Etel Adnan is a poet, novelist, essayist, and painter born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. She has spent much of her life in Northern California but has also lived in Paris, where she currently resides. Adnan is the author of many books, including Surge (2018), Time (2019, translated from French by Sarah Riggs), and Shifting the Silence (2020)—all from Nightboat Books. The Arab Apocalypse has recently been republished by Litmus Press. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and were most recently on view in New York at Galerie Lelong (Seasons, October 29 – December 23, 2020).
Etel Adnan is a beacon of thought in a dirempt world. In her writing I sense her hovering just beyond, in view but ungraspable, yet grounding me in ever-changing realizations. Luminous company, trusted guide, necessary source of immediate information, Adnan is a visionary of the meteoric and diasporic. Oscillating between the ecstatic and the unbearable, she finds home in the evasive emplacements of each moment.
Charles Bernstein (Rail): In Surge, you write, “to enter reality as a boat does the night.” I love that and wonder if you could talk about your epistemology, the way you think of knowledge in the almost negative theological sense of that line?
Adnan: The question of reality is extremely intimidating because it is so encompassing, though we don't know by which angle to face such a question. But I think our sense of reality comes to us through the awareness of being, of when I am. Instead of saying “I think therefore I am,” we can say, “I am therefore I am.” Much simpler [Laughter]. And it is what we call life in all its form. A few weeks ago, I received a bunch of peonies and I mistook them for roses and one of the flowers was extremely red. And I thought it will be a rose. And then I looked at it and it wasn't and it kept me thinking, and I thought … I just had been reading [Pierre] Klossowski, where he writes, “Nietzsche said, ‘God has died therefore man has died.’” And then I said, but what about, if man has died, what about the universe in this framework of thinking? Thinking of this very strong, red peony, I thought that very like color is the manifestation of the will to power of matter, la matière, matter, which manifests through the intensity of its colors, and exists in the range of our perceptions. And it made me think, if matter is a will, therefore matter is probably thinking also. We don't know what we mean by that, but maybe what we call reality is a mode of thinking. Maybe you go to old movies, I’m not familiar with the movies, but it could go in that direction. Reality covers all the things we have said about speaking of death; for example, is that the end of a particular life? Or is it the end of a particular reality? So, they hang together, on this.
Rail: Yes. Well, thank you very much. I can't imagine a richer response to my question, which I'll go back to just because this was so perfect. I said to you, I quoted you—“to enter reality as a boat does the night.” And really it's a beautiful commentary and extension of that. So, my next question is one that you have often addressed. It's a very familiar one to you. But I'd ask you again because it's so interesting. And it's simply—and it relates to the first question—What is your language? You grew up with Greek, Turkish, and French. You write primarily in English, in the American. In “Jebu” you write, “I am a nomad from a venerable cosmos.” What is your language?
Adnan: Celle avec qui j’identifie? [The one with which I identify?] I often thought we are a different person while using a certain language. We don't think the same way in every language. Language is a tool that acts on us, collaborates with thinking, is not neutral. You don't say the same thing. For example, in some languages the words have a genre. There are feminine words and masculine words in French, you don't have that in English. So the language affects your thinking, and you are a different person. In my case, these last years, I came very close to the Greek language.
Rail: Yes, this was your mother's language—
Adnan: It was my mother's language. I stayed a week in Delphi and somehow that whole region, that whole history, affected me. There are periods in our lives and things change with them. I started using Greek again on the island, and I paid more attention to philosophy, per se. In philosophy, in poetry, we rediscovered, with Heidegger, very much, the importance of philosophy in relation to thinking, that poetry is the highest form of knowledge of philosophy, so then the importance of language comes to the fore. The language you use in poetry gives direction to what you are saying. You're not totally independent from it. I am very personally attached to the American language and I say American because it has an energy, a history, a connotation all of its own. And that's extremely important. When I discovered, for example, in French, if you take liberty with the language, people correct you. You make a mistake … [Laughter]. And that doesn't happen to me in the United States.
