Saturday, April 28, 2012

lebanese-british poet omar sabbagh writes in poetry review on youth poetry in beirut

In his essay ‘Texts With and Without Context: Youth Poetry in Beirut’, published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review, the Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh reflects on his encounters with the work of young poets in the Lebanese capital where he has been living and teaching for the past seven months. One fascinating aspect of the essay is seeing how Sabbagh, who was born in London and was educated and mostly lived, in the UK, and who writes in English, perceives Lebanese poets of his age cohort who remain in Lebanon.

Sabbagh focuses in particular on Ali Zaraket, who at the age of 29 has already made a considerable mark as a poet. Sabbagh writes: "He has been published in the major newspapers (there are no specialist poetry journals here), such as Al-Hayat, Al-Mustakbal, Al-Safir and Al-Nahar, and is the author of two books, Kitab Farigh (Empty Book) and Kannit al-Hayat Rakhwa (Life was Simple)."

The epigraph to the essay quotes from Life Was Simple:

At first life was simple; life was an umbrella that protected our serendipitous fruit
And with and within our life we used to draw white dreams along the rims of volcanoes
And between the flames and our cold beds we were inhabited by joy.

Thirty-year-old Sabbagh has himself been enjoying considerable success as a poet, in the UK. His second collection The Square Root of Beirut was recently launched at an event organised by his publisher, Cinnamon Press of Wales, at the Poetry Cafe in London. Cinnamon Press published his first collection, My Only Oedipal Complaint in 2010. At the same time Sabbagh has pursued his academic studies, and was last year awarded a PhD at Kings College, London University,  for a thesis on the subject of Narrative and Time in the Writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.

Sabbagh moved to Beirut from London last September to take up a position at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a visiting assistant professor teaching creative writing and English literature. In his essay he describes how he first came to meet Zaraket: "By October I had already lived my way into a groove of work alternating with soused relaxation. One evening I entered a restaurant round the corner from my apartment and saluted the owner, who I knew and to whom I'd given a copy of my first collection. Taking my seat at the bar I was immediately introduced to the young man sitting next to me, as one 'poet' to another."  A couple of weeks later "I sat with him in a pub in the hub (Hamra) of Beirut. Over the course of an hour I was able to gain an insight into the youth poetry scene here, of which he is eminently representative."

Sabbagh notes that the title of Zaraket's first book, Kitab Farigh, "suggests the idea of the tabula rasa or blank cheque of youth (the book being the self), which is to be filled and/or fulfilled in time. Indeed, some of the text of this first book builds on sentences written at the age of nine, when Zaraket began to write: the rawness of that as yet unfulfilled state being unrecoverable. Interestingly, this first volume is printed in the author's own cursive, and illustrated with his line drawings."

Not only does Zaraket write in the Lebanese idiom rather than in classical/literary Arabic "but he also talks of his praxis as a poet as breathing contemporary life into the (sacred or not) Arabic. Arabic, as I have always suspected, and as he agreed with some excitement, is a far less alienated language than say, contemporary French or English. Words in Arabic are poetically rich and overcharged with equivocation and plurality of meaning, due to remaining within the concrete and storied context (mythoi) in which they originated." Zaraket describes his use of Arabic in delimiting his contemporary life as "archaeological" work.

Sabbagh writes: "and yet, for all the fecund polymorphousness of the language, Zaraket told me that when the young want to discuss relationships, especially sexual or romantic relationships, they speak in English, finding, as Wittgenstein attests, the context and life-game of that language-game (say) more apt for the subject." Sabbagh discusses further Zaraket's views on poetry. "When I asked about the youth (say twenty- to forty-year-old) poetry scene in Beirut, Zaraket was more despondent. Although his personal creative process, that of distilling a contemporary idiom from a sacred/ancient language, involves creating text out of an objective context, he told me that as a 'scene' or 'literary community', Beirut was eminently anomic." According to Zaraket, there is "far more of a publishing 'scene' (with publishers such as Dar al-Jadeed, Al-Farabi, Dar Al-Nahda Al-Arabeeya, Al-Jamal and Riad El-Rayess) than any poetry 'scene'. This is not surprising to anyone who knows the entrepreneurial panache of the Lebanese."

