After the Debut: An Interview on Poetic Process with Hayan Charara

Monday, October 3, 2022

For the second installment of the After the Debut interview series on poetic process (catch up on the first interview with Safia Elhillo here), I am honored to have spent time conversing with the legendary Hayan Charara. I first met Charara through the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI): a literary nonprofit founded by Barbara Nimri Aziz in 1993, dedicated to providing community and mentorship for Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) Writers, whose former presidents include Naomi Shihab Nye, Etel Adnan, Khaled Mattawa, Randa Jarrar, and Charara himself. With Fady Joudah, Hayan Charara co-edits the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize series with University of Arkansas Press – the only book prize for first (and second) books dedicated to uplifting Arab American writers. I introduce Charara in this communal context because it is how I first connected with him; in addition to being one of today’s most influential living Arab American poets, his work has included this vast communal legacy, including his work editing Inclined to Speak: an historical anthology for contemporary Arab American poetry.

This interview focuses on Charara’s latest two collections: Something Sinister, winner of the 2017 Arab American Book Award, and his recent release These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit. Between poems like Animals and the collection’s epic abecedarian Usage, weaving between intimate familial portraits and larger reckonings of nation & language, Something Sinister is the kind of book which will be looked back on as contemporary canon in US literature, especially among fellow Arab Americans. It is also the stage from which These Trees… emerges – a project reaching towards elegies in which a mother “kneeling / in the dirt under the sun, calling me darling / in Arabic, which no one has since,” as well as meta-critiques of US poetry institutions: “In the sixth year / the prize was granted / to a poet who wrote a lovely poem / about war, the war / in Europe / … / his poem / still mentioned an Arab, / a young man who performs / an act of purification, / removing hair / from his body, / before flying / a plane into an office building, / an act that took place / fifty-eight years after the war / the poem is actually about.” With an inexorably entangled personal and political poetics, Charara has given us an elegiac mode which feels nothing less than apocalyptic.

George Abraham: Ocean Vuong once talked about how there is often a single poem in one's debut which will lead a poet to their second book. What poem, if any, was this for you? As someone in this interview series who has written more than two poetry books, I’m curious to hear if this held true for you, both in respect to your book one to book two journey, as well as your journey from Something Sinister to These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit — your two most recent poetry books. Or, if not, what was the “ahha” moment for These Trees… where you knew it had to be a book?

Hayan Charara: In between all my poetry books, from first to second, second to third, and from Something Sinister to These Trees…, I took a break from writing poems—on average, a year or more. I didn’t intend to do this, not the first time around, but I liked what happened and so I kept it up. The time off made it so that I no longer felt any burden to continue the path I’d been on with the poems in any given book. I also dropped a lot of the habits I’d developed, the sort that could easily have become crutches. Best of all, for a while at least, I simply didn’t have to think about my poems. I regularly worry about my poems, fret over them, get upset by them and at them, feel disappointed by them. The list goes on and on. It’s how poems get written, I suppose, but as a day-to-day way of being, I don’t recommend it. Anyhow, the time off between books has helped to alleviate these worries, and because of this practice no poem has really led me from one book to the next. There are echoes and patterns from book to book, but these arise out of obsessions (and perhaps traumas) more than from individual poems. The “ah ha” moment, as you call it, has usually come at the other end of the journey, when I’ve been writing new poems for a few years and I start to see how they’ve been in conversation with each other.

GA: How did your writing process for These Trees… differ from your last book, Something Sinister? What changed or was (perhaps frustratingly) the same? What surprised you most?

HC: Something Sinister took me a very long time to write—almost a decade. The material of those poems, their ideas, they weighed on me in ways that I don’t think any other poems have, not even the elegies for my mother from my first book, which I wrote in the immediate aftermath of her death. In retrospect, some of the time was spent laboring over the arguments in the poems, the ones being made, implicitly and explicitly, but also, and maybe more importantly, the arguments I contended with.

