NY Arts recently got in touch with two writer/poets and art theorists Amir Parsa and Ammiel Alcalay. In a fascinating roundtable, the two discuss world literature, interactions between art and literature, the Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni, and the nature of formal innovation.
Amir Parsa: Ammiel Alcalay, two of your books have just been published. If I could read only one, which one would you recommend? And if both, which should I go with first?
Ammiel Alcalay: I would say: find more time to read! I think all my books circle back on each other, turning the prism to other facets each time around. Both books were long in the making, but very differently composed. from the warring factions is a book length poem that occupied me from 1992 to 2001. It involved an ongoing engagement with and gathering of historical materials dealing with the Gulf War, the war in ex-Yugoslavia, the massacre of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, the Cold War, Native America, the Roman Empire, and all kinds of other things. a little history includes materials of mine dating from the 1970s but is centered around three public lectures, now turned into texts, concentrating on the poet Charles Olson in the context of the Cold War, but a Cold War situated in present U.S. policy, particularly regarding the so-called Middle East. The structure is somewhat unique and, I hope, will provide a very new framework for how we might think about the thought and investigative research work of poets in the larger political, historical, and cultural context.
AP: Both are inventive and stylistically surprising. The collage-like aesthetic that is at play also works. Risky, but I’m appreciative of the risks you have taken. The aesthetic position is also in tune with the content and the modality that you felt you need to explore it in, or rather, write it in. These are very “writerly” performances.
AA: I remember very clearly the blue paperback, Women of the Fertile Crescent, edited by Kamal Boullata, that came out from Three Continents Press in 1978, the only American press then publishing work translated from Arabic; it was where I first encountered Nadia Tueni and other Arab women poets that most people still haven’t heard of. I remember Tueni’s poetry vividly, and the photograph of her. I only realize now, as I bring this up, that I also used photographs of writers in my anthology, Keys to the Garden, because I wanted to prove that these people actually existed. Now, 35 years later, your translation of Nadia Tueni’s French poetry is appearing with the same press involved in publishing two books of mine: tell me about the circumstances of your encounter with Tueni, how she came to exist for you.
AP: I went to French schools all my life, both in Iran and in the U.S. I had a lot of Francophone Lebanese friends, so there is a bit of an emotional connection. Also, every translational act, for me, is both a writerly engagement and a social and cultural intervention. I have recently been interested in translating (and I use that word with much trepidation) writings that are at the borders, but powerful and emotional, and also where my own relationships with both the target language and culture and the source language and culture are transformed. The choices of the texts, the stylistic strategies you adopt, along with many other decisions that go into the endeavor, to me, are important elements of any translatory project, which is, again, both a literary contribution and an activistic cultural intervention. Translating a woman writer’s first books, one from the Francophone world operating at the periphery, was not an occasion I wanted to pass up. You are a translator too and a student of translation history and theory. How does this connect to your other writings?
AA: I also grew up in a multi-lingual environment, since my parents and the extended family had been Second World War immigrant/refugees. So I’d been translating since I was born; it’s only when distinctly, different languages are involved that it becomes apparent. In that sense, I see translation the way a dancer might think of joints or muscles, the way a painter might think of their palette, the way a musician thinks of notes: words, the essential material of writing.
AP: I also use it as a method for writing, and a times, as a verification process for my own literary work: in order to write using the unique features and registers of any one language, making sure a text is fundamentally untranslatable (as a complex ensemble) is one way of checking my own work!
AA: I was struck by your piece “The General on the Roof”, though I’ve never seen it performed. One passage in particular, the invocation of the date: “On February 15, 1979, where were you,” reminds me of the first poem in from the warring factions where a date, almost in the form of a riddle, is invoked. In both cases, I think, the reader is challenged to account for themselves and their relationship to these dates. I was also struck by the stage directions, all taking place around and under the Brooklyn Bridge.
