David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Philip Metres.
Philip Metres: I’m so grateful to be with you, David. That introduction was magnificent and humbling. Strangely, it doesn’t sound like my experience of scuffling about and trying to find the right words for things.
DN: One of the main juxtapositions in your past book Sand Opera is between the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and the birth of your daughters. This juxtaposition happens in the middle of the book, deep in the book, in the heart of the book, and it does many things. But one of the things that it offers is a counterbalance to the horrors that we experience as a reprieve. Your latest book also has a juxtaposition but this time between your life here in the United States and the situation in Israel and Palestine. But this juxtaposition feels, to me, more uncanny and also more central and complicated than in Sand Opera, because your reality here does not just provide a contrast to the reality there, but also is sometimes echoing, reinforcing, contradicting, or complicating. It even breaks down the sense that Israel-Palestine is “over there” at all. I guess I wanted to start there because you start the book there. We don’t open the book in Gaza, the West Bank, or in Jerusalem. We open the book in University Heights, Ohio, in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood where you live. Talk to us about how you ended up living in this neighborhood, and then the role that you see your experiences living among orthodox Jews as an Arab-American plays in Shrapnel Maps.
PM: I’m sitting on the second floor of my house and watching my neighbors right now, heading to and from shul synagogue. We have about, I don’t know, at least five temples down the street, a variety of modern orthodox traditions. People are wearing really festive clothes today. My university where I teach, John Carroll University, is literally a 10-minute walk from my house. It just made a lot of sense to find a house close by. I love my commute. It’s so great. It’s actually too short. Can you imagine a commute that’s too short? [laughs] In any case, I found a great little house here close by. I think that at the time when we moved in it was perhaps a little bit less predominantly orthodox, but now it’s increasingly so. Just encountering people from the Jewish orthodox tradition has been one of marvels and mystery, and sometimes, vexation. It’s marvelous because the communities that are situated here are so vibrant, and so alive, and so visible on the street. Just to see people constantly greeting each other, “Good Shabbos” all the time. That sense of the close-knittedness of a community in our day and age is so remarkable and unusual. There’s something just really appealing about that. It’s also strange because I’m not part of the community, nor do I have really any access points into understanding the stories and the traditions that bind this community together. That’s where some of the vexation comes in and you can see all of these dimensions, actually, are in the poems. When my kids, particularly, my eldest daughter was playing with some of the neighbors, there was this remarkable diversity of not only people but how they would interact with her, from total openness to guardedness, and defensiveness. The fact of my Arab-Americanness is mostly invisible. As such, that’s also part of the story. I’m not marked in a way that my neighbors are marked by their clothes and just by their way of life. That’s part of the story. I think that for some readers, they might dispute some of the parallelisms that I’m wanting to make, or that some of the poems invite us to think about between relationships in this neighborhood and relationships in Israel-Palestine. In some respects, I understand why there would be questions about those metaphors. But in some ways, they’re just deeply human metaphors, which is how we relate to our neighbors. I was thinking about this a lot during the beginning of the pandemic. Just thinking about, “Oh, which neighbors could I count on? Which neighbors needed something? Which neighbors did I have phone numbers for? Which did I not have phone numbers for?” and the longing for that sense of connection and community. That’s a bit of a long answer but does that get close?
DN: It’s a great answer, yeah. I don’t normally have people read this early but I was thinking we could just open with your first two poems, One Tree and Two Neighbors, because that’s the way you orient us to the project. We can orient our listeners today to that and then ask questions that come out of hearing the poems.
PM: Sure. This is the first poem, One Tree.
[Philip Metres reads the poems called “One Tree” and “Two Neighbors”]
DN: You’ve been listening to Philip Metres read from his latest book, Shrapnel Maps. Even before the explicit mention of Jerusalem in the second half of the second poem, even when we’re just still with the tree and the two opposing desires of how it should be, I already feel like I’m in Israel-Palestine. I don’t know if that’s because of what I bring and what I know but I think immediately of Israel having destroyed a half million trees over the last 20 years. Some of them are 700 to 1000 years old, and how the olive tree is a symbol of identity for Palestinians, and also a huge part of their economy but also how American-Jews mark life cycles, bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, or commemorations by having trees planted in Israel in honor of someone. But the irony being not the tulip tree here but that I think of this olive tree, the irony being the olive tree, the olive branch, the tree of peace in the end feels. Even I think of that moment of Yasser Arafat when he goes to the UN saying, “I come with a gun and I come with an olive branch.” That olive branch, the complication of what that piece means, because the olive branch also means, “We are the olive branch. The olive branch coming from the land is us, the Palestinian people.” I don’t know if I’m overreaching as a reader. I guess I’m curious about how much the battle for the tree is meant to put us there.
PM: I think all of those valences that you mentioned are part of the picture and part of my thinking, and part of the context. There’s also, of course, the story of the Garden of Eden to note in the sense that somehow this space, it seemingly is offering us everything. Such plenty and yet there’s something that we can’t have as well. That expels us. Scripture, political context, geography, the thing that you didn’t mention was, of course, after the 1948 declaration of independence and the successful war for Israel’s independence and the Nakba for Palestinians. There would have been forests planted over some of the villages that were bulldozed, that Palestinians lived, and so those trees covering villages, which is also a reference from the book. I wanted that first poem, One Tree, as the first poem because it speaks to the wider predicament of dealing with scarcity, dealing with the conflicts of needs and desires, which is not specific to Israel and Palestine. I think that sometimes we get caught up in the sense that there’s something absolutely unique about the predicament of Israelis and Palestinians, and I suppose that there are plenty of ways in which it’s quite particular and quite distinct, and yet at the same time, what’s happening there is what humans have always struggled with, which is how do we belong to each other and belong to the other and mark those different allegiances.
DN: What brought you to Palestine for the first time was the wedding of your sister, which is what undergirds the second section, the epic poem, A Concordance of Leaves, which as a previous chapbook, was a winner of the Arab American Book Award. You went to Palestine as an adult for the first time, and I’m curious about the ways your visit either conformed, contradicted or rearranged what you had imagined as an Arab-American growing up in the United States, of what you were going to encounter versus what you actually encountered.
PM: It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. I had been thinking about it intensively ever since my sister had gone and came back with all of these stories. She had spent two summers at Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank where she actually met the man she would come to marry 10 years later. The stories were so surprisingly, not only provocative, but challenging of the views that maybe I would have had at the time. I grew up in a Roman Catholic tradition, a social justice tradition from the Jesuits interested in thinking about those who are marginalized and as such got an incredible education about the stories of Jewish persecution, persistence, and survival. Hearing these stories from my sister which painted Israel as the dominating force that was ruling, controlling life surprised me. I embarked on my own informal education as I was trying to understand what was happening. I think during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, I would have been a little bit more attuned to the ways in which the predicament of Palestinians was something that wasn’t getting in the news, but it wasn’t something that I had. My parents are really thoughtful people. They taught me incredible values but we didn’t necessarily talk about the politics of the Middle East per se. We were unable to go to Lebanon for my entire growing up because of the civil war, and so it was very much. Even though we have cousins there, it was very far away.
