There is an established history of poets who suffered from mental illness, so some link between poetry and mental health follows. Whether writing about it helps relieve the problem, or whether it contributes to the work itself, is up for debate. This history (in no particular order) includes Sylvia Plath, who took her own life aged only 30, after producing an astonishing body of work, and Anne Sexton, another so-called Confessional poet, took her own life aged 46. John Clare, a major Romantic poet, ended his days in a mental asylum; Various diagnoses have been suggested, including Bi-polar disorder, because he had lucid days where he could write poems like the sonnet ‘I Am’, which articulates his profound despair, and days when he couldn’t remember why he was in the asylum at all and was unsure who he was. Edgar Allan Poe mentions suicidal thoughts in his letters, and was a depressive, possible suffering from Bi-Polar disorder. Like Poe, Dylan Thomas had an alcohol problem relating to depression. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose vocation of becoming a Jesuit priest caused him anguish because it did not suit his temperament, wrote the ‘terrible sonnets’ to try to process his profound depression). Emily Dickinson was a recluse and suffered from mood swings. Charlotte Mew, one of the female poets writing about the First World War, killed herself after suffering from depression. Edward Thomas who suffered from depression and would go for long walks to try and shake it off. He was killed in the First World War, having signed up, despite his age meaning he escaped conscription, out of a strong sense of duty. Ezra Pound spent 13 years in an asylum, after being diagnosed with possible schizophrenia and narcissistic personality disorder.
This list is not exhaustive, but it does serve as useful examples of the connection between poets and mental health issues. I don’t buy into the notion that poets are extra-special sensitive souls, but I do think writing truthfully about mental health issues is of vital importance. Writing is often useful therapy and the Lapidus association, for example, promotes well-being through writing workshops. Most people have known times where the balance of their minds was affected, for example, as a result of bereavement, stress, trauma and so on.
I myself have had bouts of depression and anxiety, and have been medicated three times at periods of difficulty, all work-related, but have vowed to reject further medication because it stops me writing, essentially numbing my brain. Instead, I find it more useful to write my way through these periods. I have learned to recognise the signs I am going downhill, and know what steps to take to avert it. Though these don’t work for everyone, I will include them here as suggestions: periods outside every day, even if just a short walk or sitting on a bench and being quiet; company – seeing friends really helps; reading, especially poetry or a novel I am very familiar with, so there are no nasty surprises; gentle exercise boosts serotonin levels; making art and working in my junk journals, or painting and sketching; music, both playing it and listening to it – when playing the piano, all thoughts except the difficult task of reading the music and putting my fingers in the right places, vanish; singing; spending time with animals or small children. Writing poetry through tough times is of vital importance to me. I wrote my way through several terrible bereavements, having lost both much-loved parents in my early twenties, and several close friends since, poems demanded to be written, and helped me crystallise and distance overwhelming emotions. Strange how formal poetry can bind up a wound and stop the blood flow, and I am thankful for it.
I’ve recently contributed poems to an anthology of poems about mental health, Please Hear What I’m Not Saying, edited by Isabelle Kenyon (2018), which I have written about on my blog, and as a result I was asked to speak at Hearth, an intimate festival at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, where I read many of my own poems on this topic, as well as having a Q&A with the audience. As a result of the feedback received, I have been invited back to lead a panel event for Gladfest 2019. On the panel with me is Angi Holden, whose pamphlet Spools of Thread (Mother’s Milk Books 2018, includes moving poems about bereavement and disability, and Deborah Alma, otherwise known as The Emergency Poet, because for around five years, she has been touring a range of venues in her vintage ambulance, dispensing poetry on prescription, drawing on her passion for poetry and her past experience in counselling. Deborah Alma is a fine poet in her own right, and is published by The Emma Press and Nine Arches. With her partner, the poet James Sheard, is opening the world’s first Poetry Pharmacy, in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, where she plans to give consultations as she did in her ambulance, but also run it as a shop, a workshop facility and café.
Because of the focus of examinations and anxiety from teachers about exam results, a generation or more has had poetry tainted for them by the wrong sort of teaching, where students are made to feel poetry is hard, has ‘hidden meanings’ and is based on literary devices, not emotions. Poetry, like music, is for everyone and is a marvellous solace at times of sadness. Both writing it and reading it can be a coping mechanism.
