Conversation with Sinan Antoon: Poet and Novelist

by Asli Iğsız

Aslı Iğsız: You are a politically active person; you appeared in interviews, made a documentary called About Baghdad... and you also write literature. What do you think about the intersections of art and politics? Art is a tool to express one’s self but also to show something new from a completely different angle. But when we engage politics through art—do you think that showing “things from a new angle" artistically might be substituted with showing and/or educating people with a new, alternative political point of view rather than a creatively informed one? In this light, how do you consider your literary work, and who is your target audience?

Sinan Antoon: Well, first of all, I write in both languages, so I have poems written in English, in addition to the ones I translate from Arabic myself. My novel is available in English as well and has been translated to five languages.

I don't have a specific target audience in mind, unless I happen to be writing an essay or an article and in that case and depending on the subject, there are certain outlets and venues that will be more receptive and automatically there is a certain target audience. I don't like labels, but since my politics is defined by most as leftist, my articles cannot find a place just anywhere. However, when it comes to creative writing, it is the image, idea, or metaphor which is the starting point of the text and not the target audience.

As to the intersection of arts and politics, it is a thorny, but extremely important issue. I have written academic articles about this examining the work of Mahmud Darwish, the great late Palestinian poet. I am always fascinated and intrigued by writers and artists whose work maintains the highest aesthetic standards, but simultaneously has political import and relevance. Ideally, there shouldn't be a contradiction. There are, of course, many instances in which art and writing become merely a platform for propaganda and politics and that is unfortunate. Good writers should not fall into that trap. Charles Simic, one of the greatest poets in the US and in the world, in my opinion, writes beautiful and aesthetically pleasing poetry that is always relevant politically. So there are many examples of how to do it. The problem those of us who happen to be a minority or are "others" in one sense or another is that our work is always overpoliticized by journalists or critics, because art from the middle east or "other" parts of the world is not always dealt with as "our" art is dealt with. So the lines between art and anthropology are always blurred.

A.I.: One of my favorite quotes belongs to Picasso, and we don't even know if it really was uttered by him. I am sure you know it, but here it goes: There is a famous rumor that a Nazi officer looking at a reproduction of El Guernica asked Pablo Picasso, “Did you do this?" The artist replied: “No. You did." I guess anyone engaging art politically to call attention to atrocities and war will find something of interest in that quote. Do you ever feel that way about your poetry?

S.A.: I love that quote.

Alas, it seems that horrors and wars keep piling up and while we often think so much has changed and we have evolved so much, I keep thinking to myself that the basic dynamics are still the same. We have evolved into more efficient and ruthless predators. The 20th century was "the saddest" to quote Neruda and this one is not less sad, judging by its first decade.

I think that I would have written about war and suffering even if I were from any other country. I am not denying that being from Iraq has an influence on my perspective and concerns, but ultimately, the poet and artist, like any citizen, has a responsibility and cannot afford to be blind and oblivious to the world.

I do have plenty of erotic poetry! I half jokingly answer those who ask me what do you write about : Eros and Death. It would be nice to sit by the sea and write about that and nothing else, but there are two wars going on as I write this and I have things to say! Aharon Shabtai says: "For that's how it's always been/the murderers murder/the intellectuals make it palatable/and the poet sings."

A.I.: I imagine many people focus on the catastrophe/political sides of your work to ask questions to you; do you ever feel like this is reductive? Your work is so much more. (This actually speaks directly to another intersection of art and politics: because you come from a certain background, Iraq, your work also gets ethnicized and a certain expectation arises). And through this, I am also curious whether you feel Iraq is also seen reductively as a series of catastrophes? You know in an interview, Orhan Pamuk said: "When Proust writes about love, it is about love. When I write about love, it becomes Turkish love. I am determined to break it."

S.I.: Yes, it is quite reductive and annoying. I hate to be approached as a cultural informant! The artistic aspect gets short-shrifted most of the time and the Pamuk quote is right on. Our work, as others, gets ghettoized and it's an uphill struggle to have it recognized on equal footing. The ethnicity and religion of American and European writers is not that relevant when discussing or reviewing their works, not always at least, but with writers from the middle east, our ethno-religious background is always inserted and underlined upfront!

Someone who reviewed my book of poems misread a love poem and thought it was about a suicide bomber. Of course the culprits are the folks who asked him to review the books. He was a veteran of the Iraq war and had written a book of poems himself!

The poem was:

My eyes are two sieves
in piles of others
for you

So, of course, he could not see the love poem, since his perspective, even as a reader, is that of the checkpoint.
Sadly, after all the engagement this country has had with Iraq, people still know little to nothing about it and cannot transcend mainstream representations. There are complex histories and rich cultures and lives beyond suicide bombings and militias. It is grotesque, because this is the second time the US wages a war against Iraq. One would've thought that people should have known much more since their army "bombed Iraq back to the pre-industrial age" back in 1991, as a US general said back then.

A.I.: In the States, there is a particular way of engaging creative writing in prose--the "voice" is very important. Not every place emphasizes the voice as much, but other criteria apply. What is your take on this? Do you feel the urge to emphasize voice? And to relate this back to poetry: how do you consider and define your work, and what do you want to emphasize most in your poems?

