Eighty Years of Saadi Youssef: ‘We Write To Make People Happy’

Issue 51 of Banipal magazine focuses on pioneering poet Saadi Youssef, who was born in 1934 near Basra:

10406794_787063274719696_7120575201548910508_nThe section of the magazine dedicated to the Iraqi poet ranges from translations of Youssef’s poetry to fellow writers’ memories to interviews to a brief apologia to academic work.

The full table of contents is available on Banipal’s website.

The magazine has previously dedicated issues to pioneering translator-writer Denys Johnson-Davies and to poet-scholar Adonis, also marking Adonis’s eightieth year. Issue 51 does, as promised, put “a spotlight on the life, works and huge influence on modern Arabic poetry of this renowned poet, presenting new poems in translation, essays and tributes in celebration of the extraordinary poetic achievements of Saadi Youssef [.]”

But the wide range of materials doesn’t feel as substantial as the Adonis or DJD tributes, and raises a few questions that it doesn’t then address. A more comprehensive overview could help those who know nothing about his poetry situate themselvesNonetheless, there are a number of illuminating moments.

In an interview with Stephen Watts and Cristina Viti, Youssef agrees that the well-known “America, America” was one of his best works. He also talks with Watts and Viti about the reason he writes:

“We write to make people happy…to help them see nature…to let people see wonderful colours…So I keep trying for this freshness in poetry…Even if our lives are really too difficult, in art I respect this fundamental message of survival, of art for fresh air, of poetry as an antidote to the gloom, the difficult times in our lives. When we carry a poem or a book of poems close to our flesh…we can go beyond the pain. That is how we make our lives richer.”

Syrian novelist Khalil Sweileh has a brief mid-stream apologia about “Saadi Youssef’s position with regard to the Arab Spring” which “placed him in the line of fire.” Sweileh says that, because of it, “instead of looking closely at the reasons behind his position, many who supported the revolutions have chosen to throw out his entire literary legacy.”

The rumblings — which aren’t quite clear from Sweileh’s note — stemmed from Youssef’s poem “What Arab Spring.” Sweileh is surely right to bring attention back to Youssef’s larger body of work, and that the reasons behind the poem should be of interest. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go into what those are, so the reader who isn’t privy to the debate is left a bit in the dark.

There are many more interesting moments to be found in the magazine, although for those not familiar with Youssef’s work, it may be difficult to see the wider picture.

You can get the issue at http://www.banipal.co.uk/.

Selections of Youssef’s poetry online:

Six poems translated by Antoon and Money on Jadaliyya – three and three more

Genesis 34,” trans. Antoon

Three on AGNI trans. Khaled Mattawa

“A Vision,” trans. Salih Altoma

Solos on the Oud,” trans. Mattawa

“The New Baghdad”  trans. Mattawa

“Poetry”  trans. Mattawa

Silence” trans. Mattawa

Departure ‘82” trans. Mattawa

The Jazz Corner” trans. Mattawa

A Shiver” trans. Mattawa

Koofa” trans. Mattawa

The Bird’s Last Flight” trans. Mattawa

Five Crosses” trans. Mattawa

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