In this conversation we explore the way capitalism crafts the forms we write through, how capital shapes embodiment and the matter of who we love / how we love them. Zaher’s sixth book, The Consequences of My Body (Nightboat Books), lyrically examines the postmodern condition and lays its flaws bare, open.
Christy Davids: You write: “I am a descendant of ‘Udhri:’ Arab love poets; these are the ones I read as a teenager. More problematic than their poems are their stories, their myth about love without consummation. This idea entrenches the body – soul duality beyond repair.” I’d love it if you could speak to the relationship you are establishing between yourself and the Udhri love poem tradition, specifically what declaring and practicing that linkage means for The Consequences of My Body.
Maged Zaher: So, I believe the relationship exists despite me in the sense that this is what I read when I was a teenager; this was my first introduction to Arabic poetry. Between a religious upbringing and the mythologization of the Udhri love poet duality – which, actually later analysis proves this duality to be bunk, not true at all – but it’s a duality that is not bridgeable especially in a postmodern world where you have sex first and then you fall in love way later, if ever. This entrenches a duality in a different way. So, I think you go through – for me – as a human, as a person, just trying to discover this duality, realizing in the body that this duality isn’t real, and trying to be comfortable within one’s body – and, hence, the consequences of one’s body is what is written. The work became more of an attempt to distance myself from the Udhri poets while acknowledging that, despite whatever I do, they existence within me. The Consequences’ work is about figuring out what constraints, ideological underpinnings, and actual problems happen when you put an immigrant body within late capitalism. I like to think that life is an irredeemable disaster, but what can redeem it is doing phenomenology. I like to think of my work all the time as a phenomenology – that is what happens, an experiment. Like, that is what happens – and eventually all experiments will end, and all of the trouble coming from capitalism, but hopefully the book acts as something that offers people an ability to see capital at work more than anything else. The book starts as an exploration – it’s as crazy as linking the Udhri poets to capitalism, but that’s how it works.
CD: Which seems inevitable, right? But you are specifically choosing to foreground our position within late capitalism in a way that highlights it over and over and over again, which points to the inescapability of it.
MZ: That is how I saw it, yeah.
CD: Capitalism is ignored in a lot of “love poetry,” which is funny because – isn’t love a capitalist endeavor in so many ways?
MZ: Yeah, it’s a total production. It’s an ideological construct, but it’s a construct that happens to our bodies and our bodies have also their own individual ways of acting different from what they are conditioned to do. I like to think of coming from the naïve tradition of love as romantic love – the movie kind of love. And I don’t deny that I come from that – I don’t hedge the materiality: the reality of the impossibility of love and capitalism.
CD: It does seem like an impossible intersection, and yet we’re all mired in the various acts of navigating love and capital.
MZ: Because this pursuit of desire and a pursuit of connection seems to be something of relative nature. It seems like no matter what I do – and that is interesting in our conversation, Christy – it seems no matter what I do I am falling into duality. Like I said: the difference between ideology and what our body originally wants. This book is specifically a failure of turning a duality into something else.
CD: Maybe, but there are all of these moments where your poems undo themselves. They will start to assert a certain logic, and then they end in a way that completely undoes that logic. So, I don’t know that I would call it a complete failure in that respect because certain poems set out to do certain things and then the last line, or the last two lines, will unravel everything that’s been established. In this sense, the poetry does seem to avoid the duality through the practice of a poetic undoing to some extent.
MZ: I like your reading; it’s very astute. And when I said “failure” I wasn’t saying it in a negative way.
MZ: I was actually thinking of “failure” as an inability to – no, not inability, I don’t want to say something in negative terms – it takes a couple of steps but doesn’t go all the way because all that the poems can do is undo the duality. But the poetry isn’t able to establish a path where these dualities are imposed on us, or we live with them, and turns them into one. This act of moving the duality implies something other than capitalism because it is the limit. Capitalism imposes duality one way or another.