AP: “The General on the Roof” was a performative scriptage, a writing-in-motion, and all about the lack of interest of the ‘passerby’ in the terrible tragedies lived by others. We had ten ‘textspots’, that is, ten spots around the Brooklyn Bridge where perfomers were reading different fragments, structurally speaking, of a story. The whole point was to explore the unlistenability, untellability of an event related to the revolution. In the midst of the crowd, the frenzy, shouting voices, troubled voices, unheard… With your work too, looking at and reading from the warring factions, I can’t help but notice the play with various aspects of the visuality and aurality of language itself (letters, word lengths etc…), but maybe more importantly even, of parameters of the book and of the reading experience: the page, its materiality… I was struck by that because I also constantly ‘perform writing’ and perform the various modalities of reading…
AA: Thanks for paying attention to that! Yes, absolutely. I’m not sure if it’s “visual” in the traditional sense of that term but perhaps more spatially and temporally oriented. The book, then, the page, also needs to be a score for its reading, and that reading takes place, most definitively, in time. I would also say that I’ve ‘seen’ a few of my books before they were written—certainly the spatial formations of from the warring factions are something I clearly envisioned. I don’t think I’m under the tyranny of this rule but the big prose blocks that have been in my imaginative sightlines the past couple of years may signal a need to move differently.
AP: Very interesting. I also ‘see’ the book, the page, the passage of one block of text to another. The beginning, the end, various flows…
AA: At various times in history, it was normal to write in different languages for different purposes and/or different audiences. Outside of colonial situations in the nation/state era, languages have generally stood in for or been used in opposition to an implicitly nationalist conception. Your multi-lingualism is quite exceptional in that you haven’t fetishized opposition, hybridity, marginality, exile, and so many of the other now fashionable categories: you simply operate in and across a broad range of linguistic materials and languages. How do you account for this? Are you striving towards some new definitions or categories or do you see this as a simple outgrowth of the direction you’ve chosen to pursue your own circumstances?
AP: I’d say both: a resolute decision to continue in a direction that I think is innovative at the formal, stylistic, and linguistic levels, and also at the discursive level—but also because yes, I do want to create new categories and new definitions. I do think it is crucial to create new genres and new forms that use many of the tools and possibilities at our disposal. Literature is made of language, the stuff of language, the material of language, and thus, multilinguality can help us venture into territories without names, the most exciting spaces of course: new forms, new worlds. My new unfolding epic is a work that I consider a type of new world literature—I don’t mean ‘world literature’ as in literature from around the world, but one whose ‘space’ is not any one place or nation. And I hope I’ve gone pretty far in the whole multilingualism realm: writing entire works in different languages, and also creating works that are plurilingual— they unfold through different languages at the lexical, syntaxic level—and multilingual—where big blocks in one language juxtapose big blocks in others. I’ve even coined polylingual for works that involve both plurilingual and multilingual unfoldings. Rigorous theoretically, but also adventurous and liberating!
AA: I think in many ways I may be striving for similar things but within one language, American English, a place I’m more and more immersed in. But I also think my work in other languages has let me dislodge in certain ways how I actually work: that is, it has allowed me to think of some of my own different work as taking place in different kinds of languages, and finding the links between those realms.
AP: Ammiel, we started this with a rather silly question about your books by me. What’s the question you like least when people talk to you about your books? What’s your favorite?
AA: Having taught for so long now, I would like to think that all questions are good, as long as they’re really questions. I can’t really put my finger on a question I like least. I always try to respond to where I think the question is coming from. And my favorite questions are those that I’ve never been asked!
AP: I’ll say that one my least favorite is the one I think can undermine literature and that is: ‘What’s you book about?’ That assumes a certain relationship between literary form/language and the world. The more desirable questions are: ‘What happens when one reads you book.’ Or ‘What’s the experience like when one engages with your book?’ I know, probably won’t catch on, but the fairer questions they are… I’ll say this though since this is an art publication: for my and your painter friends who are heard complaining on occasion, at least no one ever asks them what their painting is about.