The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Dunya Mikhail about her latest collection In Her Feminine Sign (New Directions, July 2019), writing in multiple languages, tablets as poetry, and the stories of women who escaped ISIS.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an exclusive 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: Can we start with the author’s note? I found it fascinating that you wrote these poems in both Arabic and English, but you didn’t think of them as translations. Can you talk some about that process, especially about what language you think in (if that makes any sense)? Did you form poems in one language primarily to start with, or did it switch back and forth depending on the poem?
Dunya Mikhail: I always think in Arabic; I dream in it and I sing Arabic during showers etc., but some lines come in English first when I write poetry. Recently, I’ve been trying the poem in English right after I write it in Arabic which helps me so much with editing and improving the poem because English makes me understand how I wrote it in Arabic, if that makes sense.
Brian S: You see the structure in Arabic because you’re trying to, not recreate it really, but use it in some way when you write the English?
Dunya Mikhail: Both—recreate it but with conditions.
Brian S: In the piece I wrote about choosing this book for the Poetry Book Club, I talked about the poem “Baghdad in Detroit” and Congressman Tim Walberg’s comments about those two cities in 2007. I didn’t necessarily see a direct connection in the poem—it was more in my head—but I was curious if that was in your mind when you wrote the poem.
Dunya Mikhail: No it wasn’t, but that was good for me to know. I appreciate your reviews, Brian, since my first book!
Brian S: I love coincidences. I honestly do.
Michele: I see that Arabic letters and words are artistic language, and how you draw that into your poetry.
R. Rafferty: Hi Dunya, and thanks so much for chatting with us! On that note of you writing these poems both in Arabic and English, I’m curious if you published the Arabic versions?
Dunya Mikhail: Michele, I don’t know how to draw and that’s good because the images are supposed to be primitive as they were during the Mesopotamian time when people drew in clay tablets.
R. Rafferty, yes, I published them in Arabic last month in Baghdad.
Michele: Actually, I meant the symbolism.
R. Rafferty: That’s awesome! What has the reaction been in Baghdad to the collection?
Dunya Mikhail: In Arabic I am able to know when works make or do not make music with each other. But what do you mean, Michele, how I draw the letters in my poetry? You mean in my Arabic poetry?
Michele: The tied circle and how everything has gender in Arabic. The circle is a reoccurring theme throughout the book, I’ve noticed.
Dunya Mikhail: Oh, yes, the tied circle has a great significance in the Arabic version because it’s the theme of the book. Ironically that tied circle, which is a feminine symbol, does not exist in English so the title in English (feminine sign) doesn’t even exist!
Michele: It’s a very strong metaphor filled with magic and ties together the poetry—has a lyrical quality.
Dunya Mikhail: I teach Arabic language for beginners so these things come to my every day thinking but the tied circle has occupied my life since 2014 when ISIS invaded the area and a market was open to buy and sell women. They tied their hands and pulled them to the unknown.
Michele: A wonderful platform to speak about these women.
Dunya Mikhail: These poems by the way were written in between the stories narrated to me by some of those women who escaped ISIS. The poem “N” was the first one written in response
Brian S: How were you able to speak to these women?
Dunya Mikhail: When I learned about that strange market I kept following up with my friends over there—and by the way there was a price list for women in accordance with their age and I found that a woman of my age was supposed to be given for free!
Then a journalist who was a friend of mine gave me a telephone number of one of them and when I called her she spoke to me in Kurdish which I don’t understand but her cousin volunteered to translate between us. That cousin is a hero because he was saving girls and he told me their stories and put me in touch with some of them.
Brian S: Were any of them able to get out of danger? I realize that’s a relative term.
Dunya Mikhail: That’s why I returned in Iraq for first time after twenty years of absence, to speak to the women face to face. Which term?
Brian S: Danger.
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, exactly. Some of them survived but they found that the rest of their family were still missing. That’s why I said somewhere: to survive alone is the worst type of survival.
R. Rafferty: Are those stories also part of The Beekeeper, or were these stories specifically something you wanted to retell through these poems? (Sorry, i haven’t read The Beekeper… yet!)
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, these were in The Beekeeper but I am still in touch with them.
