Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jayson Iwen Talks About Literature, Transation Work and Jawdat Fakhreddine's Lighthouse for the Drowning

At last week's Open Mic at Beaners Jayson Iwen, Associate Professor of Writing at UWS, shared portions from his latest book which he co-translated from the Arabic, Jawdat Fakhreddine's Lighthouse for the Drowning. On Monday I summarized my impressions of the evening, but hoped I could also share one of the poems from which an excerpt had been read and Jayson obliged my request, sending several wonderful pieces, one of which appears at the end of this interview.

As a preface to his reading last week he mentioned sipping screwdrivers on the balcony of his hotel in Beirut, and two anecdotes immediately came to mind for me. The first was the story of Terry Anderson, a journalist who was kidnapped and held hostage for seven years. His book, Den of Lions, made an impression on me. Anderson went on to teach at Ohio University, my alma mater, so his story caught my attention on another level.

The second anecdote comes from NYTimes journalist Thomas Friedman's time in Beirut. Friedman, in one of his books (I believe it was The Lexus and the Olive Tree), wrote that when he was in Beirut CNN was trying to establish itself as a world news resource. They decided that one way to become more global would be to provide weather reports from around the world. Each day they would call Friedman who would step outside and make up a temperature and describe the weather. It was comical because these guesses were presented as fact to American viewers. He used the anecdote to make the point that many times people make up facts because of the hunger to be affirmed. Why did the DOW drop 80 points? Someone says, new housing numbers were just released. Someone else states with great cerittude that is was inflation, or a sudden uptick in the price of wingnuts.

Back to our story. I've enjoyed getting to know Jayson over the past couple years. His extensive writing, depth of experience and contributions to the University make him a true asset there. I invite you to check out the lengthy summary of his published work and career experience. If you're like me, you'll be impressed at how much he's achieved for one who appears so young.

Thank you, Jayson, for taking time to share a bit of yourself and your work here.

EN: What was the purpose of your stay in Beirut?

Jayson Iwen: Upon graduation from UW-Milwaukee’s doctoral program, I accepted a position as an assistant professor of English at The American University of Beirut, where I taught Creative Writing and British Literature. I’ve always loved to travel, and, earlier in life, I’d been interested in joining the Peace Corps, but I was enjoying college so much that I decided to go as far as I could with my education before working abroad, so that’s what I did.

EN: To what degree is poetry a part of Arab culture and life?

JI: As in many other cultures, poetry is a much more integral part of life in Arab culture than it is in the US. For example, poetry competitions (a bit like friendly rap battles) are often televised in Lebanon. This doesn’t mean that everyone watches them, but just about everyone is aware of their existence and has some familiarity with at least folk Arabic poetry traditions.

EN: What were the big challenges in translating this work? How fluent are you in Arabic?

JI: My Arabic is very poor, but my translation partner, Huda Fakhreddine, is an expert in Arabic poetry, as I am an expert in English poetry. Our method is to pass a poem back and forth, playing with the poem until we agree that we are each as happy with it as we will allow each other to be. She starts the process, of course, and then my responsibility is to make the English version as beautiful and/or engaging as Huda will allow me (because her responsibility is to not allow the English version to drift too far from the spirit of the original). It is time-consuming, but a lot of fun for me. The biggest challenge is usually making sense of statements that sound bizarre in English, and then figuring out a way to make them more intelligible without losing the foreignness of the original statement.

EN: Did you feel like you were sharing something important? What was your motivation in this undertaking?

JI: I was initially just doing a favor for a friend (Huda), but as I spent more and more time with the poems, I found myself gradually assuming the mindset of Jawdat Fakhreddine, much like an actor getting into character, and then I realized how important (though often very subtle) the sentiments were behind the poems. If one reads Lighthouse for the Drowning carefully, I believe one can understand, can actually feel, what someone probably feels like when he or she is experiencing an existential crisis and is on the verge of either enlightenment or “radicalization.”

EN: Can you briefly summarize your other achievements that have been especially important to you?

JI: I’m pleased to have had several books of my own recognized and published by nationally distributed presses. More recently, I’ve been honored to have had several poems reprinted in The &Now Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, and I had another nominated for a Pushcart last year. I have several manuscripts that I’ve been submitting to national contests for a while now, and two of them have so far been chosen as finalists (one of them twice); this didn’t result in publication, but the recognition is gratifying for me.

EN: What are you working on now?

JI: I’ve started writing short fiction seriously for the first time, just this last year, and I’ve already had two stories accepted for publication, one in Tikkun Magazine and one forthcoming in The Midwest Review. I’m enjoying this new direction immensely, and I plan to continue with it at least until I have a thematically coherent book-length collection. Alongside my own writing, I will continue my translation collaboration with Huda. In fact, we have recently selected a new poet, one who has not been translated into English yet: Salim Barakat, a Syrian Kurd who has been living in exile since he was a teenager. We are both very excited by his work. The style isn’t quite like anything that either of us has worked with before. A new, welcome challenge!

* * * *
(To Talal and Haytham)

In the nights that wasted us
we only found tomorrow,
a prey
cowering under the cover of night.
We caressed it with words,
and consoled it with sympathetic song.
All we found in the nights that wasted us
and closed upon our whispering
under the canopy of stars
was tomorrow
glowing like prey in the forest of death.

We found in politics,
poems and dictionaries
a feeble spark
for our guttering hearts.
We took refuge in the flame,
fearing it may go out
in the wilderness of nights that wasted us.
It must be yesterday, then
our glistening death.
Illusion, our savior!
It is you we choose,
and in your shadow we stay alight.
You are the branch of life,
and the only ember left
of our extinguished hearts.

We found neither
in politics
nor poems nor dictionaries
nor in the nights that wasted us
anything looming
into our sight.
We retired to our illusions
and sat there turning coals
in the ashes of language.

(December 1990)

* * * *
You may purchase Lighthouse for the Drowning here on Amazon
or locally at Zenith Bookstore on Central Avenue next to Beaners.

Illustrations here courtesy Portuguese artist Margarida Sardinha.
The title of the series: Hyperbolic Hyparxis

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