Interview with Philip Metres: Literature and uprising

The first in a series of short interviews with writers and translators discussing literature and the Arab Spring.

Philip Metres is the author of, recently, To See the Earth (poetry, 2008), Come Together: Imagine Peace (anthology, 2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (criticism, 2007). He is also the author of four chapbooks, abu ghraib arias (2011), Ode to Oil (2011), Instants (2006), and Primer for Non-Native Speakers (2004). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, and has garnered an NEA, a Watson Fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council Grants, and the Cleveland Arts Prize in 2010. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. Were it not for Ellis Island, his last name would be Abourjaili.

1. How do you think literature may or should respond to this spring’s events? What role (or roles) would you say literature has played, and how might those roles change?

To take my Marxist professor Purnima Bose’s definition of literature as that which is written, it’s fairly safe to say that the peoples’ employment not only of Twitter and Facebook, but also of WikiLeaks, deserves credit; these courageous people maximized the forms and content of political accountability and transparency on the one hand (WikiLeaks), and grassroots organizing on the other (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Marwan Kraidy has argued that the publication in Arab newspapers like Al Akhbar in Lebanon of Wikileaks material exposed the hypocrisy and corruption of certain regimes, and particularly in Tunisia.

As for literary forms, much has been written about the poetry of the slogans that have emerged on the squares of Egypt. Elliott Colla wrote a strong piece called “The Poetry of Revolt,” in which he explained:

Anyone who has ever chanted slogans in a public demonstration has also probably asked herself at some point: why am I doing this? what does shouting accomplish? The question provokes a feeling of embarrassment, the suspicion that the gesture might be rote and thus empty and powerless. Arguably, this nervousness is a form of performance anxiety that, if taken seriously, might remind us that the ritual of singing slogans was invented precisely because it has the power to accomplish things. When philosophers speak of “doing things with words,” they also remind us that the success of the locutionary act is tied to the conditions in which it is performed. This is another way to say that any speech act is highly contingent–its success only occurs in particular circumstances, and even then, its success is never a given. Success, if it is to occur, happens only in the doing of it.

Colla’s argument is one which I’ve written about in greater detail in Behind the Lines: War Resistance on the American Homefront (2007); in some sense, language is a symbolic act, and symbolic acts are themselves a language. These revolutionaries have been a new language made manifest.

There were also, of course, occasional poems. I posted a poem by Saadi Yousef, the Iraqi poet, called “Splendid Egypt, Our Mother, Has Returned to the Square” (translated and send to me by Salih J. Altoma), which begins:

Splendid Egypt, our mother, has returned to the square
Splendid Egypt has unfurled her head scarf to the wind
And turned around, as a banner fragrant with jasmine and gunpowder
Splendid Egypt, our mother, has returned to the square

2. How have these events come to bear on your own writing, reading, and translating?

I’ve been doing a little bit of blogging about the uprisings during this Arab Spring; poems come slowly, even more slowly when they involve events experienced mostly through mediatized lenses. I wrote about this phenomenon in “The Bullet of Information and the Lag of the Soul,” in which I wrote about the crush of this bullet and how our souls can barely react before the story changes. In light of this, I wrote that “In the face of such bruising trauma and grinding daily tragedy, perhaps the challenge of the artist–not just the literal artists, but the creators and curators of the soul that we are–is not simply to chronicle and attend to the present, but to achieve a stillness.” What I meant by that is the artist’s job is to somehow be fully present and fully witnessing, not simply to the present, but to eternity, the eternity in the present and outside of time.

I, like so many others, was elated by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. In another post, dated February 13, 2011, entitled “Egyptian Revolution Song,” I wrote “To see these faces in the streets, for so long under emergency rules–the hope, the humanity, the brightness in the eyes–is to be on the brink of great joy. Much work is ahead for Egypt, and there are many possibilities for this revolution to be coopted and hijacked, but this was a moment where the ideology of fear and the history of violence suddenly lifted.”

In the subsequent days and months, of course, the dangers of revolution were equally visible, in the assault of U.S. reporter Lara Logan (among others) in the streets of Egypt, the burning of Copt churches, and riots in the streets. Simultaneously to church burnings, Muslim and Christian Egyptians have taken turns protecting each other; when Muslims prayed in the square, Christians surrounded them to protect them from water cannons, and the imam over the loudspeaker said, “Look around you: do you see it is the Christians who are protecting us. Do you know why they do this? They are following the teachings of Jesus. They have Jesus in their hearts.” I don’t believe that made U.S. media accounts, and I had to read it in Sojourners magazine.

I don’t know how it will affect my writing, but the more important question is how it will affect the Arab world and, by association, the planet.

3. As a writer deeply engaged both with US literature and literature of the Middle East, what are your hopes now for these literatures and for their relationship?

Forgive me if I write that the most important change, I hope, will be not literary, but between people. In one of my classes, we recently engaged in Skype conversation with Iraqi students; perhaps the revolutionaries of the Middle East can share with our students not only their commonality (they love to sleep, hang out with friends, go to parties, etc.), but also their drive to create a better world. U.S. students (or anyone, for that matter) who learn about the commonalities (and differences) with their cohort in the Middle East–through literature, and through new media connections–will be less likely to approve of hard power solutions and imperial interventions. That is my hope. I will continue to teach Middle East literature because I don’t think there’s a more powerful medium to imagining the unimaginable other.