Though Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail writes of a different time and experience, I feel a powerful connection to her poems about war, loss, and exile. Both my parents lived in Vietnam during a time of upheaval.
I find that she is an essential voice in poetry, and indeed, I am quite surprised that her work is not more widely read and discussed, especially given our political climate.
Born in Baghdad, Dunya Mikhail has published two collections of poetry in English. The War Works Hard, published by New Directions in 2005, won a PEN Translation Fund Award, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of 25 Best Books of 2005. Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, published in 2009, is a multi-genre bilingual book in two sections, depicting her life before and after she fled from Iraq to live in the United States. In 2001, she was awarded the UN Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing. She lives in Michigan and works as an Arabic resource teacher for Dearborn Public Schools. She is currently working on a new manuscript of poems.
Dunya Mikhail read with Louise Glück on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at the 92nd Street Y. In preparation for this event, I interviewed her about various aspects of her poetry, including translation, censorship, and witness.
Cathy Linh Che: I’ve read that English is your third language, after Aramaic and Arabic. What do you think is the impact of having your work translated into English?
Dunya Mikhail: English made me more sensitive toward Arabic. I started to think about words more carefully and let me admit it: I caught myself sometimes picking Arabic phrases that would resonate in English as well. I always write in Arabic first and then try to translate this, so my writing goes from right to left then from left to right. Aramaic is the language I speak with my mother.
CC: In The War Works Hard, you speak in a number of voices and personas, and you also speak for others. Is it important for you to speak those who are silenced?
DM: Being a poet is so personal and so public at the same time. I am only with myself when I write, but I am with everyone when I finish the poem. People tell me that they could relate to these poems (just like you did), and I think, yes, I feel the same way toward other people’s experiences. I adopt them as if they are mine, and I try to distance myself from my own experience so that it looks like somebody else’s.
CC: In Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, you write:
“So I discover poetry is an amoeba:
It has an eye for witnessing, a foot
for leaving traces, and a flexible form.”
How important is the notion of “witnessing” and “leaving traces” to your poetry?
DM: My eyes were opened to war, and now, when I close my eyes, I still see war. Poetry, you know, is responsive, probably the most deeply responsive of all literary genres.
CC: How has/had censorship impacted your ability to publish your poetry?
DM: In Iraq, there was a department of censorship with actual employees whose job was to watch “public morals” and decide what you should read and write. Every writer needed approval first before publishing. That’s why I used a lot of metaphors and layers of meanings. This was probably good for my poetry but, still, you do not want to use such figures of speech just to hide meanings. Here, in America, a word does not usually cost a poet her life. However, speech is sometimes limited to what is acceptable according to public norms. So, in Iraq, text precedes censorship. In America, censorship precedes the text. So censorship is implicit in the U.S. and the West and explicit in Iraq and the Arab world. But the big relief you feel here is that you actually have an editor and not a censor anymore when you publish. You feel great despite the irony that the censor makes you feel so important that if you say the wrong thing you deserve to die. The editor makes you feel that you can say whatever you want, and it’s never the end of the world!
CC: Can you describe how the two sections of Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea differ for you? Did censorship or a lack of censorship affect the writing of the two parts?
DM: The first part was written and published in Iraq. Therefore it is not that direct compared to the second part, which was written after leaving my homeland. Actually, censorship was the main reason for my leaving Iraq.
CC: In addition, the first section comes from a direct witness of war in Iraq and the second section was written in America (from a vantage point of indirect witness) during another war in Iraq. How have these different vantage points affected the writing of the two different sections?
Although war is one and always the same for me, the first section deals particularly with the two wars I lived through in Iraq (the Iraq-Iran war and the U.S.-allied Gulf war), and the second section focuses on the 2003 war which I witnessed from a distance. In the second part, I was not there in the middle of the sounds of airplanes and explosions, but I could easily recall my terrifying memories. One new thing I noticed, however, is that my old friends whom I could contact in Iraq were giving me the impression, “Oh, well, I was injured, that’s ordinary…” It seemed to me war was becoming familiar in the country as ordinary fact, and that peace was the exception. Or was it because my friends didn’t want me to worry? Or was it because they wanted to get more attention with that denial of harm, especially now that I am on the outside?
