Commentaries - January 2012

For the Arabic language

Maged Zaher

Upon moving to Olympia, WA, in 2003 and starting up the radio program Cross Cultural Poetics, my first impression was that Seattle was a suburb of Cairo. That was because two of the first people I met in the area were Maged Zaher and Mohammed Metwalli, both émigré poets from Egypt's capital. They immediately made me feel part of a larger conversation about poetry that was happening amongst themselves and many other of Egypt's writers the next block over, in Egypt. How to resist the death grip and the officialdom of the Mubarak regime without opening the door to fundamentalist attitudes towards the poetic word that might suppress it? To what extent might the prose poem, and a flattening of the lyric, help to undermine a certain hyperbole perceived as problematic for the Arabic language? What is the most productive way to lay out a lineage of modern Egyptian poetry? Maged Zaher has been a guest on CCP at least four times discussing these questions as well as his own poetry (#1,#30, #91, #195), so I thought to start this column that Jessica Lowenthal, Al Filreis, and Mike Hennessy were kind enough to ask me to write as a commentary on CCP by calling attention to his voice and writing. Indeed, the very first episode of CCP focused on the situation of publication and censorship in Egypt and China. Subsequent appearances for Zaher concerned themselves with translations of fellow Egyptian poets, Zaher's own poems as they would later appear in his book Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer, and he and Pam Brown's collaboratively written book far-out library software.


Zaher's book Portrait of the Poet as an Engineer bears a dedication page “For the Arabic language.”  Zaher writes in English, but I've long contended that when he reads one can hear the rhythms, accents and sounds of Arabic forming the music and connective tissue of those poems just underneath: American and Arabic languages at once, as it were, in a single body of work such that under the sign of "For the Arabic language" the poet intones a colloquial American animated by the very tonalities it dedicates itself to. In far-out-library software (published by Tinfish Press) Zaher and Australian poet Pam Brown (an editor of Jacket I) wrote a chapbook length poem together, extending the Arabic sub-beat into Australian-English and complicating the matter of individual voice, which is an illusion. (Zaher began early on by wanting to “destroy personal voice.”) Zaher, who has even been involved with a slam scene in Seattle, intends to be listened to, not only read; I'm glad CCP has been able to provide a sometime platform for that. In Portrait Zaher writes:


     Arabs in search of news 


DC Opens: Arabs in search of news
Midnight is rarely offered here
It is only forced against this information lust
I’m too in search of information
And not just these sudden belief systems
I encountered on the tips of the airplane wings
I’ll go down while thinking irrelevant thoughts
Yet I will be thinking them deeply
You must be from Seattle to be able to do so
Yes, I’m also from Arabia, we travel on the backs
Of well-fed camels: tick tick tick without dreams
Or ethnocentric political thoughts: derivatives derivatives
Whose escape plan is this?
Call it dignity if you like, but sort it out, and remember
You don’t stand a single chance against cuteness
From each according to his abilities
And to each according to his sugar mama’s love
Oh liquid email we drink you in the morning we drink you
In the afternoon, we drink and we drink
And we throw a finger licking pose at the end
Purple strategist of the after world,
There are simple descriptions of everything
And once mastered the world will feel safer
Even with murder to wear in the future
Our friends really cared, they just waited
For cheaper and sexier mobile devices to call us from
These were times made not to risk reasoning
How did they figure out that we are easy to hustle?
Please smile, the airport security is watching
They mistook the meanings of these ink scribbles
Yes we were lost and the earth isn’t to take us kindly
Sugar mama please forsake us
What if we die strangers?
Life is taking us to the chess boards
But remember, as a manager, your role
Is to think about velocity: theirs and ours
We are always alive for a couple of days
Being self critical doesn’t always work
And you should be coy about it: No more
Surrealist interviewing skills, just average management please.


Zaher’s field of reference, from Marx to Celan to the Human Resources department of a large corporation to the random public American fear of the Arab, work a proscribed vernacular from its inside. Zaher can’t hide out in a poetic language that will grant him autonomy from any of the threats, be they corporate or the racial. His poetry is not hermetic. Neither does his language capitulate to the middlebrow or to commodification. If “self critical doesn’t always work” one can usually be diplomatic, where to be diplomatic is a subtle resistance to partisanship or a sense of the natural and fitting. Personal identity needs to be destroyed but one can always be charming.


It is true that CCP emerged at the height of our outrage over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that I've considered it crucial to make available the voices and language of poets in Arabic. For the program I've dialed up and spoken with writers from Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Gaza, Israel and Iraq in recent years. If CCP might provide a resource for people in places where Arabic is spoken, and for those of us interested in what they are saying, then poetry really can be news that stays news.


Though the communications technology makes much possible I also think poetry works best if rooted in a conversation in three dimensional space. These days it no longer feels to me like Seattle is a suburb of Cairo, which makes me sad, especially given all that is going on there. But I always enjoy talking with Maged Zaher. Meanwhile, it seems I’ve never done a show specifically on Zaher’s Portrait of The Poet as an Engineer. Maged Zaher, as a Coptic Christian living in Seattle but going back and forth to Egypt, has an intriguingly refracted positionality on recent events and his own poetry. Can I ask CCP listeners to look for a new Zaher appearance on the program, reading from Portrait and discussing Egypt, in the very near future?


 I, Karl Marx, Declare my Inner Contradictions


Variation - 1


I, Karl Marx, remember that my comrades - whom we shared together the cigarettes, the Whiskey and the class struggle - had left me to my thoughts. I turned to God: Father, father, why have you left me? The Roman counselor refused to offer me the plea-bargain and drank my blood with the central committee. I told him, you shall see me again, I shall resurrect in the WTO protest, I will be an angry woman with pink hair, and when the city turns republican, I shall offer my body and blood to the last tear gas bomb holder. He shall kiss me on the lips and they will crucify me again.