Rail: That’s because Americans don't know the difference between right and wrong in language. So, we don't know how we would correct it. We don't know what the correct thing is, I mean, it's not a concept that exists [Laughter].
Adnan: You create your language, you have a freedom with your language, that puts you to a test. You're not on the defensive, you go ahead and continue, so that’s extremely endearing. And there are also more sublanguages, for example, the language in sports, the language around baseball, the language around football, there are popular languages that you can use innocently. There is an innocence allowed within the American language that I discovered and that really—it became important.
Rail: Well, we're lucky, as those of us trapped in the American language, to have you come aboard and be part of it, because it expands it and it makes it much richer. And I remember your writing that when you first came to America, you loved listening to what I assume were radio or television broadcasts of sports games and the wonderful vernacular of that. But let me move on. Another brief quote that you could talk about—or key word of yours—from “Jebu,”—“creative disorder / is our divine stubbornness.” I mean, that's kind of my poetics, too. I adopt that from you.
Adnan: Even when André Breton said beauty will be violent, and by violent I didn't think of that passage, in particular, but I really believe that we come back to reality. The sense of reality is often accompanied by a sentiment of the presence of an explosion. An explosion within being, within reality. And this sense of explosion is within art, within writing. It's there. We experience the very frequencies and we associate it with the presence of essential reality, essential as to be explosive.
Rail: My next question relates to the exact scene that we're seeing here. Just out of frame is the great artist Simone Fattal. I wanted to ask you, Etel, about your relationship to Simone and to Post-Apollo Press. I could expand on the many senses of what that might mean to artistic collaboration and personal relation, the press, your work, your life together, whatever it is that you'd like to talk about in that respect.
Adnan: My relation to the Post-Apollo Press—I was always a bit amazed by the existence of that press and all it did, all the poets it invited, it made happen. I would have not known them otherwise, and every one of their works was an event, something I was waiting for. I was also always aware not to over-interfere with that endeavor. So, this is true in any relation with anyone: to know where to go, how far to go, what to do, not to … that was extremely important. And this is true in any relation. What does the other person mean? What do we mean by a close person? A close person is a person that establishes perspectives and limitations at the same time. You go a long way with ... and you have many stopovers. You have to be careful. It's very, very mysterious. You play by ear. As a wife you'd be paralyzed, you couldn't move.
Rail: I think we could take this part out and put it up as a YouTube clip on relationship advice. Very beautiful. I'm going to ask one more question now then we'll do the reading. My question has to do with your early work versus your late work. How do you feel about the connection between the two? Let me put it in a different way. On the one hand, there is the violence, resistance, struggle, lament, ferocity, and confrontation, especially in one of the most searing poems of the Palestinian and Arab resistance, and surely one of your great poems, “Jebu,” published in 1969 in the Souffles Maghrebian issue, “For the Palestinian Revolution,” but also many others. On the other hand, there is what I’d call your late work from Nightboat Books, which is more diaphanous, open-ended, speculative, meditative, though not without plunges into the dark. For example, in Sea & Fog (2012)—mind mirrored in sea, sea mirrored in mind—you write, "Poetry reaches the unsaid and leaves it unsaid.” Or to put it as William Carlos Williams might, poetry is the unsaid that stays unsaid. So, my question is about this movement toward the meditative and the unsaid versus the very fierce early poems.
Adnan: Well, this is what happens with time.
Rail: A title of a book of yours, Time [Laughter].
Adnan: Because time gives you a thickness, an inner dimension to experience, and it changes, it attenuates, it changes your vision. That doesn't mean you relegate, but it means there are subtleties that enter your thinking. If this didn't happen, we will remain repetitive robots. We have to make room for the encounters, the ideas, what we call life experience. Therefore, in the ’50s, in the ’60s, there was a kind of universal boiling in the world. You had Guevara, Lumumba. You felt that the old world was changing, exploding, that anything was possible. And then, the civil war in Lebanon, turned me into a pacifist. I don't consider that having become a pacifist meant a sellout. It only means integrating realities, for example, that civil war didn't solve anything. It added new problems and made solutions even harder to come.