CC: I am particularly interested in the ways that you speak of the impact of war on personal lives. How important is it for you to speak of the personal when speaking of the political?
DM: One of the diseases of Arabic poetry, in my opinion, is when it speaks about political issues in a non-personal way. They call these as “big issues” but there is no “small” nor “big” issue in poetry. There is only poetry in poetry.
CC: Is there any possibility for your return to Iraq?
DM: Not sure. Being “here” is an occasion to think of “there” but on a practical level, I am afraid I will not find the country that I know, or I will not know the country that I find. And it’s not all about me now. I have a daughter whose future seems to be more promising here. My husband’s niece was kidnapped in Iraq. It has been more than a year, and she has not been found. That alone makes the idea of return so scary.
CC: How do you think war has impacted contemporary Iraqi and Arabic poetry?
DM: Traditional Arabic poetry has a strict form that might not match with the mess of modern war and its urgency. Contemporary forms give it some flexibility. There is a tension in the Arab world between poets of traditional forms and the “prose poets,” as they are called. In Egypt, for example, there was an article about poets boycotting this poetry festival because this is formal and that’s not formal and so on. When it comes to Iraqi war poetry, some of it is trash (talk about the Iraqi soldier as a superhero who fears nothing etc.) and some of it is great (it allows poetry to survive the war).
CC: What do you think is the role of a poet in the U.S.? Is this different from the role of a poet in the world at large?
DM: The first known poet in history, Enheduanna, was an Iraqi woman. She wrote about Inanna on tablets in the cuneiform language. The interesting thing about her is that she had a position or title. It was “The keeper of the flame.” I think that if a poet should have any role at all, it should be (wherever and whenever) the same: “keeper of the flame.”
As part of the publicity campaign for Javier Marías’ Bad Nature, part of the recently introduced Pearl Series, I have been looking at Elvis related websites and contacting them about featuring Bad Nature on their sites.
In Bad Nature, the protagonist is a Spanish man working as a a translator and accent coach on a film shoot in Mexico. The story is fictional, but has an interesting portrayal of Elvis, and is accurate in it’s timing of his career. Elvis starred in many movies during the period between 1960 and 1967, but he took it a bit too far, and the movies became formulaic and his performances, both live and in the movies, suffered from his schedule of constant working and making movies. At the time, Javier Marías would have been about seventeen or eighteen, so (although we already know that this is fictional) it is unlikely that he shares this experience with the narrator of his story. Apparently Marías is obsessed with Elvis, so it is easy to imagine him wanting to create a story where he could place himself near Elvis, and this is probably the most likely way he would have gotten to work with Elvis.
This research has been cool because you would never really think about how many Elvis sites there are. According to Quantcast.com rankings, there are more than fifty websites in the top million websites on the Internet. This doesn’t sound like many, but the top million sites get a lot of traffic compared to most sites out there. According to some report written in February of 2008, there were approximately 156 million websites, of which 62 million were active. Considering that the total number of websites on the Internet has grown exponentially since 1995, this number could be way way more. So a site being in the top million is a pretty big deal. Many of the sites belong to Elvis impersonators. Oddly, a few of them belonged to motorcycle stores owned by guys named Elvis. But a lot of them are news sites, fan sites and collectors sites, to which I’ve been writing emails about the new publication. Some aren’t even active websites, which is crazy if you think about it, because more people have typed in things like “elvis-in-person.com” than have been to the New Directions website. There are Elvis fansites in many countries, like Norway, Romania, Poland, Australia, several from Holland, and there are Elvis sites that are just collections of links to other Elvis sites. Clearly, Marías isn’t the only person out there obsessed with Elvis.
The Criterion Collection released Yukio Mishima’s 1965 film, Patriotism, based on the story, which is being reissued in the ND Pearl series next month. It is the only film that Mishima made. We found a it on YouTube as well. The film is very faithful to the story, with no dialog and only written narration. Even the sex scene is still pretty hot. Mishima said that “Patriotism” was his favorite story. The film is especially haunting when considering that Mishima took his own life in a similar fashion only five years later. Click here for parts two and three.
