The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Marwa Helal about her debut collection Invasive species, how the book found its structure, and the feelings of displacement that accompany immigration.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Hi Marwa! How are you doing this evening?
Marwa Helal: I’m well, thanks! Just finished teaching my creative nonfiction class at Fordham. How about you all?
Brian S: It’s the end of a long day—I teach tech writing at Iowa State and we just got our four-year-old twins into bed—but it’s been a good one. Any day that ends with a conversation about poetry is a good one!
Marwa Helal: Glad to hear that, and glad this semester is almost ovvverrrr! Excited for this conversation; thanks for having me.
Brian S: Oh yes. Finals are next week and I don’t have to give any, so I can focus on the grading I’ve neglected recently.
Jason: I am eating dinner and responding to panicked students’ late emails about their papers due tonight. I teach first year writing at Cleveland State.
Brian S: Hi Jason! Nice to have you join us.
Marwa Helal: Lol. First-year writing—the greatest American higher education scam. Needs its own anthology. Welcome, Jason.
Jason: It certainly does need its own anthology, lol. Thanks for inviting me to this. I appreciate both of you.
Brian S: The place where my wife teaches has a first-year seminar program where you get to develop your own courses. Last time I adjuncted there I taught a whole course out of the BreakBeat Poets Anthology. It was beautiful. But so rare to get that opportunity.
Marwa Helal: Those lucky students!
Jason: Brian, that sounds really cool. I wish I could have that luxury. I would bring in so many different types of authors, as opposed to many of the ones they read from our university book.
Marwa Helal: Major key right there.
Brian S: Yeah, where I’m teaching now I won’t have that kind of freedom when I get put in those classes. I’ll have to sneak some poetry in the back door.
Marwa Helal: Curious: How do you have students submit their papers to you?
Brian S: We use a Blackboard competitor called Canvas, so everything is done inside that shell.
Marwa Helal: That’s amazing. I think the seminars are useful. But none of the freshmen I teach want to take a course on writing papers.
Brian S: They did a lot of writing in my seminar, but not much of it took the form of papers.
Jason: I typically have student submit papers via hard copy because I don’t like reading papers from a computer screen. At the end of the semester I just have students turn things in via Blackboard to save them the stress of going to print things.
Brian S: So about your wonderful book, Marwa—may I start with a question about the end note? Do you know if anyone has paid up on the fee required there for incorrectly citing your title or misspelling your name?
Brian S: I ask the question that way because I’m taking it as a given that the misspelling or mis-citing has happened.
Marwa Helal: Oh, fines won’t begin until 2019. It’s also meant to serve as an extension of this performance of being an Invasive species, but I’m sure you figured that out.
Marwa Helal: It was inspired by a white woman in Arab face who when I asked her to change the ‘s’ in species to lowercase removed me from her list of forthcoming books by Arabs… I was not impressed, to say the least. I wrote about what I think of her in a piece for the Boston Review, which also included “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids.”
Jason: How many revision did “poem for brad who wants me to write about the pyramids” go through? I’m really intrigued by different processes poets take.
Brian S: I’m interested in “poem for brad…” as well, given that I tweeted about it earlier today, about the ways the Brads among us make assumptions about a person’s geographical biography based on what we think we know about a place.
Marwa Helal: Good question, Jason—“poem for brad…” began as a prose block (a rant of sorts that was actually much meaner) but notes from good friends and readers like Ricardo Maldonado helped me refine it. I added the square in the middle for the people of Tahrir Square. And that Borges footnote had just been sitting in my pocket for a long time waiting to be used for something and I couldn’t think of any better way to apply it.
Marwa Helal: We are all Brads in some sense. And Brad was a really wonderful guy—just not the one you wanted reading your work, lol.
Brian S: Oh, if I could make most of the people I went to high school with and a fair number of college classmates just read the sections on your immigration issues, I would. They are aggressively ignorant about immigration (among other things).
Marwa Helal: I hope you will, Brian! It’s why I wrote it.
Brian S: I can try, but they’ve all pretty much unfriended me on social media at this point.
Brian S: I’ve experienced similar assumptions about my work, like why, if I grew up in Louisiana, I don’t have more alligators in my poems. But I haven’t had to deal with the racist assumptions you’ve had to, being white.
