A Conversation With André Naffis-Sahely
BY EVAN GOLDSTEIN
André Naffis-Sahely is the author of The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin UK, 2017) and High Desert (Bloodaxe Books, 2022), as well as the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). He also co-edited Mick Imlah: Selected Prose (Peter Lang, 2015) and The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (CB Editions, 2013). He has translated over twenty titles of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Abdellatif Laâbi, Ribka Sibhatu and Tahar Ben Jelloun. His writing appears regularly in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, The Baffler and Poetry, among others. He is the editor of Poetry London and Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Davis.
Evan Goldstein: André, thank you so much for joining me to talk about your second poetry collection, High Desert. I can tell this is a collection honed from a life of hard-traveling and exile; it has a refreshing sense of internationalism, curiosity, and possibility in its open-hearted and revolutionary acts of witness.
In addition to your work as a poet, you’ve published wide-ranging translations, you’re the editor of Poetry London, as well as the editor of Pushkin Press’s beautiful 2020 anthology The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature, you teach, and you’ve just published High Desert this past summer. Amid so much, where did these poems come from?
André Naffis-Sahely: Thank you, Evan, that’s very kind of you. I grew up fascinated by the practice of archaeology, by the miraculous manner in which one can dig up entire cities and civilizations, whose existence had only been previously hinted at by oral traditions, or the odd poem. It’s not like poetry and archaeology aren’t interrelated. In many ways, poetry is the archaeology of memory, whether personal or public, while archaeological digs yield the poetry of a particular human experience. The British poet Anthony Thwaite (1930–2021) once said that “an archaeological dig and writing a poem have a lot in common. Both are searches for meaning, sifting through material that isn’t always certain and stable, apt to disintegrate.” I think he’s entirely right. I come from Abu Dhabi, a city of temporary people and temporary buildings. When foreigners—i.e., close to 90% of the population–lose their jobs and they can’t find another, they’re swiftly deported and their entire lives instantly evaporate. The same principle applies to its urban landscape. The ravaging forces of salt, sun, and sand can obliterate a building and grind it down to a stub, meaning structures are torn down and rebuilt at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with.
High Desert was the unexpected book for me, as I never once thought I’d be living in the U.S., whereas I always knew that I would write about Abu Dhabi. Simply because I knew it had to be preserved in some manner before it changed irrevocably. It proved to be the right move. The Abu Dhabi of the 1990s and early 2000s—where my first book, The Promised Land, is set—is now almost entirely gone, meaning there’s nothing for me to go back to. I revisit it via my poems, rebuilding a place that doesn’t exist anymore.
EG: It seems like you have a writing process that still surprises you. What is a day in the life like for you as a poet?
ANS: I approach a poem the way an archaeologist prepares for a dig. You have to research potential sites before mounting the actual expeditions; and while vast teams of different professionals are required to unearth a city or burial mound, as a poet you still need to work with people. The act of writing itself is solitary, but the practice that fuels it shouldn’t be. The books I write are directly fueled by my interactions with people, and that’s why I often employ reported speech in my poems.
A poem for me begins with a landscape; it could be a city, or a patch of countryside, and then I superimpose the human experience onto that backdrop. That separation has to be a part of the process for me because while they are parts of a whole, they always remain quite separate, at odds with one another, and the poem is the tension between the two. That’s the tragedy of the human experience, that we’re not quite as congruous or synchronous with nature as perhaps we think we should be. Robinson Jeffers understood that. He said the greatest beauty is “the divine beauty of the universe.” “Love that, not man / Apart from that.” He was wrong about many things, like we all are, but he wasn’t wrong about that.
EG: What a lovely Jeffers line—and how tense is that enjambment separating “man” and “man apart from that.” And the poem of course, in High Desert, becomes the place for constructing and enacting that unity between ourselves, our landscapes, and our histories.
The collection begins with “The Last Communist,” a poem that begins with the end—in this case, the “end of history” and the speaker’s father’s tearful reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The speaker then sifts through the father’s political life and his prison diaries, the small and large acts of resistance inherited from the past. Reaching the bloody present day, in which “history” is very much alive, the poem makes a series of surprising rhetorical turns: It’s interrupted by Mussolini’s quote, “it is better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep,” to which the speaker responds by choosing a side—the flock—as “even the lion / will go hungry and die.”