Beginning in February, New Directions will release a new series by favorite ND authors in small format books, similar to the ND Bibelot series that ran from 1993–2004. The Bibelot series served as short introductions to the great 20th century modernist authors such as Henry Miller and Ezra Pound, as well as reissuing short modern classics. The new Pearl series will relaunch some of the Bibelots and introduce short works by new ND authors such as Javier Marías and César Aira.
The editions are pocket sized, with clean designs by Rodrigo Corral, New Directions’ Creative Director at Large, whose minimalist style gives the books a unique look—a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color; an abstraction of a pearl shining on the spine.
These gorgeous-looking, affordably priced ($9.95!) miniature masterpieces are also quite pragmatic. I really can’t leave my house without something to read, which can be problematic at times, like when I just have to walk down the street to meet a friend or something, does it really makes sense to carry a book with me? But there’s always the chance that the person I’m meeting will be late and I’ll be stuck without a book, but then I end up having to carry a bag with just one book in it, or folding a paperback in half and stuffing it in my back pocket. The Pearl series can solve a lot of these problems for me.
February will see the release of the first series of Pearls, including Patriotism by Yukio Mishima, Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca, and Tales of Desire by Tennessee Williams. The two I’ve read so far have been great. Patriotism is one of the most intense reads I’ve experience in a while, and Bad Nature is a wry tale that takes a comic premise down a dark alley. I used the descriptions from the back jacket of each book:
Shinji Takeyama, a lieutenant in the Japanese army, comes home to his wife and informs that his closest friends have become mutineers. Torn between his allegiances to the Emperor and his rebellious friends, Shinji and his beautiful, loyal wife Reiko decide to end their lives together. Incredible detail Mishima describes Shinji and Reiko making love for the last time and the ritual suicide by seppuku that follows.
“It all happened because of Elvis Presley.”
A boiled-down gem of a Marías story about how Elvis (in Acapulco to film a movie) and his hard-drinking entrouage abandon their interpreter in a seedy cantina full of enraged criminals after insults start to fly. When the local kingpin demands to be told what the Americans are saying, Elvis himself delivers an even more stinging parting shot–and who has to translate that?
In Search of Duende by Federico García Lorca, Translated by Christopher Mauer (Poems translated by Norman di Giovanni, Edwin Honig, Langston Hughes, Lysander Kemp, W. S. Merwin, Stephen Spender, J. L. Gili and Christopher Mauer)
The notion of “duende” became a conerstone of Federico García Lorca’s poetics over the course of his career. In his lecture “Play and Theory of the Duende,” he says, “there are no maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned…” The duende is portrayed by Lorca as a demonic earth spirit embodying irrationality, earthiness, and a heightened awareness of death. In Search of Duende gathers Lorca’s writings about the duende and about three art forms most susceptible to it: dance, music, and the bullfight. A full bilingual sampling of Lorca’s poetry is also included, with special attention to poems arising from traditional Spanish verse forms. The result is an excellent introduction to Lorca’s poetry and prose for American readers.
“I cannot write any sort of story,” said Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal, “unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.” These five transgressive Tales of Desire—”The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” “One Arm,” “Desire and the Black Masseur,” “Hard Candy,” and “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen”—show the iconic playwright at his outrageous best.
It’s rare for a movie to find its inspiration in a short story, but such is the case with Szerelem (1971), inspired by two short stories, “Two Women” and “Love,” written by Tibor Dery, both collected in his book published by New Directions: Love and Other Stories. The stories don’t obviously go together, apart from a slight ache and loneliness left inside the reader, but the movie weaves the two in such a way that the combination, once made, becomes inevitable.
Szerelem (Love) is a Hungarian movie by Károly Makk. Its rhythm is slow and lilting; moments are spent on silence and small words between a newlywed (played by Mari Torcsik) and her aged mother-in-law (Lili Darvas, pictured on the cover of Love and Other Stories). The old woman is slow and methodical. Her thought process flashes across the screen as she reads a letter from her son––amplified imaginings of Eleanor Roosevelt, a feathered hat, a black cat, a keyhole, Victorian silhouettes of women.
