in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
Philip, If you’d allow it, I wanted to start by asking a question about two lines in Sand Opera that have stuck with me ever since I first read the book. The lines are “That which diverts the mind/is poetry.” It seems like a particularly loaded statement for a political poet, if it’s okay to call you that, to making. To what extent do you find poetry to inherently be a distraction and past time, as opposed to a way to raise consciousness, help bring about change, and direct attention?
I love this question so much because I’ve never thought about why this line is in the poem, or what it might mean. That’s part of the secret joy of writing, the not-knowing, and having readers like you create their own meaning. A purer artist than I am probably wouldn’t answer at all, but since I’m just the poem’s amanuensis, I’ll give it a try. I reject the label “political poet.” I’m a poet, and I try to approach my own writing with curiosity, wonder, and confusion, not with an agenda or ideological program. I have a point of view, but the field of the poem for me is a dilation, not an aggression. You wonder if “diverting the mind” is about distraction, particularly from political realities or the possibilities of social change. I think about this line in the context of the other lines around it, which connect to my young daughter’s apperception of the world and her question about the 9/11 attacks. Planes get diverted, usually because there’s danger to continue in the way they are going (or they’re being hijacked). But there’s something wild about a child’s mind, before they get tamed into reason around age seven (at which point, most seem to retire from poetry). I believe I was thinking both about her leaping mind and about my job as a parent to ease her into the painful realities, although the poem comes around to suggest that she has her own strategies for bearing grief.
Your larger question is important: do I think that poetry is a distraction, in the negative sense, from the “real work” (perhaps) of social change? Yes and no. I have my lover’s quarrel with poetry—how so many poems I read today feel hermetic, or apolitical, or much ado about very little. But is that somehow inherent in poetry, or in how contemporary writers approach it? In the last five to ten years, American poetry seems to have undergone a complete sea change—from a time when the dominant taste would have been averse to political poetry, to one when it is acknowledged, celebrated, and even awarded. I’m grateful for that change, because it opens new spaces for people whose voices haven’t been heard.
Even within this change, of course, the nexus of poetry and social action remains tenuous, and the commodified shorthand of politics is identity rather than being/doing. On Facebook, Cathy Park Hong recently asked for recommendations for poets whose poems intersect with activism, which is a beautiful question. Honestly, there are very few poets whose work intricately and productively weaves these two ways of being, Looking for models for myself, I ended up writing a book on the interactions between poets and the peace movement. Behind the Lines: War Resistance on the American Homefront considers poets such as Robert Lowell, William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, Daniel Berrigan, June Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Rich, and many others. Among contemporaries, off the top of my head, I'd name Mark Nowak, CA Conrad, Kaia Sand, Suheir Hammad, Danez Smith, Solmaz Sharif, and Juliana Spahr.
But I don’t believe in the dichotomy that poetry is diversion and activism is reality. Both poetry and activism are riddled with illusion (even delusion) and reality simultaneously, spinning us far from ourselves and bringing us back home. Don Share recently said that he felt that it was simply impossible to define what poetry is, because there always seems to be an exception to one’s definition. It’s only possible to know that it is, and what sort do we wish to consort with? What will be an aid to us in our journey?
The excerpt from “Shrapnel Maps” that appears in the most recent issue of Bennington Review is so formally interesting, especially in the terms of the alternation between the fragmented line and the block of prose. You make similar formal decisions in Sand Opera. In what ways is formal experimentation connected to your poetry practice on a larger scale? Do you see yourself as a formalist? Do you strive to be an innovator?
Isn’t it great to exist at this point in time? This line, by Guided by Voices, seems appropriate to how open poetry feels now. When I was in graduate school, I felt as if there were four distinct spheres of poetry: the Official Verse Culture, the Avant-Garde (language poetry), New Formalism, and performance/slam/identity poetry. I disliked the idea of the poetry wars (still do), only because I found poems in each sphere to be beautiful and worthy of emulation. Of course, those who took the war seriously did so because they loved writing so much that they wanted more for it. Poetry is better because of innovators. Not surprisingly, John Ashbery, who seemed to be able to exist in all spheres, had a wide and nearly-universal appeal.
I was inspired by avant-garde poets like Lev Rubinstein, Susan Howe, Jackson MacLow, Dmitri Prigov, Harryette Mullen, and Ashbery, not to mention poets of my generation like Mark Nowak and Jen Bervin. But I’m equally enamored by so-called traditional forms like the sonnet, pantoum, and villanelle—and you can see those in all my books (sometimes secretly there, sometimes in the open). Form has totally cracked open, and it’s good, because only some of the real fits in a rigid box. When I’m writing poems, I’m seeking form. I believe that a poem should be beautiful, or even sublime, which to me means that it should announce itself as being another register of language, language like architecture, language like language coming apart and together, like a stop-motion film of La Sagrada Familia.
