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Line / Break | Season 4 with Philip Metres
The Line / Break season four third episode features Adrienne Rich Award Recipient Philip Metres!
Copper Canyon Press publicist Ryo Yamaguchi and Philip chat about temperate speech in times of extreme violence and Yeats in this week’s episode.
Ryo Yamaguchi (00:05):
Hey, everybody. I’m Ryo Yamaguchi, the Publicist at Copper Canyon Press, and you are tuning into season four of our interview series Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the poems and minds of our beloved poets. We’ve had so much fun over these seasons, hearing poems, talking about writing, books and life. It’s been one of the favorite things that we do here at the Press. So friends, for season four, we have a format change. For this season, we are doing some close reads. Each episode will focus on either a single poem or a single topic wandering away and returning, and wandering away again along all the little paths we simply can’t resist. The episodes will probably be a little tighter, a little shorter. We can’t say for sure. Thanks for joining us.
Philip Metres has always excited me with his formal experimentation, a way of thinking of poetry and poetry projects in intensely creative ways structured in echoing architectures, both locally on the poem level and globally in the construction of the entire book. His forthcoming work, Fugitive/Refuge does this marvelously with the Arabic qasida in a searching story of exile and homecoming, of leaving and returning, that is at once personal family history and a history for all migrants, especially the extraordinary numbers of them seeking a home right now. At the center of this work is a sophisticated poem called Remorse for Temperate Speech that speaks of homelessness and empire of the powerful and the disempowered of what is said and what we know. It’s an incredible poem, and I want to focus our conversation today on it. So Phil, thanks so much for being here.
Philip Metres (01:50):
Thank you so much for having me, Ryo. I’m excited to be talking about this poem.
Ryo Yamaguchi (01:55):
I think to start maybe, I wonder if you could contextualize, or give us even just a little bit of a spiel or blurb about the work as a whole, Fugitive/Refuge, that’s going to be forthcoming from the Press next spring.
Philip Metres (02:07):
Yeah, super excited about this book coming out. As you said just a moment ago, I think better than I could from the get-go here, it’s really an exploration of both personal family history of exile and refugee status, and seeking home for my specific family, but also reflecting on all the ways in which human migration in which forced removal, ethnic cleansing, are very much on our minds today in our world where it seems that there are so many displaced refugees right now.
So the work really started out of an attempt to try to understand my own family story, the exile of my great-grandfather from Lebanon and the trauma of that exile, and then his murder in Mexico. So trying to understand the reverberations of trauma as they have passed down in my family, alongside all the other things that I was noticing and observing over time, particularly after the beginning of the Syria War and all of the refugees that happened then in the 2010s. It brought up a lot of feelings for me. I realized that’s at least in part because it echoed or rhymed with my own family story.
Ryo Yamaguchi (03:42):
I love this, and I think this is somewhere in the footnotes of the work, this idea of the family history rhyming with so many other experiences that are going on now. I think sometimes, for us who watch the world through the news, it can be so overwhelming, and we just sometimes forget that there are just so many people right now on the move. Even as we see specific examples obviously in Gaza, and also in Ukraine, and so many other places too.
Philip Metres (04:11):
Ryo Yamaguchi (04:13):
Before we get into it though, let’s hear this poem. I am so excited about this poem, and I do think it sits somewhat in the center of this work in an interesting and motivating way. It’s a bit of a pin in the book.
Philip Metres (04:28):
It also connects up to my previous work, Shrapnel Maps exactly. It’s not a postscript exactly, but definitely a conversation threading through that. So here it is, Remorse for Temperate speech. For I spoke as if I knew to you who know how a house looks clothed and flames from the inside, you sitting in the smoke as if watching my prose only stoke the flames in that stagnant room among stagnant rooms with the powerful talk for your people bound in the margins of empire’s book, who speak and speak and speak and pretend to listen. May you find the waddy where water flows into future, and greet what has come before, where you did not know you knew before, the unmapped hidden waddy where past and future meet.
