Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American doctor and poet. His first collection of poems, The Earth in the Attic, won publication as the selection for the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets, judged by Louis Glück. The Butterfly’s Burden, his 300+ page volume of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems was published in 2006 by Copper Canyon, and his latest selection, If I Were Another, in 2009 by FSG. In December, Molossus published an excerpt from the latter volume, available here.
Joudah and I corresponded by email for about a month before we began the following conversation. During the process of the interview we continued to exchange links to reviews and essays about poetry, translation, and the literary world. I was fortunate on a short layover in Houston to connect with him for coffee near downtown, at Catalina Cafe. It took a moment to recognize the now-bearded poet, but we were soon conversing animatedly, sharing opinions and stories over our dark americanos. I found Fady to be a generous, deep thinker, with a desire for a precision of phrase that I imagine makes him as excellent a doctor as he is a poet and translator.
What was your relationship with Mahmoud Darwish like? How did you come to translating the work of such a literary icon?
It was a simple relationship, based on poetry and translation and publication. He was an open and generous man, perhaps to a fault. I simply called him up one day, and he told me that translation is a universal right. Obviously, we built a good relationship as time passed, and towards the end some confidentiality existed between us. But I would never say I was his friend in that intimate sense. I always tried to give him space, a space he often suffered to keep private.
Following Breyten Breytenbach’s conversational poem with Darwish’s memory, Voice Over (Archipelago), he writes in a note that “One could interact with him forever.” His long poem does indeed contain an echo of Darwish’s poetry: borrowed phrases, most obviously, but also a certain tone. How do you foresee the literary legacy of Darwish? What is it about his work that will continue to endure?
Breyten’s tribute is a lovely one. Marilyn Hacker has a lovely one also, “A Braid of Garlic,” in her latest book, Names (W.W. Norton), and I think that Darwish’s spirit is also present in at least one more poem in that book, “Pomegranate.”. Michael Plamer wrote a wonderful tribute in his Company of Moths (New Directions), “Dream of Narcissus.” This is all to echo Breyten’s remark that the wealth and breadth of Darwish’s aesthetic offers a limitless or boundless dialogue. How does one, then, answer your question? Darwish was that rare poet who never ceased developing his art, experimenting with language and diction, ontology and epistemology. All these waves have to be read and studied and embraced in order to better answer your question or make sense of the answer; which is to say, Darwish is still a novelty in English. But, as I pointed out in The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon), one can begin by examining his private lexicon and its recurrence and richness. And, as I pointed out in If I Were Another (FSG), one can examine his use of dialogue, drama, and epic to envision another meadow of his poetry.
Since his death—and perhaps beginning a little before—Darwish was gaining in popularity with a hip journal, MFA demographic, kind of like the Bolaño explosion of the last few years. In some sense, that’s great, but in another it troubles me that our literary culture is so controlled by trendiness. More often than not, it seems to me, that rather than encouraging a deeper interest in world literature—Palestinian literature, for example—it enables us to falsely feel more international, more cosmopolitan. You’ve mentioned to me before that Darwish has been tokenized in Arabic. Do you foresee that happening in translation? What, if anything, does the literary community lose if that happens?
By “tokenized” in Arabic, I mean by a wider and general readership, just the way Blake, or Neruda, or Lorca are tokenized. But I don’t see that happening in translation, at least not soon. Rilke or Cavafy are examples of becoming “tokens” only after decades have passed, and still they are always worth studying and reading aesthetically. If by “tokenized” you mean that rare event of achieving longevity for a poet, then yes, Darwish has done it; if by “tokenized” you refer to the way poetry is connected to the larger culture, to consumerism and fetishism (and poetry at times is subservient to them), then the answer is also, yes. It is part of the natural cycle of things, I think, a phenomenon that started in the eighteenth century perhaps, with the rise of the “Universal Empire,” and one can choose to be a purist about it, but I suspect that would lead to much contradiction and perhaps hypocrisy. Let’s not make of poetry more than it is. We are no longer in the age of prophets.
