Omar Sabbagh's fourth collection: a reflection of different kinds of love
Susannah Tarbush, London
Since his first poetry collection My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint was published by Welsh publisher Cinnamon Press in 2010, the British-Lebanese poet, author, essayist and academic Dr Omar Sabbagh has produced a stream of published poems and prose works. His writing has appeared in book form and in numerous literary journals. His first poetry collection was followed by the collections The Square Root of Beirut (Cinnamon Press, 2012) and Waxed Mahogany (Agenda Editions, 2012).
His first long-form prose work, the novella Via Negativa: A Parable Of Exile, appeared last year under the then new Cinnamon imprint Liquorice Fish, set up to encourage “innovative and idiosyncratic” writing.
Now Sabbagh has returned to poetry with publication by Cinnamon Press of his fourth collection, To the Middle of Love. Some of the poems, or earlier versions of them, have appeared in the journals or edited volumes Agenda, Agenda Online, CAPITALS, Peloton, Rusted Radishes, The Moth, The Warwick Review and The Wolf. To coincide with publication of the new collection, online publication The Punch Magazine published five poems from it, plus one of Sabbagh's hitherto unpublished poems.
To the Middle of Love carries praise on its back cover from one of Sabbagh’s main mentors, the distinguished multiple-award-winning British poet Fiona Sampson, Professor of Poetry at the University of Roehampton. she was awarded an MBE in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List.
"Omar Sabbagh writes with rare intensity and generosity," says Sampson. "Ideas and images overflow the lines of his verse, as well as their own boundaries, in a Shelleyian helter-skelter. Like Shelly, Sabbagh believes in the transformative power of poetry; unlike Shelley, he is also in love with language itself.”
Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Lebanese parents. He passed through the British school and university system and writes in English, although Lebanon is ever-present in his writing - at times overtly so, as in the poem "The Cedar Never Dies" in his new collection. The poem begins:
My country, my love,
Let me speak to you now in a foreign tongue,
Quipping against the flaming madness
The language in which I body my caress,
My missive in Dove...
Sabbagh has a BA from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), three MAs from London University - in English Literature, Creative Writing and Philosophy - and a PhD in English Literature from King's College, London University.
A revised version of his doctoral thesis was published in 2014 as From Sight through to In-Sight: Time, Narrative and Subjectivity in Conrad and Ford by the Brill imprint Costerus New Series.
Sabbagh's literary career runs alongside his professional life as a university teacher. He was Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2011-13 and is currently Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). A first launch of To the Middle of Love was held at AUD at the end of January. It was followed by a 10 February London launch at the Big Green Bookshop, Wood Green.Sabbagh appeared alongside fellow Cinnamon Press poet Edward Ragg who was launching his new collection Holding Unfailing.
Omar Sabbagh at the Big Green Bookshop with Cinnamon Press founder Dr Jan Fortune
Interview with Omar Sabbagh:
How would you compare To the Middle of Love with your three previous collections; for example has there been a change in your style over time?
First thing to say is, as well as being paraphrasably ‘romantic’ (this book is after all a reflection of different kinds of love), my working-method is just as romantic: which is to say, I generally write poems within the space of half-an-hour, and rarely revisit them to touch them up; if they work, they do, if they don’t, which is much of the time, then it’s just dross to be thrown away. Like a lot of poets, rarely do I know the full brief of a poem until I’m started; in fact the first line or 2 usually guide me to where I am going, or at least, where I was always meant to go.
The collection is eminently responsive to relations of love and care (caritas). For me love and death are the root/route of wisdom: that is, coming to terms with what these two terms really mean is to come to terms with what it is to be human. In one sense’ love is the solution, the salve, the tonic for our mortality (and any suffering or pain in life that is death’s precursor). But at the same time love is death…as against ‘onanism’, real love leaves us vulnerable, mortal, delimited. Death is merely the extreme on that spectrum. Thus, though I don’t practice or dub myself one there is a very basic buried Christian theme to the collection.
The book starts, black-comically, with a reference to self-love and progresses to more integral kinds of love. Many of the poems were occasioned by events in the lives of loved-ones, or near-loved ones. The book is dedicated, looping past into future, to my previous carers, parents, and my future one, Faten, my wife.
This is, evidently very much a ‘confessional’ collection. I am a neo-romantic and unashamedly confessional in this collection, which is to say, highly lyrical in the main and self-expressive and this: even though my critical wisdom has many tics against a romanticist approach to experience. None the less, the singing mode comes most naturally to me, so for all my other principles, I don’t fight it. As ever, sound in poetry is essential to how I express myself. I am not a sound-poet, but apart from rhyme, the discipline as it were in my poems are the way intravenous sounds play-out in my verse.
There is an Augustinian beeline through the book. It’s not only the three Augustine sonnets (first published a few years ago in the 2013 Templar Anthology Peloton), but also a reference in the villanelle “On His 75th Birthday” (dedicated to my father Mohamad Sabbagh). And also in the first segment of the book's Coda, the trinity as it were of ‘loving’ ‘understanding’ and ‘doing’ is deliberately invoked. This in-forming notion of ‘trinity’ also closes said Coda.
Something happened, subliminally, to me a year or two ago: I began to write nearly wholly in rhyme, or near-total rhyme. The vast majority of this collection involves rhyme – it’s a kind of discipline for me, and for the poem.