CD: Given that you evoke Jamil ibn Ma’mar in the book – offering translations of the famous Udhri poet’s verse (and other Arab poets as well) – I can’t help but read Jamil’s relationship to his beloved into the romantic dynamic(s) presented in Consequences. Jamil’s marriage proposal is rejected by Buthayna’s people because there is a concern that his words to her have blotted her honor. She is married to someone else; they remain lovers from afar, never consummating their love. Now, it’s not that the love the speaker in Consequences conveys goes unconsummated—“We smelt of each other— / —No wait, you took a shower…”—but the poetry emphasizes the distanced relationship between lover and beloved rarely seen in contemporary poetry. All of this makes me wonder in what way are poems themselves a kind of consummation?
MZ: That’s beautiful. I think that is the only form of consummation that existed that seemed worth having – or not worth having, but possible. And I don’t want to make bold statements about the failure of love and capitalism – although I am actually making them (I guess I am undoing what I am saying) – I have to focus on the experience of the protagonist. And there is no one protagonist in the book at all – there are multiple – but the multiple speakers include the personas of the love poets. I think the poem becomes flesh. The word becomes flesh. But I don’t think of the poem so much as consummation so much as I think of it as an offering. The poem as an offering to the beloved. And in that sense there is the classical lyrical love poet, and the classical guest with the beloved as part of the courtship to become close to. I don’t fall far away from the poem being that, and as much as this is a very classic and tired trope, I don’t know how to do it – like, I’m actually (also) not able to exceed what I cannot exceed. I cannot undo what I cannot undo. So, the poem here is a step toward consummation, and it’s a lament of a consummation that doesn’t satisfy the soul as much. I am happy with my answer here – because with the first question you asked I got very avant-garde-ist and with the second question I am being very traditional, but that is fine I think. [laughs]
CD: Well, it’s all in the book!
MZ: It’s all in the book.
CD: So it makes sense that your answers would be this way, that they would reflect the struggle with duality the poetry also wrestles with. It sounds like, then, the way you are talking about the poem becoming flesh and the poem as an offering perfectly reflects that phenomenological experiment that you referred to earlier. We are living and existing in spite of this environment and in spite of the regime of late capitalism. Yet, there is a contradiction in the sense that these elements do not end existence. Though capitalism certainly affects existence, you maintain that all you (or anyone) can do in that space is just be and offer.
MZ: Exactly, exactly. I can’t say it any differently than that.
CD: Beautiful. I thought about this next question a lot as I was reading the book for obvious reasons, which will become clear as the question unfolds. As a woman writer who often employs the lyric, it has been made very clear to me what the consequences of my body are in relation to how seriously my poetry is taken. I wonder if you could speak to the way you occupy the lyric space, and to your relationship to the lyric. Is there something that draws you to lyric expression and what do you think this particular poetic mode affords you?
MZ: That’s a great question. I come from an ambivalent position of power: I am a man, so I have a the lyrical tradition behind me with the woman being the muse, which allows me to speak with an ample amount of power; but then I also have this immigrant / person of color status that is imposed upon me in spite of me not wanting to see it at times, which has the ability to render me as an invisible person and makes me want to assert a certain experience; and third, which is completely neutral – well, not neutral – my position of being a leftist person existing in capitalism. And, strangely, warming up to some elements of capitalism – like the way that you and are able to have this conversation [via phone from Philadelphia to Seattle] right now. I used to be a luddite, but now I am more appreciative of technology in general, which is new to me. Anyway, what the lyric affords me is the ability to foreground an eclectic and fragmented “I” to search for it, to search inside. I am not denying the possibilities of the conceptual or anything like that, in fact I think there are some conceptual moves within the book itself. But in this case, the lyric is needed to explore. Consequences is lyrical, but it is formally interesting: it’s an investigation of the shapes lyrics take. The book is also a very self-conscious lyric. And it’s really important to bring up since Sappho and women poets did exist, but they were never really given space since the men were not interested in themselves being the muse. They were threatened by that; they were really much more interested in the woman being the muse and taking that. And for me, I feel that there is a tension in my book between having the right to speak because my voice is not really listened to in a traditional American society. Or because having a sexuality that is usually looked at as something threatening, not wanted enough, means there is also this idea of possession of woman-as-muse. The book doesn’t resolve – ethically – what to do. The only thing the book resolves, or the only way I feel the book has the right to exist, is in its phenomenological aspect. If it is making a mistake, if the book is siding with positions of power, at least it will have done so with absolute openness. This is my claim to why a book that many could see as problematic is okay with me – because the nature of sexuality in the book is that it is done with extreme frankness and openness. I don’t have a problem with being seen as a flawed human [laughs], and that is because we all are!
