“I feel most at home when I am writing a poem—because in that instant, I am everywhere.”
Winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles National Book Award and the Menada Literary Award, as well as an honored finalist for the 2009 Gift of Freedom Award, Nathalie Handal is a poet, playwright and writer with a traveler’s heart.
Born to Palestinian parents from Bethlehem, Handal has lived what she playfully shrugs off as a transient life. Her verse draws from her experiences in multiple countries including France, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the United States, Latin America and the Middle East. “I don’t have a mother tongue. I grew up speaking many languages, and these different languages have slipped into my English. My English is cross-fertilized with French, Spanish, Arabic, Creole….I love the idea of a bridge of words, a bridge of poems connecting us….showing us what it’s like to be human,” explains Handal.
In her newest book, Love and Strange Horses, Nathalie Handal uses verse to explore one of the most deeply human and universal emotional longings—to be known and loved.
"When I realized I was writing love poems," recalls Handal, "I wanted to explore what Octavio Paz wrote, 'There is a question that all lovers ask each other, and in it the erotic mystery is epitomized: Who are you? A question without an answer…the senses are and are not of this world.'"
"I divided Love and Strange Horses into what I call the three movements of the heart: intima or belonging, elegia erotic; and terre musica, or a return to nature, to the spirit.”
Apart from writing poetry, Handal works to give unknown poets around the world a public voice. In The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, Handal helped collect the works of notable Arab women poets in an effort to provide an introduction to their work and "eradicate their invisibility." Handal is also co-editor of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond which was named "a landmark anthology, providing the most ambitious, far-reaching collection of contemporary Asian and Middle Eastern poetry available."
Handal has been awarded numerous international prizes including an honorable mention for Love and Strange Horses at the San Francisco Book Festival and has appeared on PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR Radio and has been featured in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, among other distinguished journals. She has given readings worldwide, and teaches and lectures nationally and internationally. This winter 2010/2011 she will be Picador Guest Professor at Leipzig University in Germany. Handal writes a blog-column, The City and The Writer, for Words without Borders magazine.
He takes his fedora off
or is it a panama?
He speaks in French
or is it Spanish?
He saves the air
in the middle of his throat
or is it a small message?
WRR: When did you first start writing?
Handal: My mother says that I started telling stories when I was three years old. I was not conscious of it growing up, but these stories became a way to confirm to myself that I belonged somewhere—on the page, among the ruins of words—since I have lived a transient life and no one could define exactly where I was from.
WRR: How did your family react to your desire to write?
Handal: They have always been very supportive but I still don’t think they completely understand my life. About two years ago my mother stopped asking me when I was going to "start my life." By that she meant, be stable, stay in one place (even if her own life has been one of dislocation). I remind her of what Wuer Kaixi said when paraphrasing another famous exile, "We may have gained the sky, but we lost the earth."
WRR: You have lived in several places including France, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the United States and Palestine. How do you identify your nationality? Where do you feel most at home?
Handal: I long for different landscapes all the time, different music and people. If I think about it too much, I will disappear under dark water. Instead, I try to master the art of drowning in that void, that grief, that song beating deep, before it makes me deaf and blinds me from the pages I inhabit.
I don’t know if I left the window open,
or the electric fireplace on,
not sure if my name is Natalya or Navarro,
but I vaguely remember
someone calling me by one of those names.
No one found the book
Octavio Paz dedicated to me
or the notes I wrote about
the streets of Mexico City
and the person I once was
three blocks away from the taqueria.
Who can explain intermissions–
they come to your life
without warning and all you can do
is wait until it’s time to start again.
Meanwhile, I feel the heat burning
on the tip of my hip–
a feeling shivering electric
on the flesh, the fever of what
I no longer know.
WRR: You’ve said before that you were greatly influenced by Irish authors. Who and why?
Handal: Irish writers have always taken me to the cadence of the earth, their spirit, the music in their language, their wit, humor, irony and song inspire me. To list a few, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney, and I love the novelist Roddy Doyle. Also, James Joyce, of course. I often go back to his words, "Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves."
WRR: Your newest book is a collection of poems about love. Was there a particular circumstance that made you think to yourself, "There aren’t enough love poems in the world."