 Variation - 2


I, Karl Marx, was not with the Russian troops in Prague. These were not my pictures on the tanks. I was not the grand inquisitor of Spain. I did not order the burn of the Jews, the Heretics, to protect the true belief in Proletarian values.


I, Karl Marx, am a descendant of the Pharos, but in case any of my grandmothers fucked a Greek, an Arab, a Persian, or a Turk, I might not be able to guarantee my ethnic purity.

‘Out of London’: cris cheek

Memory and acts of language

Edward Lear's illustration for The Owl and the Pussycat

I am at MLA in Seattle this week, doing a lot of talking with folks from various fields about “epic.” Epic, it seems, touches us all. Speaking yesterday on what feels to be an important distinction between “orality” and “performance,” I was reminded of the following response sent to me by poet cris cheek on his relationship to the epic form:

out of London in the mid-twentieth century i would point to my engagement with any sense of epic form emerging from the quest (the Jabberwocky), travel writing (The Owl and The Pussycat and The Jumblies) and i became aware of epic thru The Odyssey and that larger scale of going out and coming back through challenges and confronting demons and learning through experience and of how one lists the gathering, the production and the circulation of such resources. of course the multi-modality written of in terms of the delivery of such an epic form energizes me . . . that the oral is a grounding for poetry, that it is sounded and sonically projected through architectural design, that it is spatial and embodied and connected to gesture. that poetry is performance and is performed and witnessed . . . that poetry is live . . . (or at least can be) and subsequently socially dispersed and carried in memory as acts of language.

The point that really strikes me here illustrates that epic poetry is “socially dispersed and carried in memory as acts of language.” What can be blurred, sometimes, in broad discussions of what are called “oral traditions,” are these elements: social dispersal, memory, and history. Through the “act” of language that is the oral performance of epic, histories are constructed that subsequently give shape to group and individual identities. The epic, in a sense, can tell us who we are (or, alternatively, who we are not, depending on whose histories are centralized.)

That African American poets (to return to my own research) would look to the epic form in the 1950s, as national identity was being reconstructed via legal interventions that redrew the boundaries of citizenship (think Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 1954) is a particularly important intervention into the construction of national history. As a precursor to Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), Langston Hughes's “Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem” (1951) begins that work. Taking the time to work through the vast array of allusions in that poem is a history lesson in itself.

One final note on form: cris cheek typed all of his wisdom into the “chat” box on Facebook. I'll leave the analysis of the implications of that act on temporality and memory for another time.

Home from the sea

Memories of definitions of "book"

Chax Press book by Eileen Myles, featuring rough handmade St. Armand paper.
Pencil Poems, by Eileen Myles (Chax Press 2011)

Always books, there were always books in our multiple homes, growing up across one nation and across an ocean. I remember, in school, being so buried in a book, more than once, that I did not respond to teachers calling my name, but had to be physically jostled in order to be taken out of the book. Book then was an odd mix of physical and nonphysical space, room enough to get lost in. Think of the way a book is entered (and here I speak of physical books, with pages to be manipulated by hands, groups of pages bound together in what I suppose I should call a codex, though that word seems only to rarify what I grew up with as common daily object), a dance step in, beginning with an act of opening to space, only light and shadow on a two-page spread with nothing printed there, then a turn to a page-spread almost as blank, a half-title page, with only a title, sometimes only a part of a title. It's a doorway, a place to quit the world outside, shake it off, and prepare to come home ("Home is the hunter, home from the hill / And the sailor home from the sea") or at least to some other place. Another turn of the page and one encounters information, a confirmation of the title, a name or name of author or authors, most often a year that stamps the publication in time, and a publisher's name and sometimes place, and perhaps we should take a moment to exhale; for the first time, here we are, where this particular home begins to take shape, and gives us something of its created history. Not yet at the beginning of the main text of the book, which often can occur 9 or more pages after one opens the book. But we have negotiated the exit point (from outside the book) and entry point (to a place where we begin to conjecture the matter of the book). We have been eased in, and we are ready to be engaged, we who love to be astonished.

This place or home is not a refuge, for as we know, while it can comfort a reader, it can also crush her or him, make him cry, make her call out in anger; it can entirely satisfy one's reason to enter in the first place, and it can entirely frustrate any attempt to find such satisfaction. It can, if made with such intention, most often by an artist, engage as tactile substance, even a changing or developing tactile substance. It can require physical discomfort (think of a book whose pages are sleeves which one must move near and peer inside, reader's head becoming almost a part of the book's structure); it can ask for manual dexterity (multiple pop-ups, folding and unfolding pages).

In early days of being lost (or found?) in books, I had not yet encountered definitions and commandments, i.e. "A book shd be a ball of light in one's hand" (Ezra Pound, poet), or "A book is a multiple and sequential series of picture planes" (Walter Hamady, book artist), or "A book is a container and conveyor of information and ideas" (Joseph Traugott, curator). Then, as now, here's to the future.

Erica Baum

from Jersey City to Jesus

I first started to look at Erica Baum's art when she did her Card Catalogue series: close-up photographs of old library card catalogues that showed several of the card tabs imprinted or typewritten (and sometimes, for really old cards, handwritten) to indicate subject headings, categories, etc. Several of these photos show the catalogue drawer labels. My favorite of these is "Jersey City—Jesus." Anyway, that was 1997. Erica has done several interesting projects since then, all exploring the visual qualities of language as photographic subjects; words in the visual ambience, just there for the looking. Ubuweb has a pretty good collection of PDFs marking the progress of this art. Have a look.

“The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation.”  — Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street

In 2011, Jacket2 ran photographs from Dog Ear.