“I got obsessed with this possibility of trying to write a total poem.”


Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar

We met at AWP, but I didn't know if you'd remember. I always feel like a nerd when I remember that sort of thing and the other person doesn’t, so I try to avoid bringing it up until the other person does.

Well, you're sort of unforgettable. People don't walk up to me and say, "Hey, I really like your work." So it's easy to remember that.

Oh, I don't think that's true. I'm sure you get plenty of that. I thought you were going to say it was because I was gangly and couldn't string together a sentence, which tends to be the way I'm remembered when people have a memorable encounter with me in person.

That's just our tribe. That's why we write, because we're so tongue-tied. We’re trying to get life right on the page.

Yeah, it still feels like that's where I'm speaking most accurately. The speech is just an approximation of what I could be saying in writing.

For sure, for sure.

How are you? Is this a good time? I know things are kind of crazy there and you're juggling stuff.

Well, I'm at my in-law's house. They live in Western Massachusetts, near Northampton, and this is the week where all of my wife's sisters get together with all their kids. So it's a big family circus all in one house.

Do you have any questions before we dive in?

I'm sort of curious about why you began doing interviews.

Oh, really?

Part of the reason is that, when I was twenty-two and I went to Russia, I did all these interviews with writers, and I found it to be an education that I had no other access to.

What you're describing is exactly what it is for me. My MFA was good and I learned a lot from it, but I feel like eighty-five to ninety percent of my education in poetry has come from just talking to other writers, and sort of duping people into having conversations with me. When I read a book and really love it, here's a way that I can have access to the actual mind behind it that can speed up my understanding of the work. And that's what an MFA is meant to be, right? It's a way to speed things up. It doesn't give you access to anything you wouldn't have had otherwise, but it kind of speeds the process along. I think of these interviews as miniature apprenticeships. I've written a ton of fan mail ever since I was in middle school. If I liked an album, I would find a way to write a letter to a band member, so this is just an extension of that impulse.

What was the best response you've ever gotten?

Well, when I was fifteen I discovered the band, Beep Beep. They were the band that turned me on to real art. They were my first real grown up music that I was really in love with, that I listened to encyclopedically. They were my gateway into other real music, which was my gateway into other real art, which was my gateway into cool people who were aesthetically engaged. I was writing a ton of fan mail to them. And they were super good about writing back. They would give me reading lists and listening lists, and they sort of groomed me to become an aesthete. So that was a really important one for me. Did you ever write fan mail?

Not a lot, but when I was in college I wrote to Fugazi.

Oh, that's cool!

Yeah, and they wrote me a letter. I wrote an essay about them last year, and I included the letter because it really stuck with me. I kept it around like a talisman.

Yeah, as well you should have.

And the coolest part for me was—I basically asked them to talk about their theories about their art. And they were like, "It doesn't really matter what we think about it. What we do is practiced on stage.   To tell you what we think we're doing would be like taking a midterm exam about our lives." And I just love that answer. It seems very much a part of their ethos—that you're supposed to have your own thoughts. And I found it really empowering, in a way, because a certain kind of poetry today seems to involve endless theorizing and manifestos. Not that I don't think manifestos have a place, and not that I don't think poets should have some sense of the stakes of the art. But, at the same time, they should know that what they're doing is ideally better than their intentions for it.

Oh, I love that, "better than their intentions for it." I think that there's a way in which poetry can, at times, be deeply self-conscious, and poets can be deeply self-conscious about the seriousness of their craft. Especially when compared to trades that are more immediately obviously practical. When your neighbor is a farmer, and your other neighbor is a banker, and your other neighbor is working in the coal mines, and you're talking about how you have to take a stroll every day in order to be able to write, it can feel as if what you're doing isn't as serious. I feel that there's this impulse among some poets to couch what they're doing in these layers of theoretical rationalizing for the importance of what they're doing. You know what I mean?

Yeah. I was thinking of Milton's, "And justify the ways of God to man," that sort of thing. I think it does have to do with cultural context. Having recently read The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner, I felt like, while there's something novel about his Žižekian flipping of the argument,   in other words, to say that the hatred of poetry actually suggests some secret valuation that we all have about the idea of poetry. Even though its particular individual poems always disappoint us, there is still this residual sense of poetry as this transcendent occupation. The weird thing about reading this essay, for me, was that it was so relentlessly Anglo-American. And just having conversations with people in other places—there are other cultures where this questioning of the value of not only poetry, but also the humanities, is not so relentless. As Americans, we are a very practical people and a utilitarian people. And I feel like the theorization tends to be part of the fabric of modern life, and maybe it's Anglo-American in some sense. I don't want to speak too generally, but—

Sure, but that's a good point. I sort of had the same thought while reading the essay. I did like large chunks of it, but his fundamental conjecture is that we're never going to have a poem that lives up to what we all believe as being the aspirations of poetry, which is to sort of speak for every man. He talks about how ultimately everything falls short. I was at Bread Loaf last summer and I heard Garrett Hongo talk about how there are more people living on the earth right now than there are dead people in the earth because of exponential population growth.

