Dunya Mikhail, former literary editor at The Baghdad Observer is the author of the Griffin-shortlisted collection The War Works Hard, trans. Elizabeth Winslow, as well as the Arab American Book Award-winning Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea. Mikhail has six poetry collections in Arabic; the most recent one is The Iraqi Nights (Mesopotamia Press, Baghdad, 2013), which should be forthcoming from New Directions next year; this year, she was also named a Kresge fellow for literary arts, and she generously agreed to be part of our ongoing series on Iraqi poetry:
ArabLit: How do you see your work as fitting in to the history or histories of Iraqi poetry? What traces of Iraqi or other Arab poets can we find in sifting through your language or your relationship to language? Have you ever thought of yourself as being of a particular “school” or generation of poets? Are there poets with whom you particularly identify, either because of their work or their biographies?
Dunya Mikhail: My poetry was first published in the Iraqi media in the 1980s. For that reason, critics referred to me as one of the ’80s generation of poets. The Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) had great influence on our poetry, such that we were also called the war generation. When that war ended, critics began to prepare their theories for a “post-war generation.” However, we had only a short break of peace before other wars started: the invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm.
In response, I published an article in the Baghdad Observer, reminding those critics that there might be no post-war generation, as the war seem be to be contiguous. It was an ironic article, in which I objected to the whole situation. I had some trouble as a result: an official came to my office at the newspaper and asked me for further explanation. But, at the time, the managing editor supported me and the case ended with a warning to “be careful what you write.”
I am not a real fan of dividing poets into generations, as I believe that poetry is an individual experience and its relation to any grouping comes later, but I’ll use the term since it’s a tradition in Iraq. During college, I used to share my poetry with other poets of my generation, such as Adnan al-Sayegh, Abd al-Razzaq al-Rubaie, and Reem Qias Kuba. We didn’t have MFA programs in Iraq, but our meetings, sharing, and feedback served as informal MFA. I also identified with writers from the previous generation, such as the fiction writer Lutfiya al-Dulaimi.
We attended weekly readings at the Union of Iraqi writers on Wednesdays and watched movies at the cinema club on Thursdays. Most of Iraqi poetry has been written by men — you can count the female Iraqi poets on your fingers — and most of the Iraqi men, including poets, were soldiers in the battlefield. This was not by choice: During the war, men were called to serve in the army and would be killed if they refused.
As soldiers, male poets used vocabulary related to face-to-face battles. I am not talking here about the tropes of “heroism,” which was a feature used by some regime-friendly poets who helped mobilize soldiers. As a female poet, I had a different style of writing, and my war poetry was more concerned with the impact of war on the home, on the street, and on the soul. We witnessed a lot of trash literature in the 1980s, when the Iraqi soldier was depicted as a hero with no fears. The other trouble with Arabic poetry was the systematic amoodi poetry which required certain rhymes and rhythms that had been established by al-Farahidi in the 3rd century.
I enjoyed amoodi poetry only when Um Kalthum sang it; otherwise, I was fascinated by translated poetry from other languages because, among other things, it didn’t have such a restricted system and didn’t sound “perfect.” They called what we wrote “prose poetry” (qasidat al-nathir) and I disagree with that term. For me, writing is either prose or poetry, and simply because poetry has no rigid rhythms and rhymes, that doesn’t mean we should call it “prose poetry.”
AL: What poets do you read for sustenance? Which poets formed your reading- and listening-world when you were young, both popular (colloquial) and literary (fos7a) poets? What was your family’s relationship to poetry?
DM: My favorite Iraqi poet has long been Sargon Boulus, although recently I’ve also loved work by Taleb Abdul Aziz. I never liked everything a poet writes, not even my own poetry, which is why I only publish selections of what I write. I’ve also been fascinated by Muhammad Khudayir’s work of creative nonfiction, Basrayatha. But I was most influenced by mythology books from around the world.
My family didn’t know I was writing poetry until my first book was published (in 1987). It helped me that they didn’t interfere, and they were supportive whenever I wanted to buy books. They thought that I would specialize in math, because I was good at it. My father wanted to send me to America to study when I graduated from secondary school. The government didn’t give me permission to leave the country because the law was, “You can’t study abroad at your expense during the time of war.”
I went, instead, to study English literature at the University of Baghdad so that I would learn English and be ready when the law changed. I graduated and the law didn’t change, but I became so busy with friends and poetry that I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t leave until 1995, after the publication of my Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea, which was full of metaphors about the war. Another official questioned me, and this time the warning seemed serious. I left in a hurry with one suitcase.
AL: Do you remember when you first began to think of yourself as a poet? And when you committed to that as your identity? And why?
DM: The first time I thought of myself as a poet was in secondary school; I used to give poems to my classmates as gifts for their birthdays. But I had my first experience with literature on the roof of my childhood home in Baghdad, where we would sleep summer nights. My grandmother used to tell me animals fables, which fascinated me. I asked her for a book of those fables, as I wanted to read them myself and see pictures, but she kept telling me that she didn’t have the book, and that they were “just stories told from generation to generation.”
But in the morning, when the sun and some flies woke me up, I went downstairs and started to write those fables in my notebook my own way, and I illustrated them. Then, when I was about twelve years old, I wrote what I thought of as a poem for first time. That was on a ship on the Tigris River with family and relatives. My cousin, who was standing there with me, made a paper boat from that poem and threw it into the river. We enjoyed watching it drift away.
AL: How do you continue to relate to the world of Iraqi poetry, both fellow-poets, poetry-critics, and poetry-readers? Through the internet?
DM: In the suitcase I left Iraq with, there were, among other things, handwritten letters by friends and other writers. I didn’t use the computer until I came to America. It was like magic: How you open the windows inside windows and they stay there, reduced or enlarged. Now, like others, I communicate through the internet. I love to communicate with poet Fadhil al-Azzawi on matters of poetry.
AL: What do you think the current place of Iraqi poetry is within all of Arabic poetry? (Do you think of it as sharing any characteristics with Palestinian poetry, because of the shared exile?) Has Iraqi poetry changed significantly in the last generation, do you think, with so many poets in exile around the world?
DM: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said, “Be Iraqi to become a poet.” The challenge, however, for Iraqi and Palestinian poets, is how to speak about the matters of the country and the world without falling into what’s narrowly termed as “political poetry.” Exile opened new horizons for poets, especially those who deal with foreign languages. The second language makes you more sensitive towards your native one, so you start to think more carefully about the way you write. Also, Iraqi poets suffered from censorship and from exile in their own homeland.
Selections of Mikhail’s poetry from Poetry International Web:
- THE WAR WORKS HARD
- YOUR EMAIL
- BAGS OF BONES
- THE AIRPLANE
- IRAQIS AND OTHER MONSTERS