The Death of Poetry?


Fady Joudah

With Easter and Passover falling early in April, Poetry Month began in full earnest later than usual here in New York City, about the middle of the month. While some continue to wait their turns in line to decry the end of poetry in these United States, the sheer number of poetry events around NYC on a non-April day can be impressive. Come April, it can be staggering. And while I missed the chance to hear Brooke Shields recite Billy Collins, Meryl Streep interpret Elizabeth Bishop, or Tom Brokaw declaim the good gray bard of Long Island at the Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry and the Creative Mind gala at Alice Tully Hall on April 5th, a particular event from the first half of Eliot’s cruelest month stayed with me in a way I can’t imagine the gala, no matter who spectacular, would have.

Fady Joudah, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets series and renowned translator of Mahmoud Darwish, is certainly accomplished enough to carry the bill at a poetry event, but on Friday the 13th that was not the plan. Joudah was at Poets House, where he was to celebrate the poetry of Ghassan Zaqtan with the poet himself. Zaqtan, who was to begin a nine-city book tour on the 3rd, had his visa inexplicably delayed, missing much of the tour. The Daily PEN American reported on the event in its April 4th post.

Joudah, who handled the situation at Poets House with intelligence and aplomb, moved between a video of Zaqtan reading his poems in the original Arabic (available on youtube) and his own live reading from his translations, released in a beautiful and substantive collection, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, from Yale University Press.

In an e-mail sent two days subsequent to the Poets House event, Joudah reports,

Ghassan Zaqtan’s visa has come through; after thousands of dollars have been lost and his presence has been turned into an absence, of course. Hopefully, we can manage to re-arrange a mini-tour for the fall, but who knows. Main thing, for me, is the original process, its indiscriminate banality towards Palestinians, Arabs and many others. It continues to shock me about us here.

And in a strange way this strengthens my feeling that any literature worth its weight in salt, any important literature is, as Deleuze called it, a “minor literature.”

It’s funny, Jim, that all I was looking forward to was discussing and sharing the poetry, and not a word of politics; my introduction attests to that; because in always spinning back to politics, one risks reinforcing the defacement, the dehumanization of self and others.

Ghassan Zaqtan

Let us hope Joudah is right, that a tour can be arranged for the fall and that Zaqtan will still care come. As Marilyn Hacker puts it in a comment on the PEN site,

I was appalled when I learned of this situation, but I am sad to say I was not surprised. It seems that Palestinians are suspect in the United States by virtue of being Palestinians (perhaps just “of being Palestinians”), and particularly suspect of making known their desire to enjoy the same freedoms Americans are said to enjoy. Ghassan Zaqtan has been recognized as a poet of international stature in France, Italy, Brazil, Germany, as well as throughout the Arab world, and has visited, with no visa problem whatsoever, numerous countries in Europe and Latin America. I hope his visa is delivered, however tardily, and that he will still WISH to read and discuss his work in the United States. (Darwish got fed up after a while…)

And as Alicia Ostriker also comments on the PEN site,

May “the land of the free” act in accordance with its ideals, in welcoming all who share those ideals.

Unfortunately for audiences in California, Texas, and New York at least, the State Department has done so too late.




About James Tolan

James Tolan is author of Red Walls (Dos Madres Press). His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Connecticut Review, Fairy Tale Review, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Linebreak and Ploughshares among others as well as a number of anthologies, including the Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He is co-editor of the forthcoming New America, an anthology of contemporary literature (Autumn House Press) and an associate professor at the City University of New York--Manhattan.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Death of Poetry?

  1. Naomi Shihab Nye says:

    Thanks to Poets House for having invited wonderful poets Zaqtan and Joudah to begin with and thanks to James Tolan for clearly describing this frustrating story – we all regret that Zaqtan was not allowed to proceed with scheduled programs and hope he will be celebrated more respectfully next time around.

  2. Holly Messitt says:

    It is truly unfortunate that the politics of the event have, at this point anyway, eclipsed the poetry of the event.

  3. Estha Weiner says:

    Clean reporting on a vital topic, including juxtaposing the star-studded Academy event with the missing poet at Poets House event. Also particularly captivating are Joudah’s words: “All I was looking forward to was discussing and sharing the poetry…” and Marilyn Hacker’ s comments. Nice work, JET.

  4. Michele says:

    It would seem that there’s a price set on creative freedom. I can remember Cat Stevens, after 9/11, found Islam and changed his name, and he was denied a visa to America. This was a famous recording artist, not the kind of guy to fly a plane into a building, you would have thought.

    I’m currently experiencing the joy that is US immigration bureaucracy in applying for a green card for my spouse, although it has to be said that he doesn’t possess the same amount of literary talent as Ghassan Zaqtan. Here’s hoping that Zaqtan doesn’t change his mind altogether about sharing his work with his American audience.

  5. Laurence Berkley says:

    Once again, a relevant voice in the poetic community is silenced because it happens to espouse a particular religious and political position that opposes a louder religious and political position. This is not really about the State Department’s decision to refuse to grant a visa. It’s about the susceptibility to influence of the State Department by a religious faction that wields power in an arbitrary and reckless manner. Does anyone really suppose that the State Department cares about a Palestinian poet? This may not signal the death of poetry, but it hints at the power plays that determine the poetic community and the obstacles that a provocative voice must confront if it is going to receive an audience.

  6. It’s quite disheartening that devotees of literature were denied the pleasure to hear such an accomplished poet speak about his work. I am not familiar with Zaqtan, but I believe in the power of art to cross political borders no matter what the age or the country of origin. It’s simply not enough live in the world; we must strive to be “of” the world, and that means opening ourselves to new ideas, experiences, people, and yes, art, because those are the experiences that challenge our previously held ideas and perceptions. Those are often the experiences that most matter; there is a special joy in having one’s eyes opened, one’s world rewritten, by a particular poem, story, painting, or film. If this sad story has any silver lining, it’s that the attention given to it, however small, may point someone in the direction of Zaqtan’s work and his poems. I know he’s on my list for my next trip to the library for certain.

  7. James Tolan says:

    Like Estha, the line that stays with me is Fady Joudah’s “All I was looking forward to was discussing and sharing the poetry.” After all, that is what all of us drawn to poetry desire, what we in this country routinely afford ourselves but unfortunately have tacitly denied Ghassan Zagtan. Marilyn Hacker points out how Zagtan has read all over the world but that it is here in American, which so many without irony call the land of the free, that his visa is withheld. I have read Fady’s marvelous translations of Zagtan’s work and share here his brief interview on the Yale University Press site.

  8. Tim Keane says:

    I am glad to hear Zaqtan’s visa came through and I hope that the planned reading tour of the U.S. happens. Poetry is always connected to place and so is a government’s implicit censorship of it. I agree with Estha that the juxtaposition of red carpet readings with the Poet’s House fiasco speaks volumes. Did the former bard of NBC News read from Uncle Walt’s Calamus poems?

  9. Owen Lewis says:

    It is highly regrettable that a poet be denied a visa, particularly when the poet is of Mr. Zaqtan’s stature. The initial refusal to grant his visa, however, does not exist in isolation but in the world context that is highly reactive to the perceived failures of middle easternsocieties that have not been able to achieve a peaceful co-existance. This denial is regrettable, but no less so than the countless Israeli scholars that have been barred from many English universities, among other instances where political bias interferes with basic freedom of speech and freedom of thought. It is important to be thoughtful in responding to news of the failure of Mr. Zaqton to obtain a visa. It is symptomatic of much larger problems.