In an earlier correspondence, we discussed your dislike of the word “rococo,” when used to describe Darwish’s work. I think your reasoning is worth mentioning here—could you explain it?
“Rococo” risks orientalizing, or exoticizing the “other” in a manner that leaves that other as separate from us. For example, is there anything about us”currently that is “rococo;” or if there is, do we term it as such? It is a word that many still connects to perceived and received notions of what Eastern poetry is in opposition to what Western poetry is. To say that Darwish does not write in rococo style as a contemporary Arab poet is to suggest many problematic notions that seek consciously or otherwise to befriend and invite the American reader into the realm of the other, who can become, finally, closer to our self . Suddenly world-class poetry becomes defined by commercial savvy impulses. On the other hand, to want these reflexes purified is like claiming that modern medicine and doctors are not affected by “the mathematics of knowledge,” as Foucault put it. Still, I do understand what you mean about Bolaño: we needed the post
It’s easy, in a literary culture of only occasional translations, to assume that Darwish was writing in a cultural vacuum. What Palestinian (and other) writers did he engage with?
For starters, I am not sure I agree with your premise. However, Darwish engaged with all of human literature, and all its forms. I think naming names is unfair to those who I’d leave out. He was very open to being influenced, especially by younger writers. He also kept reading classics in Arabic and other languages, finding new masters, returning to old ones.
What about you? What writers do you most engage with in your own poetry?
I don’t know, to be honest. It is usually a conglomeration of names that are as variable and shifting as they are fixed and “dead.” One hopes that memory takes over after a while, as an illusion. Again, to name names is like trying to give a sand dune a definitive body.
What other translators do you admire?
Any good translation. I mean to interchange one noun with another. Dave Oliphant’s translations of Nicanor Parra’s After-Dinner Declarations are lovely, for example.
In her preface to Darwish’s posthumous journals, Ruth Padel compares his writing of poetry within a politically charged Palestine to T.S. Eliot’s questioning the value of “fiddling with words” in reaction to World War II, and Seamus Heaney’s response to the Irish violence of the 1980s. As Darwish himself wrote, “Singing in a cage is possible/and so is happiness.” All that to ask you about your own work as both a doctor and a poet: How do you balance the two occupations? How does your work of physical healing compare to the romanticized healing most poets like to imagine their work is capable of?
“Occupuation” indeed, to say the least. To practice medicine is to practice power; which risks abuse of power, or some infantilizing of one’s subjects, and the slippery slope of dehumanizing the other in order to justify one’s good or bad conscience to oneself; and this is complicated by the fact that knowledge does solve problems and cure or treat people, which makes a doctor feel that the rest of the darkness that comes along with it all is a good trade off, a pragmatic compromise. It takes me a long time to believe I have truly affected or performed any healing for any of my patients. I recently, for example, was able to diagnose my cousin with a rare and difficult to diagnose illness. But his cure and maintenance then fell in the hands of other specialists and surgeons. I think good practice of medicine is like poetry in that it is a simple act of common decency.
Poetry as common decency, I like that. In one of Bolaño’s last interviews, he said that most good writers were good people, too.
Is that true? I don’t know? Perhaps good but not great. The writing is often greater than the person. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. I said “poetry,” not “poets.”
You’re often labeled a pacifist—and I don’t doubt that that is true—still, I approach the labeling of any poet with some suspicion, as labels often prescribe, and therefore limit, that the poet writes poetry that satisfies those conditions. Does that make sense? Are you comfortable with being labeled a pacifist?
This is the first time I have heard that I am “often labeled a pacifist” (funny how “fist” is in there, isn’t it?). It is not to say I am or am not. It is to ask you why would you even ask me this question?
Touché! I guess this relates, again, to poetry as common decency, and how the poet’s sociopolitical views or stance influence, or interact with, their work. We don’t normally call Ezra Pound a fascist poet, do we? Should your hypothetical pacifism matter at all?
I think these are questions that are in large part bound to the culture of the moment; the Oprah moment, perhaps, or to the traces of othering that exist within us since the rise of empire in the eighteenth century. Does your question (and its inflation, if I may call it that) have to do with my being a doctor, a doctor without borders, an Arab, a Palestinian, a Muslim, an American, all, some or none of the above?
