D.H. Melhem

2002 EP. NO. 2
D.H. MELHEM, daughter of Lebanese immigrants (with paternal Greek ancestry) was born in Brooklyn in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. Melhem began writing at age eight and was class poet of her high school class. From these childhood experiences, she developed a vision of the city as the ultimate melting pot, a vision fortified by her move to what she calls “her beloved West Side” in Manhattan. She earned a B.A. cum laude and membership in Phi Beta Kappa at New York University; earned an M.A. from City College; a Ph.D. from the City University of New York; and served on the faculties of Long Island University and The New School for Social Research.

During the 1970s, Melhem began publishing her poetry collections. True to Arab tradition, Melhem works are written with passion, and a commitment about identity, culture and life. Notes on 94th Street (The Poet’s Press, 1972), Melhem’s first book, has been recognized as “the first poetry collection in English by an Arab-American woman.” The collection reveals the pathos and beauty of the poet’s Manhattan West Side neighborhood. Greeted with universal enthusiasm, it received praise from many distinguished writers and critics. Rest in Love (1975; reissue Confrontation Magazine Press, l995), is a book-length elegy for Melhem’s mother, describing a loving relationship, its terrible loss, anger, and healing. Children of the House Afire: More Notes on 94th Street (Dovetail Press, 1976), continues to examine the milieu of 94th Street. In 1999 it gave its title to the musical drama produced at Theater for the New City, with music by Grenoldo Frazier and book, lyrics, and additional music by Melhem. While several critics were put off by some of the strongly political poems, it received much praise. Like Notes on 94th Street, Children of the House Afire ranges the lives and locale of the area and remains as a social as well as aesthetic document of situations and places that no longer.

Melhem’s novel Blight (1995; reissue Syracuse Univ. Press, 2003), illustrated with fey drawings, raises basic questions about interspecies communication and cooperation, whether murder is ever justified, and how to heal our ruptured relationship with the earth. Country: An Organic Poem (P&Q Press, 2000), an epic poem in progress since 1972, explores history, Vietnam, the immigrant dream, landscapes of failure and fulfillment, and the surface and substance of the national soil and soul. The chapbook, Poems for You (P&Q Press, 2000) soon followed. Conversation With a Stonemason (Ikon Inc., 2003), Melhem’s sixth book of poems, affirmed her extraordinary range and depth; and her seven collection, New York Poems, is a compilation of her previously published collections: Notes on 94th Street and Children of the House Afire: More Notes on 94th Street. A new closing section, “Requiescant 9/11” reflects upon the American national tragedy, and a final closing poem “Prospect” rounds out this vigorous anthology brimming with competitive, bustling New York spirit. The wide variety of verse forms offer a divergent look and feel, changing from poem to poem with free-flowing vibrancy. Topics range from daily life to the toll of deadly diseases, violent clashes, and the search for love, gambling and more.

Her works have appeared in several groundbreaking Arab anthologies, including: Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry (1982; reissue Interlink, 1999), edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa; Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American & Arab-Canadian Feminists (South End Press, 1994), edited by Joana Kadi; The Poetry of Arab Women (Interlink, 2000), edited by Nathalie Handal; and Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2004), edited by Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Matawa. She also co-edited the anthology, A Different Path: An Anthology of the Radius of Arab American Writers (Ridgeway Press, 2000), with Leila Diab, which presents a cross-sectional sampling of Arab American poetry and prose by thirty-six writers from RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers). These volumes, supported by newspapers such as Al Jadid and the magazine Mizna, provide readers and scholars with a resource center for Arab American writers as well as an opportunity to evaluate the collective voices.

Melhem’s work also appeared in the anthologies: Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and about the Police (Soft Skull Press, 2003), edited by Jackie Sheeler; Tokens: Contemporary Poetry of the Subway (P & Q Press, 2003), edited by Peggy Garrison and David Quintavalle; and The Company We Keep (Poet Warrior Productions, 2003), edited by C. Furber, E. Ivy, R. Maldonado. Her works have appeared in major literary journals, such as Confrontation, Croton Review, Paintbrush, Pivot, The Formalist, Drumvoices Review and Colorado Review.

