Adonis at Alwan: Always More Beauty to Be Seen

By Guest Contributor Jennifer Sears

Among Adonis’ recent appearances at high-profile New York City venues including the 92 Street Y and Poets House was a reading and Q&A at Alwan for the Arts in Lower Manhattan.  The evening began with a brief reading from the recently published Adonis: Selected Poems, featuring new translations in English by Khaled Mattawa.  The predominantly Arabic-speaking audience responded vocally to Adonis’ dramatic recitations and Mattawa’s skilled translations.

After the reading, the floor opened to questions from the audience, the most interesting directed toward Adonis’ support for the “globalization” of Arabic literature (a subject explored in the introduction of the new book) and Adonis’ relationship with Arabic language.

“We only have one mother,” Adonis responded evocatively to an initial question about whether he produced work in French.  People, writers particularly, might have many fathers, Adonis said, but only one mother, and for him, writing comes to him only through that mother, the Arabic language. Complimenting Adonis’ wide influence, a second questioner asked how he felt when his ideas were taken in directions he wouldn’t want them to go.  Adonis replied that as he is not currently a teacher, he is indebted to all who are influenced by his work, adding slyly in regard to those who misrepresent him: “I love betrayal more than loyalty.”

Asked why he had more than once during his career declared he was finished with poetry, Adonis said he’d lived in a bright light for a long time and that light’s primary source was poetry.  Such light can be exhausting, he said, as all beauty can exhaust if one lives constantly in its company.

The discussion turned toward the political when an attendee claimed she was  surprised he spoke of the Arabic language so fondly, referencing his earlier comments about his “mother tongue,” and challenged his support for the globalization of Arabic literature as it becomes caught up in the “stream” of Western culture.  Adonis proposed that those who resist the idea of globalization fear that with exposure, Arabic culture will shrink and that through resistance, they are preserving Arabic cultural identity. Adonis contended that such responses in fact achieve the opposite.  Adonis challenged the audience to imagine contemporary Arab societies cleared of Western influences.

“What would remain?” he asked. “Nothing.”

Those sitting near the questioner made sounds of disagreement as Adonis continued with the suggestion that those criticizing “globalization” of Arab artistic culture should rely less on material assets from the non-Arab world and re-focus their energies on creating and developing their own inventions to resist the shrinking of Arab culture.  The discourse against globalization is politically motivated, he continued, and supported by regimes in a state of paralysis.

Creativity does not fear globalization, he concluded. Creativity is globalization.

Recalling the prolific era of Arab-Andalucía, Adonis claimed that Arab culture and art was once the very heart of globalization.  Contemporary critics who have declared war against globalization, he said, are doing so even as they submit to political and financial systems mired in the history of colonialism.

The conversation returned to language as Adonis was asked if he ever found the Arabic language incapable of expressing an idea or image he wanted to convey.  Adonis replied that it is fortunate that human beings can never express fully what they think.  No language, he said, can express the world completely; the human experience is richer than any human language.

All languages have problems but these problems stem from political elements circulating around languages and the mindset of those using it.  There is retardation and backwardness, he said.  It is not the fault of the Arabic language that none of the leaders can speak or use it well.  Some in the audience clapped.  The expressive beauty and power of the Arabic language is such that makes its speakers unworthy.

A questioner asked if there could ever be a revival of the landmark Shi’r magazine and the literary flowering such a publication created.  Adonis replied that though the magazine made a decisive contribution to Arabic literary culture, Arabic poetry existed before and after its publication.  The magazine was a landmark in an ongoing stream and ended having done what it was supposed to do.  Magazines are living creatures:  they are born, they live, and they die.  Sometimes it is as beautiful, he said, to end a life as it is to birth it.  He suggested that new magazines can come to life.  There is always more possibility for beauty than ugliness and always more beauty to be seen.

Near the end of the discussion, Adonis was asked, as he had fought many personal and professional battles, were there any responses made that he regretted?   The questioner challenged Adonis’ earlier comments, claiming it is easy to speak of backwardness and resistance to globalization, but that some of these limitations are symptoms of a history of suffering.  Did Adonis see a horizon or possibility of relief?   Adonis responded that his most significant battles have been internal ones. If he had to make one fundamental change, it would have been to seek deeper or push harder within his own life for personal change. Shifting to the questioner’s second concern and the condition of suffering, he said that conclusions are too often drawn from immediate evidence directly in front of us instead of trying to comprehend the larger perspective.  How do we break through to a deeper reality, Adonis asked the questioner.  Eventually, he said, people will offer necessary change.

Due to time constraints, many questions went unanswered and a promised second round of recitation was shelved.  Adonis ended however with a promise of writing more poetry.  Asked if he ever feared a lack of ideas, Adonis said he relieved himself of that concern.  Each day he confronts the reality that the poem he wishes to write is always one he hasn’t written.

Jennifer Sears is an author and instructor who lives in New York City.

More, more, more Adonis:

Where can you see him next? At the London Poetry Festival on Sunday, November 7.

Comments recently in the NYTimes: Adonis on What ‘Real Poetry’ Requires.

I know you’re waiting for ArabLit’s review, but you can see what Amazon.Com customers think of his new English-language collection here.