Tom Sleigh has been writing and publishing poetry for decades, but in the past decade, his work has shifted. Sleigh began traveling abroad and reporting on the Middle East and Africa, and though his recent books of poetry are not topical, both in form and content, they show that Sleigh has been affected by his travels. This year Graywolf published two books by Sleigh, his eleventh collection of poetry, House of Fact, House of Ruin, and his essay collection The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees. The essay collection includes pieces he wrote about his visits to the Middle East and East Africa, work about his mother and growing up dealing with her mental illness, his friend the late Seamus Heaney. I spoke with Sleigh, who is the Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Hunter College, over e-mail and we talked about travel, expressing mixed emotion, and what lizards mean, both literally and poetically.
Alex Dueben (Rail): You’re a poet and have been writing and teaching for decades. How and why did you first begin traveling to and writing about the Middle East and East Africa?
Tom Sleigh: As to the how, I began doing this kind of journalism back in 2007, when I was asked to go to Lebanon and Syria after the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War to write about Palestinian refugees. Munir Akash, a Syrian writer and translator of Mahmoud Darwish, and his wife, the poet and scholar Amira El-Zein (who’s written a wonderful book on the djinn), invited me mainly because I was a poet. They hoped that I’d write a poet’s response to the Palestinians we’d meet, rather than the usual journalistic foray. So in a way, my path to journalism came directly through my years of writing poems. I’d also been asked by Virginia Quarterly Review to write something: and although I’d done lots of reviewing and published a book of literary essays, I’d never combined reportage with personal experience.
The trip got postponed for several months because a prominent Lebanese politician, Pierre Gemayel, was ambushed and murdered by three gunmen firing nine millimeter, automatic weapons equipped with silencers—a highly professional job. Other anti-Syrian politicians had been blown up in car bombs during the past two years, so Munir and Amira thought we should let things cool off a bit. So we waited a few months. But the moment my plane touched down in Beirut, a huge car bomb exploded in the ABC Shopping Mall, which led to other car bombs and assassinations, and by the middle of the summer, the full blown siege and destruction of Nahr-al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli that once housed around 30,000 people. It was the worst internal violence since the fifteen year civil war. I’d never been in a war zone before, though to call it that isn’t quite accurate—the bombs and assassinations were scattered throughout the city, tit for tat, so the sheer randomness of the violence kept everybody on edge. No matter where you lived, nobody felt safe.
But there wasn’t the mass hysteria that surrounds such events here in the US. Of course, the local TV coverage fueled the drama, though in a much more measured way than here. And anyway, everybody I met had lived through the civil war. So they weren’t easily susceptible to a lot of hyped up drama. In fact, most of the people I met had very dark, stoical senses of humor about the violence. I remember asking everyone from cab drivers to the ex-Prime Minister of Lebanon how they felt about the situation, and the universal reaction was to shrug and say, with a half-ironic smile, “Welcome to Lebanon.” I guess one of the most telling details for me was that the moment the discos opened late at night, they generally filled up. So life goes on.
As to the second part of your question—why I began to do this kind of writing—it really comes down to a particular moment. After Munir and Amira went home, I stayed on to see what things were like in the south of Lebanon, which is the heartland of Hezbollah, and where the majority of the fighting took place. Every bridge, and sections of the main highway, had been bombed, so the destruction was wide-scale. The young man who drove me south to the town of Qana was one of the first members of the Red Cross allowed into the village after the Israeli Air Force bombed it. In the smoke and semi-darkness, he came across a little girl buried up to her neck in rubble. So he dug down with his bare hands as far as her arm pits, took hold of her under her arms, lifted her free—and discovered she’d been blown in half. He looked as if he were about to tear up. I told him he didn’t have to go on with his story, but he looked me in the eye and said: “I’ll tell you what happened, but you must promise to tell my story.” I’d never felt such a sense of responsibility, almost a kind of commission, in all my life.
As to how a cultural outsider can tell the story, that’s a different question. One thing I think is crucial, though, is to find a way to acknowledge the limits of what you can know, and to be honest about what it is you don’t know. So I try as hard as I can to avoid broad strokes in favor of the small picture, the local details and intimate truths that make up daily life. It can take me several years, and several visits, before I feel like a place has imprinted on my nervous system. Only then can I write about it convincingly, at least for myself.