And if we look very carefully at what we might call “formalism”—Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, or Cervantes’s Quixote—they are incredibly innovative and actually rebelling against the conventions that had already established. Shakespeare was tweaking Petrarch’s idealizations, Cervantes’ Quixote was a man addicted to novels. Crazy, right? So, yes to form, but no to formalism. Yes to Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” no to Volkswagen’s using “Pink Moon” to sell cars (even though it may be my favorite advertisement ever).
Language and identity seem so irrevocably entwined in your work. In “Shrapnel Maps,” you write, “I pass confused faces translating my chest, a language they know and do not know, a language they do not want to know they know.” Could you elaborate on the ways language and identity intersect in your poems?
My book project, Shrapnel Maps, is a book of poems writing through the question of Israel-Palestine, the political, personal, and historical wounds at the core of the conflict. I’ve been participating in justice and peace initiatives for Israel-Palestine for over twenty years, and in the past ten, I have been teaching a course called Israeli and Palestinian Literatures. Influenced as well by postcolonial theory and peace studies, I am most interested in the ways in which poetry might offer a staging ground for just peacebuilding, by imagining others and embodying subjectivities in counterpoint—giving each a space to breathe on the page, and say their piece.
The two pieces in Bennington Review are part of a sequence called “Unto a Land I Will Show Thee,” which began as an inquiry into the history of mapping the land of the Middle East. The earliest maps date from the late Middle Ages, though map-making began in earnest in the 15th century, with the rise of European explorers and the dilation of trade. One of the most difficult aspects of this cartographical exploration has been to realize my own religious tradition’s complicity in projecting its theological fantasies upon the land. It is almost impossible to deny that the European Christian cultural imagination has wrought untold damage to Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) and Jews.
The process of composing this poem has opened me, as well, to my own failings as a person of peace in my own family and in my own (largely Orthodox Jewish) neighborhood. Regarding the first, suffice to say that I have had to own up to some instinctively patriarchal reflexes when it has come to my marriage, something I’m not proud of. Patriarchy—like any hegemonic structure—erases women. Just think about the way we inherit our last names, to name a simple clarifying example.
And in that same poem, it describes you jogging through your multicultural, mixed-faith neighborhood in Cleveland. Could you talk a bit how where you live, in terms of street, neighborhood, city, state, country informs your work?
University Heights, Ohio (just outside of Cleveland) is home to a couple of large Orthodox communities, and most of my neighbors are part of them .Encountering their lives, in the ways that we find ourselves in relationships with any neighbor, has been interesting—sometimes sweet (when people invited me to shul or nodded approvingly at our welcome sign), sometimes painful (when my daughter wasn’t allowed into her friend’s house because she wasn’t Jewish). As an Arab American, I saw my experiences as a metaphor for the intricate difficulties of navigating neighborliness in divided societies, thinking about Israel and Palestine.
In the longer work, these autobiographical vignettes dialogue with the found language of map poetics. What connects all three threads is my concern with erasure (my own, and others’), and how fantasy projection actually destroys the sovereignty of what is.
Have you always strived for a socially and politically conscious poetry or has that happened more recently? What writers have most influenced you in this regard?
It’s what I carry that impels me to write the way I write. It’s what has carried me that invites me to write the way I write. I’m not striving or trying to do something that I think is socially responsible or politically au courant. It’s just who I am. Recently, I wrote an essay about growing up Arab American, and the damage of Orientalism, and that explains some of this: http://lithub.com/same-as-it-ever-was-orientalism-forty-years-later/
But it comes, as well, from my Ignatian education, in high school and college. I’ve tried to keep my Catholicism on the down-low for a long time, knowing that many writers find faith to be a weird foible or diminishment of an artist’s vision, but growing up listening to scripture and partaking in Mass was so formative for me that, despite the great disagreements I have with the institutional Church, I can’t disavow it. It just rhymes with something in me and to reject that would be to lie. Perhaps it is a weakness of mine; that I don’t want all of this to have been a random biological accident. I love too much the idea that we are invited into the fullness of divinity insofar as we stand with the marginalized and the broken, the imprisoned and the exiled, the hungry and the forsaken (Matthew 5:3–12). Do all the great faiths seem to meet in this idea? That we belong to each other, and are not separate from each other. That each person is an encounter with the divine mystery, a door to some almost-imaginable place (John 14:2), in which we all can come home.
PHILIP METRES is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, including Sand Opera (Alice James). The recipient of a Lannan Fellowship and two Arab American Book Awards, he is Professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.
MATTHEW TUCKNER is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.