“you’re more / than starlight in ashes”: A conversation with Fady Joudah, author of Tethered to Stars
BY LISA HIGGS
Fady Joudah is an Editor-at-Large for Milkweed Editions. He has published five collections of poems: The Earth in the Attic; Alight; Textu; a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance; and, most recently, Tethered to Stars. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic and is the co-editor and co-founder of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.
Lisa Higgs: Tethered to Stars, your fifth collection, is grounded in imagery of the earth but has a celestial gaze that derives partly from the titling of your poems and partly from a recurring question of humanity’s place in the growing universe. For instance, in “Pisces,” from which you draw the title of your book, a butterfly’s movement seems to unfurl the universe:
…And as our is,
hers is never a straight line
on the lucid path
in a membranous universe…
and she’s between two minds:
one that surrenders to return
and another to resist its vehicle.
You seem to be seeking an answer to one of the oldest of questions—what part of us is us, and what part is the cosmos? Did you set out intentionally on this journey, or was the process of building this collection more organic?
Fady Joudah: The title is actually a reflexive echo from the sixth-century epigraph of Stars, a quote from the great Arabic poet, Imru’ al-Qais. We humans have long known our relationship to the cosmos as if we’d been witnesses to the big bang, or as if particles and elements and molecules in us not only possess memory but also articulation. In the epigraph I mention, the image makes the earth central, the tethering is of the stars to the earth (through linen ropes that make the night endless), whereas now we know we are tethered to the stars more than they are to us, the sun being the prime example in our life. Yet one thing remains the same: our struggle with negotiating our self-centeredness (we, the chosen creation of living organisms on earth, in the galaxy, we in the Anthropocene) with our insignificance.
LH: Many of the poems in Tethered to Stars are titled celestially: by star names, houses and elements of the zodiac (which draw from constellations going back to the Babylonians), or astronomy terms. The poems are also not broken into sections until the final long poem, “Venus Cycle.” What about this tightly woven format appealed to you as you put the collection together?
FJ: Bookmaking is a problem. It is artifact and artifice. So much poetry has become subject to the contemporary mode of production. We are excellent forgers in the age of reproducibility. Remember that only those who seek originality resort to forgery. Those who do not, recognize they are echoes. The need for cohesion or sequence or theme is a simple reflection of the mind living its life, but also of the imposition of civilization, a false signature or dubious truth. What remains of the best poetry is often not the book or the sequence, but a few poems and excerpts. Sure, you can say what about this and that book? It matters less how the tightly woven format appeals to me than how it appeals to you, perhaps. I was just trying to weave a way out of my labyrinth.
LH: I was struck by the highly reflective, meditative, even prayer-like tone of this collection, perhaps not surprising as illness and loss are among the topics that recur in your poems. What role does spirituality, or religiosity, play in Tethered to Stars, and what prompted this close exploration of whether a “heart remains a heart in its beyond,” as you state in your closing line of “The Holy Embraces the Holy”?
FJ: That line is an echo of my reading (in Arabic) a Sufi book by Ibn Arabi called The Is-ness of the Heart. The title of the poem comes from a line by the late Amjad Nasser in his brilliant meditative long poem on place, Petra: the Concealed Rose. In parallel my poem leans on Machu Picchu. The religious or spiritual, the civilizational or historical, are as ancient as they are eternal—ruins of consciousness that obsessively renovate themselves. Again, years ago I was amazed by how centuries-old texts contain language that echoes the most modern advances in science, neuroscience, or astrophysics. This is both a reflection of the limitation of language and the brilliance of human perception. I just think that each age likes to subject the past to inferiorities that give meaning to the superior present. As if dominating evolution too (like nature) is one of our desires.
LH: The search for wisdom in Tethered to Stars often seems relational. For instance, “Domicile, House, Cusp” juxtaposes hope and fear, breath and word, what is and what is perceived. At times, its imagery is pandemic: nursing homes, masks, choking and wheezing. Yet as someone dies, you offer a newborn’s promise of language. Throughout the poem, you offer both connection and distance:
More air conducts me to you than me to me.
More bone conducts me to me than me to you.
Air is the distance. Bone is the difference.
And a nuance in the sand is Daedalus.
Nuance is a word that can easily apply to any number of poems in Tethered to Stars. Could you speak to nuance’s role in your poems—as a philosophical approach, perhaps, or as a technique?
FJ: I mention nuance also in my long poem “Sandra Bland, Texas.” We are prisoners of nuance and hostages to generalization. Like politics, poetry can use some decolonizing. Nuance can be as crippling as we know generalization can be effacing. The dance between the two is a rhythm of life and of poetry. Difference should move us toward sameness—in perpetual near-arrival, almost there.
