The Engine of Myself: Interview with Poet Hala Alyan
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Of the many lines which have stayed with me after reading Hala Alyan’s book The 29th Year, one of my favorites is, “I have held the engine of myself against my own ear and, dear miracle, I recognized the song.” Perhaps because I’m currently twenty-nine, I found Hala’s acts of reflection so honest and piercing that the book lies on my table like a footprint in the earth. Like something has passed through here, heavy and fast.
In some ways, every poem made after (during) survival is about survival, whether this truth is spoken directly or as undercurrent. The 29th Year does a little of both while Hala traces the mosaic of her identity and how it’s shelled her experience of remaining brilliantly alive, despite the world and despite her own actions.
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This book follows up the 2017 release of Salt Houses, a novel which narrates a middle-class Palestinian family, one generation after another, and as they migrate across countries. That novel was widely acclaimed and included in the Best of 2017 list compiled by NPR.
The 29th Year, which came out in early 2019, similarly engages what it means to be Palestinian, but also Woman, Wife, Dreamer, Fighter, Drinker, plus so much more. This parapet of poems introspects backwards from the point of transition between emerging adulthood and the full unalloyed thing. Simultaneously, much of the collection is devoted to registering the timeline of getting sober, shaped like a metal spring, with all its behavioral switchbacks.
Another piece of language from The 29th Year that stays with me is “How a wound becomes a heart.” The collection represents a thrilling extension to the poetics of recovery, and the relationship between them and The Twelve Steps. There are many parts of this conversation I want to tattoo on the inside of my eyelids to reread every night.
I’m still thinking about intention ever since I did a workshop with Vincent Toro last summer at DreamYard in the Bronx. Can you tell me some of the important intentions of your new book?
Wait, did you say intention or tension?
IN-tention [laughs]. Although we can talk about tension if you want.
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[Laughs] Oh, IN-tention. The Twenty-Ninth Year was driven by experience, and particularly a concentrated time when I started feeling a lot of essential crises about where I was in my life. I was finishing my training to be a psychologist and I was sort of entering the world in a number of ways. This all happened in my 29th year, literally.
For several months I was having a lot of vivid and intense dreams and feeling almost assaulted by memory. It felt like my mind was cycling back. On a physiological level, I had so much cortisol--that’s the unromantic explanation. I was in a state of panic. But then being a poet [laughs] I was like, what’s the story here? I did a lot of excavation and a lot of organizing and re-ordering of my understanding of who I was and how I got here.
So there was tension too. I can never tell these stories accurately because I’m always going to be editorializing. In the end the collection was a surrendering to that, being like, “Ok, I can’t know for sure what was accurate, so I have to tell it the way I’m experiencing it right now.” The intention was setting that record. I’m the type of person who is programmed to resist. To resist things that are difficult. To resist comfort. This was the first time I had a lot of practice at accepting.
Let’s talk about addiction. Lately, I’ve been seeing things through the lenses of social work and public health so I’m going to approach this question from those places, but I think this approach will open up more tactile conversation. What are some risk factors for addiction that are unique to Palestinians, of course, acknowledging experience varies across diaspora and due to other social variables?
I speak from diasporic experience. I don’t think there is much research about this, so I’ll speak intuitively and from having conversations with people. There is a sense of dislocation and missing something that feels crucial and then filling the loss with whatever you have at your disposal. That could lead people to seek forms of self-soothing that aren’t ideal. I also believe when you belong to an identity that is marginalized and subjected to both literal and rhetorical annihilation you kind of internalize that. You learn to annihilate yourself.
There’s a line from “Call Me Prayer,” “In the exile’s suitcase, a carpet of dead grass. Seven persimmons. A dandelion stem skinny as a grenade pin.”
I can remember parts of your book where imagery of war was imprinted into descriptions of emotion. I think about that, hearing what you just said about annihilation, and wonder if there is a connection.
It’s tough to talk about collectively because it’s the least intentional and the least premeditated connection, but instead one we are most driven by experientially and needing to capture that and put it into language. But one hundred percent afterward when I was reflecting and editing my manuscript. Through more and more conflict and more and more dislocation that becomes your city, your day-to-day. And it makes sense addiction would come from that.
A similar question...in the experience of being a woman in this world, what are some of the risk factors for addiction?
The answer is similar to the previous position of being Palestinian. Womanhood is an identity that comes with trying to be controlled, trying to be made as small as possible. There’s vitriol, hatred, and violence. Again, I don’t think it’s a long walk from receiving violence from others to committing violence towards the self.
