The PEN Ten with Philip Metres
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Randa Jarrar speaks to poet, translator, and scholar Philip Metres. He is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Pictures at an Exhibition; Sand Opera, about the U.S. War on Terror; I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, for which he and Dimitri Psurtsev won a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation Grant; and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, and has garnered numerous fellowships and prizes, including two NEA fellowships, the Lannan Fellowship, the George S. Hunt, S.J. Prize, and two Arab American Book Awards. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
When I was in my teens, I kept getting the sense that certain writers (Eliot, Chekhov, Rilke, Levertov, Dickinson, etc.) and songwriters (Michael Stipe, Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, Fugazi, etc.) were reading my mind. The unspoken inner life, laid bare on the page, excited and unnerved me. I wanted to access that power. As an introverted young man, dealing with the cocktail of hormones surging through my body, I felt as if there were an impossible abyss between myself and others. Writing seemed to stitch together the hurt disjoint between my bodily and psychic experience and my ability to speak through that experience. The idea that I could be a writer gave me great comfort. It was a way to organize and make sense of the anarchy of daily life (the interior life, the exterior lives). Writing has always been an oasis for me, a way to step back from certain social flows and pay attention to other, quieter movements (both within and beyond the margins).
What does it mean to be a writer? I think of Henry James’s “one upon whom nothing is lost” and Tu Fu’s colleague saying “it’s like being alive twice.” What once seemed like a debility—this self-consciousness, this permeability of self to selves and worlds—when harnessed by language and form, became these flying horses. When I’m not writing for a few days, I feel unmoored, weak-minded, itchy-hearted. Writing is a discipline, a practice, which forms and informs identity.
Joining RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) and meeting other Arab American writers allowed me to undergo a certain quantum leap in terms of practicing a writing related to a larger community’s dialogue about itself. Though I have always felt welcomed by Arab people, at St. John Melkite Church, for example, it wasn’t until I met fellow Arab and Arab American writers that I found brothers and sisters whose worldview was shared, almost without words, and who could coax and challenge each other to become better writers and better denizens of the planet.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
It’s a question redolent of the old modernist dictum, attributed to various artists (Eliot? Picasso?), that “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And as we know, the modernists had a kleptomania about them, so the question of appropriation is complicated.
Ideally, a good writer has metabolized their influences, so there is no need to steal. They are already working themselves through you, not as anxieties of influence but as ancestors of influence. In terms of prose, Chekhov—his persistent humanness, his portraits of the struggle of the human being against the confines of her existence—has become more and more important to me. In terms of poetry, I hope that I’ve metabolized the ecstasy of Rumi and Whitman, the soul fire of Isaiah, the extremity of Dickinson, the muscular music of Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the foundational nationalism (and universalism) of Yeats and Darwish, the pulsing erudition of Robert Lowell, the beautiful solidarity of Muriel Rukeyser, the verve of Frank O’Hara, the moral ferocity of June Jordan, the damaged grandeur of Sergey Gandlevsky, and the serious playfulness of Lev Rubinstein.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
What is it that we mean by censorship, exactly? Instinctively, I side with Khaled Mattawa—that the question probably is not when, but who. It might be true that censorship is necessary to limit exposure of certain traumatic or degrading images to children, yet governments do it because they believe their citizenry to be children. This question also feels very much connected to a fixed idea about information and the prohibition of information, texts and the prohibition of texts, images and the prohibition of images—a problem that the West has not had for at least 50 years—except perhaps when it comes to disruptions of the imperial narrative, like the nearly 20-year prohibition from photographing a flag-draped coffin of an American serviceman killed in the War on Terror, or images of dead Iraqis.
Which means, really, that this is a question about how we feel the rest of the world should behave (more like us?). Let’s look in the mirror a little more clearly, though. First, we fancy ourselves a free society, and the free flow of information promises to ensure a certain robustness in our democracy. It may well be that the overflow of information, however, functions as a sort of disinformation. The digital age’s quantum speed and quantity of available information seem to have a paralyzing effect on us; in the hectic hurtle and voluble volume, the deluge renders the visible unseen, the way a flood obscures a drowning swimmer. There appears almost no time to reflect, to grasp onto something rooted, in the onrush of the present, as we’re surrounded by the seethe. It’s probably almost unthinkable to the generation of the Free Speech Movement and the Pentagon Papers that the very overflow of information could resemble a form of censorship. Without a robust independent journalistic class, without independent public intellectuals, the sheer glut of unfiltered information is simply too much for a regular citizen to manage, thus sending him scurrying back into the security of previously held views.
Second, as I mentioned above, there is also de facto censorship in a number of areas of American reportage. However liberal the mass media—and I include National Public Radio and The New York Times in this—it still consistently promulgates the imperial narrative, the interests of the ruling class. And more than that, under the Bush Administration, more government documents were classified than perhaps ever in history, due to Dick Cheney’s machinations, for example, by classifying himself as a member of Congress.
