Interview by Christine Mallon
Scoundrel Time: Can you talk about how or why poetry has stayed with you throughout your time as a physician? Is the practice of each tied to the other? Could you also talk about being an Arab-American poet in America at the current moment?
Fady Joudah: Poetry preceded my relationship with medicine. Poetry started with me in childhood. That’s the simplest answer. Medicine, as a form of knowledge and a language of it, serves the human song in the mind. I progressively negotiate that engagement with medicine into poem. (And “science” is a more public tongue nowadays than in previous histories). Medicine (inseparable from body and health) is about our eternal dance with mortality, grief, ecstasy, viciousness, pleasure of discovery, joy of survival, relapse and recovery. As for the other question, it feels like an entrapment to address. The question is an echo of a national ethos. That an Arab American writer has something important to offer culture and letters requires radical acceptance within our American psyche. For now, and for some time to come, an Arab American writer is subject to a historically national process that reconfigures what it partially erases. A basic examination of our American past, our record, recent and remote, shows that we impose this process on those who suffer our violence, our power to vanquish, be they domestic or foreign. No two scenarios are alike, but a paradigm can be deduced: a triage of belonging.People vary their response, agency, malleability, and positionality within systems and experiences that mold their identities. America sets the limits on identity’s expanse.Is there a more identitarian self than the “bona fide” American one, multicultural as it may be? The intensity and authority of this self constantly projects difference as political, or as deficiency, onto the non-American or the non “bona fide” American. We can point to a list of exceptions, but in these days of our high empire, exceptions often seem algorithmic, a performative utterance. Nuance becomes a paradox in service of dilution: a delta that affirms the ravenous mouth of noncoercive conformity. We can argue about the definition and the mutability of the “bona fide,” but, as with our current limitation in understanding the localities of the self in the brain, we know what the “bona fide” is through what it isn’t: what we claim as ours that “others” lack in themselves.Identity politics in American letters are primarily enforced not by the margin or the “newcomer” but by larger currents that seek to regulate the “fluid” boundaries of assimilation. This is not a conspiracy, it’s autonomic. To an extent this dance between the tolerable and the implicit is common behavior across cultures. Our supremacy, however, bathes us in an exceptionalism between Lethe and Eunoe.The question about the Arab American writer is a conundrum that slows down a conversation about their art. When I work on my poem I am not interested in the shuffle between inclusion and exclusion, generalization and essentialization, and the loyalty oaths in between. I am not interested in the passport or anthem of the poem. Is the poem in service of (North) American English(es), or are (North) American English(es) in service of the poem?
ST: In “Declaration of Independence,” the exploration of selfhood seems to be closely linked to the idea of independence. History, science, and fairytale intermingle and compress in tight lines that both demarcate and conflate—are these the “modes available to us” when it comes to understanding and talking about selfhood and independence?
FJ: “And what we brand a mode,” I also added in the poem. The journey to catalog our senses of what we think constitutes the self is important to poetry. A primary link between selfhood and independence is collective identity. Any collective is affected by the myth of self-making and the (veritable or verifiable) resonance of plurality within that collective. I don’t dismiss the particularities of our individual cloistered spaces and memories, but I don’t agree that the internalized self is separate (Cartesian) from its collective.Isn’t this what we navigate between the personal and the universal? What is a collective: national or ethnic; species-specific or planet-wide, etc.? What is the personal: childhood, privatized memory daily hours, at work or in the garden? There’s no poem that isn’t an exploration of selfhood. Every poem is a self.Also, there’s no contemporary self without acknowledgment of the “new” body (as significantly shaped or rediscovered by various sciences and technologies and their resultant tongues). Modern science is a classicism in the making.
ST: In “An Algebra Come Home,” how are the fruit vendor’s repeated attempts to “try this heart of his” related to the mathematical reference in the title? Does the reciprocation or “mend[ing]” at the end of the poem signify the enormity of a mathematical/theoretical concept manifested?
FJ: Algebra, as you know, is an Arabic word. It literally means to mend, repair, straighten or align. One also uses the word in Arabic to express mending broken bones or broken hearts. Hearing that word spoken in a street market (in Egyptian dialect, for those who might know the sound) while I was with my wonderful friend, the generous and brilliant writer, Marilyn Hacker (to whom the poem is dedicated in my book), touched me deeply, instantly. The gap between our daily actions (of shopping and haggling) seemed achingly parallel to our sense of empathy for the larger world around us. The math can appear as basic as it is unsolvable. I believe that, in this poem, the math is asking us to believe in its simplicity.