Ryo Yamaguchi (05:41):
Yeah, that’s so powerful. I hear in your reading of it too, this sense of, again, back to this idea of a global arc, which is a venturing out, and a returning, and the seek for home. I think the poem closes in that, if I could use the word Eden and Edenic, hope, something where the future and past meet together. Could you give us a translation of waddy?
Philip Metres (06:07):
Waddy is a valley or a ravine, some place where water would’ve run. I wanted to use the word in Arabic because I wanted the introduction of a opening into a language that maybe an English reader would not know or understand. There are certain places that this word can open up for an Arabic speaking or Arabic reading reader that others may not have access to. I thought that was just a way of demonstrating that, there might be places in language and in the world where we need them, and they may only be accessible in certain languages maybe.
Ryo Yamaguchi (06:58):
Yeah. Yeah, I love that. Sometimes there is no translation. On this point, for those who are watching, I do think it’d be important to show the poem quickly, so I’m going to share my screen just for a few moments here for those who are watching the episode. But one thing I really love about this work, and that I point out, is I love this serpentine or riverine flow to it. It moves in one direction and then returns to the other. Then of course, we have that pretend to listen, which is almost like a label that’s been pasted along the side of the poem. It was really great to hear you read where that takes place actually in the poem, and that it has a specific location in it.
Philip Metres (07:41):
One of the most excoriating critiques of Shrapnel Maps was a review in which the writer believed, the critic believed that I was pretending in a sense to listen, that I hadn’t really heard, in this case, Palestinian voices. As it was, that work was really situated and positioned in my own subjectivity, which is neither Palestinian nor Jewish. So trying to understand in proximity with both Palestinians and Jews, this very knotty, K-N-O-T-T-Y, relationship to this place which both claim, and which is causing so much hurt and violence right now.
Well, here’s the thing, Ryo, and this is just me being just totally honest, sometimes we don’t know precisely why we do things, but there’s an instinct that there’s something important to it. I still instinctively think that there’s something important about it that, in my positionality and in the positionality of someone who speaks from the powerful place of empire, that there’s a lot of gestures toward politically correct pretense of inclusion when, in fact, those can be dramatically exclusionary moves. There’s something about it, not just being the words, but also enclosed in a rectangle which, to me, reverberated in a way that I wanted to keep.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:34):
There’s a formal thing to that too, and I see it as a stamp or a sticker that’s been affixed to a document that’s already extant or something.
Philip Metres (09:43):
Interesting. I like that.
Ryo Yamaguchi (09:46):
I see it that way too, but I also see it as enclosed, and I think this idea of enclosure, of sequestering the margins of empire, this idea is also really resonant. One of the big questions I want to ask about this poem is the idea of home, but also home as a structure or a place. The waddy is a valley that you’re mentioning. There’s a lot of this idea of location. In particular, I want to talk about place and location, and how you were thinking about… Tell me about the metaphor of the house in this, for instance, if it’s a metaphor or even.
Philip Metres (10:22):
I see it as metaphorical in my original writing of it. I should say that the poem is dedicated to Mosab Abu Toha, who’s in Gaza right now. In fact, his house was destroyed a week ago. So when I wrote it for him a couple years ago, it was during another period of violence, of bombing in Gaza, and I was just thinking about him and his precarity. So, it was certainly metaphorical, but now it’s not. There’s so much to say about the danger of metaphor, and what constitutes refuge and security. People are dealing with it right now in a very, very explicit way.
I don’t know how much, or where we should go with this in terms of that conversation. But I should say that, even right now, this question about temperance or Temperate Speech is haunting me. Because on the one hand, as a human being and someone who has a voice of some measure of privilege, I feel an absolute obligation to try to say something, certainly to ask my congresspeople, who I was literally just phoning a couple hours ago, for a ceasefire to stop violence. I also just see how social media is so inflamed by polarizing and violent speech, and exclusionary speech, and speech that’s so intemperate that it seems to gather… Intemperate speech is an accelerant to a certain further polarization.
