Poet Of The Week

Youmna Chlala

     March 2–8, 2020

Youmna Chlala is an artist and writer born in Beirut and based in New York. She is the author of the poetry collection The Paper Camera (Litmus Press, 2019). She is the recipient of a 2018 O. Henry Award and a Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and is the founding editor of Eleven Eleven {1111} Journal of Literature and Art. Her writing appears in BOMB, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Bespoke, Aster(ix), CURA and the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies. She has exhibited at the Hayward Gallery, the Drawing Center, Art in General, Rotterdam International Film Festival, Dubai Art Projects, Hessel Museum of Art and the MAK Center for Art and Architecture. Chlala participated in the 33rd Bienal de São Paulo, the 2017 LIAF Biennial in Norway and the 11th Performa Biennial, and is currently coediting a new series of books for Coffee House Press entitled Spatial Species (forthcoming in 2021). She is a professor in the humanities and media studies department as well as the writing department at Pratt Institute.

Author photo by Ken Chen

excerpt from The Paper Camera

 

Phoenicians built boats

by numbers or letters

there were monsters

in our forests now

they roam the streets.

Land is resold.

Pessoa was multiple poets in one.

Jellyfish sting in the Mediterranean.

The French are still on strike.

Before we were nations

we were cities

we were always cities

sinking.

 

 

 

Fur meaning close to cypress

but not quite that, rows of

narrow trunks that would not

allow anything between them

a pink light on the needles of pines

softness in hundreds of small pricks

space accounted for by trees

 

 

 

Carpenter ants dig

thin tunnels on branches

before hieroglyphics

Gilgamesh and cedar forest

before Heaven and Hell

we read their marks

imbed our own

the paths are dense

our shadow

a vaguely yellow light

stand in place, wait

she says, I wish

I could know

what it will be like

when the empire falls

otherwise,

she is quite polite.

 

—From The Paper Camera, Litmus Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of these poems.

This selection of poems is about the ways that miniscule marks and large-scale markers have the same drive to demarcate. So what role do we have in reading those signs and trying to explain, expand, blur or dislocate them? They are also about questioning where we look to find out what happens next.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working towards an exhibition, finishing a novel and editing a new series of books called Spatial Species for Coffee House Press.

What’s a good day for you?

Having the time to work, to play and to wander.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Love.

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

I live in Brooklyn Heights and like that there are people of all ages who live here and I get to be around them at the various stages of life.

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

Running into other writers and artists who are also taking their child to dance classes at the Mark Morris Dance Center.

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

In community, I find the wonders of the relational!

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

This is a hard question! There are so many people! I feel very lucky to know brilliant poets who keep moving in and out of Brooklyn with breath, joy and sentience.

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

Etel Adnan was not quite a mentor but someone who influenced me early on by being her entire self as both an artist and writer.

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

I’m reading a book by Fuad Khuri, a Lebanese anthropologist whose essays are dense with wit and narratives about how we are taught to observe.

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

I always think that I’m going to finish G. by John Berger. I reread it in various parts but never get to the end. It is the pleasure of that book.

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 do not take notes. I sometimes read cover to cover. I believe in the serendipity of one book leading to another. And I absolutely prefer physical books.

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

I’d like to write a collaborative sequence as a kind of exchange.

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

I like reading on the subway platform as a way to not obsessively count the minutes until the next train.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

The G train! It’s not exactly love, but the G train is an initiation into all that it means to live in Brooklyn.

Why Brooklyn?

It has a big heart.