George Abraham spoke with VCL’s Michelle Betters in early May about their first full-length collection of poems, BIRTHRIGHT. In the words of Naomi Shihab Nye, this is a “sizzling, flaring” book that merits multiple readings. But it’s also, as George explains below, a hot mess of prose, traditional poetry forms, erasure, and ekphrasis. In other words, they are a poet unafraid of exploring the intrinsic relationship between craft and politics, of diving into hard questions and murky pluralities. So we weren’t surprised that in a mere 60 minutes, we covered being from the south, unlearning all the binaries, and how to take your time with your manuscript.
First off, I know we’ve met once before here in Boston, but I didn’t know until I read your bio that you’re from Florida! I’m from north Florida/south Georgia.
Wow! Interesting, alright. Yeah I’m from Jacksonville, so I guess technically Florida, but like very much also southern Georgia in a lot of ways.
Well dang we’re from the same part of the US. That’s wild!
That’s amazing. It’s hard to meet people up here who know what it’s like to be from the south. And also, I don’t know. There’s just a weird condescension. I feel like if I lead a conversation with “Oh yeah I’m from Florida,” people immediately have an assumption about me and about my intelligence. And I’m just like no, my Florida is very brown and black. It’s not what people conceive of when they think of the American south.
No, totally. That’s been on my mind for like the last year. Also the weird, like you said, the sort of northeastern “Oh well it’s so much better up here!” vibe. I’m still shocked to be surrounded by that mindset.
I feel that, especially being at Harvard. You’d think with the amount of people from diverse places, I don’t know, people would be more accepting. There’s been a lot of condescension and snobbery any time my upbringing is mentioned, and that’s why I started putting in my bio “George is from Jacksonville, Florida.” It’s surprising how I’ve suppressed that in conversation. Like friends of mine who I’ve known for years who are like oh wait, you’re from Florida? Yeah. Let’s start talking about it more.”
Well, I hate pivoting away from this part of our convo. Like I could talk about this for an hour.
Same, same. This could be the interview.
I know! But I do have questions about the poems. Honestly, there are so many different questions I could ask after reading this book. So many different places I could go. It was one of the first times in a while where I read a poetry collection and was like taking notes. I was trying to come up with a more praise-sounding way to say there’s a lot going on. Because that sounds like a bad thing. But in a good way, there’s so much going on!
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Well first of all, thank you. I do think that it’s a very maximalist book in a lot of ways.
I LOVE THAT.
Interpret this phrase loosely, but I kind of want readers to experience it as a hot mess, if that makes sense. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think it’s like well-crafted or I didn’t care about craft. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. I think that crafting hot messerie is itself a difficult thing, and it’s something I was trying to go for. I’m getting a lot of people reaching out like I love this book, but like it really made me slow down and I had to read it over several sittings. And I’m like yeah, no I want a little disclaimer on the book: Do Not Read in One Sitting, Please.
Yeah, it definitely seems like it will benefit from, you know, a week from now I’ll pick it back up. But that makes me want to ask about the map at the end of the book. [This feels like a spoiler, so let’s just say, dear reader, if you haven’t read the book and you hate spoilers, skip to the next question!] I was fascinated by encountering the map after I’d read the book and this challenge to go back and read it another way. But did you consider putting the map at the beginning? How did you decide what to do with the different tables of contents?
So the map for home at the end. It’s funny, relating to that first point you made about this being a really large book, a hot mess of a book. I wanted to write a poetry collection that kind of resisted legibility and readability. In some obvious and some not obvious ways. It is a thick book. When you see it, when you encounter the physicality of it, It looks like it’s a challenging book. When you flip through it, again, the poems are all over the page, there’s prose, etcetera. It’s called BIRTHRIGHT and it’s by a Palestinian author. That in and of itself is like, cool you’re getting into some shit, you know?
