Hayan Charara is a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor. His poetry books are Something Sinister (2016), The Sadness of Others (2006), and The Alchemist’s Diary (2001). His children’s book, The Three Lucys (2016), received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak (2008), an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. With Fady Joudah, he is also a series editor of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. His honors include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucille Joy Prize in Poetry from the University of Houston creative writing program, the John Clare Prize, and the Arab American Book Award.
Born in Detroit in 1972 to Arab immigrants, he studied biology and chemistry at Wayne State University before turning to poetry. He spent a decade in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program. In 2004, he moved to Texas, where he eventually earned his PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston.
He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Queens College, Jersey City University, the City University of New York-La Guardia, the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and Our Lady of the Lake University. He currently teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is married, with two children.
Zach Savich: In a recent correspondence with Randa Jarrar and Fady Joudah, you mention being interested in the conversation “that no one at the party is having or cares to have or even knows how to begin.” You’re discussing the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, which welcomes a first or second book by a poet of Arab heritage to that conversation, but it seems relevant to your work as an editor and poet more broadly. In “The Price of Tomatoes,” from The Sadness of Others, you evoke the uneasy “cost” that’s summoned by two plain, quoted phrases (“$1.99 each,” “Israeli tomatoes”). In Something Sinister, the phrase “And I haven’t even begun telling you,” from the end of “Animals,” seems like an undercurrent even of poems that tell us a great deal: “Family Portrait” explores what a photograph doesn’t show and what the people in it “will not tell”; “Usage” considers what’s behind and around everyday language. What poetic techniques do you think are particularly useful for contributing to—or composing—the conversation “that no one at the party is having?” There are obviously many personal and cultural and aesthetic and linguistic obstacles to doing that, which a poem must contend with or even “dismantle,” as you suggest in the introduction to Inclined to Speak. What poets have been models, for you, for ways to do this?
Hayan Charara: I’m not sure about poetic techniques, but the first step for entering into a conversation, poetic or otherwise, must be to listen. Don’t talk. Don’t write. Just spend time with what others are saying or have been trying to say—let them speak. Often, my poems come out of such a circumstance. My whole life I’ve heard stories, experiences, and arguments from the people in the various communities that I belong to that I hardly hear anywhere else. Another way to say this: in coffee shops, in the homes of friends and family, on front porches, in community centers people are talking about things that are mostly absent in the larger conversations taking place on TV or film or the stage or in newspapers, novels, or poems.
We all know such silences. And for every kind of individual, there’s a seemingly endless supply of them. The kind I was thinking about in my back-and-forth conversation with Fady Joudah had mostly to do with being Arab and American—and a poet. Let me be clear about something, and you know this: there’s no single Arab American narrative; there’s no all-encompassing Arab American experience. But, Arab Americans do have lot in common. My experience of being Arab in America may be peculiar to me, but many Arabs “get it.” And—the point I was making with Fady and Randa Jarrar—is that many others don’t get it.
Let me give an example of this: I was with a group of Arab writers recently, we were chatting, and one of them, a young poet named Marwa Helal, told us about an experience she went through at the airport. She was selected for a pat down search—her luggage also received additional screening. So far, this is a familiar story. Almost anyone could jump into the conversation at this point—but it takes a turn.
During the search, the security agent starts speaking Arabic to the young poet. The agent isn’t an Arab, but he knows some words and phrases, and presumably because of the Marwa’s name, or maybe her face, the agent assumes she’s Arab—and he supposes right. So he is speaking Arabic to her. “Marhaba,”he says, and “Salam ‘alaykum.” “Hello,” and “May peace be with you.”
Now if the story ends there—if the conversation stops there, if the “listening” ends there—what does a person make of this? Maybe a person thinks that the agent’s gesture seems friendly, that he’s trying to connect to someone by way of her language, or maybe he’s trying to ease the uneasiness, the anxiety, or any other emotion the young poet feels in response to being searched.
