This is me, standing here before you, doing everything I can to attract your attention. That said, I was not the girl who, mere seconds ago, took off all her clothes and, despite the cold, in a trance, levitating, speaking in tongues, neck twisting uncontrollably, recited you the recommended dosage for esomeprazole. Well, okay, it was me, but as a sophisticated version of myself that you, in any case, wouldn’t appreciate. The girl you see, standing before you now, is me – or at least a more tolerable rendering. Look: here is my hand, with scarlet nails, beneath the spotlights, conveniently surrounded by a black cloak of darkness. It holds a top hat. At first, I thought of maybe pulling out a rabbit. Or a rose. But roses bore you. Other things excite you: blood, for instance, which is the same, or almost, as roses. I thought, then, in emerging from the hat myself, barely clothed in a Mexican sombrero. “Hi, I’m Delores. Or Diego. Or was it just The Ego? I don’t remember. After all,” I’d tell you, “what’s in a name?” But the idea bored me since it first crossed my mind. And besides, you’ve always got to give the audience what they want. And so here I am again, with my hand inside the hat. And it’s pulling out half a body – mine – sawed lengthwise. Didn’t expect that old trick, did you? I hope you’ll forgive me for not choosing someone to help me from the audience. You can’t have everything: the blood and the saw, rabbits and roses. Be grateful that there’s blood. Although it doesn’t ooze. It forms a ruby clot that reeks a little. Don’t complain; blood’s like cheese: the more it smells, etcetera. And here’s my heart, like a bland, red fruit. All right, enough. Before I go, I’m going to show you a new trick. Like knotting balloons into shapes – a flower, a dachshund – I’m going to mold my ribs and tendons into something like a lyre or a harp, but which almost makes no sound. Wait; I’m going to play you a little song. Technically, though, I’ll sing it a cappella. Be patient. We’re almost done. Here comes my mount: this is me, astride the crazy pony of anxiety. Hung from its mane.
Ladies and gentlemen, my honorable audience: I stand before you today not merely with the petty goal of rubbing all my talent in your noses, like the people who keep trying to potty-train their puppies, and fail; in fact, I’ve come to see you with an incredible offer: it involves a machine that, after a few arduous screeches, transforms anxiety into physical objects. There is, in any case, a catch, like the oracle, ever-oblique, proclaiming its sentence: this is a nonfigurative apparatus. For instance, you, blonde girl in the seventh row, your expression reveals what kind of alchemy you anticipate from my machine, in exchange for the tension gnawing at your insides: a hut in the shade of a banana tree against the bank of a murmuring river. (No, don’t tell me if I’m right. It doesn’t matter.) The result, however, could easily be different: a ’57 Ford Edsel, with a few minor scratches, but in mint condition otherwise. And another example: you, hypochondriac seated in the first row, on the verge of panic, clutching the seat – I know you long to transform the balloon that beats inside and squeezes at your throat into a triumphant blimp crossing a stormy sky amid bolts of fire – no, don’t get your hopes up: easier for the machine to offer you, in exchange for your evanescent symptom, a wheel of anthropomorphic cheese; with holes or without them, it’s all the same – or maybe….No, this time I can’t see clearly. Anyway. I suppose you’ll want to know, my venerable colleagues, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, how the gadget works. The mechanism is a bit old-fashioned, a thing of cogs and belts and pulleys. But don’t go thinking that it’s driven by a hamster with gym clothes, a bandanna, and futuristic shoes, running or pedaling, crazed and sweaty. Inside, you’ll see that there’s a faceless homunculus, motionless, unsettlingly calm, that will take on your features bit by bit until it has, finally, replaced you.
You Left (Caitlin Makhlouf)
You left to skate across the scabs. You left to hike around the bush. To postpone. You left to repopulate Kentucky with rabbits. You left to reconsider, to recalculate, to mask the S&M in “activism”. You left to clear your mind, to bust your ass 24/7. You left to reassess. To ascertain the concept of the “commune”. On the transnational highway of white privilege, you left to steer your social drive in a rental car –Thelma & Louise
May Alcott. “No phone reception”, “in the middle of nowhere” –with your sporadic texts in neo-Braille, you left to mince your words like meat. You left to be who you are. You left to be yourself. Who you should be, if you had been who you thought you were or thought you could be. You left to deftly pack up everything in boxes, suitcases. To trick your stomach full. You left with your bags of tricks and your organic smoke bombs. You left to find your forest fire. Toward your national park. Into your rangers’ arms.
