Sunday, March 18, 2012

omar sabbagh squares up to his lebanese roots in 2nd poetry collection

The Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh squares up to his Lebanese roots in his second collection from Cinnamon Press

English original of an article that appeared in Al-Hayat on 18 March 2012:
عمر صبّاغ شاعر بريطانيا اللبناني

الأحد, 18 مارس 2012
سوزانا طربوش

The article in Al-Hayat was accompanied by 3 translations of Sabbagh's poems into Arabic (the first-ever published English-Arabic renderings of Sabbagh's work) by the novelist, poet and Al-Hayat writer Jad El Hage (author of One Day in April ). The translated poems are On Lebanon (dedicated to Fouad Sanyoura), Poetry (dedicated to Maha Evers), and The Kindess of the Man (in memory of the poet's late maternal uncle Bisher Faris).

The 30-year-old Lebanese-British poet and scholar Dr Omar Sabbagh has in recent years won growing recognition as a distinctive and arresting voice on the British poetry scene. His poems have appeared many leading British poetry publications, and in September 2010 the Welsh independent publisher Cinnamon Press published his first collection “My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint” to critical acclaim. Now Cinnamon Press has published his second collection “The Square Root of Beirut” .

How does Dr Sabbagh view the second collection in comparison to the first? “I think my first book was an angry young man’s book - it was, quite literally, the objective correlative and transmogrification of a kind of felt misery, into measured words,” he says.

“I would say quite generally that my second book evinces, for all its remaining negativity, a certain extra factor of maturity and calm. In this second book if there is negative valency at any part, it is taken on board in a more ‘objective’ way, as an observer, or me a bit more able to stand outside myself. My tone or attitude –my stance towards the reader – is more resigned, more contemplative and at ease with evil, whether this latter be natural, circumstantial, purely psychological, or moral.”

“The Square Root of Beirut” carries praise on its back cover from Professor Roseanne Saad Khalaf, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the American University of Beirut ( AUB). “Sabbagh’s distinctive voice is startling in its cool intelligence, deeply absorbing and provocative in its intensely complex love-hate fascination with his homeland, particularly Beirut, a seductive city of disturbing contradictions,” Khalaf writes.

Sabbagh says that on reading Khalaf’s comment “I realised that this book, to a certain extent at least, is like the first, which centred around parent-child relations, but writ large -- the city takes the place of parents.”

“The Square Root of Beirut” also has a highly favourable review on its cover from Patricia McCarthy, the editor of Agenda poetry journal. McCarthy writes: “Omar Sabbagh demonstrates how he has grown into his Arab/English voice, and found his own place in its archetypal, instinctive reaches. His ear is finely-tuned in these deft, incisive poems that shift between home and exile, love and death.”

She adds: “Each poem flows all of a piece, carrying its own alchemy, eroticism, and startling imagery, along with feeling thoughts, and thought-full feelings. Clever conceits, word play and large scope combine in this haunting, metaphysical, excitingly original collection.” Agenda’s book publishing arm Agenda Editions is due to publish Sabbagh’s third collection, “Waxed Mahogany”, by the end of this year.

Some of the 52 poems in Sabbagh’s second collection first appeared in magazines and online publications including Agenda, Envoi, Kenyon review online, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, The Reader, Stand and the Warwick Review. Three of the poems were published in Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature – proof that he is gaining a reputation not only as a British poet but also as an Arab poet, albeit one who writes in English.

Sabbagh was born in London in 1981 to Mohamad and Maha Sabbagh who had left Lebanon in 1975 and settled in the British capital. Sabbagh’s parents returned to live in Beirut some five years ago. Omar was awarded his PhD at Kings College, London University, a year ago for a thesis on the subject of Narrative and Time in the writings of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad. He is currently spending a year as a visiting assistant professor teaching creative writing and English literature at AUB.

The new collection is dedicated to the memory of Omar’s maternal grandmother Sabiha Faris and of his uncle Bisher Faris, who died within a week of each other in summer 2010. “The four poems for my grandma and uncle are strategically in the centre of the collection,” says Sabbagh. The tender poem dedicated to his grandmother , entitled “A Rival to Incontinence”, finds the four-year old out walking with his grandmother: “Do you remember how we walked between the hedgerows / in the park, I at four aching to grow, you / aching at my aching?”

His uncle’s death leads to meditations on life and death and grief. The poem “A Day On” ends: “Death’s dance, / It’s grim ballet of breaking waves, / its slyly awful game with chance.”

Sabbagh thinks his literary side comes from his mother’s family, Faris. His mother’s father was Iraqi but she grew up in Lebanon and met Mohamad Sabbagh at AUB. Her mother Sabiha Faris taught children’s literature at AUB. Omar’s mother loves English literature, and she gave Omar him the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to read when he was 11. He says that even today, “my mother is my first editor”

His mother’s late brother Bisher was an economist who worked in the Saudi Finance Ministry. “He was a bachelor who thus lavished immense affection and kindness on all his nephews and nieces,” Sabbagh says. “I wear his purple scarf daily here, even if it clashes, to keep him close to my heart.”

Another of his uncles, Waddah Faris, was an art dealer and artist in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. He now lives in Barcelona with his wife, the prominent Catalan artist Assumpcio Mateu with whom he has two children.

Some of the poems in “The Square Root of Beirut” are dedicated to his parents, jointly or singly, and to other family members. Other poems are dedicated to politician Fuad Siniora, psychiatrist George Resek, political activist and writer Tariq Ali and the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips.

Sabbagh leads a life committed to poetry. Those on his poetry e-mailing list often receive one or more poems from him in a day, characteristically including the name of the bar, cafe or restaurant where they were written. He works with unusual speed. “I generally agree with Keats that poetry should come naturally or not at all...which is to say the most I ever spend on a poem is half an hour and I virtually never return to them. I write therefore 70 per cent rubbish, but feel this is necessary to produce that 30 per cent which is good.”

He adds: “I would say that the criticism a more senior poet than myself may make towards me is that my very fluency and embodied feel for the English language, sometimes makes me trust too much to talent and not enough to hard work.”

In terms of form, “I write what Goethe would call “bold writing”. I don’t use understatement like a lot of the cleverer sort of natively northern temperaments.” And “I believe that in so far as any real poetry is a confrontation with death, that all real poetry is actually about God.”

Sabbagh’s first collection was divided into two halves, the second of which consisted of 23 poems dedicated to a mysterious woman referred to only by the initial “C”. There are two poems dedicated to “C” in the second collection, entitled “First Bone” and “Sonnet of the (Latent) Stalker”.

Sabbagh compares the influence of “C” on his poetry to that of other women who have inspired a writer’s work. “C is my Beatrice (Dante), my Laura (Petrarch), my Dark Lady (Shakespeare), my Maud Gonne (Yeats), my Vera (Nabokov), my Asja (Walter Benjamin), my White Goddess (Robert Graves)... she represents the feminine for me, which is to say motherhood/matrix (how one is plugged into the earth), lust or, as well, the feminine side of me, what Jung would call my ‘anima’.”

Sabbagh did his first degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University. “C” is “based on a girl I espied in Oxford University’s Bodleian PPE reading room in autumn 1999 when I was 18 ...we talked maybe 4 or 5 times, me blushing and not being able to say anything beyond, say, ‘Hi, how are you?’” He adds: "I must stress ‘C’ signifies and is 'real' solely within a poetic perspective, rather than a realistic prosy one...that said, in many ways metaphors are more real than so-called reality.”
Susannah Tarbush

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