Visiting Writers: An Interview with Fady Joudah
Fady Joudah is a poet living in Austin, Texas. His most recent collection, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, was published earlier this year by Milkweed Editions. Joudah has three other collections of his own work published, in addition to extensive works involving the translation of Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan. Outside of his writing, Joudah works as a doctor. The following is from a telephone interview with him.
Austine Model: How long have you been writing poetry? And, what specifically draws you to poetry as a medium?
Fady Joudah: I would say that I have been writing poetry with any seriousness for about 20 years. I think as a child I liked, very much, the experience of being offered verses to memorize. Or, listening to my parents, especially in this case, my dad, or other people, other relatives infuse verses in conversation. This was all in Arabic, of course. And, I always liked the dramatic effect of verse and the emotive utterance of it— the world it conjured in me.
The way I look at it now or have looked at it for a while, is that as natural as poetry is for the human brain to engage with, I think some of us have an extra keenness, or an extra compulsion, to stay with it. For most of us, we move on, and it is something to recognize, [but] you move on to other things, other crafts of the mind, so to speak. So, I suppose that I really would like to make a risky statement, and say for all serious, committed writers of poetry, it is something in the physiologic wiring of their brains.
AM: I think I would agree with that; I think there’s a specific type of thought pattern that you either have or don’t have, and then you’re kind of forced to the page. You mentioned reading and hearing poetry from your parents— was there a specific poem or memory of a first poem, or poet, that made you think, ‘I have to do this; there’s nothing else I can do,’…you stopped listening to it and knew that you had to start doing it yourself.
FJ: I would say that my first powerful memory was reading poems in an obituary for a renowned, prematurely dead Egyptian poet named Amal Donqol. He died of lung cancer, and there was an obituary for him in the newspaper with some of his last poems.
I remember one of the poems that struck me had, sort of – an epiphora of white. It talked about the whiteness of death, the association of the whiteness of death, through the whiteness of hospitals: the bedsheets, the nurse’s uniform, the doctor’s coat, the pills, etc., etc. I wanted to experience the world in a capacity that would allow me to write something like that because to write like that, I would have to feel life so intensely. I must have been thirteen, maybe, at the time, or twelve.
And, later on, it was obviously— you could say Darwish always stayed with me, but less consciously in my younger years. And, of course, the history of classical Arabic literature, as I grew up with it. When I returned to the States, and I was in college and medical school, somebody directed me to Rilke. It was a bit interesting to move closer to Rilke and Emily Dickinson—those two intensities, different as they are. Rilke is a bit bardic and far more masculinely dramatic than Emily is. ‘Because I could not stop for death,’ I think, was the first poem I ever memorized in English.
You asked me what made me want to become a poet and we talked about the neuroscience of the brain, as it relates to the music of language in the brain or language as music in the brain. I’ve always found it a very powerful experience to have come into poetry from a different language than the one I write in, and from a language that I never wrote poetry in. I never wrote poetry in Arabic.
It always tells me something about the false sense of originality that each language has about itself, because there is something, in a sense, you could say anthropologically universal about poetry and about the construction of language. Or a certain evolution of language, a certain level of evolution of language in the human mind, after a certain point— thousands of years ago— that is quite stable to move across, and all these kind of moments of insisting on difference, for what I would call superior reasons, not necessarily for beautiful reasons. As I grow older, [that] grows all the more false in my mind.
AM: Is it difficult for you to move between your work as a doctor and the creative work of writing poetry, or do you find that they connect and inform one another?
FJ: The short answer is: it’s not difficult. You can ask the poets who are teachers whether it’s difficult for them to get out of the class mode, the teaching mode, the didactic mode, in order to perform their creativity, and the answer is: it probably is. But, also, it’s not impossible, obviously, because they write it. So, I think the question about the doctoring business is reflexive, available, with a tinge of the exotic in it, because of doctor bit. So, I tire from it, frankly.
You know, there is a kind of romantic thing about— people always ask you about doctor stuff, and I’m supposed to sit there and give people, kind of, pseudo-lectures about healing and all this stuff, you know what I mean, which is a bit problematic, because it tempts the author or the writer to be in this pulpit position.
AM: So, I want to switch and talk about your writing process a little bit…Do you write every day? Do you ever write in a workshop setting? And, who do you turn to for feedback or input, or is it a very personal thing that you do on your own?
