“…the political fact is that Arab lives occupy far more space in the imaginations of Americans than we’d like…” – An Interview With Hayan Charara
Hayan Charara is a poet of multiple vocabularies, be it through the varied syntax in his work, the forms, and deep interludes between each stanza in a poem. When I first read These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, I knew there is going to be much to converse about the book. We explored working across interdisciplinary trajectories, writing about ecology, brevity and length in a poem, violence, belonging, and more.
Sneha Subramanian Kanta: I’m interested in how you have traced the trajectory of your career. You studied biology and chemistry at Wayne State University, and eventually earned a PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. I pause to record how the title of your forthcoming book These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit (Milkweed Editions, 2022) generates a connection with the natural world, as not separate from ourselves. How have these shifts and working through interdisciplinary routes influenced you?
Hayan Charara: Yesterday, I met with a former student. The year before he’d taken a course with me in which we read books like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad, Euripides’ Hecuba. He wanted to meet because he wanted to talk about the Tao Te Ching, another text from the course. By the way, this student studies chemical engineering, which I know nothing about. We talked for an hour straight, mostly the two of us telling each other things the other didn’t know.
Those kinds of conversations (where I learn something new, and the person with me does the same), I enjoy the most. Back in college, I didn’t run through everything there was to know about biology or chemistry or literature—I just found so much of what was available to study fascinating, and so I got into all kinds of things, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I would be bored if all I thought and did was one thing—poetry, for example. As a teacher—really, as a person—I’ve always been uneasy with specialty and expertise. I’m happy being a generalist, both in academia and life. As for the latter, I don’t know that we have much choice, not unless we opt to live as hermits in caves. Going from one thing to another (poetry to baseball, the classroom to the woods, teacher to friend to neighbor to citizen and so on), that’s a more accurate reflection of the lives most of us live. That’s at least how I live—going from thing to thing, and so my poems necessarily follow.
Sneha: That’s such an intriguing way to approach creating. I’m interested in your poem “Under the Sun”. In the “Notes” section of your book, you mention how the end includes resonances with interludes in Mary Oliver’s “Everything.” There are speckles of interaction with nature, through several phrases in the poem. Some of the lines that remain with me as a reader include
“Sin is like a tree, a leaf, / a flowering fruit. // Like these trees, those leaves, / this flower, that fruit.”, “Is the fig holier than the body?”, “Please pray / to the gingko, the poplar, / the sycamore.”
What was the process of putting together this book for you? There’s also a perennial sense of contact with the natural world, like an inescapable gift. Would you please speak more about your relationship with nature and the constancy of ecology in this book?
Hayan: I’m glad that you asked about the ecological. I don’t think of myself as nature poet—the way we do about Mary Oliver, for example—but the natural is a constant presence in my poems. It’s right there in all my poetry books, in fact. But hardly anyone seems to notice. What people mostly bring up or ask about is my being Arab, or else they speculate about the “political” in my poetry. It’s a kind of myopia and it isn’t limited to my work. It’s an unfortunate vision many have of work made by people like me.
I was talking to Fady Joudah about this recently. He pointed out how, with Mahmoud Darwish, who Fady has translated, when poets and critics alike spoke or wrote of Darwish’s work, they could never seem to get away from speaking about Palestine and to do so—almost always—politically. This is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is the overwhelming presence of nature in Darwish’s work, whether as metaphor or concrete image. It’s also remarkable given how often “the land” is invoked when people talk about Palestine and the Palestinian struggle, and yet what is usually overlooked, amazingly enough, is the relationship between the people and the land, or the natural world the people inhabit, or which has been stripped, or simply as a metaphor. Instead, its identity, political identity.
