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Poetry: Spicing Up Political Poetry

Suheir Hammad, ZaatarDiva (Cypher Books, 2005)

Three months after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Palestinian-American Suheir Hammad performed her poem “First Writing Since”during the debut episode of the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

1. there have been no words.
i have not written one word.
no poetry in the ashes s outh of canal street.

no prose in the refrigerated trucks driving debris and dna.

not one word.

The show went on to win a Peabody, and Hammad’s performance was lauded by The New York Times as “uncompromising [and] poignant.”

The following year, Simmons—founder of the hip-hop label Def Jam Recordings and the Phat Farm clothing line—took this smash-hit “poetry-meets-street” concept to Broadway (picking up a Tony), and then across the country and around the world. Both on Broadway and on tour, tall, leggy, supermodel-thin Hammad, with her sharply angled face and riotous head of hair, was part of the original cast once again, feted as the country’s first Palestinian-American poet.

Thirty-two-year-old Hammad—author of three books, two-time winner of the Audre Lord Writing Award, and co-recipient of the 2005 Sister of Fire Award—is what you would call a “political poet.” This longtime Brooklyn resident sees her poetry as news, containing the power to influence and illuminate the world. She believes that she has as much right to write poems about hot-potato, topical issues—Iraq, Palestine—as the more common subjects of poets, like love and death. “Poetry has no greater vocation than transformation,” she tells her students during a class for aspiring poets at the Bowery Poetry Club. “We don’t need poems that just describe a moment.”

Hammad is the latest of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the World,” following a long line of poets that include William Butler Yeats in Ireland, Pablo Neruda in Chile, and June Jordan, born right here in New York City. She has used her poetry to protest against the war in Iraq and the Bush administration, and to support the Palestinian freedom movement and women’s rights. In February 2003, after Sam Hamill’s invitation to a White House poetry event was retracted when it was feared that he would read an anti-war poem there, Hammad participated in the Poems Not Fit For The White House event—a Lincoln Center poetry reading that included Hamill, Sharon Olds, and Stanley Kunitz.

As a poet of the news, Hammad took on the role of reporter this September, after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. She helped organize a benefit called Refugees for Refugees to raise money and clothes for the survivors of the hurricane, and then spent three weeks in Louisiana, talking with survivors and listening to their stories. The poem she wrote after her visit was entitled “Of Refuge and Language.”

I am not deaf to cries escaping shelters
That citizens are not refugees

Refugees are not Americans

I will not use language
One way or another

To accommodate my comfort

I will not look away

All I know is this

No peoples ever choose to claim status of dispossessed
No peoples want pity above compassion

No enslaved peoples ever called themselves slaves

“Suheir is the greatest thing to happen to poetry since the invention of water,” says Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club and producer of The United States of Poetry for PBS. He may be waxing a bit too lyrical, but he defends his over-the-top praise of her: “For most people, poetry is an obscure and elitist art. [And] for most U.S. citizens, the Israeli-Palestinian situation is an abstract and impossible-to-understand situation. Now we have, in a single individual, the exposition of clarity and beauty to communicate the truth about both poetry and Palestine. That’s the equivalent of discovering a new world or, say, the invention of water.”

But what raises Hammad above the cacophony of angry, idealistic, and downright demented voices out there in the artistic firmament is the fact that she is not just a political poet. “Suheir is not only a voice, but also every bit a formal poet on the page,” says Holman.

To Hammad, a poem that is political at the expense of being poetic is a failure as verse. She believes that a poet’s first responsibility is to meter and rhyme and precision and truth in her work. She is uncompromising on this point. “I don’t have to pretend that, just because I agree with your politics, I’m down with your poetry,” Hammad says defensively, as if this is an argument she has fought too many times with too many of her peers.

“The conversation should not be about whether this poem is political or not,” she says, taking issue with the increasing resistance to political poetry in this country from the White House down. “[The conversation] should be on mediocrity; the conversation should be about craft. If it’s not a tight poem, it won’t change the world. There aren’t three K’s in America—‘AmeriKKKa.’ Misspelling never saved anyone. If you truly believe the Klan is running this nation, show me in the poem.”

Hammad’s new collection of poetry, ZaatarDiva (Rattapallax Press, 2005), is full of poems to the “children of Palestine,” anti-war poems, and poems against racism and bigotry. But theyalso testify to the fact that Hammad’s political passions never take hostage her aesthetic standards. In “Mike Check,” one of her most well known poems that is included in ZaatarDiva, Hammad shows how to achieve that perfect union between metaphor and meaning.

one two one two can you
hear me mic check one two

mike checked
my bags at the air

port in a random

routine check

i understand mike I do
you too were altered

that day and most days

most folks operate on

fear often hate this

is mic check your
job and I am

always random

The title comes out of Hammad’s experience of being the outsider for much of her life. In 1973, she arrived on these shores as the five-year-old child of Palestinian refugee parents. She spent a restrictive childhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn that left her with plenty of spare time to read, and read, and read. (“I’m the kid that could not go to the roller-skating rink or on class trips because they were held at night or at places where boys would be,” she says now, with self-mocking humor. “I was that immigrant.”)

Her mother used to make her sandwiches to take to school for lunch. But while “everyone else was eating ham or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches,” Hammad recalls, “we had green shit all over our teeth.” The “green shit” was zaatar, a Middle Eastern spice-and-herb dip made from olive oil, thyme, sesame seed, oregano, mint, and marjoram, that Hammad’s mother used as a sandwich filling. Hammad realized then that the peanut-butter-and-jelly American life she saw on television and in the books she read—the dominant narrative then and now—“wasn’t always right and wasn’t always inclusive.” She chose ZaatarDiva for her new book’s title “to honor the memory of a childhood that as difficult as it may have been at the time, lent itself to an adulthood of trying to reach out to marginalized voices.”

ZaatarDiva is the first book under Rattapallax’s new imprint Cypher Books. Hammad was selected to be Cypher Books’ first poet because, as Editorial Director Willie Perdomo says, “She reads the hell out of a good poem.” Having known Hammad for more than a decade, he sees an evolution in her writing from “telling [her] own story to telling other people’s stories.” But he still marvels at how when Hammad recites her poems, she can “galvanize large groups of people to action.”

That clarion call is the underlying thrust of all of Hammad’s work. She refuses to give up on the human race and insists that we are capable of more, of better. She says it best at the end of “First Writing Since”:

there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has risen.

affirm life.
affirm life.
we got to carry each other now.

you are either with life, or against it.

affirm life.

Anju Mary Paul is a cultural reporter based in New York City.


Anju Mary Paul

Anju Mary Paul is a cultural reporter based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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