I think my voice remains the same or similar to my earlier poetic works, namely, in the main, emotive and unctuous. But also playful. Though I try for a kind of poetry that is universally accessible, my style (and its ear) remain very much rooted in the Englishness of English. I don’t think my work differs hugely from my first collection, both in discursive content or in mode or method, but I do think the one way in which I may have matured as a poet is in knowing where I stand in relation to my poetry; i.e. knowing my gifts and shortcomings, which only make me more sure of the work when I do deem it good, but also knowing in a more thorough way when a poem fails.
I do feel that it is indeed, if not my best book, which it may well be, it is definitely my best poetry collection.
Why are a few of the poems such as the beautiful "La Veuve" reprinted from your third collection Waxed Mahogany?
A few of the poems are taken from my third collection which was, in my view, a mistake. I rushed it. The editor of Agenda Editions is NOT was not responsible for this; she simply placed too much trust in MY judgement, which, at the time, unbeknownst, was a little warped. I have reprinted two or three poems from that collection merely to salvage them.
But Waxed Mahogany was well received, got some great comments and reviews. Why do you now seek to distance yourself from it?
Because, simply put, the work, on the whole, was ill-judged in my view.
Your first published long-form fiction work, Via Negativa, appeared last year. In the light of that, and the fact that prose works being at the beginning and at the end of To the Middle of Love, please say something on the relation between your poetry and prose and how this has evolved. How much interplay is there between them: didn’t the St Augustine sequence in To the Middle of Love start off as a prose work?
The Saint Augustine prose work is a different project, remaining something I plan to develop and work on. I would say this though: as a poet, I’m quite conventional; as in I’m not really trying to be aesthetically new/challenging; I just want to move people as I am moved; however as a prose stylist I am very much more experimental, or able to manumit effects which are more radical. Both forms are poetic of course, at least in my view, and I take just as much poetic satisfaction and care with a critical essay as I do a poem. Without claiming to be on a par with Joyce (obviously), I do relate to his sentiment quite early in his career when he decided that verse forms weren’t wholly for him, that prose would be where he’d do his impactful poetry. Now, I don’t wholly subscribe to this, but I do feel that in terms of consistency, at least, I’m a far better prose writer than poet.
Omar Sabbagh reads from To the Middle of Love at the Big Green Bookshop
Eyewear is going to be publishing your Dubai sequel to Via Negativa. Do you yet have a title and date of publication of the sequel? Please say something about it, and how it relates to VN
The Eyewear book is to be (creative) non-fiction; merely a snazzily-written cultural guide to Dubai in the context of today’s world; as planned: places, people, ethos, history and so on, but all directed and grounded in today’s evident cultural and political tumult. It is a sequel to VN merely in being shortish book that reflects (upon) a different city, what it’s like to negotiate one’s way around there, and what at a symbolic level said operative city represents.
It is evident from some of the poems in To the Middle of Love that Dubai has been quite an inspiration for you. It is a very different environment from other cities that feature in your work, such as London, Beirut, Marbella and so on. It would be interesting to know something of the Dubai effect on your work.
Well, as ever, I’ve been both loonily manic and peaceful in Dubai, as elsewhere. I would say there is no more or less inspiration here than elsewhere; apart from a few different themes to do with Dubai in particular. In fact being a (semi-and-unfortunately-unavoidably-aesthete) in my writing, to certain extent I’m independent of my environment as a writer. I write from the English I carry in my head, and bones of course… I should say that I published the opening salvos of a projected creative non-fiction, a Dubai Diary, to follow my previous, ‘Beirut Cadenzas,’ in (the same) T&F Journal, Poem. However, this memoir, beyond the just-mentioned first 5000 words, has proven abortive as yet. From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary, were published in POEM, in 2016. Said chunk of Dubai-pertinent prose eponymously leads, though, a current manuscript of short narratives, being considered for publication by 3 publishers presently… My Eyewear Dubai-book, contracted-and-commissioned, is to be, rather, a book-length reflective thought-piece on Dubai, provisionally-titled: Minutes from The Miracle City: An Essay on Dubai in Today’s World. It will reflect the success story of Dubai, in the world of Trump, Trumpmania and Brexit, and so on…
You are remarkably frank and self-exposing in your poems. From where do you get this courage?
I think it’s because in my context, I have suffered tremendously in an emotional, spiritual and psychological sense. When you hit ground-zero as I have, you learn to accept and well, you’ve nothing to lose. Also, it’s the way I’m rigged; to be affectionate and demonstrative of affection; all that, apart that is from an element of exhibitionism!
Did you decide the ordering of the poems in the new collection, and if so, on what basis?
No, this was done by my editor/publisher, Dr. Jan Fortune. And I trust her judgment. I think the ordering works wonderfully here, and there are some quite noticeable clusterings and patterns.
What question would you most like to be asked?
That would be: "Why is love such a significant theme for you?"
Well, love allows one to be both inside and outside the world at the same time. When faced by fear/anxiety or dread, avatars of our mortality, we realise after suffering that love just is the only salve or tonic. So one becomes a hippy! More pressingly, though, and especially regarding the Christian themes in this book, love in its truest, halest sense (as opposed to the opening notes on self-love) is a recognition of one’s mortality, in so far as to love is to be vulnerable to being hurt, de-limited. Which is one of the reasons, at a symbolic level, it would make sense that if God is Love, or, if you prefer, if the Meaning or Purpose of existence is love, that he’d have to die to fulfil his nature. I could wax on this for ages…