This poem, I think, is a microcosm of the questions that High Desert explores: digging through the present to discover its historic roots, witnessing a lifetime of travel and exile to discover one’s own roots, articulating a revolutionary stance toward the political and artistic questions of our time. These concerns move in and out of each poem, but they’re all present from the start, in “The Last Communist.” How did the poems in this collection begin to coalesce, and where did this first poem enter into the equation?
ANS: “The Last Communist” was one of the earliest poems I wrote for High Desert, or at least one of the first poems I started thinking about when the project originally took hold. It’s a tribute to my father and his generation of idealists, and how they watched the dream die right in front of their eyes. My father was forced to leave Iran when he was arrested for his left-wing political activities in 1979 and he’s never been able to return. His generation fought for basic social reforms, and instead all they got was a theocratic dictatorship, an eight-year war with Iraq, or death and exile. It’s also an implied critique of Fukuyama’s end of history hypothesis, one that was being vividly discussed when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in the early 2000s. It’s all nonsense, of course, and majestically disproven by the course of historical events even before the ink hit the paper. Woven into the poem’s fabric is the not-so-silent return of fascism. Mussolini is perfectly relevant: his direct ideological descendants are ruling Italy right now, and two of his actual heirs, Alessandra and Caio, are at the forefront of that.
High Desert is a diary of my time in Los Angeles and the U.S. Southwest during the Trump Administration, a love letter to the desert landscapes of the region, and an investigation of its fascinating history of labor and racial struggles, one that isn’t often discussed. Los Angeles in the 1910s and 20s was a hotbed of radical politics, as were those isolated company towns out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, like Bisbee, AZ. That’s where my poem “At the Graves of Labour’s Fallen” is set, inspired by a visit I paid to the town’s cemetery on the 101st anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, when over 1,200 striking miners and their families were deported merely for going on strike by the town’s corrupt sheriff and his band of deputized thugs. Westerns love to set their stories in towns like Deadwood, or Tombstone, and feature pistoleros like Seth Bullock, or the Earp Brothers, but for my money the real frontier outlaws of the American West were independently-minded itinerant workers and activists like Frank Little (1879-1917), or the songwriter Joe Hill (1879-1915). Note the dates of death. That was the First Red Scare (1915-1922) when corrupt local authorities and robber barons colluded to murder an entire generation of activists. But they couldn’t murder the idea: the dream picked up again in the 1930s and by the 1950s, the simple demands of labor activists in the 1910s had become a firmly entrenched reality. Of course, we’ve seen the gradual loss of those wins unfold over the past decades. High Desert is a tribute to them, too. I suppose my family’s legacy of political activism formed a personal bridge to this new landscape. There is a lot of overlap and hidden connections between Arabia, where I set my first book, The Promised Land, and the U.S. Southwest, where I wrote High Desert. They’re actually quite interconnected.
It wasn’t long into the project, however, that I realized that I wanted to present my life and voice (and my family’s experience) as only one among many. I was also looking for ways in which the reading and research I’d put into the book could be reflected in the actual narrative, and while I’d never produced any found poems before, I put together a sequence of found poems entitled “A People’s History of the West.” This was definitely one of the more unforeseen elements in the construction of the book. The sequence employs the words of historical figures like Pablo Tac (1822-1841), the Payómkawichum (Luiseño) scholar, the African-American abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) who funded John Brown’s campaigns and the Underground Railroad using money she made in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, labor activists like Ricardo Flores Magón (1874-1922) and Art Shields (1888-1988), and writers like Louise Bryant (1885-1936) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). I wanted the reader to see California’s–and the wider West’s–history through their eyes, not just mine.
EG: High Desert takes on the question of simultaneity, and how we can understand our personal experience in the context of the lives around us, and of the lives that came before us. Much of the collection looks outward, even when the poems are reckoning with personal history.
“The Other Side of Nowhere,” for instance, has the speaker sort through items from “our nomadic misery,” but it moves outward, thinking of an incident where “two cops in Catania / stung a sixteen-year-old boy from Darfur / with cattle-prods.”
Or the beautiful “Ierapetra,” which observes, in long-lined tercets, a nighttime beach scene where a blind boy “places his hand on his father’s shoulder and follows him into the sea.” The poem is generous in its observation, and the eye wanders to greenhouses on the hillside and then the speaker imagines “spending all day // toiling in there–like being imprisoned inside a blister, so that / someone somewhere can eat tomatoes in December.”
