By Tugrul Mende
In her forthcoming book, Huda Fakhreddine — literary translator and Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Pennsylvania — examines the shape and history of the Arabic prose poem, beginning as it took shape in the mid-twentieth century. Fakhreddine particularly examines work by Adonis, Muhammad al-Maghut, Salim Barakat, and Wadi Sa’adeh, among others.
As she examines different poets and trends, it becomes clear that this is not a homogenous group of poets but rather a diverse and multidimensional production.
Tugrul Mende: What was the spark that led you to start writing The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice?
Huda Fakhreddine: I am interested in Arabic poetry, and I try to follow new publications and new trends and movements. I am interested in modernizing movements in the Arabic tradition whether they are premodern or modern. In my first book, Metapoesis in the Arabic Tradition, I focused on the muhdath poets, or the Abbassid modernizers, a group of poets who went against the poetic status quo of their times and who wrote poetry that was scandalous and shocking in terms of meaning, rhetoric, figures of language without necessarily breaking away on the level of form. I describe in the new book, The Arabic Prose Poem: Poetic Theory and Practice, a similarly radical intervention in the 20th century, which began by doing away with the formal marker of poetry in Arabic: meter. I have an interest in such moments of crisis or radical change in the Arabic poetry tradition.
TM: How would you define a prose poem?
HF: In the Arabic context, what is distinctive about it is its claim to be poetry without any metrical consideration and this is what makes it different from the Arabic free verse poem (qasidat al-taf’ila) which was launched in the late 1940s. What’s interesting about the prose poem, and makes it theoretically and conceptually appealing to me, is that it is hard to define. It can be whatever you want it to be. Every poet or collective of poets comes up with their own definition of what it can be. I think the defining characteristic of the Arabic prose poem (and I think this applies to the prose poem in any other language, but specifically in Arabic) is that it pushes limits and rejects limits, whatever they are.
Many of the theorists of the prose poem would say that it is poetry spilling out of restrictions and definitions, and yet they go on to attempt to define it. There is a deep paradox and this is where I think the theoretical potential comes from. This is why it is an interesting problem to look at and this is where the poetic potentials are great but also the risk of bad poetry to be written as well. It’s an interesting experiment which is still ongoing. The project or the idea of the prose poem was introduced as an abstraction in the 1960s, but I think its consequences are still unfolding, even if poets who write prose poetry today are not as theoretically conscious as their predecessors might have been.
It’s no longer a statement to say “I am a prose poet,” especially among the younger generation. Generally speaking, I think it is a default that most younger poets in Arabic write prose poetry. It’s always important to note that there are poets in Arabic who still write classical poetry, free verse poetry as well as the prose poem. The different forms coexists but the more dominant one when it comes to numbers and publication is the one that gives up meter.
TM: How difficult is it for you, as a translator, to take this poetry and render it in English?
HF: It’s always a problem when you are translating because you have to reconcile with losing a lot and then decide on what’s the one thing we will try to preserve. Especially when writing a book about poetic form, you need a remnant of form in the translation. It would be ideal if the translation can reflect some formal elements or their effect. In my work on the prose poem, I tried to read more contemporary American prose poetry and at least try to capture some kind of tone or mood. It’s not a matter of imposing a tradition on another, but I tried to get a different feel for these poems. When I can’t recreate meter or lack of meter in a poem I try to signal its effect in English in a different way. In fact, for those of us who study Arabic poetry in other languages, ultimately all our translations are prose poetry. If you translate a mu’allaqa (pre-Islamic poem), and you are not one of these poets who are going to insist on recreating meter by replacing it with an English meter, ultimately the poem is in prose.
TM: What made you jump from the Abbasid age to 20th century poetry? Why the Arabic prose poem?
HF: I think poetry transcends time. A genuinely poetic approach to the study of poetry is one that breaks itself from historicism. Older poets are not necessarily less revolutionary than contemporary poets. Chronology is not always the best approach to poetic traditions. Great poetry remains urgent despite history. I don’t see my work on the prose poem as a leap. I see it as an insistence on studying Arabic poetry tradition as a continuum and a conversation that exists among the poets outside time. Poetry can be received in different ways in different times but it should remain relevant if it is poetry and can stand the test of time.
TM: Do you think qasidat al-nathr is still a novelty “which is somewhat out of place”?
HF: The prose poets presented themselves as doing something unprecedented, they call it, at least in the early phases, a new kind and a new genre. They were intentionally breaking away from something. However, the prose poem developed, in its most successful examples, by engaging with the poetic memory of Arabic if you don’t want to call it Arabic tradition or heritage. Engagement can take different forms including rejection something or seeking to transform it. There are great examples of such engagement in the works of Adonis or Qassim Haddad or Bassam Hajjar or Salim Barakat who is constantly interrogating this tradition.