I will leave you with one of my own poems, first published in I Sing of Bricks (Salt 2011), one of a series of elegies I wrote after the death of my close friend, the poet Matt Simpson:
I had not been out of Taos for more than three months, since I arrived in mid-December.
Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” was on the radio as I drove down through the canyon along the Rio Grande on my way to Santa Fe. I had not had access to The News Hour, which I have often watched regularly, and in Taos had not been following other news sources as closely as I usually do; thus it all seemed rather fresh. The U.S. Senate shafted so-called Green legislation. Oklahoma settled a legal case against Purdue Pharma for the company’s role in creating opioid addiction. There was a long interview with a Palestinian woman on Israeli politics and long-term effects of occupation. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called recent cyclones in Mozambique, killing hundreds, yet one more warning of the devasting effects of climate change. A long interview with a reporter in New Zealand focused on the recent mosque shootings, comparing cultural conditions there in New Zealand to those here in the United States.
Portland is nearly at sea-level, about 7,000 feet lower than Taos. Upon landing my lungs felt the thicker air. I arrived about midnight, got a rental car (Nissan Rogue), drove about halfway from the airport to the city center, spotted a Starbucks, parked on a nearby street, and slept in car. It was chilly, not comfortable, but I got several hours of sleep before waking at dawn and going to Starbucks for my fix of caffeine. With the voices of Ernestine Anderson and Mose Allison in background, I read and responded to e-mail, continued with Amitav Ghosh’s fine, provocative book The Great Derangement (an examination of the effects of climate change and the novel’s capacity to deal with such cataclysmic phenomena), and reread parts of a manuscript I’m polishing. As it became lighter and the fog began to lift, I saw outside, one by one and in small clusters, men and women pass by, tired and haggard, pushing grocery carts with all their belongings, all no doubt with stories of how they got to this point. Sirens wailed, coming closer, then stopped. EMT men came in to assist someone in the coffee shop who apparently had fainted or passed out. One older man, who used a walker and seemed mentally unstable, got belligerent with one of the EMT men who gently guided him outside: “Now settle down. There’s no need to get upset. I’m not going to do anything to hurt you. I don’t want to have to haul you in today.”
I began to take in the city’s contours and mood as I headed toward the city center on Route 84. The geography of Portland was familiar. My earliest memories of the place are from when I came down from Washington State to work on George McGovern’s primary campaign in 1972. I then came down to see my sister when she lived here, then my daughter while she was at Reed College.
I checked into the Paramount Hotel just after noon, and caught a nap, with plans to pick up Jill Levine at the airport and go to dinner with her. She had identified a Vietnamese restaurant, HEM, in the northwest part of the city. Jill is one of those rare, truly accomplished people who loves to have fun, yet has always worked hard and gotten her work done. She’s been a prodigious translator of important Boom and post-Boom Latin American literature, including works by Puig, Borges, Cabrera Infante, Sarduy, Donoso, and now Silvina Ocampo. And she’s written a superb book on translation (The Subversive Scribe) as well as a biography of Manuel Puig. Our friendship has deepened and grown over the years. We met in Seattle when we were both at the University of Washington in the 80s (during the Grunge heyday and the growth of Microsoft). Since then we’ve rendezvoused in Paris, in D.C., on the Yucatan, in Montreal, in NYC, in Boston, back in Seattle, in Brussels, in the San Juan Islands, and now in Portland. Conferences have often served as a pretext for seeing one another. She’s also hosted me chez Levine at Santa Barbara, where we treated our time rather like a writers’ residence. I have Jill to thank for suggesting me to Zach Rogow for this panel on translation at American Writers and Writing Programs conference, my AWP debut.
