The Big Idea: Fady Joudah

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When I studied English at college in the 1970s, the New Criticism, a school of literary theory first established in the 1920s, was still the rage. The New Criticism holds that it isn’t necessary to know much about writers’ lives to interpret their works. Information about, say, Keats’s tuberculosis, Woolf’s sexuality, or Yeats’s nationalism might be interesting, but it doesn’t contribute to our understanding of poetry and prose. Again and again, my professors reminded me: only the words on the page matter.

Now students of literature learn as much about context as about text. Writers are identified as closely with their biographies as with their bibliographies. Women and members of minority groups are likely to be tagged as “feminist,” “gay,” “Latino,” etc. These labels encourage readers to view writers’ work through a particular, often political lens. The feminist’s novel becomes a Feminist Novel, and so forth.

The poet Fady Joudah, for example, is rarely referred to as “the poet, Fady Joudah.” Joudah, the son of Palestinian refugees, who grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia, moved to the U.S. at nineteen, and is now a doctor in Houston, is most often called a “Palestinian-American poet” or a “Palestinian-American physician-poet.”

A winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007, Joudah has published two books of poems, The Earth in the Attic (2008) and Alight (2013), and an e-book of short poems composed on a cell phone, Textu (2013). He has translated, from Arabic, poet Mahmoud Darwish, and his translation of poet Ghassan Zaqtan’s Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me won the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2013.

I spoke with Joudah recently about the ways in which our emphasis on certain poets’ biographies constrains our reading of their poems—and reflects our marginalization of the “other,” in general.

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The Rumpus: Do you resist being known as a “Palestinian-American physician-poet,” or the assumption that your poetry is political?

Fady Joudah: I don’t think my poetry is political. I push back against a deeply-entrenched tendency in American culture to label quickly and no longer even examine the labels that were initially stamped on a person. I don’t have a problem with any of my “hyphenated” biography—I don’t have any problem with that at all. The world would be a better place if our thread of hyphenation were truly embraced beyond mere naming and category. I have a problem with the fact that when it’s brought up, it’s not really discussed. It’s all that’s brought up. So-and-so is an Arab American or a Palestinian or Muslim or a doctor with or without borders [Joudah worked with Doctors Without Borders in Zambia in 2002 and in Darfur in 2005]—and there’s really no meaningful entry into those hyphenations.

We fall into the old stuff of textuality, and almost everything becomes safe because nobody wants to talk about what is not safe in poetry. We fall back on the psychologic, the ethnic, the quota, and serve the perpetuation of the machine. So not much new is being examined or flayed open in the poetry world about a relationship between text and context, as it relates to a particular author. And this becomes even more pronounced, but by no means unique, in the case of the minority American. For example, a Palestinian American or an Arab American discussing ethics and morals becomes “political.” If a “bona fide,” non-minority American does, chances are it will be considered “moral,” “ethical,” “amazing spiritual vision,” and so forth, and barely the word “political” would get in.

What I’m trying to say is: it gets boring when nothing meaningful is discussed about it. It’s the same thing when a woman poet writes about suffering—it’s a “woman’s tendency to depression and grief.” It’s not a human, universal tackling of something that exists in all of us. It’s suddenly a “woman issue.”

Rumpus: How did you come to be a poet? Can you talk about your relationship to poetry, beginning in childhood?

Joudah: What I remember is my parents, and sometimes my uncle, giving me coins if I memorized poems—contemporary Palestinian poetry, in particular. And I also remember my father reciting famous historical poems.

Growing up in the Middle East, one is exposed to poetry in a more venerated sense than here. You had to memorize a lot of poems because that was part of the Arabic language curriculum. And we also used to play this game—because it works in Arabic—where I would recite a line from a poem and you would have to begin a line from the same poem or another poem with the same rhyme letter that ends the previous line. You had to have such a strong relationship to the language, to the poetry, and not just to memory, to play this game.

Rumpus: What happened after this poetry-rich childhood?

Joudah: What happened was that I came here to college, and I had to immerse myself in English and then in a new, almost third language, which is the scientific language—Greek and Latin, essentially. Poetry was always something that lived in me, but I had to adjust to living in English and performing well in school. Then, in medical school, poetry began to surface again. It was the poetry of Emily Dickinson I felt closest to, at first, in English. I also felt close to Rilke’s poetry. It’s a little expected because of Rilke’s sentimentality, you could say. But in translation, it was a different kind of English that I felt closer to.

Rumpus: You’ve said that you’re disaffected, as many physicians are now, with the medical world, but also with the artistic and literary world. Why so?

