Hayan Charara

INTERVIEW

Seeking Truths Through Poetry to Inform and Inspire as a Tool for Peace
Gabrielle David
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3

My connection to the Middle East is, in part, a connection that other people make or imagine, and because of the politics behind that imaginary connection, there’s no escaping it. It’s a trap.

CONSIDER THIS: A young boy born to Lebanese immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, whose family members were victims of a senseless war thousands of miles away. Such is the legacy of poet Hayan Charara.

Charara is a true poet, committed to the act of poetry, using his words to paint truths. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history. For Charara, poetry that reveals truth becomes a way of taking back power. Not only the power to express oneself, but to actively engage with the events of a world that seem to render ordinary people helpless.

This desire to write poetry to document and tell truths began at a young age. Charara has always been interested in literature — his mother was a school teacher and an avid reader, and so books were always a part of his life. It was this early relationship with books that got him started with writing. By the time he was a teenager, as he

discovered the works of Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Audre Lorde, and Walt Whitman, he was thrilled to see his first published poem a few pages away from a piece by influential beat scribe Ginsberg. The experience energized and inspired him, but despite this early passion, Charara had no intention of becoming a writer.

His family impressed upon him the importance of getting an education and becoming a doctor, lawyer or business person so that he could secure his future and live a comfortable life. Many immigrants, including his uncles and neighbors were working in factories, lived in poor neighborhoods and led difficult lives, a plight his parents didn’t want for their son. In his eyes, becoming a poet was “the most impractical thing a person could do.”

It wasn’t until college that Charara began to explore the possibilities of becoming a writer. He was working on his undergraduate degree in biology, and making plans to go to medical school, when he decided to switch his major and study literature to become a poet, a decision that nearly gave his parents heart attacks.

Early on, Charara’s poetry drew attention because he produced work that was mature beyond his years. He began getting his work published in anthologies alongside poetry greats like Amiri Baraka, Philip Levine and Naomi Shihab Nye. After earning his B.A. in English from Wayne State University, he relocated to attend New York University and earned his M.A. in Humanities. During this time, he served as editor of the annual literary anthology Graffiti Rag, worked for local colleges and universities, and became involved in New York’s poetry scene.

A woodworker, Charara knows the real value of wood shedding and developing his craft. He developed a knack of incorporating real world experiences throughout his work. His belief in poetry as a tool to discuss and cope with conflict is evident in his writing. Charara admits, “I can say that I’ve always been interested in writing poems that are in the world. And so my poems often contain real people in them, and real events, and no matter how far I go into the imagination, the world I live and breathe in is not very far.” Common themes that wind throughout his body of work focus on Arab American culture, family relationships and loss of loved ones.

Charara’s first collection of poetry, The Alchemist’s Diary, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2001, is unquestionably the result of profound contemplation over a period of many years in an attempt at understanding in its most fundamental sense. The collection, which does not shy away from blunt descriptions of Israel’s impact on the Arab world, was named a Publishers Weekly Notable Debut. His second book, The Sadness of Others, published by Carnegie Mellon in 2006, delves deeper into the mystery of how we connect to each other and, perhaps more importantly, how we connect to ourselves. This volume was nominated for the National Book Award.

Writing a children’s book was entirely new for Charara. It was poet and children’s author, Naomi Shihab Nye, who encouraged him to submit a story, which led to the publication of his first children’s book The Three Lucys (2008), about a child’s experience during the July War in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah. The book won the Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Award Honor. While he’s not sure he will write another children’s book, Charara found the experience somewhat “liberating” because he had “no expectations whatsoever.” The experience also proved that writing poetry has no boundaries and can lead to unexpected avenues.

A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucille Joy Prize for Poetry, and several Pushcart Prize nominations, his poems have appeared in numerous publications, including: Chelsea, Cream City Review, Callaloo, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Literary Imagination, The Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review; and such anthologies as American Poetry: The Next Generation, Present/Tense: Poets in the World, and the Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East, and Beyond.

As Charara continues to explore family, loss, identity, and the experience of growing up Arab American in Detroit, he often shares his personal history and viewpoints in examining the interconnectedness of violence and peace. On 9/11, he lived in New Jersey across from the World Trade Center, and today, his life is still caught up in world events — his father and other family members are in Lebanon. This feeling of being split between two countries remain a great part of his consciousness, not only as a poet, but as a human being.