Anyhow, I find it hard not to think about the natural world because, as a matter of fact, it is, as you say, inescapable. I’ve lived in some of the least natural places in the country (Detroit, New York City, Houston), but that never kept me from being with the trees, the waterways, and the rich natural life that surrounds us all. In some ways, the overwhelming presence of the man-made (Detroit’s automobile factories, New York’s density, its skyscrapers and subways, and Houston’s energy industry) made the natural world that much more worth noticing and worth understanding. Add to this the fact that I also came up in the 1970s and 80s, when the environmental movement was already a part of everyday life (news, school, books, TV), and that was the case precisely because of how negatively it was being impacted.
So, I suspect that I’ve always had an acute awareness of my relationship to nature—our relationship to it—in large part because I’m old enough to have witnessed the dramatic changes, most for the worse, that our relationship with nature has had on the world. There’s a line from Wallace Stevens that comes to mind now: “In the presence of extraordinary actuality, consciousness takes the place of imagination.” The extraordinary reality is that we may just be living in the final age of civilization—the death of the Anthropocene, at our hands. As a child, talk about the disappearance of the natural world and the dire consequences to follow relied on an imaginative act—it was an event that could happen in some distant future, a possibility that had to be envisioned, and if, not a when. Now, a few decades later, no imagination is required to see what is happening before our eyes.
Simply put, and to echo what I already said: it strikes me as bizarre that our relationship to the natural world isn’t, in some way, more present in poems. Or in any creative act, for that matter. We so often move inward when writing poems, or thinking, or imagining, and while some poets remain in the inner world for a lot longer than I like, I find that I need to get out—out of my mind, out of my thinking self—and right there, always there, right alongside the man-made and manufactured and invented is the natural. Makes no sense to ignore it.
Sneha: I often reimagine what we discussed, of how all of us participate in ecology on a daily basis— and what the definitive structure of being a nature writer has come to be due to systemic dysregulations. Thank you for your insightful response, which helps reaffirm the conjoined collaboration of all of us with nature.
Your poem “Empathy” is one of my favorites in the book. The poem incorporates brevity:
“After being with you, I saw a beetle / stuck on its back, scuttling / its legs. I could have crushed it / with my heel, but I left it alone / for the ants to devour— / the ants did not come.”
There is an undertone of change in the first sentence in “After being with you,…”, and a finality that “the ants did not come.” This offers the impression of an anticipation as not realized— and there being more possibilities than those of which we think. Would you share your thoughts on brevity in a poem, and the idea behind having written this one?
Hayan: All the poets I admire, from the ancients to those writing today, are masters of brevity. Their poems may not be short, but in a few lines—and in some cases just a few words—they pull off something magical, profound, heartbreaking, or actually new. So, the poems themselves, in their entirety, may not count as acts of brevity but they’re usually composed of several brief but extraordinary moments. I’m guessing that this is how most poets read poems when they read them as writer—they pick up on this, that, and the other in moments, whether that moment is an image, a metaphor, a turn, and so on. Early on, whether from an ironic turn in a Shakespeare sonnet or an unexpected metaphor in one of Phil Levine’s poems, I learned the power and place of brevity in poetry. On a sidenote, the poets I first read and reread were Whitman and Ginsberg, who of course wrote very long poems—so I was also reading and learning about the power and place of the extended metaphor, the protracted line, about diffuseness and largeness in poetry.