Yeah, wow.

And that has a lot of implications, but just thinking purely in terms of writing, that means there are more writers alive right now than there have ever been total which means that the likelihood that any one writer is going to come out and be the definitive voice of a generation, or the definitive voice of a people even, is more impossible than ever, and it's a little naïve to think that. But what is also true about that assumption is that we have the unprecedented opportunity for community among writers, and for support among writers, and for resources, in terms of readership, available to writers. And I think that was something that the Lerner essay didn't really touch on as much as it did the former point.

Sure. Lerner's analysis is all on the vertical axis, but you're talking about the horizontal, the postmodern fact of micro communities,   where we don't have to be speaking to all and for all. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I began publishing poetry, I was pretty much on the margins. I felt like I had to address the mainstream culture in some way, address people not like myself. But at Split This Rock, there was just this whole group of poets, the Dark Noise Collective, with Nate Marshall and Fatimah Asghar.

Yeah! And Franny Choi and Danez Smith and everyone.

Yeah, and they're almost a generation younger than I am. Anyway, just to hear them talk amongst each other and to each other seemed so powerful to me, and so different than the poetry world in which I grew up, the one I still carry in my head.

Dark Noise represents so much about what is good about the poetry scene today, in that they’re all doing their own totally unique things, but also all very involved in supporting the community outside of their own group. They all work with young people, and they all are sort of stewards for the craft in a way that I really admire. It's not like they're just writing in a cabin, submitting ten poems a year to The New Yorker and calling it a career, you know?

Totally, it's a vital relationship with the community. And one in which there is not, as far as I can tell, a feeling of compromise, which historically has wounded poets of color, like, "What does it mean that I have to address a predominately white audience?" That didn't really seem like a question for them, at least not in the way that they presented themselves. I found it to be part of where America is going, in the sense that, in 2040 or whatever, whites won't be a majority in the country.

I feel like we could dive into this rabbit hole for another two hours and not even scratch the surface, but I do want to pivot into talking about your books, if that's okay. Sand Opera came out in 2015. Do you want to talk about how long that book was in the making?

The crystalizing incident was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I began trying to sort of figure out what would be a commensurate imaginative poetic response, a dialogue with this horrific torture scandal. I first read about that in 2004 in a New Yorker article—it was either by Jane Mayer or Seymour Hersh. But certainly some of the poems in that book reference 9/11.   So, in some sense, I've been writing that book for my whole adult life, because when I was twenty years old, the U.S. went to war with Iraq—the Persian Gulf War. I was in college and I experienced some really disturbing events—fellow students cheering the bombing of Baghdad. I felt so alienated from them. I felt, perhaps for the first time, Arab American. When I went to graduate school I ended up doing research, not only on what happened, because so much of the media was censored at the time, but also on what writers' responses were to it. And then not only to that war, but to previous wars. I wrote a dissertation, which became Behind the Lines, on how poets wrote in dialogue with war resisters and the peace movement.

Um, I'm getting attacked by bugs. But the good news is I saw an owl, which is like seeing a head on wings!

Haha, I don't think I've ever seen an owl in the wild.

I saw one literally a week ago, and I just saw another one. It's some kind of portent.

That's awesome. I would either invest, or pull your stocks.


Haha. So to answer your question, Sand Opera is a palimpsest of different historical moments. Obviously, the impetus for writing the "abu ghraib arias," which came out in 2011, was the prison scandal news. But, as I mentioned before, I've been haunted by Iraq for many years. One important thing was meeting some Iraqi émigrés in graduate school—one of them, Shakir Mustafa, was studying Irish literature, which I thought was really fucking strange until I realized Irish history is as poisoned by the British Empire as Iraqi history.

Oh, that makes sense. I would've never made that connection in my head, but that makes total sense.

It really does. And it was a way for him to be in an English department and not seem like a freak. I met his wife, Nawal Nasrallah, who ended up writing a cookbook called Delights from the Garden of Eden. My wife and I got to know them, and we ate at their house a few times. I was carrying those experiences with me, and studying what other poets had done—poets like Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, John Balaban, Barrett Watten, June Jordan.

