Sinan Antoon

Antoon's poetry and commentary on war. An Iraqi poet, novelist, filmmaker and translator, published a collection of poems Mawshur Muballal bil-Huroob (A Prism; Wet with War) and a novel, I`jam.

Born in Iraq in 1967, Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist and filmmaker. He studied English literature at Baghdad University before coming to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. His poems and articles (in Arabic and English) have appeared in an-Nahar, as-Safir, Masharef, al-Adab, The Nation, al-Ahram Weekly, Kikah and Banipal. His poetry was included in Iraqi Poetry Today. He has published a collection of poems: Mawshur Muballal bil-Huroob (A Prism; Wet with Wars, Mirit Books, Cairo) and a novel I`jam (Diacritics) (Dar al-Adab, Beirut). Antoon returned to Iraq in 2003 as a member of InCounter Productions to film a documentary entitled About Baghdad about the lives of Iraqis in a post-Saddam occupied Iraq. He currently teaches Arabic and Arabic literature at Dartmouth College.


The future of Iraq

This essay was excerpted from Sinan Antoon's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.

What do you see in the future for Iraq?

I hate to be pessimistic, but to quote an [Iraqi] poet who wrote in 1950, I see a horizon lit with blood and fires and a generation goes and a generation comes and the fire is ablaze.

With the destruction of the social fabric, all of the socioeconomic complexities, Saddam’s legacy, the wars and the sanctions, it’s [going to] take at least a generation before [Iraq has] any semblance of a functioning society. The society is falling apart. There’s a real danger of a civil war because of these ethnic tensions that Saddam deepened and [that] now are being deepened by the way Paul Bremmer operates.

The people are not given reasons to be hopeful about the future. We know from history that when people have no avenues of hope they resort to violence, especially when you have a society that’s already militarized. This is what’s happening.

We didn’t talk about the suffering of women under the sanctions. True, there were terror chambers under Saddam, and women were raped. But now, with the total breakdown of society, women cannot go to work because there’s a danger of being raped.

Pro-war people tell you [that] Saddam’s sons used to rape women. Now they’re gone—that’s great. But now everyone is raping women because there is no state. [The] security of Iraqis is not a priority for Rumsfeld, or anyone else.

There are many places in Baghdad where you cannot go at all because you’d get killed so easily. After five it’s very dangerous to go out. There is a curfew. Many of the working women cannot go to work anymore, and you know what that does to the economy of the family. The girls cannot go to school unless they’re accompanied by their parents because of the rampant rape.

Because of the breakdown of the economy, you [also] have all of these gangs—gangs of thugs and criminals. Most of these gangs are the product of the years of the sanctions.

Tell us about a letter you received from a friend.

I got a letter from my childhood friend, my neighbor. I grew up with her. I [asked] her in my e-mail how [life was]. She said “I’m crying now as I’m writing this to you because I don’t know if we’re gonna live [to] the next day.”

She’s a working woman and she has to go across town to go to work. She sees all these suicide cars and suicide bombs. She talks about the humiliation, the daily humiliation she has to go through, because of all these checkpoints… the barbed wire.

Life is intolerable for most people, especially the middle class, and especially women and children. Women bore the brunt of the suffering during the sanctions. We live in a patriarchal world, but in societies that are even more patriarchal, women—the vulnerable—are the ones who pay the higher price.

There were high rates of suicide amongst women during the sanctions in the 1990s because they could not support [their] families. Now, working women cannot go to work for safety concerns. When I was there in July, many girls were not going to school because they were being raped and kidnapped. Only those girls whose parents could accompany them to school were going. Imagine what this is going to do to education.

It’s telling that when Rumsfeld was asked about the chaos—the chaos that could have been avoided—he said,”This is what happens, like after the Bulls win the NBA.” This is the level with which this guy looks.

According to international law, when you occupy a country, you’re responsible for the security. It’s not such a great feat. It was very simple. Why didn’t they impose a curfew the first day of occupation? [A curfew] would have solved a lot of problems. But there was no curfew imposed. I’m still trying to find answers and to grapple with that.

