Posted tagged ‘Dunya Mikhail’

AWP18-Tampa, FL

April 20, 2018

The annual AWP writers’ conference is a feel-good affair more suited for socializing and networking than serious literary pondering. So it was this year, too, in Tampa in March, even as the writing, reading, and publishing throngs arrived stunned by the preceding year’s political tumult. In sunny warm Tampa, however, they–we–took not just solace in each other’s company, but positive good cheer and mutual uplift. This split response—a public hail-fellow-well-met spirit belying the dismay expressed privately at home and at the keyboard—extended even to the war-writing crowd. Serious issues lay on the table, such as the increasingly problematic position of veterans in the overheated contemporary public sphere and the could-be-much-better gender and race demographics of modern war-writing. But those heavy-duty matters took a backseat to catching up with old friends and meeting new ones.

The pattern was evident at the panel I moderated, titled “Crisis, Conflict, and Verse” and featuring an all-star quartet of poet-authors: Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, and Dunya Mikhail. We drew the dreaded 9:00am Saturday morning time-slot, which, along with our forbidding title, conspired to drive attendance downward, as if our topic was just too depressing to contemplate with memories of Friday night festivity still swirling in the brain, along with the fumes of five or ten beers. And truthfully, we kind of frightened ourselves, as first Busch, then Dubrow, and finally Mikhail paradoxically found powerful words to express how their belief in the power of the word has been shaken by recent political and cultural turns. Turner, even as he reported reeling not just from the national state-of-affairs but the agony of his wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s death in 2016, sensed gloom settling in and took it upon himself to infuse our proceedings with levity and hope. Levity, by performing with the always-up-for-anything Busch an impromptu dramatic enactment of the Kay Ryan poem “The Elephant in the Room”  and hope by speaking movingly about the importance of friendship and art in the dark days of loss and despair.

The rest of AWP was, for me, a blur of hits-and-misses. I arrived too late to catch a panel organized by veterans studies scholar Mariana Grohowski titled Women, War, and the Military: How to Tell the Story featuring Helen Benedict, Jerri Bell, Tracy Crow, and Mary Doyle, so I’ll leave it to others to report on its proceedings. It’s a great subject, though, one on many people’s minds these days, as both the military and mil-writing-and-publishing scene confront a variety of gender-related problems. MIA at this year’s AWP unfortunately were the authors of several notable 2017 war novels, such as David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Elliot Ackerman, and Siobhan Fallon, so we weren’t able to hear their thoughts about their recent books and their reception. The online war-writing community was heavily represented, however, with principals from The War Horse; War, Literature, and the Arts; Wrath-Bearing Tree; the Veterans Writing Project/O-Dark-Thirty; and Consequence on-hand, their strength-in-numbers perhaps suggestive of a movement of the war-writing center-of-gravity from the page and the book to the wide-open, fast-moving digital realm.

Mostly though, AWP was about more personal pleasures, such as meeting for the first time authors I admire such as Seth Brady Tucker, Brooke King, Phil Metres, and Steve Kiernan. A dinner with Ron Capps and a small group of Veterans Writing Program mainstays was a joy. A panel on James Salter, whom I consider one of the patron saints of Time Now, held during the last time slot of the conference and attended by me and three others in one of the largest presentation halls at the convention, was as full of inspiring things as I hoped it would be.

Finally, though it’s become a cliché to write about interesting conversations with Uber drivers (like, “OOOO, I’m SO in touch with toilers in the gig-economy boiler room”), the four I had to-and-from my faraway motel offered fascinating glimpses into the lives of south Floridians. One driver was a Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt, another worked days rehabilitating sex offenders, a third reported that he was getting married in a week, starting a business, and buying a house two years after finding himself broke and homeless, and the fourth had funny tales to tell about late-nights transporting Tampa Bay Buccaneers home from the clubs. I found the drivers’ stories intriguing and encouraging, on the whole. Somewhere in them I caught glimpses of the levity and hopefulness Brian Turner would have us remember, glimpses of people who had not been defeated.

Photo of Benjamin Busch, Dunya Mikhail, me, Jehanne Dubrow, and Brian Turner by Andria Williams. More photos by Williams here.

Approaching Tampa across the causeway in the AM. That would be so cool if the round orb on the right were the moon, but alas it was just a spot on the car window.