On the way to go and meet Jill, I set out across the plaza in front of the hotel. Clumps of people were congregating on one side of the plaza where lively pop music blared from speakers. I followed the music, finding myself approaching what I determined was mealtime put on by some charitable group for homeless people. I took in the scene. A lot of those gathered to get a meal were young, likely in their twenties and thirties, among them young mothers with infants. It was a community of sorts. People mingled and seemed to know one another. I thought of my luxurious hotel room overlooking the plaza. Two hundred and fifty bucks a night. The inequity was jarring, unsettling. Such contrasts are not always so sharp and apparent, though they are always there, often buried or hidden from view, allowing one to live without a sharp pricking of the conscience.
Our panel—“Translators are the Unacknowledged Ambassadors of the World”—was in the first round of sessions, at 9:00 in the morning. The advertised shuttle didn’t arrive in time, so we got an Uber whose friendly driver Charles or Bob or Bill or something gave us more information than we wanted or needed about Portland weather and sites, as we crossed the Morrison St. Bridge across the Willamette to the Convention Center. Lines for registration snaked endlessly through the building (one to two hour waits we were told), so we went directly to our panel.
And the fourth member of our quartet (in addition to me, Jill, and Zack) was the talented Iranian American performance artist/translator, Nilofar Talebi.
I’d been to many conferences throughout the course of my career, so am well acquainted with key defining elements of the genre: Panels, name tags, book exhibits, meetings of smaller subgroups or caucuses, stars & wanna be’s, schmoozing, hustlers and those being hustled, and at times genuine, warm conversations. I’ve fantasized, at times, of crashing a conference in a field about which I knew next to nothing—meetings of entomologists, or psychiatrists, or physicists, or cardiologists—to see whether I could navigate my way around, simply based on my knowledge of invariable core conventions and protocols.
Each conference has its own feel. AWP seemed open and democratic; people seemed relaxed and friendly. First names on name tags were large, in caps while affiliations were noted below names, in a smaller type size. Whitmanian in spirit (“I am large, I contain multitudes”), AWP 19 boasted around 15,000 attendees, 561 panels, 2000 presenters, and 800 exhibitors. There were panels on a wide-range of genres: playwriting, flash fiction, slam poetry, autobiography/memoir, creative non-fiction, graphic novels, biography and historical fiction, young adult fiction, fantasy fiction, translation, transgender nonfiction, hybrid forms, and new global travel writing.
Inclusion and diversity were basic principles informing the conference, with panels and events focusing on various underrepresented or marginalized voices and identities: “We’re Here and We’re Queer: LGBTQ Women Tell Their Stories,” New American working class writing, “New Poets of Native Nations,” undocumented poets, women poets of Alaska, “Invisible Disabilities, Necessary Supports,” black women writers, Arab American writers, Armenian American writers transgender writers, Jewish women writers, the Asian Diaspora, Asian American literature, immigrant and refugee voices, “Latinx and Latin American Writers in the U.S.”
There were panels on a wide-range of issues and topics: “Writing About and Around Music,” “Poetry and Visual Art,” “Writing the Transcendent,” “Eco-Fabulism Five Years Later,” “Fat and Queer,” ”The Art of Trauma,” Chronic Illness and the Writer, Poetry of Protest, “Unspoken Intimacies: On Male Friendship, Romance, and Everything in Between,” small town fiction, “Extreme Exposure: Going Public with Deeply Personal Stories,” “Vulnerability as a Radical Act,” “The Sense of an Ending: Writers Over 60 Discuss Death,” “How We Need Another Soul to Cling to: Writing Love Poems in Difficult Times,” “Writing about Lost Homelands,” “The Erotics of Queer and Of-Color Poetry.”
There were panels devoted to publications celebrating anniversaries and tributes to writers: Lucia Berlin, Tom Sleigh, Wanda Coleman, Floyd Skloot, Monica A. Hand, Carl Phillips, Garrett Hongo, Peter Elbow, Lucie Brock-Broido, Margaret Burroughs, Charles Simic (to celebrate his 80th b-day), Ursula LeGuin (a Portland resident who died this past year). Somehow, for me at least, the spirit of W.S. Merwin inhabited the event.
