The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Threa Almontaser about her debut collection The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), the challenges of translation, the right of coffee, how mishearing words can lead to discovery, and more.
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. Upcoming poets include Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, Derrick Austin, Amanda Moore, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthew Olzmann, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Scott: Threa, I love the formal variety and the mixing of languages and registers in this book. Could you talk a little about what that mixing means for you and/or your process?
Threa Almontaser: Thanks, Scott; yes I do play with language a lot especially when it comes to code-switching. Being around very young kids all the time in my family, and teaching ESL to older immigrants, made me break down language in a way that was really helpful for writing poems and trying to get a certain feeling or thought across with as few words as possible.
I also attempt to adopt many different strategies from my translation work into my own writing. In this way, even though I write poetry in English, it feels like an observance of the Arabic language and identity.
Brian S: Thanks, Scott; I was going to ask something similar. Is there less pressure now than perhaps in years past to not provide translations? That’s something I noted when writing about why we selected this collection for the Poetry Book Club, and something it seems is becoming more common, though that could just be my experience in what I’m reading.
Scott: Oh, interesting! Thank you! I hadn’t caught on to an age dimension to it.
Threa Almontaser: I remember you writing about that, Brian! I totally agree; when asked about diversifying work nobody ever brings up translations or mixing languages, which I think had actually grown in the last generation of poetry writing (from what I’ve seen)
Scott: Yes, I also see more of the translator now than I remember.
Threa Almontaser: It’s great.
Brian S: It feels like maybe in the last ten years or so we’ve gone from expecting English-only poems to maybe some other languages but in italics to now it’s just nope, these are the words and you will deal with it, which I love.
Scott: Yes, me too. Italics.
Brian S: The poem I wrote about specifically, “Coffee Arabica as a Maelstrom of Endless Aftershocks,” got me digging and really challenged me to get a better sense of what you were talking about. And I wanted to ask, specifically, what is haqq al-qawha?
Threa Almontaser: Hahaha yeah, I definitely saw the progression exactly like that, Brian. I remember speaking to Victoria Chang about the italics and she mentioned how she understands the initiative but she always thought they made words so much prettier and so still finds ways to add it in her work without demeaning her other languages.
You were right in your review that haqq al-qawha translates to “the right of coffee.” And we sometimes use the term to suggest a bribe or a kickback, so the orphaned girl in the poem was insinuating towards a sexual favor to be exchanged for money or food—children have been victimized more than ever with the current situation in Yemen, especially orphans trying to survive the environment they’ve been dealt.
Scott: Joan Naviyuk Kane does what I’d consider an extreme version of not translating words or phrases that may be unfamiliar to readers; I think for her it’s more part of a program of public alienation and private reclaiming, but I don’t feel that same sense alienation with your work here, Threa. It pulled my curiosity along like it did Brian’s.
Threa Almontaser: Scott, I’m glad you didn’t feel the alienation, though I went into it at first code-switching as I would in Arablish (Arabic-English) like I do in real life, and so the first drafts for sure would’ve felt that way to readers. But I wanted to really get the point of views and lives in my book across to a wider audience, to bring awareness to the situation in Yemen, and so I went back and didn’t exactly remove the excess Arabic, but tried in a sense to broaden the context clues enough for it to work.
Scott: It’s such a delicate balance, and I believe you achieved it and then some!
Threa Almontaser: Thank you! I think doing that actually helped variate my metaphors and images too, because I had to get the idea across to multiple mindsets and I truly wanted anyone reading to understand.
Brian S: I think what getting rid of the italics does for me as a reader is it makes the language feel more like it appears when it’s being spoken. Like the speaker doesn’t do finger quotes when they code-switch, so why should the typeface? Though I respect whatever decision the poet makes.
Threa Almontaser: I always read italics as quotation marks in my head, too, so I totally feel that. Was never a fan when it was done to a language other than English.
Scott: Is it, for you, almost like code-switching still requires a code at some point no matter the switches?
Brian S: How did you decide what parts to keep in Arabic script and what to (I’m forgetting the word here) transliterate? Into English versions of the words? Because I found that I was way more willing to try to use Google Translate with the latter than the former?
Scott: I have an app that uses my camera to translate, and the results are sometimes hilarious.
Threa Almontaser: Well, I’m fascinated by our relationships with the English language, that it’s something to be distrusted, bent, manipulated, remade for our purposes. So, it wasn’t hard to decide what to remold and transliterate into different versions—it was a lot of fun to pick and choose, but also I’m really warmed to hear you were more willing to use Google Translate with the latter! It’s been such a pleasant surprise to hear when readers are willing and sometimes even excited to be put to task while reading. Like a treasure hunt lol.
