Nathalie Handal on Her First Writing Assignment from Mahmoud Darwish, Her New Collection, and the Role of Translation

By Tuğrul Mende

This October, poet Nathalie Handal brought out a new collection of poems, Volo, with Diode EditionsThe chapbook collection is two long poems, in conversation with two North American poets, that interrogate questions of justice:  “Who dies? Who gets to survive?”; “When we walked away / did the sun’s rays on the bench / bend the beauty of the world?”; “How else can / we liberate / what’s been burning / for centuries?”; “What do we find / at the edge of the last gaze / of the heart?”

This conversation will be joined, tomorrow, by a conversation with Handal’s English-to-Arabic translator, Ahmad M. Ahmad.

Tuğrul Mende: Can you talk about your journey with Volo

Nathalie Handal: When Mahmoud Darwish died August 2008, I was in Queens, New York. I thought about the first writing assignment he gave me, which was to interview Allen Ginsberg for his magazine Al Karmel

Allen died a month or so after, in 1997, and it was one of his last interviews—if not the last. Needless to say, the experience had an impact on me. Mahmoud admired Allen’s poem “Kaddish.” I began to write a poem entitled “After Kaddish,” and finished a draft in February 2012, the same month I had interviewed Ginsberg 15 years earlier. “After Kaddish” was published in August 2018 in Guernica magazine, 10 years after Darwish’s death.

Rome is one of my home cities, and whenever I need the Mediterranean Sea, I take the train to inimitable Naples. On one of my trips, while at The University of Naples for the launch of the Italian edition of my poetry book The Lives of Rain (translated by Martha Cariello), Professor Marina Vitale made interesting remarks about the views of Bethlehem throughout the world, as well as the American poet H.D.’s Bethlehem. Obviously, my Bethlehem in Palestine is not H.D.’s Bethlehem in Pennsylvania. This exchange triggered the poem “Téssera,” which is a loosely based conversation with H.D., especially her Trilogy, addressing mythology, war and love, life and death, and the spirit of women.

During the height of the pandemic, Alice Quinn asked me to contribute to Together in a Sudden Strangeness: Americas Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, 2020). She selected “Voyages,” which came from the quartet “Téssera.” She later suggested I get it published as a chapbook.

I always loved Diode Editions chapbooks, and submitted Volo, which included these two long poems in conversation with two American poets. 

TM: How do the poems relate to the title, Volo

NH: Volo in Latin means to fly, will, wish, want, and is anchored in the questions the poems ask: “Who dies? Who gets to survive?”; “When we walked away / did the sun’s rays on the bench / bend the beauty of the world?”; “How else can / we liberate / what’s been burning / for centuries?”; “What do we find / at the edge of the last gaze / of the heart?”

TM: Can you speak about H.D.’s Bethlehem and your Bethlehem. What was it like to ruminate on these two Bethlehems?

NH: Growing up, when I said I was from Bethlehem, the only reference people usually had was the little town where Jesus Christ was born. A place in the bible, but not made of flesh and bones. When I was in the United States, people usually thought I meant the one in Pennsylvania. In other words, H.D.’s Bethlehem, along the Lehigh River, split between Northampton and Lehigh counties. Obviously, the two places have nothing in common besides their famous name. 

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Bethlehem, Palestine. Both: Wikimedia Commons.

But when one is speaking about H.D., and Bethlehem is uttered, it is difficult not to think of her poem “The Walls Do Not Fall,” which is part of her Trilogy. The poem begins with the speaker walking through London after a bombing during World War II. The wrecked city reminds the speaker of the ancient ruins of Egypt or Greece. The poem is about war, women, myth, literature and the role of the writer. It is partly inspired by her visit to the ruins of ancient Thebes in 1923, and speaks of what isn’t destroyed. It is precisely that hope at the core of the poem that is most moving. And it reminds me of how hope is weaved in my Bethlehem. 

TM: Tell us about the stunning drawing by Molly Crabapple in Volo.

NH: Molly is one of the most intriguing and important artists. To watch her draw is like watching everything come alive—what we can and cannot see. I wondered what she would create after reading these two poems. I love the artwork: a woman sitting on a New York City fire-escape with the Mediterranean Sea below. Perfect.

TM: Why do you choose poems as a vehicle to express yourself, what draws you to this genre

NH: We chose each other. Poetry is a faithful and generous lover. A poem is a nomad that never leaves home.

TM: You speak many languages—how do you see translation in your creative process?

NH: I have been translating all my life—the cultures, emotions, and silences between languages. Moving between cities globally, translation became the beating heart of communication and coexistence. Later, when I started my journey with literary translation, I realized my earlier experiences translating the other dimensions of language helped me enter the texts differently and more intensely. 

I write in English, but I constantly and naturally translate the emotional, cultural, and musical beats of other linguistic landscapes into my work. 

 TM: The Arabic translation of your Selected Works 2005-2019 was recently published in a translation by Ahmad M. Ahmad. How did that come into being? 

NH: Ahmad started translating my work for newspapers and magazines, and later told me he wanted to put together a book of Selected Works. What is a poet to say to such generosity! I was moved and honored. I trusted he could enter the worlds of my work. And continue to be intrigued by the cosmos he has created in Arabic with my poems. 

TM: Do you look at your work differently in another language as it is being rebuilt? Or how would you describe the relationship after it’s translated? 

NH: Every project is a different journey. Every language a different passion. Every book a different lover. I live each relationship openly. I allow myself to be uncomfortable, transported, surprised, questioned and mesmerized. 

TM: Do you think translated poems have the same tone and feeling as the original poem? 

NH: As long as the poems have the same heart….

Every language carries a world, so a translated work will inevitably experience a transformation. That can be magical. And if you are lucky enough to have a skilled translator, their art will extend the body of your poems. 

TM: What other projects are you currently working on? 

NH: I am working on a book set in Sicily. It’s an extension of my collection Poet in Andalucia. In a time of amplified wars and religious and national separatism, leading to mass displacement of peoples and an increase in migration, the Mediterranean Sea has become a transit for peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, en route to the shores of southern Europe. 

The Mediterranean of medieval and early modern eras was multicultural and religiously plural as Christian, Muslims, Jews, and others interacted at various levels from literary to economic. And of course, I have always explored coesistenza in my work.

I see myself in Sicily’s crossroads. 


Tuğrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.