Iraqi Poet Dunya Mikhail on Censorship in the U.S. and Iraq and One of the Diseases of Arabic Poetry

Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail was interviewed last week by Cathy Linh Che at New Directions in anticipation of a talk Mikhail gave April 8 with poet Louise Gluck.

Mikhail has published two books in English: The War Works Hard, published by New Directions in 2005, and
 Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, published in 2009. Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea is a bilingual book in two sections, depicting Mikhail’s life before and after she fled Iraq. For better or worse, you can read the first 35 pages on Google Books. It opens:

In my childhood, I envied myself for being a child.
I thought everyone was created the way they were:
created as a child or an old man or a mother.

I was sad for my mother.
Because of her age, she could not play like me
in the sand
or jump on the bed or hide under it
or fling pebbles into the sea
to watch the ripples spread until they vanished.

So I prayed every day,
thanking God for creating me as a child.

Anyhow, back to the (quite interesting) interview. On the relationship between English and Arabic:

English made me more sensitive toward Arabic. I started to think about words more carefully and let me admit it: I caught myself sometimes picking Arabic phrases that would resonate in English as well. I always write in Arabic first and then try to translate this, so my writing goes from right to left then from left to right.

Poetry as opposed to fiction:

My eyes were opened to war, and now, when I close my eyes, I still see war. Poetry, you know, is responsive, probably the most deeply responsive of all literary genres.

Her take on censorship in the U.S. is particularly interesting to me. I’m not at all sure that I agree to this distinction: “in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text.” In fact, I believe self-censorship to be just as insidious—well, at least in Egypt. And I suppose in Iraq as well. At any rate, Mikhail says:

In Iraq, there was a department of censorship with actual employees whose job was to watch “public morals” and decide what you should read and write. Every writer needed approval first before publishing. That’s why I used a lot of metaphors and layers of meanings. This was probably good for my poetry but, still, you do not want to use such figures of speech just to hide meanings. Here, in America, a word does not usually cost a poet her life. However, speech is sometimes limited to what is acceptable according to public norms. So, in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text. So censorship is implicit in the U.S. and the West and explicit in Iraq and the Arab world. But the big relief you feel here is that you actually have an editor and not a censor anymore when you publish. You feel great despite the irony that the censor makes you feel so important that if you say the wrong thing you deserve to die. The editor makes you feel that you can say whatever you want, and it’s never the end of the world!

What is one of the diseases of Arabic poetry (and you could extend this to Arabic letters in general)? It is this disease of “big issues,” which was also commented on—oddly—by Hamza Hendawi, in this piece for the Associated Press: (Egyptian Fiction Bored of Big Issues). Anyhow, Mikhail:

One of the diseases of Arabic poetry, in my opinion, is when it speaks about political issues in a non-personal way. They call these as “big issues” but there is no “small” nor “big” issue in poetry. There is only poetry in poetry.

Hear, hear!

And, Linh Che asks, how has the war impacted Iraqi poetry?

Traditional Arabic poetry has a strict form that might not match with the mess of modern war and its urgency. Contemporary forms give it some flexibility. There is a tension in the Arab world between poets of traditional forms and the “prose poets,” as they are called. In Egypt, for example, there was an article about poets boycotting this poetry festival because this is formal and that’s not formal and so on. When it comes to Iraqi war poetry, some of it is trash (talk about the Iraqi soldier as a superhero who fears nothing etc.) and some of it is great (it allows poetry to survive the war).

Lastly, Mikhail speaks about the first known poet, and the role of the poet in the world:

The first known poet in history, Enheduanna, was an Iraqi woman. She wrote about Inanna on tablets in the cuneiform language. The interesting thing about her is that she had a position or title. It was “The keeper of the flame.” I think that if a poet should have any role at all, it should be (wherever and whenever) the same: “keeper of the flame.”