There were “How To” or nuts and bolts panels devoted to practical matters such as: Dealing with editors and publishers, “Be your own Agent,” “Literary Agents 101,” “How to Win a Writing Fellowship,” “Change This, Not That: The Art of Revising,” “Page meets Stage,” “Give a Good Reading,” websites and use of social media, “Writing Diverse vs. Token Characters,” “Plotting the Path to a Writing Career,” “Better Later? Success and the Late Blooming Woman Author,” how to compose an anthology, challenges faced by women editors, writing and solo parenting, “What Touring Writers Need to Know,” “Writing for Video Games,” “Writing Medicine,” “The Art of the Book Review,” “Building Support for Writers Conferences and Book Festivals,” “Adapting LIterary Works for Film and TV,” how to plot, “How a Hiring Committee Reads,” “The Art of the Interview,” and “Best Practices for Submitting an AWP Panel Proposal.”
A number of panels focused on pedagogy and/or teaching environments: Alternative ways of doing workshops, balancing obligations to students and your own writing, teaching creative writing on-line, teaching creative writing in community colleges, “Evaluation in the Creative Writing Classroom,” “Teaching the 21st Century Poetry of Witness,” summer writing programs for high school students, and meetings of creative writing program directors.
In addition to these forums at the convention, there were dozens of off-site events—readings and such—at venues around the city.
I’ve left a lot out here. Still, you get the idea. There was something for everyone.
One of the conference’s greatest attractions was the massive, extensive book exhibit. Negotiating the maze-like exhibit was bewildering. I returned at least four times during the conference, my aim being at least to pass by every booth. Jill and I first stopped by Dorothy: A Publishing Project, which recently brought out (in a splendid edition) her translation (with Aviva Kana) of Christina Revera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome. We met Marty and Danielle Riker who have spearheaded this venture and perused displays of their fine offerings. I then wandered off on my own to visit booths of a host of other small presses and literary journals. A number of the presses (Archipelago, Coffee House, Red Hen, Calyx, and others) I’d heard of before. Many (Slant, Nightboat Books, Dzanc, Nomad, Switchback Books, Ninebark, and others) were new to me. I was especially pleased to come upon A Taos Press and meet women representing the press. I’ll keep an eye out for readings of their featured poets here in Taos, and get to know the press better.
I stopped by The Apollo Press booth and picked up a copy of Bewildered, a translation of Ibn Al-Arabi’s poetry by Michael A. Sells, and (since I would get a deal of two books for $25) a copy of Etel Adnan’s amazing post-modern poem The Arab Apocalypse which has long intrigued me but which I’ve not read closely. I was pleased to see that the press is still going. I’d heard that Simone Fattal, Etel Adnan’s companion, used to run the operation out of her garage, in Sausalito or Tiburon. And at the Grove booth I picked up a copy of G. Willow Knight’s Alif the Unseen which has been on my reading list for a while.
There were hundreds of literary journals with booths as well, some familiar and established such as The Massachusetts Review, The Believer, McSweeney’s, Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The North Atlantic Review (“Didn’t you publish Henry James?” I asked their booth representative), and others I’d not heard of before (Slippery Elm, Barnstorm, Ninth Letter, Carve, Isthmus, Equinox, Third Coast, Homonym, Glass Mountain, Cirque, Exit 7, Always Crashing). In a lot of cases, it was hard to tell what distinguished particular journals, or what kinds of work they might be interested in. Others were more specialized, with more clearly delineated emphases, such as Eoagh that foregrounds “the writing of experimental women, trans, feminist, transfeminist, POC, anti-racist, and LGBT/queer authors,” The Bare Life Review: A Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature, and Big Fiction, based in Seattle, that “provides a home for the novelette, that long form fiction that needs more breath than a short story. We are also a home for essays, those experiments of curiosity and self-awareness that examine the lies that we believe in, consciously or not.”
I stopped and had conversations with a few editors, just to get a sense of what they were doing and how they made choices. I began my conversation with Jared, the young man at the Black Sun Lit booth, by asking him how much he knew about the Black Sun tradition. We talked a bit about Harry Crosby (“Have you read his poetry?” Jared asked me. “It’s pretty bad.”) and ways in which the original Black Sun Press was an inspiration for him. He clearly believed in what he was doing and sacrificed a lot (as a grad student) to keep the operation going. I tried to get a sense of what he’s looking for as an editor. He had difficulty articulating his criteria. You more or less know quality when you read it. The website provides this statement: “We strive to publish works directed toward a few discerning readers who are eager for a certain breed of literature that does not need to justify itself through the concepts of utility or morality. While we care deeply about our audience, we would like our contributors to be bold and less concerned with their potential public.”
