Interview with Fady Joudah on Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance — February 6, 2018
Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the Attic, Alight, a book-long sequence of short poems composed on a cell phone, Textu, whose meter is cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN Translation Award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement Prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.
Christopher Nelson: As is probably true for many readers, I first experienced your work when you won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize for The Earth in the Attic. Since then, what has remained constant in your orientation to poetry and what has changed?
Fady Joudah: For me poetry is always about constant change. Such is life. It's a pleasure to move toward a greater expanse where reproduction and classification (as forms of allegiance) are not what employ my poetry. I’d say I’m more liberated from the construction of aesthetic now; more focused on a state of being that writes the poem. The aesthetic is subordinate. The individual triumphs over art, I think Henry Miller said. Another attempt at an answer is to point to the movement in the books so far, passing through Textu. A restless diction is important to me. In “real life” no one speaks in the same tone all day long, or every day or week of the year.
Nelson: What employs your poetry now—or in Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance?
Joudah: A relationship with time. It's a struggle to try to configure an understanding of time that takes into account the accretion of human history (as document of subjective time) and science (as document of objective time). Both are imperfect and illusory. What is memory if not time travel, kind of thing.
Nelson: I like that, history "as document of subjective time." I think of poetry as being such an intense subjectivity that it becomes universal—or can be when written well. Does that resonate with you?
Joudah: Sure. There are constant subjectivities in human selfhood; death, for example, or love (in its peaceful and violent manifestations). Desire and displacement, too. These things become universal or, if you will, coefficients for the equation of the universal. Although these things are limited by a human centrality, as you know, what we have come to call the Anthropocene.
Nelson: Anthropocene—it's a word I associate with disappearances, a motif of the book, I think you'll agree—unavoidable, given your poems being about a relationship with time. I love the several poems that are footnotes to something: to a picture, to a song, and the two versions of the titular poem. It's as if the referent is gone, and we're left with a vestige—beautiful and able to stand alone, certainly, but more evocative and mysterious in the separation from the source.
Joudah: Thank you. I also think it is about examining our present as a past (which is to say it is seen or sensed through a futuristic imagination). As in the first titular poem, a quasi-medical-history poem, it asks, among other things, what it means that we are so addicted to spectacle that even death or illness is about fame. The disappearance then is of what and who we deem as ordinary: not only persons but cultures as well. The poem "Body of Meaning" in the same section (or pentad sequence) counters that.
Nelson: It is a haunting poem, and a strong counter to what has come before. In it, you've brought the mythic—Jedi, phoenix, Medusa—into the quotidian suffering. One of the things I marvel at in your poems is how they seem to have one foot in everyday life and one in a mythic space, where objects are charged with special significance; in “Horses,” for example—"foam in stalactites from equine jaws more exhausted than a crossroad"—and the wig in "Body of Meaning."
Joudah: I have been working with that mixture (of the mythic/fabular/daily) since my first book. (Incidentally, Medusa makes an appearance in “Image” in my first collection.) I feel the above mixtures expand my limitations. The mythic is both absurd and timeless (even as it offers itself up for disintegration and cross-examination), while much of the daily seems more "historic," bound to a probability of irreversible disappearance. The daily can become and remain universal or take on mythic dimensions, but more than likely it is consigned to a footnote in history, never to return in a future poetry (except for anthropologic or sociologic study). The mythic or fabular, however, persist precisely because of their disappearance (hence the absurdity) or, in some cases, because of their capacity for metamorphosis. Yet many daily events are capable of persistence, transformation. I think both elements, the mythic and the routine, stretch and shrink time in ways that are worth the juxtaposition. They also enrich language.
Nelson: The subjects and diction of many of your poems are drawn from your experiences as a doctor. Beyond that obvious influence, how do the two professions of poet and doctor inform each other?
Joudah: I've said this before, that medicine (and its tongue), as a vast field of knowledge and experience, is like learning a new language. At this point it is both daily and mythic. There are elements of science that will undoubtedly appear as vestiges of a fabular time down the line. It’s always been the case. I don't think poetry informs my practice of medicine. The ethics and spirit of the practice of medicine exist just the same without poetry. One has a predisposition, or not, to investigate and struggle with these domains of the moral. I think the question, which I get asked often, reflects a cultural fascination that does not have basis in practice for me. Although it is true that medicine informs my poetry, as I stated above. What does it mean that part of our “daily” (contemporary) existence is “scientific”?
Nelson: This is, perhaps, a loaded question to ask a doctor: Do you think poetry can heal?