I don’t want to be some liberal civil speech person, because that’s not me either. But I think the remorse comes from my sense that, and I’m looking around trying to figure out what I want to say here, sometimes one feels like screaming. Yet, I try to take enormous care with my words, both on the page and with others, and certainly on social media, partly out of a self-protective gesture, but also because I know how quickly and easily words can become decontextualized or weaponized to hurt others, to harm others. So my remorse is about how to try to have efficacious speech, how to have speech that does something without all the unintended consequences of speech that destroys relationships. Initially… Can I just say one more thing?
Ryo Yamaguchi (13:47):
Please, please. Of course, yeah. Say many.
Philip Metres (13:52):
When I was in college, I had the great opportunity of studying with a scholar who is deeply invested in what he would call the non-violent tradition, so we read a lot of poets, and philosophers, and political thinkers and activists. I was always playing devil’s advocate with his position regarding whether non-violence as a philosophy and as a set of tactics was valuable or the best mode. Nonetheless, I took from it something that I’ve always remembered and tried to work with, which is that, within non-violent struggles, there’s a push-pull between two modes or ways of trying to get change, trying to affect change.
One is conversion. We know this as the Martin Luther King approach, that we would want to find some way of having someone change their mind, because their heart is moved in some way, because they see reality differently, because they’ve been convinced actually. The other is coercion, which is when other methods or means of attempting to have people change their mind to engage in actions which will leverage power in the various ways that they can be leveraged, like boycotts, sit-ins, and the rest of it. I suppose I’ve sometimes erred on the side of wanting to reach people whose hearts I could change. I know some others, particularly at this moment with the sense that a genocide is unfolding, more coercive. In this case, I mean protests, sit-ins, boycotts, divestments, the whole nine yards, seems more necessary.
Ryo Yamaguchi (16:04):
This is getting into such rich, and complex, and huge debates around civil unrest, and the idea of coercion and whether or not we want to consider even, is that a combative move? Is it antagonistic or agonistic? Versus the idea of just showing someone a truth and letting them be moved by it. Which even the way I’m putting it sounds passive, but maybe is more appetizing or something, in a way. I don’t know.
Philip Metres (16:38):
There should be space in any movement and in any moment that people’s spirits and their talents can manifest in different ways. But I think I’ve always found it really difficult to do that too. So my remorse is about my temperance really, in a nutshell. Then I wonder, as Fady Joudah, my friend whose also lost… Whose had so many family members killed, has said, “Why is it that we’ve been denied the grace of rage? Why is it that we are not allowed to be angry about things that anyone would be angry about?” I wonder if I’ve disciplined myself, I’ve taken on, I’ve internalized a certain imperial discipline that won’t show my feeling. So I want to just live with that question too and, that, I think is part of the poem. Have I spoken from a distance?
Ryo Yamaguchi (17:46):
Yeah, absolutely. I’m reminded of a book I worked on many years ago that was about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after Apartheid, and it was reconciling Apartheid. The book was arguing that a big success of that project was making space for anger, realizing that anger has social utility to it. Again, that’s even maybe a cold way of putting it, but it is that idea. It is effective. It’s an effective emotional mode-
Philip Metres (18:18):
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:18):
Even just sociologically.
Philip Metres (18:20):
What’s the book? Do you remember the book?
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:21):
It’s called Sing To Anger. Goodness-
Philip Metres (18:24):
Oh, that sounds wonderful.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:25):
It’s from… Sing, Peleus, it’s from the opening of the Iliad.
Philip Metres (18:31):
Oh, right, right.
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:33):
Goodness, I’m sorry, Sing To Rage: Listening to Anger After Mass Violence. It’s by a scholar, her name’s Sonali Chakravarti.
Philip Metres (18:41):
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:42):
It’s called Sing To Rage.
