Sinan Antoon is a poet, novelist, scholar, and translator based in New York. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s last prose book, In the Presence of Absence (Archipelago Books, 2011), won the 2012 American Literary Translators’ Award. Antoon’s most recent work is the novel The Book of Collateral Damage (Yale University Press, 2016), which was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2016 and published in English in 2019. He is currently an associate professor of Arabic literature at New York University.
Poets.org: Many of the poems occupy about as much space as words written on a postcard. How were you thinking of form while writing this collection, and did you have a particular reader in mind?
Sinan Antoon: The poems in Postcards from the Underworld are selections that I translated from the last two poetry collections (of prose poems) that I wrote and published in Arabic in the last decade. Although I’m an ex-Catholic, I should still confess: I can‘t seem to write long/er poems. Not that often. Perhaps it is a shortness of poetic breath on my part? I lean toward brevity as much as possible, in poetry and life in general (and my answers below!). I often think of poems as “distillation(s) of experience” (to use Audre Lorde’s words) and of being and language itself.
As to the second part of your question (about readers), there is no reader necessarily. However, many of the poems were written in response to, and during and after, the U.S. wars against Iraq (both in 1991 and 2003) and the death and massive destruction they caused. Going back to “distillation,” both Paul Celan and Osip Mandelstam wrote about poems being messages in bottles to be found and read by their finder. The poems in this collection are postcards sent to everyone in this underworld we live in.
Poems are also prayers, but not to any god. Prayers to be shared among those who believe that a poem is a prayer.
Poets.org: The poem “Letter to al-Mutanabbi,” which is about both the Baghdad street and the poet who is its namesake, is like a war-torn blazon that erupts into a manifesto, perhaps even into a dim prayer. It is also written in an epistolary mode, as its name would suggest, weaving it in with the book’s overall conceit. What formal concerns guided the creation of this varied poem, and what is the nature of its address?
SA: I wrote the poem after the bombing of al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007. It was a time of intense pain and anger. The U.S. occupation of Iraq had turned the country’s landscape into a deathscape of daily terror. But I wanted to distill this pain and anger into a nuanced form that is more than just a condemnation, but rather an interrogation of history and its nightmares. I begin the letter/poem by telling al-Mutanabbi about what has become of Baghdad, but I don’t stay there. The poem then zooms out to look at the state of the world and where it is heading, casting doubt on the myths and telos of “progress.” It addresses terrorism as a symptom of colonial modernity and an ever expanding settler colonial world (vision) not only with its bombs, but also its discursive bulldozers (“maps, philosophers, and books”). But the poem tries also to hold on to a sense of “equivocal hope” in resisting and surviving this global deathscape (and warming) and to dream of a world “Where we don’t devour one another / And the seas don’t inherit our fever.”
Poets.org: Punctuation is emphasized in this collection by how sparsely it is applied. The lyric poems, for example, feature few periods—with “Dismemberment” being a notable exception. Is there a relationship here between the use of punctuation and the title? How might punctuation break up the “body” of a poem?
SA: “Dismemberment” is about a body setting its parts free, so they flee, one by one (except for the heart). That necessitated more punctuation than I usually use in Arabic. This poem changed a bit in translation. In the Arabic it was two paragraphs, with the second being the last two sentences. But the lines were still carefully separated by commas, colons, and semicolons in the “original” Arabic. In the English version, the form evolved into independent lines. Each line, or two, speaking of a separate body part, ending with the heart. This iteration “performed” the dismemberment the poem is trying to translate into words.
There is, to be sure, an organic relationship between the title and the deployment of punctuation. The form and the content are in dialogue in this poem, more so than in most of the other ones in the collection. A poem’s rhythm and its reading, and thus shades of meanings, all shift slightly depending on punctuation. The voice dances differently, particularly when poems are read aloud.
Poets.org: Regarding the approach to craft in this collection, could you discuss your relationship to the sequence poem and how the sequence poem aids in the narrative’s reflections on a fraught inner and outer world?
SA: There are four “sequence poems” in this collection, three of which are about the U.S. war in and against Iraq and its aftermath. As an aside: the italics are because it has become all too common in the “United States of Amnesia” to just call it “The Iraq War.” As if the war waged itself!
In the era of permanent wars, those of us who cannot, or choose not to, look away, confront a flood of images, faces, and figures, most of which disappear into the black holes of history. Those that do not are repackaged and rebranded by triumphalist narratives. The sequence poem is a space that allows the poetic “I” to stand before the ruins of time and history and to try to salvage the shards. These shards come together to form constellations in a vast darkness of amnesia and oblivion. Traces (and tombs) of lives lost and forgotten. Failed attempts to map an unmappable and vast cemetery.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
SA: I just finished Juan José Saer’s The Witness, and I am in awe. I am rereading Charles Simic’s works. He is one of my favorite poets. I had started translating him into Arabic years ago, and I am working on a volume of his selected poems.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
Charles Simic’s “The White Room,” Audre Lorde’s “A Song for Many Movements,” W. S. Merwin’s “The Wings of Daylight,” Nâzim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” and Paul Celan’s “There was earth inside them.”