Framing the War Before it Frames Us: A Conversation with Iraqi Poet Dunya Mikhail

“The war continues working day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry of artificial limbs, provides food for flies,
adds pages to history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed…”

That was an excerpt from Dunya Mikhail’s poem “The War Works Hard,” also the title for a collection of her poetry in English (translation by Elizabeth Winslow), published in 2005. Mikhail’s expert use of irony and vivid imagery, her profound humanity and urgency of tone make her poems exceptionally memorable. Mikhail writes in Arabic, Aramaic, and English. She has published four collections of poetry in Arabic and one multi-genre lyric text entitled, The Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (also available in a bilingual edition). She generously agreed to answer a few questions about her art and its relationship to the violence and conflict she and her country have experienced, including the violence of being torn away from one’s homeland in exile.

Farzana Marie (FM): You have said that “poetry is not medicine —it’s an X-ray. It helps you see the wound and understand it.”  If poetry itself cannot provide the healing, but perhaps serve as a tool to show the broken places, to know where to begin, what comes next? How can we all go about dealing with the fragmentation, alienation, and wounding that results from conflict?

Dunya Mikhail (DM): All this violence in the war makes us feel alienated but also feel together in our alienation and we resort to poetry (to art in general) to give some sort of form to all that mess. In another word, we try to frame the war before it frames us. You may see, however, that the picture inside the frame is fragmented. I am sorry but that’s unavoidable.

FM: You have been writing since you were a teenager. How, if at all, have your motivations for writing poetry changed from that time until now? What keeps you writing?

DM: Every one of us has some sort of reaction to being in the world surrounded with all those experiences (whether our own or others’) and poetry happened to be my reaction. It gives me the most excitement; how a poem opens a space of discovery for me and then it expands into the meanings added by the active readings of others. It’s similar to the immigration experience: The readers immigrate to our poetry and then gradually they associate it with some experience, a familiar or unfamiliar one. The poem travels between solitude and society, between the individual gesture and the multicultural exchange. The poem is itself the end and not the means to an end but then when it reaches the audience, another deep process occur, a process of transformation into adopting a common feeling.

FM: In the poem, “Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea,” you write,

“Larsa scatters the old pictures
and mixes them with the new ones.”

This is a vivid image of what those displaced in a variety of ways have to do in order to survive: to make sense of new situations and worlds…grasping pieces of what has been left behind and trying to reconcile those with a new situation and lifestyle. Can poetry be part of this process? Any examples?

DM: Right. Poetry has been playing such an essential role in my life. Look, it was because of poetry that I left my country. Poetry, in return, saved my life. This is not metaphorical, it really did. It was written in my passport that my profession was a “poet” and that helped me cross the boarders of Iraq more easily. Any other profession would require a lot of paper work and employment permissions, which would delay you when every moment mattered at that time of urgency. Then in exile trying to find a place, you find that it’s poetry that makes you relate somehow to the new space and call it a place.

FM: Who have been the most inspiring writers or poets for you personally and why?

DM: The first thing that influenced me was folk tales and mythology narrated to me by my grandmother. That happened during my childhood on the roof of our home in Baghdad. Then during my teenage years I remember a novel titled The Graveyard of Elephants translated into Arabic (unfortunately I don’t remember the author). The way the elephants just go to a certain place when they feel it’s time for death just fascinated me. After that, I remember I loved so much Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. Most of what I liked was in translation and not in my native language. I didn’t like most of the poetry I read inside Iraq; that’s strange, I know.

FM: War and conflict are unavoidable subjects in your work. How would you describe your approach to writing about these subjects in ways that are new, unique, and gripping?

DM: Writing about the war, for me, is not so different from writing about any other thing. More important than the experience you write about is the poem itself as an experience, a creative experimental experience.

FM: How do you see the relationship between art and war, besides the clear tendency for art to reflect deep or extended conflict? Can the pen ever be “mightier than the sword”?

DM: The way I lived in Iraq had given me an impression that “the sword is mightier than pen.” But now when I think back: the published word had such an influence on people, therefore the government feared the writers and always tried to buy their opinions first and then, if that failed, threw them in prison or killed them or intimidated them away into exile. I remember that on the corner of the front page of every newspaper (they were all governmental and censored of course), there was this phrase: “Write freely whether the government likes it or not.” But we all knew that it was merely a trap. They would use our pen as a trap, as a sword towards us. But poetry (or art) leaves traces, like those of the butterfly, delicate but effective.

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