Fady Joudah’s The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Series for Younger Poets in 2007. His translations of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry are collected in The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press) and, most recently, If I Were Another, a collection of Darwish’s lyric epics (FSG, 2009). Joudah is a physician in Houston, TX, and was a field member of Doctors Without Borders in 2002, and 2005.
The end of the road is a beautiful mirage:
White jeeps with mottos, white
And blue tarps where the dust gnaws
At your nostrils like a locust cloud
Or a helicopter thrashing the earth,
Wheat grains peppering the sky.
Let me tell you a fable:
Why the road is lunar
Goes back to the days when strangers
Sealed a bid from the despot to build
The only path that courses through
The desert of the people.
The tyrant secretly sent
His men to mix hand grenades
With asphalt and gravel,
Then hid the button
That would detonate the road.
These are villages and these are trees
A thousand years old,
Or the souls of trees,
Their high branches axed and dangled
Like lynched men flanking the wadis,
Closer now to a camel’s neck
And paradoxical chew.
And the villages:
Children packed in a hut
Then burned or hung on bayonets,
Anchoring acacia limbs as checkpoints.
And only animals return:
The monkeys dash to the road’s edge and back
Into the alleyways,
And by a doorstep a hawk dives
And snatches a serpent ― your eyes
Twitch in saccades and staccatos:
This blue crested hoopoe is whizzing ahead of us
From bough to bough,
The hummingbird wings
Like fighter jets
Refueling in midair.
If you believe the hoopoe
Is good omen,
The driver says,
Then you are one of us.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I can’t remember now. Its composition took a while because of the complexity I felt the narrative images demanded; the risk of being sensational and moralizing is there. But it was finished in 2007 a year or so after my last field mission with Doctors Without Borders. It was the result of certain accumulation of images and experiences that would not go away.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Several revisions happened over a year or eighteen months perhaps. There is an earlier version in Bat City Review. But the revisions are not significantly different from the final version. Two main issues I recall: the opening stanza seemed to want constant editing of the tone, a prelude of images, a difficult opening of the book; and some deletions here and there in the body of the poem, to reduce unnecessary distraction or avoid excessive drama. The latter was easier to manage.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Inspiration is an inexplicable, mysterious gathering of a being’s sensibilities as one relates them to experiences, and how those experiences mingle with memory at first encounter or in recurrence. Nothing is “received” in that the separation of the external from the internal is not necessarily as demarcated as we’d like to believe. The illusion of “arrival” or “inevitability” serves to distract the mind into some ancient belief of “revelation.” To be ready for what may come, to “listen,” to allow what overflows to become “you” and “I,” these are, to my mind, different things than to “receive.” The external is equally within.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
The juxtaposition of images into distilled narratives, fabular or otherwise, that offer to the mind several syntactical possibilities with which to proceed to the poem’s end: that is the only technique I can think of in this poem.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I am either impatient or indifferent about this. Each time I “release” a poem or manuscript out there, I am able to edit it better, because for a brief while it is truly no longer mine. Still, some poems have to wait a long time before I think they are ready for this dispossession and repossession process.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Mahmoud Darwish says in one of his poems “the real is the certain imaginary.” Why would the negotiation process here, as you call it, be any different? Is there really much difference between the “confessional” and the “witness” outside our fascination with nomenclature and certainties?
Is this a narrative poem?
I have mentioned “narrative” above already, but I am not sure what you mean by it. If by narrative one means the presence of chronology then every poem is narrative, even in the sense of absenting time, as in some lyric mystic poems, for example. Are dramatic monologues narrative or lyric? If by narrative one means the element of story and voice, then which poem does not have these traits, to one degree or another: a story of the self, a voice for a self? (“Un-self me” says Nietzsche). I don’t mean all poetry is narrative. I mean to say that an essence of poetry is Time. I don’t understand the importance in the distinction.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I think it is tempting to read the poem this way, but I do not see it this way. The poem’s final lines are about inclusion and not exclusion, which often ethics and justice connote. Justice has its own slippery slope: vengeance. Ethics are easily corrupted by their sense of power. If the poem provokes these questions or obsessions, then the poem has done well aesthetically, I think. If it is “morally” clear, however, and strikes a certainty for so many readers, it has failed, or the reader has failed. I think you are right in introducing the word “specter.”
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
The influences are many, of course. But for this poem they are not specific, cannot be pinned down, not “immediate” in that sense of cause and effect; perhaps because the poem was completed over a longer period?
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Sometimes “you are one of us,” other times it is just me.
What is American about this poem?
Why should it be one thing and not another, that is American or not?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
A finished thing is abandoned. But many poets return to rewrite certain poems (if by that one means themes or crises or visions) over and over again, because one could not write them well (enough) to begin with. Is “Atlas” such poem for me? I don’t know.