Distant Places and Pulses: A Conversation With Nathalie Handal

Renée H. Shea

Nathalie Handal’s rich, diverse, and innovative body of work reflects her own multicultural, multilingual, and multinational life. Raised in Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, she was educated in Asia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In her most recent poetry collection, Life in a Country Album, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October, Handal brings together her fierce intellect and passionate sensuality to create a meditation on migration, identity, and home. In Handal’s poems, juxtapositions come naturally—the seamless movements of a poet for whom the description “global citizen” is bone and blood, a traveler who finds a way to be at home wherever she is yet can’t seem ever to arrive. “I waited for thee, / full of salt, / syllables, and stones,” writes Handal in the book’s title poem. “He said on his tongue lies a ruin / and there are commas all over his body,” she writes in “The Record Keeper.” Former U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith calls the collection “absolutely gorgeous” and praises “the desire and longing running through these poems …via the collections of many voices and cityscapes and—most poignantly—via the borders between bodies, nations, and hearts.”  

Also a playwright, editor, translator, and activist, Handal is the author of seven poetry collections, including the flash collection The Republics (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and the Arab American Book Award; the best-selling bilingual collection La estrella invisible / The Invisible Star (Valparaíso Ediciones, 2014); Poet in Andalucía (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); and Love and Strange Horses (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award. Handal also edited the groundbreaking book The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology (Interlink Books, 2001), which won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award and was named one of the top ten feminist books by the Guardian; she coedited the landmark anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (Norton, 2008) with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar. Her nonfiction has appeared in Vanity Fair, Guernica, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Nation, and the Irish Times. Her work has been translated into many languages, most recently, Poet in Andalucía, which was translated into Arabic in 2019 by Abed Ismael. 

For the last decade, Handal has written The City and the Writer, a literary travel column for Words Without Borders magazine. As a professor at Columbia University, she currently divides her time between New York City and Rome. Called a “contemporary Orpheus” by Claire Messud, Handal manages to remind us, through her work and person, that our fundamental connections transcend physical borders as well as the borders inside bodies.

Let’s start with the title: Life in a Country Album. It seems that you’re looking at country, nation, borders—what those words mean—and putting them in your “album.” Although an album is normally a blank book where we collect photos and mementos, your album is filled with commentaries, questions, explorations—all expressed in poetry. I’m curious about how you settled on this title.
I grew up with an album of questions. I collected photos, postcards, and letters from family members scattered globally. I recognized my face in theirs but didn’t know them, and spent my life looking for them. I grew up with country at the center of everything—which do I belong to, if any; can I belong to more than one; and why do these questions split my heart into borders? 

I come from a deeply rooted Bethlehemite family. Today there are few Bethlehemite families left in the Old City. The birthplace of Jesus has shrunk, and less than 2 percent of the oldest Christian community in the world is in its native habitat. I was born in one of the poorest countries in the world—Haiti. I have dual nationality—French and American. I was raised with Mediterranean, Asian, and Latin American cultures. The contradictions collided incessantly—linguistically, culturally, religiously, and socio-economically.

The book title came to me in Texas. I was on the Lannan Foundation residency in Marfa, and all these Americana images surfaced—John Wayne, the border, the desert, Hollywood—but it struck me that they were no longer foreign, that the two decades I had spent in the United States had changed me. Those images, along with listening to country music bands at the local bar, and my earlier associations with the words album and country, triggered the title—which unites the distant places and pulses in my life.

Life in a Country Album opens in France and the Mediterranean, then moves to the United States. Were these poems written over a long period of time? When did you realize that they could or would be a collection with such coherence as this one? 
It was the most difficult collection to work on in terms of coherency. Like my migratory story, it took years to compose its music for a full orchestra. It started with an exploration of my Frenchness, and the realization that the farther I was from the French language, the more it felt like home. Yet ironically it is language that made me leave Paris, though I left only partially. I spoke French to my parents but spent my days in school speaking English—one informed by American, British, and International School English. And although French is the first language that I remember speaking, I had no mother tongue. In what language does an aspiring writer write if they have hyphenated mother tongues? When the poems came in English, I welcomed them. But what country would these literary oeuvres belong to? Back then, that seemed important. That’s what led me to New York City. American English allowed me to accommodate the seven languages that roamed around me and house the various cultural and emotional worlds my works come from. 

