Cantos: A New Directions Blog

New Directions Interview with Dunya Mikhail

with 2 comments

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.”


Written by New Directions

April 7, 2010 at 8:38 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Iraq and One of the Diseases of Arabic Poetry Jump to Comments Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail was interviewed last week by Cathy Linh Che at New Directions in anticipation of a talk Mikhail gave April 8 with poet Louise […]

  2. Thanks for posting this article. Many info I got here.Keep writing

    Robert Ernesto

    April 25, 2010 at 12:00 am

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