Likewise I paused at The Tahoma Literary Review because of its name. I asked the woman at the booth (Yi Shun Lai) where the journal was based. Washington State University, she said. Not Tacoma or around Mt. Rainier? I responded. Was I a writer? she asked. I write, I said, but I am not sure I have anything you’d be interested in. Let me be the judge of that! She said, passionate about the journal and eager to promote it. We pay our writers!
I stopped by and talked with folks at Cimarron Review where I published my first story, “Crossing to Abbassiya,” when it was edited by Gordon Weaver. The story later was picked up and republished in Sudden Fiction, and has enjoyed a life in Hungarian and Arabic. And I stopped at the booth of Rain Taxi, which I’d contributed to a decade or so ago, delighted to see it still in operation. I recognized the name “Eric Lorberer” on the name tag of the badge worn by the person at the booth. We’d corresponded about pieces I’d written. I introduced myself, chatted a bit, and picked up a copy of the most recent issue. At other booths I picked up copies of Women’s Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, The American Poetry Review, and The Writer.
Dozens of writing programs had booths advertising and promoting their programs. Conferences (Longleaf) and writers’ retreats were represented as well. One new interesting writers’ residence is Zion Canyon MESA in Utah. Its founders energetically and enthusiastically spoke about the venture. At the PEN International booth, I picked up three postcards, each devoted to the case of writers who have been arrested, jailed, or killed because of their pursuit of truth and justice: Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian writer and filmmaker detained by Russian authorities in native Crimea in May 2014; Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, investigative journalists working in Myanmar, arrested and imprisoned Dec 12, 2017, no doubt for stories of human rights violations they were working on; and Jamal Khashoggi, murdered at Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul October 2, 2018. I’ve often thought that I’d like to find ways, besides financial support, to be involved with PEN.
Other booths spotlighted more novel ways of producing, disseminating and promoting literature that involved passersby and connected literature to broader communities. One booth had a large piece of paper and pen for you to add (Exquisite Corpse fashion) lines to an on-going poem. “Get Lit: Words Ignite” describes its mission: “Common Core-aligned curriculum pairs class poetry with original spoken word responses to empower and embolden students’ expression, affect [sic] change and strengthen social-emotional skills.” Broadsided Press is “a grassroots-distributed, eco-minded venture in publishing” designed to get writers’ work “on your” streets. “’Vectors’ post the broadsides on office doors, coffee shop notice boards, bathroom stalls, etc., thereby Vectorizing their towns.” And, along these lines, this year the AWP sponsored efforts to collect journals to use as gifts for participants in free workshops put on by Write Around Portland (now in its 20th year of operation), conducted in hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, affordable housing buildings, senior centers, and other sites located throughout the Portland metro area. The organization, according to its website, “is committed to understanding and changing historical legacies of inequity and patterns of oppression, especially as applied to communities of color.” Elsewhere on the site we read: “In any life, especially one lived in poverty or isolation, there is a vital need for art, community and joy.”
Each visitor would have his or her own book fair experience. Mine was shaped by my interests, background, tastes, and whims. The overall impression of the exhibit was of a thriving, vibrant, youthful literary scene. The sheer quantity of publishing venues was dazzling, exciting for the many young writers no doubt eager to see their work appear in print. (I recall the thrill of being published for the first time; now it takes more to produce the same kind of high.) Yet, what of the works’ quality? How could I ever possibly sift through all of these books and journals to see if anything stood out? And outside of small bubbles of interest, what was the audience for these journals? What was the cultural effect of this production? So what if my story or poem or essay is published in—say—The Red Willow Review or Platypus or some other obscure (or imaginary) journal? What difference will it make? How much will it transform my life? I could always add it to my already crowded c.v. Perhaps there is intrinsic value in the production itself. When I shared some of these musings with my long-time friend, colleague, and correspondent Michael Beard, he wrote back:
[T]he description of an enormous book exhibit really gets to me. And so does your question about the percentage of books worth reading. This haunts me. How many more books come out than, say, in the 19th century? Mathematics suggests that there should be many times more masterpieces. Certainly the percentage of masterpieces was greater in the 19th century, but perhaps the people who shape the genres are always going to have more creative energy. And maybe there are masterpieces out there of the Charterhouse of Parma level that we’re just not aware of.
