AL YOUM: A PREVIEW
Poetry is capable of willing language into new utility. It can be a political engine, transforming discourse into a line, a fume of impulses. George Abraham is a poet of exact fury, channeling language as he also interferes with its oppressive transmissions. Few writers are able, the way George Abraham is able, to convey the bareness of violence without falling back on traditional poetic instincts. But for George, tradition requires splintering. Encountering George on the page and on the stage, it becomes clear that George is busy casting another net entirely, one in which mastery bows to mutuality, one in which power dissolves away from the absolute and into the terrible space of inhabitance. With George, we must obliterate the language of the Zionist by showing us the language of the Zionist. We must see the Queer Palestinian by seeing the Queer Palestinian present amid their enemies. We see grammar as a kind of ramshackle as the voice of the poems rise up, rise forward, break apart its captors. Working with George has taught me so much about patience and celebration, that we might elect a better community despite what we think we deserve from community. al youm is so much power and grace and beauty. I hope you’ll purchase your copy of it today and celebrate this singular, phenomenal poet. Much thanks, as always, to the ever-talented and brilliant co-editor Emily Raw for creating a gorgeous and compelling cover, and for conceiving George’s book trailer, seen above.
ODE TO MY SWOLLEN, MONO-INFECTED SPLEEN
There’s a weight in you that screams at
Unholy hours & this is the first time you
Were led to believe your body is not a chasm;
When your gut becomes an ocean in love
With its tempests & the invisible islands
Swallowed whole in the wake of you —
You’ve got the colonizers shaking in their
Boots; every white thing trembles at
The sight of the expansive planet you’ve become;
There are parts you never knew existed
Until they occupied too much space.
Until your own weight fills your
Hollowed frame & everything inside
You bursts & swells into
A cacophony of organs & white blood
Cells — how could you expect to house
All this fluid & turbulence & history without
Imploding? Don’t they know you have a
Whole country in you? How can
You expect completeness when home is
A borderless entity; when you fit the
Infinite into a single body — how do
They look at you & not see God in that
Swell & undertow? In the Goliath
They made of that fist-sized organ, or the
Holy ghost your immune system has become;
They look at you & see a defenseless thing; a city
In love with the carpet bomb’s embrace;
You ever look at a body on fire & see
God in the burning? You ever sing hallelujah
To an infected thing because it did not
Kill you? Because the battle makes you feel
So alive you’ve forgotten the martyr your
Body has become? You’re still unlearning
The parts of you that shrivel & shrink beneath
The confines of gravity & you’ve begun teaching them
To swell. To crash.
—Originally published by Brooklyn Poets
AN INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE ABRAHAM
Natalie Eilbert: The experience of reading al youm is a forceful one, its severity blaring across boundaries of country, of home, of queerness, of trauma. The way you write your poems, you expressly want us to see the lines of burden therein, whether through strikethroughs, redaction, footnotes, or a co-opting entire of language. I’m especially thinking of an early poem in the chapbook, “Inheritance,” which utilizes all these ideas. What was it like to access Zionist text and use it as a subversive tool? What was it like to show us those border lines?
George Abraham: Most of the Zionist texts and quoted and subverted in “Inheritance” were ones presented to me naturally, unprompted by research, in settings such as classrooms, speeches in and out of academia, personal conversation, readings, internet posts directed towards me, etc. This piece is a discussion about this notion of “dialogue,” and what types of ideologies are worthy and safe for us to engage with. Academics are among the first to condemn progressives for “shutting down conversation,” when in reality, certain types of “conversations” lead Palestinian students, and other students of oppressed identities, into hostile environments. The walls of academia cannot be safe for us when its students are forced to engage with ideologies that delegitimize their right to exist. This turns one’s schooling into an arena unto which they must defend their own existence, for the sake of dialogue, for the sake of the privileged to look unto the marginalized and learn from our struggle. My poems exist on this border between dialogue and reality, and in subverting these oppressive forces, I not only aim to delegitimize them, but to give insight on the core, insidious nature of how forces like zionism, queerphobia, racism, etc. are so deeply ingrained into institutions we interact with daily. Like viruses, understanding the core mechanisms of how these marginalizing forces build, expand, and infect is more key to eradicating them than simply knowing and recognizing their side-effects, or simply learning how to reduce probabilistic interaction with said virus.
NE: al youm celebrates many writers in its pages, borrowing forms and energies from poets such as Richard Siken, Ocean Vuong, Angel Nafis, and Marwa Helal. Against the first question, which is doing a different kind of re-tooling, how do you see this more honorary gesture working?
GA: My work is the culmination of all of my poetic ancestors who came before me. While the poets you mention are explicitly honored and celebrated in form and energy, in al youm, I’ll start by saying that my Voice is the sum of everything I read and interact with. Especially as a queer artist of color, I seek refuge in everyone who has worked before me to make space for voices like me. Every time I honor another poet in al youm is a way of creating dialogue with the work of those who wrote before me. Sometimes, these dialogues are active, such as Helal’s very recent publication of “photographs not taken.” Her collaboration with undefined space, or more precisely undefinable space, gave me a language for constructing the Palestine before 1948, in my family’s eyes—a Palestine I can never know or understand. I am interested in seeing how poets dialogue with their ancestors, and as such, I am extremely interested in Winter Tangerine’s column Lineage of Mirrors, curated by Julian Randall. It’s a space for poets of color to publish suites of poems accompanied by a statement on their artist of influence. This publication model is one I think more platforms should adopt, not just to give insight into different processes, but to catalogue the historical conversations every poem is having with the lineage that built it. Every poem is a conversation. Every poem is built out of a lineage.