It’s very sad that we have to say that it’s a lousy occupation. It’s very lousy because it’s intertwined with local politics here. The administration sends all these young, young kids, who have no knowledge of the Middle East, to Iraq as kickbacks. We know the companies that are getting all the contracts. It’s very sad.

[With] the way the British troops are dealing in Southern Iraq, there have been, far, far [fewer] incidents in terms of disturbances and problems. [The British] deal with the population in a respectful way. The irony [of this situation] is that [it’s] because the [British] have this colonial memory; they have experience.

You were talking earlier about the difference between being under Saddam Hussein and [the situation] now—that then you knew the ground rules, while now there’s no ground rules.

Yeah. This is sometimes taken out of context but, having a gripe with occupation doesn’t mean that you loved Saddam and you want him back. Everyone should stay away from this dichotomy.

But the reality is what do people all over the world want?  They want a simple life, security, and safety. Okay. Saddam is gone, [and] there was euphoria. But, as I said, under Saddam there were parameters. If you said something against the regime, if you expressed dissatisfaction, you would suffer. You would go in.

But at least you knew what the parameters were. If you do not chastise the regime, if you do not say something terrible about Saddam, if you do your job, you stay away, you live. At least you could secure that.

Now it’s complete chaos. The social contract is completely gone. You cannot guarantee anything. You could be walking done the street and you would be killed for no reason. People have a right to say [that] it was better under Saddam—not for everyone. I saw graffiti when I was in Baghdad on the walls saying, “If democracy means theft, crime, [and] rape, then we don’t want this democracy.

What happens if you have a new car?

Again, because of the chaos even in the values and in the moral system, people who have new cars don’t take their cars out. Criminals, after [the] long years of sanctions, have become so efficient that if [you] don’t vacate your car within ten seconds, you’re shot in the head right away.

I met a woman who [is] carrying a gun now because she’s a doctor, and she has to go to her clinic. Now she is carrying a gun because if she’s attacked, she’s going to kill people. Imagine the level of militarization.

Because there is no police, and because when the U.S. came in they [immediately] disbanded the army and the police, there was this void. People were talking about a lot of bodies lying around in the outskirts of Baghdad because these thugs were killing [people] and leaving them out there. Not only [are] there no police, [but] there is no functioning health care system.

On Life in Iraq

This essay was excerpted from Sinan Antoon's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.

The Effect of Sanctions and the First Gulf War

In the 1980s, when I grew up, you would ask someone how [they] were doing and a kid of six or seven years old would tell you “I’m depressed.” [Depression] entered the discourse of the young people. Even if you didn’t go into combat and fight yourself, you saw people around you—your neighbors, your relatives—dying. You knew that everyone’s existence was so fragile and that they could die. You saw men you grew up with coming back in coffins.

There were no dreams. Everything was shattered. People’s expectations were so low. Many of my friends or relatives spent [the years] from age eighteen until thirty-seven, the best years of their lives, fighting a war they did not believe in at a time when the enlightened West was supporting that war. Saddam was the sweetheart.

But the tragedy comes with the sanctions after both the Iran-Iraq War and the 1990 war, which completely destroyed the infrastructure. Whatever we feel or say about Saddam, [we feel or say] rightly so; he’s a vicious dictator. But there was a functioning country, there was infrastructure.

The 1990-91 war destroyed the infrastructure and the sanctions [ensured] that that infrastructure would never be rebuilt. It was an initial stage of destroying the Iraqi state so that it would crumble so easily in 2003. For Iraqis and for many others, this is a crime. Alas, the way the world is we only later realize.

The invasion of Iraq was presented as, you know, “In the post 9-11 world Saddam was an imminent threat, blah, blah, blah.” But one has to go back to history and see [the invasion] as a final stage in a series of strikes against this regime, which was the local policeman, the local thug in the Gulf, the regime that served the purposes of the United States.