Sabbagh notes that poetry is complicated in the Arab world by the split between the social "tone" of the various states. "In the more conservative states of the Gulf, for instance, poets use traditional metres and forms; similarly there are still those within such a disenchanted and worldly city as Beirut who work almost exclusively within traditional forms. However, Zaraket and his peers inherit the non-restrictive vers libres which became widespread during the seventies in the Arab poetry world. Significantly, Zaraket says that this split is almost absolute; there is no sense of a common heritage or present situation. As ever, like Lebanese to Lebanese, Arab to Arab is not the most easeful story."

The poets "suggested as Zaraket's peers include names such as Mazen Ma'rouf, Samer Abu-Hawash, Rami Al-Amin, Fidel Sbeiti, Joumana Haddad, Nazem Al-Sayed, Samar Abdel-Jaber and Yehia Jabber. The latter is 'one of the most vivid, modern and moving of poets in contemporary Arabic,' according to Zaraket. Although these poets all  know each other, their poetic praxes can be seen as a series of truncated attempts at representing or expressing what is to a certain extent abject and unspeakable."

Sabbagh adds perhaps somewhat ruefully that it is precisely this "existential", this "sublime" factor to life in Lebanon, which he finds missing in his own work as a poet. "Like Israelis, Lebanese live for the moment, jaundiced by decades of foreign interference and sectarian troubles. Indeed, I remember friends telling me that in the recent (summer 2006) war with Israel, the  young continued to party at night while Beirut was being bombed. A sense of risk or urgency ( and concomitant sang froid) informs life here.

"On the other hand, I was born and grew up in England to an upper middle class family in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War in a bubble so to speak; a bubble which to this day allows me to be precious and extremely self-indulgent on occasion, whereas the exigencies of Lebanese life seem, in my eyes, to offer a justification of all Lebanese woebegone expressions." He adds: "My conversation with Zaraket was, thus, a lesson in humility."

Zaraket was born just after Israel invaded Lebanon in the early eighties. "He experienced civil war at first hand in his earliest years. And then there was the war with Israel in 1993, when Israel occupied the Lebanese south. Further catastrophes occurred throughout the nineties and into the early twenty-first century. Most recently, there was the thirty-four day war in July 2006, about which the epigraph to this article speaks in a protean, readied and very Lebanese spirit."
In his concluding paragraph Sabbagh writes: "Although not on the scale of the Holocaust or the Palestinian tragedy (al-Nakba) the Lebanese live, to a certain extent, as hunted life. My time spent with Zaraket was both a meeting of minds and also a setting for stark contrast, a chiaroscuro of discretely exclusive life-worlds."

Poetry Review is published by the London-based Poetry Society. The theme of the Spring issue in which Sabbagh's essay appears is  The Poetry of Place. A few  items from the issue - including a poem by Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan - can be read online but Sabbagh's essay is not among them.

The Poetry Review's editor Fiona Sampson resigned in February following upheavals at the Poetry Society last year. Sampson told the Guardian at the time of her resignation: "... I was absolutely delighted that the Society – with whom I'm parting on very good and cheerful terms – made it absolutely clear that the allegations about me were completely untrue. They also apologised for the damage done to me, and stated that it was an issue of governance." Sampson is listed as commissioning editor on the masthead of the Spring issue of Poetry Review. Sampson had been editor since 2005, and has been an encouragement to Sabbagh both in publishing his poems and in being one of his teachers at Goldsmiths College, London University, where he did an MA in creative writing.

Sabbagh says:  "Fiona Sampson was one of my earliest - if not the earliest - champions. I'd submitted some work to Poetry Review in Summer of 2006, and then when in late September I and my peers at Goldsmiths met up with her to organize tutorials, she said she 'already' knew of me, and then revealed she'd accepted one of my poems. Since then, along with 12-15 rejection slips, she published poems from me 4 times and a couple of feature articles. She was and is one of the most empathic mentors I've ever worked with, one of the most understanding that is, given the bad infinity of foibles native to young poets! As an editor she did a superlative job, making poetry more mainstream than it's been for decades." He sums up her qualities: "Intelligence, versatility, affection."

Susannah Tarbush

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