But I think that “Map of Home” was kind of the final thing that I wanted people to encounter. When Craig Santos Perez taught at Kundiman this past year, the BIRTHRIGHT final draft was due a month and a half after Kundiman. His mentorship meeting with me, that was the final formal meeting I had before I had to turn in the final draft. He was talking to me a lot about space, and he said, “I want your poems to be given the space they need, and given the space they deserve.” He meant that formally, he meant that aesthetically. He also meant that just physically. But he also was talking about how in a lot of indigenous and nonwestern storytelling, time is perceived very differently. In a western storytelling setting, we’re expecting things to be super linear, and poetry resists that. I think western poetry does try to resist that a little bit, for sure. But even when you think about a poetry collection, you think of it being a beginning leading to an end. So even though poetry can trouble that, I wanted to think about how we trouble the physical reading of a poetry collection.
Fast forward a few months later, Bradley Trumpfheller, angel, absolute beloved, a very good friend of mine, was reading BIRTHRIGHT. It was funny, because when I sent them BIRTHRIGHT, we did like a little manuscript exchange, and they started with the last poem. They were like, Yeah I never read poetry books, you know, in order. They like poking around. We had lunch a few days later, and they said they felt like this book, in its construction, innately resists a linear read-through. Like the nature of these poems is not that they lead into the next one, but that they speak among each other. That was the key to knowing what I had to do. I already was experimenting with the keffiyeh poetry form with a few of the poems, so I was like why don’t I make that the table of contents in this two dimensional lattice configuration for speaking among.
In terms of reading the book, the first table of contents makes a lot of sense, the beginning-to-end structure. It’s a triptych, there’s a nice three-part structure to it; before my visit to Palestine, my visit to Palestine, and afterwards. But also I wanted to trouble that. Like perhaps a little bit more interesting Reading of the book, a Capital-R Reading of the book, could be to bend the notions of time and bend the linear rigidity of the book. To say no, these poems are necessarily in conversation despite time, despite space.
That was rad, thank you. And I love Bradley so much. The fact that they would start with the last poem is the most Bradley shit.
Yes! Please keep this in the interview.
I got this notion while reading that there’s a recursiveness happening, that things are being revisited and tweaked. The first two sections reminded me of this line from a Li-Young Lee poem. He writes, “Memory revises me.” I feel like that’s happening in almost a literal way in some of the erasure poems. You’re going back and revising, whether it’s through a personal lens or the colonial–the colonizer’s revision. All that is to say, what is the role of memory in these poems? I guess that’s kind of a huge question.
I think that that gets to the heart of what I’m trying to do in the book. So thank you for that. Yeah, there’s a lot of ways to answer this. I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability in poetry, specifically when I’m writing to and among a people. Not a people, but many peoples actually. I want to resist the notion of A People. But given that I am trying to write among community and among ancestry and among lineage, where does the question of to whom am I accountable come in when a lot of that lineage and ancestry is physically or logistically inaccessible? For instance, in the case of Palestinian ancestry, so much of the memory of the Nakba in 1948 is gone. There are studies coming out of Israel and Palestine that show Israeli archives are actually destroying documents and trying to suppress memory of certain war crimes that happened during these instances in 1948 and 1967. All of the major turning points of Palestinian history. And that generation is dying off. My grandfather just passed away. I’m at peace with it; I don’t think he was ever going to talk to me about his experiences in Palestine. But that’s a layer of inaccess. It’s a layer of inaccess, because English isn’t a great language for him. But also that’s just a hard thing to have to talk about. And he doesn’t want to talk about that with his grandchild. I want to respect that. There are a lot of layers of in access, from the literal unwriting of Palestinian history to the everyday.
So where therein is a mode of accountability? It’s really fascinating, because I think that so much of writing a Palestinian history, if we boil it down to what’s “objective truth” and what’s not “objective truth,” I think that kind of logic is oppressor logic. It’s colonial logic to say this is an invalid people or this is not a real legitimate claim to country. What is a legitimate claim to country versus not? Who gets to claim ancestry to this land? There’s so many logical loopholes that when we try to boil it down, that’s not the greatest form of accountability in general. And specifically in justice-oriented views of accountability.