Third, there is also a censorship by limiting access. A number of prominent Arab poets—among them, the Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan and the Jordanian Amjad Nasser—have been denied visas or so delayed in being granted visas that they’ve had to cancel speaking tours in the United States. The bureaucratized imperial security state has limited the flow of people who might dare to speak against it. Who knows exactly why they were denied or their process was slowed. But the consequence is chilling. At the same time, Palestinian Americans have been denied entry into Israel, for undetermined causes, for probably more or less the same reasons. They disrupt the narrative, simply by their presence and their witness.
Finally, we have the biggest open secret of all, which is the fact of digital and actual surveillance regimes, a sort of Panoptic Era. This may well be a new digital version of Jeremy Bentham’s “perfect” prison, in which all are visible yet are watched by an invisible central authority. The digital traces become a kind of map by which we can be seen, like contrails behind a jet—except these traces attain a sort of strange permanence in an ever-widening digital sky. We are disciplined (cf. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish) in ways that are both conscious and unconscious, disciplined into going with the global flows.
So we live in an age in which, paradoxically, everything appears visible and yet much is hidden, perhaps more than ever before. Where we stand, and how our being-in-the-world is related to other beings in the world, how the operations of increasingly complex economic and political systems involve us, seem as obscured as they ever were.
Perhaps the poet’s role is to be a reader as much as a writer. To be a reframer of that which already exists. To slow, to disrupt, to interrupt the flows.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I have been detained and arrested, but not booked. In Moscow in 1996, I’d been visiting and was caught up in a sweep of foreigners. In order to stay in Russia as someone from the U.S., one must secure a visa and then, upon arrival, register with the local police station. I’d lived in Russia a few years before and didn’t remember doing this registration, so I thought it was an unnecessary Soviet anachronism. Not so. I stood with a group of brown people—Vietnamese, Georgians, and other Caucasus guys, alongside a swaying group of Russian drunks—in the bitter cold in the mouth of the Metro, awaiting the ride to the station. It was clear after a while that they preferred to be bribed, but I wanted to get registered to be within the law, not to be free but still vulnerable to arrest. I was not given the choice, and ponied up the dough, dodging police for the rest of my time there like a fugitive.
I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about, working with, and imagining the experience of incarceration in the writing of Sand Opera, which deals with (among other aspects of the War on Terror) the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the ongoing Guantanamo Bay Prison scandal. How are we, despite our ostensible freedom, also celled off from each other?
I have been in jail, ironically enough, to do a Bible study with prisoners at the Monroe County Jail in Bloomington, Indiana. I learned more from them than I ever taught them.
The fact that I’ve never been arrested reminds me that perhaps I have not fulfilled my global citizen’s duty, my duty as a peacemaker and objector to war. (Not that I haven’t tried. Read “Never So Much Seething” for a certain graffito action in which I participated).
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
My mentor Robert Cording once said in class that every writer has their obsessions, and a good reading of any writer must locate those obsessions. But part of the joy of the journey of writing is that our obsessions are both visible and invisible to us, as writers; our obsessions are at least partly unconscious. That’s why you see writers return to the same questions over the course of a life of writing. They are the questions our life poses to us. We write through them to answer them, even if they are fundamentally unanswerable. How do we know what we know? Why do all things pass away? How can I awaken myself to this bittersweet fruit of existence? What is my relationship to others and to my own life at this time and place, at the center of empire, in this roiling planet? I recently read and instantly adopted Moustafa Bayoumi’s beautiful phrase: “recovering the human in the phrase ‘human suffering.’”
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
An artist’s job is to be open, to become permeable to the world, and such permeability is fundamentally daring. The human world, the political world, is a hurt place. I don’t mean to romanticize a writer’s job. We often call writers “courageous” in ways that feel fatuous and self-congratulatory. In the contexts in which we find ourselves, it is very difficult to write anything that truly can challenge, disrupt, or subvert the prevailing orders. Compared to the real risk that most of the people in the world live with every day, the American writer’s “daring” often feels wan and bourgeois.
Yet, our own situation of internalized social control necessitates challenging boundaries, the boundaries of the acceptable. If I have to name one instance, I’d say it was the moment in “Homefront” from Sand Opera, in which I wrote, “Sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb. That I’m a sleeper and don’t know when I’ll awaken.” Arab Americans don’t joke about bombs. Ever. Certainly not over the phone, which we presume is bugged. But this line spoke itself to me, about the secret self-poisoning of Orientalism that one imbibes unconsciously. You begin to believe what the other says about you and your kind. Read African American literature for one minute and you’ll feel the same thing, this attempt to throw off a weight that has been internalized, the weight of hate.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
First and foremost, the responsibility of the writer is to write well. To write truthfully, to write compellingly, to write unforgettably. I think good writing tries to waken us; it produces a dream that paradoxically awakens us. I think of Chuang-Tzu’s dream of turning into a butterfly, and waking, not knowing whether he dreamt of being a butterfly or is now a butterfly’s dream. Ultimately, all writers have to decide for themselves where their responsibility extends. As an American, I am part of the most powerful military and economic power in the history of the world. Finally, I’d invite myself to consider: who do I think I’m addressing, and who am I reaching—and the gap between these two audiences (the imagined and the actual). How can I engage the imagined audience in new ways, and how might I be changed in the process of that exchange?