On to Tampa! AWP18

March 7, 2018

Now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason, now I got a reason…. –“Holidays in the Sun,” the Sex Pistols

Thursday through Saturday this week in Tampa, Florida, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, the largest gathering of the year for authors, readers, teachers, publishers, and other lovers of literary fiction, poetry, and memoir. Contemporary war-and-military writers are typically well-represented at AWP panels and readings. Numbers are a little down this year, though still substantial, and judging by the panel descriptions and social media chit-chat, everyone is looking forward to contemplating weighty questions: How has everyone survived the tumultuous and nerve-rattling past twelve months? What does it all portend for writing about war?? Where can the best beer selection in Tampa be found???

All answers will be revealed in the coming days, assuming those of us living in the snowy Northeast can still catch our flights to sunny Florida. My own contribution will be to moderate a panel titled Conflict, Crisis, Verse: Four Poets in Conversation featuring Benjamin Busch, Jehanne Dubrow, Dunya Mikhail, and Brian Turner. This one’s an embarrassment of riches, people, like being asked to coach the 1992 Olympics basketball Dream Team, so I’ll do my best not to screw it up—you might say that all I have to do is roll out the balls, hand-out the jerseys, and then stay-the-hell-out-of-the-way.

Busch’s late-2016 The Road Ahead story “Into the Land of Dogs” really is one for our times, a surreal apocalyptic nightmare vision of war in Afghanistan and afterwards that as much as any tale I’ve read lately drains and wrecks war-and-soldiering of redeeming value, and all the better for doing so. Busch’s poetry, which I love, operates differently. Short lyrics marked by flinty stabs at experiential insight generated by close observation of nature and local event, their hardy stoicism seems forged by the long years Busch has lived in upstate North-country climes, first New York and now Michigan.

Dubrow’s 2017 poetry volume Dots & Dashes is a thing of beauty in particular and in toto. I’m not sure which I like better, the wide-angle poems that ponder the irony of being a poet in an era marked by conflict and violence, or the narrow-focused ones that plumb Dubrow’s marriage to a military officer, but they’re all good. Dubrow is a master of form and technique, as well as of observation, with the fourteen or so sonnets in Dots & Dashes especially remarkable for their exciting, pitch-perfect blends of language, image, and sentiment.

Mikhail, already recognized for her wonderful poetry collection The Iraqi Nights and her prose-poem memoir Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, will soon be made even more famous by her about-to-be-published work of journalism titled The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq. The Beekeeper’s subject is the efforts of a roguish band of smugglers, fixers, and humanitarians to save Christian women of the Iraqi Yazidi tribe who have been kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS, as well as about the strength and bravery of the Yazidi women themselves. Beautifully and movingly told, it will almost certainly attract laurels for its heroes (and author) while galvanizing contempt for ISIS brutality.

As for Brian Turner, what can you say? I’m tempted to write Brian f-ing Turner, out of respect for the quality of his writing, his eminence in the field, his generous support of other authors and his readers, and his relentless exploration of new artistic possibilities. Everything I wrote about him in this 2014 blog post is still true now, or even truer. 2017 saw Turner release a hybrid poetry-music blend under the name Interplanetary Acoustic Team that features his late wife Ilyse Kusnetz’s poetry and voice. Now, early 2018 has brought The Kiss, a splendid anthology of vignettes by talented writers (including Busch) about one of life’s tenderest moments.

Now who else would think of that but Sergeant Turner? The author Chuck Klosterman has proposed that as long as we are going to elect entertainment celebrities for President, he’d vote for the wise, generous, calm, and patient Willie Nelson. I like that, but Willie’s a little long-in-the-tooth, so how about if we just vote right now Turner for President, if not of the nation, then of the United States of Poetry?

For a list of all AWP panels focused on contemporary war and conflict, see Charlie Sherpa’s Red Bull Rising post here.

Habibi: Dunya Mikhail’s The Iraqi Nights

February 4, 2018

Poet, memoirist, and journalist Dunya Mikhail’s biography complicates the vantage point of her poetry while adding variety to the American-fighting-man-centric flavor of post-9/11 war writing. Raised a Christian in Iraq, Mikhail came off age as an artist-intellectual in the difficult last years of Saddam Hussein, the First Gulf War, and the Iraq-Iran War. Attracted to the art and thought of the West, as well as the promises of democracy and strife-free everyday life, she emigrated to America in the 1990s, where she has made a home in Michigan, completed an MA in Near Eastern Studies at Wayne State, and commenced a career teaching Arabic and Arabic Studies at the university level.