Scott: This is great to hear you say. Since I don’t know anything about Arabic or its structure, I was also wondering about sometimes how you’d “verb nouns” at key moments. Is that related to the languages and their structures, or is it something your ear likes, or something else?
Threa Almontaser: That’s a mix of both, and such a great question! I think subconsciously I was translating in my head while writing and the two get mixed sometimes and I end up saying or writing strange and cool syntactical sentences (I think a lot of bilingual people will agree on that). But it was also the music and sound, especially when I engaged with Al-Baradouni’s grammar and music. Being Yemeni and speaking Arabic helped me recognize and sense more, especially ideas or feelings that exist in Arabic but not in English (as well as the other way around), and be able to put them into new words (or “verb noun” them, as you said).
Scott: Oh, so that move was clarified a little in the work of translation, too?! Interesting!
Brian S: I need to look at those translations, I think.
Threa Almontaser: It helped to write my own poems and translate at the same time because my brain was on two modes. For instance, matar and gauth both translate to “rain” in English. In Arabic, matar is the rain one would find on an ordinary day. Gauth, on the other hand, is the rain that is longed and prayed for, especially after periods of drought—an “abundant” rain, stemming from the word “seek” or “plea.” These are precise yet muted differences writers like myself are attracted to and aware of. It enables me to choose words carefully, knowing all the tactful, subtle distinctions of a word when writing my own poems in English.
Every cloud drops a different kind of rain, and each type of deluge brings a different kind of atmosphere. As a writer, I celebrate these varied discernments in my poetic language!
Brian S: I swear, I think I like reading translators talk about why they make the choices they do as much as I like reading the translations themselves.
Threa Almontaser: Hahaha; me, too!
Brian S: I’ll never skip an introduction to a book of translation.
Scott: Oh wow. Such powerful nuances. And it would definitely take a native speaker’s awareness. It’s so important for those distinctions. I think that’s where a lot of culture exists.
Brian S: I took enough translation courses in graduate school to learn that i didn’t have nearly the mastery of a second language I would need to be good at it. It was a humbling and valuable experience.
Threa Almontaser: It’s so hard! I’m not the best either; I have two volumes of Baraduni’s books and I had hopes to translate way more but it took months just to do the two included in the collection.
I’d still love the time to go back to school for some serious Arabic lessons, I want to one day write a whole collection in Arabic for the people in Yemen (it’s been difficult getting The Wild Fox of Yemen translated) and I’d really love for them to read something beautiful about us! But my Arabic is definitely not there yet lol.
Scott: I translated a lot in undergrad but not since. I was lucky to be the only student in my Latin course, so my professor just threw all the poetry at me he could because I was endlessly interested. It actually made me worse at translating stuff like Cicero, so when I got to graduate school, I got a C because it wasn’t accurate enough or faithful enough to the original.
Brian S: The situation in Yemen is still terrible, I know. Has it changed at all with the new administration?
Threa Almontaser: Not from what I’ve seen, though I’m hoping it just needs some time to settle in.
I’ve been following a bunch of Instagram photographers in Yemen who really depict the beauty of the lands there. I feel like it’s so necessary to keep reminding myself that we were once so grand and rich.
Brian S: And could be again, I assume, given the opportunity.
Threa Almontaser: Yes! Absolutely.
Brian S: The beauty of Yemen certainly comes through in your poems. I was just looking at “Operation Restoring Hope” earlier today, and the way you close that poem: “kids chasing blue / and pink lizards. A mother leaning from her window / to rain cool water over them, Heads lustered // with tahimi hats, henna trees slopping / bright dyes.”
Just beautiful. The closing image of the “trigger pulled only in celebration, gun / shot from the highest hilltop, bulleting the sky.”
Scott: Yes! that was one of the verbing nouns that caught my eye.
Threa Almontaser: Thank you! It was really important for me to have at least one joyful image if I was writing about their trauma, because I’m not into the whole trauma-porn vibe in writing.
Scott: There’s so much joy here. I see it as antagonistic to the strife
Threa Almontaser: Speaking of verbing nouns Scott, it made me think of another thing. Poems are often freeing spaces where you can tell the truth about some shit. Wrestling in the space you’re given to say it, that wide berth and that freedom it creates. It really energizes me when I mishear a word but the thing sounds closer to what’s true, to what language is supposed to be doing. Even though I’ve been inside of English a lot of my life, I still misspeak especially when I’m excited or tired, struggling to put sentences together, mixing up sounds and common syntax. When someone’s sputtering from anger, that twisted language is important, too, and I think needs to be listened to more closely. That sound of urgency, sometimes when it happens I’ll think, That person said something so strange, let me note it in my phone, or whatever. It’s always evolving; other people are always participating in a language that is constantly impermanent and I love it.