So, we used to grow up to learn by experience. And it is true, we have to take new data in our thinking. I’m not sorry I did that. Because I found an inner peace on the road to that. To develop hope in uniquely violent … can bring about a profound peace, an inner peace. And why not? So, you don't give up hope, but you add new perspectives. In Montreal there is a festival called Blue Metropolis. And when somebody comes from Beirut, Lebanon, even Cyprus, the questions always end on the Palestinian question. It's inevitable. There was in the audience a Palestinian professor, Issa Boullata. A young man, also in the audience, asked me, “If you have to sum up in one sentence where do you stand today on that question?" And I heard myself answer, "I would rather have 10 Palestinian PhDs to 10 Israeli dead." When I went outside, the Palestinian professor was upset. He felt I had sold out. He said, "how could you say such a thing?" I said, "You know violence in this case would be a dead-end forever. And that's not what I wish. I wish people to live." And I said, "We have to find our little ways to exist and to answer." And he took some time. And I think he kind of agreed. At least he got the point of what I was saying. And this was really my profound … and that's where I ended up.
Rail: Well, merci beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup for that incredible answer. And I'm very overwhelmed by what you're saying in terms of a life's work and the transformation. And specifically, of course, your poem, “The Arab Apocalypse," takes on some of what you're saying in terms of the civil war in Lebanon and your transformation. I also want to mention, in this context, your 2005 poem, "To Be in a Time of War," which is, I think, one of the great poems against the US invasion of Iraq. So, from the point of view of being an American, you write a really great anti-war poem against that horrific war that was initiated by the US. So, the transformation takes many colors. But, now, if you would read some poems for us, it would be wonderful and we would love to hear you do that.
[Etel Adnan reads from Night]
Rail: Sarah Riggs, you won the Griffin Prize for your translation of Adnan’s Time. The book is translated from the French. It's an incredibly beautiful book, in my view, in every way, published, as is Night, by Nightboat. Sarah is here with me in Brooklyn.
Sarah Riggs: On October 27, 2003, I believe Etel received a postcard from Khaled Najar. And she wrote a sequence, a poem sequence, that I'm going to read from, that began the book Time. Khaled Najar published those books in Tunisia, and he comes up in this poem.
[Riggs reads from her translation of Adnan’s Time.]
Rail: Thank you so much, Sarah, we'll come back to you in a second. But let me go to Omar Berrada. Berrada is a poet and translator and significant Maghrebian, French, and American thinker and we're very happy to have him here. He is also a Brooklyn neighbor.
Omar Berrada: Thank you, Charles. Etel, it's nice to see you. I wish I could see you in person in Paris. I have many questions I could ask. But one maybe that seems to have no direct relation with the conversation that preceded, but that always fascinated me, is your interest in outer space, which comes back often in many of your books, in the poetry books from the ’80s, the Indian Never Had a Horse & Other Poems (1985) or The Spring Flowers Own (1990). Also, in the Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986) where there is this sentence: “Every great work in history points to outer space.” I would just really like to hear you say something about the importance for you, for your imagination, for your work, of outer space, astronauts, and the like.
Adnan: Outer space was the image of the absolute impossibility. When I was five years old, my father would point to the moon. And he used to tell me: “Do you see the moon? We will never go there.” It was an absolute impossibility. And then we saw the astronauts and they related extraordinary things, the Russians and the Americans. [Vladimir] Komarov, the Russian, said he saw 17 sunrises in one day, in one terrestrial day. And it was something mind blowing, really. It was a big adventure that topped the ’60s. When, in the ’60s, the world looked like a continuous miracle. And that was an incredible thing. We left the earth with them, we identify with these guys walking on the moon. And I even heard that Neil Armstrong used to go regularly to Morocco. He belonged to the Royal Society of Sciences. And I came close to reaching him, but it didn't happen.
