Thursday Poem: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings by Juan Fellipe Herrera

In light of the recent appointment of Juan Fellipe Herrera as U.S Poet Laureate, I thought it would be remiss of me not to talk about one of his poems. Among all the various articles written about him recently, one quoted phrase in particular snagged my attention. It was from his poem Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings, and it is as simple as this:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries
Rather than go through the minutia of what is already a miniature poem (though so breathtakingly large at the same time), I’m just going to use this as a launching point to talk about poetry because it speaks to me on such a personal level and because I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately.
A lot of people don’t like poems which refer directly to or are themselves about poetry, what it means and why we write it – in fact, some journals explicitly ask you not to submit them. Types like this poem today, in fact. I don’t understand that attitude honestly, and not just because I’m inclined to enjoy them; it just seems to me that reflection is intrinsic to the art itself, and so surely there can be nothing more natural for the poet than to look closely at what compels him or her to write it. It’s also, in this deeply commodity-obsessed capitalist culture, an oddity, an aberration; it pays little-to-nothing, and yet here we are devoting our lives to it.

It warrants some head-scratching, and some poem-scratching for sure, and so we breathe deep and exhale poems. I was invited to Melbourne recently for the Emerging Writers’ Festival and while I was down there, I met some writers and authors from Western Sydney, who were known in fact for being from that place. One of them even went to the same high school I did. Hearing them speak was a revelation – their accents were so familiar and yet so strange to hear in this literary (read: white) space. It made me conscious in a new way of my own presence, and it made me think too, about whether I wanted to be known as a Western Sydney writer, to become bound by location and type. On the one hand, there is power in representation, in being visible for other aspiring writers from the neighbourhoods I grew up in; power and comfort too in having a tribe, in belonging.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be bound. It looked and sounded limiting; even as I heard the nuances in their voices and in their stories, I wondered if anyone else in the room, people who hadn’t grown up there, was picking up on it or if they just heard what they were expecting to hear. Without the knowledge I had, I worried it would just come across as crass or slapstick, reinforcing rather than subverting stereotypes. Beyond that, how many of them could relate to this? I hesitate to use the term universal, because when people start to talk about universal themes, invariably what they mean is the story/show/film isn’t white enough, but in stamping so hard on the labels people define us by, do we not run the risk of being unable to escape them later? Do we not run the risk of being put safely into a box labelled ‘migrants’, and shunted aside? Present at the festival, but still marginalised? I can’t say for sure, but the questions are circling my mind.

I’ll never hide where I came from or who I am. I grew up in and around Liverpool, I went to one of the worst schools in the state; I moved from one broken-into house to another and another; I am half-Lebanese, half-Turkish; I am bisexual. Shards of identity swirl beneath my skin, sometimes cutting sharp enough to bleed, sometimes not, but no one piece of glass can wholly reflect all that I am. I am a poet. I want that to be my hallmark, I want that to be the label by which I am known, without qualifier – my biography sometimes reads ‘I am an Australian writer’ or ‘I am an Arab Australian’ and so on, subtly changing to suit the publication, if I feel one element needs highlighting over another. It feels necessary in this increasingly niche, compartmentalised publishing landscape which so competitively hunts for any scrap of “authenticity”, any edge that makes you stand out over another.

But I hate it. I hate it even while I acknowledge its necessity – recently, a prominent poet and literary editor asked me this: what is the current state of contemporary Arab Australian poetry? I told him the truth – I didn’t know there was one. I assumed that was due to my ignorance, and thoroughly disgusted with myself, I started looking into it. Where are the other Arab Australian poets? I couldn’t find any. The most prominent poet I found with similar heritage was David Malouf, and honestly I was shocked to discover he was of Lebanese descent. I’d only ever seen him referred to as an Australian writer, and a friend of mine said that’s because he acts like a white man. Beyond him, however, beyond Adeeb Kamal Ad-Deen, another older Arab Australian, I couldn’t find anyone resembling myself.

There are plenty of young Arab Australian writers and poetic types out there, but the majority of them seem to favour spoken word performance rather than poetry for the page; I can’t find them on the pages or beneath the mastheads I seek out, the recognisable brands that editors, academics, publishers and other writers flock around. Suddenly, in discovering this lack, I feel a renewed sense of weight around this label etched in my bones, a renewed sense both of ownership and being owned. It’s too soon, I think, to know how this will change the way I shape my narrative, if at all – I’m just pouring my thoughts out, hoping a solution will reveal itself it to me.

But perhaps I needn’t bother, perhaps I simply need to be mindful of all the forces exerting pressure on my name, on how and where I publish my work and what it means when I do. That’s why I’m putting this here, on my blog, and not somewhere else. So, what does all this have to do with Juan Fellipe Herrera? It’s simple – I said it at the start, or rather he did. Poetry is a way to attain a life without boundaries. Those may look like words to you, but I promise you that sentence is a key and when I read it, I felt something unlock within.

This is why I write poetry, why of all the forms I have drifted between, it feels most like home: in this space, I can be all my selves and then some, without ever be locked in stone, without ever being bound by this flesh.

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