DN: But that’s what surprised me a little bit. With the occupation of southern Lebanon, and you being a Lebanese-American, I would have imagined that there would have been some sense of Israel having a different role prior to going to Palestine, perhaps, solely based on that. Is that just those discussions weren’t happening in your house about Lebanon?
PM: Not that I remember but the invasion of the Sabra and Shatila and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, I would have been 12. I was probably not really tuned in. My dad also was in the military. He was in the navy reserve at that time and actively thinking about disaster preparedness and that sort of thing. But he would have been probably viewing a lot of things in the Middle East, also from that lens of his sense of US interests. It’s interesting that you mentioned that but I have no memories of those kinds of discussions. I do have memories of the deep sadness about not being able to visit. Then we were going in 2003 to celebrate this wedding and the first thing I learned was my sister saying, “If you want to make getting through passport control easier, don’t tell them that you’re coming to a wedding in the West Bank in Palestine.” We’re at Ben Gurion Airport, we’re in Tel Aviv, they said, “Tell the border control that you’re going to visit the holy sites, you’re pilgrims.” It felt terrible to me as an outstanding citizen, and that this would be something that I would need to do. But we did it. In every book about Palestine, you will read a story about Palestinians at border control. It’s just part of the genre. It’s just a sub-genre of stories that Palestinians tell, and people tell. There are obvious reasons why Israeli security at these checkpoints is so careful and so honestly terrifying. The psychological dimension of it is really scary, but we got through okay. I just felt horrible about that. I think it was just my brother and I, we were picked up by a friend of the family and ended up driving to the little village Toura and the driver got lost. This is in the poem, I remember thinking like I really have to go to the bathroom [laughs] and this is just on the side but this is the lived experience, and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to be rude,” but I ask, “Is there a rest area or something?” He just laughed at me. I said, “What do people do if they have to go to the bathroom?” He says, “Just go on the side of the road.” I said, “Okay, I think I have to go.” He pulled up to the side of the road and the embankment is full of rocks, and then a barbed wire fence, and I’m thinking, “Okay, am I going to lose my life for urinating on a barbed wire fence because someone thinks I’m trying to cross some boundary?” [laughter] Everything was fine. It was just so funny and I felt the intensity of the experience of precarity that I think a lot of people feel and have felt in spaces, not only where they don’t know what the rules are but also that it’s a heavily militarized situation. That was just the first few hours of arriving. I think that the main impression I got from witnessing the wedding in this village was the deep-rootedness and joy of a family getting together for this occasion. I think something that happens a lot with activists working on an issue, say for Palestinian human rights, an image of the life of the people that they are trying to represent, becomes contorted and gets sapped of the roundedness and the texture of lived experience. I think that when people are called victims, or when the narrative of victimhood is strong, it tends to flatten out the real interesting ways in which people live. Just get on with the fact of living. This happens in every war zone and every country where there’s injustice, including our own. I was thinking about all the laughter that some black friends have talked about during these Black Lives Matter protests. There’s also this great catharsis of a feeling. I think one of the biggest impressions that I had coming away was this sense that not simply of the precarity of Palestinian existence which is absolutely the case, and more so than it was almost 20 years ago, but also the persistence of the sense of confidence and connection that a family had to that place. That’s not true for all Palestinians because many Palestinians are displaced internally, either in Israel, in the West Bank, or in Gaza. Their families come from other villages but that family I stayed with had been there for generations and had a strength. It reminds me of what Frantz Fanon said about strength, “The power of people comes from land.” I think this is from The Wretched of the Earth. It’s such a powerful statement that as settler colonial people, as we are here, don’t necessarily have that sense of how our identity and our strength comes from connection to a place.
DN: I think it’s a hard poem to excerpt but I was hoping we could try anyways just so people could hear a little bit of it. I was thinking maybe reading from 24 to 28.
PM: Happy to. Each of these sections are called varaq, which just means leaf at the top. I’ll just say that word in between each section. This is this poem celebrating this wedding and I don’t think there are any other notes to say here. I think it’s all fairly self-explanatory.
[Philip Metres reads an excerpt from the book Shrapnel Maps]
DN: We’ve been listening to Philip Metres read from Shrapnel Maps. One of the things that people can’t see when they hear you read this is that in between each line, there’s what looks to be one end of a parenthetical. I was curious about that mark and what it means to you. I spun out with my own theory but I was interested in what that is doing in the poem.
PM: I’m interested in what you have in mind. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] I thought of it in terms of like one of the ways I feel like you can enter this collection as an exercise and an interrogation of framing. I don’t know if that open, one-sided parenthetical that we get after every line in that epic poem is part of that or not. But I think about, for instance, that many of the sections of the book begin with an image of what appears to be an old tourist advertisement meant for Jews that’s either idealized or sometimes orientalized, and says simply, “Visit” or “Visit Palestine.” Sometimes we’ll have a section that will be about something very different than that image. But we’re also aware that that section begins with that image, that that image meant to entice Jews to visit Palestine becomes a frame, an inescapable frame. Is that at all connected? Do you feel like that characterization of your book is something about framing? Does that resonate with you as something you recognize in the project?
PM: Absolutely 100%. Mark Nowak, in one of his books, the first line is something like, “The form is the frame.” I think it might be that but this sort of poetry and this sort of project is deeply invested in thinking about how we come to tell the stories of this place, or of any place, and what, in the process of telling a story, which is putting a frame around something, are we leaving out? What’s on the margins of that? What’s parenthetical to that? Parentheses open and closed are part of our grammar of inclusion and exclusion. Partial inclusion. My students occasionally do this. They’ll read but they’ll skip over the parenthetical statements in a sentence and I said, “Why are you skipping it over? [laughs] It doesn’t mean it’s not important. It just means it’s not as important.” The parentheses is a punctuation of prioritization and the sense of the openness of those parentheses marks in this poem is an attempt to pry open the sense about what’s deprioritized, what’s included, and what’s excluded. It’s such a lovely mark, too. I don’t really understand it. To me, it also has an optical aspect to it. It’s like the lens of an eye. It has different meanings for me and I don’t want to just like impose them but what you said sounds precisely part of the picture.