The letter, however, is a fiction created by her daughter-in-law, resolutely trying to hide the fact that her husband, the mother’s son, had recently been captured by the police. The letters describe a larger-than-life account of his doings in America while on the set of a film:
“The first night of the film will be a month from today in a New York film theater that holds thirty thousand people. It is just being built on the outskirts of the city on top of a high mountain and has to be completed for the first night because they want to open it with my film. From the roof you can see half of America down to the Cordilleras and the Andes, not to speak of the Atlantic Ocean, which is just as blue here as the Adriatic at Abbazia, where we were together one summer….”
The letter goes on, and his mother laps the grand story up. The fiction is thin, however, and on her more lucid days she’s able to tell something isn’t right. The question then becomes how much she wants to know and how much she allows herself to question.
Large sections are taken verbatim from the stories, lending credence to the movie’s existence as a separate but worthy component. The movie takes the simplicity of the two stories, the silence and longing and compassion, without adding sentimentality or dramatics. The darker undertones are drawn out and explored––difficult times with the Hungarian police, the need to conform and what happens to those who don’t, the paranoia and worry that set in. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with the daughter-in-law, other times it’s harder to empathize with the mother, but throughout it’s vastly clear that all they’re trying to do is survive, and whatever mechanisms in their lives that seem foreign to us–cushioned on a couch or in bed while watching the film or reading the stories–are their means of survival. When the second story enters the movie in the last twenty minutes, it’s with a mixture of sorrow and relief.
Posted by Kelsey Ford
Last Friday, the 27th of November, Tennessee Williams’ formidable play A Streetcar Named Desire opened at BAM’s Harvey Theatre to a sold-out audience. The staff at New Directions were lucky enough to attend the dress rehersal that afternoon, which, due to prevailing illness amongst the cast, was the first time the actors had done a full run-through of the play.
Under the direction of Liv Ullmann, the production was a tour de force from start to finish. The two-story set design opened the cramped Kowalski apartment onto the audience, with the upper story left stark and minimal—a gray, outer wall of the upstairs apartment featuring just a single window. The levels were joined by the fire escape, and there also featured two doors onstage— both within the Kowalski kitchen—effectively used throughout the play to convey emotion (with characters like Stanley stomping through and slamming them), as well as forming literal and liminal thresholds between the prison-like interior of the apartment and the outer world of New Orleans. In the blank space beyond these doors, this outer world was perfectly evoked through the use of sound effects and lighting.
Within these spaces, the actors played their parts with staggering virtuosity. Joel Edgerton ensnared the audience with his Brando-inspired portrayl of Stanley Kowalski, a man unafraid to mark what little territory in the world is his with aggressiveness. From the outset, his Stanley was commanding and comedically ignorant, forceful and violent, a man who feels he has to shout in order to be heard. Uncouth in his relationships both with women and with men, Edgerton gave Stanley his due dose of machismo, aptly defining the role in relation to his female counterparts— his passion-fuelled marriage to Stella, and his relentless bullying of Blanche. Indeed, Robin McLeavy gave a brilliant perfromance as Stella, a woman who is young and benign in the face of her husband’s truculence. She portrayed Stella’s gentle and unassuming nature with poise, and infused the role with emotion, particularly in the final scene, her tearful breakdown over Blanche further highlighting Stanley’s sadistic nature.
But it was Cate Blanchett, as aging Southern Belle Blanche DuBois, who stole the show. From the opening, Blanchett captured Blanche’s nervousness and charm, and injected as much humour as she did tragedy into the character, particularly in relation to Blanche’s obsession with her fading looks and her fondness for alcohol and young men. She played the part with creativity and precsion, seemlessly bringing to life one of Williams’ most fatal heroines, a woman tormented both by her ruinous past and by the brutish figure of Stanley. Indeed, it was in her scenes with the male leads (Stanley and suitor Mitch (played by Tim Richards)) that Blanchett deftly cut to the core of Blanche’s character; a displaced woman on the edge, who is desperate for security and admiration, yet is ultimately abused and abandoned by the men in her life. The drunken rape scene that culminates in Blanche’s inevitable demise was harrowing, the climax of the scene drowned out by the sound of the passing streetcar, a flickering of lights and an eventual blackout.
––posted by Katie Raissian