Books In Conversation
Language is Always a Shared Occasion: FADY JOUDAH with Alex Dueben
Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance
(Milkweed Editons, 2018)
Over the course of four books of poetry, Fady Joudah has shown himself to be a writer very aware of the physical body and the physical world even as he’s examining spiritual and metaphysical questions. An award-winning poet and translator, his new book, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, is his farthest reaching and best book to date. This question of footnotes: what they mean, who makes them, why they exist and what—or who—gets pushed into footnotes is an ongoing concern. Joudah has an interest in exploring questions of death, of loss. He has a doctor’s eye for detail, probing liminal spaces and always considering questions of loss and language, power and death.
His previous book, Textu, was a formal experiment where every poem or stanza had 160 characters, the length of a text message. In his new book he explores many forms and approaches, including a section of poems titled “Sagittal Views,” a collaboration with his friend, the writer Golan Haji.
Alex Dueben (Rail): You open the book with a poem “The Magic of Apricot” and the lines “Apricot / the falafel of truth / and the truth of falafel” have stayed with me.
Fady Joudah: I am equally intrigued: why do you think those lines stayed with you? For my part, I will say that falafel is like apricot, a wonder that cannot taste the same twice, a perfection once experienced, you spend your whole life looking to resurrect, replicate. I can't say the same about pomegranates, for example, which are magnificently reliable.
Rail: The lines stayed with me because I found them humorous. You mention in the notes that the poem was inspired by Mona Hatoum’s exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2016, and I’ve had a similar response to some of her pieces like Grater Divide, which is to see humor at first glance, but after engaging with it, it begins to mean something else. How did Hatoum’s work inspire the poem?
Joudah: Her work has an inimitable simplicity. And when the work is in conversation with other artists’ works, the inimitability relocates into sensuality; dialogue becomes a desire and a longing, inviting and prohibitive. In Arabic, apricots are also a euphemism for rarity, since their season is very brief, and so has come to carry a feeling of sardonic beauty with it. Yet in French, apricot is erotic. Recently I was in London to present Mona Hatoum with the Art Icon award at Whitechapel Gallery, and I read this poem. The French in the audience came up later to tell me how sensual they thought the poem was. Words lend themselves to different histories and yet somehow manage an encompassing effect. You will encounter awesome apricots and falafel, but you'll never recapture whole that which your memory convinces you to crave. And like the Grater Divide (which, ironically, was on exhibit in Houston’s Menil museum recently), the “magic of apricot” attempts to reconstruct or install a lyrical memory of the world, with all its overlapping playfulness and abrasiveness. Falafel is a bit more complex than apricot, I think. Whereas apricot belongs predominantly to the earth and has more agency, falafel belongs more to the world of humans. Part of falafel's tragic magic, its truth, is in our desire for “possessing possession,” to borrow an expression from Edward Said.
Rail: This is your fourth book of poetry, and after Textu was there something you set out to do differently in this collection?
Joudah: From Borges to Kilito it’s been said that we spend our lives rewriting the one book we failed to write several times before. Perhaps by function of my medical life and my Palestinian background, I am quite consumed with the body, and always try to write it in seemingly diverse ways. The funny thing is that the body is everyone’s preoccupation, since it is, as I say in “Echo #1,” “our guest/ that hosts us.”
Rail: Textu was a book where you set out to write poems in this specific way, and for this book you wrote in many styles and forms. Was that a conscious choice or simply what came out of you?
Joudah: Textu was governed by a form I developed, which situates the ancient art of the short poem, and the volta, in the meter and rhythm of character count as we have come to know it digitally: 160 per text message before you go over and get billed for two. Despite the formal restraint, I was still inclined toward multiple registers in Textu. I think I’ve always leaned that way. Perhaps this is more apparent in Footnotes because it is in free verse, so to speak, with prose poems peppering the book.
But don’t most people converse in multiple registers throughout their days and weeks? For the most part, we do not speak in the same breath or intensity all the time. I can argue that too much uniformity in a poetry collection is a historic function of the artificiality of art. It has come to pass as such. I’d like to think this uniformity’s best manifestation is when it gives off the air of oneness with the world. But that is a tall order and is not why most poetry collections stay in a slim range of diction, of speech. Even the argument that the poem is often written under similar, recurrent conditions of origination does not attenuate the trouble with the mechanics of poetry production today.
There is inter and intra dialogue, between the poems and within them, in Footnotes. I am thinking of Bakhtin when I say “dialogue,” and how language is always a shared occasion. If through the course of my day I speak in multiple registers, it also means other people’s words enter and shape my language, and they are represented thus in a book of poems: a dialogue as alternative to story, perhaps; heteroglossia as a naturally occurring event; a dance between the quarrel with self and the open-ended conversation with others.
Rail: One section of the book, “Sagittal Views,” is a collaboration with Golan Haji. What are these ten poems, and how did the two of you collaborate?
Joudah: Sagittal Views is one way to speak of dialogue; what happens to the work of translation and witness when it no longer plays by boxed-in, pre-established performative rules. Golan Haji is a friend, a brilliant writer and mind. Eventually our communication grew into unexpected sensitivity and connectivity, and then it dawned on me that much of what we were sharing was worth the breath of poem. All these poems were based on email and phone conversations in Arabic. Sometimes we met in person. We did not correspond with “art” in mind. When consciousness entered the scene, I began to compose what we had into English, and the experience reached its end shortly thereafter. Golan was not my subject nor was I his conduit. It was a mutualism that honors the integrity of the individual's triumph over art, or so I hope. We became simply rooms for each other.
