Dunya Mikhail: Politics in Service of Poetry

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When she moved to the United States–away from the Iraqi censors–poet Dunya Mikhail had to rethink her approach to political poetry. (Photo: dunyamikhail.com)

Dunya Mikhail is the author of six books of poetry in Arabic, three of which—The Iraqi Nights (New Directions, 2014), Diary of a Wave Outside a Sea (New Directions, 2009), and The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2006)—have been translated into English. Born in Iraq, Mikhail was forced into exile by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1996, when she moved first to Jordan and then to the United States.

Her work is and was subversive. Like most other writers under censorship, Mikhail relied on metaphor and symbolism to slide under the censors’ radars (for example, she used Zeus in lieu of Saddam). And here in the United States, her work remains challenging emotionally and razor-sharp aesthetically. In “Bag of Bones,” for example, we see how a poet can record and transform the unearthing of a mass grave:

What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other hands.

In turns personal and collective, covering love, exile, imprisonment, war, her poetry aims to do what she says poetry does: “poetry is not medicine—it’s an x-ray.”

Dunya Mikhail read on Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Washington, DC, as a part of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Here she speaks with poet and Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Solmaz Sharif.

Solmaz Sharif: Split This Rock is unique in that it explores the intersections between social justice and poetry. Whether or not the political belongs in poetry is often debated in the United States. Some argue politics corrupts the aesthetic. Some, that the aesthetic has no place in activism. How do you feel about political poetry? What conversations around this have you had with other Iraqi poets? American poets?

Dunya Mikhail: I totally understand those who argue that “politics corrupts the aesthetic,” if the goal of the poem becomes merely that message. For me, nothing corrupts poetry if the poem is itself the goal rather than the means. The way the poem is written justifies its artistic existence. Politics can be of service to poetry rather than the other way around. In other words, what happens in the world on a personal or public level can give themes to poets; the most important issue, however, is how to use those themes.

In Iraq, I witnessed what was called “literature of mobilization,” which urged soldiers to go to war. Most of it had no aesthetic value that survived beyond the moment of consumption. Here in America, I have been seeing the word “activism” and, to be honest, I get scared of it, maybe because I developed some type of complex due to my previous Iraqi experience. But I calm myself down when I see that it’s actually activism in the opposite direction of the old mobilization. I had a discussion about that with poet Katie Ford when we were corresponding for a project (Poets in the World Series) initiated by poet Ilya Kaminsky. Katie, as an American, wondered if Iraqi citizens had certain expectations from poetry that “they might distrust a poetry that made no mention of the hardships of the nearly continuous wars of the last 30-plus years.” Politics in a country like Iraq interfere in the everyday life of people, so it’s impossible to avoid it. The published word plays a great role in the Arab society in general and has great influence on people, so governments act in ways that tell you just how much those governments fear the writers.

Solmaz Sharif: Your poems often include personal details, but not necessarily from the same single person. I am wondering what the relationship between “I” and “we” is for you. Is there a pronoun that is most useful to activism? To poetry?

Dunya Mikhail: When the poem reaches the audience, a deep process occurs silently but powerfully, a process of transformation into adopting a common truth. The pronouns exchange roles, and it doesn’t really matter what pronoun you use in poetry.

Solmaz Sharif: In an interview with Don Share, you said that it took you about a year after you were forced to leave Iraq to write and that writing was what made the United States finally feel like home. Why is that? How had your writing changed?

Dunya Mikhail: When I first came to Detroit (in 1996), I found the town cold and industrial. Baghdad (where I came from) was hot in terms of weather, poetry, and cultural debates with tea of cardamom (well, sometimes it was burning too much with war). When I arrived here all I was doing in the beginning was trying to find a space, and the Iraqi tunes and songs evoked emotions and nostalgia. Gradually, I discovered the warm corners in the bookstores’ cafes in my new town where I could write and drink my new drink (the mocha). The new thing was that, for the first time in my life as a writer, I didn’t think of using metaphors to hide the true meaning. I wrote first the poem “I was in a hurry” starting with the line “yesterday I lost a country.” No more was I required to think of two types of audience (the real reader and the fake one or the censor). Instead, I had to think in two languages. 

Solmaz Sharif: You also say in this interview, and one can tell in your work, that there is a certain coldness in your poems—an effort to steer away from sentimentality. The temperature is lowered until it burns again. Is there a particular emotion you try to avoid?

Dunya Mikhail: When I write about my experience, I try to distance myself from it, and when I write about the experience of someone else, I try to adopt it as if it’s mine. The point is to peel the onion to a certain degree, with the tension inside.

Solmaz Sharif: If you were to name three poets, living or dead, that you wish to honor with your work, who would they be?

Dunya Mikhail: Wisława Szymborska, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, and Natasha Trethewey.

You write your works first in Arabic and then work with a translator to translate them into English. What has been the most difficult word for you to translate into English? What has been the most difficult image?

Dunya Mikhail: Sometimes I use the Arabic adverb in a certain way as the language allows that flexibility through what we call “tanwiin.” That’s not possible in English, and it’s usually replaced with “like,” which I try to avoid in my poetry in Arabic.

Solmaz Sharif: What ethical responsibilities, if any, do you feel as a poet?

Dunya Mikhail: It’s not so different from the ethical responsibilities of any other human being. However, the poet has a great chance to have the world stop for a moment and see or feel or think about those little things that matter the most.

Solmaz Sharif: What is the biggest threat to poetry?

Dunya Mikhail: Narration for the sake of narration.

Solmaz Sharif: What do you think activism can learn from poetry?

Dunya Mikhail: Moving with everyone, but having a unique step, alone.

Solmaz Sharif is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow in poetry at Stanford University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, jubilat, and others. She is contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.