Franklin K.R. Cline interviews Siwar Masannat #wppoets


Winner of Cleveland State University’s 2014 First Book Competition, selected by Ilya Kaminsky

On Sunday, April 12 at 8:00 PM, Woodland Pattern will host a FREE reading celebrating two Cleveland State Poetry Center book prize winners, Broc Rossell and Siwar Masannat. Please join us! More information here.

In advance of the reading, Franklin K.R. Cline, a PhD candidate in English—Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, interviews Siwar Masannat, also a PhD in the program.

Philip Metres says of Siwar’s 50 Water Dreams:

“[It] beckons us into a mysterious world of broken tesserae, a dispersed mosaic the reader must  puzzle over to reconstruct. What we discover, as the pieces begin to fit, is that Siwar Masannat subversively flips  the script of scripture, and invites us to re-read what we thought we  knew as the story of a land called ‘holy.'”

Franklin K.R. Cline: In the Notes section of 50 Water Dreams, you mention that these poems are in conversation with Mahmoud Darwish and Marcel Khalifeh. Could you talk a little bit more about that conversation?

Siwar Masannat: Darwish’s poem “Why did you leave the horse alone” was what created the character of Horse, I suppose– if you can call Horse, or any of the others, characters. Darwish’s poem is so beautiful. The idea that a horse is left to keep the house company gives me a visceral reaction. The word used in Arabic is so lovely and charged. It can mean many things (to cure someone’s loneliness, to treat an animal as you’d treat a human, to socialize with someone, etc.) that could not be reflected in one word in English. By decontextualizing the word but still having the horse in mind, I became obsessed with the multiplicity of images and meanings this word brought forth. Perhaps I was trying to capture or translate some of these feelings that Darwish’s poems evoked in me.

During the time I was working on the poems I was also often listening to Khalifeh’s songs. Living in America, whenever I’d get homesick or lonely, I’d listen to Arabic music, sometimes just so I can hear the language. I kept listening to “Rita and the Rifle”, a poem by Darwish sung by Khalifeh. It’s a love and resistance poem whose lines kept seeping into the book too. By the end, I realized that these two Arab artists helped shape the book through these two poems– if not also in a general and personal way for me as an Arab writer.

FC: You also borrow a lot of language from John Berryman, and I know he’s one of your top dogs. But you are writing with much different concerns than him. What draws you to Berryman’s work?

SM: I love how in the Dream Songs Berryman writes a fractured self and assembles meaning and feeling through what seem like snippets of narrative or performances by this self. Of course, there are problematic aspects to Berryman’s writing of identity through blackface. But, perhaps, what I am most attracted to in Berryman’s poems is his language, his grammar and syntax. It is all so intricately and nicely wrought. I often think how English is my second language, and even though I am capable of speaking grammatically and idiomatically well (or so I hope for the sake of my students!), my comfortable space is that of fracture and fragment, of a mixing of Arabic and English ways of thinking and saying. For example, in Arabic there are two types of sentences, noun sentences and verb sentences. So, Arabic grammatically embraces what we think of as the ungrammatical fragment that lacks a verb in English. I feel like perhaps this is why I like Berryman, because his elision and distortion and tense shifting make some sort of weird sense to me. An almost emotional sense, perhaps, that also reflects a violence of thought that is acutely aware of its own violence. Maybe another way of saying this is that Berryman’s language performs the intensity of feeling.

FC: The book follows Fadia, sometimes speaking as her, sometimes to her, sometimes around her. At what point did you realize this was a character you were going to stay with? 

SM: Fadia was sort of born out of my annoyance with the often repeated metaphor of woman as land and occupation as rape. It’s a colonizer’s sort of metaphor anyway, so I resist its rhetorical use by Arabs in the context of the Palestinian struggle and the Israeli occupation of land. Gender-based violence is very real, it happens in so many different contexts, and it has been used in political ways too, of course. But for me, personally, trying to articulate the devastating injustice of occupation and the continuing Palestinian struggle seems incompatible with this problematic metaphor. I thought, what if I were to deconstruct it by making this woman/land conflation a person? What if I were to also write about rape and gender-based violence from my own, very personal, perspective? Perhaps I also wanted to write poems about who one Arab woman is.

But also there is this important question of how a person can relate to the Arab struggles over land, over agency, over even being allowed to exist. I am so close and so distanced from that. I viscerally feel shame and anger and sadness when I encounter news and images of brutality inflicted upon innocent people. But I have not experienced displacement or Israel’s systematic discrimination against Palestinians in my daily life. So perhaps I wanted to write as a person constantly surrounded by images of violence, as a part of a distant body of witnesses. The shame and anger and despair evoked by seeing these images—knowing this is happening to people— are somehow collective and individual. During Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008/9 I remember becoming aware I am one of millions of onlookers, who feel helplessness, who want to resist somehow. I attempted to write Fadia in resistance to injustice, but I also needed to write her through a literal and figurative distance that emerged of some awareness of my position as a distant witness, and of this perspective as mine rather than a collective or representational one.

FC: I noticed in many of these poems that poetry, gender, and language are often messily intertwined. How is this book exploring that weird intersection?

SM: Oh yes, I suppose it is a weird intersection. On the one hand, I am fascinated by the gendering of language. For example, Arabic is gendered through verbs and nouns and other figures of speech. Arabic is a stunningly beautiful language in so many ways—I love the sounds of its gendering— and I feel that sometimes nouns have extra characteristics in my head because they are gendered in my native tongue. But I also don’t love the gendered language because I do see it as a manifestation of patriarchal binaries of being. So, there is a problem with language in general—obviously not just Arabic, but English and other languages as well—as perpetuating a world of binaries. I often wonder how we can attempt to queer language, but also how we can, perhaps, queer language by gendering it. So in a sense I was still working within the actual binary system of language but trying to subvert it at times. I think I can’t help but think in both Arabic and English, and so gender, or (non)gendering, becomes further compounded by associations of identity and meaning that I think through across the two languages.

FC: Do you want to talk a little bit about your current project, Olive?

SM: Thank you for asking about Olive! This project includes a bunch of poems that grew after, or perhaps from, 50 Water Dreams, but they’re very different from the book. There’s the idea of olive skin, what that means, I guess, in terms of skin color. I really struggled with that when I first moved to the US and had to identify my self by race or ethnicity in official forms and documents. As a Jordanian and an Arab I am legally White, but I do not identify as such. Thinking about my own racial or ethnic identity/identification was a new and murky sort of space, especially in terms of my mind’s knee-jerk resistance to categorization by hegemonic structures of power that currently function, and have historically functioned, through hierarchies of identities. But the project is really about many things happening back home and in the region. I suppose that I often worry and get angry about the violence that is rampantly taking over lives. It is also an elegy of sorts, a very personal one. These new poems seem more direct, less coded and self-censored, which feels both exciting and intimidating for me as a writer.

siwarauthorSiwar Masannat is an Arab writer from Jordan. She holds degrees from the University of Jordan and George Mason University. Her poetry collection, 50 Water Dreams, is forthcoming from Cleveland State Poetry Center this May. She is a PhD student in poetry at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Her poems and articles have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry ReviewVOLT,  The Journal, and 7iber among many others.

Franklin K.R. Cline’s poems and interviews have been featured in Banango StreetMatterOyez ReviewWord Riot, and elsewhere. He is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and a PhD candidate in English—Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He lives in Milwaukee with three cats and his wife, Rachel Kincaid.