And lately we have other ways of looking at that, because I think this excess of pollution is due to the fact that, symbolically, we left Mother Earth. Earth has become old tent, old hat, the house you left behind. And now, I am interested in the people who try to repair that world, to keep going on this planet. And even theology, there will be an oratorio in Venice at the Biennale next year, in the cathedral. They asked a musician to write something on outer space and he asked me to write something. And he told me, “Don't you think that humanity wants to go to outer space to look for a new revelation?” I wrote a very short page, and I came to the conclusion that revelation, deep down, is won/one, it cannot be improved. Therefore, it's really that split second when we thought we sense the divine in us, in human nature. I created an argument, but I didn't convince the humans who are to read it. Those humans told me the human race is such, that whatever is possible it will try to do, it will keep going. So, they will go and some will stay and we'll see what happens.
Rail: You're both the great poet of outer space and of inner space. And I think the only poet I know who's written great poems that mention Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, who comes up more than once in your work. We turn now, just upstairs in the same building I'm in, to Susan Bee, painter, book artist, and editor, who will perhaps bring up something that I had wanted to discuss earlier, your visual artwork. We'll see. Susan.
Susan Bee: This conversation has been fantastic. It's so great to see Etel all the way in Paris from Brooklyn. We miss being in Paris. And I wanted to ask you really, you have a show up in New York at Galerie Lelong, that Charles and I went to, and it’s wonderful to see the tapestries and the leporellos and the paintings and the drawings and, of course, we saw the wonderful show by Simone that was at MoMA PS1. So, I wonder how you feel about the relation between your artwork and your poetry because in our household, Charles does the poetry and I do the artwork. And I think it's amazing that somebody can do both things. So maybe you can talk about that.
Adnan: I really don't know, Susan. I think when we do see the stuff, we don't overly think about them. You start something and you keep going. It's all beauty, all dynamic. So, we don't know, maybe more poets will paint, maybe more painters will write poetry. But they get involved in the customs of the country, in what time they are, what opportunities. But there is poetry in the painting, and the little devil makes it painting in the poetry. Some of the old are insane, most, and some … By the way, I just received your latest artist book with Johanna Drucker. And it's extremely beautiful, and not only beautiful, it's like the first pages, like that page where everything is on the water. And very close to the lady the boat down there. And I really love that enchantment that—
Bee: Thank you! We really wanted to make a book that was good for children and also for adults. You know, but it is also like Omar talked about, we were also thinking about science fiction and the magic of being in outer space. I really relate to that feeling. I've been doing leporellos. I just love that format—where you start the accordion book and gradually unfold it. I feel like you are such a master of the leporellos and the small paintings which I admire so much.
Adnan: Oh, you know we are in outer space. We are on a planet [Laughter].
Adnan: This is why I like Greece, because it's so planetary there. We are on the cusp of the earth.
Rail: The book that Etel's talking about by Susan Bee and Johanna Drucker is called Off-World Fairy Tales, published by Litmus Press in 2020. Litmus Press is a great friend of Simone and Etel's. And indeed, has taken on representing the full set of Post-Apollo books, which are now on the Litmus Press website, for which I'm very grateful to E. Tracy Grinnell. Litmus also published the new edition of Etel’s The Arab Apocalypse.
Rail: We're going to conclude with Sarah. But, also, want to thank Stephen Motika for his work at Nightboat in publishing Etel’s work.
Riggs: Etel, I wanted to ask you about the visuals in The Arab Apocalypse, and how they enhance the poetry. I want you to talk a little bit about how poetry and art figure for you in terms of moving into the future, which you've been doing for a few more years than some of us. It's a little bit daunting. I'm wondering how art and poetry function for you especially hand in hand?
Adnan: Yes, Sarah. The little things, they are not drawings, they are like yellow beads. It is like I reached a point where I couldn't use words anymore. There was a surplus of emotion, of thinking, that I indicated by signs. There are signs, which say, and then some more.
Rail: Thank you so much Etel. And this question that Sarah asked—we could go on for a whole other program to talk about that issue, which you've written about quite a lot in respect to Arabic and Arabic calligraphy and those iconographic elements in some of your work, but especially in The Arab Apocalypse. But we will stop now. With thanks to the Brooklyn Rail and to Phong Bui for suggesting we do this program. This is Charles Bernstein coming to you from the outer space outpost of Brooklyn, for the New Social Environment.