by Josh Luckenbach
I think of you as someone whose writing spans so much space. The poems in Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, your most recent collection, take place in France, Texas, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, to name a few. The diction also ranges from the language of physics and medicine to Star Wars and Greek mythology, and the list goes on. "Kissing Ulcers" which is published in the 6th issue of the Arkansas International is no exception—it jumps all over time and place and ends with you on a bike trail in Houston. In terms of language, the poem moves from medical jargon ("Kissing Ulcers"), to the newspaper-esque reporting of the opening line, to the conversational way that Jefferson's death is described ("He checked out"), to aphorism ("Home is what the dying call out for"), to the, I think, humorous "on an unknown date" of the third stanza, and, of course to the casual directness of that last sentence, which I love so much—"It was a deal." How much have you had to work to manage these movements of place and language in your poems? How conscious of it are you when you're writing?
This kind of representation of energy has been with me since my first book, The Earth in the Attic. A many-mooded effervescence (as in Louise Glück's characterization of William Carlos Williams) comes with risks; primarily that of alienating or disorienting a reader. What you describe as a disunity of place has to be juxtaposed to that of time and sentiment (T.S. Eliot). Preferably two of those unities remain intact, but only one is needed for art to hold. The definition of each unity is also less definitive than meets the mind. Perhaps “History” is the unity of place (and time) in the poem, not the events or locale. The expanse in my poem, if it is there, as you put it, is a negotiation of the matter the spirit must go through to arrive at a negative mysticism in which god is absent (Lukacs); a parallel to, an echo of, and perhaps less material version than, negative capability (which leans on the scientific method). In negative mysticism, as in negative capability, it is absence that is the necessary objective ingredient.
We've been trained to identify style from various cookbooks: the jargon of psychology, for instance, might posit the manic vs. the depressive (in search of trauma) in a modernity enamored with itself; there's also the jargon of power relations, or the misnomer of the political, that pours into national, ethnic, and racial modes to legitimize or disenfranchise the poem in the name of a liberal, democratic act that affirms the hegemonic, which it claims to resist; there's the rhizomatic and poetics of relation, too, a generosity that is less invested in preordained or corralled systems of reception and distribution. There are other jargons (the word always reminds me of Adorno’s “Jargon of Authenticity”). There’s the scientific jargon in a scientific age (as it advanced from the industrial to the digital) or the religious jargon in a secular age. Ultimately a successful mode of speech is an ideology: it has a community, a collective, and internal unity.
How can a poem approach the one level of art that Oppen spoke of: "One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,/He must somehow see the one thing;/This is the level of art/ There are other levels/But there is no other level of art." I think Oppen asks not only the writer but also the reader to focus on the one thread (distinct from the annotation of a work into a fixed point in the mind). Oppen asks us to go past the catalog of sketch and the dissection of the magic act (which we call form), granted that they are considered. The real task is to speak of the world. This, for me, is the one thread.
Your third book of poetry, Textu, is maybe the one I pick up most often. The form of those poems is somewhere between a haiku and a text message. Was it easy to drop that form after you were done with the book, or do you find yourself returning to it? I'm also curious if you have a sense for how the Textu project has informed the writing that you've done since? For instance, it seems to me that there's lyric intensity to a poem like "Kohl" in Footnotes of the Order of Disappearance that possibly comes out of the mode of Textu.
A better example than “Kohl” in Footnotes is “Traditional Anger,” which I initially wrote as three Textus in one. Also, “1st Love.” Yes, it was easy to drop the form once I was done with the book. I was relieved of the “unity” I’d inhabited (and that had inhabited me) for a whole year to produce Textu. As I’ve said before, Textu is simply an attempt at the art of the short poem. Since humans formed mass, settled societies, our memory of poetry has been, almost always, that of the fragment. What we live as poetry remembered is the recollection of states of energy, not of epiphany necessarily. In our age of infinite documentation and archive (wherein poetry is “preserved” more than remembered per se), an author of scholarly work distills her writing into a paragraph one can stuff in their pocket and walk with into life. The same occurs with novels: what remains of them with us are reproducible fragments of energy states, of ways of being in and connecting with the cosmic, which is filled with the minute and the grand, the human and the nonhuman. Textu, too, has multiple registers, oscillations, and diction, but seems harnessed by its form, a unity of place on the page, and perhaps a unity of time, if rhythm (meter in SMS character count) is considered an attribute of time.
Your degree is in medicine and you are a physician. As someone who knows you only as poet and translator, I’m curious whether the two worlds intersect. I don't mean how one informs the other necessarily—I mean it more literally: do any of your patients ever ask you about poetry? Do your coworkers read your books? (Or I suppose I might jokingly ask: do other writers accost you at AWP and ask you about medical problems? Because I've been having some trouble with my left foot recently and I'd like to get your opinion on it...)
No, for the most part coworkers and patients don’t read my work. I don’t advertise it. And I have no problem with anyone asking me a medical question anywhere. It is always a humbling experience, sometimes a conflicted one, fraught with vulnerability.
What have you been reading lately that's inspired you?
I am reading How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts by Iman Mersal. Recently I read Domestications by Hosam Aboulela. I also just read Barbara Fields’s anatomy of ideology in her landmark essay: Slavery, Race and Ideology, a brilliant capture of that “one level of art.”
FADY JOUDAH has published four books of poems, most recently Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance (Milkweed Editions, 2018). He has translated several collections of poetry from Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/TLS 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.
JOSH LUCKENBACH is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas where he serves as Web Editor and Assistant Poetry Editor for the Arkansas International. He holds a BA degree in Poetry from the University of Virginia.