Monday, November 16, 2009
Thursday Night Live: The Earth in the Attic
KH: You were born in Texas, and grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia. After college, med school, and medical training in Georgia and Texas, you now work in Houston, when you’re not doing field work for Doctors Without Borders. How did the places you lived affect your sense of identity? Did this affect the way you view your Palestinian heritage? Do you feel, as Louise Glück described you in the forward to The Earth in the Attic, that you hold the position of “outsider,” that you are “not at home, not among [your] people”? How does this sense of contemporary exile, by circumstance and by choice, affect your view of the world and of poetry’s place in it?
FJ: I’d like to begin by saying that “when I am not doing work for Doctors Without Borders” requires pause. I have not done field work for them in 4 years and do not expect to do so again for some time now that I am married with young children. To have joined Doctors Without Borders on the field is not an act of nobility or heroism; it is for those who have done it either an act of common decency or an expression, a representation, of self-survival. Louise Gluck described me as an “outsider” because I am. How can I be an insider when I have not for one hour of my life been a displaced person or a refugee in the political definition of the term? True, I am not “among my people” and that adds a particular dimension to all this: so many of my family are still displaced and refugees, and my parents were refuges; it is no doubt a degree of association (or separation), an identification that makes me, as outsider, a particular kind of insider; but it risks righteousness from the pulpit of suffering, and as a Palestinian I know too well the unfortunate race to the crown of suffering, and in so many ways I do not want to partake in it, not even at the level of becoming a subject for the validation of the victimizer or the deification of the victim. “Exile” first and foremost is the condition of the poet, whether in internal or external form. Often it is in both forms, which I hope would guard a little from an aloofness of asceticism, or from the ostrich syndrome.
KH: Do you still work as an ER physician at a VA hospital? How does seeing war from that remove, particularly after seeing its bodily effects up close through your work with displaced persons, shape your thoughts? I feel like the poem “Night Travels” speaks to the experiences at the VA. How is the experience of writing these poems different poems different from the ones concerning DPs in the immediate place of war? Do you connect the displaced persons you serve with Doctors Without Borders to the veterans served at the VA? If so, how does that connection come out in your poems?
FJ: After eight years, I no longer work at the VA. The DP’s as you call them (and in so calling them they are further displaced) are “foreign” to us in America, truly “other.” They suffer a different type of oblivion than the Veterans do; a different kind of dehumanization, even when made “holy” like the people in Darfur are, for example; they are subjected to a utilitarian absence, exploited for purposes of power and moral display (and arguably, as in The Earth in the Attic, for aesthetic display). I write a lot less about Veterans because one is bombarded by media discourse on such matters that it leaves less room to maneuver outside the dominant “narrative” per se. There is something to be said about our focus on Veterans in a manner that further absents the ubiquitous victims of war, the civilians and peoples, of Iraq or Afghanistan, for example; the Oliver Stone phenomenon. However, when a window opens up for the fabular, as in “Night Travel”, I feel more able to write about it. Of course “Night Travel” is also a play on the Prophet Mohammad’s overnight journey from Mecca to Jerusalem before his ascension to meet God; an “Ascension” in the so-titled prose poem that follows “Night Travel” in the book. This is not to enforce specific readings of the two poems, but to explain how restrained I feel regarding the comparison you make.
KH: Your work as a doctor shows up in the content of your work. Other than providing material, how do medicine, or science in general, and poetry intersect for you? What comes of those intersections?
FJ: The language of medicine, with its Greek and Latin obsessions, is fascinating. It was also quite metaphorical in its nascent days, in the 18th century for example; even if it likes to denounce that flowery lexicon and pretend a kind of certain specificity, it was originally bound to metaphor and translation in order to achieve a sense or illusion of inevitability, of objectivity, of truth. In that manner it resembles many aspects of poetry. Of course medicine is far more utilitarian than poetry is. Still medicine is a window into the dialogue between power and knowledge, and the politics of knowledge, from which poetry is not exempt. I think Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic or Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor are each a case-in-point.
KH: In March, you wrote a reflection for the Beloit Poetry Journal on “Translating Gassan Zaqtan.” In it, you say that “[f]or [you], the tantalizing tale is elsewhere: at the simple level of word order in a sentence: subject, verb, object in English vs. verb, subject, object in Arabic, for example…” and that “[n]either fidelity nor infidelity is the question per se; rather it is the “new” poem: the thing itself.” Was the process of translating Darwish’s work (I’m speaking particularly of If I Were Another) similar? What kinds of issues does translating long poems, like Darwish’s Mural, have? I have several students who are translating poems for their final projects in my class, including one who is translating poems from the Bosnian war. I’d love to know if you have any advice for the young or inexperienced translator.
FJ: The impossibility of rendering Darwish’s Arabic into English demands another question: in which ways is it possible? The answer lies, in part, in one’s own harmony within what Rilke calls “primal sound.” If I am able to sing Darwish’s poem as if it were another in English, then I have succeeded. That faith, even if illusory, is necessary for the poem, in translation or otherwise. The long poems demand a more liberated approach in that the primary concerns with orality and tonality, cadence and music, are distributed over a longer period of mind and breath, if mind and breath are a kind of time. A translated poem has to be owned by the translator, as if it were a form of functional hallucination, where one believes the voices one hears are his, are real. It’s a relationship of hospitality (and not simply tolerance) between guest and host; or a hope for oneness between (organ) donor and host.
KH: In your piece for the Poets Against War Winter 2006 newsletter, you write that “[t]he marginality of humanitarian aid, as relief or as neo-nobility, parallels that of poetry. Humanitarian aid measures its interventional impulse on the number of the dead. An afterthought of variable insightful slowness. Impartiality is its charter. And sometimes, when death is not the worst thing that can happen to you, it is the number of the living dead that determines intercession. It is part science (part statistic), part aesthetic.
And like humanitarian relief (and science), poetry often revels in its myth of independence from the communal theatre of the political, and ends up parroting the illusory separation between self and state. How does poetry heed forty million displaced persons in this world while struggling with Roman choices at home in the ‘I.’”
In an interview with the Poetry Foundation you state that you “think the discussion over the function of poetry is… half-absurd. Poetry (like Medicine) is often linked to elite and power structures; it is these structures that often “write” us in poetry, and often participate in determining the poet’s “longevity” even if we’d like to think otherwise sometimes.”
All this long quoting of you to you is to frame another question: It seems that both the good we can do with poetry and the good action we can undertake in the world are governed by a power relationship that names those goods as necessarily limited in some way. What are the limits of poetry? What can poetry do inside those limits, and how can we, as poets and readers of poetry, both seek those limits and push beyond them?
FJ: If I knew the limits of poetry, I wouldn’t write poetry. If I think poetry knows no bounds, I have already failed. “The personal is not personal. / The universal not universal” as Darwish says in Mural.
KH: In the intro to The Earth in the Attic, Glück writes that “[u]nder other conditions, one could imagine this elegant austerity, this precision, this dreamy inwardness absorbed entirely in the natural world. But the earth and sky here are… haunted landscapes of a lost homeland.” Throughout the book, trees, birds, and water (in the form of rain, wadis, and the sea) are repeated images. What power do those images hold for you? How does nature inform, or act as foil to, the harsh political and human realities at play in the poems?