Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan was born in Carbondale, Illinois,
and grew up in Kuwait, Oklahoma, Texas, Maine, and Lebanon. She earned a BA from the American University of Beirut and
an MA from Columbia University. While completing her doctorate in clinical psychology from Rutgers University, she specialized
in trauma and addiction work with various populations.
Alyan is the author
of Atrium (2012), winner
of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015) and Hijra (Southern
Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. She has been awarded a Lannan Foundation fellowship and lives in
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
A Review of Hala Alyan's Four Cities
by Anne Champion, first published at Tupelo Quarterly
I am the fable with a mouth…
This line from “Ballad for Kissing Beneath the Tawdry Fireworks” encapsulates the magic of Hala Alyan’s
second poetry collection, Four Cities. Haunting yet hopeful, musical yet desolate, nostalgic yet grieving—this
collection gracefully interrogates themes like love and war. In these poems, the personal and the political weave together
to form deeply felt poems that simultaneously put readers in a trancelike reverie while also waking them up to the horrors
of the world.
These poems touch the wounds of places
like Gaza, Ramallah, and Baghdad, while also exploring love and desire in places like Paris and New York City. Alyan’s
ability to do both of these things at once is part of what makes the collection so awe inspiring.
Despite the collection looking fearlessly at
topics like war and occupation, the poems radiate a sense of hope through lines that are almost like prayer. In “Birthday
Art,” Alyan writes:
I want to be a woman of dusklit
ginger prickly in tea,
steam netted for a lover.
The images in her work function powerfully through their
sensuality. Not only do they often explore love and the body, they also cater to the senses. In “Birthday
Art,” we can visualize the dusklit mosques, we can taste the ginger in the tea, we can feel the soft burn of the steam
along our skin. Thus, the urgency of the speaker’s desires manifest themselves more potently; the desire and hope
feel desperately tangible.
But these prayers tackle ambitious subject matter, and Alyan has an ability to take poems in unexpected directions;
the poems often umbrella out into bigger subjects than which they began. In “Music,” the poem begins by watching
a beautiful Japenese woman play music. In between songs, the woman talks about her father and his cat. The poem sets the
stage for expectations of nostalgia in familial love, but then it turns to focus on the music and a man trying to touch
the speaker’s fingers while she pulls away. When the man asks the woman how the music affects her, she replies:
It makes me sad. The man is confused. Like Rain, I offer.
Here, the poem takes a major shift as the speaker’s
memory recalls Beirut and gunfire, hip hop music as furniture is dragged away from a window. Music, therefore, comes back
to the poem, but in a starkly different context, an unexpected place from where the poem began. The poem continues to
alternate between music, war, and love, until the ending, in which they are all woven seamlessly into a tapestry of pain,
even harkening back to the cat recalled by the singer at the beginning of the poem:
yes, damnit, I remember:
our mouths shy
beneath the display of bombwork, the muffled light of
fishing boats, the debris, the cats—always—mewling.
poem ends with the repetitive music of cats, a feral sort of longing, one that can be interpreted in myriad ways—need,
pain, fear, desire.
As an American Palestinian, Alyan’s poems seem to wrestle with her sense of identity through those two cultures.
In “Push,” the poem falls into a seesaw litany, one that acknowledges privilege and desires to travel the
world, but tempers that freedom through repeated apologies to Gaza. For example,
I think of my future self she is walking your piazza wearing something yellow.”
“Damascus. Nothing is as dangerous as an unlit match. You taught us that.”
“Beirut. I bruise as easily as you do.”
“Istanbul. Marry me.”
By looking at some destinations with a dreamlike wonder and other destinations with a melancholy telescope, the
speaker acknowledges the pull and push of her identity. On one hand, she’s American, afforded freedom and dreams
to travel. But her legacy is Palestinian, a people who’ve suffered occupation and the horrors of war for decades,
partially at the hands of the American government. The poet’s specific reference to Gaza lends a particular haunting
and horror to the poem, as the Palestinian population is not free to leave or enter the Gaza strip, nor can they import
or export goods, making Gaza the world’s largest open air prison. Therefore, while the poet dreams of all the places
she can go or has been, all the places that move something in her heart, she can’t stop looking back at Gaza and
apologizing, as it’s a place where people of her ethnicity may never leave. Later in the collection, the speaker
has a poignant epiphany: “I want to say teach/ me how to love one country/without hating the other.”