Simply, I am attracted to both modes. My poem “Usage” is over 400 lines, for example, and a number of poems in These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit run several pages each (“The Prize” is 128 line). There are haiku in the new book, too, plus a bunch of poems like “Empathy.” Obviously, the brevity I’m talking about here (the kind found in an image, a line, etcetera) isn’t exactly the same thing an act of brevity found in a single poem like “Empathy” and the difference is simple: an excerpt on the one hand, and the thing in its entirety on the other. And I feel that no matter how brief a poem may be, it needs to accomplish, generally speaking, what its longer counterparts do—in a word, completeness. Despite my tendency now and then to play with form and structure, at heart I’m a traditional poet—I like for my poems to clear, to have a center, to be balanced and well-proportioned. And this is true of any poem I write, long or short, but I take this standard to be a greater challenge with the shorter poems, largely because the longer poems are acts of indulgence. I may stick to certain rules in the long poems: “Usage,” for instance, follows the structure of usage glossaries, alphabetically ordered, that explain the differences between and how to use commonly confused words, like accept and except or well and good; and “The Prize” juxtaposes, chronologically, the tragic and horrific milestones that marked the Iraq War with the poetry collections that won the Pulitzer Prize during each year of the war), but these poems are also wild; they threaten to become unruly, to fly out of their orbits at any given moment, and that’s due in large part to how much space they’ve been given on the page. How does the cliché go—you give an inch; he takes a mile? Well, these poems have been given miles. Nietzsche describes this kind of energy as Dionysian; it represents freedom of expression, revelry, spontaneity, excitement, but it’s balanced by an Apollonian energy, which represents artificiality, structure, symmetry, what some people call “craft.” With my longer poems, the Dionysian dominates. There’s simply more room for it to do so. Poems like “Empathy,” they align with the Apollonian. You can’t be too wild in a small space. You can, but you’re bound to beak something, or make more of a mess than anything else. Brevity, then, is a kind of controller, an order-maker in a poem. At least for me it is. I become more contained, more economic in the short poem. To put it simply: there’s no room for fucking around.
I wrote “Empathy” after a long, exhausting week that involved being with a lot of people (people I have known for many years, and people who had been, until that week, total strangers). Our time together was both wonderful and awful. I walked away feeling both more connected to these people while simultaneously more disconnected than I ever could imagine. I imagine it’s what people sometimes experience at family reunions or gatherings—weddings, funerals, the holidays. I wanted to express the tumult I was both feeling and thinking, and because the thoughts and feelings were so all over the place, so contradictory (that is, because they were so Dionysian) I took the Apollonian approach, as a way to reconcile the conflicting energies. To paraphrase Nietzsche, by exerting a great deal of order and proportionality to the poem, precisely because it arose out of such disorderly and disproportionate conditions, I could—or the poem could—overcome and transfigure life.
Sneha: Your response takes me to a subject of research when I wrote about the work of Nietzsche, with emphasis to “The Parable of The Madman“— after this discussion, the market place is brought to attention, particularly with reference to what you mention about space. There is a conjoined reference to the vastness and claustrophobic decadence in the market place, where the man expressed ideas that were wholly uncommon.
I’m interested in the fact that “Fugue” nestles at the end of one section of your book, right in the middle, and is one of the lengthier poems in These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit. I’m going to illustrate instances from the poem to provide context for our readers, as well as bring attention to specific lines in the poem which we’d discuss.
“When we played, it was always war. In our hands, any old stick was a weapon, / pinecones were bombs. “If everyone plays war,” said my mother, “there will be war.” / She was right—there was.”
“If you cannot rationalize your killing, / it may lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Most of what we’re taught is simply illusion. I start school when / I’m five, and what’s the first thing I’m taught? I am important. / I’m a citizen of the United States, I could be president because / this is like no other country. Well, first I couldn’t be president / for twenty reasons. Then this country is like the others. / And finally the United States is an illusion.”
In the “Notes” section, you also mention how the poem amalgams several references. There is also information about how “Fugue” is both; synonymous of music and psychiatry. I’m interested in long poems for the attention they call upon from a reader. The associative leaps a in poem reinstates the connected nature of our lives. This is in relation to the several multi-dimensional threads that contribute to an outcome. Please lead me into some trajectories to discuss the apt chronology of placement and of your process of writing this poem.
Hayan: I began “Fugue” a long time ago—the original version, I put together in 2006 and didn’t initially envision it as a poem. It was simply a response to a series of writings that fellow poets had been submitting in a class I was taking, led by the poet Jane Miller who asked us, each week, to share a piece of writing by a poet or critic on some aspect of poetry and poetics. The other poets brought in essays on craft, on poetic movements, an interview here and there. Then it was my turn.
