Poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha on Her Relationship Status with English: ‘It’s Complicated’

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, translator and poet, author of the 2017 collection Water & Salt, talked about her poetry, translating from Arabic, and her community of poets:

You write, in “Copybooks”: “But best of all, they taught us poetry. / They tucked gleaming verses into our hearts, / and let them sleep for years.” Who are the poets you first remember reading and building on, your relationship to their words, what they gave to you (and what you wanted to in turn give by writing your own poems)? Are there poems you still have memorized from childhood? 

Photo courtesy of Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: It’s difficult to limit it to just one. My childhood was steeped in poetry. Memorizing and discussing poems was a central and prominent part of education. And it wasn’t limited to school—poems swirled all around us. They were sung on radio stations (some of the Fairouz and Um Kolthom standards lived rich lives as poems before they became songs). People around me quoted poems as part of daily conversation. In elementary school, one of my favorite games involved tossing lines of memorized poems back and forth, you say one that ends in a word with the final letter aleph, for example, and I respond with a line that begins with that same letter, and so on. Like most Arab children of my generations and those before, I memorized lines of the great desert poets Antara, Umru’ul Qais. I’m always writing و لقد ذكرت و الرماح نواهل مني on the edges of notebook pages. Desert Ode Doodlings…

My grandfather, Husni Fariz, was the poet laureate of Jordan. I used to relish the chance to sit at his desk and “write poems,” terrible poems in Arabic, ones that tried desperately to rhyme. Several of his poems are still tucked away in memory.

Because poetry was in the air all around me, reading it closely for myself, outside of school and study, was a separate pleasure. The intimacy of the poem on the page was an experience I discovered in high school. I read Mahmoud Darwish, beyond the poems that were popularized and sung (Identity Card, for example) and fell in love with his vocabulary and his cadence. From his poems I learned about compression and time travel, about echo—how a sound pattern can thread through a poem and deepen meaning and resonance.

I also moved a lot as a child, in and out of Arab and American school systems, so my relationship with various literary traditions was interrupted or enriched, depending on your perspective. I was introduced to very few English-language poems by women in middle school and high school. My sense of English-language poetry was that, unlike Arabic, which was peopled by the lines of Al-Khansaa’ and Fadwa Touqan and Nazek al Malaika, English-language poetry was the stately business of old white men. Some of whose work I loved: Robert Frost, William Butler Yeats, and this one Ted Hughes poem that I love-hated, that haunted me in 10th grade: “Griefs for Dead Soldiers.” Then there was Naomi Shihab Nye—her work was well-spring and mirror and open fields. I still don’t have the words for what it means to read her poetry. In college, in Seattle, I found—or was found by—the work of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, H.D., among others. Their work changed my life—how I read, how I write.

I have been reading a book by Dunya Mikhail in which she writes:  “Where do you want to go? America?” one of them said. “But don’t forget, poetry only exists in the margins over there.” For that friend, nothing could be worse than marginalizing poetry! What does it take for you to maintain a life of poetry and poetic community in the US? 

LKT: The good news is that you can make a life of poetry if you want to. It takes work, but anything worthwhile does, I suppose. At my reading in Dubai last year a young poet asked: Do you think we are living in a golden age of Arab American poetry? I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but there is certainly a more visible community of poets that I’m privileged to belong to who are creating, lavishing readers with exceptional work. And this is true beyond the Arab American community of poets, of course.

I’m still learning how to use social media as much as possible without getting overwhelmed to stay in touch with and aware of poetry that feeds me and also that challenges me. I’ve learned that finding actual physical spaces where poetry is read aloud, where poets can be together to work and to celebrate the work is vital for me.

Has translation (the act of, and the close reading it entails) affected how you write, how you see words, your own and others?

LKT: Absolutely. All my reading happens in the liminal space between the languages that claim me. I am bilingual—I can’t really tell which I learned first, Arabic or English, and I’ve studied French since middle school. Maybe that’s why translation seems like such a comfortable space, openly engaging with layers and histories of meaning.

How did you come in particular to translating I Am a Guest on This Earth? And do you continue to be interested in translating poetry?

LKT: I first read a few of Faiza’s poems online, and I was struck by her voice and the work she was doing to embody the experiences of war and survival from a woman’s perspective, from inside of a woman’s experience. I wanted to translate the poems because I don’t think that voice is available to English language readers very often. We get to hear about women as casualties of war in the Arab world, we get to hear about Arab women, not often from them.

Have you considered translation lately? What would make you want to return, what do you think it can/could potentially bring to your own work? 

LKT: YES. I’m also considering translation and mulling over ideas. Translation is braided into my writing and my world view. I don’t even think of it in that term anymore—literary travel, literary citizenship are phrases that come to mind.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In “Dhayaa’,” from Water & Salt, I was enchanted by the interplay of the soundscapes of dhayaa’ and loss. (It’s also interesting to see dhayaa’ rendered in Latin letters instead of ضياع.) You have, for instance, “In English loss sounds to me like one shuddering blow to the heart,/ all sorrow and absence hemmed in,/ falling into a neatly rounded hole,/ such tidy finality[.”

