Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora

Led by poet Claudia F. Savage, a quarterly interview series

Lauren Camp (Photo credit: Bob Godwin)

The first of the series, a conversation with Lauren Camp.

Multidisciplinary poet, visual artist, and radio host Lauren Camp is the first-generation, Arab-American daughter of a Jewish-Iraqi immigrant. There is a sense, in her third book, One Hundred Hungers, that you are a guest at a family gathering. You listen. You absorb gesture. You are grateful for the amazing food. Though you stuff yourself, you have more questions. More need. One Hundred Hungers doesn’t offer simple answers about exile or identity. Instead, the personal becomes political, and bravery happens on the smallest of scales, within a family. Lauren Camp is a patient poet. She knows that giving voice to the unspeakable can take generations.

Claudia F. Savage: The poet Alice Notley, once wrote, “If I tell you/ you’re suffering,/ will you believe me?” In One Hundred Hungers, you expose your father’s boyhood in Baghdad (including the farhud, the “dispossession” or massacre of Jewish people that took place on June 1 and 2, 1941) even though he doesn’t talk about it. In the poem, “Variation: Let’s Pretend,” you say:

Let’s pretend you tell me what happened.
How you lived in the city two streets from the river…
Let’s agree that you’ll tell me the details.
Please. You have to remember every flake
of the air and the furrows of danger.
Lauren Camp reading her poem “Variation: Let’s Pretend”

This excavation and piecing together of history is like a slowly shared secret. If the poet keeps asking, she’ll get somewhere needed. Can you talk about that notion of seeking and discovery?

Lauren Camp: My father was not at all forthcoming with his history. Though I tried again and again to get him to tell me even the smallest and dullest moments of his early life, he stayed silent. Alice Notley’s quote seems to fit him. Did he know he was suffering…? Was that a layer of his truth?

For a while, I was convinced that I couldn’t possibly write what I wasn’t told, what I didn’t understand. All the pluralities of his life; I had no idea what some of them were! Eventually, as if it were a dare, I began to write what I didn’t know. That not knowing was a topic I could own; it was a topic I did understand.

Moving forward, I asked many questions — of myself and through research, and left my Dad alone about his history. I took what was available to me. What I couldn’t find, I did without. What I couldn’t do without, I imagined. I gave the fierce blanks language, and the words gave me a sort of perception.

Lauren’s paternal side, the Mukamal family in Iraq

CFS: The quality of movement in these poems approaches a longer form. But, they remain separate but entwined, mirroring the exile and migration of your family:

To England to Israel to places with windows of light.
Uncles and aunts spilled across ocean…

How did these fragments of narrative cohere and disperse?

LC: More than anything, they came together through music. All the Baghdad sections follow the sound of the oud, the lyre of the Middle East. As I listened, I revised childhood memories and particular incidents and every membrane of story I was offered or could gather. I wrote my fragments into lines that replicated the bends and flares of Iraqi music. I wanted, ultimately, for the poems to resonate with a place I’d never been.

A modern oud band pick, Al-Khayyat, from Lauren’s radio show, Audio Saucepan

But other poems didn’t fit with the mythical, ancient music. For those, I relied on my natural affinity for jazz. I have a long history with this most American musical form — as both a visual artist depicting the seminal jazz musicians in shape and pattern, and as a public radio producer and host. The kinetic shifts of the genre are comfortable to my ear. I like the tension of having my words and phrases be both independent and collaborative. The poems in One Hundred Hungers are likely a confluence of these two musical forms.

A jazz pick, Woody Shaw’s album Rosewood, from Lauren’s radio show, Audio Saucepan

CFS: Your book melds the experimental next to form, pantoums near just one-line on a page. In World Literature Today, you said, “One of the truly bright spots in jazz is each proclamation of something that came before — the hint of a previous tune, quoted, then turned on its head.” How does this notion of requoting, changing form, and the notion of improvisation play in your work?

LC: Because One Hundred Hungers is built on limited information, some of it almost repeats. But, in fact, it doesn’t. It changes. The story shifts. The narrative goes forward and then undoes, and that undoing gives a new chance to assemble a truth. In a jazz concert, when a musician quotes a tune from the canon, those in the audience who know that tune are given a gift. We get to perceive two tunes together: the range of the new landing magnetically on the old. It’s delicious.

Lauren Camp reading her poem “Velvet”

CFS: The poet Naomi Shihab Nye once said, “Politics involves the dignity of daily life. To me, politics is how somebody carries himself or herself, regardless of the surrounding situation.” In this book, and in your previous one, The Dailiness, you focus on single moments that allow you to sink into another’s life. Do you consider that witnessing a political act?