I’ve always thought of addiction as a violent act that people endure and live through. So it's a similar thing.
What your book does well and thoroughly is chart the lines between womanhood, violence, addiction, marriage, the major points of the web, but also the small ones that fill everything in.
Thank you so much for saying that. I struggle with this writing sometimes but experientially and existentially I don’t know how to move through the world without one of those identities missing or not present.
In reading this book I thought about the people in recovery who are already poets or who want to be poets. For you, how did The Twelve Steps lend to the writing process or producing the poems. Or--and I will throw this question out there in a different way and you can navigate either however you want--how are The Twelve Steps already poetry, in terms of what they ask you to produce?
Oh, I love that. Beautiful. First, a disclaimer. I did not get sober through AA. I isolated myself and didn’t turn to anyone for support. I now look back at it as a violence I inflicted upon myself in my own way. I would do it differently now and look for community. By myself I looked up the steps and interpreted them. I’m not advocating that, but it’s just what I did. Later I thought about the Steps as I was writing the book and going through the intense period of tumultuousness, suffering, anxiety... I asked myself, “Well how did you move through the world when you were getting sober?” The taking stock of what you have. Thinking about what decisions or missteps got you here, retracing them, questioning how we can make amends.
The steps can be useful when we think about poetry and poetic device in that there is a certain surrender that comes from making art. There is a certain amends-making that comes from making art. Again you sit down with what you have, you take stock of it, you make sense of it, then you try to create some sort of meaning out of it. I think there’s definitely a simpatico there.
I personally had a similar recovery in the sense...just as in addiction, then in recovery, I did a lot of it in isolation--
Yes, I know what you mean--
So I feel that. There is a spectrum of AA practitioners, with more orthodox folks on one end who believe there is a clear right and wrong way, and then on the other end, people who say, “You can take what you want and leave the rest.”
For a while, I also didn’t find traction with AA and The Twelve Steps. It wasn’t for me. But the more I go now I start to feel that regardless if you subscribe to it medically, culturally it’s wicked important to recovery culture--
Unless you’re in a cave and you never read anything related to recovery, you’re gonna absorb a bit of it. It’s inevitably in the air.
It’s so out there. Do you remember when you were getting sober, did you rely on some of the tenets and ideas?
The first meeting I ever went to, when I was 19, I remember hearing a speaker say, “Just keep the plug in the jug,” meaning, no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad it gets, if you remain sober at least you have that. Things would only be that much worse if you’re using. I’ve clung to this throughout sobriety.
For a while I didn’t like AA, because I didn’t know how to navigate the spiritual component. But nowadays the more I go to meetings I’m appreciating the little sayings, and appreciating The Twelve Steps as cultural objects you can find healing through, and less like medical instruments.
Like less instructional and more metaphorical. I love that.
Although, some folks believe in rigorously adhering to the Steps as they’re written in the Big Book and I want to acknowledge how this approach is valid for them. Well...with all that being said, want to look at some of your 12-Step poems?
In your poem “Step One: Admit Powerlessnes,” it seemed like you were drawing a line between two types of powerlessness, the kind that can happen during sexual violence, and then the admission of an inability to control drinking. Again, maybe I’m just thinking like an epidemiologist, but within this poem are there multiple types of powerlessness being associated across time?
Yes, and it’s not just powerlessness in terms of sexual violence. At the end of the day, we are powerless in the face of everything we’ve experienced. That does not mean we can’t take back some power in the telling. I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between pain and suffering lately. Pain is what happens to us that is nonnegotiable and suffering is what we do with that pain--
So positioning the pain is what makes us suffer. It’s been on my mind a lot. Whether it’s trauma or addiction it took me a long time to get the powerlessness thing, but in both cases it was the first step towards walking through it and being liberated and being able to tell a different story. So definitely in that poem there is the tension between the two.
I feel the ending lines resonate with what you said, “Through the bar window a lightbulb exploded like a white tusk and when the sun finally rose I believed in a different god.”
You’re different once you go through it. You’re different when you go through anything big and transformative. There can be a morning, but it’s not always a pleasant or easy process.