NE: The chapbook examines a lot of different formats on top of traditional verse (tankas and ghazals, namely). Your own sense of form is visually striking, forcing us out of lyricism and the page and into a more neo-conceptual brand of text, this idea of vocabulary as architecture. Words are sculptural and you use this concrete method in so many fascinating directions. Tell me about the concept behind some of these poems—I’m specifically interested in “palestinian/q vs. Imaginary,” “palestinian/q vs Real,” and “Demon-Possessed Poet attempts self-Exorcism” (though don’t limit yourself to just these pieces).
GA: At the risk of being too technical, I am going to draw a parallel to mathematics. There are two ways we can view shape and space; we can view the local geometry of an object—its curvatures, its intricacies and fine details. Or we can view the shape of the space in which the object rests, more of a topological notion. How does the space, itself, wrap around itself, or collapse in on itself? What cycles and symmetries arise in such a space? These are questions topologists ask, which ignore the fine intricacies a geometer would care about, but arrive at a more fundamental, essential answer to their characterization of the space in question. I view my poems in a more topological sense, as opposed to a geometric sense. Yes, every page is, by definition, a border, and the ways poetry can dance within that border can be striking and beautiful. However, I am more interested in the nature of the space that created this border to begin with; how can I construct a space that allows each individual poem to exist beyond these physical and emotional borders? What topology, on and off the page, can give us poetry that is as much literature as it is a living, breathing creation that subverts everything seeking to restrain it? Is that not the very essence of resistance?
NE: I love the idea, as I mentioned when I interviewed Roberto Montes about his chapbook Grievances, of the chapbook as community. There are so many spoiled and/or toxic communities within our current literary movement, but a chapbook such as yours commits to its own space through how it labors. Its urgencies are capable of—not just infuriating, as Wallace Stevens would have it—but smacking the smugness off any powerful institution’s face. I know that for you, this chapbook is about community. Could you tell me more about what you mean when you talk about community?
GA: The community that birthed al youm was the slam poetry community; my community of artists of color in OASIS (Swarthmore College’s spoken art collective) and the larger Philadelphia area who pushed me to write my unapologetic, whole truth, and live loudly through my work. And don’t get me wrong – the slam poetry world has its own haul of white nonsense. I’ve seen an entire community praise a white person’s mediocre poem about french fries above many other artists of color who are actively saving lives with their work. But above all, my specific mentors within the slam community have given me an urgent drive and vision to my work, and constantly remind me that my narrative is worthy of attention. I am glad to be existing in a moment where the distinction between “stage poets” and “page poets” are blurring, and we are slowly moving away from this inaccessible, sterilized, Eurocentric, academic definition of Poetry. A large support network for the creation of al youm came through the creation of a Facebook group for Middle Eastern/North African poets (which started last year at CUPSI at a MENA/South Asian poets meetup we planned). Through this group, I met Marwa Helal, Hazem Fahmy, and many other Middle Eastern poets who changed who I am as a writer. Hazem and I traded manuscripts the summer before the Atlas Review contest ended, and his questions and vision guided me as I drove al youm to completion. It would not exist without Hazem (his manuscript, Red // Jild // Prayer, was also a finalist for the Atlas Contest, and is forthcoming with Finishing Line Press). It took a whole country to build al youm; in fact, many of them. Or perhaps in building al youm, we have built a country together.
NE: Who is this chapbook for? Who needs to read it most? Are these two questions different? If so, why?
GA: This chapbook is for all diasporic individuals and artists. Not just Palestinians – while I write this from a Palestinian-American perspective and want to definitely prioritize supporting Palestinian resistance efforts, I wrote this book with the mindset of interrogating the nature of intergenerational trauma and diaspora’s intersection. This chapbook is for anyone whose body has suffered a violence, be it historical, living, or self-inflicted. This chapbook is for queer people of color who turn to books for healing, who realize that books are not enough to make change alone, but recognize the radical incendiary potential in poetry despite.
NE: Who are your readers? What books and/or poems would you like to link us to?
GA: Again, I primarily serve queer readers of color, specifically with diasporic backgrounds and/or backgrounds in the middle east. Poems and books that have saved my life, and are also meant for aforementioned audiences, are “the Middle East is Missing” by Marwa Helal (and Invasive species, forthcoming with Nightboat Books), literally everything by Safia Elhillo, Sand Opera by Phil Metres, Red//Jild//Prayer by Hazem Fahmy, Bestiary by Donika Kelly, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar, and the writings of Julian Randall , Cat Vélez, Noel Quiñones, and Jess Rizkallah (her first collection, the magic my body becomes, is forthcoming this fall).