October 21, 2012

Writers Institute Reading: Ghassan Zaqtan, with Fady Joudah, October 16

Life is full of choices. But I relish these opportunities, having grown up in this area when there were no choices because there was nothing going on. Tonight it was the bi-monthly Slam at Valentines, or the reading by Ghassan Zaqtan at the University at Albany. I chose the reading at the University & have no regrets.

Zaqtan was originally scheduled to read here in April but "ethnic profiling" by the US Government held up his visa application until a variety of political/poetical forces were applied to get this major representative of the avant-garde in Arabic literature here to be able to read his work in "the land of the Free …" etc., etc. He was accompanied by his translator, the poet & activist-physician Fady Joudah (whom I had heard read his own poems at the Split-this-Rock Poetry Festival). Joudah has also translated extensively the work of Mahmoud Darwish, one of the most admired & widely read poets in the Arab world.

The evening began with Don Faulkner from the Writers Institute introducing Lofti Sayahi, the Chair of the University's Department of Language, Literature & Culture. Dr. Sayahi's introduction placed the work of Ghassan Zaqtan in the larger context of Arabic literature, as well as discussing the work of the translator.

Ghassan Zaqtan (left) & Fady Joudah
Each poem was read first by Fady Joudah in English, sometimes commenting on the poem or explaining a reference, then by Ghassan Zaqtan in Arabic in his deep, throaty voice, often gesturing with his right hand as he got warmed up in the poem. All the poems read were from the recent collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems (Yale University Press). Joudah explained that it contains the entire collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (2008) & selections from 2 earlier collections.

Most of the poems are fairly short & have a surreal quality, in the best sense of that term, creating another, more real world in language. In introducing "Wolves Also" Joudah said "wolves don't appear the same way twice" in Zaqtan's poems. I was pleased to hear a poem titled "Cavafy's Builders," & the comment that Constantine Cavafy (one of my favorite poets since the time I discovered his work while reading many years ago Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet) was the only non-Arab poet Zaqtan cited as an influence. I also like Zaqtan's use of poem fragments in "Everything as It Was," or as Joudah said, "the poem in its painful incompleteness."

At the end Don Faulkner asked Fady Joudah to read one of his own poems & he complied with "Bird Banner" with its images of pelicans. Of course there were questions from the audience, but I tried not to let that spoil the poems still echoing in my head.

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