Marwa Helal: I hear you.
Gwen: I loved the immigration piece in the middle of the collection as well. So powerful.
Marwa Helal: Hi Gwen! Thanks for joining. I worked on that for a long time—I think it’s evident? Or hope.
Gwen: Oh yes, it’s very evident. I loved how you didn’t shy away from your anger over how you were treated. And yet, you also show your continuing hope to make the process better.
Marwa Helal: Thank you, Gwen—I’m glad the hope was felt. The anger, too.
Brian S: I was also thinking today about the poem “multiplication of the blues,” where you reference Lynndie England, especially given the funeral for George H. W. Bush, and the empathy you showed her in that piece. And I also wonder how many people under the age of twenty-five would even know who she is…
Marwa Helal: They don’t! But they have a vague memory of the soldiers posing for those photos—of that being on the news—so that’s the point of entry whenever I teach Philip Metres’s Sand Opera. Or talk about those poems. As for the empathy, it’s real—I went to high school with girls like her.
Brian S: I remember a few years ago Nick Flynn complaining that college students didn’t know what he was talking about when he mentioned Abu Ghraib, and I thought, But they were ten years old at most when that happened, and now, they might have been three or four. Those stories sort of fall into the area where they’re not old enough to be mentioned in history class and so are forgotten for a while.
Gwen: Marwa, I’m intrigued by the structure of this collection. There seem to be a number of smaller parts pulled together. Is that how you see it? And what about the poems at the very end? How did you decide to pull it all together in this order?
Marwa Helal: I am trying to visualize the structure again and I’m also curious—which ending 🙂
Marwa Helal: This was honestly a book I could’ve kept writing for another few years—until at least T—p is out of office, easily. Everyday there is something new to add, but that will have to be another book.
Marwa Helal: In terms of structure, I realized I wanted it to be read both left to right and right to left. And it succeeds as an arc read both ways. All the leaving and returning. The loss, love, and hope. My migration pattern has not been ordinary and that has impacted the way I think and see—I just wanted to relay that as best as I could through the structure.
Gwen: So, after the Notes and “About the Cover” sections, there are a few other poems at the very end (“ha,” “you got the keys keys keys,” and “photographs not taken”).
Marwa Helal: Gwen, that last section was meant to act like bonus tracks do on an old cassette or CD… right when you think the album is over, there are still a few bangers (we hope).
Gwen: Cool. I love it!
Megan: Ah, awesome. The bonus tracks concept definitely works!
Brian S: All you do is win, Marwa!
Megan: Hi Marwa, Thank you for being here tonight and for writing your powerful book. One of the things I love about it is the meticulous documentation/footnotes. I’m curious about your writing process: is this footnoting something you did as you wrote each piece, or did you have the whole manuscript done and then went back and added them in? Was it always part of your conception of the book?
Marwa Helal: Thanks for the love, Megan—and for joining us! Yes, the bonus tracks are a call back to the ending of the middle section. “Immigration as a Second Language” is a project I began writing as soon as I returned to the US.
Marwa Helal: I wrote the scenes of driving in San Francisco and it becoming Cairo in the first few months of return. I had a kind of PTSD—not knowing where I was in time/place for a long time—and I could only articulate it on the page. It might be unfair to call it PTSD—but the symptom of involuntary memory behaved in the same way as PTSD. But in short, let’s call it displacement.
Marwa Helal: (Ha! Brian! I caught that—want to acknowledge the DJ Khaled reference there.)
Brian S: I’m imagining you telling a student in class “you played yourself” and dying. I just want you to know that.
Gwen: The “Immigration as a Second Language” is my favorite section, but if I had to pick just one favorite poem, it’s probably “in the first world,” especially the line about people arriving at cubicles in a rage. That’s true in my experience…
Marwa Helal: That project (the middle section) is the only surviving piece of my MFA thesis which I handed in at The New School in 2011. I continued to obsessively polish it and add footnotes and sections. The footnotes were always part of it. They helped me work through the displacement of time/place. They also helped me work in other important narratives.
