Suheir Hammad: Interview

This interview, conducted by poet John Rodriguez, originally appeared in Mosaic #17, February 2007.

I asked her “Do you remember Arsenio Hall?” And her reaction was to bless me with this huge smile that let me know that: 1) Yes, it was an obscenely perpendicular obtuse reference/question and 2) It might actually be a flavor frame for the interview. I’d read, years ago, that he would give his guests a copy of the questions he was going to ask them before they got on stage so that the interview would go smoothly. I had decided to do the same, was all, initially. It made for a good effect. How the pros do it, I don’t know, but then again how many poetry students ever get a chance to sit down across from their teacher from a lil’ ways back and ask her to speak on everything she was then, is now, and hopefully ever remains—and I’m not supposed to be happy? I was happy, particularly, in an old school Kid ‘N’ Play kick-step (or Salt ‘N’ Pepa push it) hip hop way since hip hop was the first connection I felt towards her.

She had suggested a “donut” shop in Midtown, near a rehabilitation spot with crossover clientele. She said she likes the spot because it’s humbling, and I suspect she’s interested in other folks’ reactions. My reaction must have been acceptable but I’d be lying if I wrote that I wasn’t concerned about putting down the tape recorder and enabling something interrogatory and condemning; I wasn’t self-conscious of my consistent sobriety and; if shorty right here, tall but slim even in a brown bubble coat and camo cap, can sit here all nonchalant like Bk represent and could you please pass the methadone on the left hand side, then this Bronx poet needs to stand up by sitting down.

That said, all the important words here are hers. Who’s she? She’s Suheir Hammad, activist/actress/poet and author of several books, most recently Zaatar Diva published by Cypher Books. She’s a humble homegirl, one who has been talented and published and otherwise blessed, but stays learning and loving life, all grown up and ready to read for you, about you, and with you, wherever you are on this earth. Just give me a few sentences to set her up, Arsenio-like, for those of us grown enough to remember staying up mad late to catch a show that honestly representing the voice, music, and culture of young folks of color, and who are sexy enough to admit how important that was to them then and still.

We got a good show for you tonight. First give it up for the cashiers and express bus drivers gettin’ their caffeine on, a.k.a. the Posse. Those folks over there in the dog pound, they’re “White Folks With Harder Lives Than Yo Ass So Stop Complaining”—Roo! Roo! Roo! Roo! And as our special guest, we have the talented Ms. Suheir Hammad.

John Rodriguez: I think I’m going to take it back to the fall of ’97, and say when I came to the Adult Writer’s workshop—you were what, Van Lier Fellow, Bronx Writers’ Center, ’97-’98—there was an adult poetry workshop (I was teaching the teen workshop) and I came and I didn’t know what to think of the name Suheir Hammad. I didn’t know a lot of Arab folks, Middle Eastern folks, so it was kind of new for me, and I come and I see this Puerto Rican-looking girl, and she had this wrap around her hair—very Badu-izm, kind of fingersnappy—and you had your hands in your lap with your head tilted listening to someone, and I thought: homegirl. Even though it’s wrong to slot people, I had this need to see something familiar and build on it from there. When I saw the cover of the book [Born Palestinian, Born Black] you qualified it. You said it’s the misrepresentation of the Arab. You said it was exotification, and now when I look at the back cover of Zaatar Diva I’m like, “This isn’t homegirl, this is somebody new.” How are these women different? That’s not on the list but I think I want to start with that unless—

Suheir Hammad: —No, I appreciate that. I think that it’s the same woman and the homegirl never leaves you. The homegirl is your foundation. My foundation is parallel to my homelife that my parents gave me and the life that was outside of my parents’ house, my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn. Those parallel existences have always been inside of me and I think the older you get (one would hope) in your craft and in your life, you’re more comfortable integrating all of the different sides of you, so I would definitely say that Zaatar Diva could not have been written by anyone other than the woman who wrote Born Palestinian, Born Black because you see, I mean for me, that even just as a reader when I follow my own work, when I look at my own work and see the patterns and the arcs and the contradictions and the duplications (sometimes) I see that it’s the same girl from Brooklyn who’s now trying to figure out, at 32—

JR: —I wasn’t gonna shout your age out.

SH: No, but you know I’m very proud of my age because I never thought, I never imagined what 32 or 30 would look like or what it would feel like, and society on all different levels had given me an image of what that would be, and so I could never really imagine myself at it so I’m very proud of my age. I wouldn’t say that it’s a different person. I would just say it’s a grown-up version. You know “mike check” in Zaatar Diva? It’s like “Yo Baby Yo” in Born Palestinian, Born Black. It’s written, and I was really clear in the writing of it when I wrote it down, but I understood that if it never got to the page that just the rhythm of it, the cadence of it and just the wit of it would get people to memorize it.