Brian S: One of my favorite poems in this collection was “My Poem Will Not Save You,” because while it gets at the limits of poetry, it also talks about, like, bird song, what good it can do, and why that’s important.
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, you know, poetry is useless but effective, something like the trace of the butterfly.
Mary Burton: I would love to hear how you composed Tablets.
Brian S: Second that. And anything you’d like to share about the form itself, like the importance of the number twenty-four, for example.
Dunya Mikhail: I am fascinated by the ancient Sumerian tablets not only because they were the first communication in history but also they were poetical by default because they used images in expressing their daily thoughts. There were no letters, no language yet, and it’s interesting to think about expressing yourself in the absence of words. In that ancient culture, twenty-four was the complete number, but a poem is never complete.
R. Rafferty: Complete?
Dunya Mikhail: The day has twenty-four hours.
Mary Burton: I love that idea Dunya, a poem never complete…
Dunya Mikhail: That’s why we keep writing, we try to complete something but it never happens, it shouldn’t happen.
Michele: I believe a poem is a life force—always evolving, becoming closer to its intent.
Brian S: Did you write the poems in sets of twenty-four, or did you just write them individually and then put them into groups afterward?
Dunya Mikhail: Individually first.
Brian S: And then themes started to present themselves?
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, but I try to put them in an order that I feel is somehow good, like how we arrange a collection, which I am sure could always be in different way.
Brian S: Oh, I thought they held together just fine. There’s just so many individual poems that I wondered how they’d been put together.
Do you have any particular ones you do at readings yet?
Dunya Mikhail: I am usually in doubt which ones I should read. Tomorrow I have a reading. Which one I should start with? The drawings?
R. Rafferty: Personally, “What We Carry to Mars” is my favorite—floors me every time.
Brian S: I vote for “My Poem Will Not Save You”
Dunya Mikhail: And Michele?
Michele: “Song Inside a Fossil” and the IV poem. The first poem sets the explanation and foundation of a tied circle.
R. Rafferty: Yeah, the drawings on the tablets that open and close that section, I mean.
Brian S: “What We Carry to Mars” is also an excellent option.
R. Rafferty: Also curious if you can talk a little about how the tablets you created interact with the poems. Are the poems meant to be a translation of sorts?
Dunya Mikhail: I tried to imagine how would I express some of those sections (tablets) if I had no language.
Thank you all for your votes!
Mary Burton: I love III #10. Perfect for not having language.
Brian S: I don’t know that we settled which one you should start with, but maybe we gave you a bit of a set list?
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, you guys are awesome!
Brian S: What (or who) have you been reading lately?
Dunya Mikhail: A short novel titled Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo.
Brian S: Oh I love that book! I’ve held on to my copy of the Norton Anthology of World Lit for years just to reread that book.
Dunya Mikhail: Wonderful!
Brian S: I’ve never had a book keep me uncertain and yet engaged the way that one does.
Dunya Mikhail: That’s what good poetry does. However, when you read a bad poem, nothing bad will happen.
Brian S: Lol.
R. Rafferty: Any music that you have really enjoyed or felt inspired by listening to recently?
Dunya Mikhail: I love Arabic singers like Fairuz. I am excited because I will do a reading in October with musicians: oud and drum.
Brian S: Oh that should be great. Will you read in both English and Arabic?
Dunya Mikhail: Yes, some Arabic just for the flavor because the audience is mostly Americans.
Brian S: I took classes in grad school with some Arabic speakers and even though I never understood a word, I loved the sound of the language. It’s just lovely.
Michele: I’m half Lebanese and my grandparents spoke mostly Arabic—so much emotion.
Brian S: If there’s any recording of it, please do let us know. I’d love to see it.
Dunya Mikhail: Usually the audience are nice about it, and I start with English first so they already understand it before I read it in Arabic. I’ll be happy to share the recording with you. I appreciate it.
Brian S: That’s our hour. Thank you so much for this book, Dunya, and for joining us tonight.
Dunya Mikhail: Thank you so much for having me (and for the poem choices)! I wish you all the best.
Photograph of Dunya Mikhail by Nina Subin.