Saturday, December 07, 2019

interview with the Lebanese-British poet Omar Sabbagh

Interview with the Lebanese-British poet, author, critic and academic Omar Sabbagh to mark the publication - by Wales-based publisher Cinnamon Press - of his fifth poetry collection But It was an Important Failure. Sabbagh lives in the United Arab Emirates where he is Associate Professor of English at the American University in Dubai (AUD). 

How do you see this fifth collection,  compared with the preceding four collections, in the trajectory of your output?

It’s in the main a confessional and lyrical artefact, like all my preceding collections – barring the one collection which was an absolute failure down to my own loss of perspective at the time.  However, like my first, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, and my fourth, To The Middle of Love, I do think this collection is me, with the caveats below in mind, at closer to my better (rather than best), on the whole anyway.  As per the highly ironic opening and closing prose entries of this 5th collection, while in many ways parodic (which is not by any means to say, comic, somehow) in some of this verse, I am in this collection as bare as I’ve ever been.  And I would say that I think this collection hangs-together as a collection in the most effective way among my poetry books.  Nearly all the verse was written very swiftly, and usually on impulse; however, that doesn’t mean I invoke some romanticist notion of sudden, overwhelming ‘inspiration.’  It merely means that due to certain psychological fears that remain with me, in some subliminal way I don’t tend to invest as much time in writing verse as perhaps a poet should, or a better poet would.  This is primarily because I see the stakes as particularly high in poetry, and would rather avert losing in that artistic game; that said, when I do succeed, as I feel I may have done in over half this collection, I think the time spent means very little.  In those places, as it were, the brain was following the mind, or vice versa.    

How did you decide on the title, which plays with the line "But for him it was not an important failure" from W H Audens poem "Musée des Beaux Arts"?

Well, the collection being in the main confessional and lyrical, and the life in the living for an individual in today’s world, like me at least, meaning in the main suffering, it seemed like a propitious play for the title.  Also, failure is important to me.  It is more than just the gauge of success; it is in some significant way success, when that failure is the right kind of failure, an ‘important’ one so to speak.  I don’t need to invoke (very) late Beckett, to indicate how artistic endeavours are above all else like the soul itself, processual, more than to do with some final end-product.  I suppose the process of trying, essaying verse is itself the verse for me: as I suggest, too, in the closing ironies of my 5th, ‘My Practice of Poetry, or, Not Bad’.  All this means that poetry is indeed a part of my behaviour, and not part of some tale I feel that really needs telling.  That said, there may come a day in the near or farther future when I begin to write verse about things beyond my-self! 

Your fourth collection To The Middle of Love was dedicated to your parents and to Faten, now your wife and mother of little baby Alia. What impact have marriage and fatherhood had on your poetry? Some of your particularly beautiful tender poems are for Faten or your daughter.

Yes, true.  Even if I’m not quite, or don’t quite consider myself a truly responsible poet, I am I think a responsive one.  And relationships of tenderness are the quickest spurs for my pen.  Alia and Faten are like my wings, a twinned and colourful surprise.

Is your foreword to this new collection, "A Pretentious Man", a witty rebuke or riposte to certain critics? Yusuf pops up again -  Yusuf Ghaleez whom we remember from your first novella Via Negativa? The foreword throws names around, eg “… what Hegel would have dubbed, probably in Findlays translation, looking-on’…” And you observe: However, though he was often seen as a pretentious man, he knew himself to be merely pompous.

Well, it’s a comic response to myself as a critic of that same self.  Findlay wrote prefatory material, but didn’t as far as I’m aware (at least not in my Oxford translated editions) translate Hegel.  That was a little red herring to amplify the comedy there.  Throwing names around is kind of the point.  I do it often, but most often when I really do know the name’s works well.  However, I can see how others might be sceptical; hence, I took this prose piece as an occasion in a way, if not to answer actual critics, necessarily, the ones who populate the air, potential critics or others perhaps with lambasting concerns.  Yusuf is a name I often use.  Father of Jesus in the Christian mythos; and also a name I think Kafka uses.

Omar Sabbagh with his 2nd novella Minutes from the Miracle City (Fairlight Moderns, 2019) 

The collection ends with your essay My Practice of Poetry, Or, Not Bad. Is your head for ever bubbling with poetry waiting to come out or do you have arid spells? Does what comes out as you write sometimes surprise or baffle you? Do you write by hand, or straight onto a screen? Do you feel sometimes the poetry comes almost too easily?

Yes, the poetry does come too easily, which is why I don’t, as yet at least, consider myself a responsible poet.  I write, normally at will, and always onto a screen (this is my one thoroughgoing concession to modern technology, along with a few other things, like email).  Because I write so much, and at will, no, I rarely surprise myself.  What is often missing in my verse, because my ‘will’ is quite a logical one, is what Wallace Stevens called the element of the ‘irrational.’  But sometimes I get this, and when I do, logic and reflection (which in part may define my approach to verse, in the main) meet and are surprised by successful lines on occasion.  In other words, it’s not so much that ‘poetry’ comes too easily, but words (and thoughts) do.  Poetry comes rarely to me, but when it does, if not ‘easy’, it is swift.

