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Poetry As a Bridge Across Cultures: Anis Shivani Interviews Marilyn Hacker

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Marilyn Hacker, who splits her time between Paris and New York, is one of our greatest exponents of poetry written in traditional forms, using sonnets, ghazals, and other forms in innovative ways. Career highlights include Presentation Piece (1974), for which she won the National Book Award, Separations (1976), and Assumptions (1985). She is as passionate a poet of love--think of Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986)--as she is of politics, as in the new collection Names. She has translated the work of Claire Malroux, Venus Khoury-Ghata, and Mary Etienne.

In Names, Hacker often addresses fellow poets to stake out a politics of resistance while being maximally respectful of identity; form enhances tone to create a dialectic where Hacker positions herself as a willing student of exile, eager to learn from its authorities.

In her crown of sonnets "For Kateb Yacine" (Algerian writer, 1929-1989), she writes: "A gender and a nationality / implicit in the ululation rise / from a long throat to claim or compromise / privilege; responsibility / in texture, in that wound of sound, that vexed / surface, which could detonate, could drop."

Hacker uses "the first four lines of an Emmanuel Moses poem...[as] the last lines of each of the four stanzas" of her Glose. "The saving action of memory," so typical of Hacker's glosses, takes us to sacred, hidden rooms behind the obvious images. Thus Moses's line "Blue brooks cross the fields" is preceded in her stanza by "Methods of crossing borders are diverse: / sixty years passed, and trains are innocent / again. Cream-colored cattle kneel; a lone horse / in a barnyard cocks a gray ear to the wind." This is perfect amplification without self-consciousness.

Hacker collaborates with Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi in a series of renga (stanzas of three lines followed by two lines, with poets alternating their contributions): "Her mother would say / 'Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Arabs...' / and that was enough. // The front door slammed shut on the / puzzled face of affection. // All "we" were was what / was not the darker other / with his long lashes, // with her insistent questions." Followed by: "The Crusaders gave / her those blue-green eyes. Not that / interrogative // smile at the cadence of wind / tangling her kinky black hair."

Perhaps all poetry is collaboration; Hacker's deployment of traditional forms secures this perennial urge to an open-ended conversation, from which the poet derives strength, even in the worst modes of frustrated exile.

Read some of Hacker's work here, here, here, here, and here.

Shivani: There is a greater proportion of ghazals in Names than in any of your previous books. Did the themes of the book lead you to rely so heavily on this form?

Hacker: There is always an element of play in form, however "serious" the expression. Some of these ghazals came about in a kind of dialogue with a friend, the poet Suzanne Gardinier, who wrote a book entirely in ghazals, entitled Today (Sheep Meadow Press, 2008). There is also an ongoing dialogue with the Kashmiri-American ghazal champion, Aga Shâhid Ali, who died in 2001 at only 52 (his given name "Shâhid" with the accent on the "a" means "witness" in Arabic, as I remark in one of the ghazals). Another good friend , the British-Iranian poet Mimi Khalvati, also an interlocutor, writes ghazals. So this seems to be as much about conversation as about themes...

Shivani: The ghazals in this book are less erotic or expressive of desire than plaintive statements of the end of desire. Is that a fair assessment to make?

Hacker: I would hope that, by their very nature, they are "about" more than either desire or the end of desire. They are, of course, about both, but the nature of the ghazal is to be about several things at once: the beloved and the state and god; the seasons, age, death and eternity, intoxication and meditation, and, of course, language. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the Urdu poet (translated into English by Aha Shâhid Ali) has a line in a poem that the subject of poetry is "what survives the loss of the beloved"--but in another of his poems, "the beloved" can be read as "liberty" as well as a human lover... (He spent a lot of time in jail.)

Shivani: The "Le Sancerre" poems in the current book recall Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons (1986), except that the earlier book is engaged in an endless, impossible elaboration (perhaps to the extent of satisfying the urge to voyeurism), while the current poems are almost circumspect.

Hacker: Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons is a kind of novel in verse, about the arc of an urban lesbian love affair--and I suppose there is a certain amount of voyeurism in the consumption of fiction! The "Sancerre" poems here are more contemplative, and about the relationship of the individual to local and wider histories. They do have in common the sonnet form, and cafés.

Shivani: What is your relationship to Algerian writer Kateb Yacine? I mean, as a writer imagining/idealizing a writer. Is there a sense in which you almost envy someone like Yacine, for the reality of his exile?

Hacker: Kâteb (born in 1929 to a Berber family in Constantine) was a sometime-exile who became a national hero in Algeria as well as a French writer championed by the French avant-garde. From 1970 on, he wrote--and directed and produced--plays in Algerian dialectal Arabic (when practically no one had attempted literature in dialectal language) following, and preceding, plays, novels and poetry in French. "I write in French to tell the French that I am not French," he once wrote. He was (nonetheless?) awarded the French government's Grand Prix national des lettres in 1987.

When he died in Grenoble--of leukemia, at barely 60, in 1989--an Algerian fundamentalist mufti issued a fatwa saying that he should not be buried in Algeria, or on Islamic soil--but he had a hero's funeral, attended by thousands, in Algeria nonetheless. (Like that of Mahmoud Darwish in Ramallah...and there is something similar in the place that each holds nationally.) Kâteb was an outspoken proponent of women's rights, and the Algerian women refused the tradition that they should not take part in the funeral procession: they, too, accompanied his coffin to the grave.