And of course as you mentioned, in the final section, “A People’s History of the West,” the book gives its voice to others entirely. Throughout, the poems seem to construct an identity, a sense of place, class, and history, by witnessing life outside of the speaker, by constantly reminding us of the global connections between seemingly local phenomena. How does observation factor into your poetic practice? And how are you thinking of the relationship between the local and the global as you observe, or as you collect the poems into a book after having observed?
ANS: I came of age at the height of the anti-globalization movement in the early 2000s and I think much of their critique stayed with me and helped shape my poetics. I really admired their opposition to ”’globalization from above,” which is driven by unelected institutions and multinational corporations, and I found their vision of a world based on cooperation truly compelling. I don’t think we’re any closer to it now, of course, in fact arguably we’ve moved even further away from it.
I think my poems are always looking for the global in the local and what we all have in common is oppression. Arundhati Roy once said that corporate globalization relies on authoritarian governments to function most effectively and we’re seeing more and more of that across the board. You mentioned “Ierapetra,” and that’s a perfect example. Many of the poems in The Promised Land take a critical view of the horrific exploitation of South Asian migrant workers in the UAE, and when I visited the southern coast of Crete almost twenty years after leaving the Emirates, I found the exact same communities fulfilling exactly the same roles, just as cast aside by Greek society as in the UAE. Tomatoes in Crete, construction work in Dubai, but the formula remains the same. Both are countries that protect their own citizens—to varying degrees—but who happily exploit anyone who’s just passing through.
We’ve created a transnational working class that desperately roves around the world in search of work, a new Lost Tribe, one that lives off short-term contracts, long-term visas, and sanctuary cities; one World Cup stadium here, a power-plant there, contributing to economies across six continents, none of which will ever have to look after them in return. As our world integrates further, this amorphous community of migrant workers, who can hold no state or corporation accountable, is only set to increase. The victims of natural disasters, financial downturns, violence and war will swell their numbers, and they will have no parliaments to represent them, no embassies to turn to, and no passports to bring them “home.” Those are the people I grew up with and they’re the people I write about.
I don’t think I’ve ever set out to assemble a collection about a particular place; that tends to come later, after years of travel and reflection when it strikes me that I’ve got enough material for a new book. That being said, I’ve traveled to plenty of places I haven’t written about, so it’s not like my dromomania necessarily has to feed into a poem or a piece of writing. I tend to let the trip unfold and then inspiration either strikes me or it doesn’t.
EG: I love that word, dromomania—that even if it doesn’t result in a piece of art, traveling, looking, and seeing can become a drive, an obsession. The documentary impulse in your work, the need to present history through eyes that aren’t your own, produces such strong and striking images, especially of the American Southwest: the “wild mustard returns to the hills” in “The Year of One Thousand Fires,” the cardboard placard that “reads ‘Goodbye Emilio,’ or, as the newspapers / called him, John Doe #283,” the history you uncover beneath the soil in “At the Graves of Labour’s Fallen.” The contradictions you capture in the landscape remind me of Robert Frank and of course Muriel Rukeyser. How do documentary methods factor into your process? And when you visit a place that does strike you, what is it that moves you from witness into composition?
ANS: Much of High Desert sees me behind the wheel of a car as I drive around the American Southwest, so I guess my process was highly motorized for this book. I drove down dirt roads to ghost towns, old mining camps, and back in 2018 I spent an entire summer living in Cochise County, in southeastern Arizona. I spent a lot of time in and out of Bisbee, which was run like a medieval fief by the mining concern Phelps Dodge for a little over a century. High Desert’s poem “At the Graves of Labour’s Fallen” is about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, when 1,200 striking miners and their wives and children were rounded by the town’s corrupt Sheriff and his posse of deputized thugs and sent off to New Mexico in cattle wagons.
I wrote the poem rather quickly, but a lot of time and first-hand research went into it. I went to see the Copper Queen Mine in Bisbee, one of the West’s largest. It’s open to the public now. I also visited a local museum where I was able to learn about the town’s history and I walked around Bisbee’s graveyard on a tour led by one of the few union men still left in town. There were a lot of young men buried in that graveyard. It was hard, dangerous work. Even harder and deadlier for non-white miners. It’s hard to imagine now how copper ruled every aspect of these people’s lives. The local high school even printed its diplomas on copper plates and the cemetery’s right next to one of the open-pit mines. What makes me move from witness into composition is the sentiment—the fear—that a momentous event might have been forgotten, or that we’re not remembering it the right way.