[The United States] wanted to weaken Iran. All of this talk about Saddam’s violations of human rights is hogwash for Iraqis. While Saddam was slaughtering Iraqis and gassing the Kurds, the U.S. had really a good relationship with him. I remember sitting in my living room in Baghdad in 1983, drinking tea with my aunt, and seeing on the evening news Donald Rumsfeld being sent by President Reagan as an emissary.

We now know that he was sent again, right after Saddam gassed the Kurds, to tell Saddam not to pay attention to the discourse in the Congress about sanctioning Saddam and that [discussion] that was all for local consumption. The U.S. has always supported third world dictators all over the world, but it’s just that when Saddam went beyond his role and made the grave mistake of occupying Kuwait that he became a bad guy.

Otherwise the Iraqis are not the subject of this war. This [war] is about strategic interests, about the U.S. becoming an empire—that is the main question. The irony is that Saddam’s removal, his fall, is not the objective of this war, it is the byproduct. Cheney’s company was doing deals with Iraq in violation of the sanctions before he became Vice President.

The invasion should be seen as part a new policy for the United States. Alas, most of the citizens are not aware of what’s happening, or are not aware of the dangers of the republic becoming an empire, and what that means—not just for the people abroad, who pay the prices of what empire does to them, but also for our own security here.

The war is wrong on all counts. All wars are wrong to start with, but this war does not even fulfill its promises. Its whole logic is warped from the beginning. It’s not going to make the world safer. It hasn’t made Iraq better for the Iraqis, except for removing Saddam. It hasn’t made the world better for the Americans.

Talk a little more about the history of the sanctions.

Yes, the sanctions, that’s the thing. This is the irony also. Saddam invaded Kuwait and the so-called international community—the civilized world—wanted to force him to leave Kuwait, so they imposed sanctions on him. But the sanctions didn’t work, so we went to war. He was ejected out of Kuwait, but the sanctions were maintained, supposedly because the sanctions would weaken the regime.

Now we know that these were the most devastating sanctions in history ever. Ridiculous! Everything was considered dual-use that could potentially be used for weapons of mass destruction: Pencils for school kids because of the lead inside them, all kinds of medicines, antibiotics.

You had the systematic destruction of a whole society, especially the middle class, especially the intelligentsia. A professor’s salary would not be enough to buy an egg, for example. You had the complete crumbling of the economy. You had people selling their furniture, people selling their doors. People [were] leaving en masse.

4.5 million Iraqis left during the 1990s. You already have a destruction of the social fabric. You have rampant crime that we didn’t have before. All the talk of rebuilding Iraq: It’s impossible to rebuild Iraq after thirteen years of systematic destruction.

The irony of living under a totalitarian system is that you learn to decipher the news and not accept everything at face value. Iraqis, like other people in the Middle East and other parts of the world, know that governments do not necessarily represent the people. They never say “we” like many people. You don’t say—“we” meaning the government and the people.

What really saddens me is that people are shocked that Iraqis have the maturity to hate Saddam and be against Saddam, but not necessarily welcome the U.S. armed forces. People were shocked [in the United States] that Iraqis didn’t come out with roses and chocolates. No one likes to be occupied by foreign armies. We’re always given the example of France because we went and liberated France. OK, that was one instance in history, but occupation does not equal liberation.

The strongest weapon before and during the war [was the argument] that you are either with us or against us. This [is a] stupid, facile binary which confiscates your right for dissent or to argue. If you were against the war, you were with Saddam. No one was allowed the position of being against dictatorship, but also against war (because war is not the answer).

350 Iraqi dissidents—people who suffered because of Saddam, people who spent their lives in exile—signed a petition right before the war saying “No” to War and “No” to the dictatorship. But of course we never heard about it. We only hear about the Iraqi Uncle Toms who work with Wolfowitz and Cheney, and who are warmongers.

What was it like for you to watch the war happening?

