The PEN Ten: An Interview with Marwa Helal
1. “i said i love you and i wanted i wanted / justice under my nose/ i said i love you and i wanted i wanted/ just us under my nose.” The way you incorporate and pair up longing for romantic love with longing for justice reminds me a lot about June Jordan’s work. I loved it. Did you set out to write about love so earnestly in this book?
The line you quoted is drawn from June’s work directly. The project began as a study of Erik Erikson’s stages of development, with a focus on the intimacy vs. isolation stage with the added question of, What if Western psychology took the effects of technology and migration into consideration for its little theories and diagnoses? So yes, love, but also ethical loneliness was also on my mind as I made this work. I was also riffing off of a lineage of artists—Claudia Rankine, Glenn Ligon, Richard Pryor. Paul Mooney has also been cited as saying, “When you go down to the courthouse you look for justice, but you find just us.” I think it’s important to keep playing with this possibility that justice is us, will be us and always has been: our prayers, our songs, our joy, our love.
2. One of my favorite lines in this book is “wind was i / me make to tried they and/ language / translate to tried/ me empire to/ free this catch can’t they.” How can language and/or translation obstruct freedom?
Thank you for this question. I write to feel into greater potential freedoms and hope to help others breathe easier as well in my explorations of both the personal and political. Often language is in the way of freedom: From the news to legislation it can feel like constant bombardment or fatigue from the abundance of rules—codes. Translation has its own traps, like who is translating and what their relationship to the language is. How can the translation set one free if it’s still obeying the rules of the other language? Often what we find is the original is closer to wind, which is always free.
“I think it’s important to keep playing with this possibility that justice is us, will be us and always has been: our prayers, our songs, our joy, our love.”
3. In this collection, as in your poem “poem to be read from right to left,” much of your words are written to be read from right to left, as they would be read in Arabic. How has the use of this form evolved for you over the years? What does it mean for you and your work?
It’s a form that restores as much as it preserves. To me, it’s as natural as reading left to right. I am grateful for the ways other poets have used it, thinking of Andrea Abi Karam, Chaun Ballard, and Sarah Ghazal Ali whose uses of the form are just as inventively potent as the original. The way they each apply the Arabic footnote is so powerful. I am also moved by visual artists like Adrien Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen who were inspired by the form and are now featured in the book. It’s beautiful to be alive to see the form literally take shape and serve writers in all these various ways.
4. You might hate that I say this, but I do think it requires a certain kind of bravery to experiment with form. Do you have words for poets and artists who want to deviate from the norms that have been given to them?
If poems, or language even, are about world and meaning-making then you should be encouraged to improve upon what already exists. My experiments aren’t born of nothing. There are usually numerous references and they aren’t always necessarily from literature. But there are also forms that encourage experimentation. It’s up to you, how….
5. You’re currently the Writing as Activism Fellowship teaching artist here at PEN America. Can you talk a little about that space? What are some lessons that you’re learning from and with the fellows?
It’s a space of profoundly good and luminous energy. We’re learning how to define those terms like “activism” and “fellowship” for ourselves, among other terms that are often thrust upon or attributed to us and our communities. I am so grateful to be able to think and grow with them. They’re each already incredible artists and visionaries in their own right and I am beyond excited for more people to get familiar with their voices and work very soon.
“We have to laugh to keep from crying. I learned this from my elders. Humor isn’t just great defense, it attacks the institution in surprising ways that catches them off guard. Besides, we have to remind them who’s really in charge. There is no institution without us.”
6. There’s so much in this book about community and belonging. How, if at all, has your writing of this book changed or expanded your conception of community?
Writing has always been the place I come to collect myself, physically, emotionally, psychically speaking, for a long while now. It’s where I always found some kind of continuity between all the cities, countries, cultures, and languages I have inhabited, so I was happy to be able to put that into a form that made sense to me while reflecting on how I have been able to create a sense of belonging or community along the way. I am excited for this book to do exactly as you predict: expand my conception of community. There is a third section I had intended to be in this work but at the last moment I decided it needed to be its own book and that’s where I will get into more of the community-making under these pandemic conditions.
7. I found myself laughing out loud at some parts of this book, especially when you’re speaking truth to power. Was that just my reading of it? Do you intentionally weave in some comedy to undercut the institutions you’re critiquing?
It’s very intentional! We have to laugh to keep from crying. I learned this from my elders. Humor isn’t just great defense, it attacks the institution in surprising ways that catches them off guard. Besides, we have to remind them who’s really in charge. There is no institution without us.
8. What are you reading this season that’s inspired you?
Kyle Carrero Lopez’s Muscle Memory is incredible in all its past and future imaginings, returning to John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is a joy for its unabashed critiques of both pobiz and the world, and Cheswayo Mphanza’s The Rinehart Frames is stunning—I recommend, for the form nerds, reading it alongside Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. And Faith Ringgold’s work at New Museum was some of the freshest I’ve seen in awhile. I’m happy she got to take up her space like that.
“If poems, or language even, are about world and meaning-making then you should be encouraged to improve upon what already exists.”
9. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process and how did you overcome it?
I think I encounter a lot of shame in the writing process. Shame that stems from doubt, doubt as to why I’m writing a thing in the first place—or coming from a culture of modesty and privacy, the shame of thinking I am important enough to have something to say in the first place. I overcome it in friendship, in community, in the classroom space, where I want to be the teacher or adult I needed, and therapy is great, too. Shame is a creativity killer, so that awareness is also a way to overcome that particular frustration.
10. How can writers affect social justice movements?
I think it’s recognizing we are the movement. Without our scholarship and presence in the classrooms and community spaces—listening and processing, sharing and showing up, the movement has no movement. We have a unique position in society in that we are in contact with a wide range of people whether that’s through our written work or our physical presence. Just as we are being influenced, we have influence as well, and it’s important to not lose sight of that. If you lose that perspective, you lose your purpose or motivation.
Marwa Helal is the author of Ante body (Nightboat Books, 2022), Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019), the chapbook I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return (No Dear, 2017), and winner of BOMB Magazine’s biennial 2016 Poetry Contest. Helal is the winner of a 2021 Whiting Award. Helal has been awarded fellowships from Poets House, Brooklyn Poets, Jerome Foundation, and Cave Canem, among others. Helal is an alum of NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program and is a 2020 NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Poetry. Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.