With all the studying that I’ve done since my first book was out, and all the love—that I even have a deeper love for poetry, and for writing—I still have a deep respect for the first rhyme and reason I heard, and that was my parents’ Arabic, the Quran, and hip-hop music, and so I don’t think that will ever leave me.

JR: Are those parts of where the poetry came from?

SH: Absolutely. My parents taught me that the Quran is poetry, right? That they really believe that the scripture, the holiest scripture in the Muslim religion—

JR: The Word, the word of God that recurs in your poems?

SH: Yes, so to have that and at the same time to have Rakim saying “I am God,” to have emcees who were coming from a demonized and marginalized people, as my parents were to me as a child, to have emcees saying poetry is my weapon, poetry is what I do, poetry is what has survived through the Middle Passage and enslavement, to have that from hip-hop and to have that reaffirmed by my family saying, “This is the religion of your people” and it came down in a poetry so intense and mysterious people are still trying to study it, to understand it. Those two things, I think I’ve been able to manifest those two roads in different ways and travel them at different times, but ideally I would like for my readers to see both evident—you know what I’m saying?—to see evidence of both things in the body of work. You might not see it in every poem, but it’s in the voice.

JR: You said you’ve studied since the first book. What are some of the things that have taught you?

SH: Well in my mid-20s I fell really hard for jazz music, particularly John Coltrane. Reg E. Gaines put me on to jazz music when I was 19-years old. He gave me my first Coltrane ever. It was a copy of “My Favorite Things,” and I never even knew that you could take something that was so staid and um…primetime [laughter]… something that was like “The Sound of Music” and you could create an entire universe out of something that already exists, and expand it externally and internally, which is what Coltrane did. I would say in my mid-20s that Coltrane’s breadth and his transformation as an artist really inspired me to have a different perspective on religion, on music, and on my language. You hear it; that’s one of the things you hear, I think especially among artists of color, it’s like you always hear a ’Trane poem, you always hear a Miles poem—

JR: Yeah, it becomes prescription sometimes.

SH: Absolutely, and it’s not studied and so what I wanted to do was, you know, I read about Coltrane’s life, I watched videos about him, I bought his wife’s music, I listened to his son’s music. When he wrote “A Love Supreme,” when he created “A Love Supreme” he really believed that he had left all of this [her finger circles the recovering patron-filled shop]—you know he was a junky—so he had left all of this behind, and had a true spiritual transformation. I always knew that artists could do it, but I had never experienced the product or the manifestation of an artist doing that. That changed my life, when I realized that like he would not have been able to create “A Love Supreme” if he didn’t have a spiritual transformation.

He wouldn’t have had that spiritual transformation if the music wasn’t calling him and I feel that way about language, and the vibration of language. And it also really affected my sense of sound, my sense of the potency of language, being even more careful about the language I use in a poem, because I understand that each word has a vibration that it sends out into the universe and I need to be really clear about the vibration I’m sending.

JR: Then do you get musical criticism? Do people say that you’re sending the wrong energy into the ether, you’re sending out hatred or violence, like the situation in “Palestinian ’98”?

SH: When I do feel misunderstood is when people say it’s really angry when they read Born Palestinian, the first book, and they read “Palestinian ’98,” which is in the new book, and they’ll use the adjective angry, and I’m like, we are so used to not hearing a social justice-oriented voice—of any ethnicity—or a Palestinian voice of any political leaning that it sounds angry to us, because we don’t even understand that this exists, like these feelings and this articulation, it happens whether you are listening or not, but because I’m a poet and I’m offering you this poem, and suddenly you’re listening to it or you’re reading it, you’ve never heard this perspective before. It sounds angry and foreign to you, but if you put it next to any other poem that’s illuminating any other truth or any other uncomfortable emotion, that other poem wouldn’t look angry or sound angry to you. It simply does because of how we project politics onto it. It’s always interesting for me how we want to censor and silence and degrade something as soon as we don’t understand it. Like at the first introduction to something new, we often make it a confrontation, right? So it’s like: I’ve never heard this before, what do I do with it? I’m either afraid of it, or defensive around it, or I attack it. You see that in poetry in general.

You definitely see it in the academic sphere, where I think a lot of times poets are discouraged. From my experience, I’ve seen that poets are discouraged from writing about things that are supposed to be outside of the private sphere, and yet, from my study of life and my experience of life, you can never really separate the public and the private sphere for anyone else along your own lines. I have a separation, but that separation…for some people it doesn’t even look like it exists, and they do all this political stuff…but I would never imagine that I could tell someone else what their separation would be, what their values are.

JR: And they don’t think they’re telling the poet what they should write about. When most people would say, “Well we’re not supposed to say what they should write about.” There’s freedom, there’s the muse, there’s creativity.