Several weeks before the course, the July War had broken out in Lebanon. As is usually the case with most wars, the conflict was lopsided, with the Israeli military wrecking utter devastation on so many cities and towns and ending more than a thousand lives, most of them civilian. Among those impacted were members of my family. My father’s house is a mile or so from the Israeli border; he wasn’t home when the bombardment began, so for a month he, his wife, and my youngest brother had to take shelter at someone else’s home, far from theirs—and when they finally returned home, they found much of their town obliterated. My maternal grandfather lived in the same town; he was home when the bombardment started, and he died a casualty of the war.
Every day during the war, when it was morning in Lebanon, I would call my father to ask, “Are you alive?” And, fortunately, he’d answer, “I’m alive.” Every few days, I would write an elected official, urging a ceasefire.
Following my grandfather’s death, I wrote an Op-Ed for the newspaper in Austin (where I was living before moving to Houston). I hoped his story would spur people to action, be it contacting their representatives or donating to aid and welfare organizations in Lebanon.
Even though the conflict had ended a couple months or so before the poetry course started, I was still reeling from the damage it had done and the day in, day out anxiety it had created. But no one else in the poetry course seemed to be aware or interested in what had happened. Maybe they were, but I wasn’t getting that impression. Not about the war in Lebanon or the others, in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were still ongoing (I can say now, looking back, that those wars were still in their early years). The impression I had was that, with few exceptions, most people (not just the poets in the class, but poets in general and, for that matter, nearly everyone I interacted with) seemed not to care about these conflicts in the way I couldn’t help but be consumed by them.
I get that we can’t be engrossed with every single tragedy—it’s not possible, and even if it were, it would be detrimental to our well-being. And yet, the ability of people to live their daily lives as if these wars were not happening or were as banal as the weather, made me feel as if I was living on a different planet than so many other people. I don’t think that poetry must deal with political conflict or that poets or their poems must be politically engaged. Write what you must write about. That said, I live in a country that has been engaged in non-stop war and conflict, officially and unofficially, for more than half a century straight, and the politics and power of the country shapes me as a citizen, and as an artist. I can’t ignore that. I don’t think others should, either.
One of the privileges of being an American, of course, is the freedom to shrug off the brute realities of life in the age of American imperialism, which includes both its engagement in and support of militaristic and imperial efforts in other countries. Having that freedom doesn’t mean a person should embrace it. The mistake people make, I think, is to assume that the reason I see a complicit and undeniable relationship between poetry and politics, between language and war, is because I’m an Arab—because the region of the world I’m associated with endures the brunt of American foreign policy, and the fact that I happen to be a poet makes it so, for me, the two (poetry and politics) go hand in hand. The relationship is apparent to me because, first and foremost, I’m an American. I don’t have to be Arab, or anyone else, to see the connection. I only need pay attention to what’s right before my eyes as opposed to the mountain of myths and lies teachers, books, TV shows, movies, the news, songs, novels, poems, t-shirts, and bumper stickers have been telling all my life. I realize that accomplishing this is easier said than done, but it’s not impossible. Besides, those who are wise to the myths are most often on the inside, people who belong to the “we” of “we the people.
I turned to those people, to the poets and writers who were wise to such illusions, not just about war and poetry but ancient myths and deceptions about the self and our supposedly true nature. Those writers were then and often still are Philip Levine and Alan Watts. Specifically, and the “Notes” section goes into more detail, I relied on Levine’s interviews (collected in Don’t Ask), and Watt’s writings about Buddhism and the self. I also returned to the books that Chris Hedges, a war correspondent, had written about the meaning and meaningfulness that war brings about, or that is imposed by it, on individuals (soldier or civilian). A decade later, I brought Sven Lindquist’s A History of Bombing into the conversation. That’s how I viewed “Fugue”: a conversation, an interrelated set of voices, speaking to each other about poetry, war, and notions of the self and our connection to each other, to the world, and to our shared existence.