I’ve heard stories just like this so many times. And the possible interpretations I’ve just given, they’re among the most common responses to such stories when I’ve told them. They are also what I’m thinking of as the conversations most people are having at the party. The conversation that we were having—the young poet, the other Arabs with her—it was markedly different. The young poet, she was taken aback by the security agent’s “friendliness.” It didn’t comfort or ease—it unnerved her. Why? The agent can be friendly. If he wants, he can also be cold and indifferent. He can be almost any way he wants during a search. The young poet—an Arab and a Muslim, a fact about herself the agent identified, openly, by addressing her in Arabic and using the most common greeting among Muslims—she cannot react to the situation in the same way as the agent. Sure, I suppose she can smile, but it’d be phony because she’s not feeling happy. She can’t make a joke, either. Strictly speaking she can, but if she does, it can lead to more not less trouble. What she has to do—what most people like her have to do—is abide by certain behaviors because any deviation from those acceptable behaviors will keep her from getting through security, from getting onto a plane, or to her destination, or worse, she can find herself handcuffed and taken to a backroom for questioning.
When the security agent speaks Arabic, what’s more acutely felt in that moment—felt by the poet, by all the Arabs sitting around the table listening to her—was the immediate recognition of what it means for an Arab to speak Arabic at an airport. I never speak Arabic at airports—certainly not to security personnel. It can be dangerous to do so. It’s a common enough news story, after all: a passenger speaks Arabic, and soon enough, usually out of an unspoken “concern” expressed by fellow passengers, or even the airplane crew, the passenger gets escorted off the plane.
Even if the agent meant to be friendly to the young poet, to Marwa, if he took the gesture of speaking her language to be totally innocent, it was anything but.
A poem’s job isn’t to explain a situation like this—that’s what essays do, what our conversation here may do—but the job of a poem becomes a lot harder if, to begin with, the reader (or an editor, or critic, or poet-teacher, or a classmate in a workshop) doesn’t understand or recognize the tension at the heart of the poem.
I’m hoping that in my poems, I’m opening the doors to these types of conversations, making it easier for others to get into them in meaningful ways—making it easier for young Arab poets, for example, to feel that they can also go there. That’s what Lawrence Joseph and Naomi Shihab Nye did for me as a young poet—in terms of the Arab conversation. In terms of the Detroit conversation, which is also about survival, poverty, and violence, Philip Levine did that for me—Jim Daniels, too, and Lawrence Joseph. The list of poets who brought me into the conversations they were having is a long one. I could go on and on. And I hope to keep going go on and on, to keep finding poems that lead me where I haven’t gone yet. I hope it’s a lifelong practice—it should be.
ZS: I like the notion that poems open doors to conversations. In that metaphor, the poem is an action. The point might not be what it says, but what it invites others to access. This seems like it could position the poet as a kind of guide—which could be both a gift and a burden, particularly for Arab American poets who, as you suggest in Inclined to Speak, may feel that identity is “the sphere toward which most discussions gravitate and the traps from which most Arab American poets work ceaselessly to break free.” In your poems, you sometimes guide the reader by using types of misdirection. Here is the third stanza of “Washing my Father,” which follows two stanzas that describe washing “where / he could barely reach”:
This is not about pity.
I did not yet know that kind of love.
Nor is it about a son
bathing a father too old
to wash himself.
I was ten years old.
He was a young man.
Plain and simple,
my father made me.
It is what he did.
He never required a reason,
and nobody ever asked why.
Other times, we’re guided between public and private landscapes—or we see the ways in which public landscapes include private experiences. I’m thinking of “Narrative,” which, after offering a wrenching family history, ends in the city (“I ran past the bar on the corner, the burned-out diner, / the liquor store, the bowling alley, the church”). Often, this guiding gets complicated: “Now I have become you, and you me,” you write in “Something Sinister Going On.” If we think about poems as “guides,” what do you hope your poems guide readers to? Who or what are they most responsible to? Or perhaps you’d prefer to reject this way of thinking about poetry? Maybe the biggest way to ask this is: to whom or what do you think poems owe the most responsibility?
HC: I just finished writing an essay about memory and place, in the context of poetry—specifically, my poems about Detroit—and so I can’t help but think of what I wrote there about poems and responsibility. In the essay I ask what I owe the city of Detroit, a place that I still call my “hometown” even though I left the city—abandoned it, really—twenty-five years ago. Richard Hugo came to mind, an argument he makes in The Triggering Town: “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” Louise Glück also came to mind. In Proofs & Theories she writes: “The artist’s task…involves the transformation of the actual to the true. And the ability to achieve such transformations, especially in art that presumes to be subjective, depends on conscious willingness to distinguish truth from honesty and sincerity.”
