Between Iraqi and Scottish Poetries: The Closest Thing to Magic One Could Hope to See

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:

Also, as Van Winkle notes on his blog, this coming Monday August 19, the Reel Iraq team of Scottish and Iraqi poets and artists will be part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Unbound series. Van Winkle writes that they’ll be “showing off some of the best work from both countries, plus some of our collaborations and translations. It’s going to be a really special night, hope to see you there.”

Ryan Van Winkle with Reel Iraq poet Dan Gorman
Ryan Van Winkle with Reel Iraq poet Dan Gorman

ArabLit: What was your way in to Iraqi poetry? As you explored as a poet & organizer & critic, you find a particular Iraqi (national) poetry?

Ryan Van Winkle: In 2009, I was Reader in Residence at the Scottish Poetry Library when I was invited to help with the literary side of Reel Iraq. After consulting with Banipal magazine and other sources, including reading the limited amount of stock dedicated to Iraqi / Arabic poetry in the SPL, I was keen to invite Sinan Antoon and Saadi Youssef to Edinburgh for our festival. So, my way ‘in’ was simply being invited in and doing a pretty mild amount of research. A lot of the poets mentioned in conversation had a limited amount of work easily available in English and, so, as I don’t read arabic I had to rely a lot on references and faith. Obviously both Sinan and Saadi did have a large body of work in English. However, I’d be reluctant to extrapolate on a ‘national’ poetry. I found both their work engaging, readable, and entirely accessible to a ‘Western’ eye. At least in translation.

Obviously, my relationship with Iraq has deepened having worked directly this past year with Sabreen Kadhim, Zaher Mousa, Awezan Nouri and Ghareeb Iskander. This is still a relatively meagre amount of work to be familiar with and, as such, I wouldn’t say I could glean anything about a broader national poetic. Obviously, I recognise that the influences on the poets of Iraq are different to the influences on poets here and even those that reject those influences (or fight them) are none-the-less engaged in them in some way. I’m thinking particularly about the formalism of the verse, the ‘high arabic’ that is used as opposed to the ‘conversational Arabic’ used in daily life. This reminds me of the rift between ‘spoken word poets’ and ‘page poets’ or the rift the Beats made when chased the ‘I’ trajectory of Whitman. Further, references and influences always differ according to culture and geography yet I am regularly awed by how much our concerns remain the same in terms across the world.

Lauren Pyott: As the bridge translator and one of the translators on the retreat, the most interesting thing I found to have come out of the exchange was the register issue which Ryan flagged up, the fous7a/3amia split.

It begged questions of the role of poetry in society, how it is presented, how it is received, what counts as poetry. I remember some amusing, yet telling, discussions about how you could possibly translate ‘fuck’ into literary arabic. Can you swear in poetry? Is it poetry if it isn’t ‘beautiful’ language?  This is an issue that has obviously been visited many times before in Arabic literature but I think it’s an interesting time for it, once again. One of our other Reel Iraq writers, Hassan Blasim, is somewhat of a contemporary pioneer in this regard and I know he is very interested in seeing more literature written in 3amia, or that ‘conversational Arabic’.

AL: Why get involved with Iraqi poets and poetry? What in particular did Iraqi poets bring to you that you wanted/needed to read?

RVW: As I said, I got involved because I was asked but, of course, I’m always interested in poets from other regions. I’ve long admired, say, work coming out of Eastern Europe and, in particular, the former Yugoslavia — the kind of work Charles Simic champions. I’m not sure I’m asking poets / poems for anything. To me, it is like going into a large museum where I don’t know a single painting. I’m not sure what I want / need to see — but I know when I find it. Because it causes pause. Because that work stays with me long after the other art has been all but forgotten. In general, I’m looking for something that surprises. Either with a line, an image, or the strength of a voice. On a very basic level what the poets I’ve worked with and read have given me is their humanity / human-ness. But, then again, that’s what all good poets give — a reminder that we are not alone in the world.

AL: How did you get involved with Reel Iraq? What has been the best (and/or worst) of that experience?

RVW: Well, to enlarge the story of myself and Reel Iraq — Dan Gorman, myself and Yasmin Fedda were all involved in the Forest Arts Collective in Edinburgh. This was a multi-arts collective dedicated to making things happen in a free and accessible way. It was fun. We were kids. Dan and Yas’s interests also included film and travel to the Middle East where Yas’ family lived. I felt lucky to be asked to be involved in the work they started and have had the opportunity to work and travel with Reel Festivals which has been very inspiring and eye opening.

The best experiences I’ve had are many but often boil down to the people involved. I particularly love getting the chance to work with these poets and to bring Scottish poets together with those writing in Arabic (and Kurdish). 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.

The worst aspects of Reel Iraq and engaging with countries in conflict has largely been administrative in terms of securing travel visas and funding. It is a distasteful, time-consuming, stressful process that always puts events in jeopardy. Outside of that there are the usual organisational difficulties in moving people around, setting up gigs etc but that is all part of the process and pretty quickly forgotten once the events themselves have past and all we’re left with is good memories of good people doing good things together.

AL: Are there particular Iraqi poets whose works have moved you? Do you find any echo of that ending up in your own work?

RVW: Gosh, that’s a hard one because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. Most fresh in my mind are Awezan Nouri’s very short poems which William Letford translated with such condensed power and humor. Also, Sabreen Kadhim’s poem ‘Comma’ as translated by Jen Hadfield gives me the tingles. In that poem she talks about a person being like a comma, a comma like a door, a thing that is necessary but only causes pause — I’m sure I’m ruining this because I don’t have the text to hand — but I think that notion, that image will stick in my brain and, very possibly, infiltrate my own work. That said, I’m a slow writer with a thick skull and it can take years for influences to manifest in my own work. I’ll keep you posted though!

AL: Were you involved, hands-on, in the translation process? Were there interesting things that you discovered through the translation process, about the structure/building of the poems being worked on?

RVW: I wasn’t heavily involved while we were in Iraq but when we were working in Syria and Lebanon I had the chance to be a bit more hands on. Obviously, the use of certain images as shorthand for a certain emotion or theme often caused a problem. (What kind of fruit is considered an aphrodisiac in Iraq vs in the UK?) By and large, the poems from the Iraqis were a bit longer, often written in a less conversational tone and more willing to have a range of images and metaphor kind of swirling around in a way that was often challenging to untangle. That said, I’m making a very broad generalisation based on only a few poems by a few poets — and certainly, if I remember correctly, Sinan and Saadi had more condensed work that hung on less rambunctious images / metaphor.

Previous Thursdays:

August 1: Basim al-Ansar: ‘Poetry Is the Source of All the Arts’ 

August 8: Khaled al-Maaly: Poetry Worldwide Has No Boundaries

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