ST: The exploration of silence in “After No Language” includes the ideas that “some cuts run deeper than speech,” yet “no silence offers answers.” The roles of silence and speech seem simultaneously futile and powerful. What place does “no language” or silence have (if silence can be equated with “no language”) and what place does “speech” or poetry have in this space where memory, imprisonment, exploitation, and expression/repression surface?
FJ: Silence as a form of speech or speech as a form of silence inhabit all spaces and no space. In another poem in Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, I write: “No shards/ where one is bound to no place in the first place/ All shards/ we were clear on that from the beginning.”The importance of “After No Language,” however, and that of “Alignment,” is that they were written in collaboration with my friend Golan Haji, a Syrian Kurd poet, essayist, and translator who lives in Paris and writes in Arabic.The two poems are part of a longer sequence: writings and conversations conducted in Arabic over the phone, in person, or through email and shared files. I composed them as poems in English. The collaboration is more than “bearing witness” and certainly not translation. I share Golan’s being in ways that challenge standard notions of what we call “witness.” I am subject to what he is subject, mostly through our mutual and overlapping backgrounds. Much of “witness poetry” today seems to have slipped into automatic sentiment, scripted template, anthropology in verse that understates the disparity between witness and witnessed. “After No Language” places Golan in an unbounded aesthetic space we do not habitually reserve for, or open to, a “Kurd” “Syrian” “Arab” (who doesn’t sound off the right notes of our identification with him or her). What if these poems were a collaboration with a French writer/artist in French? What if they were with a Polish poet, etc.? (Incidentally, Michael Palmer’s remarkable “To the Polish Poets” in his latest book is worth reading.)When you mention “imprisonment,” it catches me by surprise. In the poem imprisonment is illocal, as liberation is illocal. The speech and silence in our poem, Golan’s and mine, are about a freedom from certain speech and silence acts.
ST: The language of astrology, history, and math intermingle in “Alignment” as the speaker “solve[s] for it.” Each discipline seems to have its own method of seeking or divining “alignment”—how is this related to the speaker’s attempts to explore identity through disciplines with nameable categories even as this points to the unnamable?
FJ: There’s humor, absurdity, in belonging to a world that can’t pin down your birthdate. The struggle to want and align oneself with a greater measure of time is also tragicomic. Just think how tied to a system of surveillance the idea of a birth certificate is. It’s not all candles, cake, and vaccines. Those of us who escape the precision (and imposition) of contemporary time through an ambiguous birthdate are unique (and often do not belong to what we, prejudicially, call “modern”). I thought of sequencing human myths of creation, Lucretius’s logical intervention (which Golan brought into the mix), history of modern warfare, our mothers, and those beautiful last lines of an-Niffari, that Sufi genius from a thousand years ago in Iraq. It’s in his lines that Golan’s heart and mine align, mend.
ST: Elements of medical science, myth, and philosophy at once seem to work together and also resist each other in “Body of Meaning.” Does the commingling of these elements contribute to the idea that the “soul doesn’t roam/ outside the body anymore” or do they challenge its validity?
FJ: My bias is to reject the compartmentalized duality. I don’t want to undermine the injustice that is borne through lack (or the hoarding) of resources in our world. I met this young woman in Darfur. If she’s still alive, she’s at serious risk of dying from untreated Grave’s disease, thyroid toxicity. There’s no good reason why she should have no access to treatment. There are millions like her across the globe. It’s easy to point to corrupt governments, distant wars, and patriarchy. Our prejudice that formulates gender (and race, ethnicity, etc.) through illness is abhorrent and unacceptable, as is our benevolence. This problem exists also for numerous diseases that we have yet to solve for in the self-appointed “developed” world. This poem hopes to ground the body, reclaim it from the psychology of myth, its simulation heuristic and established diction. If there’s a neuroscience to explain the presence of Centaurs in the human mind (as “Alignment” suggests), then we can also explain Medusa beyond a witch hunt and psychoanalysis. We refuse to extend to her rights that are universal. Her mother, however, knows better. The body, like water, a vital sign, cannot be detached from language. The body ought to be redeemed, remembered, into life.
Image by: Cybele Knowles