A constant frame of reference for me is a marvelous course in Berkeley on the 18th century. A central theme was Pope’s Dunciad and his desperate anxiety about the explosion of books which characterized his historical moment — and how apocalyptically dismal they were. Of course in his case it was snobbery, but still. It’s a variant of something a teacher once said in an undergraduate course, years ago, that the population of Palo Alto and 5th-century Athens was about the same. So where were our Plato, Sophocles, etc. etc.? Are we surrounded by Thomas Grey’s mute inglorious Miltons?
I took Friday morning off and worked on things at the Starbucks across the street from the hotel. Around noon I headed off, by foot, for the Convention Center. It was a warm, sunny day. “Don’t you ever . . . don’t you ever push me like that again!” A woman’s voice boomed from across the street. I looked over and saw a woman alone, apparently yelling at an imaginary interlocutor. Soon she repeated her outburst.
A number of displaced citizens had set up temporary residence on the downtown side of the Burnside Bridge. Cardboard structures lined the sidewalk and pieces of laundry were hanging out to dry.
There was a lot of construction on the east side of the river. Men in hard hats wielded drills and hammers. Cranes hauled up plates of glass to place in empty spaces along walls. Everyone was working according to others’ plans, exchanging their labor for a check. *
I missed Colson Whitehead’s keynote speech on Friday evening. I’ve been told I should read his novel Underground Railroad, but haven’t yet gotten around to it. Plans had been made for dinner at Kachka, a Russian restaurant, where Jill and I joined her friend Leslie Lawrence (The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines) and Jeanne Heuving (Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics), whom we’d both known from Seattle days, and her charming husband James. We ordered and shared portions of beet pkhali rolls, chicken liver mousse, various kinds of dumplings, pan roasted trout, and golubtsi (“mama luba’s sweet and sour cabbage rolls, but with pork because everything is better with pork”).
At some point during the meal I turned around and spotted a man who looked very much like my MTSU colleague Gaylord Brewer, a poet (Feral Condition, Negative Capability Press). I made mental note to write and tell Gaylord that I saw his doppelganger in Portland. The young woman sitting next to the man I took to be Gaylord’s doppelganger noticed my stare and drew the man’s attention to me. Then it was we recognized one another. I stood up, went over to his table to hug and greet him. He chastised me for not telling him I’d be at AWP and apologized for not getting to my panel. (It was early and registration lines were long.) Later our waitress (a student at Portland State doing grad work in psychology) told me that the man at the table over there had told her I’d pick up his tab. Ah, Gaylord!
No trip to Portland is complete without a visit to Powell’s Bookstore on Burnside between 9th and 10th, six or seven blocks from our hotel. Rather than attending the conference, Jill and I walked over there on a sunny Saturday morning. The place was teaming with shoppers and browsers. Rooms set aside for Horror, Fantasy, Detective, and Graphic Novels were especially abuzz. I had in mind two books to buy at Powell’s—James Purdy’s Collected Stories and John Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems. They had the Purdy volume (with a marvelous introduction by John Waters), but not Wieners which they said I’d have to order on-line. Perusing shelves of small press publications, I found a fairly obscure issue of Botteghe Oscure, produced in Paris in the 50s by Princess Marguerite Caetani, with a story by Alfred Chester (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel”), alongside works by Andre Malraux, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elizabeth Hardwick, W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and Theodore Roethke. It’s now on my shelf along with other (sometimes rare) works by Chester—yet another reminder of that book on Chester beckoning me to write it.
We then drove up Burnside Dr. in the rented Rogue, winding through thick stands of moss-covered evergreen. The destination I had in mind was Pittock Mansion which afforded a marvelous view of city—downtown out toward Mt. Hood in the east, and north across the Columbia River to Washington State. I had very dim memories (perhaps because I’d been some kind of altered condition) of visiting the place at night while I was working on the McGovern campaign. Young, nubile girls dressed in white gowns were posing for photos with blossoms and Mt. Hood in the background.
