An old man used to sit outside my school every day, playing music on a traditional Chinese instrument. He would move a light wood stick over two pieces of metal. Most of the time the songs he played were slow, but some of the time he’d play ones that were real quick, and at those moments we kids would gather around. We had no problem making excuses to our teachers to leave class for five minutes, or take an extended lunch break.
“Come this way, Luca,” Carlo says, reaching out for the boy’s hand.
“But I’m not finished looking.”
“Okay. Take your time.”
Carlo eyes one of the boys in the group next to them. There’s one in every crowd, always one other kid that somewhere in the deep recesses of his not yet developed frontal lobe who felt so inadequate that he must find fault in another. This is the kid who will one day start bullying others, the one who will become a complete douche bag by the time he reaches middle school. Okay, so Luca is a little off but that’s no reason to stare, no reason to snicker behind your hand and elbow the kid next to you to get him on your side. Because that’s the way it’s going to work in the future: so inept are you to think for yourself, even at this young age, that you will need to gather an army around you to, in essence, do your fighting for you. Leader of the Pack. The Alpha Male. Perhaps, but clearly a zeta brain in development.
Literary Magazine Interviewer: First question. Do you see yourself as a “promising young writer”?
Promising Young Writer: That depends. Do you mean “promising” or “young”? You can easily apply both to me, or dismiss them. It’s a matter of perspective.
LMI: Let’s see, then. How old are you and what have you written that’s promising?
PYW: Well, I’m 28. So far I’ve written two books of poetry and one of short stories. I don’t like to evaluate my own work. It depresses me. And you can’t be objective about it. But it’s easy to say that I like only two poems in my first book, the rest belonging to the realm of lame beginnings. Maybe I will have a view of my two later books after some time. I guess it takes time to see your own writings as external objects so you can evaluate them as you evaluate other things. Actually, I admire and hate my own work with equal force, and that applies to everything related to myself. I also finished my first novel, the first part of a trilogy. I’m in the process of publishing it now.
I was roaming around Eastside industrial with my notebook, waiting for Lily to get off work, when a sudden squall forced me into a crowded, steamy coffee joint. And who should be sitting at the window drawing in her notebook but my old friend Daisy.
We had been part-timers teaching at the now defunct Failing school and played on the co-ed slow-pitch softball team. Part-time meant we taught summer terms, too, while the full-timers went on vacation. But that was fine because she was an artist and I was a poet. After a few years the scene went to seed and we drifted off and found real jobs.
I got a coffee and sat down with Daisy. She had a book by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi (who now lives in Paris). “It’s a comic book,” I said, picking it up and thumbing through it. “Sort of,” Daisy said, smiling.
Two Versions of “The People Are Asleep”
“The people are asleep,
Don’t wake the people, darling,
So she’d tell him
Whenever he cracked his knuckles on the balcony,
Whenever his eyes shone behind the door
Like a password,
Thanks to a flighty wi-fi connection at the riad where I stayed that time in Marrakesh, I heard Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) reading his poems for the first time. Sargon had died recently in Berlin – this was the closest I would get to meeting him – and, lapping up. the canned sound, I marvelled at his unusual career. He was an Iraqi who spent more or less all of his adult life outside Iraq, a Beatnik with roots in Kirkuk, an Assyrian who reinvented classical Arabic. He translated both Mahmoud Darwish and Howl.
In Sargon’s time and place there is an overbearing story of nation building, of (spurious) Arab-Muslim identity and of (mercenary) Struggle – against colonialism, against Israel, against capital – and that story left him completely out. More probably, he chose to stand apart from it, as he did from a literary scene that celebrated it more often than it did anything else. Is this what makes him the most important Arab poet for me?
By Margret Obank
Sargon Boulus has the rare experience of being an Iraqi poet who has been part of the American poetry since the late sixties. Today he is passing this on to the new generation of young Arab poets through his poetry.
He is one of the most important Arab poets today. He started publishing poetry and short stories contributing to Shi’r magazine of Yousef Al-Khal and Adonis in Beirut. When he went to the US, he was ‘lost’ the Arab world until he re-emerged in the mid-80s with his Arrival in Where-City collection of poems.
His poems and translations have appeared in numerous Arab magazines and newspapers, and he published four collections of poetry. Now in his early fifties, Sargon seems still to have all the energy and vibrant imagination of his youthful days in Iraq and Beirut.
Besides writing poems and short stories, Sargon is well known as an accomplished translator into English and American poets such as Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden (he is soon to publish a complete an his translations of Auden together with extensive notes and an introduction on Auden’s life), W. S Shakespeare, Shelley, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, John Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, John Logan, and many other poets including Rilke, Neruda, Vasko Popa and Ho Chi Min.
Since the mid-80s, he has been on the move between San Francisco, Paris, London and Cologne a last year has lived in Schoppingen artists’ village in Germany, where I visited him last September. We spent a day under the Sh?ppingen sky, eating, drinking and talking about his life, his childhood, his views on poetic form and his endless experiments with the Arabic language.
I keep going back and forth into the past. The discovery which comes usually late is that most of the material that has made you and still works on you, even today, lies somewhere there, mostly in childhood, so that, in a way, I think that whatever happened to you in childhood, your circumstances, the place you lived in, the time, the happenings, these shape you up, especially if you are a poet, if you are a writer, and later on you would come back to this material and discover that that is your real capital. So I keep going, as I said, in these late poems back into that time, to shape them up anew, see them in a new way, kind of bracket in the perspective, tighten it and bring out the deepest possible meaning in those scenes and happenings and family background.