First things first – poetry isn’t dead, right?
No, poetry was never dead and will never die. Will we ever stop looking at the worlds around and within us, attempting to articulate something about them with words that move us? No! I wonder why people never ask, ‘is music dead?’ or ‘is dance dead? And poetry is music and dance and song. Leave poetry alone! But [do] read it.
Generally, are people intimidated by the loftiness of the form or do they find poetry relatable?
I wouldn’t frame poetry within the ‘lofty’ vs ‘relatable’ dichotomy. Poetry is an art form able to make you wonder, even when you don’t fully understand the poem at first or tenth reading. In my experience in Dubai, people show up, listen and always react. They might get bored or curious or inspired or excited or stirred to their very core.
From your poems being rejected, to the same verses winning prestigious literary awards, what has the journey been like?
I’ve learnt that rejection is part of the process, and it teaches you something: to re-work a poem for example, or to not re-work it and trust your voice and submit it elsewhere. The journey is filled with wonder, anxiety, discovery, doubt, open-heartedness and daily work. I’m still learning. I always go back to/trust the work: reading, writing, experimenting.
Why did you choose poetry over other formats of writing?
I feel poetry chose me; I’m so obsessed with it I don’t have a choice. I find that reading and writing [poetry] allows me to pause, think, and find joy in language, and that it’s a language at its most condensed and beautiful. In some sense, poetry is my daily prayer. In terms of poetry on the page, I remember that, as a little girl, I found Victor Hugo’s elegy for his daughter, Demain dès L’Aube, in a school anthology and was very moved by it.
How are your two collections – To Live In Autumn and Louder Than Hearts – different from each other?
One has a pink cover and one has a blue cover! For real though, To Live in Autumn was my love/hate letter to Beirut. Louder than Hearts goes back to my childhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, opens up to other Arab cities, mourns the loss and displacement all around us, and celebrates song and love and daily beauty, despite political turmoil.
There’s also the celebration of certain schools of Arabic music, like tarab or the qudud halabiyya and of Arab singers such as Umm Kulthum, and Abdel Halim Hafez. It also inhabits and asks questions about the space between English and Arabic.
How did you navigate that space and capture the beauty of Arabic references and ways of life through English?
It’s inevitable that I write from an in-between-ness because both languages exist within me. I use both languages when I speak to my friends and family, so this naturally echoes in my poetry. I think speaking more than one language gives me a bigger playground to stumble and have fun in – recently, I’ve been experimenting with a form I call the Duet, a bilingual poem in Arabic and English, where the two languages exist individually and also converse/argue with each other.
What about English allows you to express yourself better than Arabic and French?
My writing in English is a result of my post-colonial education. I went to an American university and used the language more in writing. But I do sometimes wonder, has English given me a certain distance that has allowed me to articulate things I wouldn’t have articulated in Arabic? I’m not sure.
Are we hearing enough Arabic voices in mainstream English poetry?
I try not to be too bothered with ‘mainstream’ [because] it usually means white and male, and probably dead. Poetry thrives in the margins, and there are many [international] poets with an Arab heritage thriving in English, such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Lena Tuffaha Khalaf, Leila Chatti, Hayan Charara and many more.
I’d like to also point out that Anglophone Arab poetry is burgeoning in cities like Beirut and Dubai – Hind Shoufani ran Poeticians before I started PUNCH (Dubai-based open mic night), Rewa Zeinati writes poetry and also edits Sukoon (online literary magazine), and poets Farah Chamma, Afra Atiq, Maysan Nasser, and Jehan Bseiso also come to mind.
Do you enjoy performing your poetry on stage?
I love performing poetry on the stage. There’s a certain excitement in sharing a poem and feeling the audience react and the gratitude that there are people there, physically, listening to your work. Most poetry nights here are open mics and my favourite part about these events is [they] create a space where people can meet around the love of words. I host PUNCH Poetry DXB that’s been running consistently since 2012. Blank Space is another regular open mic night, but it’s also open to music and standup. Dubai Poetics also host readings and workshops.