I found the arc of the book while standing outside the Brooklyn courthouse on the day I became an American citizen. It was also the day Barack Hussein Obama became the forty-fourth president of the United States. In the years that followed, new voices emerged, voices with accents from the South or Brooklyn that I heard clearly in my mind but couldn’t replicate aloud. These poems began composing the American album. 

Then four years ago, I was invited to be a writer-in-residence at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice where I have family from my maternal side. Returning to my Mediterranean roots led to the Mediterranean album.

As I read the book, I was struck by all your allusions and references. Sometimes, you offer an explanatory footnote, such as the meaning of rebetiko, but other times you sail right through with more obscure ones, such as Anouk Aimee, Alain Mabanckou, and Bonjour Tristesse. Your series of poems “Bleu Blanc Rouge” even moves between languages, and “American Camino” is laced with pop culture references. Do you expect your readers to be conversant with these references? Are you challenging them? 
There are many ways to understand—literal, political, emotional. I added the explanatory footnote when I wanted readers to understand a word or phrase with a certain immediacy. The rest, like life, is a journey. The truth of a poem is in its ruins, and those ruins belong to the poem’s story but are also part of everyone’s story. I am interested in the courageous way language endures life.

“Conversations avec Mahmoud Darwish” is such an intriguing group of poems. Are these written in remembrance of actual conversations—did you know him well? Or are they imagined conversations with a kindred spirit? 
They are inspired by actual conversations. We met in Paris when I was in my early twenties. He gave me my first writing assignment—to interview Allen Ginsberg. I had no idea what I was doing and almost didn’t conduct the interview. Allen read me the poem he wrote the previous night and told me it would probably be the title of his next book, and it was—Death & Fame. Then he died a month or so later. Back then, I didn’t know I would move to New York City and become American, nor did I realize the impact this 1997 interview would come to have on me. 

When Mahmoud died in August 2008 in Texas, I started a poem entitled “After Kaddish.” It was inspired by one of Darwish’s favorite poems by Ginsberg, and was published in Guernica in fall 2018. The poem didn’t want to be included in Life in a Country Album. I listened. Especially since I’m still haunted that I let Mahmoud go to voice message right before he died. 

“American Camino” sings right out there in the celebratory voice of Whitman. Do you see him as an influence? Is this book your “Song of Myself”? 
Whitman is a constant companion. This operatic spirit, this great poet of urban motion, sings as I walk and wander New York City and the globe. I explore how urban life and the cityscape create imaginative spaces through a course that I teach entitled “The City and a Writer: New York City.” The class is inspired by my literary travel column with the same name that is published in Words Without Borders magazine. 

Whitman introduced me to the most important urban book I have read: New York City. Had I not moved to this city, I would not have understood the complexities I came from; had I not walked with Whitman, I would not have entered the heart of the city, nor learned by heart a passage of the world. 

The poem “Orphic” references the musician, poet, and prophet Orpheus, and I hear so much music in these poems, perhaps even more than in your earlier work. You often perform your poetry, and much of this collection feels as though it wants to walk right off the page and perform itself! Intentional?  
Music is always present in my books—as a personage or pulse, silhouette or silence. Without music, I could not hear freedom. 

Many of these poems hold such urgency. “Aleppo,” which is just five short lines, feels like a bullet to the heart. “Europa Nostra” is a powerful and tender reminder that each of the refugees we hear about in the news is a distinct individual. Do you hold out hope that these poems might awaken a more expansive understanding, or are you bearing witness—or both? 
Poems listen, and when we listen to poems, we start hearing everything. No border exists for a poem. It tells us we should be most fearful of fear. The world changes with every book. The book is complete when it begins to be read, and its verity reveals itself somewhat differently to every reader. That’s a powerful interplay. And keeps me close to words.

Your poetry is usually published in literary journals and by academic presses. Yet, some of your work is also very public. A poem not from this collection, “Lady Liberty,” is part of Poetry in Motion, a series of poems published in New York City subways and buses. Our former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith chose “Europa Nostra” as one of her featured poems for The Slowdown podcast. How does it feel to see yourself in these spaces? Do you think of these different audiences as you are writing?
I need solitude to write and read. When I find myself on the page or stage, another me emerges—the part in search of connectedness. It’s illuminative to discover the reactions of people from various contexts and cultures toward one’s work. 