The impulse to write fomenting in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mikhail began publishing a series of works, varied in genre, that trace the war’s reverberations primarily among the non-combatant civilian populaces in both her native and adopted countries. In 2005 came The War Works Hard, a volume of poetry, 2009 brought a memoir titled Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, 2013 an anthology titled 15 Iraqi Poets, and 2014 a poetry chapbook titled The Theory of Absence (Islands or Continents). Later this year will appear The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, a series of interviews with Yazidi (a small sect of Iraqi Christians) women who faced torture and death at the hands of ISIS for refusing to convert to Islam. Mikhail’s best-known work, arguably, is The Iraqi Nights, a collection of poems originally written in Arabic and then translated into English by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and published by small-press stalwarts New Directions in 2014.

The title, playing off A Thousand-and-One Nights, casts Mikhail as a contemporary Scheherazade, a spinner of story-poems, if not to save her own life literally, then to make sense of life generally during a period in which death is omnipresent. The title poem, the first in the volume, combines prose, short lyrics, and line drawings to portray the weight of war and conflict in her native country:

In Iraq,
after a thousand and one nights,
someone will talk to someone else.
Markets will open
for regular customers.
Small feet will tickle
the giant feet of the Tigris.
Gulls will spread their wings
and no one will fire at them….

A poem called “The Plane,” about a third-of-the-way in, explicitly references American soldiers while also spatially transitioning from Iraq to the States:

The plane arriving from Baghdad
carries American soldiers:
it rises above the moon
reflected on the Tigris,
above clouds piled like corpses,
and an ancient harp,
and the beaten breasts,
and the ones who were kidnapped;
it rises above
the destruction that grows with the children,
and the long lines at the passport office,
and Pandora’s open box.
The plan and its exhausted passengers
will land six thousand miles away
from an amputated finger
lying in the sand.

Mikhail’s homeland floats in-and-out through the rest of The Iraqi Nights, as in “Iraqis and Other Monsters,” a poem that speaks to the contempt and fear Iraqis inspire in Americans, and especially American soldiers:

They are terrifying.
Their heads are dark and tremulous;
they roam the desert
in the forms of bulls and lions,
with swords gleaming in their eyes
They rub their mustaches when they make promises….

It’s one thing, I would say, to bear witness to the horrors of one’s native country and even to flee them and condemn them from abroad, but it’s probably quite another to realize that the inhabitants of your adopted homeland view people much like yourself as monsters and murderers. To escape that treacherous realization, the poems in The Iraqi Nights seek means of accommodation, reconciliation, and momentary escape.

Thus one set of The Iraqi Nights poems reference Chinese and Japanese touchstones, as if Mikhail, something of an exile in her adopted land, had gone globetrotting in search of a poetic vocabulary and cultural sensibility not so obviously infused by violence, misunderstanding, bad memories, and horrible histories. Many short lyrics adopt a mythopoetic style to register a cosmic vision informed by loss, death, the carnage of time, and the fragility of the moment, while others, such as “The Sold Parrot,” are very specific renderings of epiphanies emerging out of the everyday:

Everything is new
today
for the parrot:
Where’s the silver fish
that used to greet the parrot with its tail,
the bubbles flowing from its mouth?
Where’s the tank with all its stars?
Where’s the little boy
who always stopped
to stare at it
and sometimes even tried to touch it?
And most importantly of all:
where’s the woman who used to feed it from her hand
while he repeated after her:
habibi—“beloved.”
Habibi?

Habibi? Indeed. The poems in The Iraqi Nights are shot-through, in all meanings of the phrase, with images of love, love lost, and the continuing search for. Or, more precisely, the search for the conditions in which love is possible, or at least not so hard, as in “Footprints on the Moon”:

When I set foot on the moon
everything told me that you were there, too:
my lighter weight,
the loss of gravity,
my heart’s rapid beating,
my mind empty of everyday concerns,
the lack of memories of any kind,
the earth off in another place,
and these footprints…
All of this points to you.

Mikhail knows, if anyone knows, of whence she speaks.

****

Interviews with Dunya Mikhail here and here.

An excellent essay by Sand Opera author Phil Metres, an American-born poet also of Arab-Christian descent, on the continuing existence of Orientalism in American letters, art, and culture here.  That Metres, as much a lover of NBA basketball and American punk rock and hardcore as I am, can be so alienated within the land of his birth offers purchase on Mikhail’s “dream of a future beyond violence,” to paraphrase a back-cover blurb from The Iraqi Nights.

Dunya Mikhail, The Iraqi Nights, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. New Directions, 2014.


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