It was a kind of apprenticeship for myself, figuring out how I would approach traumatic material—material that was sort of impossible to figure out—without abusing it, or domesticating it, or exploiting it, you know? Years later, after studying it, I felt I had some formal approaches that might avoid some of the pitfalls that I saw some great writers, like Denise Levertov, fall into.

Yeah, so you said thirty different things right then that I want to jump on and ask you about. You think of the poetry world as being fairly left leaning, but I also know that, you know, there was the whole kneejerk jingoist rhetoric that was just so prevalent after 9/11, and the sort of love it or leave it mentality, especially towards people who look like you or I. Did you experience some of that as you were working on the early versions of these poems, even from poetry people?

That's a good question. So, you mean responses to the poetry, as opposed to in my personal life?

Right, did you have people questioning why you were writing like this, or why you were writing about this?

This was post-MFA program, so I wasn't really around that dynamic. I would say that I always felt that the critiques for poems that had political dimensions worried about didacticism. Didactic was a sort of aesthete’s version of an epithet. And you know what, I think a lot of times my attempts were fairly clumsy and deserved that. But I think if anybody hears that, they should be aware that aesthetic judgment has political implications.

I think that when people say 'didactic' they are often speaking to a certain kind of formal boldness. The poems in Sand Opera are often very assertive. They are formally inventive and unapologetically so. I'm thinking of the poem, "Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)," where it instructs four readers to read the poem simultaneously. I love that poem. And this book is so full of these poems where you're totally inventing a new thing that a poem can do, but offering it matter-of-factly like, "This is what this poem is." Maybe that's what people could be bristling about.

The weird thing is that everything new is also old, in its own way. St. Augustine once wrote about God, “late have I loved you, so ancient and so new.” It’s true with poems. “Cell/(ph)one” was influenced by avant-garde poet Jackson Mac Low’s “Jail Break,” in which he and other war resisters performed an improvised chant, a simultaneity, outside the prison where conscientious objectors were being held, even though the Second World War had ended. I’d also heard that one can only keep track of two different voices at once, so I wanted to overload the listener by having four different voices. So the poem hasn’t been read until it’s been performed. It’s a script for action.

I think that the worst thing is when protest or political poems seem to glory in suffering. I didn’t want to replicate the images of torture—literally and figuratively—because the circulation of those photographs was actually part of the torture. The arias didn’t complete themselves until I began to work with the Standard Operating Procedure Manual, and with the words of the U.S. Military personnel who were stationed at the prison. At last, by placing those voices and the SOP language side by side, the voices of the prisoners were set into a dialogue with those who were clearly not listening to them. I stumbled onto a method that is both dramatistic and, what Stephen Voyce has recently coined in his essay, "Reading the Redacted," “counter-forensic” poetics. I became fascinated by exposing the architecture of oppression— right down to a Yemeni prisoner’s sketches of black sites, the secret prisons where he was taken and tortured.

As the book started to accrue poems, and it started to become a book, I realized that I hadn't written about myself at all. I was doing all the witnessing and documenting, but I wasn’t standing on my own ground, in my own experience. I thought about how strange it was that the very impetus for my identification with the Iraqi prisoners, the context for my wanting to reach out to them in some way through language, the fact of my Arab American background and experience, was not clear enough.   That’s when “On the flight overseas” emerged, about flying while Arab. And then I realized I hadn’t really written about my experience as a father absorbing this war through my daughter’s absorption of it, asking me questions about refugees, and amputees, and suicide bombings. I’d listen to the radio surreptitiously rather than openly, arguing with NPR and their pronunciations and analyses, which my daughter, as all children do, absorbed as well: “it’s ear rock, not eye rack,” as she once said to some journalist on the radio. So I began with witnessing the other, but then I had to return to myself. It's been, in a weird sense, a deeply personal journey for me as a human being, into my human being. I've had to try to figure out how to speak my own truth. How to be comfortable within my own skin. I don't know, for other people maybe it's easier. But even just writing those poems was a way of making my life more visible and real to myself.

Yeah, you're talking about being comfortable in your own skin and being visible, and the first image in your book is a dried hide, and then the book ends with the word 'sight.' I like that very much, the idea of beginning with the skin and ending with sight. I think that the weaving of all of that into this single text feels very seamless and organic. It would be very easy to write a book with a similar conceptual conceit that was very much about the specific abuses levied upon the body, which are important to know, but that doesn't really elevate it above reporting, or above the sort of leaked source material. And I think a big part of how you are elevating it has to do with how smart you're being with the formal elements in the book. You have sonnets, and pantoums, and those translucent pages. "Home Sweet Home" is a poem that I show everyone, and one that I will never not remember about this book, where the narrative of a torture victim's lover is inscribed within the narrative of this frustrated soldier, and you can see one through the page of the other. I've never seen that done in a poetry book before.

