Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sand Opera


Sand Opera--my attempt to make sense of the post-9/11 years--came out a couple months ago, thanks to Alice James Books

I'm grateful for the good review from Earl Pike in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who wrote: "The contrast, a brief moment of tenderness amidst the brutal depositions about war's collateral, is striking. The cumulative effect of Metres' collection, its testimonies and gaps, its forms and disassemblies, is operatic and often incendiary, generally discomforting, and nearly always powerful. It is worth reading, and re-reading, to unearth the buried words."

Thanks as well to Fady Joudah, with whom I had an extended conversation over at Los Angeles Review of Books about Sand Opera. Along the way we discuss quite a bit—including love and politics, Elaine Scarry and the theology of torture, the Oliver Stone Syndrome and American Sniper, empire, the Iraqs I carry, 9/11, Standard Operating Procedures, black sites, docupoetics, trance states, recursion, poems about children, the vital vulnerability of the human body, the openness of ears, the sound of listening, the War Story and its exclusions, the Umbra poets and the Black Arts Movement, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, RAWI (the Radius of Arab American Writers), and the state of Arab American literature.

This is the beginning: 
FADY JOUDAH: Sand Opera is ultimately a book about love, its loss and recapture, and the struggle in between. Many will completely misread it as another political book of poems, in that reductive, ready-made sense of "political" which is reserved for certain themes but mostly for certain ethnicities. So part of that misreading is due to the book’s subject matter or its Abu Ghraib arias, and also because it is written by an Arab American.
PHILIP METRES: I love the fact that you read Sand Opera as a book about love. The longer I worked on the book, the more I felt compelled to move past the dark forces that instigated its beginnings, forces that threatened to overwhelm it and me. Love, as much as I can understand it, thrives in an atmosphere of care for the self and other — the self of the other and the other of the self — through openness, listening, and dialogue. Because the book was born in the post-9/11 era, it necessarily confronts the dark side of oppression, silencing, and torture. Torture, as Elaine Scarry has explored so powerfully in The Body in Pain, is the diametrical opposite of love, the radical decreation of the other for political ends. The recent release of the so-called “Torture Report,” and the torrent of responses (both expressions of condemnation and defensive justifications) has felt like a traumatic repetition for me. Didn’t we deal with this during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the “Enhanced Interrogation” debate? Even now, the political conversation seems to skip over the fact that torture contravenes international law and is a profoundly immoral act, and moves so quickly to debate its merits — whether any good “intelligence” may have been gleaned from it. Why is that the writers who have gained the widest platforms were veterans of the war, some of whom participated directly in interrogation — for example, Eric Fair’s courageous mea culpa December 2014 Letter to the Editor in The New York Times — while Arab voices, like Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon’s, are so hard to find and so marginalized?
My hope is that Sand Opera can help be the start to a new conversation about the state of poetry, American life, and the role of Arab American literature in our ongoing cultural and political debate about U.S. foreign and domestic policy regarding the Arab world. We welcome further conversation. More to come....

"Advising the Prince" by Chuang Tzu

I came across this curious parable in The Way of Chuang Tzu, translated/interpreted by Thomas Merton. It seems to apply to everything from personal to political decision-making. Would that our leaders carried themselves with as much integrity.

"Advising The Prince" by Chuang Tzu (translation by Thomas Merton)
The recluse Hsu Su Kwei had come to see Prince Wu. 
The Prince was glad. "I have desired," he said, "to see you for a long time. Tell me if I am doing right. I want to love my people, and by the exercise of justice to put an end to war. Is this enough?"
"By no means," said the recluse. "Your 'love' for your people puts them in mortal danger. Your exercise of justice is the root of war after war! Your grand intentions will end in disaster!"
"If you set out to 'accomplish something great' you only deceive yourself. Your love and justice are fraudulent. They are more pretexts for self-assertion, for aggression. One action will bring another, and in the chain of events your hidden intentions will be made plain."
"You claim to practice justice. Should you seem to succeed, success itself will bring more conflict. Why all these guards at the palace gate, around the temple altar? Everywhere? "You are at war with yourself! You do not believe in justice, only in power and success. If you overcome an enemy and annex his country you will be even less at peace with yourself than you are now. Nor will your passions let you sit still. You will fight again and again for the sake of a more perfect exercise of 'justice'!
"Abandon your plan to be a 'loving and equitable ruler.' Try to respond to the demands of inner truth. Stop vexing yourself and your people with these obsessions! Your people will breathe easily at last. They will live and war will end by itself.