The hope, the intention, behind bringing these voices to together: in speaking to each other, with each other, and overlapping, they would transport the reader deeper into their messages and simultaneously away from them—i.e. I wanted this written fugue to do hat a fugue by Bach, Chopin, Handel, or Mendelssohn would often do for me: to serve as an escape, but not from life; rather, an escape into another life. Not an escape from poetry or the horrors and upside-down logic of war or the delusions we tell ourselves about who and what we are, but into a world that doesn’t separate or compartmentalize these, doesn’t ignore them or set them aside in order to get on with the so-called noble endeavors of life, like art, poetry, and learning but rather acknowledges their presence in our lives, and their interconnectedness with everything we do, everything we are.
Our oldest poetic texts make this connection, and immediately: The Epic of Gilgamesh begins, “He who saw the Deep…was wise in all matters.” Homer opens The Iliad with one word: “Rage,” which is followed by an invocation to be inspired to sing of the “murderous, doomed” and “brilliant” war hero Achilles. Which is to say, this isn’t a big secret or mystery.
Why is “Fugue” in the middle of These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit? I could say that it serves as the hinge of the collection, but I’m not sure that would be true. I knew that “Fugue” could not be saved for the end—its themes are too central to do that, and it doesn’t exactly wrap up the poems in the book. I knew, too, that I couldn’t open with “Fugue.” You work your way toward a piece of writing like “Fugue,” to the deluge of ideas it contains. If not the beginning or end, then why not the middle?
Sneha: In the final poem “Apokaluptein”, there is an undertone of allusion and reference; both, personal and historical. I see how the two connect, and this is one of the many ways in which your poems make the reader think. For the reference of our readers, I will quote a few lines from the poem.
“The Arab apocalypse began around the year / of my birth, give or take— / the human apocalypse, / a few thousand years earlier.”
“the small city my father left / in nineteen sixty-seven, / its orchards, hillsides, rivers, / roads, highways, bridges, / houses, schools, restaurants, coffee shops, / pharmacies, hospitals, cemeteries, / twice in his lifetime, obliterated.”
“The Arab apocalypse began in the 1950s and 60s, / in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Iraq— / the human apocalypse, / in 1945, in a desert in New Mexico / where scientists exploded the first atomic bomb.”
“In nineteen seventy-two my father paid $9,000 / for a house in Detroit. / Forty years later, a foreclosure, it sold for $8000, / its windows, doors, floors, walls, / the porch, the mailbox, / the tree in front, birch or poplar, / gone—now / weeds and bushes block the drive, / vines where the chimney once was / creep over the rooftop.
“In politics, practically nothing is new. / Twenty-four hundred years ago / Plato worried about speech-acts, / what he called “craft,” / the crowd swayed so easily / by emotion and flattery, interest and advantage, / the logical failures to follow.”
“…when Abram became / Abraham, and Muhammad / heard God’s voice in a lightning bolt—”
“The apocalypse began / with a thousand hoofbeats / across a field, men / hollering, women wondering / where to hide / the children. “Here,” / a mother said. / “We will hide in the earth— / our ancestors are already there, / the rest will follow.”
Hayan: Without thinking too broadly about “the personal,” let’s say, in terms of the poems, I take it to mean simply that which belongs solely to me. My name, then, is personal. In this way, an emotional experience is also personal. The grief I felt after my mother’s death was mine. Others grieved her death—my father and sister, my mother’s siblings, her parents, her friends and co-workers, and her students—but their grief was theirs, and mine was mine.
I bring up these two examples they are the personal in “Personal Political Poem.” For context, the poem is narrative: The car I’m driving stalls, I walk to a gas station, and the Arab gas station attendant (“Sam”) recognizes me—I did not recognize him right away; he’s the guy who saved a girl from drowning (a story that made the news) but more significantly, he knew my mother and was present at her funeral.