I was watching the war while in Cairo. I was living Egypt at the time. I watched the war on a daily basis because I could. I was glued to the TV and watching the aftermath of the war. When I was in Iraq and people—Iraqis abroad or others—would say it was difficult to see other human beings you care about going through war and not be there.

Sometimes it’s even more difficult [not being there]. [I was] watching the complete destruction that war brings wars always, but also all of the mass graves that were exhumed.

These mass graves were the result of the 1991 war, when President Bush—the father—called on Iraqis to stage an uprising, to take things into their own hands. They did stage an uprising, but they were not supported.

Not only [were they not supported], but Saddam was also allowed by the ceasefire signed with Schwarzkopf to use helicopters to slaughter all of these people. Later, Schwarzkopf in his memoirs said “Well I didn’t know that. He said that he was going use them to transfer the wounded. I didn’t know that he was going to use them in unspeakable—” There is a certain complicity. But watching the mass [graves] and watching the mothers crying over their children, who are civilians, and not soldiers, who are people who are not pro-Saddam. It is the people caught in the war.

The human loss that comes with war and it was impetus behind that poem. There was one scene in particular of an actual man in a city in southern Iraq who had lost nine members of his family. He was standing, and there were nine coffins there. The picture was in The New York Times and other places. He was just saying that he didn’t know which one to mourn first. The weight of this suffering started a cycle of images, and that’s how the poem was born.

On returning to Iraq

I left in 1991 because I was an artist, a poet. I was suffocating. I always wanted to leave.

The sad thing is that in returning last July after thirteen years, [I observed that] it’s still a decrepit place. You see the destruction of people’s lives, their psyches. You see the wrinkles on their faces and that people have aged so much more in thirteen years. You hear the sighs when people talk.

It’s not just the wars and not just Saddam, but also the sanctions, which were another kind of war, a continuation of the 1990 war that completely destroyed the country and the city Baghdad. Even those few places in Baghdad that I used to run to because they were still beautiful and not marred by Saddam’s images or murals are completely barren now. There is so much trash, so much garbage—all of this chaos because of the war.

It’s really terrible and this is the feeling that most Iraqis or all Iraqis who go back feel. Yes, it was terrible to live under Saddam but even those tiny places or spaces [that had remained beautiful] [are now] completely destroyed.

A few weeks before this last war, an Iraqi artist—a woman who was in the opposition against Saddam and forced to leave Iraq—wrote something very poignant. [She] said that if this war start[ed], then the Iraq that so many of us knew would be gone forever. It’s true, in a way.

What was it like going back to Irag?

I should preface by saying that I always had this instinctive feeling, even when I was ten, that something was amiss. I knew that Saddam was bad before realizing history and politics. I had no qualms about leaving Iraq. I abhor nationalism. I’m not a nationalist.

I thought I’d prepared myself because I followed the news every day and I was active about the sanctions and the war. During the war I couldn’t do any work; I just watched the satellite channels. The Arab satellite channels had more presence there. I thought that I’d already seen the extent of the damage.

But going there was really, really terrible—not just because the people that I knew are now completely drained and old, with wrinkles on [their] faces, but also because of the cracks in the houses. Everything that was beautiful is completely gone now. Even the palm trees—[my] last refuge—looked really dry and sick.

It wasn’t a great city, but when I was there in July there was complete chaos. There was garbage all over the place, uncollected garbage. And there were barbed wires. The whole urban space is really ugly now because you have this new class of war merchants who are the product of the 1990s. There were all these commodities all over on the sidewalks.

I’m not complaining. I know we need commodities, but I searched for the places that I’d liked, and they were not there, or they were completely obliterated. The place was dead, as far as I’m concerned. It’s different for the people who are living there. Again, I have this luxury of saying the place is dead for me and it’s over. But there are people there who have to live with this reality. It was very sad.

What was the attitude in Iraq?