aspect of identity that’s explored in the collection is womanhood. In “You, Bonsai Girl,” womanhood is
yoked with various natural disasters, so that womanhood itself becomes a sort of personal storm. The poem mentions rain,
hurricanes, and wild creatures that twist in the murk—all of these giving the effect of being exposed nakedly to
the elements or of being threatened and haunted by nature.
how you held
your body still in his bed
like you were no woman, but object.
yellow, pulled from a witch’s
garden and oh
was real. That sky. Those streets full of men
applauding your legs.
In these lines, the poet exposes some of the
concrete disasters that come with womanhood, beginning with the hope of love and intimacy, turning to the despair of objectification,
then finally the sad power a woman carries solely through performing for the male gaze, her body always on display for
the “streets full of men.” In another poem, “Meimei,” the speaker also explores this subject through
interrogating generations of women in her family to listen to their wisdom and ideologies in relationships to both men
and home. We can see that the idea of womanhood has always been bound to an idea of suffering.
Another touchstone in this collection is that
of dreams or a surreal dreamscape in which the poems exist. In “Dinner,” the speaker begins with dreamlike
images: circling lions, plants that unfurl like steam, following a man down a dark hallway, and a “slow awakening.”
Then the poem turns from the dreamlike to a cry for the spiritual: “I want god, I want God, to bury myself/ towards
the swarming.” After, the poem moves to images of food—tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, baguettes—all signs
of nourishment and the need to quench starvation, perhaps a spiritual starvation. Then the poem introduces Sangria, so
that the nourishment turns to intoxication, and just as the speaker makes that dizzying turn, it spins on itself again
and introduces death through coffins, war, forests that “receive bodies like a wife.” The poem ends with another
nod to ravaged cities: “Gaza. Homs. Alexandria. O, Damascus.” In another poem, “After Thunderstorms
in Oklahoma,” the speaker has a literal dream in which she’s in Ramallah (a Palestinian city in the West Bank),
surrounded by images of sickliness, lack of growth, decay, and darkness. There’s a haunting pulse of threat in the
poem. Finally, the speaker says “I woke and it was sun I had forgot.” The dream had blotted out all potential
Alyan’s poems don’t disappoint in the realm of poetic technique either. Her gift for description surprises
in every line. For example, her keen ability to turn nouns into verbs, “Our faces lanterned,” paint vivid
illustrations. She can take images of violence and weave them into images of beauty and adornment as seamlessly as she can
explore seemingly contradictory themes. And while her poems are treasure troves of images, she also strikes gongs of truths
throughout them as the poems search for meaning:
“Yesterday I found out that Gaza
“The petal is rough as tongue.”
hearts bleed for cats.”
Another poem,“Marketplace,” is almost a pastoral of daily life, of feeling out of place, of being
spiritually and physically lost. Both home and not home. It ends with the speaker walking the winding road asking about
cities in Palestine, an image that harkens to Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. Four Cities is a collection ripe with
Dorothy’s sort of magic, fear, nostalgia, and beauty. It’s history blended with hope, truth seasoned with
mythology. In short, it’s a wonder.
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
An Interview with Hala
Alyan by Richard Suplee, first published at Switchback
Switchback: How do you decide which poems you're going to read? Do you feel obligated
to read poems from an already published book to please fans, or new work so it's not always the same thing?
Hala Alyan: I think I like to do a mixture of the
two. For me, it's not just about reading old versus new work, it's also about making sure that I read a combination
of published work with pieces I wrote with the intention of reading aloud. Performance pieces often have a greater emphasis
on rhythm and musicality.
SWB: Your second
poetry collection, Four Cities, is coming out this year. How did the publication process for this collection differ
(or remain the same) from your first collection, Atrium?
HA: I've been tremendously lucky with my publishing experiences. For Atrium, it was a matter
of meeting a couple of wonderful people who chose to take a chance on my (virtually unknown) work. With this second book,
it's been a matter of being connected with the lovely people at Black Lawrence Press, which likely would've been more
difficult without a previous publication. My third book Hijra just won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which
has been thrilling. So yes—a lot of luck and gratitude.