By contrast, These Trees… is almost twice as long, with twice as many poems, but took me about half as many years to complete. I’m still having arguments—with myself, with others, with ideas—but I am a lot more trusting of where my thinking and feeling takes me, even if I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with or like what I’m thinking or feeling. I’m more willing to accept the logic behind the process, or the lack of it, and the consequences that follow. Another way to say this: I’ve gotten better at letting go. Not an easy thing to do for me. Mind you, my version of letting go may come off as utterly controlling to someone else, but for me the shift has been noticeable, and as a result I think I have been able to do and say things, in these new poems, that I wouldn’t have or didn’t do before. With the poems in These Trees…, I paid a lot more attention to subjects I had overlooked, and I went to forms that I hadn’t yet attempted. And so on. These Trees… was a kind of release from the burden that produced Something Sinister

GA: At your book launch for These Trees… you spoke so beautifully on trusting in your slow writing process for poems. This made me think of Viet Tanh Nguyen’s essay on the value of slow thinking in writing/the humanities in general. I’d love to hear more about your journey, coming to have patience with your work throughout your career, and how you gave and continue to give your poems the permission to evolve on their timelines despite capitalism and academia and and and… What practices of patience did this book, or any of your previous ones you want to speak on, teach you? What advice would you give for poets who may be coming across dry spells in their poem-making process?

HC: Dry spells, or writer’s block—the anxiety of having to write, or of not being able to write—doesn’t bother me. How I see it: you are writing when you are, you are not when you’re not. That’s all. It is somewhat egomaniacal and disconnected from reality to think that we must always be writing. We aren’t only poets. We are so much more. Besides, if I never write another poem, will people stop calling me a poet? Will someone pick up my books and say, these poems are by the former poet Hayan Charara?

If you are in a dry spell, then perhaps at some point your poetry writing will return. And if it doesn’t, then your work as a poet will be done and you never have to worry about it again. Ultimately, the most natural thing any poet can do and inevitably will do is to stop writing. There’s a permanent “dry spell” in store for all of us.

All this is to say that I don’t really think about time when it comes to my poems—that there’s never a deadline for them, or a sense that they should or need to be finished within a certain time frame.

This reminds me of something I talked with students about recently. We’d read Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and we were discussing the play’s pessimism. I argued that there’s an alternative to the pessimistic reading. If the pessimistic reading is about misery, doom, and gloom, the optimistic reading is about dignity, survival, and hope. I had come across some criticism that framed the pessimistic versus optimistic in a slightly different way, and I found it useful. Instead of framing the play as pessimistic or optimistic, we can consider “the short view” and “the long view.”

The short view is basically the pessimistic view. It is the perspective a person takes when they see what’s happening all around them or what’s likely to happen in the short term, and from that they conclude that very little can be done to save a person, to better humanity, or the environment, and so on. This short view of the human condition leads to a pessimistic outlook. 

With poems, the short view may be the one that says, “I haven’t written a poem in a month, or a year, and I will never write again.” Something like that. 

But there is also a long view. A person who sees the human condition from the long view perspective understands that death is a given. We all die…others will die…in the long run, everything under the sun eventually dies. So, death—of a person, an idea, a way of life—these aren’t punishments, and they aren’t signs indicative of a person’s lot in life. Death is simply a fact of life.

If you take the long view, you also understand that if you want to survive life—if you want to survive the long game—you need to be objective. Despite seemingly pessimistic things all around (war, violence, pandemics, bad laws, poetic dry spells), you keep the long game in mind. You keep the future in mind. The long view is an expression of hope in the future. Not certainty, but hope. It’s also one way a person survives life. And in this expression of hope, on its insistence despite so much darkness and gloom, there is an extraordinary dignity. 

GA: This is a bit of a selfish question, since it concerns one of my favorite poems in the whole collection. I’d love to hear more about the longer poem "Fugue" which, for readers who haven’t picked up the book, is a long poem which forms most of the book’s center section, and is comprised entirely of quotes from Alan Watts, Phillip Levine, Sven Lindqvist, and Chris Hedges. Readers of Something Sinister know that you do immaculate work in the long-form poem. I’d love to hear more about how this poem came to you, and the process behind placing it as such a central focal point in your collection!  