Philip Metres (18:44):
Ryo Yamaguchi (18:45):
Yes, I recommend it. Yeah, absolutely. It’s great. I want to go back to this idea… Well, anger temperance and intemperance. Another thing I’m thinking about here as you’re talking, which I’m also going to be equally ineffective at citing, I remember from when the US invaded Iraq after 9/11, and a whole slate of… I was reading tons of things about it. In particular, there was an article that was in Harper’s, and I wish I could remember the title and the author.
But the general idea around this article was that there is an inaccurate binary that our political discourse has that we receive in our political discourse at this time, which is the idea that a government will silence speech, our society will silence what is disruptive, this idea… A classic symbol of this would be the redacted statement in an official document. So, it’s literally censored. It’s literally silenced. But this document was making an argument that was like, “We’ve now moved into a realm where the obfuscation is through sensationalism.”
The obfuscation is because everything is so garishly loud, everything is so wildly intemperate that we’re emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed by it. We cannot… A great example is just folks fleeing Twitter because it’s this repository of toxic discourse. But the problem that becomes then is that, well, now we’ve left the discourse entirely. Now we don’t see what’s happening. It’s become obfuscated precisely because it’s so sensational. The intemperance itself is inequally censoring power, something, like that.
I’m very much paraphrasing and [inaudible 00:20:40] what’s happening in this essay. But, that whole idea has really stuck with me a lot. It’s easy to think about in the realm that we live in now, because it’s the internet age, it’s the information age. It’s the Barry Schwartz thing. We are overwhelmed with too much information. I’m constantly asking myself that question of how that dynamic is always in play in this.
Philip Metres (21:00):
That is an astute analysis of a problem we’re all dealing with. I love the fact you brought it to my attention because I hadn’t heard it. I’ve been thinking a lot about disinformation, about misinformation, about sheer overflow and overload of information, and weaponized information, almost traumatizing information. But this idea of sensationalism as a subset of that, or a version of that seems completely accurate to me.
Two days ago, or three days ago, last week, at the end of the week, I gave a poetry reading, and I read a couple poems. In fact, I read this one, and I talked a little bit around what’s been happening in Gaza. A lot of people just thanked me for it afterwards, because it was such a much more quiet experience, and not because I had quieted down the necessary anguish, heartbreak, horror, rage at everything that’s happened, but because it created a space for people maybe to grieve a little bit together, through listening together. I felt grateful to be part of that experience and not be part of the noise, I guess.
Ryo Yamaguchi (22:35):
One thing I will argue about poetry is, it exists in this realm of both grief and of collective grief, and also this dynamic we’re talking about in terms of temperance, and intemperance, and sensationalism, and all this. The beauty of a poem as it is obstinate… The obstinance of a poem, and particularly this poem that we’re talking about today, opens up not only the possibility, but the motivation to hold in minds disparate ideas. To hold in mind that, what is the remorse? Is it the cynicism, sarcasm, whatever? I always think the poems have such a wonderful effect in that way, where it just opens language up in these ways. This leads me to ask maybe about the Yeats. So this is from Yeats, right? This is coming from Yeats, and we talked about that. I was wondering if you could maybe share a little bit of… Maybe even read the Yeats poem.
Philip Metres (23:31):
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. One thing I would just say, which is connecting exactly to what you just were talking about, is that Yeats has an idea that he actualizes in poem after poem. Which is, as he states in a prose work out of the struggle with others rhetoric, and out of the struggle with ourselves poetry. What he’s trying to get after there is that, for him, a poem at its best is a conversation with oneself, or a wrestling with oneself and these different polarities that exist in us. It’s a disciplining of self, but a coming to terms with our self-oppositionality, our obstinance.
I think that that position for him came out of a sense of knowing both the power of revolutionary violence, and also its impact, its rupture. He was an Irish nationalist who very much believed in Irish independence and freedom, and yet he was completely taken aback by the Easter Rising, and by the resort to violence that occurred then, and then during the war, and then the Civil War which ensued, three pretty significant events in Irish history, and trying to figure out what his relationship to those could be as a poet. Instead of being a propagandist, he really wanted to speak to what he thought was the distinctiveness and the necessity of Irish freedom. He also wasn’t about to use his poems as armaments, really.