LC: The individual perspective has always compelled me. The emotional place I live is the psychology of another and also of self. I’m not as comfortable in groups. There is so much stimulus in those situations, and I rarely know how to take it all in. One-on-one, I’m able to attend to a small behavior or issue, and the very human reactions to that.

I often wonder if I am political enough, but I know that a singular perspective helps each of us better understand the epic. It doesn’t work the other way around. We can’t break down the story of a whole community because we can’t put a face to it, but we can expand from one to many.

CFS: Yes, I think most poets echo this feeling of overwhelm and need to focus on the singular moment. The poet Carolyn Forché has said that the sharing of experience (even when painful) puts the focus on community, rather than on the individual artist’s ego. The interplay between your experience as the daughter of an immigrant and your reflection on your father’s experience has us traveling past one life, into another and back again, as in the poem, “Who Other” that reflects first on yours:

Most afternoons after school, she runs through a blister of houses…
Tudor land red dog land fire station siren land of wailing careful light…

And next to it, your father’s:

Smell of orange, bitter ceylon.
There was only the boy
and his laughter only low houses and doors
drawn closed from the alley.
Only Iraq with its dark birds.
Lauren and her father, Ernest (Heskel) Mukamal

History folds. The poet’s father, his and her relatives, the larger voice of his Jewish community in Baghdad and back again. Father and daughter grow together, change, and echo. Can you talk a bit about this echoing form?

LC: I crave simplicity, but it doesn’t suit me. I am most engaged when a work can act on multiple, complex levels. When I first tried to structure the manuscript, the contents included only the poems of my father in Baghdad and those of my childhood, told as myth. I separated them — one half of the book to this subject, and the other half to the other. That structure didn’t work at all.

The arrangement became its own project, and one that settled to its current form only when I had finalized the “Variations,” the poems that explore the limbo spaces of indigestible information, those spaces of hunger. I decided to tell the story in the same way I lived it: echoing, fragmenting, returning.

CFS: In two pages of One Hundred Hungers you have a list of names. Just names. They remind me of names read before Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or names listed at Holocaust memorials. What about these italicized lists?

LC: Oh, thank you for asking about these two pages. These beautiful names…! They are the names of some of my ancestors, many of whom I never met. My father’s extended family was sweeping, and relatives lived so far away.

How to best remember them but to voice them, to give them weight in my mouth, to praise their very existence. They are names of individuals and as such they have life experiences, which we aren’t given. Even so, I hope those lives, and what they might have been — their accomplishments and hardships — underpin all the space on these pages, and bleed out into the rest of the book.

CFS: Having them placed in the book the way you situated them, encourages us to recite them, too. In terms of language, for my family, Arabic has been diluted through the generations, but food remains the method of cultural connection to Lebanon. Everywhere in One Hundred Hungers is feasting, a need to fill the mouth and body with that connection. In “One Hunger Could Eat Every Other,” you say:

We eat for years and years. We eat like beggars…We eat the road they took to get here, the many myths they left behind…The thick line of life is all hunger. We eat as the sky recedes to countless diaphanous layers. We eat as logic, loyal. Knowing it will end….

The act of eating is a desperate one in your book. If you stop, you say, your connection to your father, your family and people will end. Can you talk about that desperation?

LC: The ritual of eating spanned every single gathering — even on Yom Kippur, when we fasted (except for the Cheerios that one of my cousins taught us to sneak into our pockets). Each year on Yom Kippur, the tangle of belly hollows continued until the massive feast, when our demanding appetites were again allowed to consume.

Every memory brought back a table, plates of food and then empty plates, reaching across others, the noise of my cousins. We were all built of the same stuff: desire. I didn’t think of this as troubling. We would walk in the door and Aunt Linda would say, “Lauren, I made tongue for you,” or my cousins would go straight to the cookie jar, the chopped liver. Food was the planet around which we spun. We drove an hour to be with family. We ate with family, and the children ran off and played, and then we left.

Lauren and her father, Ernest (Heskel)

My father had limited interests. So with him, eating allowed me entry to the place of his heart. Or so I thought, somewhere in my cells. What could I share if I stopped taking half of the pomegranate, or anything else?