HC: I began “Fugue” in 2006, and I gave it to fellow poets in a workshop I was in, led by the poet Jane Miller. On a weekly basis, we’d been sharing with each other critical essays on poetry, articles on poetics and craft, interviews with poets, and the like, and it was my turn to submit something. I hadn’t written a poem in almost a year—partly because I’d just finished my second book but mainly because I’d quit smoking and I found it unbearable to write and not smoke a cigarette. However, I had started putting together notes on what would become “Animals,” my poem about the war in Lebanon that had taken place only a few months earlier. “Fugue,” though, was the first lengthy piece of writing I put together since quitting smoking. I didn’t think of it as a poem. I thought of it, simply, as my entry into the conversation the poets in my workshop were having. Again, we’d been reading and talking craft and poetics; we were concerned with aesthetics and literary criticism. Meanwhile, though, I was consumed with the violence that had been heaped on the Lebanese during the so-called “July War,” which took the life of my grandfather, as well as over a thousand other civilians, and left my family’s city in Lebanon in ruins. In short, I couldn’t help but think about language together with violence, and “Fugue” brought together several voices who have touched on this relationship.

I don’t think “Fugue” went over that well with my fellow poets. After I gave it out, they responded with a whole lot of silence. I may be misremembering what happened, but I think we took a break and didn’t really talk much about the piece after we returned. I suppose that’s neither here nor there now. What did happen for sure: the poets in the workshop, at the very least, had to read “Fugue,” whether they liked it or not. They had to deal with its arguments. And that can’t be undone.

I put it away after that, but over the years I often revisited it, adding more voices to it and fine-tuning the contrapuntal relationship between the various speakers and ideas. What struck me in revisiting it more than a decade after putting it together (and many of the excerpts from “Fugue” are themselves even decades older) is how unfortunately relevant the arguments remained. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. I teach ancient literature every Fall semester, and many of the troubles the ancients endured, we still go through. Something, though, had changed in the intervening years—or at least it seemed to me: poets seemed to have become a lot more receptive to, aware of, and vocal about the intersection of art, poetics, language, and violence in ways they weren’t back in the early 2000s. The subject of “Fugue” had elicited little more than blank stares from my peers all those years ago, but it is now apparently the stuff of workshop syllabi, literary blogs, and even Tweets. And so it felt right to bring the piece back into the larger conversation.

GA: What would post-These Trees… you say to pre-debut you? Or to poets trying to write their first books, generally?

HC: Wait.

Wait to publish your poems. Wait to show them to others. Wait to read them publicly. Wait to finish your work.

There is such a rush to get our poems out, for people to read them, to have them published, to have them collected in a book. The rush we feel when working on a poem or when we believe we’re finished with one can be exhilarating, true. That rush is also a remarkably good catalyst for getting work made. As a young poet, I certainly gave in to the rush. But in retrospect, I wish I could have been more restrained and tempered about getting my poems out into the world, and even with writing them. The excitement and momentum that we may feel in making poems can sometimes obscure insights into them. And some realizations—about the objects of our attention, about the workings of our poems, our minds—simply arrive “late.” Also, if we take most poets at their word about the significance of revision, then as a rule poets would be letting their poems sit for a while. And for me, revision is in large part about walking away from our work—leaving a poem be, letting it suffer whatever ravages (or benefits) that time, distance, a changed perspective, and change itself may bring about.

You can’t wait forever, of course. The point is not to reach perfection or to be so wise, so skilled as a poet that you will only make great poems. If you find yourself looking back at earlier work and feeling embarrassed, good—it probably means you’ve grown. The mistake lies in believing that a poem or a book of poems must be written now, must be published now, must be read now. This simply isn’t true. If it is—if we believe that a poem must exist in the moment, then it suggests, perhaps, that poems are more like news articles—that they have a short lifespan. Maybe it’s old-fashioned of me to think that poems can and do outlive the times in which they’re made. If so, fine. That’s what I would tell my younger self—the old school way is all right.