August 15–21, 2016
George Abraham is a Palestinian-American poet attending Swarthmore College. He competed in the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (placing second out of 68 international teams), the National Poetry Slam and the Individual World Poetry Slam. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Thrush, the Philadelphia Book Review, Crab Fat Magazine and APIARY. He has published two chapbooks—Emotion Sickness (2014) and Tessellations (2016)—and is currently working on his first full-length manuscript. He hopes to continue bringing awareness to Palestinian human rights and socioeconomic struggles through art.
Ode to My Swollen, Mono-Infected Spleen
after Angel Nafis
there’s a weight in you that screams at
unholy hours; & this is the first time you
were led to believe your body is not a chasm;
when your gut becomes an ocean in love
with its tempests & the invisible islands
swallowed whole in the wake of you—
you’ve got the colonizers shaking in their
boots; every white thing trembles at
the sight of the expansive planet you’ve become;
there are parts you never knew existed
until they occupied too much space.
until your own weight fills your haunted,
hollowed frame & everything inside
you bursts & swells into
a cacophony of organs & white blood
cells—how could you expect to house
all this fluid & turbulence & history without
imploding? don’t they know you have a
whole country in you? how can
you expect to be whole when home is
a borderless entity; when you fit the
infinite into a single body—how do
they look at you & not see God in that
swell & undertow? In the Goliath
they made of that fist-sized organ, or the
holy ghost your immune system has become;
they look at you & see a defenseless thing; a city
in love with the carpet bomb’s embrace;
you ever look at a body on fire & see
God in the burning? you ever sing hallelujah
to an infected thing because it did not
kill you? because the battle makes you feel
so alive you’ve forgotten the martyr your
body has become? you’re still unlearning
the parts of you that shrivel & shrink beneath
the confines of gravity & you’ve began teaching them
to swell. to crash.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem was a response to Angel Nafis’s prompt “write an ode to an inconvenient thing in your life,” and draws inspiration from her poem “Ode to Dalya’s Bald Spot.” This past semester, I contracted mono, and due to the stressful environment of Swarthmore College (one which often encourages complete disregard for their students’ physical and mental well-being), I did not catch it until it was almost too late and my spleen almost ruptured. This poem is a reflection on the stresses I have faced as a student of color at a predominantly white institution that disregards my mental and physical well-being; it is an ode to survival and existence, despite.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently working on two manuscripts: Genocidal Theatrics and al youm. The first, Genocidal Theatrics, is a chapbook exploring the idea perpetuated by Zionists during the 2014 bombings of Gaza that Palestinians were using their children as props for media attention/were overdramatizing the situation and profiting off of their own deaths. This chapbook collaborates with theatrical elements (including songs from musicals, characters from American plays and poem/play script hybrid art) to tell my story, as a Palestinian activist in a Zionist country, and how I navigate tensions in a country that consistently tries to dehumanize Palestine. Al youm will be, inshallah, my first full-length manuscript. It explores my own family narratives of immigration and existence in the United States, ancestral narratives of exile, and explores how trauma is inherited from generation to generation in the Palestinian diaspora.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is a balance of time alone and time with people I love. As a poet who’s also into math research, having time alone to think, write and work is essential to my daily functioning. I, however, also enjoy going to Hookah lounges with friends and eating hummus and baba ghannouj. I don’t think a good day could exist without baba ghannouj.
So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?
I was born in Jacksonville, FL but it is not home for me. As a displaced person from my ancestral home (Ramallah, Palestine), I define Home as the community I surround myself with—the few, good people of color at Swarthmore, my Arab poetry family and the POC poetry family in Philly and beyond are my Home. My narrative cannot coexist with Florida and its white supremacy; I have learned to disown and disassociate myself from Florida, despite it being my place of birth.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I spent the summer in Brooklyn doing a research internship at NYU’s tech campus. I loved the fact that most people around me were people of color; walking down the street and hearing bits of Arabic tossed around is a beautiful thing. I have fond memories here at different beaches and in Bay Ridge with my NYC Arab poetry family, and I am thankful that Brooklyn is a space where Arabs and Arab culture can exist.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I am very inspired by the 2016 Brooklyn Poetry Slam Team that went to the National Poetry Slam this year—this team consists of some of my favorite living poets. My fellowship with Danniel Schoonebeek has been extremely valuable to me—Danniel has completely changed the way I view poems in relation to space and how poems can collaborate with inanimate objects. Much of the direction Genocidal Theatrics is taking is due to Danniel’s workshop and influence on me, and I am eternally grateful to this opportunity.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I am very grateful to Larry Knight, from Stanton High School in Florida, for getting me interested in poetry and spoken word, specifically. Coming up through the spoken word scene has influenced my work on the page. I would not be the artist or person I am without Vision’s influence coaching me these past three years as part of Swarthmore’s slam team for the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational. Other than these coaches, I value my fellow POC poetry peers. Some of my favorite authors are good friends of mine, and I would not be the artist/advocate for Palestine I am today without friends such as Cat Velez, Julian Randall, Noel Quiñones, Noura Jaber, Tiauna Lewis, Nader Helmy, Hazem Fahmy, Marwa Helal, Yasmin Belkhyr and Adam Hamze, to name a few.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Look by Solmaz Sharif, and it absolutely ripped me apart. Sharif’s book was one of the best collections of poems I’ve ever read, and has had a huge impact on how I view and write about Middle Eastern conflict. Other books I have loved recently were Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, i be, but i ain’t by Aziza Barnes and Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. All of these works by authors of color have somehow shaped the way I approach my own work and/or shape the way I view my own experience and life as a Palestinian-American.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
The Game of Thrones series; Memory for Forgetfulness by Darwish (I have only had the mental stamina to get through chunks of it; never finished it in its entirety).
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 try to stick to one book at a time (I usually reach this point of no return with different books/become obsessed and stay up late reading books once I hit a certain point). I prefer reading poetry because I am often busy and have only small pockets of time to set aside for reading. I also like taking my time with books/digesting individual poems—for example, Ocean’s book took me over a month to read because I had to put it down every other poem due to the sheer emotional intensity of everything. I cannot read books digitally—I think it erases the physicality of the book, which can be very powerful in and of itself. A book’s physical presence can speak wonders to its content.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate breathing
And what I cry you sing into existence,
For every country that spits me out, as good, by which I mean
white, martyrs often do, an ocean rises, one step closer to
Brooklyn is a living piece of history. There’s a diversity of environment here that you can’t get anywhere else—I can’t ever imagine getting tired of Brooklyn. My hopes are to move back someday after I graduate!