Joudah: It’s multifactorial. One can say that the disaffection is still a lingering naiveté about, not the place of poetry in the world, but—how to say this—the moral and intellectual presence of poets in the world. And while this may seem an old conversation to many poets who roll their eyes and say, “Here we go again about the function of poetry,” I think that conversation, about poetry as an engaged art in a world that is full of regression or still lacking in progress, is still really not well-developed. It’s almost an avoided conversation.

For me, poetry is a form of activism. And that word enables the labelers, and also gives them a rash.

Rumpus: Do you think that the academy is particularly removed from the activism of poetry, the potential political implication or power of poetry?

Joudah: I think that poetry at large in America is naturally a reflection of the American system and culture. That’s my possibly narrow view of it, or reductive view. But I think for as many portals for critical consciousness in the poetry world and in the American spirit that exist, there’s also an over-arching, dominant mirroring, in poetry, of the corporate structure, the capitalist enterprise.

And this whole notion of the quota system—the involvement of the minority poet—it is also a reflection of this imperial democracy that America has become and exports to the world. There’s a very controlled sense of invitation to the minority, and not necessarily a real opening up to a deeper sense of critical consciousness, which is what my naiveté expects—that the arts, and the art of poetry, would be geared toward. But, of course, it is a historical naiveté because that didn’t exist anywhere in the history of the world. Art has always been closely associated with the courts of power.

But since so much of the poetry machine is consumed in and with the mirroring and the reproduction of what is already preexistent, I don’t understand why such paranoiac conservatism is dedicated to labels. It’s a way of controlling the “other,” to label them. It’s what I meant earlier when I said that’s why the labels are ready-made without any deeper investigation into what those labels may open up, for English and for American poetry. We are too often satisfied with the superficially profound, a representation of depth, and not depth itself.

And people say: “Well, where is it? Point to the center! Point to the system!” People want me to anoint some tyrant, some Big Brother, an Orwellian character, as if a clear-cut totalitarianism is the only way to make this argument clear. But, actually it’s really more—and I hate to use the cliché—it’s more Kafkaesque. It’s all so well-oiled. Everything carries an air of inevitability. So you can’t point to a center or a figure or a group. The whole thing has been going on for so long, the center holds by proliferating in the peripheries. There is suburbia even in poetry.

Rumpus: Does all of this make you feel fortunate that you have this other career—medicine? Is having a source of income outside of the literary world an important part of your artistic life?

Joudah: Your question, if I may say so, is laden with presumptions. Here’s one (and I may be over-reading, so pardon my over-reading): that somehow one is guaranteed a higher chance of clarity—moral, ethical, intellectual clarity—if one is removed from the incestuous circle of the literary or academic machine, its cronyism and careerism. I am not so sure about that. If I agreed, I would be contradicting myself.

We all exist in similar systems that mirror and reproduce the same American culture for the most part. What Oscar Wilde said about the lucky author who has a non-literary day job no longer holds, if it ever did. Artists seek validation as much as they seek money. The creation and invention of culture and canon is where most of the trouble lies.

Rumpus: So your medical career, then, is not wholly different than your career as a poet?

Joudah: Absolutely! But of course there are differences. One doesn’t want to efface all the details. I do understand that I am more financially comfortable than most poets, but I also understand that there are many poets who—trust me, and you know this—make more money than many doctors. I mention that in Textu, in one of the poems, “Luke, Cool Hand, I’m Your Father.” Also, when you say that I am financially more comfortable, it presumes that I am not, because of my financial comfort, similarly submissive to the rat race that someone who gets paid a lot less than me is. The joke is on us: if one gets paid in the top ten percent and the other in the top thirty percent, the former is simply a bigger rat than the latter, no more or less. Having financial independence does not increase one’s chances of independent, artistic creation whatsoever. Our conditioned behavior toward mimicry for the sake of market forces is an amazing syndrome. The watchtowers guide us well.

Rumpus: And my question was assuming that the person who is paid more is less of a rat, which is probably pretty stupid.

Joudah: Not necessarily stupid. By “rat,” I mean one is not necessarily wiser or more visionary or original, if one has less need for material gain, than one who has more need for it. That’s a presumption. The more money you make, the more the culture already attracts you to serve it, with an aura of glitter and power, to reproduce it in even stronger ways. And you have to resist that so much if any meaningful artistic integrity is to be had.

I think yours is a wonderful question.

Rumpus: I’m glad you think so. I thought I offended you.

Joudah: No, no, no! It’s a wonderful question! It goes back to the same kind of presumptuous titles we have. You’re asking the question in a way that allows someone to say something new about it.

