Young Iraqi poet Saif Alsaegh was born and raised in the Risafa neighborhood of Baghdad. He was born during the first Gulf War, in 1991, and studied one year at the University of Baghdad — majoring in journalism and working for the Ikhbariya News Agency — before he went to Damascus to study English in order to qualify for a scholarship at a US university. That’s where he is now, at the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, MT, with plans to publish his first collection of poetry, Iraqi Headaches, in December:
Saif Alsaegh I started writing poetry at the age of 17 after I started having a lot of questions about Iraq, God, war, and religion. And traveling to the States and my brother who is a poet — I’ll talk more about him in a bit — inspired me to write poetry. I didn’t publish poetry in Baghdad, except through social media. First, I started writing in Arabic; I did not start writing in English until two years ago. I used to get positive feedback from my brother, who is the one who inspired me to write, and also from a few friends. And that helped me to keep on writing. (You can probably see some of Arabic poems on my Facebook page, still.) While in Baghdad, I did not perform or publish anything. The culture there is not encouraging and I was busy with journalism.
AL: What poets — in Arabic & in English — have inspired your interest in the form? Who do you read or listen to?
SA: After I started having a lot of questions (especially about God because I was a “good” Christian) and after I started doubting Christianity, I started talking to my brother Fady Alsaegh. Fady is, for me, the best poet in the Middle East. His writings and his book (Letters from the God of Fear) a poetry collection in Arabic is amazing. Reading Fady’s surreal poetry and the writers he recommended was a huge change of my writing style. So in Arabic I read for Fady Alsaegh, Badir Shakir Al-Sayab, Hassan Blasim, Kouthair Meery. I also read for French poets such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, who changed the way I think. I love Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski, and many others. All the people I read for were, as I called them, the surreal, abstract and dark writers. I always liked free verse because I understand it more. I have never liked the old poetry in both languages, the rhyming poetry in Arabic and English.
The language is hard and the ideas are not very good. I like poetry that is simple but striking, soft but revolutionary. Music helped my writings a lot. Without listening to all the underground Arabic music, rock and roll, grunge music, and psychedelic music, I cannot write as well. I love Sufi music, grunge music (such as Nirvana), and old rock and roll such as (The Doors). I also like old Iraqi music such as Maqam music (qubanchi and nathim al Gazaly).
AL: Were you involved in any poetry circles or groups in Baghdad? What poetry circles/groups have you been involved with in the US?
SA: I was a little bit involved through my brother, in Al-Hiwar Café, which gathered a lot of the educated people and the artists of Baghdad. But that’s about it. We visited a few times a month and we conversed with people of that community. In the US, I was involved in the Great Falls poetry scene, in which I won a couple slam competitions. I also was involved a little bit in the art, poetry and theater community in my school, the University of Great Falls. But through the connections that I have, I have been performing in different states, such as New York, Oklahoma, California, Pennsylvania. Most of these poetry shows are organized by NGOs, universities, and people who have interested in poetry both in Arabic and English.
AL: You link poetry & performance: theatre, video, live readings, slams. Are you interested in amoodi poetry? Popular poetry in Iraq?
SA: I think all of these are linked together through the strong ideas you have about the topic you are writing about, mixed with music of course. Both words and music can change and link everything together. In most of my poetry shows I do have live music backing me up. Theatre can have poetry and music inside of it.
[W]hen you have the idea and you have the right atmosphere (which we did not find in Iraq, because people there are not encouraging) you can link all these together in different formats and musicality. I’m not sure about popular poetry! But I don’t like a lot of main stream poetry and music. Mainstream poetry in Iraq has weak ideas and it is very repetitive. I like abstract things and popular are mostly not different and abstract. Amoodi poetry is like the old English poetry, some of it is good but you cannot really understand it because of the complex language. The ideas behind it, for me, are not very satisfying or deep. I like free verse where you can be more creative with ideas rather than focusing on ,for instance, if the words rhyme together or not.
AL: How does poetry change for you when performed? To what extent do you think your poetry “must” be performed vs. just read on a page? How do each of the different forms — video, stage, slam — change the poem?
The old style of poetry is mostly written and that is what our culture in the Middle East believes in, even if they read it in public, it is usually done in a formal way, with people wearing suits at podiums. But when I perform, I imagine Jim Morrison…
SA: The old style of poetry is mostly written and that is what our culture in the Middle East believes in, even if they read it in public, it is usually done in a formal way, with people wearing suits at podiums.
But when I perform, I imagine Jim Morrison when he used to include his poetry during a song, while live music is playing. It is more of the experience of music, words, and the audience as a whole. Poetry can be read and that is fine, but when you hear it by the poet himself, you can experience more feelings and a better level of intensity that you cannot experience by only reading the poem. I don’t think that there is a “must” in the idea. I believe in both reading and performing. Performing can bring some poems to different dimensions, especially if the performer is good and in that mixture, there is some music.
AL: What do you think about the contemporary poetry scene in Baghdad? Fadhil al-Azzawi has said that thoere “are no poets” left in Iraq.
I disagree that there “are not poets” left in Iraq. There are good poets left in Iraq, but the poetry community is not giving them a chance.
SA: I don’t think there is a great contemporary poetry scene in Baghdad, because if there is, the people who organize all the events could have given poets such as my brother who was praised by great Iraqi writers such as Hassan Blasim a better chance in publishing his poetry. I’m not very connected with the poetry scene in Iraq except for the good amount of knowledge from my brother and some experiences in the past. People there do not appreciate poetry as much, and the writers who are recognized won’t let other young ones enter the group (just like politics when the senior leaders who won’t let anyone in). I am not attacking the poets or the community; this is simply my opinion.
I disagree that there “are not poets” left in Iraq. There are good poets left in Iraq, but the poetry community is not giving them a chance. The poets and writers who had good luck left Iraq, unfortunately, to other countries where their writings are more appreciated. There are good poets in Iraq but they are being fought and there are good Iraqi poets who live in other countries.
AL: Why mix Arabic and English poems in the same collection? Are they cross-translated/bilingual or each language stands on its own?
SA: Only one section of my collection, Iraqi Headaches, will be original Arabic poetry, which I translated to English. The reason why is because I like writing in Arabic and I till this day write a lot in Arabic and I think it should be published too so people who speak the language can read it. Having both languages can give some of my readers (who are learning Arabic, or from Arabic heritage, or Arabic and English speakers) the chance to explore my writings in both languages, and to learn more about the style, the wording and the differences in the musicality of those languages. So my book is going to be a section of only English poetry, a short section of haikus in English, and another section of Arabic and English poetry.