SYMPOSIUM FOR THE PALESTINIAN/QUEER BODY by George Abraham

 

 

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What does the title, “Emerging poet,” mean to you?

 

The title of emerging poet is a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand, I am grateful that there is a shift, in some literary spaces, towards making space for new poets instead of relying exclusively on poets with established careers. In this aspect, the word emerging gives language to the struggles many new poets face in establishing themselves. But in a similar way, there's a lot of condescension in the term "emerging" and I have seen it used in contexts which devalue the work of an artist because they are younger, especially for queer artists of color. I have been told that my work is "so good for my age" as if there aren't hundreds of poets my age or younger doing work worthy of recognition. While I agree that art often takes a lot of time to develop, I still think there is way too much condescension of younger poets in the wider literary world. For instance, I myself and many young QPOC friends were all rejected from a more "prestigious" literary journal, and in the same issue we all were rejected from, there were a stiffling number of mediocre pieces from older white male poets being published, one of whom notoriously made a statement in a reading about how poets are starting to write at too young of an age; this same poet also discouraged poets from writing about personal issues of marginalization and mental health issues, and has since, been emblematic of just how white and male dominated literature is. Meanwhile, aforementioned poet gets shine for an angrily mediocre poem about sitting on a beach with his wife drinking wine on vacation, while work at a much higher level of both craft and urgency from young QPOC writers was rejected from the same issue. Hence, we arrive at a paradox of sorts; the emerging poet is always deserving of more recognition; the emerging poet is always condescended; the emerging poet is always "emerging."

 

Do you consider yourself an “emerging” poet? Why or why not?

 

I think it depends on the context; if, by emerging, one means "Palestinian poet trying to resist white literary world who doesn't value his existence," then yes, I am emerging in that sense. If by "emerging," one means "a less polished voice," then I reject that label as another mechanism of erasure, specifically put on younger poets of color/poets doing more radically political work. I think this conversation also intersects with many poets, like myself, coming into the written world from the world of spoken word poetry. While the two crafts have their differences, I have been in many spaces which devalued my time and experience as a performance poet in the context of the written word when, in fact, my experience as a spoken word artist built me into the page poet I am. This rhetoric is nothing but elitist exclusion of POC from academic spaces, and is another way of forcing a label similar to "lacking experience" on marginalized voices. In any paradigm, the word "emerging" implies that the poet is resisting, whether they like it or not. While I choose to resist and tear down oppressive power structures in my work, I think this framework still puts a lot of unfair pressure on the backs of the marginalized.

 

What do you think it takes to be “recognized” in the poetry community?

 

This relates back to my previous 2 answers, but I think of recognition, personally, as a depth over breadth ordeal. I personally value recognition from queer writers of color, especially Arab and West Asian ones, over most other forms of validation because this is the primary community I write for. But then again, there is a lot to be said about which types of narratives are allowed to exist in journals with large, widespread distribution. I have grown up facing the active erasure of Palestinian narratives from artistic and academic media, and while I prioritize my own community with my own writing, I must comment on the erasure we face. Many presses are afraid to publish radically pro-Palestinian art/art which humanizes us, because we are too "controversial." I reject this notion, not only because it silences needed voices, but because lives are actively being lost as a result of this erasure.

I do, however, have a lot of hope, looking at other queer poets of color whose work is getting attention. I look up to Hala Alyan - a fellow Palestinian-American poet who has gained a lot of recognition for her important and outstanding work; she is not only a hero to me in the sense of craft and poetics, but a hero in the sense of survival and existence despite everything.

 

How do you think power politics shape the poetry community?

 

In a mainstream sense, I think the poetry world is full of the politics of reputation, which by necessity, is a product of the political reality we live in which makes writing an inaccessible career choice for many marginalized poets. From journals who solicit most of their issues but charge absurd reading fees for unsolicited work, to AWP panels featuring white poets co-opting Middle Eastern narratives of war, I have come to realize how much these political forces build the current literary world we are in, and continue to exclude others. I think a lot of good work is being done in smaller journals and presses to carve space for the marginalized; for instance, the Atlas Review chapbook series has gained a reputation of publishing more radical work that mainstream presses wouldn't be as interested in, but at the same time, having a good reputation and network to still make these books well-distributed (or at least, that was my experience with having them publish al youm). But again, this space came at the expense of marginalized poets having to work extensively to build it from their own bare hands, and while I admire the work so many are doing on this front, I also think the current literary world puts too much pressure on poets at the margins, who have to not only find their own home but build it themselves.

 

What does community mean to you?

 

Community is home and healing, is shelter from forces seeking to end us. Community extends beyond the border of the page, by necessity, and gives the page an additional level of tangibility and urgency. Community is being able to read your work without worrying who's in the audience to attack you for your words. Community is holding each other accountable, and learning and growing with each other. Hence, community is, by construction, both shelter and exhaustion, or at least, built out of exhaustion. I think there is a lot of good work being done by POC artist spaces and collectives built outside the walls of academia, like RAWI and Kundiman. I know that I wouldn't be a writer without my small activist community of writers I found and helped build during my undergraduate time, but I also know that these communities were not built with the help of institutions themselves, but instead, individuals exhausted collectively by institutions. I want to paint the picture I know to be true, which is, community is work, and sometimes involves a lot of unseen and underappreciated labor, and while we have come a long way in our brief time in the literary world, there is so much work to be done, and I can't wait to continue my journey with this next generation of writers I know and love.

 

 

GEORGE ABRAHAM (they/he) is a Palestinian-American Poet, Activist, and Engineering PhD Candidate at Harvard University. He is a recipient of the Lois Morrell Poetry Prize, the Favianna Rodriguez Award for Artistic Activism, and the honor of “Best Poet” at the 2017 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. His chapbook, al youm: for yesterday & her inherited traumas, was a winner of the Atlas Review’s 2016 chapbook contest. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Vinyl, Apogee, Kweli, Hawai’i Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, the Blueshift Journal, and anthologies such as Bettering American Poetry 2016, the Nepantla Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, and the Ghassan Kanafani Palestinian Literature Anthology.

 

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