The short answer, then: I feel responsible to the truth—or, more accurately, a truth—which you can read as “knowledge” or “understanding.” And keep in mind, of course, that I’m not a philosopher—my pursuit of truth is poetic, and for me this means there’s room not only for more than one truth or understanding but for it to change (constantly) or to be completely undone (in the same breath, if it so happens). I can openly admit, and I do so in the essay about memory and place, that the Detroit of my poetry is not the same as the Detroit of my memory, which is also not the same as the Detroit of the past or the present. So whatever truth or understanding I arrive at about the city of Detroit, it simply can’t be the truth—a reader shouldn’t accept it as such—I definitely don’t. To my mind, any truth or understanding (poetic or not) must be incomplete, and it will often be wrong. The best outcome—the one I hope for—is that my poems, through my own poetic stumbling and struggling, reveal to you your own insights. In this way, the poet may ultimately be both the best and worst guide.
I like the way you put it—“misdirection.” I’d qualify it by adding that I don’t deliberately guide readers in the wrong direction, just to other ways of seeing. And most of the time, this is because either I can’t quite put my finger on an experience, or else, if I reach something like certainty, it barely lasts long enough for it to sustain me. I’m much more certain about realizing many possible pathways for thinking, feeling, or knowing an experience. If my speaker says, “This is not about pity,” it may actually be about pity—I’ve looked down that path, saw what I could see, and—for good or bad reasons—decided to keep looking. And I’ll go further: if a poem of mine serves as a guide and actually gets you somewhere, the very next thing you should do is keep looking. I have—I can tell you that.
Earlier, you’d asked about poetic techniques. The “poetic turn” is another way to talk about misdirection. Some part of the poem (the “preface” if you will, the opening) builds expectation, then it turns against that expectation—or, the same part of the poem provides a description, then the poem “turns” and reflects on the description. Michael Theune’s book Structure & Surprise collects essays by poets—for students of poetry—explaining a variety of “structures” that rely on poetic turns (be they ironic, descriptive-meditative, retrospective-prospective, concessional, and so on). The poems you mention here, I wrote before reading the essays in Structure & Surprise, but these sorts of structures, we find them in poems old as well as new. And no doubt, I inherited the practices (knowingly or not) from the poets I’ve read.
Something simpler is also going on. These rhetorical moves (“This is not about pity…Nor is it about…”), they tell the reader: you can see what you want, but do not overlook the obvious: “my father made me”: he caused me to come into existence; he compelled me to do things.
I should say something else, too, that’ll throw light (or shade maybe) on everything I’ve already said: you may know much more about my poems than I do. I suppose this is obvious to poets but maybe not to all readers. To use a cliché: sometimes, it’s hard to see what’s happening right under our noses. It is for me, at least. I have to work extra hard to understand my own poems—to perform a “close reading” of them. So when I hear from readers—when they make statements about a poem, or ask questions like you do here—it’s a gift, really. You’re doing what I hope my poems do: open up into otherwise unnoticed, unimagined insights and realizations.
ZS: The obvious seems important politically, since even the best policy and ideals can cover-up experiential facts, and also aesthetically. For me, that can feel most obvious when I’m working with student-artists who aren’t writers: a sculptor will say her piece is about abrasion, and it can feel right to reply, “Then you should abrade the material further. Abrade even the tools. Make the concept more obvious.” Obviously, that will reveal other subtleties. Your poems can feel notably candid, in what they obviously reveal, but they also retain a sense of privacy, of subtlety and selection and alteration: in general, they don’t overlook the obvious, but they also leave a lot out. What advice would you give poets who wish to write about family, or a place, but who aren’t sure what to emphasize, what to obscure? Perhaps that involves both poetic considerations—what will help transform the actual into the true—and more personal ones, concerning what one wishes to reveal, especially if it might be read autobiographically.
HC: Okay—I have a feeling that I need to take the long way home with this one. First, let me say that when it comes to so many of my poetic considerations, my personal history figures as much, if not more so than my poetic history. Bracket that for a minute.
Tony Hoagland was a teacher of mine. After reading a draft of my poem “Usage,” he told me he admired the way its various aspects (its language, its emotional expressions, its subjects) kept nearly flying out of orbit, but always, before crossing that line, they stayed on course. He was impressed with the way I managed to “control” the poem.
“Usage” is continually threatening to slip away from the reader’s grasp, from the boundaries of language, and its tendency to lose control is reined in by way of the poem’s structure (in this case, it’s that of a usage glossary: the poem moves through commonly confused words, like a and an, which and that, you, your, and you’re—and it moves through these words alphabetically, and each is illustrated with sentences indicating the “proper” usage of words—often, with violent or devastating consequences in real life—war, for example, or the denigration of a person or a people). To use Robert Frost’s analogy about form, the poem’s structure is the net in a game of tennis.