CD: Yes, of course.
MZ: This notion of openness and honesty and sincerity seems very missing from the avant-garde lately, which is like come on. It seems an almost hipster-ish approach to the avant-garde – irony and stuff like that, which I used to employ in my earlier work, but even my sense of irony was very sincere. The line could be read and people could laugh or not laugh and both are okay.
CD: I like that answer a lot. When I think if the poetry universe, I think about people working really hard to tell other people who they are and to locate themselves. There’s this hunt for fixity in terms of identity and how that locates them within this poetry world. And that can be frustrating because it’s inevitably totally limiting, right?
CD: So, it makes a culture within that universe where readers (sometimes) go after other poets: ‘You’re not doing this’ or ‘The book doesn’t do this’ or ‘Your politics are this and the work doesn’t line up with those politics, so you’re not practicing your own ideas in the work.’ And while that can be productive, that hunt can be really sad. All of this is to say that one of the things I really enjoyed about the book is that it’s just there. Consequences presents itself as flawed and recognizes everything as a problem and offers itself as it is in the face of circumstances that are themselves always already problematic and flawed.
MZ: Exactly. And I think I mention it in the book that I have been deeply influenced by Donald Hall’s statement that any poetry is actually a complete contradiction of its own poetics. I come from a leftist background, so I can speak – I can try to be, as a human agent or political person – what is typical for an American Leftist. But when you write, you cannot – and I really mean that – you cannot let the ideas do anything but just be the ideas. The work has to – and, again, the duality seeps in – the work has to come from a deep engagement with the self and all of its problems. Otherwise there is no point in poetry. If we can’t be the flawed people we are in the poem – since the poem becomes a vehicle for exploring how to become a little bit better – then poetry would become a banal document.
CD: Yeah, and how boring and sad would that be? [laughs]
MZ: Yeah! Exactly! [laughs]
CD: Or, ‘My life is pretty good; I’m just cruising along!’ No one really wants to read that poetry.
CD: I was also interested in the landscapes that you provided throughout the text. As I read the book, I felt like you have all of these big topics of Capitalism and Love and they all seem to collapse together, which encouraged me to engage the text as a big compilation of thematic palimpsests – one must read through all of the thematized lenses in order to get at anything. For example, Consequences is comprised of often rather devastating landscapes and an equally devastating (if accurate) relationship to the land. Yet the speaker remarks that he is “Turning slowly into a nature poet.” The world and the bodies that make up the text are “deformed” and deforming / “The world is garbage” / “We eat the surrounding animals / And take offense to rain” / “we will take walks / by the edges of trauma.” What, then, does it mean to be a “nature poet” in this world – what does it mean to be a poet in the face of capitalism and war and sex and do they (re)shape the way we conceive of “nature”?
MZ: When I say “I am slowly turning into a nature poet” – and this is actually a very beautiful platform to say something about my style of irony and how irony comes out of me – it carries truth in it and it carries a joke. The joke is that I am a city poet, and I’m writing about jerking off amid the tanks –
CD: Right – it doesn’t get any more ridiculous than that, it’s true.