I guess this is a long-winded way of saying memory is a way of accountability, memory as an innately flawed construct. Memory as built and shaped by traumatic incident. Memory as necessarily cyclic, necessarily nonlinear, necessarily just messy. And necessarily discontinuous. So I was thinking a lot about how poetry can be a vessel for memory while not just saying oh look, this is my memory and that’s valid. But saying this is my memory in all its loops and holes and nonlinearities. My force of accountability is to this kind of higher construct of memory. I think that’s one way to think about memory in a kind of macro sense. But in a micro sense, I’m obsessed with form if you couldn’t tell by BIRTHRIGHT. I think that a lot of my obsession with form is related to my obsession with memory, if that makes sense. I literally study memory in graduate school, but I think that form can be a vessel for memory. Leaning in on repetition, leaning in on multiple parallel readings of a poem. Like a contrapuntal. What is a contrapuntal? Just two parallel realities kind of smushed together. A lot of neural structures literally exist in that way. Memory architecture is kind of, in my view, intrinsically related to form poetically. On the microlevel, that’s how I think about form as a way of encapsulating, getting to the core of memory.
Thank you for sharing that. I do want to talk about form, but you brought up this idea of legitimate state vs. not legitimate state. I was struck by your exploration of binaries in the book, whether it’s a gender binary or these other binaries that pop up. This feels like a strange question to ask, because I know it’s not always cut and dry. But was that a conscious choice? Did you set out to write about binaries? Or did they sometimes creep up on you?
The answer is yes to both. When I was writing my chapbook the specimen’s apology, that was the project of like I’m nonbinary. Let’s deconstruct this and talk about how weird and cool and complicated it is! But BIRTHRIGHT is also a very nonbinary book, BIRTHRIGHT is very much actively trying to deconstruct binaries. Not just binaries and how we think of gender, but there are a lot of binaries for how we think about countries. To draw a border is to create a binary, a here and a there. And thinking about how binaried our way of thinking about everything is, and more explicitly creating the link between gender binaries and the way we think about colonial systems. How binaried genders are a consequence of colonial systems. So I think that is a mission of BIRTHRIGHT for sure.
But, again, accountability. Binaries really just show up in the way we think. That is our internalized understanding of language and colonialism. So a little bit of both. It came up, and perhaps maybe instead of being like okay, the way I set up that image is a natural duality, maybe instead of editing around that, let’s actually interrogate that a bit. Why do I want to think about things like option A, option B. Or even option A, B, C, D—a countable number of options. Why do we want to think about things in categories, in finite restrictive categories? As opposed to continuum thinking. And building language for continuum thinking. Like the deconstruction of binaried logic is conducive to producing a more continuum-centric logic. Being less restrictive.
That was perfect, actually, because it reminds me of your essay in Lit Hub. You write, “Contrary to the system that consumes us, much of the Palestinian and pro-Palestinian american poetics of today is supremely disinterested in the constraints of a ‘two-sided’ dialogue.” That seems related to the way you’re messing with the concept of binaries but also admitting that like…they infiltrate. I don’t know if I have a question there, but the way that you’re breaking down binaries feels like it points to this other idea of being disinterested in the binary conversation.
That really hits home for a lot of the frustrations I had when I started writing BIRTHRIGHT. My pushback to the whole “two-side convo” around Israel-Palestine is—well I have a lot of pushback. First, this framework ignores the power dynamics between occupier and occupied. This is an instance where no, actually there is a binary power dynamic in place. And I think that power needs to be named. There is an occupier and there is an occupied. But at the same time, there’s this kind of fear, dare I say cowardice, within US policy that, at best, proposes a two-state solution. That’s the best case scenario that US politicians try to feed the American public. Like this is how we’re going to solve this grand conflict is to give both of them a state, and they’ll be happy.
I want to push back on those binaries, and ask not just why one-state models which give explicit voice and power to Palestinians are viewed as inconceivable, but why there is even an allegiance to statehood as a construct to begin with. I think this “two sides” binaried thinking is inherent to the colonial system and an idea of statehood that cannot give legitimate power to the dispossessed, to indigenous populations. That’s inconceivable. Entire populations are labelled “an inconvenience” or “demographic threat.” People say asking for a solution that gives justice and reparations to the Palestinian people is “asking Israel to commit suicide,” which is a running motif in the book. What a violent parallel to draw. It comes up a lot in political rhetoric in a way that’s super uncomfortable. It’s not just something one person said. It’s actually super prevalent in a lot of discourse.