CFS: In the poem, “I am practicing now” you say:

Now, your real language tongued by chance
Writhes and rises from you. A reliance on the throat,
the region wet and thick. Such wreckage.
To my ear, the rough places are beautiful, nourishing.
Say anything. Never stop saying anything…

Peter Cole, the American translator of Hebrew and Arabic poets, once said that “the instant I see those large, lickable Hebrew letters cutting into the page or flying off of it — I’m happy. There’s a kind of literary umami that the classical Hebrew releases…A certain tang.” What does the sound of Arabic evoke? How has that language fueled these poems?

LC: Whether those relatives at my grandparents’ immense table were speaking anger or love or something in between, the sounds of Arabic were a kind of nourishment. We ate those sounds while we ate my grandmother’s kitchri and other foods. My ears and mouth were full simultaneously. I don’t understand the language, but Arabic was part of what clasped me to that time. It was frighteningly rich in the best possible way. When I hear it now, it’s like a singing in my ribs. It fits my body. It fills it.

CFS: Yes. You are also a visual artist who works with fabric. The layout of your book — with poems about you written next to ones of your father, with short vignettes mixing with poems, and pages with just one devastating statement — seem a deliberately rendered collage, with texture reappearing over and over. Time is layered and interwoven. How does your visual work inform your poetics?

Shift (detail), copyright Lauren Camp from her “Matter” series

LC: I spent 12 years as a professional visual artist, writing occasional poems on the side and also broadcasting a radio show. (These days, I’ve semi-retired from visual art to focus on teaching, producing good radio, and writing.) Over and over back then, my three interests collided: sound, shape/color and language. I couldn’t keep them separate or pure.

One Hundred Hungers is constructed much like my artwork and my radio show. It is layered and obsessive. It echoes itself in its patterns, and then rearranges — bumps and shifts and spills — in ways I hope readers don’t expect.

Within Aspen, copyright Lauren Camp from her “Matter” series

Sometimes, my artwork presented a particularly knotty problem. I’d proceed in a direction, only to find that my resolution was not the right path. When chance pulled me left or right, or made me stop entirely, or made me draw a red box, those were the times the artwork seemed most dynamic. These sorts of surprises surfaced often in shaping One Hundred Hungers.

CFS: I’d like to end with your poem, “Why Dad Doesn’t Pay Attention to Iraq Anymore:”

You can all stop asking about the Abu Ghraib torture
and how he felt when the pictures were published
of men in long hoods. He was traveling
the white rim of traffic from New York
to the city of brotherly love,
stopping for donuts (cream-filled)…
He sees the circumference of dates.
Unsaid words pile in dunes…
All he wanted was some portion of yes
and stay, those phrases no one could pack.
Ernest (Heskel) Mukamal, Lauren’s father as a young man

This poem’s power steps through the rhetoric of our current political climate about people of Arab ancestry and focuses instead on your father’s grief. How has this collection helped you respond to the barrage of negative media surrounding Arab people?

Lauren Camp reading her poem “Remembrance”

LC: One Hundred Hungers offers up its diaspora in a conditional mood. The story here is my father’s, and the truth is — he would rather alight on his life in the present. Perhaps I am disobedient within our American culture. I am proud to claim that I am Arabic. I don’t believe I should hide it.

The media gives us frighteningly limited narratives of Arabic peoples. I hope to enlarge the conversation by this expression of one family’s identity and culture. I hope that One Hundred Hungers liberates what’s real by offering nuanced ways to look at our Arabic community. I hope it spoils the doubts.

Lauren Camp is the author of three books, most recently One Hundred Hungers (Tupelo Press, 2016), winner of the Dorset Prize. Her poems appear in New England Review, Poetry International, World Literature Today, Beloit Poetry Journal and elsewhere. She is a current Black Earth Institute Fellow and a long-time public radio producer for Santa Fe Public Radio, where she hosts “Audio Saucepan,” a program that interweaves music with contemporary poetry. www.laurencamp.com.

Arab-American poet Claudia F. Savage is one-half of the improvising sound-poetry duo Thick in the Throat, Honey. Her poems and interviews have been published, most recently, in Water-Stone Review, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, clade song, FRiGG, Cordella, Late Night Library, Bookslut, and Forklift, Ohio. Her series, “Witness the Hour: Conversations with Arab-American Poets Across the Diaspora,” begins July 2016 in Drunken Boat. A 2015 Pushcart and Best Poets 2016 nominee, her first book, Bruising Continents, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2017. Her collaboration, reductions, with Detroit-visual artist-Jacklyn Brickman is forthcoming in 2018. She’s garnered awards from Jentel, Ucross, The Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council. Find her at Claudia F. Savage.