21 August 2012

Turns Out We’re Doomed: A conversation with Glenn Shaheen

By PQ Contributing Editor Brian Russell

Glenn Shaheen is the author of Predatory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). He lives in Michigan where he is the editor of NANO Fiction and poetry editor of Third Coast. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He serves on the board of the Radius of Arab-American Writers, Inc. Buy his book here. Check out his website here.
BR: Location is a prominent feature this book, on multiple levels: America (both named and implied) and Houston (where you wrote many of these poems), specifically. To what extent is location simply a setting, a place for the poem to exist, and to what extent does location dictate the content/scope/direction of the poem? Now that you've moved from Houston to Kalamazoo, have you noticed your poems taking on a different personality? Fewer beetles, more snow? 
 GS. Predatory is meant to evoke a more general sort of urban location, a microcosm of America that can work as an avatar for the present mode of thought in this country. Houston works great that way; it's got everything that's good and bad about America turned up to eleven. Fears, dirt, insane wealth shadowing incredible poverty, art, love, hate, etc. I tried not to mention it too many times, though it sneaks into... three poems by name? If you count "The Rothko Chapel," which is only in Houston if people know it's in Houston. I tried not to make them too endemically Houston, you know?

Strangely, I started writing poems to try to replicate Houston in verse only after I moved to Kalamazoo. People do that with New York or LA or Chicago, but I can't think of a book, despite all the great poets who've done time in Houston, that tries to enact a vision of Houston. Correct me if I'm wrong! Of course, once it started snowing here I actually did start writing about snow. I felt so stereotypically "poetic!"

BR: Predatory begins with a howl that reverberates through the rest of the book, ending with the shots of a mobster's gun. Most, if not all, the poems in this book play off our fears, both real and imagined. To what degree are the poems meant to genuinely scare us—horror poems, so to speak—and to what degree are the poems a parody of fear? At what point does love and fear intersect?

GS: I think that our fears, the fears that the media and politicians warn us about endlessly, are supremely unfounded—that we will ALL BE DESTROYED or that ALL LOVE IS ABOUT TO END FOREVER IF WE DON'T FOLLOW THESE SIMPLE INSTRUCTIONS (vote for this, buy this, stay away from this). It benefits the rich and powerful if the rest of us live in terror, because a fearful society is one easily manipulated. It seems such an obvious ploy to me, though it's worked for a whole lot of years. Everything isn't so awful here in America, the richest country in history. We tend to lean toward thinking it's all about to end because we have literally everything to lose, because we have literally everything. In the book I try to start out with the fears being legitimately translatable to the reader, but then make them so outrageous by the end that they collapse under their own weight. It's tough to manage readings though because if I only read, say, six poems, then it all just seems so dire, whereas after ten poems or so with severed arms and collapsing buildings and cats being drowned, the parody becomes clear. The speaker of the book is still a victim of living in terror, and I don't want the terror to be completely evaporated, but I think that's the strength of parody—it only works as humor if it can also work as the thing it is lambasting.

Fear is the idea that we will lose the things we love, the people we love, right? If we're scared of death, it's partly because of the unknown (is faith right? is lack of faith right?), but it's also because the people we love won't be around anymore, no matter if it's oblivion or some kind of afterlife. In America, I sometimes think that the loss of love that compels fear is often the loss of things that we love—things like cars or Blu-Rays or other objects that our loads of money can buy us. So much of our present fear is economic, and there's a lot to be said for comfort and convenience, but even if the "stock-market" crashes or we aren't the richest country in the world anymore, we'll be fine!

BR: I'm tempted to read Predatory as a kind of argument against knowledge—the more we know the worse it gets. The constant stream of information serves only to stoke our anxiety. Many of the poems echo the voice of the 24-hour news cycle bringing us the global atrocities in real-time. Technology makes violence more efficient. Scientific advances seem as likely to end in biowarfare as in a cure. Was this your intent? Or is fear simply a necessary by-product of progress, of stepping endlessly into the unknown?

GS Certainly the less we know the worse it gets, too, in a different way. You can be ignorant and be supremely gullible to all of the aforementioned fear-mongering the media thrives on, right? Fears of “The Other,” fears of “The End Of Comfort.” But the more you know the worse it gets because you realize as an American you are part of a system that creates death and terror, that you are culpable; or, as you say, to even participate more actively and consciously in the motion of this system as a creator. I don't think Oppenheimer lived a very happy life post World War II, and we're all minor Oppenheimers when we possess awareness of the awfulness we commit and do little-to-nothing about.

But this is all on an individual scale, what we each have to deal with. I'm for knowledge. We have the capability to destroy ourselves, yes, and it's "admirable" that we haven't exercised this capability yet, but we're also the most connected as a species that we've ever been, the most peaceful. The constant stream of information stokes our anxiety, is used for propaganda, but it also is used spread truth—look at the way social media and the internet was used in the recent revolutions in Arab countries in the face of government suppression of information and communication. I think you're right, yes—fear is a necessary by-product of progress—the unknown provokes fear, but to rest in comfort is to be stagnant and go the way of the Neanderthals.

BR: What's your favorite poem in the book? Why?
GS: I think, although it probably shifts around pretty frequently, it would be "Unlimited." It's got in miniature the right balance of personal and national insecurities I was trying to go for in the book played out in a crumbling litany.
Excerpt from “Unlimited”:
The doctor
was repulsed. He was also incompetent. He said I did not have cancer.
The internet begs to differ

my friend. My personal clutter keeps accruing. It’s not interest. It’s not
interesting. I’m discarding pieces of paper that I once thought

would save me when the time came.
It turns out the time never came.

It also turns out we’re doomed.

BR: Besides Predatory, of course, what else should we be reading? 
GS: A couple books I read recently that I was really into were Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011) by Harmony Holiday and Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012) by Amaranth Borsuk. Both are using a fragmented language (ok, that's all poetry I guess, to a certain extent), to emotional ends. Holiday's book seems like a collision of numerous voices to create a sort of meditational and emotional collage (and even comes with a CD of musical collagescapes) that reflects a speaker's struggle with familial and cultural place. Borsuk's book is like when you break the glass figurine and try to reassemble it, but there are lots of missing pieces and the ones you have stick out at angles that don't seem quite right, and it reflects a reconstruction of an ancestral story in a really fascinating way. I never do poetry books justice when I talk about them! They're both great though.

Brian Russell is the author of The Year of What Now, winner of the 2012 Bakeless Prize for Poetry, forthcoming from Graywolf in 2013. Brian has poems out now or forthcoming in Bat City Review, Catch Up, The Cincinnati Review, and Green Mountains Review.

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