Ripples over the skin of water. Stretch marks. And Jesus said unto his disciples: By my tattoos thou shalt know me. A wreath of thorns around the arm. “For he first heaven and the first earth were passed away”. And a cobweb of thistles on the elbow is a net where the anchor found its gauntlet: sea. The sea, “there was no more sea”: seagulls hanging over the desert. An offshore platform with no shores. What does oil dream of, fat water? He said: Feet. Wet wood. Thou shalt know me by my planks. Saint on board. A falcon on light’s back is like a child who’s sipped on vinegar. That leopard is a fig tree -bursting with flesh. Water, an arch on pulpy meat, he said, over the plank. Dreams hanging in the resin. And Jesus said: ripples under the skin of wood.
How did you first start reading poetry? Was it a discovery or an acquired taste?
Ummmm, it was actually sort of an act of rebellion. My father was pretty religious and when he lived with us, he really imposed it on me and my mom. Lots of Qur’anic poetry. God this, God that. We would wake up to him reciting it. He’d play it on cassette in the car. I was pissed because I was in high school and I could never listen to the stuff I wanted to on the radio. Plus, I mean I was young and didn’t like speaking Arabic all that much. I didn’t care about culture. I just wanted to hang out with my friends, really. My mom didn’t mind so much because she was in the Peace Corp for a while, stationed outside of Beirut. That’s where she met my father, and I think it reminded her of back there. And I mean the poetry was beautiful. He’d even make me recite it out loud sometimes, his favorite parts. So my idea of poetry was highly religious, formal, stratified and never in English. Besides like, I dunno, Robert Frost and Shakespeare I didn’t even know people still wrote poems in English until late in high school.
But I had this great English teacher in 11th grade, I know shocking… but … His name was Mr. Vaddock and he taught us about the Beat Poets. And I thought they were so cool, Ginsberg and all, writing about drugs and the city and all the things I was starting to dabble in. I knew it would totally piss my father off, if he knew I was reading crap like that. I mean I liked it and all but I think that was a major factor for me… teenage angst. And I think I was still working through some of that stuff in my first book. I really shied away from anything that could be construed as sincere in any deep way. Some parts are even irreverent… A lot of that book was still a reaction against my father. He doesn’t speak English very well so part of it was about being able to wield something my dad couldn’t command or control…
Later on in college I started getting into more of Ashbery and Philip Whalen. That’s when it got serious for me and I was like oh…. this is what language can do, can let me do.
How did you first start writing?
It was in that same English class in high school. For an extra-credit assignment we could write 3 poems in the style of the Beat Poets. I needed the extra-credit and I was kind of interested so I gave it a shot. I ended up writing, I think, like 5 or 6. Mr. Vaddock thought my poems were pretty good for being in 11th grade. He told me to keep writing and gave me a couple more books to read.
And you just kept reading and writing? Was it a natural progression? Who were your influences growing up?
I had a lot of starts and stops. Especially during and right after college. I’m pretty ADD so I’d get distracted but I’d always come back to it. For a while I became obsessed with play writing, and not your normal plays…like highly experimental, highly active stuff. But I couldn’t get any of them staged and probably for good reason. I think sometimes you have to explore other art forms, so I dabbled in a bunch of things, but even then I was always always reading poetry. Philip Whalen and Ashbery like I said, but also like Frank Stanford. I thought his stuff was wild. It had a kind of freedom but was driven by so much earnest passion. I love his work. Ted Berrigan too. June Jordan, Audre Lorde. Music too was a profound influence. Pretty sure the Beatles, The Doors, and Um Khatoum probably influenced me as much as any writer, maybe not in style necessarily but they were definitely a creative input. Also a lot of Hip-Hop. Mos-Def, The Fugees.
In terms of the question was writing a natural progression, I really think poetry is probably the expressive form that is most natural to everyone, as opposed to I don’t know, sculpture or painting. Poetry and song come pretty natural to everybody. So once I got started, it had its own kind of inherent energy that wasn’t oppressive or anything I had to be obsessive about, but I definitely felt compelled to keep writing.
You’ve mentioned writing plays, and I can definitely see that influence on your first book –it’s highly performative, and from what I’ve seen on YouTube you’re definitely a performance artist. How did you get into that?
Well in my home poetry was an oral tradition as much as a written practice, if not more so. Poetry was read aloud, sung aloud. There’s a rich tradition you know of people singing the Qur’an and different styles are praised, criticized and consumed as an art of its own. When I came to poetry, I figured if I was going to be a poet then I was going to have to perform my work. I mean that’s where half the power comes from. Use all your tools to communicate, your body, your face, your hands, and especially your voice, why cut yourself off and only use words? Why not believe in your work so much you have to live in it? And not to say you always have to be dead serious about it. Yeah so I guess in that regard I am thankful for my forced embrace of religious poetry. When I started writing I knew the power of performance, I didn’t have to be convinced. That coupled with my love of theatre really made performing my poetry a sort of a natural outgrowth. I dunno man… maybe I’m just living out my fantasy as a failed actor. Anyway its way more fun for all the kids involved if you give a performance rather than a reading… I mean we all know how boring those can be… especially when someone’s got that annoying poetry voice. Every sentence sounds like For Whom The Bell Tolls.
