Fady Joudah was born in Austin, Texas to Palestinian refugee parents. He spent time growing up in both Libya and Saudi Arabia, and returned to the United States to complete his medical education. He currently works as a professional physician in Houston, Texas. Joudah is the author of three original works: The Earth in the Attic (2008), Alight (2013), and Textu (2013). In 2007, The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. Joudah’s work additionally includes the translations of Mahmoud Darwish in The Butterfly’s Burden (2006) and of Ghassan Zaqtan in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (2012), which won the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013.
Fady Joudah is a multi-talented force to be reckoned with. He is a poet, translator, physician, father, volunteer, and someone I consider quite humble, considering his fascinatingly intellectual mind. Joudah and I met at the hotel where he was staying in Culver City in December of 2016. We spent a little over an hour exploring thoughts on poetic influence, innovation, and the ever-looming (for me) post-MFA conundrum of maintaining balance.
Doni Shepard: What spurred your original passion for poetry?
Fady Joudah: I don’t know if anything spurred it, but perhaps it’s something one’s born with. I think one’s more likely to be exposed to poetry at a young age in school. When these things took place in my presence as a kid, I remember having a very strong attachment to the power and the sound of poetry.
DS: I can remember that as a kid, just having this vivid connection to poetry and all elements of creative writing. That’s something that speaks to you very young, I think.
FJ: Yeah, I think one’s brain is wired in a certain way to perk your ears up when you hear it.
DS: Who would you consider some of your greatest literary influences?
FJ: I grew up with Classical era poetry. I wouldn’t necessarily name one, but I would note the history of Arabic poetry, whether pre-Islamic or Abbasid. Of the contemporaries, of course, Mahmoud Darwish has been important. It’s interesting because he’s a poet who brings a whole history of language and literature and is able to channel it into his poetry. If you are able to have a deep connection with it, you are able to see a whole universe through it.
I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination.
I found Rilke very compelling at a younger age—not that I’m old, but because it was interesting to see what his work offered in English. I thought that was interesting. It was partly a function of my relationship with English as a spoken language in the first place, because I didn’t grow up speaking it or living in it. I don’t have a fabulous story as far as the list of names that I can mention. I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination. Much of the history of literature in the world repeats itself so much, so you can choose one major spring and dip to your heart’s fill.
DS: I really like how you spoke about the connection to pre-med. I have some background in the medical field, and it’s much like learning an additional language. When you incorporate that into poetry or any sort of writing it adds a whole new layer to things.
FJ: That’s what poetry is, another layer of language, either added or peeled off. It’s an interesting experience to think that my scientific training has been actually a poetic training.
DS: Among your many responsibilities and talents, you are a driven poet, translator, parent, and medical doctor. How do you maintain diligence in creating balance?
FJ: I no longer know the answer to that because I think that fatigue sets in. As I get a little older, fatigue manifests in different ways, where one’s more emotionally fragile or one’s graciously less certain about several things. Your kids grow up and my body grows up and I’m not at the same energy level. I’m often asked that question. I get asked a few questions that often other poets don’t get asked in a structural sense; this is one of them. Maybe it’s easier to just want to ask the question back and say, “Well, why are you asking?” because I’m not so sure that my position is any different than anyone else who leads a full life with things to do.
DS: Maybe we are all searching for those answers. Especially people coming out of the MFA program, we all want to get the sense of how we will survive out in the world and balance all of our lives. There isn’t always a perfect answer. You see people that, of course, look like they have it all together and want to get a grasp on how that is possible.
FJ: In my case, I did medicine first. I still have medicine and this break is rare for me. Interesting, though, you reflecting back by saying it’s about your own futuristic anxieties. I would say that obviously, my experience has been that the market is limited. Also, the market tells us that if you stay “in” you have a better chance of making it because you’re “in.” You can’t get a promotion in a company you don’t work for. It’s harder in my position to be “in” when you’re from the outside, so I’m a less common event.
DS: What is your take on the ways in which poetry and other forms of expressive arts are being used in medical facilities? Do you feel that poetry and other forms of creative writing have a place in the medical realm as a form of therapy?
Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief.
FJ: They do. It is rarely seen though. It’s a lot more talked about and studied and written about by academics than it is something that is implemented, in my experience. Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief. Then we say it’s also oral history and other things. It’s not just one thing. Today there are many ways for us to heal or to seek healing through various mediums. Everything is actually so prescribed that the notion of the question for me is problematic because it wants poetry to serve as a possible prescription in a mechanical world. Maybe ultimately poetry is only able to serve that function for just one person, maybe the one who writes it.
DS: In Textu, a beautifully composed pocket-sized gem, you demonstrate a uniquely created form of poetry. You provide readers the explanation of “the Textu” by explaining that each poem “be exactly 160 characters long, specific to text-message parameters.” Did you find this structure in any way limiting to your creative expression, or did it serve as a welcome challenge?
FJ: It was very welcome. It gave air to the compulsions I was dealing with so I was very obsessive about taking the world in, trying to get it out in 160. I also thought it was an interesting moment artistically to have art be somewhat of a historical document: knowing that the text message is on its way to being obsolete in the sense that you have so many forms of communication that require no character count. People are always like, “Yeah, that’s what I do on Twitter!” and they don’t know that, no, Twitter is 140, and already people don’t communicate anything meaningful on it. You can upload or include hyperlinks, bits, etc… I already knew that texting, which will continue to exist, is much more intimate like poetry is. It’s much more private. I wanted a documentation of the intimacy of that language in that format to see what happens. I don’t know. Maybe Textu will seem to be a book more worthwhile ten or twenty years from now. Maybe I’ll look at it twenty years from now and laugh.
