A Q&A with Forces Behind a New Gulf Poetry Anthology, ‘Gathering the Tide’

The introduction to the poetry anthology Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry, out this month, begins: “It started simply enough. In an introduction to poetry class, after reading the required books list, the students wanted to know why the list did not include an anthology of contemporary poetry from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries of the Gulf region.” The question — about education, transmission of culture, language — didn’t seem simple to me at all. As part of examining the collection, I thought I’d ask a few questions of editor Patty Paine and one of the students who asked, Aisha Al Naama.

ArabLit: You define the origins of the collection in “a simple question.” But to motivate such a labor, it must’ve been a rather persistent question, probably one that had been raised before.

Aisha Al Naama: I don’t know if the question was raised elsewhere, but I believe it was the first time it was raised at VCUQatar. Patty saw an opportunity to link the need for this book with Qatar Foundation and VCUQatar’s mission to support undergraduate research. Patty responded very quickly to the idea, and we submitted a grant proposal to the Qatar Foundation. The grant was awarded the following semester, and our work began in earnest.

Patty Paine: I think others have asked this question before. In fact, while our anthology was in final edits, the Cultural Foundation of Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage produced a book of poems from the Arabian Peninsula translated by Dr. Shihab Ghanem and Peter Zsoidos. It’s a more compact volume than Gathering the Tide, and I think we were able to compile such a comprehensive collection because we were fortunate enough to have the support of VCUQatar…. We received an Undergraduate Research Development Grant (UREP), which helped us tremendously….

AL: How did/do you imagine the audience for this collection? Arabs or non-Arabs? Did you ever consider making it a bilingual collection?

PP: We envisioned the widest audience possible, but our primary intent was for
this anthology to reach a western audience. We hoped that this collection would make a valuable contribution to the understanding and discourse between the West and the Middle East. We didn’t want to just re-present the relatively small number of poems that had already been translated. We wanted to dramatically expand the canon of translated poems. Toward that end, around 70% of the poems in Gathering the Tide were translated specifically for this collection. It was an incredibly time and labor-intensive process. It took three years to complete, but we think we now have a truly comprehensive and exciting collection of poems by established and emerging poets from the Gulf region.

We did consider making the collection bilingual, but that would have made the book close to 800 pages, which is beyond what publishers were willing to produce for a fairly specialized collection of poetry.

AAN: As Patty mentioned we hoped that these poems would help people see past stereotypes, and past fear. We also hoped that through poetry common ground could be discovered.

AL: To the point of enlarging audience, are there plans to have any of the authors do bilingual readings (outside Qatar)? Submitting poems to journals (beyond Blackbird?) Other plans to promote the collection?

PP: Several of the poets will be reading at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai, and there will be a panel session on Gathering the Tide at the Festival.

Now that the book is out, we won’t be submitting poems to journals. We’ll be promoting the book at the Emirates festival, and also at conferences and book fairs. I’ll be attending the AWP conference in Chicago, IL in March, and in general, we will do as much promotion as possible.

AL: Maybe you can tell me a little more about the two-day book launch event in March? Who do you hope will attend?

PP: The two day book launch will include 16 poets, 4 translators, and will feature readings and panel discussions. I believe this is the largest gathering of Gulf poets in one location ever. The panel discussions will be moderated by Margaret Obank and miriam cooke. We hope anyone interested in poetry will attend.

AL: Why did you decide to group the poets by nation/nationality? (Rather than by chronology, topic, some other organizing principle)?

PP: We tried a variety of ways to organize the anthology, including by theme and chronologically. We were concerned about the “theme fatigue” a reader can sometimes experience when poems are grouped in this way. It was also difficult to impose a single theme on many of the poems so we abandoned that approach. When we organized the poems chronologically it created a disjointed reading experience overall. Ultimately, we felt that the anthology worked best when the poems were grouped by nation. We organized the poems within each section very carefully, and our hope is that we created an anthology that reads well from cover to cover, but can also be opened at any page and be enjoyed.

AL: So when you say you organized the poems “very carefully,” do you mean you did so as an author might her collection, creating a narrative/resonances with the poetry? So that the poems speak to one another?

PP: That’s exactly right. We approached the ordering of poems much in the same way an author would order a collection. And we came to think of the entire book as the final poem, in that the poems together have a cumulative power and meaning.

AL: The poems seem to be primarily philosophical/love /confessional/spiritual rather than political. (Of course, there are exceptions “My Body is a Palm Tree…”) Was that a
conscious direction?

PP: I’m not sure I agree with that assertion. There may be poems in the anthology that might seem political to one reader, but not to another, and even the most quotidian poem can have political implications. David Orr in The Politics of Poetry argued “it’s important to note first that poetry and politics are both matters of verbal persuasion—that is, both have strong connections to the art of rhetoric.”