And how’s your composition process? Do you create your poems with a given performance in mind? Or does the final poem dictate the way it’s going to be performed? I also think that your poems tolerate a traditional, silent reading very well…
I mean sure they tolerate it but they are way better when they have my voice behind them. No doubt about that… but I dont know. I mean I write… Look, I write because people are stupid. And I’m stupid, and we need to tell ourselves things a million times in a million different ways just on the off chance that it might eventually stick you know. I think the tone of my poems have changed and I’m definitely more serious than I was before. Totally weird but I think I’m beginning to think of poetry as a bit of a sacred thing now and if I do it’s still because I think people are stupid. And sometimes you need a space to laugh at them or with them or sometimes you need a space to mourn or to think about coming to terms with a whole lot of shit… I don’t know.
But the poems are the content. Not the emotion, not the performer. No, the poems are always primary for me. The performance is the vessel but the poem is what you put in it, whether its water, or booze, or gasoline. So you can baptize people, get them wasted out of their minds or set them on fire, but it’s your poems that do it… the liquid life inside them. Ok that was lame but you get what I’m saying. I mean you could drink orange juice out of a garden hose if you had to but there are other more efficient ways, a mug, a pitcher whatever… maybe a flute glass… That’s kinda what a performance is like, The performance is just the apparatus…figuring out the best way to deliver the goods.
Getting specifically into your poetry, why do you almost always write prose poems?
The real reason? You know how Sylvia Plath read her poems… yeah I want to avoid that whole scenario…. No but honestly, I think writing in prose is way less pretentious. I feel like poets pay too much attention to arrangement at the expense of production, I mean how the poem would sound being read. Prose poems borrow from the regular cadence of human speech. It’s natural and a bit more stream of consciousness. Sure there is punctuation to give clues, but the reader can speak the poem anyway they want to, fast, slow, loud whatever. For me it’s important because you know I’ve toyed with the idea of having actors and actresses read my poems as monologues and for that they need a kind of freedom that I don’t think you get with lineation. If you have like two words per line of course everybody is going to read the poem mad slow and deliberate like a fucking funeral dirge. That just isn’t the case with prose.
Also I think prose allows me to get away with a lot more. I mean look at Bolaño’s Antwerp or anything by Charles Simic. Half the time it works because it’s in prose and you can make our own associations instead of relying on arrangement and line breaks to make it for you. I think prose makes its own sense, even when there isn’t any to be made. I like that. Makes my job easier hahaha.
Both “This Is Me” and “Globus Hystericus” share a very sarcastic tone, and are more performance pieces, with I think theatrical influences. But “You Left” is definitely a change of direction –though it reminds me of spoken word, with its alliterations and wordplay. I loved how you repeat the M, S, and K sounds, especially that line about “to mask the S&M in activism”. And I also liked the repetition of ass/reassess/ascertain, you’re basically calling this person an ass… Was this poem a watershed for you? Also, this poem is addressed to a woman…
You mean you wanna know if I’m a lesbian? ….
Yeah this poem is addressed to a woman. It’s addressed to me. And it was watershed. It was the first poem I really wrote about myself and my relationship and rejection to a lot of my upbringing. The last line “into your ranger’s arms” that’s me returning to my father actually. Sort of rejection, abandoning, acting out only to come back to something safe, to the one who sets the limits. And kinda hating that too in a way. “You Left” the title I think was key because it’s me addressing myself but also this poem I wrote after the death of my father. And before that he also left me and my mom so everything that I did in high school and as an early adult was really in response to my relationship with my dad. Calling the you in this person an asshole was as much an indictment of my dad as it was of me. So yeah, I dunno. personal shit. But the poem wasn’t to a lover per se as it was to me and really to seeing myself the first time in an honest way. Calling myself out so somehow later on in the book I can make amends.
And how about “21:1”? When you sent me your unpublished work, I was surprised to find a series of devotional poems. I googled the lines that sounded biblical to me, and I found they’re quotes from the King James’ Bible’s Book of Revelation. Did you find God? How do you go from writing performance-ey pieces to religious poetry?
