Dr. Fady Joudah read for the Visiting Poets and Writers Series in 2015. Listen to his reading here.
Interview by Jon Riccio
Jon Riccio: It’s not often that I have the opportunity to read volumes of a poet’s work back-to-back, so let me start by saying how much I enjoyed The Earth in the Attic (Yale University Press, 2008) and Alight (Copper Canyon Press, 2013). Your lines will stay with me for months to come (And a mirror gives the moon back to the moon and If all is one one is not all the earth always wins for losing spring to mind). Aside from its prose poems, what prompted your move away from punctuation in Alight?
Fady Joudah: It freed up my lyric. It also offers the reader choices that belong solely to them. Thus my lyric is less dictatorial that way. That’s all. It’s fun to write in a way that significantly attenuates the function of punctuation. It’s a journey into language.
Jon: The poem “Holy Numbers” from section six of Alight contains the lines Two Earths one super-bad one super- / Model on a jet plane examine a third’s / Chalked and charred dermatomes… Suppose these Earths merged into a hybrid fourth. How would you describe it?
Fady: Wonderful question. I don’t know. Perhaps the fourth Earth requires a fourth reader. I have done three, that’s enough.
Jon: Your poem “Moon Grass Rain” (from The Earth in the Attic) makes great use of the quatrain, among other units of lineation: As for the heart / It needs a beginning / The narrative / Burden of events. What comes after the burden?
Fady: I think the representation of others who are less privileged or more afflicted than the narrator, the so-called witness, is where the burden lies. What comes after that is algorithmic almost. Some narrators make it “trademark” while others fall into a conversation with silence.
Jon: Had you entered The Earth in the Attic in previous contests before winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2007? If so, what revision lessons did you learn along the way?
Fady: I did. I learned that one can’t predict the multiple readings of a book out there. One has to trust what one has while being flexible and open to advice. I think revision is about possessing the capacity to understand what the advice is, free of intimidation or inferiority complex. At that point one listens to a colleague, a fellow human being who sits on the toilet when they need to empty their bowels just like you do.
Jon: Please share your writing routine, given that you’re a full-time physician and a father of two young children. As a follow-up (I recently read fellow Copper Canyon poet Marianne Boruch’s Cadaver, Speak), do you see the medical prosodies as a growing horizon?
Fady: I don’t know what you mean by medical prosodies. I don’t have a writing routine for poetry. I stay with it constantly, like a hen around and over its eggs. I suppose the medical poem is on the rise because by now we have been in the so-called scientific age long enough to accept the new dimensions of dying, dimensions that are governed by modern medicine and its corollary establishment.
Jon: I’ve read your translations of the Palestinian poet Maya Abu Al-Hayyat. You’ve also translated the poets Ghassan Zaqtan and Mahmoud Darwish to great acclaim. How has translation benefited your overall aesthetic?
Fady: It is the closest form of reading you can imagine. Such a wonderful journey into one’s imagination space of song and word. You have to try it. I did not find that what I learned correlated much to workshop-style learning. It was about a deeper reading of a great poet’s soul. Not every translation offers that, of course. Some are more automatic than others.
Jon: What are the most common difficulties beginning translators encounter?
Fady: I don’t know. I imagine they have to do with cliché: the lost in translation, the fidelity-infidelity axis, etc. For me translation is about the possibility of something new without effacement of the original work. It’s a cultural wedding. Not a subjugation. Translation is not about a poem “as if it were written in the host language,” because it was not. Hosts have to be great guests too.
Jon: To quote the final words of Alight, is there an antidote for the pain of coming / Back into life?
Fady: No antidote I know of, beside the mysticism of vanishing while still alive, still present on earth.
Jon: “Scarecrow” is my favorite poem from The Earth in the Attic, especially its ending: Standing with eyes shut tight like you’ve got soap in them, / Arms stretched wide like you’re catching rain. That and the line Your mother will weave you new underwear from flour sacks. Was this one of the more emotionally taxing poems to write? Any plans to revisit its protagonist in future work?
Fady: No. It was not taxing for me. It was liberating to find out how refugee narratives inter-mingle across continents and peoples. In some ways I have already revisited the protagonists in Alight’s long sequence “After.” Of course revisitation can be open-ended. Perhaps I have moved into new domains of displacement the longer I have found myself removed from the “field” so to speak.
Jon: Thank you for your time and responses, Fady. Finally, can you tell us about your recent work?
Fady: Sure. As with many writers I am happiest these days about my new book, Textu, which I composed on cell phone, a book-long sequence in which each poem or each section of a poem is exactly 160 characters long. I thought if I were going to delve into the art of the short poem, why not introduce a new “meter” especially since we live in an age that seems hell-bent on shifting the way we use language and the medium in which we use it.
Dr. Fady Joudah is the author of three poetry books, The Earth in the Attic; Alight; and Textu; in addition to three poetry translations, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (poems by Ghassan Zaqtan); If I Were Another (poems by Mahmoud Darwish); and The Butterfly’s Burden (poems by Mahmoud Darwish). He lives with his family in Houston, Texas.
Jon Riccio is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. A recent Pushcart nominee, forthcoming poems appear in Waxwing, Redivider, Zocalo Magazine and White Whale Review. He is the 2014/15 Poetry Editor at Fairy Tale Review.