One gift that holds a place of honor in my office is a signed copy of the long poem “abu ghraib arias” by Phil Metres. The chapbook’s cover is made of Combat Paper, veterans’ uniforms pulped into paper. It is a precious candle lit against such an enormous darkness.
A month ago, the poet Fady Joudah and I carried on a dialogue over email. The occasion was the publication of Sand Opera, but along the way we discuss quite a bit — including love and politics, Elaine Scarry and the theology of torture, the Oliver Stone Syndrome and American Sniper, empire, the Iraqs I carry, 9/11, Standard Operating Procedures, black sites, docupoetics, trance states, recursion, poems about children, the vital vulnerability of the human body, the openness of ears, the sound of listening, the War Story and its exclusions, the Umbra poets and the Black Arts Movement, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers), and the state of Arab American literature.
We hope that this can be the start of a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab-American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world. We welcome further conversation. More to come.
See an excerpt of their conversation below:
PHILIP METRES is the author and translator of a number of books, including Sand Opera (Alice James 2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (forthcoming 2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Poetic Texts of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (chapbook, Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (chapbook, Flying Guillotine 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (University of Iowa 2007). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the PEN/Heim Translation grant, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Were it not for Ellis Island translation, his last name would be Abourjaili.
FADY JOUDAH: Sand Opera is ultimately a book about love, its loss and recapture, and the struggle in between. Many will completely misread it as another political book of poems, in that reductive, ready-made sense of “political” which is reserved for certain themes but mostly for certain ethnicities. So part of that misreading is due to the book’s subject matter or its Abu Ghraib arias, and also because it is written by an Arab American.
PHILIP METRES: I love the fact that you read Sand Opera as a book about love. The longer I worked on the book, the more I felt compelled to move past the dark forces that instigated its beginnings, forces that threatened to overwhelm it and me. Love, as much as I can understand it, thrives in an atmosphere of care for the self and other — the self of the other and the other of the self — through openness, listening, and dialogue. Because the book was born in the post-9/11 era, it necessarily confronts the dark side of oppression, silencing, and torture. Torture, as Elaine Scarry has explored so powerfully in The Body in Pain, is the diametrical opposite of love, the radical decreation of the other for political ends. The recent release of the so-called “Torture Report,” and the torrent of responses (both expressions of condemnation and defensive justifications) has felt like a traumatic repetition for me. Didn’t we deal with this during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “Enhanced Interrogation” debate? Even now, the political conversation seems to skip over the fact that torture contravenes international law and is a profoundly immoral act, and moves so quickly to debate its merits — whether any good “intelligence” may have been gleaned from it. Why is that the writers who have gained the widest platforms were veterans of the war, some of whom participated directly in interrogation — for example, Eric Fair’s courageous mea culpa December 2014 Letter to the Editor in The New York Times — while Arab voices, like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s, are so hard to find and so marginalized? …
Read the whole interview.