Rail: In your essay about traveling to Jordan you talked about how one student asked “do you really think that you, as a writer, can truly escape your ideological formation as an American?” How have you been considering what that means as you’ve been writing in recent years?
Sleigh: The more I do this work, the less pressing, but also the more vexed the question becomes—on the less pressing side of things, after the Q&A I did with her class, she came up to me and confessed that she, too, wrote poetry. We had a good laugh over that and then we went to lunch. So I guess a rough answer would be something like I did my best to answer, we laughed, we went to lunch. To be honest, I’m not quite sure, in her eyes, what my ideological formation would constitute—capitalist? liberal? imperialist? I’m not even sure what an American is—secular? decadent? historically naive?—particularly in her context in attending a fairly conservative Jordanian university. One of the teachers told me that he was teaching Greek myths and the Koran together, and parents were protesting that the Koran was true and Greek myths were false. He knew he was walking a fine line and was worried what would happen if social media turned against him. Social media had turned against the prominent political commentator, Nahed Hattar, for posting someone else’s satiric cartoon of Allah, and he was gunned down on the steps of the Palace of Justice on his way to face charges brought against him by the state for fomenting “sectarian strife.” So in that context, what would my ideological formation, my Americanness mean? They seem like such large hectoring abstractions. But abstractions like that had gotten Hattar killed.
But to return to lunch, even though the young woman, her classmates, and I were on mutually unfamiliar ground, we still found a way to spend an interesting and memorable afternoon together. Once we broke the ice, we talked about the internet, what movies they liked, what I thought of Amman and what New York was like to live in. My “ideological formation as an American” pretty much went by the board, even if it was still in the background of everything I said and that they asked me.
On the more vexed side, I went to a jewelry shop in Amman and was talking to the store owner, a man who’d spent part of his life in the US. We were talking about the upcoming election (this was back in 2016) and he said that there were lots of Arabs who were rooting for Trump to win. When I asked him how that could be, he told me that Arabs all over the world had hated Obama’s and Clinton’s policy of drone strikes targeting Arabs. For those Arabs, Obama and Clinton were little better than murderers. Worse in some ways, since they took no personal risks. Now, when I heard this, I knew that most Americans had probably never even considered that so-called “terrorist targets” had wives and families and extended family relations. Several generations will have to go by before that collective memory of murder carried out by American drones will begin to feel less visceral. Which is to say that my reactions to the kind of ideologically polarized situations that abound in a place like Lebanon or Jordan or the United States are often inchoate and confused: rather than hide all that, or pretend to have a coherent enough personality/self/whatever you want to call it, I’m pretty much stuck with my muddle: the challenge, then, is to be as precise as I can in expressing my own confusion.
So maybe the best way to answer is to say, “No, the Tom Sleigh who is a public, official person can’t escape my ideological formation as an American.” But that’s not so cut and dried for what happens in my imaginative life in the writing of poems. When writing’s going well, it’s as if the language takes over and relieves me of having to stand guard over my own opinions and convictions; it gives me access to reaches of thought and feeling I might not otherwise imagine—which is risky, unpredictable, and not always easy to reconcile with my day to day political or emotional or intellectual entanglements. It’s as if whatever “ideological formation” I arrive at comes as part of trying to get the texture of what I saw and felt right, not vice-versa. You discover those entanglements in discovering the right words to conjure the look of a fire-bombed car, Armani clothes blown all over the street, or the head of a doll still lying in rubble where a child was blown in half.
Rail: In your essay “Tales of the Marvelous, News of the Strange” you weave the stories of Syrian refugees, students, and other people in Jordan with medieval Arabic stories. Could you talk a little about why you chose to do that and about finding the way to weave these two strands together?
Sleigh: I wanted to have a different kind of linguistic texture to set against the straightforward reportage. As I was traveling in Jordan, I was reading at the same time a book of medieval Arabic tales, some of which shared motifs with the One Thousand and One Nights. I loved the strangeness and invention of the tales: speaking automatons, a crocodile with pearls in its ears, a queen of the crows, the djinn, a weeping lion—it’s pretty much irresistible. What interested me was how you could juxtapose a contemporary event against a fanciful tale, and come up with a way of commenting on the contemporary situation without having to be discursive or argue or hammer away at making points. My aversion to that has to do with the difference between what you might call political emotions and political convictions. Obviously, I’m a knee-jerk lefty, but I’m not interested in writing out of my political convictions. For me, they don’t generate interesting language. So rather than write out of political convictions, I’m interested in writing out of what you might call political emotions. A political emotion is what you feel when your convictions collide with a real life situation.