DN: For a lot of the time I was reading Shrapnel Maps as we’ve discussed outside of this interview, I was working off of the galley which you warned me was going to be different from the final version, which I did get in the last couple weeks. But in the galley, this wedding begins first with the Jewish visit postcard. The wedding in Palestine is, we have to enter the doorway through the Jewish visit advertisement. But in the final version, it’s a piece of art by a Palestinian artist called Remains. It also feels like a form of framing the Palestinian woman’s face and head. We see half of her face, but then in the other half of her face, instead of her face, we see what looks to be a street scene of Arab men and women. It’s almost as if we’re seeing into her mind or into her past, and this is either what she’s thinking or what she’s remembering, or this is where she’s come from. I couldn’t find anything by the artist Manal Deeb where she talks about this specifically, but she does say somewhere, “My grandmother’s house is all gone, but in my mind, it’s still there,” which somehow feels related, to me, to this different form of framing, which feels like it’s a framing of memory instead of a framing of imagination. There is a memory aspect, perhaps to the Jewish postcard but it does feel more like an imagined future rather than a more immediately remembered past of this Palestinian artist. But I guess one of the things I wanted to ask you around this, and the framing is another thing that changes from the galley to the final version, is that these postcards, they change over time. The erasures that are being performed on them, feel almost like another way you’re interrogating, framing. But also along with this, we get periodically, these erasures of Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad. I was hoping you could tell us about these erasures and more specifically you could talk a little bit about why The Innocents Abroad, why that book in specific, would be a relevant book to put in a book about Israel and Palestine.
PM: I just really appreciate the care with which you brought to looking at the book, reading the book, looking at the images, because as a writer, that’s all that we would hope for. The fact of the matter is, as you have already here observed, there’s a lot of doctoring that’s happening in some of these images. Some of the very last things I was doing with the book were in fact learning how to use Photoshop to do this. I didn’t have an image, like a frontispiece image, for every section. There are 10 sections in the book. I just, at some point, decided that the images had tailed off in the nearly final version of the book. That was silly. I was a missed opportunity and so I went back at the end, looked at the images again. These postcards that you note are tourist postcards that were actually done by a really talented guy from the Mad Men era in New York doing these wonderful images, these enticing images. How could you not want to enter into them? His name is Mitchell Loeb. This was done in 1947, a year before, of course, everything changed. I had a lot of fun just figuring out how to remove things from images, all of which is, to say to those who are listening, please, just take a good close look at what’s there and what’s not there. It was a lot of fun to do. I was thinking about how I was engaging in a process of erasure, even as those images are projections which erase a certain texture and complexity of reality at the same time. There are palimpsests here of projections and erasures. I won’t say much more than that except that one of the things that I hope the book is doing is demonstrating a subjectivity which is complicit and aware of his own complicity in all manner of projections and erasures. I think that was really important for me to do. I believe, although I’m sure that there are other ways to do it, that what I wanted to try to do is to model a certain kind of engagement of radical listening but also radical self-evaluation and self-reflection as the mediating force of the book, as the subjectivity, through which all this is getting filtered. Does that mean the book is totally neutral? Does that mean the book is trying to please both sides? Probably not. My wife very wisely tries to get me not to do that. It was a role that I played very well in my family, the peacemaker. But I think that what it is trying to do is, it is trying to engage in a radical project of listening and attention to the ways in which we hear and don’t and can’t hear the realities of other people. As a segue to that, you asked about why I would have been choosing Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad as a text to engage in redaction or blackouts. It’s a rather notorious book for those who’ve read any Edward Said as Twain’s depictions of the Middle East. Of course, all manner of other places in his travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, are well known. He is not his best self in this book by any stretch of the imagination to which one of my dear friends and former students Chris Kempf said, “Hey, we get it. He was a product of his time. I don’t understand why you’re spending so much time with this. You’re perseverating over it. Who cares, really?” One of the things that I think that good erasures do in good poems that are engaging with other texts, too, is that they don’t simply ironize or expose in some Marxian false consciousness way, the ways in which people from the past didn’t get it. I wanted to show, actually, that Twain himself was very aware of the problem of representation even while we can now say, of course, that his representation was charged, in many ways, deeply orientalist. The very first erasure is a redaction. It’s precisely about that. There’s this moment in which he says—and I’ve redacted here—but these are his words, basically, “I can see easily I must unlearn a great many things concerning Palestine. I must begin a system of reduction.” This sense, this difficulty it is to reduce, and that’s the process of framing, that suddenly removes things from consideration, that I wanted to interrogate and not only interrogate but that I wanted to consider to put under consideration for myself, and for others knowing how easy it is when one is in pain and one has come from a culture that has experienced great suffering to do that. How easy it is to see our own suffering and how hard it is to see the suffering of others.
DN: In that light, I want to ask you more about your portrayal of Jews in Shrapnel Maps and the presence of Jews in your life and art more broadly. Because Jews are conspicuously present in your life long before Shrapnel Maps, not just you living in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, you’re the translator of two Russian Jewish poets, Lev Rubinstein and Sergey Gandlevsky, you have an essay in your book, The Sound of Listening, about the docupoetics and documentary poetry where you call Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser the Founding Father and Mother of documentary poetry, and you nominate Allen Ginsberg as the Court Jester. You’ve created a holy trinity of Jewish documentary poets. When we arrived at Shrapnel Maps, you could have certainly created a great poetry collection on Israel-Palestine where Israeli Jews are portrayed throughout mainly as antagonists. But in this collection, Jews are portrayed in many different and contradictory ways. I don’t think you’re going for neutrality either. I don’t think even close but we do get a broad breadth of Jewish actions and beliefs presented. All this made me think that there must be an ethos or poetics behind all of this, which I think you’ve already nodded towards some, and what we’ve discussed already. But in constructing again my own imagined narrative of why your life as an Arab-American Christian is so engaged with Jews, Jewish poets, and Judaism, I thought of a couple of things. One was Pádraig Ó Tuama, the Irish poet and theologian who blurbed your book, has a saying, “Belonging creates and undoes us.” Then I also thought of the Russian haiku you wrote in your collection, pictures at an exhibition that goes, “The Roma mother who mistook you for a son, you mistook for a Roma.” Then mainly, I thought of Fady Joudah’s comments on A Concordance of Leaves where he says, “Without other, there is no self. And that other is the stranger who must be loved.” I believe he’s talking about the wedding being portrayed in the poem more than he’s necessarily talking about Jews. But nevertheless, I’d love to hear more about your engagement with the other or with the Jewish other in this case, as a way of moving through the world and making art.
PM: That’s a lot dude. That is a lot. [laughter] Oh my gosh. Where to begin? For me, growing up Catholic, Jewishness was special, was distinct in some way. You don’t need to go far to note the great contributions of Jews to culture, medicine, politics, philosophy, religion. I have great admiration for Jewish cultural life, Jewish poets. Those two Russian poets that you mentioned, Lev Rubinstein and Sergey Gandlevsky, they’re just absolutely delightful humans as well as genius poets. Of course, growing up Catholic, half the scripture we’re reading is inherited. So we are connected, we’re kin. That’s always part of the picture from a religious identity perspective. I also became really aware of the embedded, for lack of any other term, anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish framing that’s happening in, for example, the New Testament. During the crucifixion of Jesus, the people are referred to as the Jews. Of course, the Jews were the people but why call them Jews? This is because, of course, the scriptures were written 100 years later. There was this great attempt, and by great I mean severe attempt, to distinguish early Christianity from Judaism. This fierceness of this cut or split is embedded in that scripture in ways that can easily be read or mobilized in anti-Semitic ways. This was before my time, but I’m aware that when my parents were growing up, that one of the epithets that Catholics would throw at Jewish kids on the street was that they were Christ-killers. That’s because partly, that’s embedded in the scripture and so being just really attentive and aware of this problem in my own faith tradition, that legacy of the church, its forced inquisitions, and its persecution of Jews, there’s such a history there. There was a great book called Constantine’s Sword, among many others that’s dealing with the responsibility of the church in its practices and ideologies of hatred of Jews or anti-Semitism. I almost feel like reading, one of my dad’s mentors was Viktor Frankl, knowing the importance of these Jewish thinkers and figures and knowing at the same time the ways in which the church, to which I belonged, and still belong has been part of the problem of history, makes me just really attuned to that. I don’t know if that’s answering your question exactly.
DN: No, I think it is. Yeah. I wanted to bring up something that you wrote about in The Sound of Listening that I wondered if it was related to the way you portray Jews in Shrapnel Maps, but maybe it isn’t. Either way, I want to bring it into the conversation. I’m going to read two short quotes that you wrote, “In light of the flurry of poetry activity constellating around the term ‘resistance’, we need, more than ever, to consider the possibilities and limits of resistance. After 25 years of thinking and practicing a poetics of resistance, I have found myself oddly resistant to the sudden talk of resistance as if resistance were merely a matter of hashtags or opposing Trump. After all, there was plenty to resist during the Obama administration, drone strikes abroad, police killings of black people on the streets, Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of civilians in Syria, bankers and predatory capitalists running amok around the globe, ongoing accrual of executive power, the buildup of a shadow security state. But these phenomenon did not garner much widespread resistance.” Then later you say something that I really love and you say in this same piece, “While I have always courted the idea of poetry as a rhetoric of resistance, I continue to return to the idea of poetry as fundamentally a kind of resistance itself. Anti-rhetorical estate anterior depositing, poetry as the ground of opening into the possible, a refuge. Part of this shift is Žižek’s notion that resistance often can sustain the object of its critique. In other words, if our resistance is mere protest, it actually strengthens or even creates the system.” I’m not entirely sure where I’m going but the way in which I feel this collection is not neutral is I feel like this collection is a critique of Israeli occupation. I feel like this collection is that, but at the same time, the resistance to the occupation that I feel like the book is enacting, is also one that’s trying to listen to the occupiers. I don’t know if I’m reducing what you’re doing too much by saying that, but I would like to hear about the limits of a poetics of resistance and trying to create a poetics that’s beyond the poetics of resistance.
PM: Yeah. You, probably, being an interested person in culture, watch The Wire at some point, or you know about The Wire.
PM: Recently, The Wire was criticized by someone about its depiction of policing. Wendell Pierce who plays Bunk tweeted a really eloquent statement about how he saw actually police depicted as flawed human beings caught in systems larger than themselves in which they find their humanity compromised and in which—this is a paraphrase, but this is the way I understand it—in which they also perpetrate in humanity. It’s a Dickensian work in some ways or maybe a Tolstoyan work, and actually, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and modern iterations that are able to show us people situated in systems that are not always protecting them and not always protecting others. That’s what interests me as an artist. I’m interested, for example, what happened in Sand Opera was something really similar. I started with, because my emotional taproot was reading the testimonies of the abused Iraqi prisoners, but that story was not complete if I didn’t wrestle and engage with, and then also in some respects, depict and account for the American military police who were either bystanders, perpetrators, whistleblowers. I think that something really similar is happening in this book, Shrapnel Maps, which is to say it would be really easy for me simply to please Palestinian human rights people and do a book that is doing that work. But that’s not going to help people wrestle with, and here’s a word that gets us all into trouble, “the complexities or complications” of that predicament. I think art of the moral imagination is able to do that. Now is that different from an art of resistance? I think it is, actually. It’s a little bit different. Does it mean that there are ways in which this could be mobilized in a resistance? Sure. But things would be cut out. There are poems that I don’t think are great poems in this collection that are necessary because they offer another facet to this picture. There’s more than one dimension of the picture. I think that was really important to me and that’s partly because it accounts for my situatedness. I am not a Palestinian. I am not a Jew. I may, in some ways, proximate to that I am not part of, other than, say my taxes or something like that, or my brother-in-law. I’m not really part of this. I think one of the things that struck me most about the book, and I think as any artist, you want to be surprised by what you write. I think one of the things that surprised me was that I feel like my life is more aligned with the predicament of an Israeli person than as a Palestinian person. I think that probably, a lot of activists have the same issue, but they don’t want to see that. That is to say, people were pushed out here.
DN: Meaning America.
PM: Yeah. Just recognizing that and coming to terms with that was really important to me. There are two sides of my personality that’s expressed in the quote that you read. A deep passion for, not only resistance, but for moving in solidarity and allyship with people who are marginalized who don’t necessarily have the power that I may have, given my position or standing in life and also this attempt and desire to understand and imagine different positionalities that include me, that demonstrate my own complicity. I hope that answers your question. I’m not sure it does.
DN: Yeah. I think it does. I want to come back to what you mentioned at the beginning, this question of parallelisms and this question of how much space and in what way should Jews occupy in a book about Israel-Palestine. But before we do, I was hoping [laughter] you could talk about Ezra Nawi and then Rabbi Arik Ascherman who both have a presence in the book and then read for us according to this Midrash.
PM: I was literally just on a call with Rabbi Arik Ascherman. There was some organization that was doing some support work for a family in this neighborhood in East Jerusalem that’s slowly being, for a lack of a better term, colonized so Palestinians who’ve lived there for 50 years or something are getting their rights to their houses revoked because of a Jewish law that says if a Jew had lived in a place, it would revert to or that it should be reclaimed for a Jewish resident. He did some really great work. He’s just a fascinating guy. He was one of the co-founders of Rabbis for Human Rights. He grounds his critique and his advocacy in his interpretation of Jewish scripture and his faith tradition. Interestingly, I found myself not agreeing with certain kinds of framing devices he was using but he knows his audience while he was talking with one of the staffers for Robert Portman in Ohio who’s republican and deeply pro-Israel. All credit to Rabbi Arik Ascherman who has done some really incredible work across boundaries. There are these little portraits in the book of activists both Jewish and Palestinian, actually some Americans as well. I thought it was really important to lift up some portraits of people who’ve engaged in acts of great courage, solidarity, and bravery in really, really difficult situations and circumstances. I particularly admired Arik Ascherman. There’s also Ezra Nawi who’s actually gotten himself into a bit of trouble which I didn’t realize until the poem was published a few years ago. In any case, he is a brash and fascinating Jew. I think his family, he was Sephardic, maybe from Iraq so he’s Arab speaking, Arab identified. He’s also queer. He’s done some really courageous and bold things like running into a house that’s being demolished to try to stop the demolition and that sort of thing. Those are two figures who make their way into the book. Sometimes, you just read these stories about people and you just, at least, I do, my jaw drops and I think, “What am I doing? Am I actually standing with those who need us most? There’s so much work to do in that way.” I’d be happy to read according to this Midrash. This is one of the poems that I actually memorized yesterday for something called Station Hope here in Cleveland which is an annual arts gathering to celebrate Cleveland artists and their work of social justice. Station Hope was named after the church that was part of the underground railroad on the near west side in Ohio City and that’s where usually the celebration is but, of course, this year everything’s online. I spent the morning trying to memorize a few poems from the book. My daughter will attest that my memorization was not great. We had to do it a number of times. But this was one of the poems I wanted to memorize. The reason I wanted to memorize it was that this was one of those poems where I felt like I learned something. This is according to this Midrash for Rabbi Arik Ascherman. Basically, the language is taken from an interview that he did. There might be some massaging of phrases here and there.
[Philip Metres reads an excerpt from Shrapnel Maps]
DN: We’ve been listening to Phil Metres read from Shrapnel Maps. I want to return to what you referenced at the beginning, this question of parallelism or the question of how does one show both sides of a conflict without creating a false equivalency or a false sense of balance. Because there’s a lot of juxtaposition across the divide in your book. For instance, the book opens with two epigraphs. One by the Israeli poet Amichai and the other by the Palestinian poet Darwish. You have a series of poems that imagine a fictional suicide bombing and two of the perspectives are a Palestinian named [Maryam] and a Jewish woman named [Miriam]. This twinning, we could continue I think pretty easily all the way back to Isaac and Ishmael which gets referenced in this poem but I’m thinking of a series of posts you did on Facebook on the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and then on the following day on the anniversary of what the Palestinians call the Nakba or the catastrophe. In the second post, you talk about the 750,000 Palestinian refugees that were created and the 400 villages that were destroyed, many bulldozed, and as you mentioned, with trees planted over them or the villages or cities where the houses remain but are now lived in by Jews. But in your first post before people had seen that second post, you tried to put yourself in the mind of a Jewish person on the day of the founding of the state of Israel where you say, “For Israelis, it was the achievement of a long-sought-after dream.” You follow this with a parenthetical, which can go back to our parentheses from before, the parenthetical being, “For Palestinians, of course, it was a nightmare, more on that tomorrow.” Then you post a poem you wrote about Yehuda Amichai, the Israeli poet. But you subsequently received some anguished responses from both Palestinian and Arab friends of yours. One, called the post egregious for the repetition of the zionist nation-building myth by referring to it as a dream, but also for equating the two sides of the conflict and thereby, in their mind, effectively engaging in the erasure of the weaker side. Another friend confessed that they were struggling with the post that by calling it a dream fulfilled, it felt like the occupation was being normalized. This person balked at how Palestinians were the parenthetical on the post. She ended by saying that if language is resistance, isn’t it important to acknowledge that establishing Israel equals occupying Palestine? I admired your responses in the sense that they really recognized the pain of the people speaking these critiques and they were not defensive in any way that I could see. But I guess this was my long-winded attempt to ask you about your ethos and your considerations and deliberations when you’re thinking about creating space for contradictory or opposing narratives to exist, perhaps for this notion of radical listening, but to not also then be enacting or suggesting that the peoples are standing on equal ground.
PM: Yeah. That was the sweat-inducing couple of days there [laughs] I have to say. Some dear friends, a couple of Palestinian poet friends and one Lebanese poet friend all took me to ask roundly. That poem for Amichai I think says everything that I need to say about the predicament that he found himself in and in some ways, the Zionist project still finds itself in. Thank you for reading those carefully. [laughs] I think one of the things that was hardest for me about those sets of exchanges, and I haven’t deleted them, I think I maybe modified one of them, I don’t know if it was around the word dream or one of the other aspects of it, it was painful for me to recognize that what I thought was fairly neutral language was received as somehow what was caused pain and was received as somehow unsupportive of people whose lives have been really hard. But this stuff is not easy, right?
PM: But I guess the only thing I would just say about it is that if I can’t do it, why should I expect anybody else to? If I can’t hold the space in my imagination and compassion for these really, really different points of view, then why should I expect or hope that there could be any future where coexistence and a just peace is possible? That’s the path, that’s the practice that I’ve chosen. It’s not for everybody. But I want to make that the word refuge which is in the title of the book The Sound of Listening, is, to me, really part of that picture. If we cannot create a space where people trust that their traditions, their families, their cultures, their stories will be respected and held with dignity and not under constant attack, we’ll never have peace and we will never have a future together. One of the things that I really wanted to do is probably the impossible for this book, was to have the book be part of conversations. Probably, I had more sleepless nights as this book was rounding into completion before publication than I’ve ever had in my life because I was aware of how controversial it would be to write a book like this. I have a colleague in my department who’s an ardent Zionist, for whom even this metaphor analogy that I offer in the beginning of the book or any of the metaphors and analogies between my encounters here in my neighborhood and what’s happening in Israel and Palestine was a road to step too far, was inappropriate and absolutely not tenable. I’m aware of this predicament but I do want this book to be part of conversations, not endpoints of a conversation but openings to conversations. That’s my hope. We have this really vibrant Jewish community and not merely my orthodox neighbors, of course, but this incredibly powerful Maltz Museum, this really great museum of Jewish heritage here in Cleveland, Judith Butler came from this area, just these amazing tradition and people that to me, for whom I consider them people that I want to be talking with and engaging these conversations. On some level, my friend Fady Joudah, who you mentioned, I showed him an earlier draft of the book and he said, “I’m not sure that I can comment on this book because it’s not really written for me,” and I think that there’s truth to that. He doesn’t need to read my book but he’s lived it. His parents were made refugees twice in their life, hopefully, there won’t be a third. He’s lived with trauma and it’s for everybody else, I suppose, that maybe hasn’t been in that state and situation. But it’s hard.
DN: That’s interesting. Could we, in light of that, talk about Returning to Jaffa which was your chapbook that is also part of this book? Because it’s dedicated to a Palestinian woman who visits your class often. I would love to hear about this sequence.
