In 1971, the great, maverick Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) published a single issue of an English-language literary anthology that he called Tigris. The magazine—a whisper on the literary landscape that appeared three years after Boulus’s arrival in the US—brings together work by Boulus and several of his literary friends, in translation by Boulus and Etel Adnan.
This slender publication was recently re-issued with an introduction by the scholar Salih J Altoma and includes a conversation about Boulus between Altoma and the late, brilliant Lebanese poet-artist Etel Adnan. It is shared here with Altoma’s permission.
Clearly, Boulus never aimed to become a magazine mogul. As Etel Adnan told Altoma in a 2013 email, sent via her partner Simone Fattal, she met Boulus after he arrived in Beirut in the late 60s, at Yusuf al-Khal’s place. “Sargon was very young,” she wrote. “He had those wonderful black eyes and big smile, looking so real, so innocent. I liked him immediately.”
After Boulus flew from Beirut to New York, Adnan helped him make it out to San Francisco, met him at the airport, put him up, and helped him find a job at the Bechtel Company. She wrote, in her reflections:
“When Sargon came to San Francisco, I introduced him to Violette Yacoub, an Iraqi ‘Ashuri [Assyrian] like him, with the idea that she could help him. Few months later he told me that she was looking for a grant for him, and that he had to show that he was involved in some cultural activity, so he decided to start ‘Tigris’ and he asked me to publish Jebu as the main poem. I didn’t ask about who or what organization were giving him the grant. But he did receive the grant and stopped publishing ‘Tigris’ after that.”
Thus, as Altoma notes in his introduction, Tigris was not an end in itself, but rather a temporary solution to the lifelong problem of how to devote oneself to poetry across different countries, eras, and styles: how to live poetry. Yet, in so doing, the small anthology includes significant work: Etel Adnan’s “Jebu,” translated by Adnan, and poetry by Boulus, Fouad Rifkah, Yusuf al-Khal, Mouayad al-Rawi, and Riadh Fakhouri, all in Boulus’s translations, as well as a work by Ankido, a “street-activist poet-café worker of importance to the Palestinian Liberation Movement.”
Altoma re-issued the work in an effort to make the magazine available to Boulus’s Arab readers and researchers, noting that the magazine was available only in a handful of libraries in the United States.