André Naffis-Sahely on the Power of Time, Temporality, and Memory
Peter Mishler Talks to the Author of High Desert
In this next installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with André Naffis-Sahely. Naffis-Sahely is the author of two collections of poetry, The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin UK, 2017) and High Desert (Bloodaxe Books, 2022), as well as the editor of The Heart of a Stranger: An Anthology of Exile Literature (Pushkin Press, 2020). He also co-edited Mick Imlah: Selected Prose (Peter Lang, 2015) and The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (CB Editions, 2013).
He has translated over twenty titles of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Abdellatif Laâbi, Alessandro Spina, Ribka Sibhatu and Tahar Ben Jelloun. His writing appears regularly in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, The Baffler and Poetry (Chicago), among others. He is a Lecturer at the University of California, Davis in the US and the editor of Poetry London in the UK.
Peter Mishler: Could you talk a little bit about the kind of searching and sifting that took place in relation to your new collection? What barriers did you encounter? What pieces or fragments suddenly felt like they made sense together that you didn’t expect?
André Naffis-Sahely: Much of High Desert sees me behind the wheel of a car as I drive around the U.S. Southwest. In the UK, where I lived for twelve years, they say that “poets don’t drive,” but they do here in the U.S. and they write great poems about it, too. I learned to drive at the relatively late age of thirty, and that was what made High Desert possible. I drove down dirt roads to ghost towns, old mining camps, and attended ceremonies like the 101st anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation, during which 1,200 striking miners were deported by the town’s corrupt Sheriff.
This was back in 2018. I walked around Bisbee’s graveyard on a tour led by one of the few union men still left in that weird, copper town. It wasn’t long into the project, however, that I realized that I wanted to present my life and voice as only one among many.I’m always going to be an outsider wherever I go and maybe this is why poetry and travel have always been inseparable to me.
I was also looking for ways in which the reading and research I’d put into the book could be reflected in the actual narrative, and while I’d never produced any found poems before, I put together a sequence of found poems entitled “A People’s History of the West.” This was definitely one of the more unforeseen elements in the construction of the book.
The sequence employs the words of historical figures like Pablo Tac (1822–1841), the Payómkawichum (Luiseño) scholar, the African-American abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814–1904) who funded John Brown’s campaigns and the Underground Railroad using money she made in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, labor activists like Ricardo Flores Magón (1874–1922) and Art Shields (1888–1988), and writers like Louise Bryant (1885–1936) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980). I wanted the reader to see California’s—and the wider West’s—history through their eyes, not mine.
PM: Do you remember some of your first impressions upon arriving in California? And are these reflected in a particular poem you’d want to discuss?
ANS: Not long after I moved to the US in 2014, my wife and I left the mountains of upstate New York, where we’d been working on our first books, and we drove out west to look for work. I still remember when, after a week on the road, we crossed the Colorado River and started to see the arthritic Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert. There are many Californias, but that’s the one I fell in love with. It’s a landscape of sharp contrasts: prehistoric dry-lake beds used to break land speed records right next to disused mine shafts and old western sets, all set against fire-colored skies.
That’s what the title poem “High Desert” is all about: “There is no better backdrop / for the mirage / of permanent boom times than the desert, // a landscape, where despite claims to the contrary, / no town was too tough to die.” It’s about the problematic relationship between the environment and humanity; how out of synch we really are with our physical surroundings.
It’s also about the metaphor of the desert. It’s meant to be limbo, an utterly miserable place, where people are either put to the test or banished, the Land of Nod, east of Eden, where Cain was made to wander after murdering Abel. But it’s also a place of hope: you have to cross the desert to get to the Promised Land. I’ve lived in California for seven years now and I know that some Californians like to think of their state as particularly enlightened, especially in comparison to other parts of the U.S., and I also wanted High Desert to burst that bubble. Not that any of this was planned, in fact it was all a surprise.