SH: We make those decisions by who we publish. We make those decisions by who gets degrees. We make those decisions by who gets tenured. You know, those decisions are made and a poet is affected by the work that they write and the work that they put out because we know what will be frowned upon, and it doesn’t have to be like black and white in a law book somewhere.

All you gotta do is pick up the journals. All you gotta do is go to the college readings and you can see the schism that’s happening between what people write about and what people actually experience. I believe that you create your reality through your writing, and so if I’m only writing about my internal landscape and not my external landscape I am living in a vacuum. Just as if I only write about politics and things I read in the newspaper and I don’t address what I’m feeling about my family or my love life then I am not being authentic and that voice is a didactic voice and you can hear it and you do see those poems and so much of it is a reaction to the fact that we are still trying to follow a dominant narrative and write poems about what people expect us to write about in the way they expect us to write them.

JR: Is this reaction, is this censorship and confrontation, is this the same outside the United States? Is it particularly United Statesian?

SH: I think it’s really American, actually, because I’ve performed in England, New Zealand, Australia, Scotland… yeah, and that’s like real-deal straight-up performances—

JR: And some of those places were heavily colonized. New Zealand was the last “officially” colonized place—

SH: [Laughter] New Zealand, Australia, Israel, and South Africa are the last colonies (people are going to have an opinion about that) but they were the last—

JR: This is 19th Century, yeah?

SH: Yes—to be “settled,” whatever you want to call a nation-state, but they were settled by people who were not from there, but I definitely feel you find a schism between academic and so-called performance work everywhere you go, all over the world, but I definitely feel that in America, because we don’t have government funding of the arts, we have private funding of the arts, it makes it difficult for people to really engage in cutting-edge work. You go to the Netherlands or you go to Amsterdam and they get public funding to put on poetry shows. They get public funding to bring poets in from around the world.

And that doesn’t mean they aren’t privatizing at a kind of scary rate themselves, because governments around the world are looking at America and saying well, America doesn’t fund this shit, so why should we fund it? But I would say I haven’t experienced censorship, or severe editing requests in other countries—

JR: In these neo-colonies, and in these places of war.

SH: Yes.

JR: There’s more love than in the United States.

SH: And I haven’t traveled through Latin America, but I hear it’s the same in Latin America. I think part of that is just our poetry community, or the readers of poetry in America are already such a small percentage of the population and then you break that up into people who only watch HBO and that’s their poetry fix, or people who only go to college readings, or people who only buy from a certain press, right, because they publish the kind of poets that they like. So you have all this fragmentation of such a small group of people who love poetry to begin with, and then within that fragmentation the support and the kind of nourishment that an artist needs to evolve their craft is lost.

JR: Now your poetry transcends the fragmentations. You’ve done Def Poetry on Broadway with the hip hop flavor, you do college tours, you go to other countries. What do people tell you after shows? That’s always my favorite time during shows. Someone will come up and say, “Oh, this poem…” What is it about the work of Suheir Hammad that people hold on to?

SH: Definitely, one poem, “first writing since,” it changed my career and it changed my life. I remember performing it in 2003, at that point I’d wrote it like 3,000 times and I was like everybody done seen this poem, and that was in Austin, and a woman came up to me in tears—this is two years later—‘cause she had never cried about September 11th. She had never, with everything that happened with Afghanistan, Iraq, with everything she had never cried. She was like “I don’t agree with this and I don’t agree with this, that’s all I know. I’m not taking sides, this is just fucked up.” For that poem to bring someone to tears and come up to you to testify two years after it was written, and two years after it’s been performed all over the country was an even more humbling experience than what I’d had with the poem up until then, which was people just coming up and crying. It’s an eight-minute poem to begin with, so as long as I’m doing the full poem you gone be up there for a while listening to me talking and I’m going to keep hitting you with all these different angles of the reality that I’m dealing with.

When Piri Thomas talks about you can only write about what you know, that’s a really amazing example, to me, of being honest to your cultural voice and to your political voice, because it was so specifically about me. It was so specifically about my family. It was so specifically about what I was going through at that very moment and yet that poem has been anthologized, it’s been translated into Hindi, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, I mean…I’ve never had anything translated like that. People all over the world resonated with that poem and I could not have thought “Let me write a poem that people will like,” or “Let me write a poem that people will relate to because they can relate to this part or they can relate to that part.” That’s my life, and if you try, as a poet, to lead an integrated life, your poetry will be integrated [laughter], don’t you think?

JR: Definitely, definitely. Overanalyzing about your audience and expectations—that’s always a killer, ‘cause it kind of robs the purity of the idea. I’m at a point where after I get it out, even if it starts as a journal entry, and then I start carving, and even if I know I’m going for a certain effect I try not to overact, or overreach, and spoil the emotional quality. The emotional content is still more important than whatever I can do with it, and I let my writing kind of honor that. You know, you’ve said humble a few times today—

SH: Yeah.