So I wanted to read the poem that inspired the title here, which is Remorse for Intemperate Speech by Yeats. I ranted to the knave and fool, but outgrew that school, would transform the part, fit audience found, but cannot rule my fanatic heart. I sought my betters: though in each fine manners, liberal speech, turn hatred into sport, nothing said or done can reach my fanatic heart. Out of Ireland have we come. Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start. I carry from my mother’s womb a fanatic heart.
This line, “Great hatred, little room” has been a little tagline to describe the Irish predicament. Which is unfair, I think, because there’s great love, great beauty, great passion, great humor, as well. But he’s trying to describe the sense of crampedness, of unfreedom that was part of the Irish story for so long, and what that does to people, and I think in a very similar way to what it has done to people in Gaza, honestly.
Ryo Yamaguchi (27:04):
Yeah, such a good echo. Did that poem stick with you in that big anger, a little room? I mean, I guess I’m curious how you got from the Yeats to this. Had you been thinking about this poem for a long time?
Philip Metres (27:23):
To be honest, I don’t remember. Maybe this poem didn’t have a title, and then I was thinking about… Then the Yeats just sort of popped into my head. I can’t really say. It was just one of those accidents that led to a conversation. I think that a lot of my poetry, I hope, is in conversation with other poems, and other realities for sure. I’ve been thinking a lot about Ireland for quite some time, because I’ve been going to Northern Ireland since 2011, leading student groups, looking at the conflict, that so-called troubles that happened, and the peace process.
I’ve been going there partly because I seek so ferociously, I hunger so strongly, I thirst so readily for examples of societies that have moved through a process of violent conflict to something restorative, and have some element of reconciliation to them. In a way, perhaps similar to South Africa, though with certain differences as well. So it became a place that I became obsessed with. So thinking about the colonial pasts of Ireland, naturally created a conversation with this. With thinking about the times that I’ve spoken, not just in Shrapnel Maps, but the times that I’ve spoken in ways that were perhaps too measured, too temperate, rather than trying to really clear space for something new, for a new way of perceiving something.
Ryo Yamaguchi (29:26):
Yeah, that’s great. I hear in this too… While I’m harkening back, thinking about Irish history, and Irish freedom, and the troubles, I’m going back to what you’d said about Yeats. One of the phrases that stuck for me was the distinct and necessary form of Irish freedom. I feel this has been an important element of this whole conversation, where we’re talking about several different histories and struggles and looking for maps, looking for a path away toward reconciliation, toward freedom and peace. But that also, not every map suits the same terrain. There is a distinctness to each situation. I’m also hearing, in this conversation, the need for space to make attempts with goodwill, and then revisions. I feel like, at least in the case of Gaza, maybe that’s what’s been going on for decades. Does it seem incremental? Does it seem methodical to you?
Philip Metres (30:32):
Well, my words will fail and my heart will quail at any simple articulation about what has happened and what is happening, except to say that life was impossible in Gaza before all of this happened. How do you get worse than impossible? Apparently, for a while, people started paying attention during this period because they heard the term open-air prison, which seemed so stark and astonishing. Yet, at the same time, there’s a negative halo around that. What is an open-air prison? It’s where you put people who are somehow worthy, or that need to be locked away. Is that a fair analogy?
Then others have used the term concentration camp. That is all manner of valences as well. It’s hard to just be human right now. It’s so hard to be human right now. I’d love to just laugh with you, Ryo. I’d love to just get together, and have some food, and just laugh. Basically, I’m just overwhelmed every day, trying to do a little good, as much as I can, and hoping that the work, the work of poems, just keeps reminding us how to be human when we forget.