One of Charara’s biggest accomplishments to date is Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Arab American Poets (2008). An indispensable and historic volume, Inclined to Speak is a collection of poems from the most important contemporary Arab American poets, that challenges readers to reconsider what it means to be American in a post-9/11 world. Charara provides a lengthy introduction about the state of Arab American poetry in the country today, which is followed by poetry from a wide variety of poets: from emerging and established to old and young; with poetic forms as vast as slams to ghazals. While a number of Arab American anthologies were published before 9/11, it is one of the few collections published post-9/11 that conveys culture, politics, loss, art, and language.

Having lived in New York for a number of years, Charara relocated to Houston in 2003 to hone his talents at University of Houston’s renowned Creative Writing Program, where he received his Ph.D. He is on the teaching faculty of University of Houston’s Honors College, and is an Assistant Professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University in Texas. He currently serves as President of RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers, Inc.

Charara will be the first to tell you that he “trusts poets more than politicians,” and has “more faith in poems than in policies.” He has often said that “poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world.” For Charara, he continues to seek truths through poetry, using it to inform, inspire and as a tool for peace.

§ § §

How did you start writing? Why were you drawn to it? Did you want to be a writer throughout childhood?

I didn’t begin to write poetry — with the idea of myself as a poet, or wanting to become a poet — until my second or third year at Wayne State University in Detroit. Yes, I’d written a few poems before then but I don’t think those attempts were the same. I hear poets talking about beginning to write at impossibly early ages, when they are five or six years old, and I think they are either completely egomaniacal, or else they were, like Mozart, geniuses. Given how hard it is to write — grueling, really — I’m guessing that most people aren’t yet poets when they are in the first or second grade. Let people think what they want when it comes to that. Anyhow, I was drawn to poetry at a much younger age than when I began to write it, but first as a reader, and the stuff that most readers love are the same I did.

The most astonishing thing for me about poetry — when I saw in it the possibility of becoming a poet myself — was the world it created. And I mean this in a very simple way. I lived in Detroit. My family was poor. There was lots of violence and ugliness where I grew up. There was a lot of good stuff going on, too, but my neighborhood in Detroit was also the place where a friend was shot, a neighbor was raped, the houses were crumbling, the city didn’t give a shit, neither did the state, or anyone else for that matter, and my goal was to get out. I was supposed to become a doctor. I went to college so that I could go to medical school. And one day, while waiting on a lab experiment for a chemistry course I was taking, I went to the university bookstore, and I picked up a book of poems (remember, I was already a reader of poetry) and the book was by a poet who grew up in Detroit, and his world was a lot like mine, full of people who worked hard and failed hard and then worked even harder, and the thing about the poems in this book — they were beautiful. That was the difference. This poet had found a way out, too, but it was through poetry. The poet was Philip Levine, who’s our country’s poet laureate now. So, long story short, I abandoned becoming a doctor, and decided then and there to become a poet.

What was it like growing up in Detroit? How did those formative years shape your outlook on the world and the paths you have taken? How would you define your connection to Lebanon, even though you were raised in the U.S.?

Like I said, Detroit was a hellish place in lots of ways, and that shaped how I saw the world. For the majority of my life, it was the world. It’s not that I thought all cities were like Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s — thank goodness that wasn’t the case — but it’s hard to escape that kind of reality. The city is still trying to make a comeback. It’s been trying for over four decades. I don’t know if it’s succeeding or not. I only go back once a year at most, sometimes every other year, and it’s hard to tell what a city is like from just a three or four day visit. But still, I see people out of work, lots of them, and abandoned and neglected buildings and even whole neighborhoods, and it is the most overcast place I know (and that could just be my imagination). Yet, and yet, there is also this energy about Detroit and its people, like a fever. I have a poem from years ago about a dandelion, which is a weed, you know, but the dandelion looks like a flower — a beautiful flower, if you ask me — and you see dandelions everywhere, growing out of places that are inhospitable to life, like out of concrete, or asphalt. The dandelion is symbolic for Detroit, for its people. Out of the hardness of the streets, it bursts through, and flowers. Even today, I’m more impressed by the dandelion than I am by the rare and exotic flower grown tended to by a gardener.

So, there’s that, and then there is the Arab thing. Detroit has a large Arab community, maybe the largest outside the Arab world. And so the connection to the Arab world—to Lebanon, to Palestine, to Iraq, and other places — is a real thing. People from those places were family members, neighbors, classmates, co-workers. They traveled back and forth. They were affected by the events over there. In many ways, too, we — Arabs living in the United States — were defined as much by, if not more so, the things Arabs living in the Middle East did than the things we did. The prime example is 9/11 and its aftermath, but even before the attacks on September 11th, this was the case. Take the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. There was lots of anger at Arabs living in the States. My father ran a grocery store, and customers cursed him out, broke things (windows, bottles), and threatened him. Obviously, he had nothing to do with the marines who were killed. Yet he, and others like him, were targeted.