LH: Early in your collection, your poems make frequent references to insects like butterflies and bees, and, in “Problems of Moon Language,” termites:
we eat our books alive
and in metamorphosis don’t end
in butterflies unless, as a mystic said,
butterflies dream of us inside their sleep.
Toward the end of the collection, trees become a more common image, particularly trees that have been injured in some way—the live oak being cut down in “Gemini,” the two crabapples in “Capricorn,” the storm-damaged trees in “House of Mercury.” How do you see these commonplace elements of nature working in this collection? Do they serve as touchstones for you?
FJ: I simply am drawn to nature. But I live a very urban life with a hospital-based sprinkle. Nature helps to free me from the administered world, and yet nature asks me how I participate in its domination. Also, if you go back to some older poems of mine, you will see that I have spiders, termites, live oaks, bees. I think creating an internal lexicon with which a poet converses is a necessary aesthetic. Repetition is necessary for stability and for change. The recurrent lexicon is like a drop of water in a still pond. The pipette of words is in my hand. Each drop of the drop can be recollected at one of the widening circles. The circles are there, but I can only gather one circle at a time.
LH: Between the bees and trees, your collection is centered with love poems. Many, like the conversation poem “Unacknowledged Pollinators,” are erotically charged:
“And when I say honey,” you said, “you grip my sweetness
on your life, stigma and anthophile,
and the soporific folded on its synchronous river
that doesn’t intend to dissect my paradise.”
As is your final long poem, “Venus Cycle,” which stands alone in its own section and serves as final treatise on your questions about the eternal, the beyond:
My root, your root
come home to root:
a life is wasted
that did not love,
so how can we perish?
Where does love fit into the philosophical and emotional journey of Tethered to Stars?
FJ: Love is a complex emotion or feeling-state. It involves all layers and regions of the brain, including those that fear activates or that activate fear or survival. Love is as self-centered as it is an annihilation of the self into vanishing, a freeing of the self from the construct of self in the mind. Overwhelmingly we are stuck in the former state of love. The latter is an aspiration. If one’s lucky one can experience it—away from suicide, victimization, heroism, or the ecstasy of betrayal—and as a liberation. A liberation full of struggle but without the harm. These are vital moments for us to know how to live better or, as I say in “Blue Shift,” how to die better.
LH: Light serves as a thread throughout this collection, in its many denotations and connotations. While I didn’t do a true count, I would hazard a guess that there are few poems that don’t have the word “light” in them. From enlightenment to starlight to the lack of light in “Black Hole,” why is this insistence on light so important to you?
FJ: There are other words, concepts, that repeat in Stars. It goes back to what I said about creating and engaging a private lexicon for one’s aesthetic.
LH: Formally, Tethered to Stars has quite a number of longer, sectioned poems: “The Holy Embraces the Holy,” “Problems of Moon Language,” “Sandra Bland, Texas,” “Carbon Copies,” “Calligraphy for a Sagittarius,” “Isomers and Isotopes,” and “Domicile, House, Cusp.” I’m curious if the poems began as intentional, larger works or if they grew from shorter poems that eventually were collected into a longer work. Can you speak a bit about your process to write a successful long poem?
FJ: Some were written as long poems from the outset. Some were a patient process of collecting wild flowers while walking a country mile. It’s a process of breath.
LH: I’m also curious about a reflexive technique you employ at times in your collection, shown here in “Calligraphy for a Sagittarius”:
Resurrection is our coma in orbit,
or coma in orbit is our resurrection:
near the sun we sublime.
What interests you about using language in a way that turns an idea back on itself, something that seems to both create paradox and yield unexpected depth?
FJ: There’s a verse in the Quran about language, one of many: if words could fill a sea, the sea would run out before God’s words would run out. Human civilization since the agricultural revolution and the creation of organized religion has been obsessed with hearing itself talk. We made our brain our captor. We spin circles around it, the same circles it sets out for us. And so we struggle with language that frees us from our limitations. Science now has taken over the proverbial death of god. Carl Linnaeus is the new Adam.
LH: As, hopefully, we enter the beginning of the end of this pandemic, what, if any, role do you see for poets and other artists in serving as a record of this time? Does poetry have a role in focusing light on the world of inequities that this pandemic has exposed? Does it have a role in offering comfort and solace, a place to rest with grief?
FJ: I do not have an answer that does not belong to the history of those questions and their answers in times past, recent or remote.
LH: I love your answer, as it returns us to that human struggle between self-centeredness and the realization of our insignificance in the greater universe. To close our interview, did you come to any resolutions with this struggle while writing Tethered to Stars? Were you able to find a way out of the labyrinth, or are you continuing to enjoy the search?
FJ: No. The view within the maze changes so that one begins to hope they’re closer to being out of it. I may find out later that I am out. I hope I recognize the feeling when it reaches me.