Shara Lessley, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale. Among her honors are an Artist Fellowship from the State of North Carolina, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Colgate University's Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship. Shara is a recipient of the "Discovery" / The Nation prize. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Southern Review, among others. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan, and records her experiences in the Middle East at her blog.
ADVICE FROM THE PREDECESSOR’S WIFE
Learn Arabic—your husband won’t have time.
At Carrefour Express, aisle one is the tax-free line.
For poultry, go to Sweifieh (the Palestinian
chicken man’s shop); pig, on the other hand,
is impossible to find (frozen pork sometimes
turns up at the co-op). Basha ____________ ’s
wife is pregnant with twins; expect to host
a spa date or two for his mistress. Never make
eye contact with local men. Read Married
to a Bedouin, the Expert Expat’s Guide. (Skip
Queen Noor’s book—she’s from the Midwest.)
During Ramadan Crumbs’ breakfast is the best;
everything else is closed. Never ride
in the front of a taxi with an Arab. If you’re
near the Embassy, avoid hailing a cab (security says
we’re sitting ducks). Help in Amman
runs cheap: hire a driver, a maid, a cook.
Mansef is made with lamb or goat, and stewed
in a hearty jameed. When dining with royalty,
keep conversation neutral. At private parties
be prepared to be the only woman in the room,
save the staff. Look the part, but don’t
show cleavage. Lipstick is fine. Laugh hard
(but not too hard) at Colonel ________’s
dick jokes. Know how to properly cut and light
a cigar. When talk turns to politics, smile
and nod, then say something obscure
in Arabic—your husband will give you the cue
(the Jords will think it cute). Never ask
a woman how long her hair is
under the hijab. Don’t call anyone
but your husband habibi. Explore the souks;
steer clear of the mosques. All Arabs hate dogs—
walk yours after dark; comb your yard
for poison and traps. Close your drapes
(Western women are common victims
of peeping toms). When moving among crowds,
expect children and strangers to stop
to stroke your hair. Always carry your passport.
The number one reason a man’s relieved
from his post? His wife’s unhappy. Avoid this
from the get-go—get a hobby! Play tennis,
take a class, or find a job. (The field’s leveled
for spouses: here, education and experience
equal nada.) The workweek runs Sunday to
Thursday; your husband will clock in Saturdays,
Fridays, too. Pack at least four ball gowns;
stock up on shirts with sleeves. Gunfire means
graduation, or congratulations—a wedding’s
just taken place. Don’t be disturbed by
the armed guards outside your apartment
(their assault rifles don’t have bullets,
rumor has it). “Little America” runs perpendicular
to Ring Six (aka: Cholesterol Circle)—Popeye’s,
Burger King, Hardee’s—you’ll find everything
you need. McDonald’s Playland spans three
upstairs levels. Ship a year’s worth of ketchup,
mayonnaise. Blondes are often mistaken
for hookers; consider dying your hair.
By September or October you’ll learn to
tune out the call to prayer.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I began writing "Advice from the Predecessor's Wife" on a very snowy day at the Amy Clampitt House where I was visiting then-fellow Bruce Snider. My husband and I had relocated to the Middle East six months earlier and the journey to Lenox was my first trip back to the states. In restaurants, nail salons, and libraries, I found myself answering questions about life overseas: Why in the world did I move to Jordan? Where was Jordan? Was I afraid to live in a Muslim country? Was I forced to wear a burka? Did I have a car there, or television? Such questions revealed a mixture of fear, disbelief, and curiosity that I found far more interesting than any of my answers regarding Middle Eastern geography, weather, or the overseas availability of satellite dishes.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Considering that some of my poems have taken years to write, the drafting process for "Advice..." progressed rather quickly. I credit this to storing observations and sound bites for nine or more months before trying to shape them into verse. As soon as my husband and I announced that we were moving to the Middle East, I was bombarded with advice—including recommendations from people who'd never even been there! Once we arrived in Amman, I also received tips from other expats, as well as the assistance of locals. Like any new resident, I tried to acquaint myself with the foreign surroundings and customs. I ventured out to find the best butchers and falafel stands, quickly learned which traffic circles to avoid during particular times of day, discovered the appropriate (or, rather inappropriate) protocol for interacting with armed guards, and which routes were best for walking our dog. For many months, I took notes in my head rather than on the page. Details about life in Amman accumulated over time, equipping me with plenty of material to mine once I was ready to write.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Truth told, "inspiration" is one of my least favorite words. I'll take hard work and discipline any day, especially if the alternative is to wait for some proverbial cloud to part or a poem to fall out of the sky. Granted, some of "Advice..." was received: an American who'd once lived in Jordan told me the bit about skipping Queen Noor's book and dying my hair so as not to be mistaken for a prostitute. Although no one recommended I ship bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise with our household effects, I often hear expats complain about the quality of condiments in Amman. (Many are happy, however, with McDonald's 24-7 delivery policy!) What's interesting is that for all I was informed about packing ball gowns and how to hail a cab, I heard very little about Jordanian generosity and warmth. In fact, I was told almost nothing about what I would learn from the good people of Amman.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
