For the next few months, ArabLit will be running a series of interviews and essays on Iraqi poetry: with poets, critics, translators, and others.
Poet Basim Alansar was born in Baghdad in 1970. He has been publishing his poetry since the early 1990s and, since 1998, has made his home in Denmark. In 2009, he the only Iraqi poet to be named one the Hay Festival’s “Beirut39,” a list of 39 promising Arab authors under 39. He said:
Poetry is the source of all the arts, and literature and science. It’s the spirit of existence, the meaning of our lives. And I meditate a lot on the essence of existence and the meaning of life. This is perhaps what made me predisposed to poetry.
Poet and publisher Khalid al-Maaly was born in as-Samawa, Iraq in 1956; he left Iraq in 1979 and ended up in Cologne, Germany in 1980, where he founded the publishing house Al-Kamel Verlag. He writes poetry in Arabic and German, and has translated works by a number of Arab poets.
Of course there is contemporary Iraqi poetry; residence means nothing within this framework. But what is the state of this poetry or culture in general? In today’s world, Iraqi culture is scattered and torn. There are no serious or oppositional magazines, and there are very few serious publishing houses; the situation is not leading to a firm footing or growth for cultural traditions. You cannot count on the activities of official or semi-official institutions in Iraq; they are, regrettably, almost dead.
Scottish poet Ryan Van Winkle stresses that he is not an expert on Iraqi poetry. However, as a core part of the Reel Iraq team, he has been key in bridging the work of Scottish and Iraqi poets. He and Reel Fest’s Literary Co-Ordinator Lauren Pyott answered questions about their relationship to Iraqi poetry:
Watching these artists slip into each other’s poetic skins has been heartening and just about the closest thing to magic one could hope to see. I think, even in one’s native language, it is rare to talk seriously about your own work with a like-minded peer. To see that happen dispite language and cultural differences is pretty amazing.
Ghareeb Iskander is an Iraqi poet living in London. He has published collections of his own work (Sawad Basiq, Mahafat Alwahm, Af’a Gilgamesh), criticism on Arabic poetry, and translations of poets both from Arabic to English (Badr Shakir al-Sayyab) and English to Arabic (Derek Walcott):
When I decided to study the translations of Sayyab’s poetry, I was shocked when I found that there’s just one book in English about the pioneer of modern Arabic poetry!
Dunya Mikhail, former literary editor at The Baghdad Observer is the author of the Griffin-shortlisted collection The War Works Hard, trans. Elizabeth Winslow, as well as the Arab American Book Award-winning Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea. Mikhail has six poetry collections in Arabic; the most recent one is The Iraqi Nights (Mesopotamia Press, Baghdad, 2013), which should be forthcoming from New Directions next year; this year, she was also named a Kresge fellow for literary arts:
As a female poet, I had a different style of writing, and my war poetry was more concerned with the impact of war on the home, on the street, and on the soul.
September 5: On Nazik al-Mala’ika’s Revolutionary Romantic Poetry
Iraqi poet Nazik al-Mala’ika is best known for the important role she played in the development and popularization of Arabic “free verse” (or taf’ila poetry) in the 1950s. But while she is well known as a pioneer, her verse itself is less well-known, and largely absent in translation. Emily Drumstra has translated one of al-Mala’ika’s poems for Jadaliyya, “Revolt Against the Sun,” and is currently at work on another translation. She talked about translating al-Mala’ika:
In many ways al-Mala’ika actually fits better with the Arab Romantic poets than she does with the “modernists”: she is more concerned with articulating deeply felt emotions and sensations than she is with elaborating new models for cultural regeneration. And yet her concern for Arabic poetic form is also, I would argue, quite political.
Although Iraqi writer Fadhil al-Azzawi is more widely known in English as a novelist (his The Last of the Angels, Cell Block Five, and The Traveler and the Innkeeper have been met with acclaim), al-Azzawi is perhaps better-known in Arabic as a poet. Both are true, as al-Azzawi’s work has moved between poetry and prose. He answered a few questions about his writing for our ongoing series on Iraqi poets and poetries:
When my mother knew from my schoolmates that I was writing poetry, and aiming to be a poet, she became angry and scolded me:
“We try to make you a man and work hard to secure your future, but you want to be a beggar.”
I replied: “A poet, not a beggar.”
She laughed at my naiveté: “And what is the real job of the Arab poets? Nothing but selling their praise poems, full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king.”
I said: “I promise you I will not be like these people.”
This week, ArabLit talked to Iraqi poet and publisher Faiza Sultan about her magazine and newly launched publishing house, Dar Safi, which is based in the US’s Pacific Northwest. Dar Safi promises to focus on literatures in English, Arabic, and Kurdish:
“I cannot say that there is a new poetic movement in Iraq. On the contrary, there is a movement against modern poems among some Iraqi poets.”
Badr Shakir al-Sayyab is one of the most important names in modern Iraqi poetry — and indeed modern Arabic poetry. The poet, who died in 1964 at just 38, shook the poetic world with his verse. Translator, scholar, and author Dr. Issa Boullata, whose PhD dissertation became a book on al-Sayyab, answered a few questions about the poet’s life and work:
Al-Sayyab’s poetry set a model for other Arab poets in the use of myth, and Arabic poetry has not been the same ever since. In English letters, it is perhaps T. S. Eliot who may be considered to have played a similar role, especially with his The Waste Land (1922) and its use of myth and allusions. I don’t mean that al-Sayyab’s works are comparable to Eliot’s but, as a whole, their role in helping to give direction to contemporary Arabic poetry was similar to Eliot’s in influencing English-language poetry that came after his.
October 10: Sinan Antoon: Poetry Still Has a Home in Baghdad
My publisher, the Iraqi poet Khalid al-Maaly, organised a reading and book-signing at the Baghdad Poetry House right by the Tigris. I was surrounded by friends I had known for years through email, but was meeting them for the first time. The students from the Sada School, whom I had taught on Skype, were there too. The hope and thirst for life in those young eyes of my readers was my only solace. I still had a home in Baghdad. Poetry and writing was my indestructible home.
I have received my long-awaited copy of Baghdad: The City in Verse, trans. and ed. Reuben Snir. The small volume attempts to capture and reflect the history of one of the world’s great cities through its poetry, with offerings beginning in the 700s and ending in 2012:
The poems reflect different faces of the city in its many different epochs. Baghdad is at once a delight: “People say, Do you want to make the pilgrimage? Of course, / I say, only after Baghdad’s delights expire.” (Abu Nuwas, 747ish-813ish) and a bore: “I am leaving; I despise her leaders. / I am abandoning her, bored and weary.” (Anonymous).
Certainly, there were poets — like Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Maliki (? – 1031) who both praised and criticized the city: “Baghdad is a fine home for the wealthy / but an abode of misery and distress for the poor.”