What makes a name or grief personal, that’s easy enough and doesn’t require explanation. However, what makes these political?
For Arabs and Muslims, the personal and political cannot help but be entangled. This is true for other groups, too, in different ways. And I suppose this must be true for all people, but clearly some people experience the intersection of the personal and political, to use your phrase, to a much greater degree than others, as well as across more aspects of their lives. Anyhow, the political fact is that Arab lives occupy far more space in the imaginations of Americans than we’d like, especially given that the imaginary space we take up is usually sinister. And so, something as uncontroversial (usually) as a name becomes imbued with extra meaning. I lived in New York City during, and after, the 9/11 attacks, and a year or so following the attacks, I met a student whose name was Usama. For obvious reasons, he chose to go by his middle name.
The gas station attendant in “Personal Political Poem,” I don’t remember his real name. It was either Hassan or Wisam or Samir. The tag on his shirt said “Sam” and that’s all I remember. It depresses me that I can’t tell you his real name, and it speaks to the dilemma so many people with Arab or Muslim names live with—the pervasiveness of the political imposing itself on the personal, so much so that people must deliberate whether it is safe to say their own name. For women who wear the hijab, there’s no hiding their identity—they have no choice but to face whatever imposition the political will make on all they deem to be personal. In the most literal way, their bodies are marked as political.
Why is the gas station attendant named “Sam.” I didn’t ask, but I know why my father, who ran a grocery store and whose name is Abdul Karim, was called “Tony” by his customers, which is related to the reason why my mother, a schoolteacher, was called “May” by many of her colleagues, and not Mahassen, and this no doubt is why my uncle Khalil, who worked at Chrysler, went by “Charlie” at work. I experienced this as early as middle school when my basketball coach called me “Hank.” The reasons: our Arab names were too hard to pronounce, and they were also too much trouble.
“Personal Political Poem” is set in Dearborn, Michigan, which is Henry Ford’s hometown and home to one of the largest Arab populations outside the Arab world, if not the largest. This is to say, Arab names are ubiquitous in Dearborn, and they have been for a long time. People, stores, restaurants all have Arab names and writing on them. For a while, before it demolished, the international terminal at Detroit’s metropolitan airport bore an Arab’s name. Despite this, things Arab were (and for many still are) sources of anxiety. This is as much the case in Dearborn and metro Detroit as it is for the rest of the country. So, the political is bound to overlap with the personal. One way this occurs in the poem is through the story “Sam” tells about saving a girl.
He showed me a newspaper.
He said he was the guy
who pulled a drowning girl
from a crowded pool.
He pointed to the mayor
shaking his hand. He said
he went to high school with the mayor
who was the kind of guy
who would jab his finger
at your chest and say,
“You don’t look like a Sam.”
The mayor of Dearborn, Michigan, had gotten elected, years earlier, after running a campaign that stoked fear against Arabs. His campaign had published a brochure that asked, “What to do about the Arab problem?” The answer, presumably, was to elect him so he could solve it.
So, not only was saying an Arab name too much trouble; it was also, for some people, literally troubling. Arabs are so much a part of the American imagination—politically, historically, culturally and artistically—but, as I’ve already said, we occupy those imaginative spaces mostly in troubling ways: as problems, as threats, as terrorists and villains, as untrustworthy and swarthy, backwards, sexist, and repressive, or else as victims of all these types of Arabs. This thinking is so pervasive, to be anything but these negative things (like a lifeguard who saves a girl, or a guy named Sam) seems impossible and wrong.
These notions, wherever they dwell, they take up space in the political, and constantly threaten to spill over into and overwhelm the personal.
I can’t help but think of every boy or man named Usama or Osama, the fears and worries and concerns they had about the associations made over their names. And it was not the same for people with names like “Sam.” Around the same time as the event described in “Personal Political Poem,” domestic terrorists blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. How many boys and men named Tim or worry that they’ll be associated with the terrorist Timothy McVeigh?
