Lit & Found: On Humor in Poetry and Translation

For those who missed the online launch of Mona Kareem’s I Will Not Fold These Maps, with translator Sara Elkamel and editor Nashwa Nasreldin, there were several interesting discussions: on the figure of the poet-translator, on the relationship between friendship and love poetry, and a long talk about humor. Rare is the collection of poetry that is serious and generative, but can also make a reader laugh out loud. As part of the event, we asked Mona about the role of playful humor in her poetry.

Mona Kareem. Screenshot from the launch of I Will Not Fold These Maps.

“Humor came later into my poetry,” Kareem said. “I’d always thought that it’s unseemly to joke, and also maybe wondered: How do you even put humor into poetry? And I think the poets that I was reading, I was not attracted to their humor, maybe. A lot of the humor that is in Arabic poetry is political satire, so it was a very specific genre that I wasn’t practicing. But then over time I started to realize that there is a power to humor in really every genre, as a relief, but also it allows you to approach subjects and experiences that are very difficult and violent. If you are trying to avoid reproducing violence or trauma as it is, if you are trying to distill something in it that evokes something that makes it relatable, or accessible to a stranger—to make it vulnerable—humor plays a beautiful role there. 

“I remember maybe the first poem that I wrote with humor. Funnily enough, I wrote it in English. And it was in 2017, when I was searched at the airport and felt very humiliated, and I wrote the poem—it’s a very short poem—and right away I felt myself mocking the policewoman who searched me. And it felt like I was able to take something back by mocking her, and somehow I felt that I liberated myself from that awful experience. The memory stays, of course, but I don’t have to only remember it through her lens, what she had done to me. I was able to reverse it, in a way.” 

“Before that poem, humor would show up more as sarcasm,” she said. “We are ok to use dark comedy, because we think that’s intelligent. It was very subtle, and I never embraced it, I never allowed myself to explore it. But after that moment when I saw there was something therapeutic about it, I was just like, Oh! I can do this all the time. I can use humor as a way of, so to speak, breaking the fourth wall and making a connection with the reader. 

“You see it in my essays as well, where maybe I might do it in a snarky way, but really I began to pay attention to all my favorite writers and noticing how humor generates something—it just really shifts relations. Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable, but in a good way. Uncomfortable in a way that brings them to question some conceptions, or even aesthetic expectations that they have.”

Sara Elkamel then talked about the process of translating the humor of the poems, moving it from the Arabic into an English.

“I think what I’ve done is sometimes to extend the qualities in the language that are associated with humor—so for example, hyperbole. In one unpublished poem that I really, really love, its title is “Absence without Arms,” so already the title is really intense. There’s one stanza that says: In your absence I did nothing unnatural; I archived my dreams. And I don’t remember what the word for archived was in the Arabic, but I feel like archived is such a heavy word to then contrast with what came before, so maybe I sometimes just use the bigger words to create more of a contrast.

“And then also Mona makes up these occupations, so there’s a Death Policeman, there’s Disease Police, and I think maybe one option I could’ve used with these terms was to use “policeman of death” and not capitalize, for example, but I preserve it and capitalize Policeman and Death to make it seem like an occupation, to extend the humorous tone. I’m still experimenting with how to preserve the playfulness.”

You can find a reading of one of the humorous poems in the collection at around 40:00, or watch the whole launch event on YouTube: