The poet talks with Jeannie Vanasco about leaving Iraq, working around censorship, and the work she’s most excited about now.
Image by Michael Smith courtesy of Dunya Mikhail
Poet Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad in 1965. She immigrated to the United States in 1996, after her poetry landed her on Saddam Hussein’s enemies list. In 2001, the United Nations awarded her the Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing.
The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005)—Mikhail’s first poetry collection translated into English—established her as the first female Iraqi poet with a book published in the United States. It also made clear what Middle Eastern readers already knew: Mikhail is an exceptional poet. Shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize and named one of “Twenty-Five Books to Remember from 2005” by the New York Public Library, The War Works Hard was translated by Elizabeth Winslow. Winslow also translated Mikhail’s Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (New Directions 2009), which won the 2010 Arab American Book Award.
Mikhail’s latest collection is The Iraqi Nights (New Directions, 2014), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid. Mikhail lives in Michigan and works as an Arabic instructor at Oakland University.
Over email, we discussed censorship, fables, and the second-language as second-life.
—Jeannie Vanasco for Guernica
Guernica: When did you know you wanted to write, or when did you consider yourself a writer?
Dunya Mikhail: Well, the first time I was recognized for my writing, or for anything, was in secondary school in Baghdad. I was awarded “The Best Reader Award” from the school librarian. The award was a handwritten certificate with a handmade flower glued to it. I also remember that in my Arabic literature class, my teacher would ask me to read my compositions in front of school on Thursday morning before the Iraqi flag. I began writing poems as gifts for my friends on their birthdays.
The character I had in mind, when I wrote this seven-section poem, was my niece in Baghdad who was kidnapped by masked men, leaving her mother’s hand stretched after her.
But my first experience with literature started on the roof of our house when I was in elementary school. During the hot summers we, like other Baghdadi families, slept on our roof. There my grandmother told me fables. I longed for a book of those fables because I wanted to read and reread them, and I wanted to see their pictures. She said those were only tales told from generation to generation. So one morning, awoken by the strong sun, I went downstairs to my notebook. I wrote those fables my own way and I illustrated them.
Guernica: Your poems often feel part-fable, part-myth. In The Iraqi Nights, Ishtar—the goddess of fertility, sexuality, war, and love—plays a huge role. I remember her from Gilgamesh, except there she throws tantrums and leads men to their deaths. In your version, men drag her into the underworld where she writes poetry. What inspired your retelling?
As a writer, I faced a great challenge: how to be understood by the true readers and not by the censors.
Dunya Mikhail: The character I had in mind, when I wrote this seven-section poem, was my niece in Baghdad who was kidnapped by masked men, leaving her mother’s hand stretched after her. She’s not found yet.
In The Iraqi Nights, Ishtar is a kidnapped woman who, like Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights, tells poems as witness of her life before death; poetry is probably the life she lived before death.
In Arabic, the word “shi’r” (poetry) is related in root to the word “shi’oor” (feeling) but how to turn “shi’oor” into “shi’r” is the main task of the poet.
Gender, however, was not in mind while writing this book, but now I am wondering: Why is woman always depicted as the one behind sin and evil?
Guernica: Do your retellings make it any easier to write about difficult personal subjects, such as your niece? Did censorship in Iraq influence such poetic choices?
Dunya Mikhail: It’s not easy to write about personal issues, as craft requires that you distance yourself from them to a certain point. In Arabic, the word “shi’r” (poetry) is related in root to the word “shi’oor” (feeling) but how to turn “shi’oor” into “shi’r” is the main task of the poet. When you catch a fish, there’s a moment of tension the fish lives just before it gets caught. That’s the moment of poetry.
When I was in Iraq, censorship was our annoying reader hidden behind the true good readers. Therefore, as a writer, I faced a great challenge: how to be understood by the true readers and not by the censors. The solution was to add more layers of meanings to cover the core meaning, making a sort of onion-poem. That probably was good for my poetry, but my poems were still described as “subversive” and questioned. Poetry was worth it for someone like me to leave the country.
Guernica: How has your writing process changed since moving to the United States?
Dunya Mikhail: In America, some of my metaphors returned to being their real things. Here, I don’t need to think of censors as second readers; instead, I need to think of English as a second language, a second life of my poem.
I found the notes powerful, and felt strangely blessed to have an editor (instead of a censor).
Guernica: Do you ever write poetry in English?
Dunya Mikhail: I always try a second life with my poems. After writing from right to left I try them from left to right. But I usually prefer a native speaker of English to work on them. The current (unpublished) poems, however, seem to be born bilingually for some reason. Some phrases come in English first due to their cultural connotations. Just as home is flashed through exile, a poem sometimes is born in the tip of another tongue.
Guernica: How did your relationship with New Directions come about?
Dunya Mikhail: New Directions is among few publishers that care about translated and innovative literature. Elizabeth Winslow was studying Arabic under professor Saadi Simawe who recommended my poetry for translation. Liz translated my manuscript The War Works Hard with the help of Dr. Simawe. She submitted it for a PEN translation grant and won. American writer Eliot Weinberger discovered my voice, and Barbara Epler decided to make it available for American readers. I had a reading in New York right after the PEN award. Barbara attended and gave me great encouragement. She said, “We get to publish this poetry!” Isn’t that the dream of any poet? Then, poet Jeffrey Yang put editing notes on the manuscript. I found the notes powerful, and felt strangely blessed to have an editor (instead of a censor). I am really lucky to know the people at New Directions. They are the best.
Guernica: What challenges do you think Kareem James Abu-Zeid faced in translating The Iraqi Nights?
Dunya Mikhail: I use the adverb powerfully in Arabic through markers (called tanwiin), sometimes in an unfamiliar way in order to avoid “like” (I hate similes in poetry), but that’s hard to do in English. I believe Kareem did a great job. We had hours of Skyping, crossing back and forth between the two languages.
Guernica: May I ask what you’re writing at the moment?
Dunya Mikhail: Writing bilingually these days, I just finished a poem that I started when I saw ISIS in Iraq destroying graves in Nineveh and I felt concerned about my grandmother’s grave. Of course I felt frustrated about the other sites they destroyed, such as the winged bulls and other marks of civilization. I also finished a poem after watching the Memory Museum that was just opened in New York where the two towers used to stand. And other new poems that I feel excited about as I usually feel towards my newest work.
Jeannie Vanasco is a 2014 Emerging Poets Fellow at Poets House and a 2014 recipient of the Amy Award from Poets & Writers. She currently is writing a book involving necronyms, psychosis, and an artificial eye. An excerpted version is forthcoming in the Believer.