Is the intersection of the personal and political deliberate? Yes. But I don’t think I’m the one forcing them to go hand in hand. That’s an imposition from the outside. I resent it, of course. Who would always welcome the political into their lives? Even politicians, I would imagine, need respite. It’s unwelcomed but seemingly inescapable, for Arabs and others. This doesn’t mean I believe that writers must explicitly address the personal-political. However, it does mean that regardless of what they write, the personal-political is likely going to be a filter through which their poems will be read, and perhaps the only filter through which they will be read and understood.
I haven’t yet written a poem about my basketball coach wanting to name me “Hank.” I don’t know if I want to, but if I decide to one day, then I have a choice to make: Either include the political (and thus fall into the trap of the “oter” who seemingly always writes about being “other”) or exclude the political (and thus intentionally erase the political from an experience that is ripe with it). All writers make choices, but not all must make this kind of choice nearly every single time they write. It is exhausting.
Sneha: Did you know for this to be the last poem in your book? The sections read as interventions in history, and the present, which will be tomorrow’s history. In what ways did memory inform the poem, and could you speak about the form and construction of this poem?
Hayan: I’m no good at ordering poems. My friend Brandon Lamson came up with the order to Something Sinister, and with These Trees…, I ordered the poems the best I knew how and made changes based on suggestions from fellow poets. However, in every draft of the manuscript, “Apokaluptein” always ended the book. Why? I suppose in part because we associate apocalypses with endings. But I also think, at least in retrospect, that ending with “Apokaluptein” works on another level, which is also tied to the word apocalypse.
The Greek word is apokálypsis, which means “uncovering,” and apokaluptein (or apokalýptein) is the verb form of the word, meaning “to take the cover off.” That’s what the Biblical Apocalypse is all about—revelation, not destruction. The suras found at the end of the Qur’an also echo this idea in their descriptions and allusions to the Day of Reckoning, yawmi i’din. The suras abound with apocalyptic imagery and utterances, but it would be wrong to read them as only bleak or only apocalyptic in the catastrophic sense. Instead, they serve to remind humanity that, in the end, the truth will be disclosed.
Understood this way, an apocalypse is an unveiling of reality, a stripping away of the illusions and false perceptions we buy into as human beings, whether out of self-deception or false understandings. The truth, then, is something that is hidden; it’s something that needs to be unhidden. The truth is that which needs to be made evident. That’s what the written word attempts to accomplish—to reveal or to make evident that which is either hidden from us or that which we’ve allowed ourselves to get cut off from by putting greed, selfishness, self-interest and the like front and center.
This is also how I view the writing and reading of poetry—that these acts (to read, to write) have the potential to uncover (apokalýptein) and in doing so may lead to the discovery of a truth, the removal of a veil over memory, or to a revelation about what history has made of us.
I really appreciate how you describe the sections of “Apokaluptein” as interventions. Every poem has the capacity to do just that, to intervene in our perceptions of reality, whatever names we give them (history, religion, the truth, and so on). It’s never too late or too soon for those interventions to occur, either. And that’s precisely because, both in terms of destruction and revelation, there is an apocalypse taking place every single day.
Sneha: Your responses have been wonderful, Hayan. What advice do you have for all our readers who arrive to writing in non-standardized ways? How do you converse with them concentrate on their craft, build community in meaningful ways, and work through solitude? This question includes but is not limited for international writers, disabled writers, and those who do not have immediate institutional or necessary support.
Hayan: Thanks, Sneha, for all these questions—they’ve made me think more deeply than I may have done on my own.
While I don’t think there is a single or best way to write, or to live and work as a writer, I’m happy to share my experiences and ideas with anyone who wants to them. And of course, they can do what they wish with them.