SWB: Atrium was the winner of the Arab American Book Award in 2013. Did the success and experience
of your first book make it easier to write the second? What was it like to sit back down to write another collection?
HA: Certainly any sort of recognition can be both
thrilling and intimidating; after the award, I became nervous about having to match a certain standard in future work.
But I think that's mostly short-lived. For Four Cities, there wasn't a specific moment when I sat down to begin
the collection; it was a combination of poems I'd written over one summer where I traveled around. That fall, I began
to piece them together and edit.
SWB: At what
point while writing each book did you realize a theme emerging? When did the individual poems become the connected unit
for publication? Was the process different with each book?
HA: Atrium is full of poems I wrote throughout my undergraduate years, which I ultimately wove
together and found, unsurprisingly, a thematic narrative which emerged. For both books, it was a matter of writing pieces
and then doing the stitching together later on. With my latest collection, Hijra, it was more conscious—I
wrote the poems in a concrete amount of time, with a clearer vision of what I wanted to say and how.
SWB: Atrium begins with a section of poems about each zodiac sign. The section feels a little
different from the rest of the book in that it lacks a specificity of narrative in which to ground the reader.
What was your reasoning for beginning the book in such a way? Did you know early on that the collection would begin
with the zodiac or did that come after the majority of poems were written?
HA: The zodiac poems were written earlier, more rapidly, chaotically even, snippets here and there.
It felt apt to open the book with them because they predated the other pieces. But it wasn't until the publishers
approached me about putting a collection together that I began to think about the placement of sections.
SWB: In addition to the zodiac signs, Atrium is filled with allusions to Greek
mythology. Was this a conscious decision and if so why?
Yes and no. Initially, I just found myself working with mythology and zodiac and astrology references a lot; once I realized
this was happening, I decided to just go with it. I find that if I try too hard to introduce (or refrain from) particular
allusions, the writing is stilted and stale. So it's easier to just lean into it.
SWB: Your poems tend to be structured regularly in terms of stanzas. For example, "Barbie" follows
the pattern of couplets with a long and short line until the final stanza. How much thought do you consciously
put into whether a poem will be in couplets, tercets, or whatever stanzas? How about the line lengths? To use a
cliché, how do you make form as content?
HA: I think for many years, I got stuck on the couplets a lot and content at times was hindered by form.
More recently, I've been working on opening the pieces up, using space in different ways, letting the work breathe
more. For my most recent work, I followed a friend's advice and experimented with more prose poems; I was pleasantly
surprised by how liberating it was not to have to constantly think about form.
SWB: When do you decide when a poem is finished? Is it after a certain number of drafts, or when it just
looks right, or do you wait until it gets published to stop revising?
HA: I'm not a big editor, unfortunately. Once I write a piece, that tends to be that. I've been working
on that—becoming more patient, giving the poems some space and returning them with new eyes.
SWB: You are finishing your post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology.
How do you manage the life of a poet with your (for lack of a better term) "real career"? Do you view
being a poet as a secondary gig?
HA: As with most things,
if you love something enough, it reinforces itself. My reward for writing is the writing itself. Not to say it isn't difficult;
there are times when I have to force myself to sit down and write after a particularly long day. But I've never started
writing and regretted it. I've never yearned for that time back. I don't see poetry as a secondary gig so much a complementary
one. I couldn't be a therapist if I wasn't a writer, and vice versa.
SWB: How do you manage finding time to write, revise, give readings and interviews for your poetry while
also working on another career? Do you have a specific writing routine to balance the two professions?
HA: Time is definitely the most challenging issue. Sadly, I've been doing fewer readings
and such because it's been a busy couple of years for me training-wise. The lovely thing about poetry, however, is that
you can do it anytime. I write on the subway, I write during my lunch hour. Fiction is trickier for me; it requires
more structure and discipline. In terms of routine, I write for half an hour a day. The days I don't, I feel antsy and
restless, and will usually write even more the following day to make up for it.
Click here to read an interview with Hala Alyan at Middle East Revised
Poems - Bio - Review - Interviews - Reading
to view multiple readings by Hala Alyan