Ryo Yamaguchi (32:26):
I think that’s just very powerful, and I believe in it. I guess I would say to that, just that we can, each of us in whatever position that we are in, just keep trying, and trying to be good. I’m grateful that you put it in that way. I’ve been, at least in the empty gesture of textual email ticks, I’ve been putting it that same way. It’s like, I’m just trying to be good for the best that I can. If that means making a right choice about anything in my day-to-day life, just always having that front and center a little bit.
Philip Metres (33:05):
Again, it’s hard to be human. It’s hard to be human, because each of us is holding in our hands, at every moment, images of wars that are happening, not only in Gaza, but in the Sudan and elsewhere. How do you maintain a sense of just, where’s the hereness of my moment, and why am I connected suddenly to all of this? Our neolithic brains are not capable of navigating those leaps. So our technology is always God-like and ahead of things, and our bodies, our hearts are struggling just to stay centered in this moment. It’s weird.
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:07):
No, for sure. For sure. It’s interesting, the visual of the prosthetic of the phone, and that it’s giving you this world. It’s important to point out too, that Africa has had this incredible string of coups, and that is going, even yet, still unseen, at least in comparison.
Philip Metres (34:33):
Ryo Yamaguchi (34:34):
But, I appreciate this. Well, at least the intention is there. I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish about it, but keep trying. I believe that the work is good, and the pumps are good.
Philip Metres (34:46):
Thanks, Ryo. I’m excited that the book exists, and that Copper Canyon is bringing it out next year.
Philip Metres (34:59):
We can’t imagine it, right? That’s what we’re always doing, we’re trying to write into what has yet to be imagined, so that we can live into something that’s different and better. Why I keep going back to poems is as simple as what Naomi Shihab Nye says, “It’s rare to sit down and work on something and feel worse after writing a poem, and to feel worse after reading one.” I do believe in that restorative necessity, and want to keep doing it. It keeps me sane, or it keeps me insane. One of the two, I’m not sure which.
Ryo Yamaguchi (35:41):
Sanely insane, I suppose, or something. That’s a wonderful notion from Naomi Shihab Nye. I have not heard that. But it’s so simply put, and it’s just wonderful. It’s like, “I just will feel better.” If that isn’t resolution, at least it’s a way forward, or a way of keeping on.
Philip Metres (36:00):
Got to take that poetry medicine, Ryo.
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:03):
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Phil, thank you so much. There’s so much… Obviously, we couldn’t have hoped to cover all the ground that we need to cover, or that we can’t solve the problems we need to solve here in our little Zoom conversation. But, I’m just happy to have it, nonetheless, to talk about the poem.
Philip Metres (36:18):
Thank you so much.
Ryo Yamaguchi (36:20):
To that end, I think I’ll bring us here to a bit of a close. Maybe we could hear the poem one more time. I would certainly like to, if you feel good about reading it.
Philip Metres (36:28):
Sure. Remorse for Temperate Speech. For I spoke as if I knew to you who know how a house looks clothed and flames from the inside, you sitting in the smoke as if watching my prose only stoke the flames in that stagnant room among stagnant rooms with the powerful talk for your people bound in the margins of empire’s book, who speak and speak and speak and pretend to listen. May you find the waddy where water flows into future, and greet what has come before, where you did not know you knew before, the unmapped hidden waddy where past and future meet.
Ryo Yamaguchi (37:26):
Yeah. Thank you so much again, Phil.
Philip Metres (37:28):
Thanks, Ryo. Sorry for putting you in the awkward position of having to talk about a horrible [inaudible 00:37:33].
Ryo Yamaguchi (37:33):
No, no. It’s necessary. I’m happy we could have this conversation, and I’m happy to have it with you, and around the poem-
Philip Metres (37:40):
Thank you. Thank you.
Ryo Yamaguchi (37:42):
For the future and for going forward. Hopefully when the book comes out, it will be a better place. Cool. Thank you all out there for listening and tuning in, and for being present to the poems in this world that we do live in and share together. Thank you all for being here with us for that moment. So, we’ll see you next time. Thanks.