Dubai and Lebanon (also Egypt & England) are very much presences in your poems, and Dubai is the setting of your recent 2nd novella Minutes from the Miracle City  could you sum up the importance of place to you?  And also say something on your experience of teaching at AUD and  before that at the American University of Beirut (AUB)?  

One of the first major influences on my reading (and thus, writing) life was Lawrence Durrell, and for him the spirit of place is key.  This is not as powerful a concern for me (I’m not Lawrence Durrell, as yet at least), but I do feel like personae and places can and do interact in seamless, palpable and fruitful ways.  And apart from issues of prose style and more attitudinal concerns like voice, character is for me the root of my love for and my love in trying at least to build my own narratives.  Teaching, in Beirut and Dubai, so far, has been as it would be anywhere, at times a joy, at others a drain.  However, I should say that my teaching has influenced and informed some of my prose publications.  In particular I have made use of insights gained while teaching fiction or poetry in some of my papers, and the loci of universities have figured centrally in some of my most successful fiction: not only my Beirut novella, Via Negativa: a Parable of Exile (Liquorice Fish, 2016), but also such prize-winning fictions of mine as ‘Dye’ (later in Cinnamon Press’s Ruins and Other Stories) or ‘Bad Faith’ (in Cinnamon’s first The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction); or, as another instance, my piece of creative nonfiction, ‘From Bourbon to Scotch: Extracts from a Dubai Diary’, which was published some years ago in the Routledge journal, POEM.

A reviewer of your previous collection (RoulaMaria Dib, writing in the Oxford Culture Review) noted its various references to digging in tribute to Seamus Heaney - this is continued in your new collection with On Digging, dedicated to your father. You pay tribute to various named figures in your poems and their dedications; are they kind of father figures and mentors?

Yes, father figures in craft and in life loom large for me.  In fact, I was recently re-reading in and about Lacan’s Seminar XX, which deals with female sexuality and knowledge, among other things.  And as ever, I used this recent bout of re-reading to garner a new batch of inferences.  I think I like to lend myself authority in my writing – whether it’s by the use of capitalised initials at the starts of my lines in my poetry, or an authoritative voice, using at times well-nigh heroic syntax, or stagey punctuation in my prose.  And all of these features of my mental life, reflected directly in my writerly, are ways of me searching for the law(s).  I am both, I like to think anyway, highly gifted at abstract thinking or ratiocination, and to boot, my father, the best dad in the world, probably loved me, now as then, too much.  In other words, coded, I am like Kafka’s ‘hunger artist’ and like most narcissistic types, both too much myself and too little.  And so on.  Theodor Adorno, one of my favourite twentieth century philosophical writers (in translation) cashes out in a serial manner this kind of psychological phenomenon in one of his aphorisms, ‘Hothouse Plant’, in what is my favourite of his works (in translation), Minima Moralia.  In fact, to recoup, this last aphorism was used as an epigraph at the start of my first collection of poetry from 2010, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint (Cinnamon Press).

You often use colour words in your poetry and fiction emerald eyes being a recurring motif. I remember reading in one of your group emails how the poem "For Vincent" in But It was an Important Failure was  triggered by seeing the Schnabel film on Van Gogh, Do you have painterly vivid imagination? Like some people have with colour and music, a kind of synaesthesia.

I’m not sure I suffer or prosper from synaesthesia, but I do have a deeply-embedded relationship with words.  And this reaches between and through their representative content and their materiality; both the way they denote and connote, but I think anyway, in ways that synergise.  Colours are examples of this, where they seem to be to me (and seam to be) both abstract and concrete.  I would say or guess that as well as being quite good at descriptive writing, and from the inception of my writerly attempts, I also have (and without any detailed or deep knowledge of music) a quite musical imagination, and that, in many dovetailing senses.

Do you think a reader of your poems need to be well versed in English literature so as to get all the allusions? Or is it enough that they may be carried away by the language, images and rhythms?

Only the latter, yes.  Especially in my verse, which is far less sophisticated than my prose.

Your two novellas were well received. You are now working on a novel entitled The Cedar Never Dies (which is also the title of one of your earlier poems). Could you say something about this, and about the current upheavals in Lebanon, which have inspired some of your most recent poetry? 

The plot of this projected novel, as per the already worked-up synopsis, embodies by the end the notion of ‘at-one-ment’.  Both in its use of a Christian mythos, married in signal ways to other presiding religious affiliations in Lebanon, and in the way it hopes to enact a kind of Lebanese solidarity of sorts by its close, in some respects very different to the current events in Lebanon, but in some, strangely, uncannily, serendipitously relevant.  Indeed, the novel was conceived and work was begun this past spring, much before the onset of contemporary Lebanese events in autumn of 2019.

Anything else youd like to say?

Plenty of things.  But you’ll have to send me more questions at another time!

Interview conducted via email by Susannah Tarbush, London