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I hope that the public intellectual hasn’t fallen out of fashion—or, perhaps, it was never fashionable, but it will never fail to be crucial. One of the predicaments of the writer in the U.S. at present is that many of us live in the comfortable cage of academia, largely protected from the uncertainty and bitterness of capitalist life. Many have traded this comfort for absenting themselves from this question, retreating into a sort of caged or professional privacy. My experience of writing and publishing Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry in the American Homefront since 1941 (University of Iowa Press, 2007) serves as an admonitory example. I spent about 10 years thinking about and writing this book. While it got me tenure, it was published in hardback for 50 dollars. The press said that they’d produce a paperback version only after the hardcover sold out, and that still hasn’t happened. The very audiences I’d hoped to reach—the peace movement, social progressives, etc.—may never have found it because of its price and the professionalized scholarly argot I employed. I spent the next few years blogging through the frame and concerns of the book in an attempt to engage the public in a more daily and informal fashion, which was a lot of fun, but I wish that I could have written that book in a way that wasn’t about flexing my theoretical muscles and more about being a handbook for thinking about the relationship of poets to the peace movement and to social movements more generally.
I am deeply indebted to public intellectuals like Edward Said, who said this about the subject:
Politics is everywhere; there can be no escape into the realms of pure art and thought or, for that matter, into the realm of disinterested objectivity or transcendental theory. Intellectuals are of their time, herded along by the mass politics of representations embodied by the information or media industry, capable of resisting those only by disputing the images, official narratives, justifications of power circulated by an increasingly powerful media—and not only media, but whole trends of thought that maintain the status quo, keep things within an acceptable and sanctioned perspective on actuality—by providing what Mills calls unmaskings or alternative versions in which, to the best of one’s ability, the intellectual tries to tell the truth. This is far from an easy task: the intellectual always stands between loneliness and alignment.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
This is a weird sort of Western question because if a leader has imprisoned writers for their writing, the government already believes that writing is powerful and dangerous. Why would they want to read more of that? On the one hand, these governments seem to have an old-fashioned sense of the power of writing that is actually sort of beautiful. On the other hand, they seem impervious to writing’s claims, only worried about the writer’s independence and critique.
I think individuals are changed by writing, but governments are an apparatus of procedure and are tentacular. There is no center there, no singular conscience. President Obama has read Marilynne Robinson, but he’s still using targeted assassination via drone to kill suspected terrorists (and many innocents along the way) in the hills of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Yemen, so is there any book that is going to produce this metanoia?
I think we Americans have to flip the question and ask, in what ways are we ourselves in a condition of carceral submission, surveilled and made docile? How much have we internalized our own Big Brother?
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Both are modes of watching, but who is the watcher, and where does she stand? When I read the Standard Operating Procedure manual of the Guantanamo Bay Prison in the process of writing Sand Opera, I was struck by how the United States is a country of laws and procedure and regulation. The SOP distinctly demonstrated the level of cultural sensitivity toward the Muslim prisoners that they anticipated would be held there. For example, there were regulations for the proper handling of the Qu’ran, for the call to prayer, and even for Muslim burials. And yet, we know there is an underside of the Law, what Slavoj Žižek has called the Kant/Sade dynamic of Western Enlightenment. We also know that at that same prison, interrogators threw Qu’rans into the toilet in front of prisoners. Female interrogators sexually assaulted prisoners, smearing them with what they thought was menstrual blood. So our sublime cultural sensitivity, our keen cultural awareness became weaponized. Our intelligence became “intelligence.” Probably even “cultural awareness” is worthy of scare quotes, given the weird Orientalism that underlays the strategies of “enhanced interrogation.” As in: “Arab men don’t like to be humiliated by a woman,” etc. I don’t know many people who like to be humiliated by anyone. And even if they do, they have a safe word.
Surveillance is observation without consequences. It is a power relationship, viewing from afar, without the knowledge of the viewed. The danger of our post‑9/11 scenario is that not only do we know that we are being surveilled, but also that there is a diminishment of the sense of the private in daily life. Social media has become another way that we can be controlled. If observation means witness, then it can never be surveillance, because the witness is one who stands in and testifies to their position and the position of the viewed simultaneously. To witness is to stand with oneself and with others, without regard for the consequences.
Guest editor Randa Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home, which was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes & Noble Review. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and The Progressive. For the PEN Ten, Jarrar interviews writers who focus on counter-hegemony, censorship, race, gender, and the artist’s role in all the above.