AAN: When we discussed the poems as a group, the idea of political poems versus non-political poems came up at times. It was interesting that even in our small group we couldn’t agree on what was political, and what was not. For example, several of us felt that Saadia Mufarreh’s poem “Refrigerator” was a political poem, while others did not.

What might not be political for one reader might be political for another.

PP: The way the anthology came together was very unique. Many anthologists pluck poems from a large, established canon, and therefore, the editor can shape the anthology according to a well-defined intent. In our case, since we didn’t want to collect poems that had already been translated and collected, the anthology came together much more organically. We identified poets whose work interested us. It took over a year to identify, select and find, poets. We then asked those poets to send us work in Arabic. They chose the work to send, so their decisions very much shaped the anthology. Generally, each poet sent between 10-20 poems. We had them all translated, which again, was very time
and labor intensive, and then we made selections from there. In some instances we went back again and asked for more poems until we had what we hoped were the very best poems and translations we could get.

AL: And the “extra” poems that were translated but did not make the collection? Do you know what has become of them?

PP: The poets have the extra poems, and they are free to submit them to journals. In most cases though, we published all the poems that were translated.

AL: Was there any effort to balance male/female poets, rural/urban, colloquial/fos7a, dissident/establishment, khaleeji/universal, or any other considerations?

AAN: We tried to balance the collection overall. Our main consideration was quality of work, and having both well-known, and less well-known poets.

AL: Why include nabati poems by Sheikh Mohammed? Who translated them?

AAN: We wanted to have some nabati poems in the collection, and Sheikh Mohammed has done a great deal to promote nabati poetry. We also wanted to show how important poetry is in this culture, and how leaders at the highest levels are also committed to poetry. Even though this book collects contemporary poetry, we wanted to show respect to our tradition of nabati poetry.

AL: And who translated Sheikh Mohamed’s poems?

PP: My understanding is that they were written in English.

AL: Why no poetry from Yemen?

PP: We decided to work with GCC countries.

AL: How did you decide on the translators?

PP: We worked with translators who had a strong reputation in translation, such as Khaled Mattawa, Issa Boulatta, and Nay Hannawi. In many ways, we made for a very unlikely group to create an anthology of Arabic poetry in translation. Two editors are from the U.S., one is from Morocco, and our students were all majoring in design—VCUQatar is a school of arts and design. Two of the editors have experience in editing and publishing, which helped a great deal, but we recognized our limitations, and we knew we had to have the very best translators possible. Our translators did amazing work. They worked very closely with the poets, and they were incredibly committed to honoring the poets and their poems.

AL: How did you work through the process where the translations were edited?

PP: As I mentioned above, we had limitations as editors of Arabic poems in translation, but one area of strength is that I am a poet, and I have read deeply, particularly American poetry, and poetry in translation. I was able to call upon my experience as a poet, and as a reader, to edit towards bringing the reader to the poem and the poem to the reader.

I tried to have a very light touch in editing. I wanted to help make the poems accessible to western readers, but I did not want to make the poems over into western poems. I also tried to work with the poets as closely as possible, sometimes working line-by-line, and word-by-word.

AL: Do you think — when you use the collection in a class — it will be strange, presenting English-language translations of Arabic poetry to Arab students? Will you also use the originals?

PP: To answer this I have to give a bit of background: I teach at Virginia
Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Doha, Qatar. The discovery of oil reserves in the 1940’s transformed Qatar’s economy. Some of the wealth generated by oil is being invested in education and under the auspices of His Highness Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. Programs from primarily American universities have been brought to Qatar to create what is known as Education City. Qatar Foundation’s mission is to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of an ever-changing world, and to make Qatar a leader in innovative education and research. VCUQ was the first school to arrive in Doha in 1997, and several other universities have since joined VCUQ. The intent of Education City is to replicate the education students receive in the United States, and all
instruction and coursework is conducted in English. Since all instruction is in English, it won’t be strange to use the anthology in class. Many of our students are from Qatar, and the Middle East, but many are also from Asia, North America and Europe. Not all of our students can read/speak Arabic, and this limits how I can use the Arabic poems in class.

I have used the Arabic poems though, by having the students do translation in teams of Arabic and non-Arabic speakers.

Aisha Al Naama of Doha, Qatar, graduated from VCUQatar in 2009 with a BFA in Graphic Design. She is currently a designer at the QSTP: design zone initiative.

Patty Paine is author of The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing), Feral (Imaginary Friend Press), Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press), and co-editor of Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Gulf Poetry (Garnet/Ithaca). Her poems, reviews, interviews and photographs have appeared in Blackbird, The Atlanta Review, Gulf Stream, The Journal, Floorboard and numerous other publications. She is the founding editor of Diode Poetry Journal and Diode Editions, and is assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University Qatar where she teaches writing and literature, and is assistant director of the Liberal Arts & Sciences program.