FJ: I can’t write every day while working in the hospital. And, the writing process changes, obviously, with time, as one becomes more skilled in writing. Before, I would always be attentive to thoughts and feelings and experiences in fragments, while at work, or…anywhere, like everybody, and collect them later. I always had to do this piecemeal business.
But, now as writing became more fluid for me, and my relationship with diction in general, I am far more comfortable to wait for moments or days of quietude and work for hours uninterrupted on days off. [I have] a very good relationship with tapping into energy sources, so to speak; I invite them in, and they come, and we communicate. I imagine most writers with a few books, or a few years, to their writing life have readers— private, trusted readers, who you share work with, and that includes me, too.
AM: …You were saying inspiration is just sort of something that comes to you in moments of quietude, and then you’ll spend hours working on it…Does each poem have a different lifespan? Do some come out fully formed, and then others take years to write?
FJ: I would not say that it’s inspiration that I wait for, I think that’s a misnomer. Tapping into energy is not about inspiration for me. It’s about a sort of mental and physical availability to previous awarenesses, energies, experiences, dialogues with the self and others, that are able to formulate themselves in their own way, sort of like in dreams. The inspiration may be a trigger, a phrase, a feeling coming back from yoga, or in the middle of a yoga class, or something my wife says to me, or my friend says to me.
But, the other stuff flows from a constant negotiation and dialogue that I have with myself. Some [poems] come out fully formed, so to speak, and some require a long time, even if they deceptively seemed complete at first. And, even those that seem fully formed, you go back to them and realize you have to adjust this word, that phrase, and maybe you’ll change the form of the poem later.
It also takes some life skill for me to know when to let go because otherwise, one becomes really obsessive. [It’s] like painting—you’re constantly doing these little brushes, and you realize it has nothing to do with the work itself, but everything to do with some deeper, unresolved entanglement your brain has. It has nothing to do with any influence or any anxiety or anything; [it’s] some kind of other madness altogether that is projected onto another body that happens to be the art body.
AM: Going back to form…in your collection Textu, you base the meter on cell phone character counts. How did you come up with this idea? And, in general, what role does form play in your work? Do you find implementing a certain form restrictive or freeing?
FJ: Textu is a conversation with the art of the short poem, which is an ancient art. So, whether you want to include haikus, or even variations of sonnets, or the fact that what we remember, in time, of poetry are always short stanzas—even of long poems. That’s what you remember— these kinds of epithets, in a way, or epigrams.
It was part of my daily life to communicate so much with other colleagues through texting. It occurred to me to think of the moment we live in— [to think] about communication and technology. Even the idea of the randomness, which is not entirely random, of the character count in a text message, before— of course, it’s all free for the imperial citizen now, or so it seems.
Originally, it was 160 characters per payment, and that was some random approximation that the original tech developers of the SMS came to through mathematical studies of the character count in telegrams. I thought that it would be interesting to mark that moment in time when we thought we really were constrained by form, which would dissolve into new forms— quickly. And, it dissolved very quickly, especially for the imperial citizen. If you go to many places in the world, they still have to count their characters because they do pay for every single text message.
I think that form restricts one’s illusions of capturing the world in which one writes or the world that one writes down. Form somehow strips the mind from a particular hubris, if you will, about one’s relationship to one’s own work.
There is no poetry that does not involve form—it’s the palpability of the frame as a frame, as a marked or visible enclosure, that somehow erroneously, for many of us, defines what form is, like in Textu or a sonnet, etcetera, versus other forms that are inherent in the syntactical modalities, sometimes sonic modalities [of the poem]. There’s no poetry without form—one has to figure out what the form is, or what form means.
AM: …How do your translation projects influence your own writing? Are there ever times you find yourself writing in English, but what you really want to say is an Arabic word, and if that happens, what do you do?
FJ: [Asking] how translation influences someone’s writing is the same as asking, ‘How does reading influence your writing?’ I find that question repeated ad nauseum to be fundamentally problematic. Translation is a way of being with language in general, and being with reading, with texts, and it’s about close reading. So, one has to ask specific questions about the texts that have been translated first, and not necessarily about the language, or the act of translation, about translation as some sort of universal process, which in a sense it is, just as writing is a universal process, or so-called original writing, is a universal process.
Imagine we lived in a society where 50% of people spoke two languages comfortably; you wonder what kind of questions about translation we would have. In the end, you’re just searching for words. God knows that English has plenty of words that feel untranslatable even in English. And, I don’t believe in the untranslatable to start with, but that’s a different topic altogether.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Poetry Foundation
Austine Elizabeth Chilton Model is a staff editor at Café MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.