talk to your community instead of trying to hang out with us?  Hey, get your own shit straight. So I think that that's one of the things that's happening. Have you seen this redneck on YouTube talking about white supremacy?  He does these little YouTube videos and he's literally talking to white people about starting to confront the racism. White supremacy in the dominant culture, and it's just hilarious and awesome. And it's just an anecdote to say that we need to look at.

I remember when I was in grad school Barbara Harlow said that instead of studying literature we should be reading the NAFTA agreement because that is going to really change everything. This was in the 90's. This piece of legislation is going to utterly change the lives of millions of people in ways we don't really know exactly. It's part of globalization: building these highways, these vertical highways between Canada and Latin America. And we need to look at it very carefully. That's one approach, you know this is like, Look at what people are saying, test it out. See what it reveals to us. It's representing the marginalized voices. You just look at what's out there, and, take it on its terms like what Zizek said about moving through the fantasy. What is this really saying about us?  And showing that mirror, which is a classic enlightenment idea of what art does. So that's one way.


By virtue of some of my relationships and I think working with the text of those voices was something that in the Abu Ghraib part and the removes say something about how the art should be changing. It should be changing you in some way. And I feel like I found reading those things really, really hard. I saw myself as trying to carry those, the fragments of those things, rather than trying to show them to others to prove something. It was like I was just kind of trying to be with those voices that could I have no geographical access to. And I don't know if that makes any difference at all but, I, I knew that it was affecting me and I thought that in light of how much objectification of those bodies was happening that having those voices is, as part of a retelling, important.

EJM: This provides a good transition as I want to ask your about the recurring focus on the eye in sight, the focus on the ear in hearing, and the focus on the body in sensing and feeling. The problem with being on the home front is that the things you are bringing forward in the book are happening in the world but they're hard to feel, right? First they're hard to see – they're missing – they're removed, but then they're very hard to feel too. You seem to work with the material in the poems to try to feel, and then to bring that feeling across to the readers. Please talk about how you see sight and hearing and the body? 

PM: No. Right, right, right. I'm just thinking about if you go to the epigraphs that there's St. Paul’s “if the body were an eye, where would the hearing be.” I'm aware of what Laura Mulvey calls our “scopophilia.” She describes how we're creatures dominated by our sight biologically and culturally. Specifically she talks about the male gaze and the cinema, and how our sight is part of an individual, as well as a cultural-political, optics of organizing, ordering, control and domination. Obviously I was not saying we should all pluck out our eyes or anything; however, if we only focus on, for example, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the photos themselves were part of the torture. The fact that they're taken, and the fact they were disseminated, was part of the abuse of these men's bodies. And that was all happening on the level of optics. Something that I've had to learn over and over again in my life is how hard it is to listen to other people. I am amazed how flawed I am at this. True listening is really an act of genuine, radical openness and love. Levinas' ethics of the face to face isnot just about the apprehension of the face, but it's also about engagement with this person's voice, their stories, their reality. And that's what I think the book is trying to do. I called it, you know, the sound of my listening. I was inspired by Harvey Hix who wrote this book called God Bless in which he took the speeches of Bush and Bin Laden and worked with them. I got obsessed with his listening, how he was listening carefully again to what Bush was saying and what Bin Laden was saying and worked with them and made them into poems. I just thought there was something really beautiful about it – and he was doing what a good citizen would do, a good person would do, which was listening to what my president is saying and asking, “What does this mean exactly?” And this is what our enemy is saying and what does it mean exactly? One of the observations that he made which I thought was the most profound was that Bush professed to never listen to what Bin Laden was saying, but it's clear all of Bin Laden's speeches were directly related to what Bush had said. How weird that is. I went into poetry to express my own voice but I've gotten much more interested in what everybody else was saying.

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.