When I was in Libya shortly after Colonel Gaddafi was murdered, my political convictions said, “Well, he was a nasty shit, Gaddafi.” But in a way, Gaddafi wasn’t a nasty enough shit, because he was also something of a buffoon. If you google “Gaddafi plus hats,” there Gaddafi is, wearing many different kinds of hats—a ushanka, a beret—and looking utterly ridiculous. Unlike Saddam Hussein who at least had the stature of a true villain. But when I was traveling in Libya with a militia, I watched a Youtube video of the moment when Gaddafi was discovered hiding in a culvert. One of the militia men threw Gaddafi onto the hood of a truck, and began to beat him to death. And what I experienced at that moment—revulsion and horror and yes, sympathy that another human being would be beaten this way, even though he was a monster—well, that’s what I mean by a political emotion. And that’s the complex sense of experience that I’m trying to write out of.
I think it was Auden who said that literature is the clear expression of mixed emotion. So in the Jordan piece, I found that I could make a clearer expression of mixed emotions by using these paradoxical tales, than if I tried to write something that was more straightforwardly argumentative or discursive. So these little allegories and paradoxes that borrow motifs from the medieval tales is a way of making commentary, but in the only way I know how. Like Dickinson, I want to tell the truth, but to tell it slant. In fact if you look at those tales, you’ll see that they apply to the US as much, if not more, than they do to Jordan or the Bedouin of the Middle Ages. The poor fisherman who hauls in the magic lamp and frees the djinn who grants him the wish of filling his net with every kind of fish in the sea, but then cuts off his head even as the fish are jumping into his net, is exactly the kind of power dynamic that drives American militarism and foreign policy. I think all the journalism I do can be mapped back onto the U.S. My essays and poems aren’t so much about events happening elsewhere, but about events that have everything to do with how Americans conceive of their freedoms and their responsibilities to one another here at home and abroad. And this has become especially acute in light of the Trump administration’s hostility to immigrants.
Rail: How do you think that these concerns have affected your recent poetry like the work in House of Fact, House of Ruin, and your previous collections Station Zed and Army Cats?
Sleigh: When I came back from Lebanon, I felt that I had to find a way to do what I’d been asked to do: tell the story. As I began to look for language to do that in Army Cats, the ideas hovered above the poems, but only as a kind of background radiation—a power source that didn’t necessarily have to be spoken of explicitly. Instead, I found myself writing about the nuts and bolts of military activity: not the highstakes drama of exploding bombs, but the sight, say, of a tank mechanic under his tank, reaching up inside the chassis, tapping his wrench on the under-carriage by way of “talking” to the tank that then talked back in little pings and clangs.
And then there was the physical beauty of Lebanon—the seafront, the bright light in the morning, the washed out colors at noon—all of it felt strangely familiar, much like the southern California of my childhood in its climate, topography, and flora. Station Zed followed a similar trajectory, but because of the complex history between the U.S. and Iraq, I felt I needed a different form than dramatic lyric. Lowell once said you can say anything in a poem provided you can place it right. And it dawned on me that in order to place my reactions to Iraq, I had to give the details of the trip I’d taken. That’s when the notion of a travelogue punctuated by poems came to me, and I immediately thought of Basho’s Haibun as a formal analogue. So I could provide context, but I wasn’t stuck with context, if you know what I mean. The poems had a different texture to them, one that you couldn’t pin down to any easy “political conviction.” And the contrast between the language of the prose and the relative obliquity of the poems tended to make the “argument-part” of the poem unnecessary. The juxtaposition of one thing against another, done in the right place with the right timing, made all the comment that needed making. I guess what I’m saying is that the ideas motivating the journalism found expression in the poem’s structure. The formal challenge was to find the right rhythm between the discursive and the lyric in a way that would be true to the complexity of what I earlier called a political emotion.