It varied. The good thing is that you could not [generalize] and say Iraqis felt [a certain] way. They were all of very different opinions. Some of them were hopeful at the time. Some of them were against the war, but they said,”This is last option. Let’s work with the Americans.” Some were very angry. The majority started to lose hope by July because they were waiting for promises to be fulfilled. And the promises were not being fulfilled.

Despite everything I was heartened that there are artists; there are people working to start a civil society—young people, men and women, starting organizations under very difficult circumstances. [What] I heard most from everyone was “We are tired. We are drained. We can’t take this anymore.”

There is this bitterness towards people who left. I went somewhere to film a place and some man told me, “You look like you’re one of those who are coming back from abroad.” I was kind of hurt.

I told him, “I am not here to do business and steal your money. I’m not here to rule you. I’m not into opposition. I’m here to make a documentary about your suffering. So give me some respect.”

He switched to the other extreme, and I just reasoned with him. I [asked] him “Had you had the opportunity to leave in 1991, wouldn’t you have left?”  And he said “Yes.”

There is a bitterness with the Iraqis inside, especially towards the people the U.S. is choosing to govern them, most of whom have spent 30 years abroad.

So a lot of people told me,”We want someone who’s lived with us under these conditions, who understands what we’ve gone through. We don’t someone who’s lived thirty-five years abroad in five-star hotels to come now and tell us how we should live our life.”

Unfortunately most of the candidates that are jockeyed by this administration are these people who’ve been abroad for thirty-five years and who are, in a way, professional opposition people. They’re businessmen. They’re not activists. They don’t have a constituency inside. It’s sadly very reminiscent of exactly what the [British] did when they occupied Iraq.

It’s amazing how some of the same patterns repeat themselves. [The] amazing thing [is] that the General who led the British troops in invading Iraq, said “We don’t come as conquerors; we come as liberators.” In a moment of, perhaps, colonialism speaking through people, Rumsfeld said the same exact words.

He said “We are not conquerors, we are liberators.” Most Iraqis don’t see the Americans as liberators. It’s important for Americans [to] know that the world does not perceive us as liberators.

Poetry and War

This essay was excerpted from Sinan Antoon's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.

What’s the role of your poetry?  How do war and poetry work together?

You feel—we feel—what can poetry do? The reactions that I get from people reading [poetry] is that it expresses what they feel. It means something to them. When I went back, I was invited to read at the Union of Iraqi Writers. I recited my poetry, and there was a certain apprehension on my part because I had been away and all of that.

The reaction of the people there, the young writers, was very sweet. They really welcomed me in, [and they] were happy that someone who had been away for so long was still in contact and was still writing things that could express how they feel.

During the difficult times leading to the war and the first few months of the war, the things that I wrote in Arabic and English [generated] lot of e-mails from Iraqis and others—even Americans—that said that it helped them go through that phase. I don’t want to self-aggrandize, but that’s the highest accolade for me.

Primarily, you write for yourself, but you’re living in a world, and you know that the cultural products get consumed and circulated. When I went through some really difficult times, and when I was in the darkness of the shelter under the bombing, hearing that other people abroad—people I didn’t know—were demonstrating for me, were screaming, were writing poetry and articles, [made] a difference.

It’s like [the difference between] dying alone or dying knowing that someone is mourning you or sympathizing with you. It makes a great difference. It could be, [a] romantic, old-fashioned feeling, but I still believe in our species. It’s a responsibility I feel, personally. If one is able to express something, then they should do that, and they should share it with others.




On being a poet in exile

This essay was excerpted from Sinan Antoon's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.

Talk a little about poetry in Arab Culture.

In Arab culture poetry occupies a very unique position because of the heritage of the oral poetry that was revered and the function of the poet in pre-Islamic times. It was mainly an oral culture, and for some reason poetry was very developed already by the seventh century.