Your question makes it sound like there’s this huge leap between performance and religion but there really isn’t. Both involve ritual, both involve a dialogue or at least the awareness of another individual or group of individuals that may or may not talk back. In the case of performance, it’s the audience. In the case of religion, you know it’s God, Allah, a deity or whatever. You tell jokes, scream, cry, fucking get naked and shake a stick at the audience if it will elicit a particular response. You do the same thing with God, pray a certain way, read a text, fast, sacrifice a small goat two or three times a year. It’s all the same impulse I think.
I used Revelation in the new work because there is a kind of mysticism in it, a viscerality, and a symbolism that engages me as an artist and as a seeker. I mean locusts with horse tails that breathe fire and what not, it’s pretty radical shit. But there is also such a trust and intimacy I think in that text that you could say I’m jealous of, yeah. It’s a beautiful and strange and freaking scary story. I dont want to interpret it. I just want to mine it. But I def have respect for the Bible as more than a text. I guess it has become somewhat sacred to me, even if just in an artistic sense.
You know, I dunno if a person ever finds God, that’s still up in the air. Maybe God finds them… Haha, I said that like a religious person… Have I found God or a god? No… but I’m looking for one. I think under it all my tendency toward sarcasm comes from a reverence of the truth that’s so great that if I can’t be faithful to it then I just steer clear of it all together. But with this new work I got tired of my old tricks you could say. I wanted to see what would happen if I tried on sincerity, would my head explode? Yeah kinda… but it went that way… It was the change in my poetry that ultimately led me to snoop around Christianity and Islam, not the other way around. I think of myself as like a ummmm, a private investigator or like a beat cop in gang territory, I hang around so I know the rules and lay of the land. I know what each rival gang wants and what they stand for but I don’t wear any of their colors or maybe I wear both. I dunno.
How did you get published? How do you get along with the institutional world of poetry?
Fuck the system!!! Hahaha, no ummm as far as my relationship to the institutional world of poetry I have a lot of friends and colleagues especially those coming out of the spoken word and activist communities and also some friends emmerging in the avant garde scene but a lot of what holds the institution of poetry together at least in America is bullshit nepotism. People who win prizes, get published, it’s mostly people publishing their friends I think. So publications kinda function like Twitter, curated largely through personal connections with the occasional post by a celebrity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m invested in this institution and I have my friends that have probably strong-armed my poems into print but I think a lot of the poetry world would benefit from a kind of opening up of its content and a reimagining of its audience. I say that a lot and I think it pisses a lot of editors off but whatever.
The first poem I got published was actually a special issue for Arab American poets. I’m pretty sure I was one of the few people that wasn’t writing about homeland, exile or identity. I was just goofing off, so I was really shocked when someone selected my poems. At the time I was still really into theatre and playwriting and performance art. Anyway the publication took two poems. Both were full of puns sort of like in “You Left”. You think that’s new but I’ve been doing that kind of stuff for a long time now. The new book that I’m working on now I really hope will be picked up by Fence. That would be my dream publisher at least for this project. They’re kinda hoity-toity but they publish a lot of great and fascinating avant garde work.
What have you been reading recently, and who are the poets that have inspired you lately? Who are you favorite young American poets? How do you feel about the current state of American poetry? How about the future?
Recently reading, Simone White… her book Unrest. She totally inspires me. I feel like every poem is different and I really have to work through her collections but I mean the way she composes a poem, the parataxis is so artful. Yeah I’m really into her also Don Mee Choi. Adore her and Eileen Myles. She makes me want to write a fucking long poem. I haven’t had any success with it yet but maybe it’ll be my next project. I’ve also been reading a lot of translations recently, so Anne Carson’s fragments of Sappho, Qabbani’s love poems both in English and Arabic, oh and Mike Lala’s translations of Catulus. He doesn’t have a book out but I read indvidual poems wherever they are published. He’s a young American poet who I really enjoy. Who else?? Roger Reeves, Sally Wen Mao. She’s fierce. Her first book is called Mad Honey Symposium and it was just published by Alice James. The intensity of her poems scare me which is totally awesome. I mean she’s just a beast. I think American poetry is being revitalized and is pretty unique in that because America is just a diverse and huge place, you get a ton of voices just rubbing up against each other, bumping into each other, and that is what you want in poetry. These last couple years Black American poets have just been killing it. So you see different voices and different experiences and techniques and traditions finally getting air time and being acknowledged. It’s really great to see. But at the same time that kind of diversity really prohibits I think American poets from looking outward and reading what is going on in contemporary poetry movements around the world. But nothing’s perfect. I don’t know what American poetry will look like in 20 years but I hope it digs its claws into other artistic genres, theatre, visual arts, composition. And at the same time I hope it goes the other way and digs down and searches its heart and finds a place for activism and politics. That will make poetry powerful and relevant for a whole new crowd of people.