PM: Oh, sure. I don’t know how many years ago I first met Nahida Halaby Gordon. I’ve learned since that time that her sister is a rather internationally known artist named Samia Halaby. She was on a panel with a couple of other people who were talking about different dimensions of the conflict such as we might call it. The first few times I brought her into my class, she would do these really deep dive history lessons and then she wouldn’t really talk about her own life. The kids would be honestly bored. I find it interesting like what’s happening in 1916 and then what does the Ottoman Land Reform have to do with what happened after. But that’s just for people geeking out on the deep dive of history. But then she started to tell a little bit about her own story. She was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Jaffa and was part of the expulsion exodus of Palestinians who left. A couple of things that really just blew me away were a document that she shared with us that was circulated by the Haganah in the day before or two days before the declaration of founding of the State of Israel which basically asked men to gather at the center of town and also the municipal documents to be secured so that future land claims can be established. In this document, it’s just fascinating because of what happened afterwards which is that this municipal register of public documents disappeared. That just haunted me. This sense of what happens to peoples in situations of war when people want to get rid of them. There was this historical and political dimension that was embedded in this document that was deeply impactful for her own story and predicament as she shared the trauma of seeing her father coming after a bombing just covered with dust. I can’t remember what the explosion was, it’s the town center, January 4th, we could certainly look it up. But the ways in which this large narration which had very little, for me, in the way of personal or lived exemplars, suddenly became very specific which is to say became her story. It’s amazing how 70 years later, coming to my class, she would still be reduced to tears telling the story. This is an incredibly accomplished woman with a PhD, I don’t know if it’s chemistry or some advanced science, something I know nothing about, who has lived a very good life here and has family and children, yet nonetheless, has a primal wound experience. I just wanted to honor, in some way, this relationship and to tell her story in a way that we could experience what it might feel like or might look like on the level of a nine-year-old who has to leave with her family. The other, just a side, that I would just say about it is that I learned in the process of doing more research on Jaffa that it was supposed to be part of a future Palestinian state when the 1947 U.N. partition plan was proposed. But if you look at the maps, it’s absolutely bananas. Jaffa is nowhere close to the rest of the contiguous land that would have been offered in that partition plan and it was the biggest city by far; our majority city, of course, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were Jewish majority cities. There are just so many dimensions of it that just fascinated me and haunted me. I just wanted her story as part of this.
DN: I know this isn’t part of that section but I was hoping you could orient us too and read us Ismail and Abla to Ahmed, Their Son.
PM: Sure. I’m trying to figure out a good way of segueing between these things but I think that Nahida has this book where she did all of these interviews of Palestinians. She feels her own privilege relative to some others. She taught me how important it is to carry other people’s stories and to embody the future that you want to see. I think that in some powerful ways, Ismail and Abla and what they did when their son was killed in a shooting by the IDF, essentially kind of a police shooting if we’re going to put it back in our American context where he was perceived as a danger. In our own city here, Tamir Rice getting shot with a toy gun some years ago.
[Philip Metres reads an excerpt from Shrapnel Maps]
DN: We’ve been listening to Phil Metres read from Shrapnel Maps. I think one thing you didn’t mention that captured the imagination, because I read a lot about this incident after reading this poem, which is an incredibly powerful poem was that they donated their son’s organs and four of the people who received the organs were Israeli people. When I was looking into it, it made me think a lot about your writing on the Poetics of Resistance because on the one hand, the Israeli leaders were stunned by the act of these parents whose child was killed by the Israeli Defense Forces and they called it this remarkable gesture of peace and a bridge between the communities and the deputy prime minister at the time called the family to praise the “noble gesture” and the Israeli parliament praised the family for its remarkable humanity. But it’s what the mother says in response that struck me that contrary to the Israeli embrace of her gesture as an act of peace, that she saw it as an act of resistance. In her words, she said, “To give away his organs was a different kind of resistance. Violence against violence is worthless. Maybe this will reach the ears of the whole world so they can distinguish between just and unjust. Maybe the Israelis will think of us differently. Maybe just one Israeli will decide not to shoot.” Similarly, the leader of the al-Aqsa Brigade adds, “This kind of action is a form of resistance. Six Israelis have a part of a Palestinian in them and we don’t think those people would come to kill a Palestinian person and I don’t think their family members would kill a Palestinian child.” Those statements in your poem, I feel like are going to haunt me for a very long time because I feel like in a way, this portrays the imbalance of the scales of the two sides more than anything could that this gesture is being done out of almost a desperation, that being seen from the other side and animated by these donated organs that these people would see the humanity and where the organs came from.
PM: Yeah. An outlandish act of love really. One of the difficulties of being human in situations of, for a lack of a better term, violence and injustice is that your particular tragedy gets mobilized as a kind of political act always. It’s always hard to know precisely how one feels because these narratives are so powerful. I think it’s in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature that Deleuze and Guattari talk about the way in which, in a minor literature, the political always stains the light, the present, always stains, that is to say marks indelibly the predicament of the minority, the marginalized. I think that there’s a keen sadness in that. I think one of the most painful things for Palestinians, in particular, is that their humanity even gets lost in the story of their seeking their own human rights.
DN: Can we take that question of Palestinian humanity into the American setting as a teacher? Because one might imagine that like the academic world would be the place where one might most be able to achieve a space where these narratives could be put forth and judged on their merits, but in a lot of ways in America, that’s the most politicized space. There are a lot of advocacy groups, think tanks, legal actions, and threats of legal actions that almost de facto make the speaking and teaching of the Palestinian narrative a de facto anti-Semitic act or an attempt to make it an anti-Semitic act that the stories being told have caused the cancellation of student groups or some teachers have lost tenure. Other people have had their names posted on websites as being anti-Semites. I wonder if you’re shielded from that at all being in a Jesuit school or perhaps maybe not having a student body that would be full of Jews and Muslims or whether you experience that institutional pressure as somebody who’s had a long-term dedication to teaching the literatures of both people as a way to look at the radical listening between them.
PM: I began teaching my course in 2006 probably because of my experience going there. It just became impossible not to try to figure out some way of contributing to, at the very minimum, a raising of consciousness, education, and engagement. I’m currently the director of this program, the Peace, Justice and Human Rights program, this is really at the heart of what I’m trying to do in the classroom and in my scholarship and also, in some respects, in my writing. But I will say that in 2006, maybe after the first semester, I taught the course that I had posted some material about the class and what it’s trying to do and some of its goals, texts, and resources and stuff like that. A member of the community asked me some questions about it. She was coming from a fairly ardent Zionist perspective and I said, “Oh, I’d love to have you come into the class because I think that one of the things the class is trying to do is really expose students to really different ways of thinking about and framing the story.” She said, “I’m sorry, I can’t come into your class because I don’t believe the Palestinians are a people.” That stopped our conversation a little bit then she started sending me a series of emails, a number of emails, I don’t know, half a dozen within a few hours about things that she thought maybe I didn’t know or wish to inform me about. After a certain number of them, I think I got frustrated and I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t engage with this conversation.” I said something that I regret which was “I wish you well but not your racism.” This set her off and she wrote letters to every member of the administration telling that I was preaching hatred toward the Jewish people and that sort of thing. I think what was hardest for me was not actually that she contacted all the people but that I really wanted to take seriously what she was saying and look very carefully at whether my course was fair, was doing what I said it was doing. Everyone in my department and at the dean level, everyone supported me and she went off to other harangues but that was that in a way but I’m sharing that with you just to say that there are consequences to even trying to teach the conflicts as Gerald Graff called it in this liberal way. But for me, it was and continues to be very important to be teaching both and it’s an impossibility really to do it any justice. There’s no way that anybody can get a sense of the true breadth and complexity of Israeli literatures, cultures, politics, and history and Palestinian literatures, cultures, politics, and history. So I mostly focus on the places where they are intersecting and are actively engaged with each other. But as I mentioned before, when I hear people, for example, in England, say the London Guardian or something, that talk about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I’m uncomfortable with some of the ways in which they talk about it. It’s not that I don’t entertain a kind of leftist critique and that sort of thing. Like on the first day of class, we talk about anti-Semitism and Orientalism, we start with a thoroughgoing and just a realization and that one of the difficulties of teaching this material and the difficulty of engaging this material is to know and recognize that both peoples that are under consideration here have been demonized both in word and in deed and that has to be part of our ethos moving forward that we will recognize the fact of these kinds of racisms and prejudice and to account for them as we move forward and to just try to tread carefully, and not in any politically correct way actually, but to just understand that the stakes are very high. I’ve had many arguments with students about this kind of stuff. I think actually when I started teaching the class, the passive student who would come through my class would have been more tuned into an Israeli narrative, probably two-thirds one-thirds, and now it’s probably almost reversed. I don’t know what that means, my job as a pedagogue is different than my job as an artist but in a way, this book does come out of the teaching of that material as much as anything else and wanting to invite people into this journey where we can never reduce anyone to a mere story and certainly, not a story that they wouldn’t recognize utterly about themselves. Again, a long answer. [laughter]
DN: Can you take this question of framing, fairness, and balance into the way you’re looking at maps and you could talk maybe a little bit about why you’re choosing these maps from the 15th to the 18th century to grapple with in Shrapnel Maps? For instance, why do we have an engagement with Michael Servetus’ map and Adam Reisner’s map among other things? We also have the fill-in-the-blank map that your daughter gets from school of biblical Israel being engaged and troubled. But what’s going on with maps of the holy land starting around the 15th century?