Judy, a very friendly Portland native we’d sat beside one day on the tram (or streetcar or trolley) from the Convention Center back downtown, had spread out an array of things we could do in Portland. First and foremost, there was the Rose Festival in May. And there was the Gorge to the east and the ocean to the west. Multnomah Falls (along the gorge) she said had become so popular that it admitted only a limited number of visitors each day, and the beaches would be crowded because it was spring break. I hadn’t seen the Pacific Ocean for several years, so decided to head out to a favorite spot, Canon Beach. Everyone who wasn’t at Powell’s was at the beach, it seemed. We stopped for food and a short walk on the beach. Signs with tsunami warnings were posted prolifically and prominently with descriptions of possible devastation and maps of routes to higher ground, several hundred feet above sea level, safe from the ravages of the tsunami. Crowds of people, blithe and unaffected by warnings, played on the beach, repressing images of large-scale catastrophe. We turned around and headed back to the city in the draining light.
On Sunday, after the conference, I drove down to Lafayette, Oregon—about 30 miles south of Portland, near McMinnville—to see my sister’s wife Martha. It was the first time since my sister’s death this past November that I’d seen Martha. (I had been in Morocco at the time of my sister’s memorial service.) As I drove down Pacific Highway 99, past nut orchards and vineyards, I recalled trips I had made with Dianne on the same route, taking her to chemo treatments in Portland, when I came out for wedding ceremonies exactly two years ago. Then, as now, daffodil, plum, and cherries were in bloom. A presence—my sister’s—was missing in Martha’s home. Darth, Martha’s little bulldog, and Mouse, Dianne’s cat, moved about the space as though all was fine and right. *
I scheduled my return flight to Santa Fe to give me time to meet Omar el-Akkad for lunch in Portland on my last day. Omar had first reached out to me because of his interest in A Banquet for Seaweed, a novel that I’ve been translating from Arabic with my friend and colleague Osama Esber. Then, a copy of his debut novel American War arrived in the mail just after its publication by Random House. I was busy at the time and it took me several months to read it and respond to him:
Let me begin by congratulating you on such an amazing achievement. There are so many things I like about your novel. You have a fine ear for the American idiom, a solid understanding of southern geography and culture, and a remarkable ability to create strong characters and scenes. Sarat is especially compelling. Her development into adolescence in Camp Patience (aptly named) is poignant. One of my favorite scenes is when she takes the dare and wades into the foul, mucky water of Emerald Creek, becoming completely covered with filth. The portrayal of the refugee camp is vivid and realistic. Scenes of violence (the massacre in the camp, then torture) are graphic. And I like how the narrative circles back in the end to introduce us to Sarat’s nephew Benjamin who becomes the repository of his aunt’s stories, and a narrator in his own right.
You have written a novel truly in the American grain, singularly distinctive, exposing central political and cultural rifts in our body politic. Virtually all Arab American writers draw realistic narratives, often based on their own life stories, often involving transnational movements from the Middle East to the U.S., adjustments, and tensions. You go beyond that to create a wholly imaginative work responding squarely to central issues we face here in the U.S. About the only trace of the Middle East is the clever reference to the Bouazizi Empire. Finally, decades in the future, after a series of uprisings and suppressed protests, people have overcome tyranny! (Wouldn’t THAT be nice?!)
We met at The Picnic House on Salmon Street. Omar had just gotten back from a week of talks and readings in Rochester, NY where—he told me—they have a very lively literary culture, with book clubs at libraries, schools, and bookstores. His novel has gotten a lot of good press, often placed within the increasingly popular “cli-fi” genre and seen as speaking to pressing concerns in the Age of Trump. He said that he sought simply to relocate massive disruptions already happening around the world onto the U.S. map. Noting that English was the stronger language for both of us, we talked about our respective movements—between the Middle East and here, his book, its reception, and its publication in Arabic translation.