Scott: That is so important to remember. Even native speakers have that happen.
Threa Almontaser: Toddlers are so interesting to listen to also. Their language is so cool to me lol.
Scott: I am not near any, but my little nephews provide great quotes.
Brian S: My twins are seven, and they still come up with weird and unusual phrasings all the time.
Threa Almontaser: Twins! They probably have the BEST convos.
Brian S: Yep, and we’ve gotten to hear all of them over the last year or so.
Scott: Threa, do you have any musical influences? Spoken word?
Threa Almontaser: I’m actually the opposite with music—I mostly listen to instrumental things, post-rock and that sort, which I feel like helps dredge up the language already in me but I just didn’t know how to call forth those specific emotions to write about them. I know most people use memory banks to pull their images from, which I also do, but those classical pieces are legit my muses.
Scott: Oh, interesting! Your work is so playful with language, I thought you might be mourning DMX with me today.
Threa Almontaser: Oh, I am 10000% mourning DMX the legend.
Brian S: Have you been able to do readings at all, or are you going to have some in the near future, now that the book is released?
Threa Almontaser: I’m hoping I can get some live readings down at some point, but so far I have a few virtually happening in the next two months. I had to cut down on them because I have a residency in Italy soon (Civitella!) that I’m stoked about.
Brian S: Oh, congratulations!
I’ve been asking since this pandemic began what it’s like to try to release a book while all this is happening. I’ll be glad to retire that question.
Threa Almontaser: Thanks! I’m also working on a novel right now, so that’s also taken up a lot of my time for events. I can count on one hand how many readings I’m doing lol. But I’m totally okay with it! I think time management is something I learned the hard way.
Brian S: Which poems do you tend to read when you do get the chance?
Threa Almontaser: I love the last few: “Middle Eastern Music” is fun (though I just read it one way even though it can be read two ways), “Ode to Bodega Cats,” “When White Boys Ask to See My Hair.” I like reading the dream interpretations too; those are really fun.
Brian S: I love that last one.
Threa Almontaser: Bodega cats rule us all.
To answer your question, Brian, about pandemic writing: in the past year, the making of my poems has felt like I can exercise a real agency in the world of the poem. I have a say in the logic, in the cause-and-effect, and especially after such an insane presidential election—this one was especially terrible, with no logic or justice. In the midst of that chaos I can go into the making of a poem and process the world that I’m in and more often try to dream of a world that’s a little less horrible than the world outside, one that’s easier for me and my body and my people to exist in.
Meg Kehoe: I just had to pop in and say the way you present the real and present fear of being a woman with almost a swagger and attitude to it—as the kids say—had me shook. Thank you for sharing, I’ve loved getting to know your work!
Threa Almontaser: Thank you so much, Meg! That voice was what I wanted to get across the most so I’m very glad to hear that.
Brian S: I know you’re incredibly busy with releasing this book and with writing a novel and with the other work you do, but what have you been reading lately? What books have been on your brain?
Threa Almontaser: Lately I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy, which is something I had taken a break from for years. But this pandemic has made me super nostalgic, and so I went back to the that and it has really helped me distract myself.
Brian S: I’m going to take note of these for when my twins get a little older. We’re reading Pokémon manga right now.
Threa Almontaser: That’s all my little sister is reading, too. They have great literary taste!
Scott: I teach college, and a lot of my freshmen are heavily into dystopian YA fiction when they arrive. I’m like, your escape from the existing dystopia is another dystopia?!
Threa Almontaser: That’s literally what I was typing Scott, the escape to another. Lmao.
Scott: Lol! I think they get a sense of control from it. I kind of envy them.
Brian S: I watched the first episode of The Irregulars a couple of weeks ago and that might be right up your alley.
Threa Almontaser: I’m writing The Irregulars down!
Brian S: I can’t imagine what it’s like to be entering into adulthood with all this going on. Hard enough already being an adult in the middle of it.
Scott: Yeah, I thought this situation was bad when I came into the economy…
Brian S: Threa, thank you so much for this book and for this really engaging conversation. It’s been a blast for me.
Scott: Same here. Thank you so much, Threa!
Threa Almontaser: I really enjoyed this so much; thank you all for the chat!
Photograph of Threa Almontaser by Yasmin Ali.