As a poet in motion, it was particularly magical to be part of Poetry in Motion, of New York City and a tradition treasured by people from all walks of life, from construction workers to schoolteachers, students to dreamers. The muse of my poem “Lady Liberty” was the Statue of Liberty—a symbol of immigrants, freedom, beauty, and unity. And to come back to Whitman, an excerpt from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” was one of the four poems that launched the project. Another was “let there be new flowering” by Lucille Clifton, who taught me how to put a poetry collection together. 

Did you know Clifton? 
She was a mentor. Gentle and generous. Fierce and prophetic. She taught me that the more I gave to poetry, the more it would give to me. I cherish the blurb she gave me for my first collection, The Neverfield (Interlink Books, 1999): “[A] work which insists on itself. It is poetry of a shining quality from a poet whose voice is sure and unafraid.” I wish I had expressed to her how much her support encouraged me to continue my voyage with poetry.

For a decade you’ve been writing a monthly column for Words Without Borders, The City and the Writer, through which you interview fascinating authors from all over the world. This must take you away from your own poetry, your teaching, your performances. Would you call this work part of your activism?
Translating, editing, anthologizing, curating, teaching, and performing takes me closer to my words, as it takes me closer to the world. As a multilingual and multicultural person, literary activism is an important component of my life in letters. It’s an engagement that helps improve our minds and widen our worlds, a commitment rooted in compassion and service. 

One of my favorite lines in the book is “Exile understands motion.” Why do you personify exile as a human force? For a wordsmith like yourself, nothing happens without intent: Why “motion” instead, for instance, of “change” or “movement”? 
Exile is endless—whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. A state of suspension while in motion. A motion forward with an addiction to the past. Exile is a mist. Electrifying and estranging. 

When I reflect on Life in a Country Album, I feel borders are arbitrary and divisive at the same time I feel a reverence for belonging to a nation or perhaps to a place. Do I need to reflect more deeply?  
At the core, I am questioning the emotions nation evokes in us—are they dangerous or safeguarding? Are they tolerant? We all need to keep reflecting.

Many of the poems have a dialogue-like quality to them, though that dialogue takes different forms, such as questions and conversations. Are these subtle ways through form and craft that you’re inviting your readers to enter unfamiliar spaces of geography, thought, and emotion? “Declaration of Independence” really intrigues me. 
Reality stems from perspective. It’s an invitation to converse, to listen more deeply, more astutely to how I define independence, how others define freedom, and how we can redefine what disunites. 

I’m sitting here with several of your previous books, looking through favorite poems. Do you see Life in a Country Album as a progression in form—are you freer here or at this point in your [writing] life? Does the collection have a broader landscape? How do you see this collection in relation to your body of your work so far? 
The circumstances of my life made me aware very early of the diverseness and vastness of the world. But only much later did I become aware that the world is not vaster than those who are open to it. This collection is an extension of my other books—each trying to chisel a space of myriad geographies and peoples.

What did your recent experience living in Rome bring to you?
Rome is the city of all centuries. It is a dream in the heart of history. Every time I see the Colosseum, I’m changed. I walk, read, and teach Rome. It’s the perfect place to stand and view the world, especially the Mediterranean. 

What’s next? 
My next book is set in Sicily. It’s an extension of Poet in Andalucía. Like Andalucía, Sicily is place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge. In a time of amplified wars and religious and national separatism leading to mass displacement of peoples and an increase in migration, the Mediterranean Sea has become a transit for peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, en route to the shores of southern Europe. Sicily is a meeting place between Christianity and Islam, European and Arab cultures. It’s a water bridge of ancient and present history and cultures. The Mediterranean of medieval and early modern eras was multicultural and religiously plural as Christian, Muslims, Jews, and others interacted at various levels from literary to economic. Of course, that’s of interest to me. I spend a lot of time in southern Italy. It’s melancholic and mending. It offers me a mirror of myself and reminds me of what’s possible.


Renée H. Shea, formerly a professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Maryland, has profiled numerous authors for Poets & Writers Magazine, including Arundhati Roy, Tracy K. Smith, Julie Otsuka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Maxine Hong Kingston. She also writes literature and rhetoric textbooks for Bedford, Freeman & Worth, and has recently published essays and interviews in World Literature Today.