Poet Of The Week

Marwa Helal

     November 21–27, 2016

Born in Al Mansurah, Egypt and currently residing in Brooklyn, New York, Marwa Helal has published poetry in Apogee, Day One, the Offing, the Recluse and Winter Tangerine. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. Her essays and journalism have appeared in Poets & Writers, the American Book Review, Entropy, Egypt Today, Sukoon and elsewhere. A fellow of Brooklyn Poets, Cave Canem and VONA/Voices, Helal received her MFA in creative writing from the New School and is a mentor in the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Program.

invasive species self-questionnaire

            ask or aks?
            on what?
company, mood, memory,
the speed of code-

            weed or beautiful flower?
beautiful flower … growing
everywhere, anywhere, anywhere.

            what happens when the colonizer’s blood runs through yours?
blood type: O-
universal donor, du bois’s double-consciousness;
an inner conflict. an unceasing
awareness of the gaze/a jihad of the naafs,
my iranian sociology professor would say.

funny thing
about being a universal donor is
you can give everyone blood
but only take from your own kind.

            oppressed or oppressor?
see also: under siege.

            sand n****r or cherry picker?
america can’t even
get the slur right.

            who made this taxonomy?
unmake it.

            terrorist or freedom fighter?
freedom fighter. ask a real question.

            when you say: “ask a real question,” is that part of this

yes, this is a performance of my humanity. i am saying, “look, look at me.
     how intelligent i am. look, see: how i am, how i am avoiding death.”

            good. because i thought for a moment, you might be possessed.
my writing is the only thing i’ll let them possess.

            occupation or conflict?
occupation. i said: ask a real question.

            where do you want to be buried?
(i am, i am. and everywhere.) not here.

            what is native?
not here. (i am, i am. and everywhere.)


Tell us about the making of this poem.

Louise Bogan’s questionnaire form is something that has been stuck in my head since I encountered it in a Poets’ Prose course I took with Sigrid Nunez at the New School in 2009. This form then merged with my reading of Philip Metres’s Sand Opera, a book about the abuses of U.S. occupation and military Standard Operating Procedure. I was thinking of all the innocent bodies, Arab and black, incarcerated for no other reason than being in those bodies. (I am not saying all of them are innocent but so many are.) So here, in this poem, I gently interrogate myself as one of those anonymous bodies. Those bodies that are interpreted as unwanted or an “invasive species” (a term I’ve coopted from my father’s biology books), which is the main theme of the manuscript I’ve just completed. I had also been talking about all of the usual injustices with my good friend who is an amazing poet, Candace Williams, about the word “oppressed” when she made an adamant statement: “We need to stop using the word ‘oppressed’; ‘under siege’ describes our communities more accurately.” She is the kind of poet who is committed to getting things right and whose adamancy I will always listen to because it’s the kind that resonates as truth, and I wanted to find a home for this truth in my work. Getting the language right means getting the future right. This poem is also meant to confront some of the ways in which the body is read and misread. I’m also really interested in the questions we allow ourselves to ask. What I mean is, I am interested in the limits of the questions we ask ourselves and of the semantics we supposedly collectively agree upon. And I often wonder what would happen if we each allowed ourselves to ask and answer honestly: In what ways am I complicit in our collective troubles? How do I reduce this harm? The self-questionnaire is ongoing …

What are you working on right now?

Prompted by my Forms on the Boundary workshop with Miller Oberman at Brooklyn Poets, I’m working on a series of imaginary poets. The first of them has just appeared in Tinderbox. It’s a project I’m really excited to share with you.

What’s a good day for you?

Any day I can see and breathe and give thanks and know my loved ones are alive and happy.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Practically speaking, my MFA at the New School. Otherwise, New York is the U.S. city that most resembles Cairo, which I miss immensely, and so Brooklyn was a way to reduce the distance between here and there. (Plus nonstop flights to Cairo from JFK.)