In short, or long, if I envy Kâteb anything it is his polyvalent and polyglot genius! He may have resembled the "exiles" in the sequence on one cold afternoon or another, but he was not cut off from the literatures or the life of either of his countries, and his marginality was that of an ideological and aesthetic rebel. (His experience of exile was not that of a Marina Tsvetaeva, or a Joseph Roth.)

Shivani: In "For Anna Akhmatova," you wonder: "Was her exigent Muse the despised dictator / who censored, exiled, starved, imprisoned, murdered, / hurting the prodigy of birch and willow / into her late genius of debridement?" I see this as a companion piece to Kâteb Yacine. How can a writer resist under a tyranny--while "an empire's gearshifts creak behind" her, as you put it?

Hacker: Akhmatova's own life and work are one example. Kâteb Yacine was able to resist publicly (after an early stint in jail before the Algerian revolution; and despite the pointed disapproval of post-revolutionary puritan authorities). Akhmatova, in contrast, had decades "underground," when publication was impossible except in samizdat form--or by memorizing poems that would otherwise not have continued to exist after their composition (as we see her doing with Lidia Chukovskaia in the "Glose" on her poem "Willow"). The fact that some people, at least, looked to the poets for resistance, for poetry that was itself an act of resistance, seems to be part of the response to your question: if poetry is read as, itself, resistance, then it is a way for a writer to resist--even under a tyranny.

Shivani: In "Lettera amorosa," we feel unexpected discovery in the poem's conclusion of a greater absence than at first posited: "Letter, then, to light, which is open-ended, / folds, expands, but even on winter mornings / faithfully attends to the correspondence, / answers the question."

You're very fond of Sapphics. How does the form heighten your dialectic in a poem like "Lettera amorosa"?

Hacker: What I like about Sapphics is the music of a non-iambic metric in English. Of course the 'trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee" pattern is only the vaguest approximation of quantitative metrics, but it nonetheless imposes (lyrical or playful) exigencies on the language of the poem that lead, in the best of cases, to discovery, directions to the poem unexpected even to the poet.

Shivani: In "Letter to Alfred Corn," we overhear a conversation with a friend: "I'll be back in New York, feeling ten times more alien / than where the polyglot boulevards intersect, linking up / 11e and 20e, Maghreb, punk chic, kashruth, chinoiserie."

Here, you're addressing an internal exile--as all poets are. This poem has a more relaxed tone than the ones written to Yacine and Akhmatova--as if together you belonged to a knowing conspiracy of marginality.

Hacker
: This is a playful, affectionate poem to a friend--who is a wonderful poet, but, like myself, far from being a national figure or an avatar of any cause. And it is a poem addressed to someone who is there to read it (while the book's readers read over his shoulder) so it is of course more relaxed, and, at the same time, takes up, or I hope it does, the challenge of writing an "epistolary" poem of interest to others than the recipient of the letter.

Shivani: "Glose: Sunday noon haze on the fruit-stalls of Belleville" is an elegy; what exactly is it that you're regretting the passing of?

Hacker: Perhaps it is more about "change" than "passing"--there's often the first of something replacing the last of something: the Tunisian Jews opening kosher couscous restaurants; the homeless men setting up housekeeping under the bridge; the little act of courtesy of the café waiter confronted with a cacophonous traffic jam. As in other poems, the saving action of memory is evoked in the end...

Shivani: You repeat the line "That also is Jerusalem" in "From 'The Year of the Dragon'" from the preceding poem.

Hacker: That is part of the glose form: the first four lines of the Emmanuel Moses poem in translation become the last lines of each of the four stanzas of my poem. But there is the sense of the city of Paris as a kind of secular "Jerusalem" pervading the poem.

Shivani: "I'll never see the light of your memories / (joy can be shared, but losses are separate) / though we're a lucky pair of outcasts, / free to embellish or keep our stories." In "Letter to Mimi Khalvati" you express a different kind of intimacy, poet to poet, than you do with Alfred Corn. Could you explain this please?

Hacker: Are any two friendships alike? It seems too obvious to contrast a non-erotic friendship between a man and a woman with a friendship between two women (and every friendship has its own erotics). Same/different. In one case, different gender, same nationality, with, therefore, certain references and even experiences in common--more of a common sense of humor, too; in the other case, same gender, different and plural nationalities (Mimi was born in Iran, lives in England and writes in English), some widely divergent experiences, and others (poetry, motherhood, displacement) very much in common.

Shivani: You collaborate wonderfully on the renga with Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi; this form would seem to be ideal to overcome otherness, which you definitely do in this poem. One imagines a civilization-wide renga, voices collaborating from across distances, to create a new whole...

Hacker: In fact, the very first renga of the series was composed as part of an American nation-wide renga project, itself part of a larger arts project called ArtTrain. Mine was written during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in January of 2009--but the project involved receiving a renga from the preceding participant and sending one on to the next one. Deema and I took this idea and turned it into a conversation of our own: we've got about fifty of them between us so far, and their "locations" vary from California to Beirut to Paris to the Occupied Territories, and many other places too. But yours is a lovely idea--more voices, and from more places, though we might have to stay in one language. And the renga has always been used for playful/serious poetic conversation, with slightly stricter rules than Deema and I applied.

Shivani: "Ghazal: dar al-harb" is an exclamation mark of sorts, as you define your own country as the region of war: "I might wish, like any citizen to celebrate my country / but millions have reason to fear and hate my country." Its orbit is inescapable: "The June blue sky, the river's inviting meanders: / then a letter, a headline make me contemplate my country."

You seem impatient of false elaborations, subtle justifications.

Hacker: "Prove that I lie"...Shall we take President Obama's Nobel Prize speech for starting remarks?

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