MZ: Exactly! It’s a ridiculous caricature of what it means to be an urban poet and points at the notion of revolution as an erotically charged concept. So it is in itself an ironic line. Three years ago I discovered that Seattle is a green area [laughs] that has lots of nature. After years of living there, I realized that I have been living in this green place overlooking this amazing greenery. It was fascinating – almost an exercise in form because growing up in Cairo, I couldn’t see green. So it took me thirteen years of living in this luscious place to start looking around and realizing ‘Oh my god, there are trees and they are beautiful’ [laughs]. In a way I was giving a nod to the fact that Seattle is just beautiful. And that’s it! I wish there was more to this line than that – more about ecosystems or eco poetry, but there isn’t. It’s just a simple observation that Seattle is green and I was unable to see that for a really long time. This is a pattern of something that happens in me a lot, and in the world: we come to the poem with lots of predefined modes of reading.
CD: Very true.
MZ: Yeah, like I can’t read Pound’s Cantos because I come from a lyrical world and when I read the Cantos I’m trying to impose the forms of the lyric on it and I fail. I’m unable to make heads or tails of it. And Olson’s Maximus, for example. Meanwhile, reading Ted Berrigan I am totally at home. There is this thing where we have our forms and patterns of form already and we can’t open to the world as it exists. So maybe that was what was at play in this line: the possibility of seeing something else even if it takes a long time to see it. Maybe that will end up being a successful answer to your nuanced question: what I see as nature here is the successful possibility of opening to the other.
CD: Or the way that we move into spaces and lay over that space – or that person, for that matter – what we expect it to be (or expect them to be), or want it to be (or want them to be). And that laying-over either ends one’s relationship to that thing (or person) or the expectation slowly falls away as one starts to see something (or someone) for what it is (or who they are).
MZ: Exactly. Maybe the ultimate solution of love is the ability to see, and that’s all. That is deeply related to what the book is pointing at, which is the inability to consummate love because of multiple factors including the blindness and the single-mindedness of the person engaging in the experience, but also the constraints of an outside world with its own ideological construction of what love is and how we, in an OKCupid version of love, sell ourselves with our hobbies and things like that.
MZ: Maybe in this single line – “turning slowly into a nature poet” – is a certain gesture that love is a possibility, that transformation is a possibility.
CD: I think that’s a really good point. I like that “OKCupid version of love,” which is so rigid – so incredibly rigid.
MZ: It’s so rigid it’s insane!
CD: It’s endlessly frustrating, the rigidity of that form, because you can’t move!
MZ: Eventually you turn love into a to-do list. You turn who you are into a list. Especially in Seattle OKCupid is a horrific experience because for everyone here the profile is just a list of hobbies: hiking, biking, mountain climbing, and things like that. You look deeper to see if there’s a human there.
CD: Right, you look to see if there is a human person who exists underneath all of that.
MZ: And there isn’t. And eventually the form swallows you and you start writing the lists yourself – engaging in this, I won’t call it superficial, engaging in this warped way in order to make something out of it.
CD: This discussion transitions really well into my next question for you, which is: does technology offer us the ability to navigate solely through binaries? And in this space, is there only the capacity for extremes – chastity or hedonism, for example? And if so, what are the consequences of that? It’s interesting how the presence of technology in the poems – emails, airplanes, etc. – mediate distance and serve as the lens through which readers encounter romantic occasions in your book. Some kind of technology colors nearly all of the love and sex in the book. Like wearing gloves before touching something hot, technology seems to temper the body (and its consequences) while creating a space for language / communication / expression. What do you make of the intersection of love and sex and technology in your work?
MZ: That’s a tough question because my position on technology is ambivalent. I’m a maker of technology; I work in software. And I have always held that dual contradiction of thinking that I am a luddite, that up until this point I could not use software – I just like to make it, but I don’t know how to use it. I always saw technology as a way to make a living, but not as something important – at least until Skype. Skype bridged the distance between me and the people I love most in my life, like my mom. Then I was confronted with the fact that I would be a terrible hypocrite if I started feeling that technology was not a good thing. So I started changing my opinion, and then seeing technology as a mode of communication – as a mode of arrival – did something interesting: it mediated distance. It allowed many people to have lovers – people who they love – in other places, and to feel a connection with them, and this connection is mediated completely by technology. There are certain modes of existence that technology allows us, which in the meantime I am not keen on that, but I am accepting it – technology might not be evil. Like, that capitalism is controlling technology might be the problem, but I am getting to a point where I am unable to see the difference between capitalism and technology. The technology that came is a byproduct of capitalism, a byproduct of competition – all of these things. So, to answer the question: there are imperfections and the book points at them. Consequences points at the possibility of lovers existing in other places, which doesn’t make the relationship more successful than the ones who live close to each other because it seems, at the end, we are surrounded by a certain form of human error that is not allowing the connection to happen.