While I always knew I would write a book of poems about my life in the United Arab Emirates, I never expected to find myself living in the US, let alone California. This is why I used a quote from a poem by Czesław Miłosz to preface one of the book’s sections: “I did not choose California, it was given to me.” High Desert was an unexpected book.
PM: And yet the opening section takes place in other cities, countries, whole continents, so I wonder how those poems communicate in relation to what you’ve described above about California and the West? How do you see these sections interacting with each other now that you have some distance from organizing the book?
ANS: You’re right, the poems in High Desert’s opening section are set just about everywhere: Italy, Mexico, Bangladesh, Greece, Russia, just some of the countries I’ve been lucky to visit over the years. The poem set aboard the Trans-Siberian Express was prompted by a journey I took in 2006 when I was still in college, but it took me almost 14 years to write about it, and then there’s a poem inspired by a long stay in Crete only two years ago, which I wrote in a single sitting not long before leaving the island.
On the other hand, the Californian poems had an entirely different genesis: they were all written during the Trump Presidency in Los Angeles—or other parts of the Southwest—between 2016 and 2020 and they all came to me at fairly regularly intervals, one after the other. It was a time when I was unable to travel freely as my green card application was held up for several years, and my inability to come and go as I pleased meant I decided to travel through history instead: the First Red Scare, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Asian Exclusion Acts, and the war against labor in southern California in the 1910s and 1920s.
There are more poems about California in High Desert than anywhere else, but despite my great love for this state, this is likely to be just another stop on the road for me. I hate “the cage called fatherland” as Wolfgang Koeppen put it, and I don’t think “motherlands” are any better, either. I’m always going to be an outsider wherever I go and maybe this is why poetry and travel have always been inseparable to me. One feeds the other.
As for how these sections interact, I would say that my poems are always looking for connections, geographic or otherwise. High Desert was partly inspired by the need to help dismantle various false narratives I’d come across in my research. The frontier myth tells us the West was a wasteland waiting to be conquered and harnessed by the protestant work ethic, and in fact it’s just as connected to the rest of the world socially and historically. When
I first got to California, I brought my cultural baggage with me as both a European and a Middle Easterner and the former—unsurprisingly—proved particularly problematic. There’s this hackneyed European idea of California as a sunny, plastic paradise where one can escape the old world’s troubles, “the land where the lemons grow” and all that, more Calafia than California. Outdated as it is, I think it’s still in force in many quarters.
Historically, I’m thinking of Christopher Isherwood, or the German exiles in the 1940s, like Mann, Brecht, and Schoenberg. They spent most of their time in the city complaining about its shortcoming and experiencing existential crises and as soon as the war was over, they went back to their beloved Europe, unchanged in the slightest. What a waste!
PM: I hear you mentioning temporality and this reconstructing or resurrecting of something lost in your answers to these questions—what poets have been guides for you in how to manage, deal with, confront, or address these subjects in your poems?
ANS: Two lifelong guides have been the Italian poet Cesare Pavese and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, poets I was lucky enough to read in their original languages, and in translation, too. I never fail to be impressed by the eloquence and elegance they bring to their stories of exile, the humility with which they look at the people around them, and their lifelong commitment to an engagé notion of the poem. In the Anglo-American tradition, Robert Lowell’s work still remains important to me.
While I’m fond of For the Union Dead (1964), History (1973) is the book that I keep going back to the most. It was one of the three books of sonnet sequences that Lowell published simultaneously that year—History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—and the least read of the three, quite naturally, given the scandalous manner in which Lowell sourced his material for the other two, and I think that’s fair, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything to learn from Lowell. The poems in For the Union Dead are a little too polished perhaps, while the diaristic sonnets of History—seen as chaotic and inchoate when they were first published—should be reinterpreted as presenting an open model for the poem that has actually proved quite influential ever since. Lowell’s influence can be felt in many contemporary American poets, particularly poets of color.