Alright, howabout “Step Two: Higher Power”? There is the line, “I guess you could say I love the city like I love prickly pears, which is to say not very much, only when I’m starving.” Perhaps I’m projecting because the higher power portion of The Twelve Steps wasn’t something that came easily to me, but the poem seems to be saying, “Alright, I’m not all in on this, but I will accept it right now out of necessity.”--
I don’t have a choice. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There’s also the line, “This is how a year passes, with hundreds of lies, like that midnight walk in the French countryside dark, my sister giggling nervously, no streetlamp for miles. One footstep after the other, and the only way out ahead.” I’ve considered different interpretations of this. Was faith something you were lying to yourself about in order to help you survive?
It’s less about disbelief in faith...There’s a quote I really like, “Trust in god but always tie up your camel.” I have never resonated with the idea you just 100% lay down and give it all over. What I like about the quote is...you can have faith, but do your part. That idea of me walking with my sister at night, having faith the ground wasn’t going to open up and swallow us. We will reach the place we need to go. Faith is deeply important. Even if people don’t put faith in God or a higher power, that’s fine, but having faith in something, even if it’s just yourself, or having faith in other people, or having faith in time. That stuff is so crucial, because that’s what keeps people moving when there’s no indicator that there’s a way out.
I feel like I want to say “Wow” every time you answer my questions. Let’s move on to your poem “Step Four: Moral Inventory.” It made me think...all contexts aside, there’s nothing evil with wanting to be beautiful. Of course, it’s wrong to hurt people and it’s unhealthy to hurt ourselves and we shouldn’t necessarily excuse the hurtful actions which might stem from the feeling. But the feeling itself is forgivable.
Totally. Wanting things, to be beautiful, to be young, there’s shame attached to it. So being able to own that, and acknowledge that side of yourself that hungers and longs. It’s the same thing with addiction. Being able to look your hunger in the eye is an important step in terms of entering that conversation with yourself, where desire can be negotiated.
So “Step Eight: Make Amends ”...Making amends is a process in The Twelve Steps, but the poem for me also spoke outside that. It made me think of how women are pressured to apologize for things, and for taking up space.
This poem connects to your interpretation of the earlier one...about having to apologize for wanting, having to apologize for loving, to apologize for eating. Then there is the question...how much is making amends coming from a place that is genuine, versus you’re doing what you’re trained to do? At what point is amends-making another act of violence or self-hatred? This goes back to your first question, about intention. What is the intention behind a behavior? That explains a lot of why we’re doing what we’re doing. There are some amends, quote unquote “apologies” I’ve done because I felt like I was supposed to, not necessarily because I needed to.
You’re a practicing clinical psychologist. This is wholeheartedly a book of literature and I couldn’t detect much of your day job in there, at least not explicitly. I wonder how it might be showing up as an undercurrent. Does the overlap of these two lives appear in your book?
If there was overlap it wasn’t consciously put here or there like an easter egg. Psychology has taught me to ask better questions, and to be on the lookout for patterns, including false ones, like the false stories we tell ourselves and believe. The book was a work of excavation, or making sense of things, so my background in psychology might have helped in the style of inquiry.
The book spans the globe, sometimes on a line-by-line basis, a piece from one landscape stitched to another. “Highway 17 in Texas; we stop to watch buzzards / supping on roadkill porcupine. The mountains are a Persian rug of emerald and brown, wolfish clouds / gathering rain,” is a line from the poem “The Temperance (XIV) Card,”
I find your book to be double-headed to the extent it’s focused inwards while at the same time lush with observations.
I think of myself and my identity as disparate depending on where I was. I moved and traveled. I was a different person in different places. When I revisit the phases of childhood and adolescence, or college years, with that comes revisiting Beirut, and Oklahoma, revisiting all these different places. My mind drags along with it all the significant places I’ve been to.
There are many poems in the book addressed to a “you.” That “you” is constantly changing, from a husband, to an ex-lover, a friend, an enemy, or even the reader. Because it’s a poem, you’re writing it alone, sitting at a table, thinking about what the poem means to you. But it’s like the letters written to someone else are in a small way written to yourself.
Even the poem, “Dear Layal,” That’s my cousin. It’s also a letter to myself and the ways I intersect with my cousin. Or things I wish I’d said before. Even if on the surface it’s directed towards her, it’s an exercise taking place internally. Once it’s out in the world people can read it. But until that happens the process of making belongs only to the writer.
Well...we’ve reached the end. What’s going on for you in terms of writing right now?
Poetry-wise, I’m sort of lying low. I’ve been working on a series of poems based on choose your adventure books, where the reader gets to be involved in the process. That’s been fun. In terms of fiction, I have a second novel coming out with Houghton Mifflin in the next year or so.