CD: And it’s interesting to think about that in relation to poetry. I was reading an interview with Renee Gladman and in it she talks about how diffuse the poetry community is, how far apart we live from one another, which makes forming an immediate community difficult in some cases. So there is, of course, the idea that technology – something like Facebook – enables people to link together in ways they would not otherwise be able to. Like you and me, for example. The other thing it makes me think of, and it seems so palpable, is that the bridges technology is able to create – skyping or gchat, any of this stuff that allows you to have connections with others be they friendship, love affairs, talking to your family across great distances – as much as that can bring two people close together, it still mirrors the distance inherent to the lover / beloved dynamic. So it’s funny to think of how the traditional has merged with the contemporary in this intersection of technology and poetry and technology and love.
MZ: Yeah, and who said this – Lacan, I’m not sure if it’s ok to quote Lacan – there’s no love relation (or something). That we are always in an imaginary situation when we are having an interaction with another human. So I’m not sure if I am falling into saying that because what I am saying here is a very traditional way of saying that the human is locked and unable to connect with others. That is simply what I am saying as Maged, but not as the poet. The book itself points at the problem of this sentence because the book is formed out of so many connections – out of so many extended hands – and so many possibilities of connections with others, and some of them are successful in a localized way. So maybe this failure – the traditional romantic notion that we as humans can’t be in love – is exploding in ways that are both affirming and not affirming in the book. Affirming would be like, well, everything ends. It seems like capitalism is surrounding us in an impossible way that prevents us from building lasting connections. But then there is also this negative affirming that continues to say, ‘Listen, there is a possibility of love – the possibility still exists,’ and even if something is not achievable, it should still be attempted. In this case technology’s existence is doing dual things: it has the possibility of bringing all of us closer together, but also pushing us away because there is an inherent distance in any communication. Since you mentioned Facebook – Facebook is amazing in many ways. I find that my political consciousness is formed on Facebook. But Facebook itself is formally a disaster. In the sense that it’s designed to value content over form – for a moment I will become a formalist: Facebook’s form encourages outrage as a mode. In this way, publically, we are all outraged at something. I like to think that Facebook works on three levels: publically, we are all outraged at something. We pick a couple of things every day that we are outraged about and we share them. Second, we organize events on Facebook, which is awesome. Third is the layer of private messaging on Facebook in which a lot of sexual solicitation happens. I am joking about all of these, but I am also serious. What Zuckerberg did was create a big pick-up place for himself.
CD: Right, that’s where it all started.
MZ: And it never fell far away from that reality!
CD: And, to be fair, that’s how most things start! [laughs]
MZ: That’s true! [laughs] That’s awesome – I like that – it is how most things start! I completely agree with you. But the form itself pushes us away from each other, so you have to make an effort to work with the form in order to make a possibility of a dialogue – to make something that the form doesn’t let you do naturally. Not naturally – naturally doesn’t make sense – the form is passed between two points and you have to do something to make the form move between those points. You have to do something that is different.
CD: In a way, we are coming back to where our conversation began as it comes to a close. You say, “But to improve the situation / There is only one way: Fucking,” which begs the question: is love or sex a kind of social loophole? An escape? A site for revolution? Or are you in fact “the slave satisfied with his slavery?” Perhaps it is all of this things at once since it “turns out we are all part of the same system we are revolting against and we are as flawed as it is.” What are your thoughts on this state of ‘between’ and how do your poetics in Consequences seek to navigate even the idea agency in relation to existence?