PM: I cannot remember the initiating reason why I got obsessed with maps of this place, the place or a place but I can tell you that we have bought a garage sale map that was from this period as well and I was fascinated by it and it was probably because I was looking at that really carefully and just started to go crazy with maps. It turns out, of course, that geography is one of these really central terms, Edward Said’s imaginative geographies and that sort of thing. I think it was again an attempt to make sense of the ways in which place gets displaced by projections. Maps are so fascinating because they’re developing interestingly by Jesuit cartographers among other things among other people to engage in this project of discovery/colonial advent, an imperial adventuring, really embedded in the project of cartography is the procedure of control, are the activities of empire and colonialism. I think that what struck me as well in addition to thinking about those things is how the imagination of this space as a birthplace of Jesus becomes a fixation as well for a kind of Christian Zionism which is part of the story of the movement of Zionism which is how does the Balfour Declaration and the British support of finding a state for the Jewish people come about. I think it’s partly Christians who have this feeling about Zion which is from hundreds and hundreds of years of thinking about that space and the crusades, of course, and everything else maps our propositions and impositions as much as descriptions and just thinking a lot about that. They’re frames too, right?
DN: Yeah. I wanted to maybe push on this question of maps in a larger sense for your work also and maybe the way they relate to formal and aesthetic choices as a poet. For instance, you said, “My desire in Sand Opera is to make the Iraq War and the wider war on terror visible, to make a visible and audible map of it, a map that we would carry in our eyes and ears, in our bodies and hearts, to replace the maps of pundits and demogogues.” You also have essays in The Sound of Listening titled Carrying Continents in Our Eyes and At the Borders of Our Tongue. When I think about maps as something that we carry in our bodies or as continents in our eyes, I also think of the introduction by Catherine Wagner to your translations of the Russian conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein where she talks about the Soviet-era communal apartments where people had only eight-square feet per person and no privacy, and thus, any conversations that happened in this space were surveilled and a collective monologue of sorts that was safe and sanctioned, and that this poet that you translated was working against this sanctioned collective monologue. Wagner seems to suggest that the physical structure, so the apartment itself, the way it is constructed, mapped out, and then inhabited is behind his approach as a poet. This is what Rubinstein himself said, “For me, the problem of the center of gravity is essential. Traditional consciousness places the center of gravity within the boundaries of the text and considers it the artist’s weakness if the center of gravity leaves these boundaries. From here arises, as a consequence, an extra temporal and extra spatial relation to the objects of art. For me, the artistic text is important and interesting as both the cause and effect of conversation, as the optimal realization of dialogical consciousness. Here, the center of gravity is always somewhere between the author, text, and reader. Thus, for me, non-traditional artistic consciousness is dialogical while traditional consciousness is monological.” It just made me think of you and radical listening and maybe of radical listening as being some engagement with borders.
PM: This is, again, a simplification of a great complexity. But there’s this interesting sensory binary between sight and sound and the map being this dominance register or site. It’s so funny being human knowing that our eyes are in the front of our head means we’re predators in the animal kingdom. But our listening is spread out on both sides of us, probably also because we were also a prey at one point and I was trying to find, in my very first book, I talked about how Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping was, I thought, really central to what my practice was as a writer and artist which is an attempt to locate myself in a set of systems and geographies that precede me and move through me in some way. Of course, his theorization of cognitive mapping has to do with registering the layer of capital that sometimes we don’t really talk about the layer of the economic connections that we have that are constantly being effaced and suppressed. But there was something about this term mapping that was really interesting to me that came to me as I was finishing my first book. I missed one connection point, what was the other? Oh, Rubinstein.
DN: Yeah, let me add this idea of dialogical consciousness and then I’ll just add another thing just to complicate things even more. When you were talking with Micah Cavaleri about “abu ghraib arias,” you said, “The work of grassroots peacebuilding is fundamentally about relationship, and the situation of war constantly ossifies our identities as ‘national beings.’” When I was thinking about Rubinstein’s dialogical consciousness rather than a communal monologue, which might be a tribal monologue, maybe what you’re doing is working against this notion of the ossified national being like working against the bordering of a being by a nation-state ultimately. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but I was thinking about those things with your maps, your erasures, and this notion of radical listening possibly being something that could get us to step out of an identification solely based on national interest.
PM: When I think of Rubinstein on the dialogic, he’s, of course, hearkening back to Bakhtin. For Bakhtin, Dostoevsky is the exemplar. What’s so cool about Dostoevsky and what Rubinstein is inviting and asking for is this sense that somehow, the work of art, maybe text and context more for Rubinstein which is to say instead of saying the work of art needs to contain the whole of that, all of the perspectives, debates, dimensions of life that Dostoevsky tries to do, tries to put say for example, The Brothers Karamazov, for Rubinstein, I think it’s almost like the text and context or the text and the reader as well. I have this similar hope and desire that the work itself can model a dialogical way of being in the world and then can be activated in actual dialogue with people for whom passport and identity are part of but not ultimately defining a person and how they belong. The big tricky thing in the world is that the nation-state is, for lack of a better institution, the guarantor of most individuals rights in the world. It’s something we haven’t been able to get around as human beings because, on a smaller scale, it seems to be harder to have those guarantees met and registered, and at a larger scale, people have resisted that, in fact, the Trump and Brexit movements have been all about the rejection of globalism without a cultural change, globalism really in the service of the wealthy. I would say that is part of my project. It’s this weird thing, I don’t know how you felt growing up, but I felt, particularly, after the Gulf War, I didn’t feel like I was American, I felt like I was an alien just happened to be here. I can talk passionately about the promise and the possibility of the constitution of our democratic institutions, but some part of me just sees its failure all the time and can never be on the cheerleading team. I don’t know why that is, it’s just been part of me since the beginning of my coming into my own. I don’t have answers on that big level of how do we guarantee the safety and the rights of people. I just know, I can see the limits of the way we’ve organized ourselves. This thing about tribe, the tribe was the guarantor of safety for people in a sense of connection and belonging but it was also the place where people got expelled.