Rail: “Sagittal Views” is its own thing, but it’s also very much a part of the book. Were you conscious of these poems needing to be a part of the book or connected to the book in some way?
Joudah: As I mentioned, I was conscious that this merging between Golan and me felt like an act of integrity necessary for the book. An emotional integrity that matters first and foremost to my person. It is also part of that circular conversation one has with “unity” in a creative text. Intertextuality is best if “organic,” I think, where cognition bears a healthy dose of its own unconsciousness. The book eventually conducts its own polyphony and affirms it. This way one’s book ceases to be one's own quickly. That’s a good thing. It returns us back to dialogue.
Rail: I love how you described “Sagittal Views” as, “We became simply rooms for each other.”
Joudah: Yes, sometimes furnished, other times unfurnished rooms. Each has its welcoming mat, its hospitality, empathy, love. I think one beauty of “Sagittal Views” is how it walks past the obsession with “authorship” and builds a room of two’s own, as it were. To think that it's hard to mention Footnotes without mentioning Golan Haji, is lovely.
Rail: The book’s title is Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance, and the idea of footnotes or this question of notes recur throughout the book. Where did this idea first emerge?
Joudah: It came from the first of the two titular poems, which addresses the spectacle of the dead and famous, and begins the third section of the book that investigates these questions of presence and absence in our lives as imperial and historical citizens. That poem begins with, “That syphilis leads to deafness isn’t enough/ for Beethoven to have died of it.” I realized that the title spoke to many more threads and concerns in the book beyond those in that poem. I also realized that the title itself was a private address from me to myself. I was closing a circle I could sense but not quite visualize. Like arriving at a point of departure aesthetically and, more importantly, psychically. I was acknowledging the part of me that seemed to be leaving me just as I appeared to grasp its fuller presence. I was writing poems to myself that can look me in the face and say: been there, done that, get on with it to a different being. Or I hope that is the case.
Rail: The first poem and its title came first, and the second poem with the Keats epigraph came at the end of this process?
Joudah: Yes. I've long been troubled by our fascination with illness and spectacle, disease and fame, rarity and notoriety, whether in medical training or in society at large. How much has literature become associated with “pathology” is also a reflection of how administered our lives have become as categories of “health.” This led me to want to write another titular poem that would cast a greater net over the collection. The Keats epigraph is about fever but also about linking the human centricity to the question of the earth, of ecology, nature, environment. There are several poems that address ecology in Footnotes, just as there are others that address science and the eros of illness.
Rail: I think about how your medical training seems to define a lot of how you see the world. Or maybe you became a doctor because of this view of the world. You see death as more ordinary? That’s not quite right, but I keep thinking of “National Park” or “Thank You” and how you address death there.
Joudah: I don’t know if the antidote to death as spectacle is to see it as ordinary. One can argue that death, by sheer numbers over the ages, and by its inevitable reality that we shun as much as we accept, is ordinary. I’d also argue that many of us don’t recognize how extraordinary a life is (and thus a death is) though we provide lip service to both. Otherwise we would do more about all the death that surrounds us, or we’d celebrate life in ways that do not promote the absenting of the death of others. The cult of fame, which is also a subcult of power, is present even in the practice and history of medicine. And yet these are poetic moments of realization. Otherwise one would think Clint Eastwood a saint after The Unforgiven.
“National Park,” for example, is about echo. Do the dead emit echo? Does echo become image, vision, or a sense other than auditory or tactile? Is echo not a form of memory? I was struck by the paradox of limitation and immensity in human language: to write a poem about encountering roadkill, while engaging in one of the most emblematic acts of modern life in the nation-state, that of visiting national parks (domestic or international), I was overwhelmed by the language that language conjured. In a time of war. Perpetual war. As for “Thank You,” it’s in conversation with “Progress Notes.” How, even with cadavers, some of us inclusively honor the dead, while others are covetous of that honor, exclusive of it.
Rail: “The paradox of limitation and immensity in human language.” So much of your work, especially in this book is about that. You’re interested in exploring liminal spaces, in considering spiritual questions, the language that’s used and who uses it.
Joudah: Those are kind words. Isn’t all poetry about that? I hope so. The appearance of it varies, thankfully, but the disappearance of it is the same kind of difference.
Rail: You open the book with two quotations, one from Hannah Arendt about understanding, which I’ve always liked. Do you hope for such understanding through your work, or to find a space to allow others to understand?
The Arendt quote is also about masculinity. We prescribe the “political” to those of us who do not belong to the "authentic" nation (and its art). We call them by different names through different socio-historical periods. The irony for me, which I think Arendt captured sharply, is that this kind of prescription is itself a masculine act, and can spill into misogyny, an act the prescriber disavows and projects onto others whom he or she claims are (by nature of their grievance and grief) not only less powerful but also less developed. It’s a terrible way to subvert dialogue into a hegemonic performance. That’s why I follow that quote with Darwish’s quote: “Sometimes they arrest you while you're committing a dream.”
Rail: That ties in with what you were saying before about trying to address our lives as “imperial citizens.”
Joudah: I wonder sometimes how masculine is our implicit desire to cover up that part of our lives, how influential we want to remain as guiding light, even when we retreat into our interior, a fever of ourselves. Or maybe it’s simpler, like not wanting to ask for directions, perhaps. I always wondered about Odysseus. He spent ten years in a marine labyrinth of limited surface area before he could see the way home. But it was a remarkable story.