Even within Palestinian (and Israeli) society, there is a plurality of voices. Some of the greatest solidarity I’ve ever seen towards the Palestinian cause has been from leftist Jewish people who are actively ignored and left out. Activists who are resisting within the Israeli state alongside Palestinians are also being repressed, put on watch lists, and surveilled. There are so many different layers of how messed up it is to think about this as a two-sided convo.
Yeah, yeah. Thank you for going there with me.
It’s important to the book’s politics. I can’t really talk about this book without talking about its politics. I love having craft convos, and there’s a lot of fun things going on that I want to talk about with craft, but it’s an intentionally political book. That is very intrinsically related to the craft of the book too. I don’t think that these things are divorced from each other.
Definitely, and that was clear to me throughout the book. This feels like a good segue to ask about form.
Often when poets talk about form, it’s the idea that, you know, I’m inspired by working within the constraints. I’m wondering what draws you to working within those traditional forms beyond the fact that sometimes constraints are productive.
I think it really just depends on the poem for me, honestly. Sure, in an ideal world or on a day where I’m like starved for inspiration and I really want to produce something, form can be a great way of entering a poem and generating content for a poem. I think Kay Ulanday Barrett said that the pantoum is the “buy one get one free” of the poetry world, because you write a stanza and you already have half a stanza for free.
Wow, that’s amazing.
So it is a great way of literally generating content. I don’t want to diminish that. I want to hold space for that. But at the same time, I’ve had so many iterations of this happen. I’ll write a poem just however it needs to come out, and then it will kind of grow into a form. It’s almost like I’m coming to a complication within language that I think is hard to express without a form, if that makes sense. Again, thinking about what I was saying earlier about memory. How is the memory of this being held?
For instance, the poem “Heritage,” is a palindrome. It wasn’t originally a palindrome. It was just a regular free verse poem. It came out of me at a very tough moment after a funeral of a really old person in our family, where certain like, again, levels of inaccess were made clear to me. In terms of inaccess of country and memory of country, but also any time there’s a mass gathering of my family—I’m not out as queer to my family, but they know, they get the vibes. They know that something is a little too off to be straight or whatever. But there’s always a weird condescension. Those are two very much intertwined layers of inaccess I feel whenever I’m interacting with certain family members. And I wanted to deconstruct that and kind of think about how this inaccess to country due to colonial systems is again intrinsically related to the downstream consequences of other, more intimate familial levels of inaccess. That’s what that poem was doing. In the first draft, also Bradley—wow Bradley’s really getting all the shoutouts in this interview. Bradley was one of very few people who saw that first draft of the poem. They had capital-Q Questions for the poem and were one of the only people who read it with a nice critical lens. They highlighted the entire last stanza and were like, Where is the blood? And that was their question. I think that the blood, I realized, was in the language itself.
So I knew what the poem had to do. The poem had to link these two layers of inaccess by literally using the same language, hence the palindrome. Returning to the same language in the reverse order to tell a completely different story. So it literally grew—I had this free verse poem that had good lines, and I’m like okay how do I make it a palindrome? And I ditched work for the first half of the day and sat for four hours at my laptop, and I’m like a palindrome is going to come out. The language needed to grow into its form. So I want to hold space for that, is what I’m also trying to say. And using form as a tool. Yeah, “revise a poem by making it into a form” is a great prompt. But also revising in a kind of conceptual sense. How are you re-envisioning what the poem is trying to do and how the poem is holding space for memory and who the poem is trying to access?
I noticed the repetition of the word “digestible” a few times in the book, but it seemed to mean different things in different contexts. So I’m wondering what that word means to you. Or if it’s surprising to you that it’s in there multiple times.
It is! Like wow. That’s really funny. This never came up in the edits actually. That’s really fascinating.
Yeah, sometimes it seems to mean consumable or acceptable. Sometimes understandable or translatable.
