Interview with Mona Kareem on 'I Will Not Fold These Maps'

By: Reem Abbas,

Mona Kareem is a bilingual Arabic-language poet and translator whose work concerns itself with interrogating the potentialities of language as a communicative medium. But despite its communications the medium’s surface betrays, undoes, and multiplies its meanings. I Will Not Fold These Maps marks the first appearance of Kareem’s work in book form in English: it contains selections from her three Arabic poetry collections, نهارات مغسولة بماء العطش (Mornings Washed by Thirst’s Water, 2002), غياب بأصابع مبتورة (Absence with Amputated Fingers, 2004), ما أنام من أجله اليوم (What I Sleep for Today, 2016). This publication allows us a precious glimpse into the glittering and gutting galaxies of her oeuvre, expanding the possibilities of expression within and across anglophone poetics. In this interview, Kareem talks to multilingual poet, poetry critic, and reviewer Reem Abbas about the journeys her poems took across the globe, languages, literary-hands, and poetic forms.

Reem Abbas: To start us off, how did this collection of poems come about?

Mona Kareem: I met Sara Elkamel through the Tamaas summer workshop, which is led by its founder poet Sarah Riggs. The workshop format is conceptualized around a figure I’ve always observed, learned from, and grew up with—that is of the poet-translator. In modern Arabic poetry, poets used translation to introduce new aesthetics and to expand a contemporary map of poetics. Sara and I had the chance to see each other in action, both as poets and translators, and this planted the seed for our collaboration.

We continued to meet, and she spent months reading my three published poetry collections, rigorously translating, and sharing with me what she has made of my writings. It is a beautiful project that so far has culminated into a 90-page manuscript, entirely her selections. I love seeing my work through her choices and recreations.

At some point during this collaboration, Nashwa Nasreldin solicited this selection, and together with Sara, they assembled I Will Not Fold These Maps with the vision of representing my 20-years in poetry, with its rocks, winds, and waves.

Reem Abbas
: I’m really interested in the way you play with poetic forms throughout I Will Not Fold These Maps (2023, PTC). Many poems in your collection take what seem to me best called fragmentary forms, not only in that the individual lines tend to be short but that the single poetic unit closest to a ‘stanza’ is also quite tight.

Here I’m thinking particularly of poems like Perdition, A Walk, and, of course the standout poem, Cosmic Haemorrhage. It’s really fascinating how you use the line and unit’s terseness to create a world of uncanny imagery, at once so captivating and disturbing. One verse that comes to mind—& how could it not with its haunting power—is ‘Another ship/asphyxiates/the ocean’s larynx’ from Perdition.

What is it about the small unit that feels conducive to world-making?

Mona Kareem: I love your description 'fragmentary form', I couldn’t describe it any better. For a long time, I was obsessed with the short, condensed poem, or the long poem in short fragments, because I had a strong urge to resist not only narrative, but also logic, linearity, order. I am now allowing myself to play more with narrative, and the traps it brings along, mainly because I hate setting prohibitions for myself as a poet.

In the fragmentary forms, I am approaching world-making as a hypothetical place between dream and nightmare, between tragedy and comedy, or perhaps more specifically, satire. I find in this form some type of power whereby poetry grants the reader a new set of eyes to look at the usual, the banal, the tragic (from classrooms and dinners, war and natural disaster, to displacement and broken family) and to re-experience it, to acknowledge its presence and effect once again, and therefore to perhaps feel again how our indifference has shaped us into something we do not know, something with less possibilities.

Reem Abbas: These poems, I assume, were written somewhere in America, which is really to say that they were not written in Kuwait. This is intriguing because of the way in which you play with time in your work. Some poems exist in a time before time, or in an incomprehensible but fleetingly perceptible geological time, or, sometimes, we find ourselves in the now oozing, now congealing time of dreams. It leaves me with the impression of glimpsing into something transgressive yet deeply historically rooted.

I’m thinking of verses like, ‘Inside every tent/is a child who emerges/out of its mother’s desert and into another desert/and then another…’ (Cities Dying Every Day); ‘I part this ribcage open in my dream; I swim through it like a fish/drying its tears’ (Cigarette of Light); and, ‘Weeping vacates my house;/O!/How I miss diving in it’ (Cosmic Haemorrhage).

What does this time-bending quality of your poetry mean to you?

Mona Kareem: It took me many years to arrive at the observation you make here: the 'transgressive' nature both in the temporal and spatial in my poems. I started writing poetry at an early age, but also had gaps or silences, what people like to call 'writer’s block'. After being exiled in 2011, I spent years thinking I am no longer a poet. Or that I left that person somewhere else. I remember how much I resisted writing poems, and would push myself hard not to write, until the poem comes out helplessly like an unwanted presence your body ejects. Then I would ignore that poem in a notebook or in a file.

Exile disrupts all your senses, and it is a disruption you will not recover from. Your old world does not die or whither, it stays frozen and unattainable, your best shot is to glimpse at it through memories, and perhaps some writings that distill these memories in their flesh of feelings, sounds, movements, colors etc. but in addition to exile, and before exile, I was also always stateless. I think this fact somehow instilled an anxiety in me to create poems that cannot be pinned down on a map or even to a time. I took pleasure in hiding the landscapes of my life from the reader, instead creating new landscapes in the poem for me and them. I write about 'Asia' and 'Africa' and 'America' or 'Sumer' and 'Babylon', and this is the most specific you will find in my poems.

