May 2012

Jesse Tangen-Mills


An Interview with Nathalie Handal

There is something incredibly sincere about Nathalie Handal and her poetry. That seems like a rare thing in literature in the United States today. Perhaps that is because Handal is not exactly from the States: she is a world poet. She grew up in several different countries on different continents and learned their languages. Her time is spent traveling and writing when not at her home in New York City.

Travel, movement, diaspora -- inside and outside of time -- is a major theme in her latest collection of poems, Poet in Andalusía. The book is a reversal of Federico Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York, written while the Spaniard studied at Columbia in 1930. Just as Lorca examined New York via modernity, so Handal examines Andalusía through its past of mixed heritage, both in her form (verse standards of Arabic origin) and content (including homages to many of Spain's Arab poets). At the same time, this is not "history" as intellectual exorcism. She extols the everyday presence of this past in the Spanish language, or remembers that the buildings she admires are the same ones her grandmother once did. Critic Homi Bhabha once asked for a world literature free from the projection of otherness that comes with national identity. A Poet in Andalusía fulfills this in many ways.

I met poet Nathalie Handal in Bogotá a few years ago. She had been invited to read at the city's poetry festival. We were connected through a mutual friend and set a place to meet. She had just come from Barranquilla where she was visiting family, I believe, and before that a list of other places I no longer remember, with the exception Leipzig, where she had recently resided. We had this conversation via e-mail during one of her periods of respite in New York.

Clearly there are many similarities between Lorca's journey to New York and your own to Andalusía. What were the big differences?

Another century. Another way of communicating -- Lorca wrote letters to his family when he came to New York. We don't write letters anymore. Writing a letter was almost a ceremonial act -- you took the time to be quiet. Robert Lowell wrote, "I think letters ought to be written the way you think poetry ought to be." Today, most of us are chasing time; and our relationship with time is so crucial to how and what we create. And of course, there is the fact that the two cultures are distinct. New York is high-pitched. Andalusía hums. New York is neon lights and risky voltage. Andalusía a chiaroscuro drawing -- it's never-ending conversation with death, gives life.

The section "Seven Stars of Andalucía" is a series of poems dedicated to seven members of what is often called the generation of '27. When you look at the list -- Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillén -- it's an amazing lineup of poets. Why focus on Lorca?

They didn't write Poet in New York. They didn't have the same effect Lorca had on me. Lorca connects me to my past, my heritage, and even to my present. But I agree, it's an amazing lineup and that's why they are also part of this book's journey. "Seven Stars of Andalucía" is an important poem in the book. It's not only about Lorca; it's about all of these poets. Lorca is the pulse, but the poets of the generation of '27 and those of the Golden Age, the Arab Andalusían poets, and contemporary Spanish poets are all present in the book.

In comparison to Love and Strange Horses, these poems felt in some ways more traditional. Would you agree? Was that intentional?

It's difficult to compare -- the two are so different in intent, aesthetically and thematically. Love and Strange Horses explores the three movements of the heart and while exploring, experiments with language, space, breath, pause. Poet in Andalucía is a conversation between the past and the present; Lorca, Spain, and me. It's a waltz -- lyrical like Andalucía. The poems in my previous book take you to the flesh then lead you to the heart. These poems take you to the spirit, then lead you to an infinite motion.

How did you discover poetic forms like the ghazal and the qit'as?

I read a lot of Arab Andalusían poetry. I really wanted to dive into Spain's literary history, which includes literature written by the Muslims and Jews in Spain. But I knew those forms already, I just hadn't written ghazals or qit'as, and this seemed like the moment to do it.

Andalusía is often depicted as a place of great diversity and tolerance. Your poems certainly make references to the many cultures that contributed to modern Spanish, not to mention Spanish culture. Do you still see Spain as a place of diversity and tolerance?

There are also numerous debates as to whether or not tolerance really existed in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages, but no one can deny the thriving cultural and artistic life that existed during that period, one these different communities created together.

Spain is composed of vastly diverse regions and cultures from Andalusía to Catalunya to Galicia. To understand Spain you have to recognize its complexities and nuances, the different languages and cultures that exist there. And to add to it, there are today's immigrants from South America, North Africa, and the Eastern European countries, among others, who are contributing to Spain's creative world. So, yes, I still see Spain as a place of diversity, but like most countries in the world, it also has to deal with issues of discrimination and intolerance.

When I think about Spain now Ben Lerner's novel Leaving the Atocha Station comes to mind. It suggests -- or at least did to me -- that there's a struggle to find meaning in travel in the twenty-first century. This, however, is not the case for you. Your poems -- and their notes -- find meaning in everything from passersby to architecture. As someone who travels so much, how do you manage to connect yourself and your history to all the places you go? 

Maybe I found so much meaning on this journey because I wanted so deeply to believe in what's possible. I didn't want to focus on what was destroyed but on what can be created. I wanted to pay attention to the small moments, gestures, details from the paling petals to the intricate tiles to the curves of Arabesque monuments; what better place to imagine a certain unity than in a region that inspires such a visual? But I also had many doubts. I still do. But those doubts don't come from my experience of traveling but in my awareness of our shortcomings. To me, travel is about an all-encompassing understanding. It's about seeing, which eliminates misconceptions and fear. It's also about connecting. Growing up, I felt I belonged nowhere. And that was traumatic -- sometimes those feelings come back, like they're hanging in the darkness with all your frights. With time, I realized I lost much of my hometown of Bethlehem, and I will never recover from that loss -- that place can never be replaced.  But I am deeply grateful for the other histories, continents, and cultures that I am part of; I am French-American, and of course, Latina too. But I am also connected to African and Asian cultures... the world really. And most importantly, roving the universe of words has been the most enlightening voyage of all. Literature transcends color, class, gender, borders, and nations. It's my residence on earth.

You mention in your notes that much of your family now resides in the Dominican Republic. After so many travels, why did they decide to settle there?

The truth is, they could have ended up anywhere. They might move yet again. Maybe back to Europe, to France, where they feel very connected, or somewhere they never imagined. Those in exile or the Diaspora understand the dynamics of motion; they understand what it's like never to feel completely comfortable. My family lives everywhere in the globe. A large part of my close family is spread out throughout Latin America, from El Salvador to Chile to Colombia, but those I am closest to live in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Latin America occupies an important part of my imaginative space. And my love affair with the Spanish language seems indivisible -- it's measured yet uncontrolled tempo redefined what I thought passion was. Spanish also accommodates my French, English, Arabic, allows such diverse linguistic traditions to converse while guarding its fervor.

You quote Lorca as having said, "Lo que más me importa es vivir." I heard that the American poet Cid Corman said something more or less the same, only that life was the most difficult part of living. Do you put your life before your work?

My life definitely comes before work but poetry is not work -- it's that quiet breathing that allows life not to be the most difficult part of living. Poetry gives my existence vibrancy; allows my heart to dive into this immeasurable and irreplaceable orb of intrigue, which takes me back to the Lorca quotation... because it's only while living, I can relish the infiniteness of creating and of dying.