MZ: I really need to say something here. Your ability to see and read astutely is just quite amazing. Like, I am deeply touched by how you are able to see – I see myself in the questions you are asking very clearly, which is awesome. In terms of this question, you answered it. It is all of these things at once. I do believe that all positions are mostly right if you change the context just a little bit. So I actually have Republican friends who dislike the government very much, and I can see their point because I understand where they are coming from and I can see some other aspects of what they do. So if you have friends who are Republicans, Anarchists, Libertarians, Marxists, on all sides of the spectrum then you are bound to have one of two things: first, to be utterly confused yourself [laughs]. And you see aspects of that in the book because I am confused, but I am also acting sincerely on reaching a certain conclusion or formal position. But I would argue that – “to improve the situation / There is only one way: Fucking” – this is a moment where I am being sincere and ironic. Secondly, I am arguing that if we settle for fucking just to do something other than deep connection – if we use sex as a way just to pass time, to handle all the pressures and the difficulties of life, if we use it as an island of time that’s enjoyable and that’s it – in a way there is all of that. There is promise, love as a promise that can free us in a way. But then there is also – given the pressure of everything, and given how sometimes things feel unmovable – there is always love as a respite or a break from things. And in this case, love shifts from something less revolutionary or something less able to change us into something that is just consumed.
CD: And that’s a hyper-conscious state because there’s an awareness of needing the escape, and yet the act of escaping is like denying a change-oriented consciousness (revolution) and falling into love and consumption (capitalism). These desires – these ways of thinking – are both already, always tied to one another.
MZ: I agree with you completely. So, what is the outcome? And I think this is a copout – this is why I am poet and not a political activist (although sometimes I pretend to be) – in the end, I don’t know my way out. I can chart pure phenomenology. I remember from my old training, from all the books I read – and it’s a horrific thing to end on – there was Socialist Realism, which in Marxist Russia is a horrific form of literature where they argue against Realists saying that Realists show the problems, but Socialist Realists show the progress and show the world after being conquered by revolution and Socialism. I want to stick to Realists. So my phenomenology is just psychological and a form of realism that expresses where things stand for this person – and while it’s one person’s consciousness, hopefully it stands for a common experience of many. I don’t know where that will take us next. If I impose my mathematical mind it leaves us with a 70 / 30 situation: 70% we’re fucked, 30% there might be a way out. [laughs] And I just leave it there without knowing what to do with that.
CD: I like that in a lot of ways and I think one of the reasons is that the theory that we might read around politics, or around capitalism, or even eco-policy – any of that stuff – a lot of what we expect from that is a solution to be posed. We expect somebody to have an answer: ‘This is the way to fix it.’ So, in a way, not prescribing a means to not ‘be fucked,’ by not asserting an idea or plan of how we can make things better or different is, perhaps, more honest.
MZ: I think so. And I like to think that Consequences is providing data for people who might be more capable. I sincerely think of the book as just a piece of data; that I am providing a piece of data that’s as transparent as possible given that I am working with the heavily formalized medium of poetry, but it’s a very clear data point. And if somebody can take and build something that can point at a solution, awesome. If it ends up that other people can really see within themselves the same issues that the protagonist of the book experiences, awesome. But it points at something that I like to think eases the loneliness of everyone engaged in the process of writing and reading. If the book would do something, it would do that, which is very simple and very traditional, but that is what the best poetry that I ever read did: the poetry that eased my loneliness a little bit – poetry that made me see that things might be big, but there might be something beautiful in the human existence.
CD: Right, or the connectivity of recognized loneliness across any kind of line or group of people.
Christy Davids is a poet who often listens to the Beach Boys and thinks about great big trees. She recently completed her MFA at Temple University where she also teaches. Christy is an assistant editor at The Conversant, curates the Philadelphia-based reading series Charmed Instruments, and collects recordings at poetry//SOUNDS. Her chapbook Alphabet, Ontology was a finalist In Ahsahta’s 2015 chapbook contest; she has been published in VOLT, Open House, and A Few Lines magazine among others.
Maged Zaher is a poet and translator. He won the Seattle’s Stranger Genius award in literature in 2013.