JR: —humble in that underneath the actual occurrence, underneath it, whether it was someone getting robbed by a crackhead or the these deaths of thousands of people, the way it affects me has to be stronger than what it’s gonna do for me, and how it’s gonna get over the crowd, or if someone will ever publish it, and there’s a way I have to honor that.

SH: I really, really believe that because when you met me in ’97 I never considered myself a performer to begin with, and I was all about the page. People when they hear even the earlier poems, they just think “Oh well that’s just hip-hop that’s just hip hop,” and I’m like, but I was just nineteen and I knew enough to put it on the page. That’s always been my beginning and my end, and that will definitely curb that audience-feeding energy of performance poetry—which is not what feeds me. I don’t get fed, as a poet—

JR: But you get slotted sometimes. As a performance poet, as a hip-hop poet, as a street poet—

SH: And spoken word—I mean, the spoken word thing, I don’t know who came up with that, and you know people get offended once they put you on the flyer and then you’re like “I’m not a spoken word artist.” They’re like “Well so-and so is, and that’s what they said you all are!” There are very few people that you can name that you can say are as good writers as they are amazing performers. I know for me that I’m a better writer than I am a performer. And I’m really okay with that.

JR: That’s also a vice of emcees at times. At Eminem’s height, he would complain about the attention and would have songs about why can’t I even go to the bathroom and people not bother me? Are you made to have this drive where you have to perform?  People introduce you as a poet, and you get “Can you read something now? Can you do something right now?”

SH: Yeaaaah. I get that all the time, but one of the things I learned from Def Poetry Jam was I needed to be able to always give a poem if I needed to, whether it was in a bathroom, or in a jailhouse, or in a boardroom. I usually say no. I have friends like Georgia Me, she says that her prayer was “If you let me do this for a living, I’ll do this anywhere I have an opportunity to.” I’m not like that. I don’t want to be on all the time. I don’t want to feel that at the drop of a hat I’m going to have to shine. I like to dim it sometimes. I have to dim it sometimes, but I do now feel like if I had to, I could, and I never had that feeling before. Your own insecurities rush to your brain and you’re like “Bitch, you can’t do this. What’s wrong with you? They’re gonna think you’re crazy or a poet!” But now I don’t feel that way. I still have discernment about what I will and won’t do but I definitely feel—especially when I came back from New Orleans, because in New Orleans in the shelters, I definitely felt like it mattered to those people that I was a poet when I introduced myself to them. Didn’t matter if I was famous or not. I said I’m a poet, I live in Jersey City, I’m from Brooklyn, and I just wanna come down and talk to y’all. And that mattered to people, and I always say that to poets now since then, I’m like don’t ever underestimate what you mean to people who even are not in your community.

John, they’d been interviewed for three weeks. They’d filled out one Red Cross form after another. They’d talked to one FEMA person after another. They were tired of talking. Then I show up and I’m like I’m a poet from Brooklyn, and everything changed. The way they spoke to me changed, what they talked about changed and their level of trust changed. They had no idea about my aesthetic or my schooling, they didn’t care anything about that. They were just like okay this person is here to bear witness and however she’s gonna manifest it it’s my responsibility to give her all the information I can. And you know, my book had just gone to print and I called my publisher and said “You know what happens to books in hurricanes? They get destroyed.” Imagine that… This is my first book in ten years. I’m in New Orleans, this is like the biggest project of my career, in a long time, and I see all these books in sewers. I look in people’s houses and all these books are waterlogged. It reaffirmed for me the need to memorize. It reaffirmed the need for me to stay street as well as reach for higher aspirations—

JR: And be spontaneous. Even if you’re still not a performer, you’re a poet. Someone could need you right now.

SH: Absolutely. Whether you have a book or if you’re getting paid or if you have a gig coming up or not you’re still a poet and what does that mean to you on any given day? What does it mean to you when you’re walking down the street? What does it mean to you when you’re sitting there with your daughter? I don’t know if it’s because I had these experiences, because I’m the kind of person who will get on a plane and go down there, but that goes back to (again) what kind of life do you want to have? Your poetry is going to reflect your life and I could not have developed a more varied, interesting audience if I had hired a marketing team and said I want to reach this group and I want to reach this age, I want to reach this ethnicity. I don’t think anyone could have done a better job than ten years of work. One of the things that I have learned in my career is to never judge or qualify where someone is at any given point in their career, because I do believe you will earn what you get one way or another, and sometimes you earn it after the fact.

John Rodriguez is working on a Ph.D. in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, a manuscript of poetry, and is teaching Bronx teenagers poetry. He has read his poems at various New York City venues and has been published in ONTHEBUSOpen City, The Underwood ReviewLong Shot and the anthology Bum Rush the Page.