This has so much to do with my father.
The “control” exercised, the reining of an experience that feels chaotic, is a survival mechanism.
I lived in a violent home, where at any moment chaos often erupted, where an uneventful moment could easily, inexplicably, suddenly turn into one dominated by fear, anxiety, and terror. One consequence of living with someone who brings chaos to nearly every aspect of your life is to exert control—any kind possible—over the few areas that aren’t (yet) chaotic. That’s what I did. I found a number of ways to “escape” the violence and, more significantly, to control (even if it was mostly imaginary) the unpredictability and uncertainty of my father’s world. Poetry was one of those escapes—not because it allowed for catharsis or was therapeutic, but because I could impose control onto a poem in ways that I could not on my own life. Today, decades later, this survival mechanism is evident (to me, at least) in the way I control the imagery in my poems, the language, and obviously also what I reveal or obscure.
There’s a flipside to this. In creative work, and in life, you cannot exert control all the time—you have to let go. And it feels extremely risky to do so; it feels dangerous. But I do it anyhow because, well, you have to, and also it makes for healthy relationships with people and it’s also just a great deal of work to constantly try and manage the unmanageable. Though, I have to say, I usually find letting go of the real or perceived control I have over my poems a Herculean effort. Fortunately, with poetry, while letting go is necessary, so too is exerting control. We have different names for it. Some of us call is “control”; others call it “form” or “structure.” Whatever the name, if I had to give advice to someone unsure of what to emphasize or what to obscure in a poem, I’d point to form, to structure—to these controlling mechanisms—as a way to navigate the poem. It works for me, anyhow, and maybe it’ll work for you.
Beyond that—and I’ll say more about that in a sec—the advice I’d give would depend on who you are as a person and what kind of poet you see yourself as or want to become. Are you a poet of image, a “thinking” poet, a poet drawn to the slipperiness of language, to wit or humor, to lyricism, to lucidity, to meandering? In my own work, at least when I’m aware of what I’m doing, I try to negotiate the differences between these poetic and personal considerations. On the one hand, I think of myself as a frank poet—I speak my mind, without fear or worry, without hesitation. On the other hand, though, I try to be as serene a person as possible (obviously I sometimes fail), but the attempt sometimes means saying or doing things in such a way as to mediate conflict or confrontation. To put it another way: the impulse of the poet comes up against that of the person. Every poet must come to terms with this conflict.
Richard Frost’s poem “For a Brother” enacts one way of dealing with the problem of revealing or obscuring:
FOR A BROTHER
When I was young, there was a song that went,
“I told you that I love you, now get out.”
Last night, drunk at my party, you knocked over
the gas grill and blackened swordfish, you lout,
then tried to feel up my neighbor’s daughter.
You sick rantallion, you phone at four a.m.
with a new joke, or to brag, or to bed for a loan.
Young, I didn’t know what that song meant.
It just seemed funny. Today I am
bone tired of the crude fraternal weight
of your old bullying, you jackalone,
you sack of black rats’ balls, you tank of piss.
And yet I love you, and so I must wait
until you’re dead before I publish this.
If you think now of the poet and the person who must make considerations (poetic and personal), the poet here presumably reveals a great deal, but the person holds back—if we take the poem to be “true,” he holds back the poem itself, until there’s a death in the family. True or not, the poem shows us a negotiation between the poet and the person, between the poetic and personal.
Reading this poem now, I’m wondering what else could have been revealed and what details were obscured? Probably a lot. But none of those unknown-to-us obscured details are necessary because those already present in the poem accomplish more than enough. In fact, the accusations against the brother feel like a two-by-four against the brother’s character. The biggest whacks against his character, though, aren’t in the brother’s acts but in the monikers heaped against him: “sack of black rats’ balls” and “tank of piss.” And these gain weight precisely because the brother is dead. And what’s more—and this may be the most important detail to note, in terms of the “advice” the poem exhibits—“For a Brother” is a sonnet. The poet uses a control mechanism—a form, a structure—that figures in determining, to a degree, what and how much will be revealed or obscured.
That’d be where I would send a poet: if you cannot on your own decide what to reveal or obscure, or anything else in a poem, then look to poetic form, to structures to guide you.