“We do not respond well to massive movements of people,” he said. What happens to us when the very places to which we attach memory VANISH? he mused. I told him about seeing tsunami warnings in and around Canon Beach and the possibilities of a huge seismic event in Northwest Oregon that likely would severely affect Portland. Did he live on high ground? He said his thoughts about the future and its grim challenges ahead of us had become so much more real since he recently became a father.
Omar went on to talk about his present work. “Do you ever have points when you wonder what you are doing, when you lose faith in your work?” he asked. I told him that almost any worthwhile project was accompanied by at least one moment of crisis. And once we realize that when we do find ourselves at a point of crisis, we at least know that it is normal. While working on the translation, I told him, I frequently felt that I didn’t have the skills needed to do the work or wondered whether the project itself (Waleema) was worth all the time I was devoting to it. What we must do is persevere—get up every morning and push ahead with our work, regardless of how we may feel about it at the moment. There is always revision.
We traded book recommendations. Mine to him centered on Egypt: my friend Brian Kiteley’s novel I Know Many Songs But Cannot Sing, set in Cairo in the 90s on the last day of Ramadan, Layl al-Qadr, as well as Being Abbas el Abbad a post-modern novel Club by the young Egyptian writer Ahmed Alaidy inspired by Fight. He recommended Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic, which I’ve already checked out of the Taos Library. We left committed to doing what we could to help one another, with the idea of proposing a panel for next year’s AWP—“Writing East/Writing West.”
I’m now back in Taos. The mountains, magical, still capped with snow, preside over all, the pueblo cradled at their feet. It is getting warmer with temperatures ranging from low thirties at night to low sixties during the day, a relief after a cold and snowy winter. It is beautiful but not quite paradise. The Siamese cat meows all day and all night, interrupting sleep and breaking the peace. The fish pond filter needs repair. Adjoining property, it seems, has been sold. We wonder what will be done with the land and how it will affect us. Again and always, I wonder what I should be doing at this point in my life. Lines from a poem by Tom Clark swirl about in my mind:
No es poco pero tampoco es suficiente porque, al final, no hay respuesta para la pregunta que se queda en el aire: ¿cómo pudo aquella gente ver aquel terror, experimentarlo en su carne y no volverse loca? Primo Levi se suicidó igual que Tadeusz Borowski (su equivalente polaco), mil años después de Auschwitz. Y la tendencia es pensar que lo normal es eso, no soportar la mala conciencia por haber sobrevivido, las imágenes tormentosas que quedan en la cabeza, que lo normal es descerrajarse la cabeza.
Si alguien reconoce esa inquietud, que busque ‘El hombre en busca de sentido’ (editado en España por primera vez en 1991), un libro menos conocido que es a la vez ensayo de psicoanálisis, libro de testimonio y, a su manera, himno vitalista.
El caso es interesante: Viktor Frankl era un judío laico y ‘bien’ (1936) que creció en la Viena de Freud. Estudió Psiquiatría y Neurología, se acercó y después se alejó al inevitable Sigmund, tuvo éxito en su oficio y logró conservar su trabajo hasta una fecha increíblemente tardía para Austria: 1942. Después, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering y Turkheim donde, entre otras cosas, hizo terapia con sus compañeros de calvario. Salió de tres años de internamiento más o menos de una pieza y escribió uno de los primeros libros testimoniales sobre los campos de concentración.
Frankl fue el primero en hablar de los capos, los judíos colaboracionistas que prosperaron en los campos de concentración. También fue el primero en hablar de la presión emocional de sus víctimas: “Es muy fácil para el que no ha estado nunca en un campo de concentración hacerse una idea equivocada de la vida en él, idea en la que piedad y simpatía aparecen mezcladas, sobre todo al no conocer prácticamente nada de la dura lucha por la existencia que precisamente en los campos más pequeños se libraba entre los prisioneros, del combate inexorable por el pan de cada día y por la propia vida, por el bien de uno mismo y por el de un buen amigo. Pongamos como ejemplo las veces en que oficialmente se anunciaba que se iba a trasladar a unos cuantos prisioneros a un campo de concentración, pero no era muy difícil adivinar que el destino final de todos ellos sería sin duda la cámara de gas“.