It’s a multifaceted word, yeah. I can think of all the poems that are coming to mind with that word, like “Binary.” has that word. I know that the keffiyeh poems also have that word. Yeah, it does surprise me, but it doesn’t at the same time. I think that perhaps that word was kind of doing a lot of subconscious work. But I think it gets to the core of what the book is trying to do. Which is to talk about digestibility. What gets to be viewed as digestible and what doesn’t? How does language play into that? The undertone within digestion. You know, me, as in 2020 George, thinking about that word, my first thought is consumption. I can’t divorce that word from consumption in my brain. This might be more related to where my next poetry project is going, which I won’t talk about too much, but I will say that—
I’ll say this, consumability is at the center of what my next poetry project is trying to talk about. If BIRTHRIGHT was trying to talk about one thing, like what is BIRTHRIGHT in one theme, it’s home. The complications of home and constructs of home. But the next book is talking about consumability and digestibility. That central concept. It reminds me of something Ocean Vuong said about how within every poet’s first book, there is a poem that will lead them to their second book. I guess maybe tweaking that a bit, maybe there’s a word that will lead us to our second book. It also relates to this tweet that a lot of my friends have been sharing on poetry twitter that says whatever the last word of a poet’s first collection is, that’s the central thing they were trying to—the heart beneath the heart beneath the heart. What they were trying to arrive at. For BIRTHRIGHT, that word is “stay.” It’s interesting, because I feel like if you know about this tweet before you write your first book, that’s a lot of pressure to put on that last word. Oh my goodness! But in that draft of BIRTHRIGHT, when I heard about this tweet, the last poem is still the last poem in the book. So I guess it still counts.
But ending on the word “stay” is interesting. Again, I think it was doing some kind of subconscious work, like thinking about the contexts of suicidality. The book aggressively starts on a note of suicide, and I’m thinking about what the word stay means in the Palestinian diaspora. Stay as in stay a family unit, stay as in stay location-wise. Stay as intrinsically linked to home. I guess home is that broader concept, but then at the heart of it, it’s stay. And what are the complications, good and bad, of that concept.
It sounds like you’ve been working on this collection for a long time, and you said some poems have appeared in earlier chapbooks. How long did you work on what is now BIRTHRIGHT?
I mean it’s hard to say. I guess like of course it took a lifetime to write the poems. But from when I started writing the first poem to now, gotta say six years. Six or seven years. It’s hard to say, because the earliest poems were two very old poems. Two poems from like 2014-era George, back when I was starting to slam. There were relics of two of those poems from that era in BIRTHRIGHT’s second-to-last draft. One of them was completely axed in that final cut. The second of which is actually in the essay, the “Ekphrasis on a Fragmented Nationalism.” The very first Slam Poem™ that I wrote and was like this is my mission in poetry. The first slam poem I wrote that really meant something to me, a fragment of that poem was turned into an essay section. But it was like what I ask a lot of my slam folks whenever they try to translate their work from performance to the page is: Is a poem the best vessel for [insert thing]? A lot of slam work is very narrative. For me, I needed that narrative of me being assigned an ancestry project in second grade, and my mother being like, “Hey we’re of Palestinian origin.” That was the first time I’d ever heard the word Palestine. I went to my globe and couldn’t find it anywhere. That particular thing? No, that needs to be unpacked a bit. That can’t just be one line in a poem! That needs some unpacking, an unpacking that an essay would allow for.
Honestly, though it doesn’t feel like that long. Most of BIRTHRIGHT was written in the past three years, three or four years. Six or seven years is kind of a deceptive number. It was very nonlinear. I had to write through a lot of physical and metaphorical crap to arrive at the poems that were actually BIRTHRIGHT.
Do you have any advice for poets out there on how to, you know, maintain a project and move it from those first seeds into the draft?
I always felt annoyed by everyone’s answer to this question.
I know, I know. The good literary citizenship questions do feel like they’re just too much. But, at the same time, you’re in a special moment where you just published your first full-length and maybe it’s on your mind, like how did you survive to get here?