Poetry was the register—the archive—of life. Especially with the Bedouin nomadic life, it was, like all other cultural production, a way through which people made sense of their lives. But then with the advent of Islam and the Koran being claimed by Mohammed to be the word of God, there was this kind of approach to language as sacred. There was a kind of symbiosis between the pre-Islamic poetry and the Koran itself. It was used to explain it.

For many reasons, we had an amazing number of really great poets. Poetry continued—and continues to this day—to be the most valued art form. The novel has made encroachments and advances, but poetry still is very revered by Arabs.

There’s always talk of the crisis that poetry faces worldwide, but in the Arab world it’s still different. For example, the Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish can fill a stadium when he recites poetry. 40,000 people show up. People still do read and listen and, and poems are events. Poetry really matters, especially during the war. People resort to poetry to go through difficult times.

Even Saddam himself knew the importance of this, and there was a complete militarization of culture as well. He made sure to pump a lot of money into [trying to] tame and domesticate all the poets. Those who were not willing to write panegyrics or [who] were against the regime were executed. Some of them were put in prison. Some of them had to leave the country and have been living in exile for thiry-five years. Poetry is a very potent thing in the Arab world, and especially in Iraq because of the history it has.

When you wrote your poetry when you were obviously outside of Iraq, was there any danger to your family?

Not to me because I wasn’t famous. But to those who write abroad and whose names are recognizable inside, yes. Whenever they publish something, their [families are] threatened. I had finished a novel awhile ago, but I was told by family members not to publish it and [to] wait because they would be [in] danger.

After the 1991 war and with the sanctions and the weakening of the regime, they stopped paying that much attention to what was happening abroad. Saddam was more concerned with his survival. But the 1970s and 1980s were terrible because his intelligence was so powerful in Europe and the Middle East. He managed to pump so much money into many Arab news outlets and even Europe and even America.

In Washington there was this Middle East scholar who was good friends with the Iraqi ambassador. She wrote a book about Iraq, a very positive book about Iraq and the regime. Of course, after the Kuwait thing she turned [now] she’s a terrorism expert, that very same person.

When I started writing and I took some of the poems to publish in the journals, I was told that they were very beautiful, and that I was talented, but that they were too sad. For example, [if a poem featured a] man who dies in the war and has a mother who wears black, I was told to change that because His Excellency, the President, says that a mother should be happy and proud that her son had died.

There were certain written and unwritten rules about what to write, and everyone had to write and to celebrate the regime, celebrate the war. If you didn’t write that kind of poetry, there was no place for you. You were completely marginalized.

I personally chose not to [publish inside]. I only published abroad when I was there. In 1989 I sent a poem to a journal in Paris, and it was published there. But the local journals would never publish my stuff. They basically told me, “This is too depressing, and we are not going to publish this.” But I’m proud that I did that because there aren’t many.

Now, after the fall of the regime, there is this openness with newspapers in the cultural circles. There is an accounting for those who sold their souls to the regime, the poets, the writers, and the people who were responsible. At least I can say that I never wrote one word in praise of the regime.

Talk a little bit about the origin of your poem “A Prism; Wet with Wars.”

Right after the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 there was a big celebration. Most of the people just felt happy that they were going to go back to their normal lives and peace. People were joking that it was going to be at least another five years before Saddam got us into another war.

But just seventeen months after that it became obvious that there was going to be another war. It saddens me thinking of these young children whose lives would forever be marred by war, or [thinking of] all the mothers, wives, and sisters who were happy that their men were going to come back. Then it was all shattered because they all had to go [back to war] to their deaths.

That was the impetus behind the poem “A Prism; Wet With Wars,” and the whole feeling of suffocation. When you open a window, you want to look out on something else, something more hopeful. But you feel you are besieged by wars, and that wherever you go there is just another war.

Sadly—not that it is prophetic, but it happened again in 1991 and 2003—that is how I think a lot of the Iraqis feel. Most of their lives they’ve lived under the threat of wars, either an impending war or an actual war. That’s the story behind the poem.

What is it like to be in, to be a poet and to be in exile?