Being born in negation, then banished again into it, I sought bigger fabrics of belonging. Today, I try to challenge myself to achieve the same motion or approach but in the opposite direction, to use the specifics of here, with the hope of making alienation and estrangement my shared geography with the world.

Reem Abbas: There is the question of translation, to which you aren’t a stranger as a translator yourself, having also published widely on the subject such as your essay ‘Western Poets Kidnap Your Poems and Call Them Translations: On The Colonial Phenomenon of Rendition as Translation’ in Violent Phenomena (Tilted Axis Press, 2022).

In it you write that, ‘Thinking of translation as a service for the Third World poet, as an ‘easing’ into the colonial language, as a championing, a celebration, or an unearthing, should simply not be tolerated’ (p. 149).

Why do you choose to write poetry in only Arabic, as a fluent English speaker yourself? As such, why is it that you choose to work with Sara Elkamel—the foremost translator of your work, and whose translational and own-poetic work is undeniably excellent—for this book rather than translate your work yourself?

Mona Kareem: There are many poets who practice self-translation and some of them I love their work and how they work with the belief that self-translation also means you have unrestricted power to recreate the poem in ways another translator may not be permitted to. When I tried self-translation, I grew bored with it very quickly. It felt exhausting and burdensome. It was such a good metaphor for the émigré, always expected to offer double the labour.

This is when I began to write poetry in English, which I think of as an accident!

Sargon Boulus once talked about 'the madness of writing about America in Arabic'. It is something he struggled with for over four decades of exile. Almost every exiled writer, if they are fluent in the second language, would try to write in it, secretly or publicly. But I mention Sargon because I often feel there are poems, American poems perhaps, that I do not know how to write in Arabic, or why should Arabic care about! Accidentally, writing poems in English allowed me to re-enter Arabic and my poetry from a new door and I enjoy this perk greatly. I realize that writing poetry in English is a play space where I am once again a child poet who does not know what is possible or what is not, what is allowed or prohibited.

In this picture, Sara is a perfect translator. She grew up in an Arabic world, but writes poems in English, and translates from the Arabic. When you read her poetry, she is always playing on translation as an everyday mode, she inserts Egyptian Arabic in places where it does not belong, so it is born again as something that instantly captivates you. Today, I am convinced (but I often change my convictions) that there is something about poetry that makes it the genre of 'mother tongue', it is that umbilical cord you cannot sever, and in light of this conviction I am hoping to make of prose the genre of my second tongue.

Reem Abbas: Cosmic Haemorrhage is provocative, devastating, and revolutionary all at once. Congratulations on such a feat! There’s something to me that makes it feel like an epic poem, or a poem that evokes epic proportions even through its minimalist world-making. How does the poem fit in with (or not) and speak to (or not) contemporary Arabic poetry? What were your ambitions for it while writing it, and how has it lived up to them?

Mona Kareem: Thank you Reem. I hope that one day someone looks at this poem and tells us how it can be read in relation to Arabic poetry. I am flattered that you see in it both the minimalism and epicness, that is a combination we think of in contradiction, and therefore don’t feel tempted to approach. I was thinking of it as some type of dictionary for the cosmos, there are certain words that I repeat, like darkness, river, woman, body, and sin. Every year or so, I notice that there is a certain diction that runs through the veins of my poems again and again, and I only rid myself of it once I take a break from writing, meaning cut the veins open and bleed these words out.

While writing this poem, I wanted the words that were inhibiting me at the time to decorate various settings or be the protagonists in different plots. The poem came all at once in a burst, and I had to stop myself because I felt I was being ridiculous with the length. The key to the poem is really in the title, how to write the cosmos in a poem? How to imagine the poem as a cosmos? Impossible maybe, but my approach was to jump from one scene to another, one subjectivity to another, so when looking back, it may feel like taking a spin around the universe.

Reem Abbas: Finally, if you had to make a triptych of art pieces of three contemporary artists that most accurately encapsulate your work, what would they be?

Mona Kareem: I love this question! I would say, in no particular order: Saloua Raouda Choucair’s ‘Infinite Structures’ (1963), Mona Hatoum's ‘Roadworks’ (1985), and Jacob Lawrence's ‘Panel No. 33: Letters from Relatives in The North Told of The Better Life There’ (1940).

Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections. Her poetry has been translated into nine languages, and appeared (in English) in: POETRY, Poetry Northwest, Michigan Quarterly, Poetry London and Modern Poetry in Translation, among others. She is a recipient of a 2021 literary grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Kareem holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and works as an assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Washington University St. Louis. Her translations include Ashraf Fayadh’s Instructions Within (nominated for a BTBA award), Ra’ad Abdulqadir’s Except for this Unseen Thread, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Sara Elkamel is a poet, journalist and literary translator. Her debut chapbook, Field of No Justice, was published by the African Poetry Book Fund & Akashic Books in 2021, and her poems have appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. She holds an MA in arts journalism from Columbia University and an MFA in poetry from New York University.

Reem Abbas is a multilingual poet, poetry critic, and reviewer. She has published poems with PNR, PBRUM, ArabLit Quarterly, Wasafiri, and in the philosophy journal Crisis and Critique's special poetry issue. She was an Undertow poet at the Poetry Translation Centre (2021-22), and is writing her PhD on Basil Bunting’s Persian influences. You can find more of her work, written and read, at @reemtaktub on Instagram.

I Will Not Fold These Maps by Mona Kareem (tr. Sara Elkamel) comes out on 11 May.