DS: Poetry has found a substantial following by way of social networking, providing exposure to artists such as Christopher Poindexter, R.M. Drake, and Rupi Kaur. In previous talks about Textu, you advised that you would send many of your original messages to loved ones after creation. Do you feel that a project such as Textu allows for a level of accessibility to poetry that didn’t always exist?
FJ: I can’t make such a claim. Maybe Textu is the opposite. It’s the manifestation that it is true that poetry can exist in all forms, you just have to find it and give it form. I don’t know if Textu necessarily is a public service for poetry’s reach into the world. Who the hell reads poetry? Very few people.
DS: I feel it’s becoming—in short bits—much more mainstream. People are getting a feel for poetry who maybe would have never been exposed to it prior. I see people, even celebrities, sharing little bits of poetry across social media platforms. I hope that in these smaller formats, that if it’s compact enough—there is an idea that maybe people are going to have a bit of poetry that they would have never experienced before.
FJ: It exists in ways—in an app that sends you a poem-a-day kind of thing, but the other problem with that is again that the poems are going to be guided by such things. The poems in Textu are not always easily accessible. The methodology of trying to make poetry reach more public makes one think about what kind of a poem will an average Joe stomach. So, you end up promoting a certain idea of poetry. That still recreates the same circles that exist in the literary world. We like to think of ourselves as some unique little pocket in America or in the Western world of great liberal thinkers. We’re no different than the rest of the culture. Maybe we’re not alt-right but I think we’re quite representative of the imperial citizen in the liberal age.
DS: In 2006, you translated three collections of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish with The Butterfly’s Burden. You have received and additionally been nominated for various awards for your work in translation. Has your background with translation influenced the way you approach new creative work?
Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism.
FJ: Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism. In that sense, you get to notice what you get to notice. If someone else does the same things that I’ve done, they might have a different relationship with their own idea of language than I have from the experience I’ve had with translation. One of the earliest things that I learned in the process of translation is that any body of work that seems to be worthwhile exists in part because that poet has created their own private dictionary. Kilito, a Moroccan critic, says that he believes, “You write one book in your life and you spend the rest of your life trying to write it better than you did the first time.” Such an endeavor means that you inevitably create your own lexicon, your own private lexicon. Then you have to be aware that you have created this. After that step, you have to know what to do with it and how to develop it, how not to continue to repeat it. It has to evolve. That’s the major thing I’ve learned from sitting with this large body of work for different poets. You see that when you go through these you’re actually going through their relationship with language. Then you realize that this is what you will have to go through as a writer.
DS: What are some of the most prominent factors that sway your writing and the creative projects that you take on?
FJ: It’s the way I see my life. My perception of my reality.
DS: Simple and powerful way to put it. I think that speaks to a lot of writers. Has your writing focus shifted at all due to the current political or cultural climate?
FJ: No. It’s about understanding where I’m at with my life, with my writing, and with my language, and focusing on that. I’m definitely someone who is conscious of the body and that connection, as we all are. My experience is different as a professional physician and the various experiences that I have had. I get to see the body from a different aspect. Having touched dying without being the one dying, [and doing] so frequently, is an interesting thing. I did not survive an illness, a trauma, in any classic, immediate sense of those words, but in a way, I have to deal daily with my own trauma being a participant. I deal with constant despair. That’s really all one encounters as a physician after a while—other people in need, vulnerability, or despair, even if it is brief. That is something that catches up with me and says, “Hello. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” It’s something that is the world-over whether it’s through poverty, famine, war, epidemics—whatever it is.
DS: I have read various interviews where you speak about the attachment of designations as a poet. In what ways have you worked to move away from the coined terms that often follow your name (“Palestinian poet,” “physician-poet”), and do you have any advice for poets who struggle to shed their own taxonomy?
FJ: I don’t know if I have succeeded, and I don’t know if in that department I will succeed, because in the end, it’s others who chose to call you things for their own convenience, reduction, categorization, or what have you. It’s probably important to reach a point where one doesn’t care and one just focuses on one’s life’s work and that’s it. Again, it’s a problem of how much we mimic the outer culture. People say Jim Carrey tried so hard to break away from the slapstick comedy, so he tried to do tragedy and maybe he pulled it off in this movie and didn’t pull it off in others, and maybe he didn’t do it as well as Robin Williams did. I know this is also performance art, but it’s the same conversation. I don’t think there is a way one will escape these things; I just think it’s about finding a community as free of labels as possible.
In my situation, there’s a catch-22. Anything you want to say about a minority position or a marginalized position—we have a system similar to a Pez dispenser. Once you push your own little tablet out, there will be twenty other tablets that tell you, “Here we are in solidarity,” but it doesn’t work out that way, actually. It turns out in horizontal violence. It works out in intersectionality more than it does in solidarity. Each one with a grievance who wants the grievance headlined and identified. [Those in] the default modes, ironically, are the ones who form the most entrenched form of identity politics, yet project the accusation onto others because that’s what power does. There’s an entrapment to focus on what is called “identitarian issues,” because that categorization and the algorithms are already there. One should do what one needs to do and feels like doing; those who are obsessed with naming can name. It’s really a circus out there.
DS: As we close, do you mind sharing what types of creative projects you are working on now?
FJ: I have finished up a fourth collection due out in 2018, published by Milkweed Editions, titled Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. Mostly working on a nonfiction book—trying to think about memory and life forces through human and non-human forms.