EG: As a tribute to the deep interconnections between global and local–and historic and contemporary–labor struggles, High Desert inhabits and explores political questions, but to me it doesn’t feel polemic, or like you’re writing toward a theme—the poems observe, explore, and they develop out of the stuff inside the poem itself, but they also work to expose and question the forces of empire and exploitation that are hidden just below the surface of the everyday. In “Ode to the Errant King,” you write, “If a border / is a war zone, then what do the insides / of our consciences look like?” To me, that question haunts the collection.
How do you think politics relates to or embeds itself in your poetics, and how do you balance the sharp political questions behind your poems with the sense of discovery from line to line through language and image?
And I’m curious about what you think of the common admonition to avoid the “polemic” in poetry, despite a vibrant tradition of, as Neruda wrote, “explaining a few things.” If poetry is the process of coming to understand, how can one know what is unjust without saying so?
ANS: The political perspective is what helps me break a scene down and reduce it to the level of human interaction—and that is where the poem begins, not ends. You’re right, the chief aim is the act of discovery, and I believe that a good poem should lead one down the path of discovery on both an intellectual and emotional level. A pure polemic won’t often get you there, but if a poem has a political heart and we can hear its beat and think it’s genuine, as readers we’ll largely forgive rhetorical devices and big statements.
It’s like I said earlier, I don’t think I’ve ever set out to assemble a collection about a particular place, meaning that I never sat down to write such a thing as High Desert, with its polyphonic sequences and obsessions with the hidden histories of Southwestern labor struggles. That would have been impossible. The project would have likely died right there on the first page. What I did was follow my curiosity to the end of the line, and I eventually tried to arrange the material in a way that might best enable the reader to forge a relationship with the material at hand.
Polemic is such a dirty word, isn’t it? Of course that wasn’t always the case: we’ve turned it into that. We’ve arrived at a curious impasse: poets are public creatures in ways they haven’t been in a long time, and yet they’re less polemical than ever. That’s a shame, particularly when you consider that our craft is inherently rooted in the polemic. What about Horace, Catullus, Shelley, Neruda, Plath? Speaking of Plath, Seamus Heaney didn’t like her late poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy.” He thought they were too polemical and confessional. Boy was he wrong. He misread those poems and more importantly he misread the times. Over the past few decades we’ve only walked further into confessionalism, but we have admittedly left the polemical behind and much to the detriment of the art.
EG: Your poems don’t shy away from political and intellectual rigor, but I noticed that they don’t shy away from formal rigor either. High Desert expresses itself in a handful of forms: short-lined quatrains, expansive tercets, prose poems, a sequence of sixteen-line documentary poems, ghosts of ballads, and alliterative verse mixed with a little Leaves of Grass, all underscored by a subtle internal music, and an attention to repeated words, assonance, and knowing when to break the patterns and harmonies you’ve set up.
When composing or reshaping a poem, what formal considerations are you taking? What forms do you find you’ve inherited from your poetic ancestors, and how do you find them different in terms of their expressiveness? What makes the language take the form of a prose poem, or a loose ballad, or a long-lined tercet sequence?
ANS: I think my use of the quatrain is what I inherited most from reading the work of Michael Hofmann. I wrote my doctoral thesis on his work. Acrimony had a huge impact on me and I think Craig Raine was right when he said that it was better than Lowell’s Life Studies. I was recently re-reading Rushdie’s essay “Imaginary Homelands” where he says that whoever writes about the past “is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost.” For me, the quatrain is the perfect repository of those shards. A tidy little box. Not too large, not too small. Just right.
I suppose I’m relatively old fashioned from a stylistic point of view, and in my first two books I mostly employed a medley of couplets, tercets, and quatrains, but the prose poem’s always been there, too. That’s the influence of the Arab modernists, like Adunis and Mahmud Darwish, as they were some of the earliest poets I read. Cioran’s Aphorisms, too. They left a mark. The oldest book in my possession is a bilingual French-Arabic edition of the Aphorisms. You mentioned Leaves of Grass and I think Whitman always stood in my mind alongside Jeffers as one of those inimitable Americans who literally march to their own beat. Marianne Moore, too. Lately I’ve been really interested by what Jeffers called “rolling stresses,” his idea of the line as a syllabic wave, endlessly unfolding in a straight line along the Pacific Coast, which helped him achieve that epic narrative style.