I don’t want to generalize but I think every movement that presents something new will at some point engage in a new way with the poetic heritage. The Nahda movement did that. One of the most prominent and well-known Nahda figure Ahmad Shawqi (1870-1932) did this in his work and he created conversations between himself and Abbasid poets, he was preserving the golden moment but was intervening as well and bringing it to the present. I think the Abbasid poets did the same with their predecessors. I think the prose poets do the same even if it looks like they are rejecting and breaking away completely. I think poets can’t break entirely from their tradition even if they make that claim. They have echoes in their heads, and they have to engage with them in some way and most successful poetry come from such conversations with the past, no matter how confrontational they may be.
TM: What role did the journal Shi’r play in fostering and conceptualizing the prose poem, vis a vis Arabic poetry?
HF: They definitely played an important role, because it was the platform that adopted this new form or this new way of writing. When it was founded in 1957, they were deliberately positioning themselves against the earlier Iraqi brand of modernism theorized by Nazik al-Mala’ika (1923-2007) and others. They were creating this other camp that was presenting a different proposal. Adonis and Yusuf al-Khal (1917-1987) fostered and introduced young poets who were writing in different ways. It’s also good to remember that poets who were associated with Sh’ir broke eventually off and each created and cultivated their own way. I am a little reluctant to reduce a movement or a trend to one journal of group of poets. This is definitely helpful in narrating a literary history of the movement. The journal Shi’r was a significant station, but the prose poem as a project and a practice developed beyond the Shi’r stage.
But, to be fair, Shi’r did introduce the prose poem and built a platform and helped circulate it. The journal played a very important role in translating poems and theory especially from French and English. There are few books that focus on the role of the journal – Otared Haydar’s book The Prose Poem and the Journal Sh’ir is a very good resource on the journal and its launching and circumstances, as well as Robyn Creswell’s City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, which focuses on Adonis’ role in the journal among other things.
TM: What other archives or material did you use?
HF: In this book, unlike my first book, many of the poets I am writing about are alive. I worked with the Abbasid poets, but it was hard to get to them. Here, I was lucky that I met some of the poets and interviewed them and got feedback on their creative processes. I was interested, as you will see in the later chapters of the book, to work on contemporary poets who were primarily not studied before, at least in English, and who might be relatively established in the Arabic poetic world. The book begins with the problem of the prose poem in the 1960s but I think it’s persisting. It developed and changed and it does inform the way we look at how Arabic poetry is written today. It’s important for academics working on Arabic literature who are outside the Arab world. Things are not as neatly categorized as we imagined them to be in our surveys and literary histories. They are entangled and developing and we have to keep up. The most enjoyable part of working on the book is that I learned a lot. I felt that I am more in touch with poets and what they are doing in the Arab world.
TM: In writing this book, whose work did you decide to include and whose to leave out?
HF: I have a problem with those of us in academic circles constantly speaking under the illusion that we can study all the Arabic poetry in a survey or literary history. My purpose is not to write a survey; I don’t want the poets I chose to be all of the entirety of the prose poem project in Arabic. I hope that I made that clear in the book. There are poets who were not included, who might be just as important as those included. I chose poets whose careers are telling of a dimension of the Arabic prose poem which is so difficult to define, and I tried to reflect in this book about it. This book is just one angle. The subject is broader and I am hopeful that my book will trigger other studies.
Surveys are an easy and often misleading way of representing traditions, especially when we think about the power dynamics of World Literature. Some traditions are marginalized and they are pushed aside and labeled as “other.” It is easier to reduce those into surveys or small introductions and that is what bothers me in Arabic literature in general, especially in poetry. My book is one take and one angle of the Arabic prose poem and there are many different angles that still need to be explored.
TM: Why do you think it’s so important to work on this genre?
HF: I think for poets who are practicing in Arabic, it might not be such a pressing issue whether they call their writings qasidas or free-verse poems or prose poems or just text. For readers, critics, and academics who approach poetry from a theoretical angle, it might still be interesting, especially if you place the contributions of contemporary poets in the continuum of this tradition. The prose poem remains an interesting and relevant theoretical problem.
Meter might have meant something beyond just an element of poetry; it might have said something about identity, belonging, cultural memory and history for an earlier generation. It is not necessarily that for younger generations. There are new issues which are moving and motivating younger poets like Emad Abu Saleh or Golan Haji or Samer Abu Hawwash, for example. My book arrives at the present moment of Arabic poetry where other imperatives are operative and new relationships are forged with the Arabic tradition and other non-Arabic traditions. This is why the book ends with a chapter on the poetics of translation and multilingualism, two informing aspects of writing in the 21st century.
TM: Can you give us a sample poem?
Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.
Fakhreddine’s essays on Jacket2