At times I don't know whether I feel more overpowered by the experience of living in the Middle East (its distinct energy, diction, unique social customs, political tensions, religious practices, sounds, terrain, textures, the enormity of its scale), or by the American myth of the Middle East—those popular beliefs and misconceptions about the region's people ("they're a bunch of terrorists!"), leaders ("they're all dictators!"), penchant for violence, and misunderstanding about Islam. Thus, my gut-feeling from the get-go was that a single block stanza best suited the subject. My hope is that this form not only helps build momentum, but that it also overwhelms the reader with information—some of it practical, some outright absurd. By juxtaposing sensible tips (pork is available at the co-op) with suggestions that reveal paranoia and deep-seated prejudices ("All Arabs hate dogs—/walk yours after dark" and " Never ask a woman how long her hair is / under the hijab..."), the poem challenges readers to distinguish sound advice from stereotypes.
Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?
Until "Advice...," I don't think I'd ever written anything with a satirical undertone.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I completed "Advice..." in February or March of 2011. It turned up about six months later in The Missouri Review's Fall Issue and was republished by Poetry Daily in November.
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?
Typically, I let poems rest a lot longer before sending them out. There are certainly ones in print I wish I'd withheld. "Advice from the Predecessor's Wife" was different. The poem is from my second manuscript-in-progress, which is tentatively titled The Explosive Expert's Wife. Its subjects—stateside bombings by culprits like Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski, spouses of terrorists and counter-terrorists, the difficulty of learning Arabic, the many beauties of Amman and its people, the FBI crime lab—seem more urgent, timely. Perhaps that's why I haven't waited as long to pursue publication. Knock on wood—it's going well thus far...
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem's unsaid tension is our lack of incentive to separate fact from fiction. Perhaps it's due to laziness. Or, apathy. Perhaps it's easier to simply accept what we're told. Or maybe I'm mistaken—it's possible that the poem's real claim is that our framing of "fact" is always fictive to a certain extent. What I can say without hesitation in regards to the poem and my experience of living in Amman is that when it comes to popular conceptions of this region, Americans often get it wrong. I know this because many of my own assumptions have been disproven. Since moving to the Middle East, my ideas about my own country and others have been challenged in the best possible sense.
Is this a narrative poem?
I don't know. Is it? I'm curious so see what readers think...
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Clampitt, Clampitt, Clampitt (poems, letters, essays, and interviews)—not that she shows herself in any way as an influence in this particular case. I also remember rereading a few novels by Clampitt's nearby neighbor, Edith Wharton. I guess I was in a Massachusetts state of mind. Oh, and the Mayo Clinic's Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy. While visiting Lenox, I was late in my first trimester of pregnancy.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
The (half-)honest answer is no, which I think is mostly true, although during the revision process I occasionally hear my mentors whisper wrong move, or misstep! red flag, red flag, red flag! Most often, the voice is Eavan Boland's, although others turn up as well. In the case of "Advice...," it's the less-than-ideal reader I most fear—that person who mistakes the poem's meaning and reads it as some gross caricature of Arab culture.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
Bruce Snider is my primary reader, the person who suffers through almost every draft of what I write. In this case, he helped excise and rearrange some of the details in order to help me locate the poem's ending. I'm also indebted to David Roderick, with whom I regularly exchange work and ideas. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable to drop names here—there are so many wonderful people in my life. Even without regularly reading or commenting directly on my drafts, theirs is a profound and lasting influence.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
"Advice..." is less lyrical, more conversational. Serious as its subject matter is, the drafting process felt like play.
What is American about this poem?
Its ugliness and enthusiasm. The residue of capitalism. Its combination of curiosity and fear. I think the poem's humor, its sense of entitlement and privilege are very American, as is its strange amalgamation of knowingness and naiveté.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Each day I spend in Jordan, I live this poem. I consider it ongoing.