Well, I want to make a clarification about that poem, "Home Sweet Home." I had actually taken that internal narrative from a book called Final Salute by the journalist Jim Sheeler. The fact of it is that it was the story of a widow who had the opportunity to go inside the tank where her husband, a soldier, was drowned when the tank flipped over into the Tigris River.

Oh right, I remember seeing the note in the back of the book, but I guess I didn't read it closely enough to understand the whole story.

I had that poem in there partly to include experiences. One of the things I wanted to do in Sand Opera was to be as kaleidoscopic and inclusive as possible about the representation of the war. The external text was a letter given to me by a friend from college who was a Marine, who was in Afghanistan. So many who fought in Afghanistan and in Iraq believed that they were going to make the world a safer place. And yet what my friend discovered was that this war was not about vanquishing evil. And it upset him profoundly.

Yeah, I think that's true of a lot of the narratives that we heard coming back from the entire Middle Eastern theatre for the past twenty or thirty years. People think that they're going over there to do one thing, and then very quickly realize that that sort of hurrah bravado that got them there, and got them thinking about vanquishing evil, was sort of empty and not at all tethered to the reality of their being there.

Right. And what just makes me so profoundly upset is that this is not new information, you know?   Our whole history reflects this kind of “Ahabs against the whale” mentality.   There's this great book by Richard Slotkin called Gunfighter Nation, in which he basically says that the founding myth of the country is redemption through violence. That we can cleanse ourselves of our iniquities through acts of violence to protect this utopian community. I'm halfway to old, you know, and I'm sure that older people, the people who lived through Viet Nam—it must feel like PTSD for them, like, "This is happening again? How could we be so stupid?" In the amnesia of empire, every generation of young men seem ready to challenge themselves, to protect their families, and prove their courage. But in some sort of weird way, given the machinery of corporate warfare, it seems like a child sacrifice.

Well, and it's a specific sort of child, too. It's poor children and it's disproportionately minority children that are called upon, or that are drawn into that because of the perks that it affords. It disproportionately affects those families who are often least able to bear the losses. I think that that's one of the most terrible things about it, too. Which is tethered to a lot of other things going on in our country. We’ve really gone on—do you want to talk about how Pictures at an Exhibition came to be? It’s a very interesting conceit for a book, and it's sort of a project book.

Yeah, you know in some ways it's actually my second book, and something I wrote before Sand Opera. There was a slight overlap, but its conception was prior to Sand Opera. I had returned to Russia in 2002, after living there for a year in 1992-1993. Coming back ten years later, I was just flooded by all these memories of the place. I just got obsessed with this possibility of trying to write a total poem that would somehow capture the immersive experience of being back.

Yeah, I like the idea of a total poem.

I subtitled it as an album. I think of it as sort of a photo album, or as captions to the images that would have been unscrolling before me as I was walking down the streets.

In the foreword to the book, Maxine Chernoff talks about how the narrator both witnesses and embodies knowledge.

Yeah. I had all these notes and it wasn't until I had listened again to Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," which is a piece that I had heard when I was there, that a kind of gestalt emerged, and the movements—which are crisply modern and wildly divergent, musical representations of various works of art by the composer’s friend Hartmann—became a scaffolding upon which I could organize these sort of discrete poems.

You call it a work of friction, and it really does feel like a person walking through, and being very permeable to, these experiences, and to the various and sundry sensory stimuli, whether it be aesthetic, or cultural, or whatever.

Thanks. Yeah, I think that the only weird thing about the book that was formally risky was that the header and footer poems are supposed to be read horizontally across the page. So you read the top all the way across, you read the bottom all the way across, through the whole book.

Yeah, I think that's how I'd read them.

Oh, good! So the weird thing is that I wrote this book, and then as it was coming out I realized that there was so much about the year I spent in Russia that hadn't gotten into it. So I'm working on a memoir about, in some sense, my education in poetry through my time in Russia. It's prose, and now it's 100,000 words and—

Jeez, you've been working on it for a while then.

About nine months. That's been interesting just to feel, not necessarily the limits of poetry, but the opportunities and the openings that prose might offer me. It's exciting and terrifying, because I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s the same elation and terror when facing any blank page, but it’s 200 blank pages—like some Japanese landscape scroll that you keep unfolding, but no landscape emerges. It’s just you and this white unfolding.

Interview Posted: August 15, 2016


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Metres' "Behind the Lines" Blog

Pictures at an Exhibition