Even the art of quoting is a conservative art most of the time, in order to propel the same ideas and the same self-congratulatory importance. For example, I admire William Carlos Williams greatly, but I think he is, in part, used. He also put himself out there for that usage. He is used now, since he is part of the canon. “Look what we poets can do! Look what one of us said!” It’s a self-congratulatory moment, the way we resurrect William Carlos Williams every other day. It’s almost like a survival mechanism. We feel that without William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost and a few others, we would risk disappearing from the face of the earth, so we need to establish our own national identity, our own little “poetry nation” with which we eventually erect mini-monuments of American democracy. You have to have your forefathers and your constitution-makers—“legislators,” as Shelley said, and how that gets tossed around as if it is a biblical, irrefutable statement. That’s what I think happens more often than it needs to. I don’t think art is in danger of dissolution or disappearance, and we don’t trust enough in its ability and power to create critical consciousness as much as we think we do.

Rumpus: In your poem “An Idea of Return,” as in some of your other poems, there are specific references, but the reader feels dislocated. You’re not sure if you’re in a hospital in Houston, or in Darfur, or in Gaza. And I wonder—and this may make you cringe—whether, as you bring your multiple identities to your poetry, are you consciously scrambling them? Are you—and this may also make you cringe—trying to convey a sense of universality about suffering?

Joudah: Okay. The only thing that made me cringe in what you said is that you said “Gaza” and not “Palestine,” “Gaza” and not “Jerusalem.” “Gaza” becomes, for me, a trained reflex, a safer naming that also participates in the absenting of “Palestine.” Gaza becomes another label or, if not hyphenation, a troubled synecdoche. But this is a different conversation, right?

Rumpus: No, it’s not really a different conversation. And it’s a place I hoped we would go. But I do want to allow you to answer the question.

Joudah: So, to answer: yes, it’s wonderful to hear what you said about dislocation, in terms of the power of a poem to do that.

But, again: isn’t dislocation a daily, universal condition for everyone on this planet? Am I not simply choosing representations of dislocation that decontextualize, or in a sense, marginalize the hegemonic theme of dislocation, which is the psychologic, privatized one at the level of the single self, with its illusion of hyper-individuation in a high-tech epoch? That’s where the emphasis is. Who cheated on whom? The PTSD of imperial soldiers who bear witness, etc.

 

I don’t mean to dismiss such things outright. In many ways I am in line with them, especially as a physician. Yet, I am choosing a different representation that opens up into other ways of being in the world with this idea of larger identity: this notion of questioning identity as it is handed down to us through the familial, filial, which is also the societal, which is also the tribe of the nation-state.

And no, I don’t “scramble.” There is no intentionality. I am writing my narrow self. I’m stuck in this cracked mosaic of multiplicities, because I am bewildered, half the time, between humanizing a part of the self that is often dehumanized through the age of the nation state that we all live in—and with the other half I struggle to maintain the humanity of the singular detail. I think that goes for everybody.

The danger here—and again, this goes back to the conversation of the poetry establishment and the poetic canon that is already set in place—is to actually navigate the pitfall of identity politics or ethnic psychology, the psychologizing of ethnicity, or what Dubois called “double consciousness,” perhaps. It is just an amazing American obsession: actually reducing one’s humanity to one’s difference under the guise of celebrating one’s difference.

Celebrating detail and celebrating diversity in America always have the risk of using diversity as a tool or pretext to reduce a self into a shrapnel or shard that congratulates us on being an inclusive power. True art is concerned with uncovering a deeper humanity than this.

Rumpus: Back to that moment when you cringed when I said “Gaza.” Have you interacted with Jewish Israeli or Jewish American poets? What has that been like? Is there a barrier of language between you? Or—and perhaps this is my fantasy—can poetry transcend political barriers?

Joudah: Obviously those experiences are varied because there are no monolithic people anywhere in the world. And yet there is a language barrier. That’s very normal. There isn’t a language without a barrier.

There is an expectation of what a Palestinian poet is and should be. It would be foolish to ignore, from my standpoint, the immense presence of literary Israeli weight in American English compared to either Arabic literary weight, in general, or any particular Palestinian literary weight. One can just do that by examining, historically, the celebration of Israeli authors—poets and novelists and others—and compare that with the treatment of their Palestinian counterparts. Any kind of explanation for why this happens will end up repeating the foreign policy administration language, to say the least.

The New Yorker is willing to publish the prose writing of an Israeli, about what it’s like to be a soldier at the checkpoint. American poetry gets very excited about soldier poets returning from war. One is not a genius when one connects the dots. It’s the same “ally” lexicon in the White House. Our humanity is seen through the eyes of soldiers, the goggles of a war machine that dehumanizes its own citizens.