When you can, write. For me, this means writing anything: poems, yes, but also letters, ideas, essays, fiction. Writing also means, for me, revising. And I try to write every day, for however long I can manage it for, and whatever the writing may be.
When I cannot write, I do something else. I have always wanted and needed something other than writing to sustain me creatively. One reason: poetry is limited in what it can do for us. Also: some days, I just don’t care about writing a poem or anything at all. Those days, I turn to other “arts.”
Years ago, I made furniture. Some days, I spent ten to twelve hours in the woodshop. Or, if I was working on a piece of writing and got stuck with a problem of some kind, I’d head into the woodshop and continue work on a cabinet or table. Even the seemingly mindless work of sanding a piece of wood (it was not at all mindless, really) would often lead to the clarity of mind I needed to resolve the writing problem I had, or else simply to get back to writing.
And if the woodwork did not accomplish that, no problem. I still had a cabinet or table to show for my labor, plus the satisfaction of working with my hands.
I haven’t made furniture in a while (I may yet go back to woodwork one day), but I have since turned to repairing and refurbishing watches. I won’t make comparisons between poetry and watchmaking, or between watches and furniture, for that matter, though I’m sure plenty exist. The point is simply to have something more than poetry, more than writing, whatever it may be. If I had to do only one thing for the rest of my life, I would not want to live.
As for community, I have found and belong to many as a writer, and why I feel a sense of belonging in each varies from one to the next. Sometimes, you can identify a community I belong to because we look like each other, or we speak a language other than English. Other times, simply seeing us doesn’t reveal why we belong: we gravitate to each other because of shared beliefs, values, tastes, goals. Here, too, the point is simply to have more than one community—to seek out people, to welcome them when they happen on you, and to know that there are so many ways in which communities can be made.
Building a community takes effort, too, and some luck, I suppose. When I first started writing poems, I didn’t know any other poets of Arab heritage. Until I met one. And they introduced me to others. And I went to their houses, their readings, and met more people, and not only Arabs.
Same when I moved from Detroit to New York. I didn’t know any poets when I got to the city. So, I went to readings. I talked to the poets whose poems I liked and who seemed like good people. I became friends with some. And that lead to more friendships, more relationships, more community building.
I met so many poets and writers this way—that is, outside of an institution or classroom. I didn’t take my first creative writing workshop (outside of my undergraduate years) until I had already published two poetry books, and I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not a very social person, either. I get a bit anxious around new people. Yet I also know that the good that has come from making friends and acquaintances has far outweighed the bad, and by a lot.
As for solitude: When you can, work with it, and when you cannot, go to your people. Friends, family, chosen family, neighbors, co-workers, whomever it may be. We are social beings. We need each other. We need each other’s company. I feel most alive when my kids are being funny, when my wife holds my hand, when my friends call me up out of the blue, when I have coffee with colleagues and we “shoot the shit,” when I’m sitting around a campfire with good friends, even new ones, just watching the embers.
Yes, poetry is a solitary art. And solitude is, physically, perhaps the closest our bodies can get to the “place” our minds are already at when they are most creative: alone, without the chatter and clutter of the outside world. I see and think so clearly in this state. But such moments are meant to be temporary.
Hayan Charara is a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor. His poetry books are These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit (Milkweed Editions 2022), Something Sinister (Carnegie Mellon Univ Press 2016), The Sadness of Others (Carnegie Mellon Univ Press 2006), and The Alchemist’s Diary (Hanging Loose Press 2001). His children’s book, The Three Lucys (2016), received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak (2008), an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. With Fady Joudah, he is also a series editor of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. His honors include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucille Joy Prize in Poetry from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, the John Clare Prize, and the Arab American Book Award.
Born in Detroit in 1972 to Arab immigrants, he studied biology and chemistry at Wayne State University before turning to poetry. He spent a decade in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program. In 2004, he moved to Texas, where he eventually earned his PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston.
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