Joudah: As in, if you have pneumonia, I can read poems to you instead of prescribing antibiotics or alongside them? I don't know. Healing is much larger than the four letters that make up the word.
Nelson: I'm thinking about psychic wounds or ailments, those illnesses there is no scalpel or pill for.
Joudah: Then poetry is only part of a possible healing, no more than visual art or sports or psychotherapy or friendship or kindness might be. I am not one who likes to focus on the uniqueness of poetry in a commodified world, as if not doing so belittles poetry or places it on the endangered list of the non-utilitarian. We all know writing has saved many lives, mostly of those who write. At least for a while. We also know writing has destroyed many lives. Poetry is no exception.
Nelson: I was delighted to see in your new book the poem "Tea and Sage," which is a revisiting and extension of "The Tea and Sage Poem" in your first book. I read both poems as heartbreaking and testaments to the power of love. What prompted this—can I call it a sequel?
Joudah: Yes, a sequel, or, again, a progression in my private bond with time. Certain narratives unfold on their own pace. The story of the bride and groom in the first Tea and Sage takes off in the second Tea and Sage. It was a story I couldn't unsee. It kept unfolding years apart. In this new poem, the power of love is also the power of women. And they are Arab women who refuse to let violence destroy them. The men in the stories also manage the same.
Nelson: One section of Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, "Sagittal Views," is your collaboration with the poet Golan Haji. What was it like to co-create those poems? How did it affect your relationship with time?
Joudah: It was one of the most beautiful experiences. It holds the book together. Our friendship grew. I began the project out of affection and admiration for his tender genius and also his anguish. Golan doesn't come across as a wound on a sleeve. But his wounds run deep, “deeper than speech” as I said in one of those poems. He knew that I sensed their depths well. This mutualism opened the door for possible beauty, away from "witness" and "translation,” the artifice of art and its politics of reception. It's as if we were writing letters to each other. But those were not letters. Golan is an amazing spirit and mind, a brilliant writer. An incomparable pleasure to work with a friend, collaborate, through a degree of trust across languages and within the same language. All our communications, written and spoken, were in Arabic. I can't tell anymore in those pieces where English began, and Arabic ended, or the other way around.
Nelson: That sounds exquisite. In an interview with Arabic Literature (in English), he speaks of his ongoing interest in the prose poem form, calling it "very tempting and rewarding." Your collaboration alternates between prose poem and lyric, and throughout Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance there are several powerful prose poems—"Palestine, Texas," "Thank You," and "The Scream" for example. What does that form offer or allow you that a lineated poem might not?
Joudah: I imagine that a prose poem offers me narrative cadence, the kind I do not envision line breaks for. The prose poems become a backbone throughout the book, vertebrae, metronomes for movement. Also, the variable diction in the book intrigues me, keeps me awake.
Nelson: One of my favorite poems in the book is "Last Night's Fever, This Morning's Murder." Can you talk about the circumstances it grew out of and the haunting refrain, "Amira"?
Joudah: "Amira" is a woman's name. The poem does arrive in the middle of the book as if a peak of feeling. It lends itself to the reader’s embrace as elegiac breath which names people and place, a grounding effect. It speaks of “Amira’s” death, of a private loss for Golan, yet another of his losses. I wanted to honor his grief because of our friendship, because I was with him when he learned of (or sensed) the loss. How does one grieve a loss that contains with it so much time? Otherwise, I am reluctant to talk about the specific story behind the poem, which almost always negates the need for the poem in the first place, if the poem is superseded by its declared narrative.
Nelson: I think that the most formally unique poem in the book is “Corona Radiata,” which Under a Warm Green Linden published, so readers can reference it as we talk about it. Am I correct in assuming that the form has ancient roots?
Joudah: Yes, the hemistiches, the classical Arabic qasida. Of course, the poem in English can be read in multiple directions. Perhaps it is the result of my seeking a state of rapture, a level of ecstasy, and in this the poem echoes classical Sufi poems. I do think, however, that most of Footnotes (and the idea of time or disappearance) isn’t possible without a journey into desire. You mentioned “Horses” earlier, for example, which you also published. It is, for me, a poem about a mystical state one finds themselves in. It goes through eros without dwelling in it. Even the twenty-eight lungs and hooves in it are an echo (or shadow) of Whitman’s bathers. If one is to play a game of numbers. Throughout the book I struggle with ecstatic irony so that I may begin again. Irony is an end of a road. It, too, must disappear for speech to become a new heart.