Marwa Helal: Cubicle poems need their own book. I’ve left that life, so I leave it to you. But cubicles are part of this—part of the deadening of America and desensitizing us.
Megan: Interesting to know! Thank you.
Brian S: I found that the footnotes fixed the poems in a very specific time and place, even while the bodies of the poems talked about issues that have been going on for a really long time.
Marwa Helal: I’m glad that came through, Brian—the footnotes became a real brain saver for me—if you can imagine the size of what I wanted to pull off in a small amount of space. It was important to me that I be legible and engaging. These aren’t fun issues I’m writing about. And it was hard to write.
Marwa Helal: I think it’s important to share that around 2011 is also when The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was getting a lot of attention and we had been reading that as part of one my seminars—it had a big impact on the ways I thought about form and vernacular.
Marwa Helal: I felt a tinge of pain sharing that, lol.
Brian S: Since you mentioned form, can you talk a little about how you conceived the form you called “the Arabic”?
Marwa Helal: Yes, that Arabic was born out of a real tiredness and anger…
Brian S: Understandable
Marwa Helal: In my cubicle life, usually working on communications teams at big, wealthy, predominantly white institutions, I would hear repeatedly how renowned researchers and academics shouldn’t be left to the task of representing their own ideas because they were ESL.
Gwen: Geez, that’s terrible. I work in a cubicle kind of place, but we are a very diverse group with voices of all kinds (at least). We still have rage, though. Cubicles are not natural.
Marwa Helal: I mean… massive eye rolls every time I think about it. And then I went to work for a poetry organization I loved and respected, one I saw as a home and a place where something like this wouldn’t happen.
Brian S: And then it did?
Marwa Helal: But nope… when one of our colleagues, a young refugee of many tongues, won a prestigious prize—lo and behold, the white lady at the institution (I hate how many times I use this phrase lol), she says: “Good for him—and he’s English as a second language.”
Marwa Helal: So like… even if we win an award, that’s how you’re gonna define us? Naaaahhhh. So I set to work. It was born at a Cave Canem retreat and I knew I had something good when workshop responded and I ended up cussing the English language out of pure frustration.
Marwa Helal: You had to be there. But the note about the form says everything I need to say. Sorry for the longwinded answer.
Brian S: No, no problem at all. It’s one of those situations where whiteness (which in North America is the biggest invasive species) does its work and, as usual, doesn’t even think about the implications of what it’s saying.
Marwa Helal: Yeah, I really want the America where white folks teach each other.
Brian S: Well, it’s going to have to be us for any education to happen, because most of my white cousins aren’t going to listen to anyone else.
Gwen: Yikes, so true! (Sadly.) Marwa, do you have a favorite in this collection?
Marwa Helal: Tough question, Gwen! I like that Lucia Perillo epigraph a lot. I didn’t write it, obviously—but it’s my favorite and is a pillar I return to often.
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Anything new you want to bring some attention to?
Marwa Helal: Ah! I feel so guilty that most of my reading lately has been for teaching… but that will change soon.
Brian S: So what’s on your stack? Is it a tall and teetering stack, like it is for most writers I know (including myself)?
Jason: WHEREAS is breathtaking. Oh my god.
Marwa Helal: I’m so excited for Gala Mukomolova’s Without Protection (April 2019) and Ricardo Maldonado’s The Life Assignment (2020). And Xandria Phillips’s Hull, forthcoming from Nightboat later in 2019. I could go on, but those are some of my favs off the top off my head.
Brian S: There’s a number of these I haven’t heard of, which is amazing given how many books get sent to my house at this point. I have some googling to do.
Brian S: Well, thank you for joining us tonight at the end of a busy day, Marwa, and thanks to Jason and Gwen and Megan for your questions and contributions. These things are so much more fun when there are lots of people here.
Brian S: And also thank you for this terrific book, difficult as it was for you to write. I hope we did it justice here tonight.
Marwa Helal: Definitely, thank you all so much.
Gwen: Thanks for a great discussion!
Marwa Helal: Thanks, Brian and all at The Rumpus.
Megan: Thank you!
Jason: Thank you all! Hope you have good nights!
Brian S: Good night everyone!
Marwa Helal: Good night, rest well.