Form is dictated by the needs of the story at hand. There’s a poem in High Desert called “The Train to St Petersburg,” where the lines are long and breathless as I reminisce about my visit to Russia in 2006 and my strange encounter with a black man who claimed to be the rightful heir of the Romanovs, an experience that then leads into a reflection on Russian history. I chose a ballad-like take on the quatrain as I wanted the lines in that poem to roll on their tracks and for the carriages of those stanzas to unspool with growing dread.
EG: “The Train to St. Petersburg” does feel breathless, as the lines grow to witness the horror of your companion “lifted up by his armpits,” and as you finally breathe out over the final ellipsis where the scene ends, “the cabin / lit by a single, flickering bulb …” It’s so important that the poem continues unfolding, thinking about the legacy of Phil Jordan, who was effectively the only Black man to report on the October Revolution, and that it ends with his idiosyncratic voice and humor.
Here you give us the voice of another witness to extraordinary events, far from home, in a country that had institutionalized segregation, that would only a decade and a half later call for the execution of Paul Robeson for visiting the Soviet Union and would force Jackie Robinson to testify that Robeson’s political beliefs were silly, personal convictions.
That sense of danger in the act of witness, and the unease you invest in the idea of “home” permeates High Desert through to the very end, in the collection’s coda, “Tule Fog.” After feeling settled, the speaker asks, “what does home mean to you now?” The answer comes not from within, but from observation: “home / is a sleeping bag in a parking lot” “never a right, never a certainty… / The sun is lost, and everywhere / the feeling that the party is over / fills the air.” This poem is stunning, speaking through the uncertain, rootless, small things—fog, small towns clinging to life, a curl of smoke in the sky, snakes and small critters. How did this poem come to close out the collection, and how has making a home in California affected your process and preoccupations?
ANS: While I always knew I would write a book of poems about my life in the United Arab Emirates, I never expected to find myself living in the US, let alone California. This is why I used a quote from a poem by Czesław Miłosz to preface one of High Desert’s sections: “I did not choose California, it was given to me.” High Desert was the unexpected book. When I first got to California, I brought my cultural baggage with me as both a European and a Middle Easterner, and the former, unsurprisingly, proved particularly problematic. There’s this hackneyed European idea of California as a sunny plastic paradise where one can escape the old world’s troubles, “the land where the lemons grow” and all that, more Calafia than California. Outdated as it is, I think it’s still in force in many quarters. Historically I’m thinking of Christopher Isherwood, or the German exiles in the 1940s, like Mann, Brecht, and Schoenberg. They spent most of their time in the city complaining about its shortcomings and experiencing existential crises, and as soon as the war was over, they went back to their beloved Europe, unchanged in the slightest. What a waste! More recent visitors have been just as blind, if not worse.
California’s natural landscapes are intensely dramatic, and I have seen the problematic relationship between the environment and humanity brought into sharper relief here than anywhere else on earth. I really do think it’s related to the scale of our topography and the variety and brutality of our natural phenomena. Everything is supersized here, not just the redwoods. Even getting to California—the “old fashioned way,” overland, east to west—is dramatic. I still remember when, after several weeks on the road, we crossed the Colorado River and started to see the arthritic Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert. That was the first time I saw the High Desert: prehistoric dry-lake beds used to break land speed records right next to disused mine shafts and old western sets, all set against fire-colored skies.
It’s a wonderfully picturesque part of the world, and that helps distort its reflection in the mirror. California’s history is just as complicated as other parts of the US, and the view from back East appears heavily invested in this idea of the West as an uncomplicated frontier space, free to look towards the future precisely because it’s unencumbered by the past, a behemoth waiting to be conquered and harnessed by the protestant work ethic. Quite the opposite is true: it’s just as connected to the rest of the world, both socially and historically. I’ve lived in California for seven years now, and I know that some Californians like to think of their state as particularly enlightened, especially in comparison to other parts of the U.S., and I wanted High Desert to burst that bubble.
“Home” strikes me as one of the most pernicious concepts ever invented, and despite my great love for this state, this is likely to be just another stop on the road for me. I hate “the cage called fatherland” as Wolfgang Koeppen put it, and I don’t think “motherlands” are any better, either. I’ve become resigned to the fact that I’m always going to be an outsider wherever I go, and maybe this is why poetry and travel have always been inseparable to me. One feeds the other. I hope that never changes.