I have this memory of when I was about five or six years old and I’m in the car with my father, and we’re driving through the neighborhood where the store was located, which was a nice neighborhood, and it must have been summer because the windows were rolled down and we come to a STOP sign and there’s this kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen, and he looks at us, and then shouts, “Go home, camel jockeys!” and then he spits at us and gives us the middle finger. I remember this vividly because my father’s response was to try running the kid over. Anyhow, that was in the late seventies — before the killing of the marines in Beirut, long before the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, and obviously long before the day the towers did come down. All this is to say: my connection to the Middle East is, in part, a connection that other people make or imagine, and because of the politics behind that imaginary connection, there’s no escaping it. It’s a trap.

Someone sees you and thinks or knows you’re an Arab, and they think of the long list of negative traits associated with Arabs or with Muslims: terrorist, misogynist, violent, backwards, anti-American, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and so on. And even when the facts fly in the face of such things (think of the pro-democratic movements across the Middle East now), people can’t help but look and say, “Go home, camel jockeys!” Maybe they’re not saying it that way exactly, but they are seeing something sinister and dangerous, even if they’re looking at a guy who thinks dandelions are beautiful flowers.

Do you think there is a place for poetry in times of tragedy, violence, and distress?

I understand the need to ask this, in part because a lot of poets don’t write about such things, but the fact is this: a lot of poets do, and they do so beautifully and convincingly, and they do so while at the same time exploring the boundaries of language and aesthetics and craft. American poetry, from the start, was a poetry written in such times. Take Walt Whitman. He produced some of the greatest work the world has known during, and in many cases about, the most violent and distressful and tragic time in American history.

If you’re a poet, you don’t have to write about tragedy and violence (and I’m thinking of the collective kind of tragedy — not the uniquely personal). You don’t. But there’s another fact to contend with: if you are an American, and a poet, you live in “interesting times.” Unless you are preposterously ignorant, you know what’s going on. You don’t have to write about what’s going on, but you have to come to terms with the fact that you are ignoring it. Fifty years from now, when people look back at the age of terror, and they look to the poetry America produced, and they don’t see even a hint of what’s happening touched upon, what will they think? Let me go back to Whitman. Imagine Whitman ignoring the Civil War. It would be unheard of. That’s how I feel about the place of poetry when it comes to tragedy.

You have spoken about the July War [in Lebanon] and how your grandfather barely survived the ordeal and then died at the hospital. As a first generation Lebanese American, that story seems to resonate with much of what you do, whether it is writing poetry or writing letters to the government — your hatred against war, your desire for a just peace in the Middle East. Do you believe your identity as an Arab consumes your writing because of that? Do you find it difficult to balance a sense of place and being from just everyday living? Are the two inseparable or is there some sort of switch that turns it on or off?

As I’ve said before, a good deal of my writing isn’t necessarily informed by my being an Arab. Some of it is — and maybe you might argue that a lot of it is, but I don’t even know how you begin to measure something like this. I mean, do you look at a poem and say, “That’s an Arab poem” and then another and say it’s not, then come up with a percentage and say, “He’s 50% consumed by his identity”? I’m joking, but I’m not. I did something like this once with a group of poets (who I respect very much) who were telling me that my new manuscript was a book of political poetry (and they weren’t using the word “political” as a pejorative either) and I went through the manuscript with them, and we did the numbers, and it came out that less than 20% of the poems, in their estimation, were “political.” Yet that’s how they see the book, and me: as political. And I know that “political” was also being conflated with “Arab.” But even more interesting than that, I’m convinced, too, that for some readers and critics, anything written by an Arab, regardless of the subject, is Arab (and hence political or politicized).

It’s going to be like this for a while to come. And if people “see” or “read” things Arab in my work that may not be there, well, there’s a part of me that says so be it. I’m not going to argue. Like I said, on the one hand, I’d rather people see things for what they are, but then again, if they see them for something else and it gets a conversation started (and if my poems are contributing to that conversation), then I’d rather have that be the case than to have someone who doesn’t know a damn thing about Arabs taking over the conversation.

So, I have this poem about a mother and daughter drowning. I wrote it after a mother and daughter drowned in their vehicle after a major storm and flooding here in Houston. It so happened that the drowning took place less than a mile from where I live, and it was awful and disturbing in so many ways. The poem tries to relive the panic and fear of the ordeal, as well as the intimacy and love, and even the tension, between the mother and daughter in their last few moments together. They have a conversation — in the poem, which is of course all imagined, and I do everything I can to treat the subject and their voices with respect and dignity. Anyhow, I’ve been told this is a poem about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It’s not. Not to me, at least. But if it is to you — so be it. I’m fine with that.

