Saturday at P21 Gallery, Libyan poet Farrah Fray will be speaking about poetry, memory and contested personal history. Fray — a writer, activist, and poet living in London — has just published her first collection of poems The Scent of My Skin:
Ahead of the event, Fray shared some of her thoughts on translation, poetry, and collaborative art.
Can you talk a little more about what you mean about “Libya as a multi-modal piece of literature” and how your personal narratives map to the larger, collective one(s)?
Farrah Fray: Multimodality is a quality often described as “characterized by several different modes of activity or occurrence”. In literature, multimodality combines different modes of describing things. You don’t just get the written text, you get a visual, auditory, or sensory element that interacts with you as well, and that almost says, you need to be evoked in every way; or this story can only be told by combining everything you have. I think that’s how I feel about Libya’s own story, particularly navigating through construed narratives. The work I do with Khabar Keslan about Libya is quite multimodal, we try to give it as much dimension as we can.
My personal narratives map onto larger, collective ones in a very everpresent way; but the relationship between the two is constantly being mediated. I suppose they form a part of collective narratives; but they will always influenced by those same narratives too.
How does the Khabar Keslan project work? Did you get this photo and write toward it, or did you write your poem and they matched it with a visual work? In what ways is it collaborative?
FF: My project with Khabar Keslan aims to shed a light on Libya’s fragmented identity and document stories related to Libya. I didn’t write towards the image, but rather, a theme. The way Khabar Keslan works is they produce a theme for each issue centred with a word, which you write around. The word for ‘Libya is blue’ was ‘Source’.
As for the art, in that poem it totally came from them! Usually I send them a pitch about my poetry and the accompanying artwork, and then discuss it before continuing with the artist chosen. We had something else lined up but I wasn’t completely sure; and then they sent me the image of the blue peugeot and it just really worked.
I’d say it’s very collaborative; we look for artists together and discuss the different directions we could go in. But it’s also collaborative in the sense that they give you the first sentence of your work by giving you the word, which you write around. So I write my poem towards the themes chosen by them. That approach gives me a sense of being able to write about those themes, and that’s very important. We need to believe that we our memories are part of something bigger that can be understood by others.
How do you see the relationship between history and poetry? Poetry once was the primary way histories were kept…and sometimes now people say that reading a novel is a “truer” way of accessing history than histories. (Usually more entertaining, in any case.) But what’s the relationship between your poetry & history (and History)?
FF: I think poetry can be seen as a sort of personal history; it allows us to contribute to history without always relying on physical or palpable things, things which aren’t always as stable as we think. Poetry is a really intimate way of documenting events, and most importantly, poetry doesn’t use time or context to make a point; it uses thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Sometimes, we need those thoughts and feelings to fight propaganda, to retell history, and I think that’s a profound thing. Poetry is the most raw product of the things that happen to us, so I think it’s a very honest history.
For instance, to return to “Libya is Blue,” it juxtaposes figures different moments (Ghaddafi, Omar Mukhtar) but in the way they are juxtaposed in influencing us. These sorts of leaping between times and places seem like something poetry can do that narrative histories can’t. Or don’t, anyway.
I completely agree! Funnily enough, this poem was actually influenced by a quote by Karl Marx that goes; “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Marx’s quote in and of itself documented history in a way that narrative histories couldn’t; commenting on a course of time that seems so personal and public to us all. Poetry allows us to jump between different locations unconstrained by place or time. Time and place both become familiar despite their temporal unfamiliarity, and I think that’s a true history; it shows how things affect us in a very visceral way.
How does translation inform your work? Do you translate poetry?
FF: Translation is always in the backdrop of my work; it constantly allows me to think of all the ways in which something can be conveyed. Even looking at the nuances and similarities between languages allows you to be braver in your choices, to truly believe in the versatility of our own forms of expression. I don’t translate poetry, but I have an exciting project coming up where I will be translating poetry this year.
What do you mean when you say “contested personal history”?
FF: I suppose by contested personal history I’m referring to how I and others perceive my own history, and the ways in which the personal experience can be lost when it is placed under the umbrella of different discourses and rhetorics of culture. The way we see things is always changing, depending on the experiences we face and the things we choose to believe in. Our thoughts change, our actions change, but we do not lose our memories and experiences. And I think that by saying contested personal history I mean separating it from collective history, allowing it to be different and unexpected, so that we can keep our memories.
Your poetry works with a rhythm and a near-rhyme that sometimes make them feel like they come from a sound or spoken-word tradition. What is the “language that breaks promises” (in Karina)? Which promises?
FF: When I wrote “Karina” it was during a time where I was really let down by Libya. It was towards my last year of university, and I was reading an academic book about how Arabs are the custodians of Arabic, a sacred language. I began thinking about the sanctity of Arabic and the way it is used to justify certain ideologies or concepts which many Libyans don’t agree with. Gaddafi made Arabic Libya’s standard language, and with it not only marginalized Libya’s indigenous people but also justified a newly established regressive way of living. When my mother would tell me stories about how Libya was growing up or how women were treated differently, it makes me think of what Libyans wanted from the revolution and the promises we’d all had. Karina is a friend I had met at university here in London who reminded me of old memories of Libya, before 2011. I guess what I mean by broken promises is promises of a better future, better years to come.
How do you see the relationship between your poetry and the exhibition’s larger title “Retracing a Disappearing Landscape”?
FF: I think the exhibition’s title couldn’t be more fitting with what I try to achieve through my poetry. Libya as a landscape is disappearing; changing before our very eyes. I try to document as much of the past and present as I can, trace Libya back to where things started, in the hopes of understanding more about why things are the way that they are.
Why did you decide to add a footnote to the poem “Meche” in your most recent collection? What’s the relationship between poem & footnote?
FF: I decided to add a footnote to meche because of its particular significance in Libya. A simple google search will show you what meche is, but the meanings and connotations attached to it aren’t really spoken about, so to people outside of Libya it might not be understood as fully. Most of all, I wanted to add the footnote because meche is not only a trend but a sort of rite of passage constructed through different ideals of beauty and narratives. The footnote connects the personal and collective history of meche; expanding on the poem and the feelings left behind by it.
What poetry have you been reading lately?
FF: I’ve been reading a lot of poetry from Melissa Lee Houghton’s “Sunshine”. It’s a book of prose, memoir, and poetry moving through the author’s adult life as a woman and the experiences she goes through. It’s a very lacerating book; she writes unabashedly, the human experience is of utmost importance in Sunshine, and places, memories, and people are all interrogated softly in her poetry. She also talks about the austerity of Britain, and I think that’s a really important thing to the world right now; we all view the UK in a certain way, and the truth is all countries go through things, sometimes impacting us in profound deep ways. Whether in Libya or the UK, the human experience is something to be vented, and Melissa does it so beautifully.
“Weaving the Fabric of our Fate” with Farrah Fray begins at 2:30 at P21. Ticketing information is available at the P21 website.