S.I. As for defining poetry, that is a very difficult enterprise. I write prose poetry, but my poetic genealogy is diverse. One root is pre-Islamic and classical Arabic poetry which I have read a great deal of and still do and which I studied as a graduate student. It has an ocean of imagery and metaphors. The other root is world and modern poetry which any contemporary and young poet has to read and be aware of. So Neruda, Lorca, Cavafy, Hikmet, Whitman, Auden, William Carlos Williams, Rimbaud, Eluard and so on are all ancestors. So my poetry is fed by various traditions and I translate a lot of American poetry to Arabic.

Voice is important, but I think of perspective. I think, obviously, one's perspective and one's coordinates on the map of the world, artistically and politically, predetermines one's horizon. Octavio Paz wrote that every poet contains hundreds of poets within, so it is one's genealogy which is very complex and diverse, that predetermines the multiplicity of voices coming out through the poet's text!

What to emphasize most in my poetry?
What I strive for is to capture something, irrespective of the subject of the poem, to capture a unique moment and to crystallize an experience. One of my favorite definitions of poetry is that it is the art of surprising the reader, or to use the definition of ancient Arab critics: saying the unsayable!

A.I.: How about translation? If you write poetry in one language and translate into another, what difference does that make? Do you have different feelings, emotions allocated to each language separately? In other words, if you wrote in one language, it means you wanted to express yourself in that language. Does that expression have a direct relation to which language you have chosen to express yourself? Do different emotions and thought inhabit your languages differently? So then, how does translating make you feel/think about the same poem? And how do you translate? Word by word or just the feeling...?

S.A.: Well, there are differences and certain emotional zones that might be reserved for this or that language, but it’s not that dichotomous. Thanks to British colonialism of Iraq, English is the second language in Iraq and we learn it early on. Also, here in the US, those of us whose first language is Arabic (and am sure this applies to all those whose native language is not English) do mix Arabic and English quite a lot in our daily conversations. Now, having said that, it has to do with the language I read in, meaning I read a lot of poetry in Arabic and feel more comfortable writing poetry in Arabic. I have written some poems directly in English. I also do a lot of literary translation in both directions, so I feel that I inhabit both languages and cultural zones. But of course, Arabic, being the mother tongue, is the language through which I can access, much faster, the deepest realms of my being and metaphors come to me more easily in Arabic. That does not negate that I have written very personal and visceral texts in English!

When I translate my own material I give myself some more freedom. Meaning since I am the author, I can change a few things if need be. I go through two phases in translation in general. The second one of which I focus on the poem in the target language and try to make sure that it does not sound foreign. I have been translating a lot of Charles Simic into Arabic and the responses I receive from readers are fantastic!

A.I.: I would like to hear your take on the relationship between aesthetics and language: Does your sense of aesthetics and what you try to achieve aesthetically change depending on whether you write in Arabic or in English? When you translate, do you try to fit the translation into your sense of aesthetics in each language? And when you write your own poems in Arabic and in English, what are the criteria you observe in each language to be aesthetically satisfied with your work? Do you think that because of some qualities specific to each language, one lends itself for more expression in a particular mode more than the other? I guess, I am wondering the expressivity of the languages you use to write or translate poetry and the sense of aesthetics attached to them?

S.A.: We all have to be cautious of "universals," but I speak about my practical experience in translation. The objective is for the poem to sound and read beautifully in its target language. I think of it as playing the same piece of music, but osn a different instrument. It will sound different, but it should be as beautiful. Arabic, because of its long history and the various traditions and languages which served as tributaries and the cultures it appropriated, happens to be a very rich language. Just open one of the pre-modern lexicons. The poetic tradition is fourteen centuries old, so it's an ocean with limitless potential and a dizzying variety of shades of meaning. In this sense, French is less distant from Arabic than English. The Orientalists and some neo-Orientalists have often chastised Arabic for being a language more suited for hyperbole and flights of fancy, rather than for practical and modern scientific discourse! It is a silly notion of course, but that tells you how poetic the language is.

A.I.: Thank you for your time, Sinan. Before we conclude, I just wanted to ask: by whom would you have liked to be read most?

S.A.: I like to be read by anyone and everyone, but hopefully not someone forced to read me! Thank you.

Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, translator, and assistant professor at NYU. He was born in Baghdad and studied English literature at Baghdad University before moving to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. He did his graduate studies at Georgetown and Harvard where he earned a doctorate in Arabic Literature in 2006. He is the author of The Baghdad Blues (Harbor Mountain Press, 2007) and I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights Books, 2007). A new collection of poetry and his second novel (both in Arabic) will be published in Beirut in 2010. His co-translation of Mahmud Darwish’s poetry was nominated for the PEN Prize for translation in 2004. His translation of Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence is forthcoming from Archipelago in 2010. Antoon returned to his native Baghdad in 2003 as a member of InCounter Productions to co-direct/produce the documentary About Baghdad about the lives of Iraqis in a post-Saddam occupied Iraq.

Asli Iğsız teaches Turkish Studies at the University of Arizona and is a long time friend of Sinan Antoon's as well as an admirer of his work.

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