House of Fact, House of Ruin is somewhat different in that I’m again using lyric structures. But I’m wary of pretending like I know too much all about it. The fact is, I write to preserve what happened for its own sake. I want to tell the story, but I don’t want to impose myself on the story. The language I find for it and that it grants me leads its own complex life that goes way beyond my so-called “intentions.” Let’s just say that wherever I look, I see that the whole horizon is on fire. In that sense, the books make an unofficial trilogy. But it’s not only the writing, it’s the kind of life you’re offered. I guess you could say that the more I do this, the more I understand the importance of actually putting my body in the place I’m writing about. The risks I run are calculated risks, but if you do this kind of thing, everything is fine until it isn’t fine and then it’s too late. But there’s no shortcut to experience. Really, all I can say is that I hope the books are faithful to the lives that have entered them. I try to take people one at a time, to see them in terms that they themselves would recognize. I don’t want to be the one just man shaking his finger sternly, telling everyone how to feel about this or that. I find that kind of self-righteousness deadly.
Auden once said that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and James Merrill responded, “Well, it certainly changed Auden.” I know exactly what Merrill means: doing the work I do has certainly changed me. My friend David Mura says that as we write a book, we’re becoming the person capable of writing that book.
Rail: Lizards, in many forms, recur throughout these two books. What is it about lizards that you find fascinating—both in a literal and a poetic sense?
Sleigh: Lizards are tough. They can survive in the most inhospitable places. When they look at you, you have the sensation of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. They remind me of distant cousins of Beowulf’s Grendel, or the dragon that Beowulf eventually dies fighting. When I was a child, we had lizards, and when they escaped we’d chase them up the curtains until they disappeared. Or if you were lucky, you’d snatch one by the tail, only to have the tail snap off in your hand, still thrashing. I remember finding the perfectly intact skeleton of one behind the couch, the delicate vertebrae curled nose to tail.
When I was travelling with a militia in Libya, whenever we camped for the night, you’d see lizards at dusk, and wake to them staring at you early in the morning—agile and quick and not giving a damn about all the sleeping humans as they thawed out in the sun. I remember how, in a maternity ward in Nairobi, a group of pregnant Somali women in a little cinderblock hospital would watch the lizards dashing up and down the seams of the bundled up mosquito nets that at night would canopy their beds. They’re like spirit animals, but they’re still just themselves—alien and strange. When you see their ribs pulsing through their skins as they breathe, completely at home in hammering heat, it becomes immediately clear how fragile we humans are, and how independent they are of us. I love that independence, how they refuse the kinds of human identifications that we make so readily with cats and dogs. Their quickness feels like a figure of what Bishop said poetry was—the mind in motion as opposed to the mind at rest—as they race up brick walls and slither in and out of dark crevices.
Rail: The Arab world and Somalia are two places with very significant poetic traditions. Did you have the chance to see that these living traditions are still being practiced while you were there? Was your being a poet central to these travels?
Sleigh: I do think that my being a poet has been very important in certain parts of my travels: it was central to some of my experiences in Libya, where for a few days I traveled town to town, giving readings with a group of Libyan poets. Ditto for my time in Iraq, where I went with Chris Merrill who runs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. I should say here that Chris pretty much taught me everything I know about journalism. We traveled together for a few days on that first trip to Lebanon ten years ago, and I watched Chris taking notes on everything, even when nothing seemed to be going on. My new role as journalist felt a little outsized, but Chris told me to jot down notes not about what I was feeling—nobody gives a shit about that—but what was right there in front of me. So when Chris took notes, I took notes! But as I was saying, poetry was central to our trip in Iraq. We met Iraqi poets and writers from all over Iraq, we talked about the literary situations in our respective countries, and Chris and I conducted—at the professors’ request—writing workshops. A young woman wrote about how her brother, a person whom she described as always very gentle and who always brought her treats from the market, blew himself up as a suicide bomber. That moment will never leave me. The sorrow in the room was intense. It completely reoriented how I viewed the violence even of suicide bombers; nothing is ever simple in these matters. I also met an old Somali poet who composed a poem on the spot for me, basically asking why the U.S. didn’t do more to help Somali refugees—a sentiment I couldn’t agree with more passionately. As to how long the Somali oral tradition will survive the dominance of literacy, I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic. It probably has at most two generations, but at least some of the poems have been written down in the past ten years.
Rail: Your essay collection isn’t just about your travels, there are also other more personal essays about your mother, about Seamus Heaney. What connects them is a search for the language to convey the complexity of the details of the world, and a childhood that required alertness and understanding, but I’m curious how you see these essays in conversation.