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I don’t want to say for how long because as soon as you say it, it’s time to leave—the brownstone I live in is being sold. How is that for changing, ha? Everywhere there is construction. For as long as I’ve been in Brooklyn, large sections of it have looked like a skeleton waiting for its body. I like it here because the buildings are low enough you can still see the sky. I love Bed-Stuy for its complexity. For its Nation of Islam bookstore that unapologetically blasts Malcolm’s speeches from its storefront; the sight of a Marcus Garvey rally coming down the street in the same scene as a white man nervously walking his dog. It’s changing, for sure. But we hold on to what’s important.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

Let’s go with good. Those times I’ve randomly run into my old friends and coworkers from Cairo in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, or having them surprise me at one of my readings, those moments when the world feels small in the best way.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

Community is a construct. You have to create it and nurture it. I am fortunate to have found my tribe here; the poets that reflect back to me my own complexity. Spaces like Brooklyn Poets, Cave Canem, Poets House and the Poetry Project have been integral to shaping and maintaining it.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Suheir Hammad.

Black Star: Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli.

All of my Cave Canem teachers and classmates, especially Cheryl Boyce-Taylor who introduced me to Zuihitsu, a form that has gifted me many breakthroughs. Jason Koo, who helped me embrace my idiosyncratic multilingual syntax, thank you. Miller Oberman for expanding my idea of what translation is. Tracie Morris for teaching me how to connect words to breath and body. Rigoberto González for his bravery, generosity, humor, and fine, fine editing eye. Simone White and all of the women in the “Reading Hard” workshop forever changed the way I read and write.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My poetry mentors I found mostly in books but am lucky to have studied with a few also: Harryette Mullen for her playfulness and subversiveness; Claudia Rankine for writing what she wants to write, regardless of “genre” or gaze; Evie Shockley for her transformation of old forms and sayings; Willie Perdomo for his music; Neruda for his love and for his questions; Rilke’s searching; and Philip Metres, who interrogates language, politics, otherness and everyday life with a deftness we should all study.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’m in love with Tommy Pico’s IRL. I recognize his complexity, his passion, that rambling you want to turn off but sometimes can’t. And I’m so glad he doesn’t. Hayan Charara’s “Usage,” the last poem in his new collection Something Sinister, is a must read, especially now. It’s an eight-page poem about how we use language in America. And Solmaz Sharif’s Look. I’m not going to claim to understand everything she is doing in this book yet, but every time I’m in it I emerge with something new—and this is precisely the purpose of our work as poets.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (though I have read short sections of it). And Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati I keep as a talisman—I feel superstitious about reading it but know I will when it’s time. I’d like to read the Torah also.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I read around six books at a time, and I choose work that is suited to allowing me to dip in and out, so: essays, poetry, lyric essays, etc. Two of those six books are usually books I’ve already read. I plan my research reading in advance but all else is discovered at random or through passionate recommendation from friends. Definitely prefer physical books to digital. Definitely mark my books up with notes to revisit and prompt me.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

An epic. A pantoum. A sestina. I also want to find emerging Egyptian poets to translate.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I have a spot in Prospect Park; third floor of the Grand Army Plaza library between the photography and music sections; the BRIC café and anywhere with large windows that allow for daydreaming.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Prospect Park, for the solitude and music I find there. Sheepshead Bay for its Mediterranean feel during the warmer months. There’s a café called Masal there that makes incredible rice pudding and Turkish coffee, where my friends and I go to recharge. Bay Ridge for the amazing Palestinian bakery Nablus across the street from Beit Jeddo. The beach. All the rooftops. And last but not least: the Brooklyn Museum for introducing me to the works of Wangechi Mutu and Kehinde Wiley, for the Basquiat notebooks and for having an Afrocentric Egyptian collection.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate fire,
And what I form you shape,
For every ash me as good lights you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

I realized what I had been writing all along was the conversation I
     wanted with my father;
who told me my name was born with me on 4/2 like that famous
     Brooklyn Dodger,
jack (i.e.)
rob (n)
If you’re wondering, name means, “those who refuse to surrender to
     injustice”—(suits me like Brooklyn
suits love
and suited Biggie)
and it’s why I stay close to the pen.

Why Brooklyn?

Because I can hear the athan from my apartment and get all the aloo pies and ginger beer and books I want here. It’s all my worlds in one.