I was interested in the way the poem takes its position right away, with the opening line, “In my language,” and contrasts it with English. Is this something you feel in the context of this poem, or more generally, that Arabic is a language that belongs to you, while English is a language at some distance?

LKT: Thank you. So much of what interests me and what I think was happening in “Dhayaa’” is about the relationship between sound and meaning, the path into language through sound. My relationship status with English continues to be: It’s complicated. The distance doesn’t come from me, I think. I’ve been a diligent student and good citizen for a long-time. But English is the language of power and colonizers and it’s impossible to pretend that isn’t present while writing. And maybe, too, there’s the complication of how English has become the language of my poems, through time and distance and the various impacts of power (State, Academic, etc) on my life.

Again in, “My English Teacher Told Me,” there is a contrast between English & Arabic that (interestingly!) takes place entirely in English, yet manages to evoke a sort of precise-schoolmarm English on the one hand, and a more gently unfolding, older, more meandering Arabic (although also by using English words). How do you navigate the rhythms and grammars of Arabic and English as you write? Do you ever write in Arabic, as a part of your process?

LKT: I like to say I try to write in Arabic. But there are the facts of one’s life—a university education in English, time spent among the books and lives of English-speaking worlds. It would be wonderful to pretend one doesn’t take place at the expense of another. This is why I majored in Comparative Literature as an undergraduate—I wanted a way to be among all the texts and traditions that held sway for me, not to choose a singular perspective, not to look out onto human experience through only one window. Some of the emotional weights assigned to Arabic and to English in “My English Teacher” likely have to do with power, with belonging, with welcome and rejection, too.

There is a wonderful delicateness to the names in “Mountain, Stone,” contrasted by a namelessness, and a stone. The poem begins with Shaymaa’ al-Sabbagh: “Do not name your daughters Shaymaa,/ courage will march them/ into the bullet-path of dictators.”

Did the poem come out of a particular name?

LKT: I hear Arabic names for both meaning and sound. I cannot simply hear Raneem and not be conscious that it means “the laughter of angels.” Because the name introduces Raneem but also immediately tells a story of her parents’ hopes and dreams, of their imagination and associations. The name brings the world of Raneem along with it, as it locates her. And I am interested in how our stories are erased, how our histories are palimpsests, often narrated in news reports (English, Arabic, whatever other languages) without our names. I also approached this poem as a parent, one who labored over the privilege and responsibility of naming her daughters. I wanted to re/name these Arab children, write them back into life, and also to eulogize them and us—our people, our language, our cities. The name that began this poem was Shaymaa’, the young Alexandrine poet who was shot to death at a peaceful protest marking the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Proud woman—that was the name her parents gave her. And it is such a profoundly Arabic name, it seems to rise from the desert itself, it can hardly be pronounced in anything but the classical, it demands that you say that hamza at the end, doesn’t it? Imagine her parents, whose Shaymaa’ walked with garland of roses, and was then taken from them. Each of the names in the poem correspond to people, children, who have died in Egypt, Syria, Palestine.

But how can you be sure people are imagine-saying Shaymaa’ correctly? Is it ever a consideration that the Anglophone-only reader gets the rhythm or sound of a poem…. wrong? If they are hearing Shaymaa’ al-Sabbagh’s name as “Shae-ma”? Zeina Hashem Beck, I believe, has a short pronunciation guide at the front of Louder than Hearts, although I don’t know if that changes the reader’s experience. 

LKT: Here I don’t mean that all readers need to pronounce Shaymaa’ as I hear it. I’m more focused on how the sound I know of her name drives or is in conversation with its meaning for me, is as much a source of the poem as the ideas and images. I also don’t think of myself as writing exclusively or even primarily for Anglophone-only readers. The world is rich with multiple Englishes. English is the language of so many non-Anglos who have been colonized into absorbing it. I could go on here—this is what I explored in the critical thesis I wrote for my MFA, a notion I call “expanded English.”

I loved the unexpected end of “Instructions for Making Arabic Coffee,” the twist at the end into fortune-telling and the enormous potential for loss, opened and then left. I suppose in the beginning I thought it was going to be something like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” but this advice is gentle, until opening up into fortune-telling…. Hm, not sure there’s a question in there.

LKT: Ma3lesh, I’ll take the compliment, too. The ending surprised me when I wrote it, which is poetry’s ultimate gift. I didn’t know where I was going when I began, just meandering in the voice of that Arab auntie with all her instructions, and trying to decipher the significance of those instructions. Coffee is served every day, but also with such ceremony, to mark beginnings and endings of many magnitudes, so maybe the poem had to chase after another realm.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. ​You can follow her @LKTuffaha