And then again, “Where are the Palestinian authors?” one might ask. And in asking there’s that old implicit answer that cannot grant certain cultures and languages (or hyphenated identities) the possibility of equal footing in the conversations of civilization, of art and beauty.

Rumpus: If the pathologies of the poetry world reflect the pathologies of society, do you think that poetry has any potential to take the lead in changing society?

Joudah: No. I think that poetry has every potential in enjoining lead. Whether poetry is at the back of the march, or in the middle, or on the sides, or among the front lines, it’s all the same. Poetry is simply a link in the human chain, to echo Seamus Heaney. It is just that. But one should not use that as an excuse to defuse and dehumanize other poetics in the service of the inevitable canon, which is the perpetuation of cultural hegemony.

I wrote a piece in the LA Review of Books a few months ago, after the most recent attack on Gaza, called “A Poet from Gaza Will Rise…and Win the Nobel Prize”. The title itself speaks a lot to what we’ve been talking about. Will there be enough catastrophe in Gaza such that the way we would pay them back, a reparation of sorts, is to actually begin the search for a Palestinian writer that we will give the Nobel Prize to?

Rumpus: Let’s talk about text, about your use of medical language in your poems. I’m thinking about the phrase “ischemic morning” in “Mother Hair.” I’m thinking about  “during the hemorrhage years” in “After.” So much medical language is ugly. And, yet, I find myself sometimes immersed in poetry during my clinical day. Is it like that for you?

Joudah: Yes. I fully agree. I want to say something about the use of medical language in poetry. I think to use medical language, or scientific language in general, is not embraced enough and not ventured into enough in American poetry. As if an intuitive, vaporous yet beaker-ed body of predetermined poetic diction already exists, which might explain why so many poems essentially sound the same, repeat each other. When you put in perspective that the rebirth of Greek and Latin is the modern scientific language—and when we say “scientific,” we don’t just mean medicine, obviously; it involves all fields, even in the humanities—when you take this into consideration, it is hard to avoid how it permeates our daily lives on all levels, even in TV commercials and news, and also as jargon, academic or otherwise. Whether we understand it deeply as “average” citizens or not is a separate story—but it’s a language that infiltrates and influences our daily existence, our consumerist selves.

 

It is definitely a language of power as much as it is one of ethos and eros. We fail at the process of translating our language with our patients when we want to communicate with them about disease. It’s not just an issue of time. It’s that some doctors don’t even know how to understand their own language besides that of parroting the consumerist tongue. It is a process of keeping the consumers in their place, entrapped in their function as clients, agents. Even illness and the ailing body are commodities in America. And we export our idea of medicine, along with other products, to growing parts of the world body.

Rumpus: Can you talk about your most recent collection, Textu?

Joudah: Textu is a bit of an experiment. It’s an e-book. It came about while I was at the Lannan Residency in Marfa, Texas, where I spent two months and wrote and read a lot, and it was a fabulous time. And I thought I actually had a manuscript, a whole new book of poems ready. But I came back home and started working again, and getting the kids ready for school and going to clinic. I wanted to write much more and I found myself writing poems as text messages on the phone. And then I decided to make the poems exactly 160 characters. In those short poems, I found myself writing more about medicine and patients and science, in general, but also about eros and myth and ars poetica.

As I tell you this, you can see, I hope, why I say I am not different from others. Textu is as much a dialogue with the gods of capital as it is the independent art of the short poem. I wonder if it is possible to write poetry (in English) outside the parentheses of capitalism.

Rumpus: Writing by doctors often feels like it veers into two dangerous places: one is self-congratulation—look how compassionate I am! The other is playing to voyeurism, because people have such a desire to look behind the curtain of medicine. In my writing, I do worry about straying into either piety, or a kind of medical striptease.

Joudah: Having thought along those same lines, I think I’ve encountered another problem: if I avoid the patient narrative, for the reasons you mention, and write about myself as a doctor, I risk performing a Shakespearean tragedy, right? One is no longer in a sort of a “Death of a Salesman” but a “Death of Othello.” Now it’s all about the suffering of the doctor, who is the person who holds power, really, compared with the patient who is, in many ways, the doctor’s subject. And for the doctor to ignore that and place him or herself as the subject of “the machine,” which is the system of representation and power, is dubious. The system is incredibly failed, the system of healing.

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.


Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and writer in residence in the division of general internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Email her at [email protected] and visit her website at suzannekoven.com. More from this author →