I know that any “control” I exert over a poem is ultimately arbitrary and maybe even illusory, but it still serves a purpose. Beyond revealing or hiding, these controls also allow for invention and creativity that, on my own, I might never imagine.
For instance (and I’ll stop after this), I recently employed an arbitrary control on a poem that utterly made the poem. The control was to limit each line to a certain number of syllables, and without this imposition (and a few others I added), the poem would have necessarily been completely different. Here’s the story:
I’d discovered a bee hive under a soffit in our house, and some months later, when I decided to write a poem about the bees, I happened to have just gotten over a very serious illness that landed me in the hospital, in the ICU, for a week. And during that week in the hospital, the attending doctors didn’t have a clue what was wrong with me, which included, among other things, some of my organs failing. For about five days, I was dying.
Obviously, I didn’t die. I made it through, and along with me so did all the questions and thoughts I had during this encounter with mortality, which were heavy on my mind when I began working on the bee poem.
Initially, the poem was all over the place: it was about the life of bees, it was about my own life, and my sickness; it was also about the fears and knowledge I’d gained from having thousands and thousands of bees in our home, plus the fears and knowledge I gained from nearly dying; it was about my worries, the most overpowering of all, the worry I had about my children, who were 4 and 5 at the time, and whether or not they would remember me had I in fact died. Almost dying also had me thinking more acutely about the dying world we live in—everything from the plants and animals passing through our lives, some of them into extinction, to the inevitable extinction of the universe.
Like I said, the poem was a huge mess. So I imposed a syllabic restriction: six syllables per line. Then I added to the line a restriction on the stanza: six lines per stanza. Why six syllables and six lines per stanza? Simply: beehive honeycombs have a hexagonal shape. Then, I decided on a final “control” on the next level in the hierarchy of a poem, the poem itself: it would twelve stanzas total. Given my preoccupation with mortality, with life on earth, with the future life that my children will eventually have without me in it, the number 12 felt symbolically right—time is measured in groups of twelve; there are twelve months in a year.
Here’s the poem:
BEES, HONEYCOMBS, HONEY
Bees, thousands, and thousands,
surviving in a hive
under the soffit; bees,
honeycombs, and honey,
and dampness, and old wood
sticky in the sunlight;
and the beekeeper’s hand,
carefully, and slowly,
vacuuming, and taking;
the bees tumbling, gently,
into the makeshift hive;
honeybees, and honeycombs,
and honey, glistening;
honey, the only food
that will not spoil; honey,
pulled from the pyramids,
still sticky, and sweet,
thousands of years later;
I may not believe, but
I want to; and the bees
before my eyes are now
disappearing; bees God
in the Qur’an inspired
to build homes in mountains
and trees; bees that built homes
in the trees near the grave
in Detroit; and the bees
in Jerusalem’s graves;
bees in every city,
and in every age; bees,
honey, and honeycombs,
through disaster after
disaster; bees building,
and scouting, and dancing;
bees mating, protecting,
and attacking; the bees
are now disappearing,
and dying; and the bees
the beekeeper cannot
save are dying but still
guarding the empty hive,
butting their heads against
my children, boys who will
grow to be men, and build
their own homes, now dipping
fingers into honey
darkening on the ground;
they are dying; the hive
is gone; the queen is gone;
thousands and thousands, gone;
but the bees will come back,
and the hive will come back;
if not here, then elsewhere;
and there will be more bees
making more honeycombs,
more honey, and more bees;
and one day all the bees
will be gone; gone, and gone;
honeycombs, and houses,
gone; and trees, gone; oak, elm,
birch, gone; all trees, flowers,
gone; and birds, leaves, branches,
cicadas, and crickets,
grasshoppers, ants, worms, gone;
and cities, and rivers,
big cities, small cities,
big rivers, small rivers,
gardens, and homes; and homes;
the bees will be gone, and
only their honey will
survive, and we will not
be around to taste it.
If this is a poem that comes out of a near-death experience, this fact—at least explicitly—is concealed. It’s transformed. The anxiousness still persists, and the fears, too, but they get treated differently. I owe much of what happens in the poem to its structure, to its formal elements. What I mean to say is that I didn’t arrive at what to obscure or reveal on my own—not entirely. No poet ever does. What a relief, what a burden lifted!
Zach Savich is an associate editor with Tupelo Quarterly. His most recent books are the poetry collection Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018) and the memoir Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue, 2016).