John Halliwell, working with the Meedan translation project, has rendered a Q&A with Egyptian poet Karim Abdel-Salaam in beautiful English. The interview was conducted by Abdel-Rahman Muqallid to mark the publication of Abdel-Salaam’s eighth poetry collection, The Book of Bread. (You can read the Arabic original of the interview on Youm7.)

Of Abdel-Salaam’s verse, I could find no English translations. There were a few translations into Spanish on Jehat.Com, done by Fernando Julia and one of my favorite Egyptian poets, Ahmad Yamani. So: Someone needs to rectify that. One might begin by translating Abdel-Salaam’s new poem, “January 25.”

Meantime, although I encourage reading the whole thing, I’ve borrowed for you a few quotes from Halliwell’s translation of the interview with Abdel-Salaam.

On poetry and bread:

And so has bread become one of my central poetic motifs, my secret amulet for hard work in a hard life, giving me the outline of my poems before they were actually committed to paper.

Poetry and politics:

Again, for me, the poet is sympathetic toward man’s dreams and aspirations, his suffering and his yearning, his moments of helplessness, triumph, and love. In these profound moments, when man feels that he has won or lost the whole world, he stands ready to be martyred, to sacrifice himself, to be magnanimous, to fly into a righteous rage, a revolutionary rage to defend his convictions.

Poetry, politics, and the poem “Jolly Mary”:

Again, for me, the poet is sympathetic toward man’s dreams and aspirations, his suffering and his yearning, his moments of helplessness, triumph, and love. In these profound moments, when man feels that he has won or lost the whole world, he stands ready to be martyred, to sacrifice himself, to be magnanimous, to fly into a righteous rage, a revolutionary rage to defend his convictions.

These sort of moments allow for poetry, allow the poet to point to that impossible dream, to the tragedy of life which repeats itself at every moment.

Poetry and populism:

To employ poetry for some external goal is an act of political exploitation which I have publicly denounced on several occasions. This is diametrically opposed to the poet feeling compelled to probe their sincere convictions through words.

Further, on not being famous:

At the same time, I don’t have the desire to be famous like a soccer player or an actor and, in any case, those celebrities who had been embraced by the government to act as their bridge to the masses are no longer capable of being effective in these our very complex times.

On how we might revive poetry’s popularity:

Nowadays, the young look to other avenues for entertainment. Instead of having culturedness be the benchmark of excellence, they use clothing, cars, drugs, and sex. Poetry has been caricatured, reserved only for irony.

Now, let’s be honest: the educational system isn’t what it used to be … poetry cannot reclaim its accessibility until these symptoms of illiteracy, which have affected at least the last three generations of students, are treated.

Another problem being:

The poetry scene is brimming with different experiences, but the problem is the lack of communication amongst poets and the constraints placed on their writing. At every book fair in the Arab world there is a list of proscribed books.

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