That’s one way to switch off the Arab thing — to enter the conversation, with a poem (in this case, at least), and let others get in on it. On a more practical level, in terms of everyday life, I’m pretty good at turning off most things. You have to, given the complete nonsense and bullshit that you hear and see and read every minute of the day. If you let everything that Glenn Beck said get to you, or Sarah Palin or Rick Perry or even President Obama for that matter, or the talking heads on the news or the stuff you come across on Facebook and so on and so forth — if you let even a small percentage of that get to you, or if you felt you had to talk back every time something wrong was said or done, you’d lose your mind; you’d fall apart. I pick my fights. Some pick me, yes, but the fact is that I’m not just a writer and poet. I’m a university professor — that keeps me pretty busy — and I’m a husband, and a father, and I have a decent social life, too.

What was your immediate response to September 11th, and how has it changed they way you write?

I woke my wife up. We lived across the river from the World Trade Center, which I could see from the window my desk sat in front of. Rachel would have been on the subway or in the WTC station around 8 am had she not overslept. I’m grateful for that.

Then Rachel and I walked to my friend and neighbor’s place, Erik. His wife was in the WTC subway station when the first plane hit. She’d called him after getting off the train; she didn’t know what was going on except that people were being rushed out and she said she smelled fuel. She got out in time.

Then when the second plane hit — on our way to Erik’s place — I knew, like most of us did, that things had just taken a turn for the absolute worse.

It took me a long time to write a poem about that day and the days since. What I ended up with, five years later, was “Usage.”

In reading the introduction to your anthology, you seem to grapple with pinning down what it means to be Arab American. Why? Do you think of yourself as a “hyphenated” American, such as an Arab-American or a Lebanese-American? What do you view as your own personal “social identity,” and in fact, do you believe this tag is necessary in the literary world?

The whole identity thing is messy, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but it’s still messy. When I lived in New York City, I felt as if I could pass as just about anyone — and by that I mean as Greek or Iranian or Pakistani or Israeli or Venezuelan or you name it. One time there was a guy who was pretty sure I was Irish. I’ve written about the kind of schizophrenic identity in my long poem “Usage,” and I noted that in large part my identity was determined by place or circumstance. So, for instance, when I return to Detroit, and especially if I’m in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, famous for its large Arab population, I am almost always identified as an Arab. Here in Texas, where I’ve been living for several years now, I might get looked at as Arab — maybe if I’m at the airport, for instance, or at an “Arab” event of some kind — but I easily pass as “Hispanic” (that’s the category most people down here seem to use), or just as some other kind of brown person.

All this is to say that a good deal of what determines how I think about my identity comes from how others view it. So, yes, I do think of myself as Arab American. And that’s sometimes a political identity, sometimes a social or cultural one, and sometimes it’s a poetic identity too. However, I also think of myself in lots of other ways, and I don’t mean to say that as something clever. I’m not trying to be the trickster, either. It’s just a fact of life for me and for millions of people — billions of people: we have multiple identities. The problem is that some of them, to some people, are more dangerous than others.

Does this consume me? Only when it’s thrust upon me. I have to say that it’s the one thing I like talking about the very least — identity — but for as long as I’ve been a writer and anyone had any interest at all to ask me a question, the questions have mostly been about identity. And how I feel about it, well, it’s messy, too. On the one hand, I’d love it if people simply didn’t give a rat’s ass about my identity. That would be perfectly fine with me because a lot of my poems don’t give a rat’s ass about identity. But on the other hand, I feel obligated to get into it — into conversations about identity — because so many people get it so wrong when it comes to Arabs.

As for the literary world — and I take it you mean editors and publishers and critics and those magazines and journals, you know, let me leave it at this: I try very hard not to give a shit what the literary world thinks.

What do you want readers to take away from your work? How do you want people to identify you as a writer?

Look, I have two books, and I have a third book that will hopefully be coming out within a year or two. From book to book to book, my poems are dramatically different. I’m not a single kind of poet, and I don’t write about any one or two or even three subjects. I write about a lot of things. And my style has changed, again from book to book, and sometimes from poem to poem. So, when it comes to identifying me as a poet in a categorical way, I could care less — I don’t like or trust categories.

