More than a homeland

More than a homeland
6 min read
05 December, 2014
Meeting poets Marilyn Hacker and Deema Shehabi and talking about their unique collaboration sparked by the 2008-2009 Gaza war.
Poets Hacker and Shehabi at a reading earlier this year (photo courtesy of the author)

This summer, as I spent the months of June and July packing my life into cardboard boxes that would be shipped from Paris to Brooklyn, the people of Gaza Strip suffered through yet another Israeli bombardment.

While I was stressing over what I should and should not take, death would become more and more of a statistic as my friends and family obsessively followed the news coverage in Palestine. Only this time, I found myself discovering unknown histories of my father's extended family who live there; mostly it was me listening to details told by my older brothers and sisters, whether about my half-sisters living in Rafah and Jabalia whom I had never been given the chance of getting to know, or of why my father, 20 years ago, made the decision to leave us for another family in Gaza.


     Exile is not just from homeland, but also from community.

- Deema Shehabi

There's something about the way war works like that. You ask yourself why you feel so powerless, how to act in the face of the atrocity and injustice that others face? For me the answer was in writing, yet when the "other" is family, the emotions seem all the more tangled.

And that's how the collaboration for this book, Diaspo/Renga, began. It was a previous war on Gaza. It started when poets Marilyn Hacker wrote to Deema Shehabi about a little girl's life during the war in late 2008-early 2009, and what culminated over the years was a book of poetry in the Japanese renga form - one which is based on the structure of collaborative haiku-like poems - about the human comparison of experience the war pushed on to people: whether those with family there, such as Deema, or those, like Marilyn, who for decades has challenged herself to explore and write about the lived experience of the political or gendered other.

Writes Marilyn:

Her name on a leaf
of paper above the sea.
His name spray-painted

on a concrete wall. My name’s
hesitant calligraphy

in a new notebook.
Their names linked by an echo
in an empty street

The town's name where they were born.
Please write your name for me here.

And Deema:

The names of the villages razed
in 1948 stitched with golden thread
on a black tent in the Made in Palestine

exhibit in Houston. The names
of my uncle’s daughters, each
dimpling and swelling with kisses:

Wafaa, Areej, Shaden, Loubna.
The naming and unnaming

We argued about in poems:
Darfur, Gaza, Isdoud, Yaffa.

A (brief) interview: 

How did this collaboration begin for you, and at what point did you arrive to the insight that you were composing poetry?


Deema Shehabi: It started simply with Marilyn sending me an email containing a renga about a child in Gaza who was lamenting her fate during Israel's war on Gaza in 2009. We immediately knew we were writing poetry, but we didn't set out formally to write a book-length project. As such, it happened organically and fervently. Only after we had 30 or so pages of renga did we realise that we might have a book on our hands.

Marilyn Hacker: The initial renga was a poem, in a fixed poetic form, and Deema's text in response was composed as a poem as well: there was no confusion between our other correspondence and the poetry.

Was there any sense of continuity as you were emailing each other? (Given there was a span of several years...)

DS: The continuity was on some level a lifesaver; so much happened politically, including the Arab Spring, and three invasions of Gaza - not to mention our personal preoccupations - during the time we were writing. In addition to holding witness and vigil as writers, there was a sense of continuity in having another poet read and respond to the writing. This was not only a gift but it also helped transform, loosen, and re-envision language's purpose.   

MH: Yes - most of the poems were written in stretches of close communication - a "sequence" of six or ten poems in a week or ten days. And when there was a lacuna and it was taken up again, there'd be another fairly rapid back and forth. 

Were there any particular images or visions that you focused on for the construction of the renga?

DS: No particular images per se, but there was something in the call and response process that lent itself to creating a unified vision for the book. The process also allowed for an inhabiting of disparate voices and characters across generations and continents. It feels now like we did return to certain characters, and they would revisit our renga and free us from a certain feeling of hopelessness or helplessness about any particular situation. So, in the end, I feel like there was a joyful intersection between solitary writing and community.

MH: No, there were no preconceived ideas, and no imposition of visions on each other, though there were sometimes implicit or explicit challenges.

I'm curious if collective writing is anything like collective translation. What constraints did you face (or impose)?

DS: There were no constraints faced or imposed. The collaboration opened up certain vulnerabilities and ingrained privacies, but there was much trust between Marilyn and I.

MH:  It's more collaborative than collective, unlike collective translation of the same text. More like translating alternate chapters. Each poem has a single author, but is in "conversation" or in response to a poem by the other.

The poetry gives us access to pain and grief, then it leaves us there. Was there ever a surprising turn or surprising image that a poem took after its travel across the Atlantic?

DS: There were so many surprising turns and leaps. One poet would write about political prisoners on the Hudson while the other writes about attending a funeral facing the Pacific Ocean and so and so forth.

MH: Many! One of the pleasures of the collaboration was surprising or challenging each other by taking a word or a phrase from the preceding poem and changing the scene and the mood radically - like the lonely young new mother undressing her baby to wash him morphing into the middle-aged woman teacher fantasising impossibly about her twenty-something student. Or the sequence of poems that moves from al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad to Damascus to a city in Kuwait to Mosul to Amherst.

And to feed off the previous question: there certainly is a lot of movement across borders happening in Diaspo/Renga. There’s also something about the way Paris is presented. I moved across continents just at the end of the latest assault on Gaza and I felt that people were more distant and apathetic in America. This comes out in the poetry, no?

DS: I think what you're sensing, Sousan, is not just apathy about Gaza. There's a general apathy, distrust and distance in the US when it comes to political issues, events and opinions.

MH: Yes and no. I agree with you about the distance, and the American apathy, but many of Deema's poems deal with the situation of diasporia Palestinians in the United States, including both American place names and recognisable landscapes, and the difficult connection and communication with relatives and other loved ones in Gaza or the Occupied Territories. The opposite of apathy. The poems set in Paris have personae who are Syrian, Lebanese or Algerian too, as well as American expats. Not that this is always explicit.

Marilyn Hacker is the author of twelve books poetry. She lives in Paris and translates Francophone Arabic literature. She is the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Deema Shehabi is a poet, writer, and editor. Her poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies such as The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, and others. Shehabi’s full collection Thirteen Departures From the Moon was published by Press 53 in 2011.She currently resides in Northern California with her husband and two sons.