Sleigh: In an interview with Nin Andrews, she made the very cogent point that my mother’s periodic mental difficulties—despite her being a superb high school teacher and general upsetter of staid apple carts—might have prepared me for the hyperalertness I experience when I’m observing other people and things, both as a poet and a journalist. As a boy, I became accustomed to a certain level of unpredictability and intensity that you might say was early training for the kind of work that I’ve been doing.
As to how the three sections speak to each other, I had the fairly simple idea that the first section recorded what I saw. The second section asks the question, how do you go about writing what you saw? And the third section suggests some of the reasons—private and public, personal and social, psychological and political—why I’ve spent the last ten years engaged in writing about these issues. But I don’t want to overdetermine all this: domestic life plays as big a part in these books as any other element.
And as to Seamus, his work and his example as a human being have meant everything to me. That we were friends for close to 40 years, that we exchanged poems, that I got to see his drafts and comment on them (lightly, I assure you), that he treated me with that combination of wariness, wit, good humor, and complete openness of heart that was basic to his character, extending to me from the first moment we met immediate terms of equality, has been one of the foundations of my poetic and everyday life. He lived through the Troubles in Ireland, and the difficult balance he kept in a hellishly polarized situation year after year has always been a model to me of the highest form of humane behavior. And in his day to day life—unlike a lot of people who achieve his level of fame—he suffered fools, he had the time of day for everyone, he never condescended to anyone, or put on airs. He was kind and lenient and cut everyone a lot of slack—but when aroused, he had a tongue that could cut steel. In my writing, he taught me how his care for language and his care for people were pretty much continuous. That the art of poetry gets its gravitas and weight because of its “primal reach into the physical.”
Rail: I can sit here and argue that your recent books of poetry are different from those you wrote previously, but are you conscious of any change? Are you working differently?
Sleigh: I wrote about this in an interview I did for the AWP Chronicle, but yes, I’m working differently. It started in Army Cats. Given the nature of the material, I felt I needed a more speech-based rhythm and idiom to respond to what I was observing—something more immediately colloquial. Of course, I wasn’t hyper-conscious of moving the diction closer to speech, but I did notice after a while that I’d gotten closer—and that that spokenness occurred in many different registers, from high to low. But that didn’t mean turning my back on more formal language. I want the whole range of the English language in all its many incarnations, formal to colloquial, as it’s spoken here and as it’s spoken abroad, one that includes the most contemporary slang as well as the colloquially wrought idiom of Donne, Milton, and Wordsworth. Sure, their English comes out of the 16th century, but when you read it aloud, it’s immensely vital and alive.
Every poem makes its own kind of formal and spiritual demands on you. In these books, I found myself sticking to spoken speech as a way to get closer to the violence that’s at the heart of them. Yet even though war is one of the central concerns, I don’t necessarily think of these as “war” books. For me, war is just another permanent feature of our mental landscapes, even though most Americans never see the direct effects of it. So I’m trying to find all “the ironic points of light” in “the ethical dark,” to quote Auden including domestic life, love and sex, the fact of aging. And of course the life of the senses: how deeply pleasurable it is to eat black bread with mustard and capers, some smoked salmon, and wash it down with an ice cold vodka or a Jameson while sitting in a hotel bar like Buswells in Dublin.
If I try to repeat myself, the work goes dead on me. I’m the kind of writer who goes forward by changing his spots. Certain stanza shapes, certain line lengths are like echo sounders sending back resonances from down below, while others are like nets, trapping some things but letting others go. Every poem has its shape, and what makes writing always exciting and new and deeply improvisatory—no matter if you’re working in free verse or traditional forms—is discovering as you go from line to line the verifying shape, the true timbre, and the slightly off-kilter, but weirdly right vantage onto the material.
Rail: What has nonfiction let you do that poetry has been unable to do?
Sleigh: I guess I’d phrase it a little differently: I didn’t know that I needed poetry so much until I began to write the kind of prose I’ve been able to write. And the prose led me to places I would never have gone if I’d simply remained a poet. So I guess there’s a kind of seamlessness about the two. Of course, I’m well aware that as I age, it might not be so easy to keep doing both. But that only gives me more impetus to be out in the world, listening, as Seamus once put it, “to the music of what happens.”