Saturday, November 13, 2010
Cinnamon Press publishes poet Omar Sabbagh's 1st collection
British-Lebanese poet Omar Sabbagh's debut collection
(Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat 13th Oct 2010)
The publication of Omar Sabbagh’s first collection of poems, “My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint”, establishes this 29-year-old British-Lebanese poet as an exciting, courageous compelling new poetic talent. The collection’s back cover carries praise from Lebanese former Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, who writes: “Greatly enjoyed...I recommend ‘My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint’ to everyone who wants to read poetry emergent from the soul of the south, yet chiselled from a native English rock.”
The collection was published recently by the independent publisher Cinnamon Press, based in the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in Wales. Omar, who writes in English, composed the collection’s 56 poems between summer 2006 and winter 2009/10.
Professor Philip Davis of Liverpool University, editor of The Reader magazine, writes on the book’s back cover: “Omar Sabbagh is a distinct presence and a powerful voice: a young poet worthy of attention.” And poet and lecturer Martyn Cruceifx finds that Sabbagh “writes brilliantly about alienation from country and family: even his love poems are often troubled, and this makes for a distinctively modern sensibility.”
Asked by Al-Hayat whether he has plans to get his poetry translated into Arabic, Omar says: “I haven’t really thought about translations, but would be very open to one.” He adds: “this book had to be written before I could move on. It’s what T S Eliot would call an ‘objective correlate’ of my prolonged adolescence, the objectifying of a certain period of tempestuous pain between two covers.”
The poet discloses: “I have a contract now for a second collection, provisionally titled ‘The Square Root of Beirut’, forthcoming in February 2012 from Cinnamon.”
Omar’s parents Mohamad and Maha Sabbagh left Lebanon in 1975 because of the civil war and settled in London, where Omar was born. They returned to live in Lebanon permanently only four years ago. Omar dedicates the collection to his father and to a mysterious female identified only by the initial “C”, who had a profound effect on the poet’s psyche. The second half of the collection is entitled: “’Hiatus Hayatee: For C”.
The moving first poem in the collection, dedicated to Mohamad Sabbagh, is entitled “A Father’s Love.” The final stanza reads: “Let me remember him, immemorial / as ringed time in a tree; / let the echoes of his voice remind me / the whole way home / of where home is; / and as my eyes turn to glass / I’ll lift them up to a father’s love.
Many of the poems in the collection have personal dedications to family members or friends. The poem “Easy Going” is for “the two grandfathers I never met.” A number of the poems directly refer to Lebanon; “Rula’s Epiphany” begins: “Picture the undressed woman, Beirut, / her stone skins of yellowed pearl / the sun drips upon.
It is not easy for an emerging poet to make his mark, but Omar has had remarkable success in having his poems published in leading British literary journals including Agenda, Stand, Envoi, The Reader, Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry Wales and The Warwick Review. The latest issue of Banipal, the London-based magazine of Arab literature, includes several of his latest poems.
Sabbagh thinks that “my literary side comes from my mother’s side of the family. Growing up she loved English literature, and she passed onto me the desire to read from an early age.” She gave him the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to read when he was 11. “Her mother, my now deceased grandmother Sabiha Faris, used to teach children’s literature at the American University of Beirut and one of my uncles on my mother’s side, Waddah Faris, was an art dealer and artist.”
Omar is a scholar as well as a poet, and is the final stages of revising the PhD thesis at Kings College, London University, on the subject of Narrative and Time in the writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. He read for his first degree, in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), at Exeter College, Oxford University, and then did an MA in English Literature. He started a doctorate at Cambridge, but left after eight months to devote himself to poetry. He then did a second MA, in creative writing, at Goldsmiths College, London University, at the same time embarking on his PhD at King’s College. He is currently doing a third MA, in philosophy, at Birkbeck College, London University.
At Goldsmiths he studied under the award-winning poet Fiona Sampson, who writes of him: “He is very very able, and I think very interesting as a cross-cultural phenomenon. (I don’t mean in ANY tokenistic way, I mean in the way he fuses Western liberal education and home experience). He writes in a range of genres, not just poetry – he’s incredibly bright, full of energy and assiduity. I warmly recommend him.”