“I wanted—in my small way—to honor their stories with something beautiful, even though it was forged in deep grief.”
Arab in Newsland (Two Sylvias Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
I can tell you what I have learned—
when darkness arrives the blue glow
of screens will bring you no warmth. You light candles
while the streets beyond you burn and the ashes
of other monuments thicken
the white skies of winter.
When will you understand that storm clouds
cannot be held back by borders?
(This is an excerpt from the poem “Bleu Blanc Rouge”)
Why did you choose this excerpt?
I chose this poem because I think it is written in the voice of an Arab in Newsland, the fictional world created by the way in which we consume information and end up less informed and more separated and torn apart and alone.
The poem was written after the Paris bombings of November 2015. There was the immense tragedy, of course, and concurrent with it, the tragedies in many cities around the world which are rendered less grievable by our news coverage and the ensuing culture of silence and dehumanization that result from it. I wrote the poem in the voice of one always having to explain and remind others of the value of brown, Arab, and Muslim lives, too.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Anne Carson’s magnificent Float is a collection of chapbooks unlike any other. I love Safia Elhillo’s chapbook Asmarani, Michelle Penaloza’s landscape/heartbreak, and Kaveh Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I often say that I write “news-phrastic” poetry, a take on ekphrastic poetry. Instead of being in conversation with a work of art, I am often in conversation with a piece of news, which is curated and designed for us – viewers, listeners, readers. I often find that I want to respond to news reports and events through art, specifically through poetry. I realize after writing this way for some time that it is an insistence on my humanity, on our humanity, that leads me to respond in this way. So much of the news about Arabs, Muslims, Arab Americans, and Muslim Americans traffics in deeply dehumanizing tropes and sound bites that are reductive and painful. As a poet, I have the opportunity, and maybe even the obligation, to set different terms for seeing and engaging with these events.
What’s your chapbook about?
Arab in Newsland is a collection of poems about being Arab and inside of events that are narrated by others for immediate consumption in the 24/7 cycle of news. In many ways, it’s also about place. It’s about the fictional place created by the headline-version of history, which I think of as “Newsland,” and about the places we are from, our homelands, cities, and villages, the languages and experiences that are our actual homes.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I think “Maritime Nocturne” is the oldest piece in the book. It was written after the horrific drownings of Palestinian refugees in September 2014. Nearly two hundred Palestinians tried to cross the Mediterranean and escape the unfathomable conditions of their lives. It’s worth taking a moment to think about their final chapter: besieged for over a decade, many of them already refugees living in extreme poverty in the camps in Gaza, and surviving three wars during the decade of siege. Maybe it’s strange to think of a nocturne in the face of such compounded suffering, but I wanted –in my small way—to honor their stories with something beautiful, even though it was forged in deep grief.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The final poem I wrote for this collection is “Anniversary.” I have resisted writing poems specifically about the experience of living in a post 9-11 United States, though so many of the poems I’ve written are informed by that reality and live in that world. But last year, the Muslim holiday Eid Al-Adha, which is part of the Islamic lunar calendar, coincided with September 11th. My youngest daughter likes to write important events on our family calendar, and usually does so in bright markers. Her handwriting against the backdrop of these big events inspired the poem.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
My revision process both for this chapbook and for all my poems always includes reading poems aloud. The sound of the poem in a reader’s voice is just as important to me as the poem on the page. I don’t read the poem out loud in the earliest stages of writing because it’s still finding itself, but once I believe it’s getting close to how it will live in the world, I read it aloud again and again. This is such an intimate and necessary way of knowing the poem – hearing the line breaks, the places where it whispers or crashes, finding the pulse of the living work.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I loved working with Two Sylvias on this chapbook. From the very beginning, Kelli and Annette treated me as a full partner in the production process. I had a sense of how I wanted the cover to look, but I couldn’t find artwork that matched that right away. In our conversations, Kelli suggested I send her any images I may have that felt relevant. I sent some pictures I took in Amman, Jordan, where I lived for a while. She and Annette both loved the cityscape image that became the cover for the book. I was so touched that they also included a second photograph on the inside of the book. That image is from my grandparents’ garden, and the leaf in the foreground is from their Aleppo Pistachio tree.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
This is my first chapbook, and most of the poems in this book were written over the last three years, though a few pieces are older. My full-length collection of poems, Water & Salt, was published this April, and includes poems written over the last ten years.
What are you working on now?
I’m just putting the final touches on a full-length manuscript of poems. Several of the poems in it have already been published in journals; I’m really looking forward to sending the entire work out into the world. These poems are so important to me, and it was an incredible journey to write them. The first few began as tentative drafts during my residency at Hedgebrook, and then took on a life of their own. I am so moved by the response many of the poems have gotten, and I really hope they find their place in the world as a book.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
If I absolutely had to choose? Dance, poetry of the body. Like poetry, you become the medium for your art.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read everything you possibly can. And while you’re reading, write. Write terrible embarrassing poems on your way to great ones. Keep a journal, write letters, whatever it takes to keep you writing. Try out turns of phrase and words with delicious sounds. Look everything up. Take copious notes. Don’t be afraid to try and fail and try again.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. Her book of poems, Water & Salt, is published by Red Hen Press. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart and Best of the Net and her chapbook, Arab in Newsland, is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Prize. Lena is a Hedgebrook alum and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.