Just look at these lines: “History has to live with what was here, / clutching and close to fumbling all we had– / it is so dull and gruesome how we die, / unlike writing, life never finishes.” Another love of mine is the Californian bard Robinson Jeffers, whose stern, instructive rhetoric is certainly unfashionable today and perhaps that’s exactly why I read him. It’s a little unhealthy to doggedly chase the fashions of the day, particularly for a poet, who is meant to be in opposition to the norms of their times. Mary Ruefle’s work—and the unexpected turns she can take in a poem, always without warning—has really left its mark on me lately.
PM: I always ask this question in this series: Is there an image, moment, memory, fleeting sensation, story, anecdote from your childhood that you think presages the fact that you’d be making art, poems as an adult person?Aren’t we all interested in, or at least fascinated by, the notion—the possibility—of resurrection?
ANS: I come from Abu Dhabi, a city of temporary people and temporary buildings. When foreigners lose their jobs and they can’t find another one, they’re swiftly deported and their entire life simply vanishes. The same principle applies to its urban landscape. The ravaging forces of salt, sun, and sand can obliterate a building and grind it down to a stub, meaning structures are torn down and rebuilt at a pace that is almost impossible to keep up with. The Abu Dhabi of the 1990s and early 2000s that I knew is just gone, meaning there’s nothing for me to go back to. A particular experience stands out.
When I was in my early teens, my family paid an impromptu visit to a friend and his family. When we pulled up outside their house, we saw that their front door had been left wide open and a pair of shoes could be seen sitting right in the middle of the threshold, as if one of them had suddenly been teleported away. There were toys scattered all over the lawn and the house looked as if it had been burgled. We later learned that they’d been having financial difficulties, and in a country where debtors go to prison, they’d decided to run away in the middle of the night, and we never heard from them again. It was almost as if they’d never existed. They weren’t the only ones.
Now and again, we’d hear of cars left behind in airport parking lots with their keys still lodged in the ignition, homes abandoned while still filled with their tenants’ belongings, children plucked out of school halfway through term for “family emergencies” who never returned. I wrote my first collection, The Promised Land, partly in order to prove that temporary people like us had been there in the first place and that it wouldn’t be so easy to simply write us out of history.
PM: Speaking a little bit Jeffers’ poetics and the language of today—this made me think to ask you about your integration of various dictional registers in your poems—what are your thoughts on how various languages—across times and places—either find harmony or clash with each other in this new book?
ANS: A friend of mine recently translated “The Other Side of Nowhere,” one of the poems from High Desert into Italian, and although I’ve been translated into various languages, Italian hasn’t been one of them. It was interesting to see that the poem sounded fairly natural in Italian and in a sense it’s unsurprising given that it’s one of my mother tongues and it’s likely helped shape my dictional registers.
All of that is unconscious, of course. A critic recently called attention to that poem in a review and said I wrote it about my “native Italy.” In actual fact, Italy is probably one of the countries I know the least and I’ve never spent much time there. I think North African French and Khaleeji Arabic have left their mark and that’s to be expected given the amount of time I’ve spent in those parts of the world. Eventually I’d like to make my poems more openly macaronic and really bring these influences closer to the surface.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
ANS: That it’s the archaeology of memory. At least it tries to be. In his preface to an anthology of historical poetry called The Ruins of Time (Eland Publishing, 2006), Anthony Thwaite (1930–2021) said that “an archaeological dig and writing a poem have a lot in common.
Both are searches for meaning, sifting through material that isn’t always certain and stable, apt to disintegrate.” I think that’s exactly right. At its best, poetry can glimpse through the fog of consciousness we call memory, recapture the most remote details and resurrect them, extending their temporary existence.
Aren’t we all interested in, or at least fascinated by, the notion—the possibility—of resurrection, of restoring a moment in time, a person, an era, back to life, if only for a moment? Our entire civilization seems to be predicated on that desire. Of course, memory is famously deceptive and capricious, subject to external forces outside of its control, but in the ablest of hands it is a tool that can work wonders, not unlike a shovel placed in just the right spot.
High Desert by André Naffis-Sahely is available from Bloodaxe Books.