It is! I’m just going to be upfront and say I don’t have a good answer to this question. The answer to this question is the answer that everyone has told me when I ask them and when I have those frustrating calls with folks who are more established in the field. I was so stubborn, but what I needed was time. And they were so, so right. It’s a painful answer to come to terms with, I think. Natalie Eilbert, she worked with me on al youm, but I think she was the first person to read the first draft of BIRTHRIGHT. Oh my god, it was a hot mess of a draft. Shout out to Natalie, I love her so much. Literally God bless anyone who read that first draft of BIRTHRIGHT. It was egregious. She read the first draft and was like I see something here that’s valuable and slugged through it. In retrospect, if someone would’ve given me that, I would’ve been like you have a lot of heart, but this is not it. I would’ve given them encouragement, for sure! But like this is definitively not it. And she was the first person who really saw it and she said, “You need to give it time, and you deserve to give it that time, because eventually this will be seen.” You know, you will get seen by people. You just need to trust in that and do the best you can.
I was reminded of that so many times throughout this. I think Rajiv Mohabir had a call with me when I was considering submitting to the Kundiman prize at one point. He was super encouraging. His story is even worse. From finishing the first draft of his first book to acceptance was seven years. He said it took so much patience and resilience to go through seven years of nonstop rejection. But every time he kept working on it, and it kept getting better and better. And I don’t want to say this to condescend people, so I want to be careful a little bit with my wording here. But I’m really glad that the first ten drafts of BIRTHRIGHT didn’t get published. It was a blessing that no one accepted or published that. I think that something about growing as a writer is knowing when work is ready and having a good critical eye for your own work. Or just acknowledging that a work is not done and saying, you know, I’m going to publish this unfinished because the work is going to continue in some other way, and this is a reflection of now. I think every publication is a reflection of now, and I think this was a good now to be chosen to be reflected.
So yeah, just really give yourself time. And get peoples’ outside opinions. Find friends with whom you can trade. When I say get other outside opinions, don’t pay random people exorbitant amounts of money. Unless it’s an editor who you really know and you know will be good for your work, don’t pay people thousands of dollars to edit your work. But exchange poems with your friends. Do a labor exchange. And find people you can trust. I promise y’all trying to publish a first book, it’s going to seem so slow when you’re writing it. You’re going to be like when is my moment, when is my moment? And the second that acceptance happens, time is going to flow very quickly. All of a sudden it’s going to feel like you don’t have any time. The more work you do before the acceptance, the better off.
That’s super valuable, because there is such a push to publish. There’s a lot of pressure to get that book out, get those poems out.
Which I appreciate, you know. Using it as a good way to motivate, that’s great. I’m here for that. Shoot your shot. Especially non-men, especially people of color, marginalized folks. Shoot! Just do it. But I will say, be careful. It’s funny, because when I posted about BIRTHRIGHT not being accepted on Twitter or Facebook or whatever, I got editors from random indie presses who were very kind people. People I’d never met before but seemed very kind in their interactions with me. They were like hey I’m starting a new press with my own two hands and I would love to publish BIRTHRIGHT if you would send it over. And I’m really glad I had the gut instinct to be like hey, I think all signs are pointing to that it’s maybe not ready. Also because a lot of these presses don’t even exist today. So just thinking about sustainability. There are so many great indie presses out there that are worthy of our work and our submissions. But my last piece of advice is don’t just give the book away.
I think that is such good advice. That’s also what I’d tell anyone submitting a book. It’s really valuable to learn what kind of press you want to be published by and to think about what resources or support you want the press to give you.
No, I agree. Also there are some indie presses who are going to give your book way more attention than any of the big house presses too. You know, Sibling Rivalry, publishing a chapbook with them was a dream. Please, this is very on record! They really gave me a lot of thorough feedback. Every step of the process, they aggressively made it clear to me that they were with me and behind the chapbook. I’m really lucky to have had my experience with Sibling Rivalry and then Button, like holy crap. And then Atlas Review was my first chapbook. Yeah, I got very lucky, that’s all I can say, with these folks behind me.
George Abraham is a Palestinian American poet and PhD candidate at Harvard University. They are a Kundiman fellow, a board member for the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and a recipient of the College Union Poetry Slam’s Best Poet title. They are the author of the debut poetry collection, BIRTHRIGHT (Button Poetry, April 2020), as well as the chapbooks the specimen’s apology (Sibling Rivalry Press) and al youm (the Atlas Review). Their work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, the Paris Review, LitHub, West Branch, and Mizna. Follow George Abraham on Twitter.