As a scholar, Melhem’s Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice (Univ. Press of Kentucky, l987), was the first comprehensive study of the poet and earned her a nomination for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in Women’s Studies. This comprehensive biocritical study traces the development of Brooks’ poetry over four decades, from such early works as A Street in Bronzeville and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen to the more recent In the Mecca, Riot, and To Disembark. Heroism in the New Black Poetry (UPK, l990) was undertaken with a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and won an American Book Award in l99l. Melhem’s clear introductions and frank interviews provide insight into the contemporary social and political consciousness of six acclaimed poets: Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Haki R. Madhubuti, Dudley Randall, and Sonia Sanchez. These two critical works continue to be cited in hundreds of books, essays, theses and articles.

In her nearly 30-year career as a published writer, Melhem has written more than 60 essays and critical works. A member of PEN, the Dramatists Guild, the Authors Guild, Pen & Brush, the Poetry Society of America, Poets House, and other professional societies, Melhem is a former board member of Pen & Brush and of RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers). In addition, Melhem has helped mainstream Arab American literature by organizing the first Arab American poetry reading at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1984.

She has won numerous awards for poetry and prose, including: a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship; a 1991 American Book Award for Heroism in the New Black Poetry; a Ph.D. Alumni Achievement Award from the City University of New York in 2001; The World Order of Narrative and Formalist Poets; the Marilyn K. Prescott Award, co-sponsored by Medicinal Purposes; and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Notably, her New York Times Magazine article, “A Family Works a Miracle,” earned a New York Heart Association Media Award and was reprinted in Science of the Times. Melhem continues to travel across the country and read in venues ranging from the Library of Congress and New York’s Town Hall to libraries, universities, schools and cafés.

Melhem’s work has been reviewed in Home Planet News and Al Jadid, and she has been interviewed in Saudi Aramco World and a Gathering of the Tribes. Her novellas, Stigma and The Cave, distributed by Syracuse University Press; and Patches of Light, a bilingual chapbook (Russian and English), translated by Aleksey Dayen, are forthcoming. Melhem currently serves as a contributing editor of Home Planet News, and is vice-president of the International Women’s Writing Guild, giving workshops at their Annual Summer Writing Conference at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.

D.H. Melhem is a poet of exceptional sensibility and artistry. Deeply aware of American failings, she nevertheless affirms the American spirit as her heritage, using American language as her native tongue. For more information on Melhem, check out her website at http://www.dhmelhem.com.

artistic statement
Poetry was a center in my life very early. I started writing when I was eight years old. I would sit by the window and write. I was an only child, and although I enjoyed being with my parents, I also enjoyed being by myself. I had friends, but I loved sitting by the window eating my dried apricots, prunes, figs. I love dried fruits, probably part of my Arab-American heritage.

I would look out the window and see what was there and beyond, see the tops of other buildings. We lived in Brooklyn and the buildings were not very tall, especially if you lived on the fourth floor. I could see the clouds, hear the boat whistles from the river, and that was a very dreamlike situation for me. I identified closely with my mother who was poetic, who was a poet herself although she didn’t have time to express the poetry that was in her. My mother’s published works are in “Rest in Love.” I mean that’s all that remains. So being at home was always pleasant because being at home, especially when I was little, meant being with my mother, that she was somewhere in the house and she was always this a benign presence.

When I was very young, I read Longfellow, Robert Frost. My mother would read to me from Whittier. She taught me piano and French, often by way of memorizing the poems in French. My father would recite classical Arabic poems to me. I loved them, they were so musical. There was lots of music in the house for I had aunts and uncles who sang. And also my father would recite and sing hymns in Arabic and in English in an incantatory style. Somehow, this incantatory style, plus the musicality of the poetry, I think, predisposed me to the musicality of Black poetry. I believe that the sources may very well have been there.

Last updated 2009.

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