How long have you worked with Doctors Without Borders? Have you seen the :01 graphic novel about their work in Afghanistan?
I joined DWB in 2001, went out to the “field” (already an expression of otherness) twice, in 2002 and 2005. And while I am glad to use this experience to raise awareness, I grow more tired of the association, because of what it assumes about my heroics, goodness, nobility, and the problematic egoisms that accompany such things on both ends of the spectrum, that of the receiver and of the received, the donor and the donee. Humanitarianism is still trapped in problematic notions of philanthropy. And it’s more convoluted when one anesthetizes the suffering of others.
And no, I don’t know about the graphic novel you mention.
It’s good, worth checking out. Much more humanizing than exoticizing, I think, which is why I mention it here. I think your discomfort with being considered heroic has something to do with the question I was trying to phrase, above, about your pacifism.
Perhaps. It is all a pinning down of nomenclature in order to promote an identity in a world besieged by measurement and outcomes.
Relatedly, I wonder if in your travels you’ve had the chance to explore the nature of poetry around the world. I think again, poets and writers have a tendency to romanticize their profession—indeed, who doesn’t?—but I suspect that in many places that DWB works, for example, poetry might be a function of privilege, rather than the universal presence we like to believe. Of course poetry has flourished in some terrible places: from Guantanamo to Apartheid South Africa. Still, I’m interested in exploring the topic. What do you think?
I think poetry exists as poetry in every and any culture, and a poet cannot help but be a poet, and a poet who captures an essence and a pulse of his language and people, or of humanity at large, will achieve that regardless of the circumstances. Poetry is an art, after all. Discussing specifics and details is necessary but often succumbs to comparative sociology and anthropology and leads frequently to troubling stereotypes. A catch-22, as it were. Why would poetry not exist in Guantanamo? Why wouldn’t it exist in the silken boredom of our lives? What you refer to in part, I assume, is a question of power dialectics; who, for example, gets to say that the poetry in Afghanistan is poetry at all or, if it is, then where it falls in a hierarchical scale of progress? It makes me think of Gibran’s marginalization in American and English literature, for example, and his portrayal as some sort of a flake (no more or less than Rilke was for sure), or it makes me think of Blake’s brilliance that was castigated during his time, and is still marginalized today.
I think you’re right, my question has more to do with power dynamics, which I think affect contemporary poetry a lot—even ethnopoetics, for example, scours the world to “find” new poetry.
Maybe ethnopoetics is another mode of the Romantic impulse, which was dependant on identifying and creating otherness. This contemporary catch-22, the necessity to include the other while maintaining its otherness, is a step up, humanistically speaking, from what the age of Imperialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did. But the canon still struggles with a self-centeredness, some of which is needed and natural for any language or poetics in order to re-create itself. And every now and then, these ethnopoetics are overcome, if I can enlarge ethnopoetics to include the marginalized. I think this is most clearly the case with woman poets, despite persisting problems. At any rate, who talks of ethnopoetics but a marginalized poet or an ethnicized poet or author? Does an exception negate the rule?
Tell me about the relationship between your own poetry and your translation. How do they affect each other? Did you begin one before the other?
Technically, I began poetry before translation. But I believe all poetry is translation, all knowledge and reading and perception is translation (beyond mimesis, per se). Thus translation affects my poetry in the same manner that living and reading and engaging with literature and human beings affect my poetry. Translation keeps me closer to rhythm, to lyric, to cohabitation, and perhaps a colonization of sorts, of another body of work, with a readiness and an openness to honor it and heighten my awareness of what it might offer to my own language. Even in translation, one must address the question of otherness.
What are you reading now? What are you working on?
As it happens, I am reading a wonderful book: William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s, from the University of Chicago press. And I am awaiting to place a new translation manuscript of a great Palestinian poet, Ghassan Zaqtan, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (TBA). I am also in perpetual compulsive editing of my second manuscript, which is more or less, finished.
I’m excited to read the new books.
Thank you. I hope won’t be too long before they’re in your hands.