Where to Find the Best Arab American Poets…

If you’re looking for it, there are a number of places to seek out excellent Arab American poets. They are celebrated individually (Khaled Mattawa just won a major poetry award) and as a group, as in the most recent Banipal (38).

I have already talked about the novel and memoir excerpts from Banipal 38. Why the poets last? Perhaps because they cover such a range that it’s almost impossible to talk about them as a group, at least without an exceptionally long (and time-consuming) essay.

The poets whose work most struck me in 38 were well-known Sinan Antoon, Sargon Boulus, and Naomi Shihab Nye. The simple narrativist in me appreciated Nye’s very straightforward, clean “Not Knowing,” and I love Antoon’s sense of the lightness in life—alongside so much darkness. And Boulos’s “The Marsh Painter” had this unarguably fabulous line: “(Madrid or London, damp like stepped on mucus, or perhaps / Paris).”

The magazine also includes the work of many other strong poets. The whole lineup: Philip Metres, Mohja Kahf, Fady Joudah, Nathalie Handal, Assef al-Jundi, Lisa Suhair Majaj, Dunya Mikhail, Deema Shehabi, Lara Hamza, Jackleen Salam, Salah Awad, Hayan Charara, Iman Mersal, Etel Adnan, and Khaled Mattawa.

I liked many bits and pieces here, but a magazine doesn’t always represent a poet’s strongest work. For instance, I think you get a better sense of Khaled Mattawa here, on Puerto del Sol.  After Banipal 38, perhaps you’ll want to search out a few anthologies (or head straight to your favorites’ individual collections; why not?).

On a casual search, I found two anthologies dedicated solely to Arab American poets.

The first was Grape Leaves, edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa, and published by Interlink in 1999. Kirkus somewhat lukewarmly called the work, which features the work of 20 Arab American poets: “A worthy beginner-level introduction to a community of poets seldom acknowledged here.” The collection features Khalil Gibran, D.H. Melhem, Naomi Shahib Nye, Elmaz Abinader, Etel Adnan, Sharif Elmusa, Gregory Orfalea, and a number of others.

In 2008, University of Arkansas Press brought out an anthology that seems to have garnered a bit more applause. Edited by Hayan Charara and titled Inclined to Speak, this collection features 39 Arab American poets, and received commendations from such varied voices as Mark Doty, Marilyn Hacker, and Amiri Baraka. From the Booklist review: “Suheir Hammad reaches for the essence: ‘you’re either with life, or against it. / affirm life.'” (And honestly, what is a collection of Arab American poetry without Suheir Hammad?) The book’s table of contents is available online.

Other anthologies include Arab American poems, such as Poetry of Arab Women,  edited by Nathalie Handal, and Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing, edited by Munir Akash and Khaled Mattawa. Anyhow, that’s a start. After that, it’s best to find your own darlings.

Not poetry, but: Since this is the last I imagine I’ll write about Banipal 38, I must add that I chuckled and squirmed delightedly at the closing monologue by Hassan Abdulrazzak, “Love in the Time of Barriers,” which was apparently “inspired by a conversation with the Palestinian actor and playwright Imad Farajin.” Really, how often do you have a sentence like “Let’s fuck for Palestine!” thrust triumphally into a piece of literature?