The linguistic exile is the most difficult thing, although my English is really good because I studied English literature. My mom was American, so I heard some English at home. My father was Iraqi, and my mother was American.

As a poet, a linguistic being, you savor the language. You hear it, you read it, you see it, and then you lose all of that. It’s very difficult. You feel cut off from the pace of life. Having to work there, there is no time to read and keep up. For along time I was afraid that I had lost touch. Also, I wasn’t able to write for a very long time.

Thank God for the Internet. There are all these amazing websites where many people who write poetry in Arabic—men and women—are bypassing the cultural mafias and the editors [with] their own websites. I can go to a website and read the poems written by a woman in Morocco, or someone in Egypt, or exchange an e-mail. [The Internet] has bridged the gap.

People like Edward Said have written that exile as well gives you a certain privilege, a certain perspective. I didn’t have to go through the sanctions, like others did. And I have a certain space and a luxury of having the time to read, ponder, or complain that I don’t write poetry that others don’t.

This is the irony, I guess, of history: that all of the suffering produces beautiful culture. Thanks to Saddam and to Bush–the-father, we have a burgeoning Diaspora of literature because four and one-half million Iraqis left the country. The poets and writers and artists are all over the world— in Sweden, in Australia, in New Zealand, here.

It’s amazing you read the papers and see the books and see Iraqi writers living in Sweden or Moscow. After awhile, they interact with the local cultures; they see different languages. I’m privileged and lucky because I get to pursue my literary studies. I get to interact with the culture here. I read in other languages. I can’t complain.

After awhile, exile becomes home, and home is not home anymore. You feel at home not being at home. I knew that was going to happen, [from] having this penchant for reading about people who are in exile. I knew that when I returned to Iraq after thirteen years, whatever [had been] Iraq for me [would] not exist anymore. You get used to being away, being cut off.

None of the poetry of yours that I’ve read has been about flowers or love. What effect does war have on your poetry? Do you write about other things?

I try sometimes, but it’s always like a tiny window that gets shut really quickly. People have told me—friends or people who read my material regularly—that there is more blood, more bones, and [that] it’s all very bleak.

But we live in a very bleak world, so that’s how it affects me personally. You can’t escape it in a way. It’s very bloody, and the bloodiness is showing in the writing and in the tone, a very sad tone. Throughout history, poetry and culture… help us make sense of this world and make reality tolerable.

Reality, in a way, is intolerable. But cultural production—poetry, music, film—it’s like this prism that enables us to see the world, and go through it, and survive.

Are there any poets who also write about war whom you admire?

[I like] Siegfried Sassoon. I like the things that Neruda wrote, things that Lorca wrote.  I’m not a fan or war. I wish we didn’t have to write about war.

That’s an interesting point. You’re not a fan of war. You wish you didn’t have to write about war, but—

My own childhood [was] defined by war. I was twelve when I witnessed the first war, and since then it’s been non-stop. When you are also plagued [with] being a political being, and you follow the news and read everyday, you know that wars are being waged all over the place. You can’t escape it.

When I was growing up I saw men being sentenced to death for no reason. People that I grew up with—people that I played soccer with—had to be drafted and were taken away when they were eighteen because they didn’t go to college they.

I remember one of my closest friends was depressed because he didn’t want to go. Every twenty-three days they would have a six-day break, and at the end of his break he would be suffering and crying because he didn’t want to go back to the battlefront. But if you didn’t go back you got executed.

I had to deal with these things very early on. It’s terrible, but seeing death and suffering, you get to appreciate life and you get to appreciate these brief moments that we have with beauty, with love, with peace. Unfortunately all of these things work in a Manichaean way. You never really appreciate peace unless you see, or [you] try to know what war is all about. I guess it’s made me a more tender person. [War] makes you more human somehow.

People are good all over the world. But the way things are going, I think this administration and these past few years will go down in history as especially terrible and criminal. Not just against Iraqis but against Americans themselves.



Wrinkles; on the wind’s forehead