What I want my readers to take away from my poems? Honestly, I don’t know. I want them to be moved — to what, I don’t know, or really care — just moved. Emotionally, physically even, intellectually, and so on. A long time ago, I stopped trying to figure out how my readers will read my poems, partly because, well, the simple fact is that I don’t know my readers. I might meet a few here and there at readings or get a letter from one once in a great while, but for the most part, they are anonymous to me. And when I have heard from them (whether they are readers or critics), usually they ask or say things that either never occurred to me to think about, or else they make the most obvious observations. What difference does it make, anyhow? One day I’ll be dead and gone and I won’t be there to say, “Yes, that’s what I meant” or worse, “No, I didn’t mean that at all.”

Do you believe there has been some successful efforts in making Arab American writers available to students on both an elementary-high school as well as on a college level? If not, any suggestions on how to improve in those areas?

There have been several anthologies published over the past few years that are making their way, slowly, into schools. I already mentioned Inclined to Speak, and there’s the Arab American fiction anthology Dinarzad’s Children (both are from the University of Arkansas Press), and there are other publications too (not just anthologies, but journals, like Mizna, and you also mentioned Al-Jadid) and organizations (like RAWI, of which I’m on the board). There is need for improvement, though. RAWI is trying to grow, to expand into the schools — to reach out to as large a group of people as possible and one place we haven’t done enough work in is the schools (elementary, high school, and college). Teachers want works by Arabs and Arab Americans. Students want them, too. So there’s a need, yes. And a demand. Maybe the thing we can do more of is convince the publishers and editors that there’s a demand — we can write all we want, but ultimately, if those writings are going to make it into the hands of readers, they have to be published.

Of course, one of the biggest problems in the publishing industry (when it comes to Arab writers) is the expectations that some publishers or editors have of Arab writings. They want a certain story and a certain kind of Arab character. Too often, both of those are stereotypical. You know the characters: the super-traditional Arab woman, or the abusive Arab father, or the impossibly overly-sexed up Arab girl, or the Arab boy who wants nothing but to blow up America or fuck a blonde.

And then there’s the story expectation: the I-was-oppressed-by-my-culture-but-America-saved-me story, or the novels or poems in which the most accurate portrayals are of Arabic food, not Arab lives or people or history. If these are the things editors and publishers believe to be Arab (not all think this way, obviously, but many do), then you can see how hard it would be for a novel or poetry book or play that flies in the face of these ideas to get published. I’ve heard too many times from too many writers that they were told about the characters in their books, “Arabs don’t do that.” Or worse, they were asked why they hadn’t written about “Arab” subjects. Look, African American writers went through this, and Latinos are going through it, and gay and lesbians are, and the list goes on and on. It’s nothing new. But it’s getting really old. So we have to educate people in order for them to see us differently.

With the help of publications such as Al Jadid and Banipal, the development of Arab and Arab American literature has come a long way in the past twenty years, yet the work is still not known to the general public. Do you think this is an issue of cultural ignorance, or simply the fact that becoming a well-known writer is a difficult path for anyone who embarks on it?

There are many well known writers who happen to be Arab and Arab American, with national and international reputations. And yes, it’s hard, very hard, to become “famous.” That said, as a group, we’re not that well known —and I mean Arab Americans, mostly poets but also the case may be made for novelists and short story writers and playwrights too. One of the reasons I compiled and edited Inclined to Speak, the anthology of Arab American poetry, was to tackle this problem. The anthology’s done well and is taught in many schools, so presumably it is making some of the poets in it more well-known. But the numbers for poetry are small. Most poets are not household names. Most never will be, even the “famous” ones.

This is probably as much a problem with poetry itself as it is with the interest (or lack of it) that Americans have in poetry. Still, I’m always puzzled when I hear critics or other poets talk about the lack of Arab voices on a given subject or especially when I hear about the supposed dearth of writing about 9/11 (or post-9/11), which was the focus of a recent Poets & Writers article. The writer either didn’t know or didn’t care about the abundance of writings by Arabs and Arab Americans on the subject. Not a single Arab or Arab American author was cited. Something is missing. People aren’t looking far and wide enough. So, yes, I think there is a degree of cultural ignorance at work, as well as a looking-away too, and ignoring what’s before our very eyes.

You have published two poetry collections and one anthology. What can we expect from you in the future? What are you currently working on?

I have a third book of poetry done but not yet published. I’m also nearly finished with revisions on a novel that I’ve been working on since 2004. I also wrote a children’s book, the manuscript of which received the New Voices Award Honor, but it hasn’t been published yet. I’m nearly done with the edits though, so hopefully it will soon make its way into the world. Speaking of children, I have a son, eight and a half months old, and I have no doubt he will influence what I do next. What that will be, I have no clue.

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