DN: As we come to a close, I want to return to Amichai, the Israeli poet. You said that one of the things that you felt like most answered, the anguish and critiques of some of the people who read your Facebook posts was just the poem itself, My Heart like a Nation and what it says. You’ve called Amichai, if not the greatest Israeli poet, one of the great Israeli poets and one who speaks in a way that you describe as surpassing the boundaries of national identity. I think of the poem Wildpeace, which is a former soldier speaking imagining a peace that is beyond description, it’s not a biblically ordained peace, it’s not a tribal peace, it’s not a political peace, it’s not a ceasefire it’s a wildpeace. But you’ve also expressed your ambivalence about him because he fought in the war of independence, the Nakba, the catastrophe that dispossessed Palestinians from their homes and he also fought in a couple of more wars, I’m pretty sure, in the 60s and 70s. I’d love to have you end by reading My Heart like a Nation, the poem that you mentioned that is near the end of the book. Then also, a poem that you dedicated to Fady Joudah, Isdoud. But before we do, I guess I wanted to ask the question which maybe doesn’t have an answer but does Amichai’s transnational poems, poems that reach across boundaries of an ossified national identity and acknowledge maybe what has been gained through those victories that he fought in what he describes as a hard and trampled victory rather than one that would seem fertile and dynamic? Does he, being a soldier in those wars, make those poems more remarkable or does that compromise or diminish them? Maybe the answer is yes and yes, [laughter] I don’t know, but I didn’t know if you had thoughts.
PM: Maybe I’ll read the poem and then talk a little bit about it. One thing I would just say, My Heart like a Nation is a poem that refers to, at least, five Amichai poems which I found particularly fascinating and worth thinking about.
[Philip Metres reads a poem called My Heart like a Nation]
There’s such warmth and sensuality to Amichai’s voice in so many of his poems. The humanness of the voice of Amichai as a poet is really stunning, remarkable, beautiful, unforgettable. I think if you read his poems very carefully, the figure of the Arab is often one of absence or a sort of orientalized shepherd or something like that, a Bedouin. There’s something amazing to me and poignant about a poet whose work is so expansive in its humanness and yet also has this limit, I don’t know if it’s an epistemological limit, an ideological limit, a blind spot, an incapacity. For me, I guess Yehuda is just a human being. I think I will push back on the earlier thing that I said about his being a transnational poet. He’s a national poet and sometimes, he sees the limits of that nationalism. There’s this great poem called Jerusalem in which he says that he sees flags, his flag, and then other people’s flags. There’s some line in it where he says something like, “They fly them to make us think they’re happy and we fly them to make them think we’re happy,” which means that they’re not happy, that he recognizes the tragedy in that. I think I was thinking a lot about how it was not only Amichai’s participation in the war which would make sense. He would want to secure the safety of the land that he found himself in, the safety for his people. But the fact of this inability to get past and to see these others, I think that this is the tragedy, and in some sense, is the tragedy of a certain kind of Zionism. To me, Darwish is a much more internationalist poet, but look at the life he had to lead. There’s something about the predicament of the refugee which invites a kind of cosmopolitanism, I hope that doesn’t sound too overdetermined but if I were to pick one of the poets as the cosmopolitan poet, I would say, it was Darwish who sees even the limits of Palestinian nationalism as it’s moving forward and doesn’t want to be thought of as the Palestinian voice. It would be interesting to do a deep dive to see if Amichai’s relationship to Israel as a place, as an imagination, and as a home change over time. I haven’t looked at that closely and I imagine that there probably is some change. But I particularly wanted to have this conversation with him because I recognize the beauty and strength of his work and also see some limit in it.
DN: I wanted to ask you one question about this poem in relationship to the galley also. There’s a point when you read the poem when you hummed and you were humming over a redaction. In the version you read, it goes, “We did what we had to do, you wrote, which in translation reads: [redaction]” there’s a big black box. But in the galley it read, “We did what we had to do, you wrote, which in translation reads: exile.”
PM: Why did I change it?
DN: Yeah. I’m curious about it. That’s fascinating to me also about the ambivalence of Amichai. I could almost imagine it being him who redacts it. He puts the word exile and then redacts exile. We did what we had to do, which is translated as [blank], but the first thing that comes to mind is exile. It’s not fair that I’m quizzing you on a version that no one sees, [laughs] but I’m fascinated by the inclusion and then the occlusion.
PM: I think for me exile seemed too simplistic. In a book that has, after Sand Opera, being sort of filthy with redactions and blackouts, I think I thought at the very end of this book, maybe there’s just one in here to invite us to think about what’s not allowed to be said, so exile is what happened. I like your reading of it quite a bit like the cross out of exile. But I think I wanted to point out this pain of what maybe he wasn’t able to write.
DN: Are you up for reading Isdoud as a final poem?
PM: I do want to read this poem because it was Fady who said that it’s not just the war. He has this Paris Review interview, Yehuda Amichai, when he talks about these kids throwing stones during the Intifada and he talks about them, Amichai sees them as in the register of Nazi anti-Semites. He said that even in that parallelism, there’s an inability to see why these kids are throwing stones. But that, again, speaks to what we generally call the prism of pain. For Amichai and in the Zionist imagination, the prism of pain is these hundreds of years of persecution and persistence of survival. I think Amos Oz once famously said something like, “Every Israeli looks at a Palestinian as if maybe if he squints, he might be a Nazi, and every Palestinian looks at every Israeli that squints and imagine that they’re the most recent colonizer.” There’s this way in which that history gets projected onto the present reality. Isdoud is for Fady Joudah. Fady’s family came from Isdoud which is a village which is mostly destroyed now, although there’s some remnants and the Israeli city of Ashdod is approximate to it at present. Fady is a wonderful poet and translator of Darwish and Zaqtan and many others. He’s also just a really profound and delicate thinker. He’s also a bit of a provocateur but that’s not in the poem, I mean, for me, he’s always like telling me how I’m wrong. [laughter] Bless him.
[Philip Metres reads a poem called Isdoud (for Fady Joudah)]
DN: Thank you so much for being on the show today, Phil.
PM: Thank you so much, David. You’re an incredible reader and a gracious host.
DN: We’ve been talking today to the poet, essayist, and translator, Philip Metres about his latest book, from Copper Canyon Press, Shrapnel Maps. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.