Handal: These poems unfolded as a result of my need to dive inward to a place that I think still grows hope. I moved back to the United States after almost a decade in France and England. Unfortunately, I returned shortly after 9/11. During that time, the negative stereotypes in the media and the backlashes against anyone "Eastern" was difficult to witness. My work during that time was more political in that it posed questions about my American identity and about living in a country that was in a war that I was against. By 2006, I needed to travel elsewhere, to go far away inside of myself. So I did, but where I went to was just as unsettling—the heart is no less turbulent.
The Unnatural Apologies of Shadows
We say lightning has no wings
when it slides down our houses
We say loss is just a condition
we acquire to bury our pity further
We say the bleeding hands
on the table filled with red wine
imported products and passports
are just a reminder of
who we have become
We have no titles no birthright
no groves or Shakespeare
to return to
We apologize for fear
growing out of our ribs
Apologize for the numbers
still etched on our tongues
Love and Strange Horses--Elegia Erotica
A horse. A stranger. An Anthem. An impossible thereafter.
A lonely rift. A grove of trees. A touch. A cry. A murmur.
In what hours do lovers arrive?
In what hour did mine arrive?
How deep must he be touched to enter?
How deep must he enter to touch?
My lips. Body. Flesh. The curve of my neck.
Come on my flag. On my name. On the tip of my voice.
Horse. Stranger. Anthem.
This love is behind us. Between us. In front of us.
This is the bed. Sheets. Table. This is the room, empty.
Or is this now, an elegy to strange horses,
an erotica slipping into a body of questions.
WRR: You say that love in poetry has disappeared. Can you expand on that?
Handal: Ed Ochester, Editor of University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series, told me that he thought the poems in Love and Strange Horses echo early Dylan Thomas, the Romantics, and that I am the daughter of the Spanish surrealists. Then he added that there are not many love poems in the work of the best-known American contemporary poets.
I suppose it’s a reflection of today’s society. We use another language, another vocabulary, different images when we write about love. Maybe there are more love poems than we think, we just don’t identify them as such.
WRR: In your poetry you sometimes mention Jesus or Muhammad. How would you say religion plays into your writing, culture, and life?
Handal: I am not religious but I believe in what is divine inside of us. In the energy that circles us. And if we allow ourselves to acknowledge it, trust it, then we come into communion with god—however we may define god.
WRR: Before Love and Strange Horses you worked on a Norton anthology of "contemporary poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and beyond," called Language for a New Century. What was your favorite part in working on the anthology?
Handal: There were many…The journey I shared with my amazing co-editors and continue to share. Discovering voices and places I did not know, reading beyond my comfort zone, allowing myself to feel uncomfortable, allowing myself to expand, to be surprised when the poems I did not originally like became profound moments of awareness and discovery. Understand that we need to translate more, know more, separate less, unite, and that art is a unifying force. Understanding that we are closer than we imagine, farther than we imagine, and in that in-between we should build passageways to each other.
The Hawk Quartet
You greet me only with your eyes.
That evening you write to me
on a starless night,
I imagine my response–
I never write back.
Years later, we meet. We try
to say something but don’t.
One month later, you drown yourself
in a tunnel of red.
Another year passes.
While on a train,
the sky hiding please,
I share a seat with a man you loved,
between us a crack, beside us a window of hard tears
and for a second, I hear the roar you hid under the chair.
Months later, sheets of paper,
like a limping movement, slip from the table
slowly to the cement floor.
I pick one up and there I find your note,
Your final line,
I follow birds that either migrate or prey. And you?
I sit to write but find nothing–
like a hawk unable to find its quartet
even in his stink–
only loneliness can understand.
WRR: How has writing poetry changed your life? And how do your past experiences feed into your poetry?
Handal: Displacement has made it impossible for me not to see the world, its glory and savagery. When you see a barefooted child, dry-mouthed and with eyes falling like a jar about to collapse into a thousand pieces, looking for water, a name, a smile reflecting, you can’t help but pay attention. Witnessing such images growing up made me attentive of the small things, the small moments, which I feel are more important and more informative than we often realize. That said, there are times I wish I did not carry certain images in my mind and memory. My poems recount what I can’t to myself—silence collapsing into non-silence.
WRR: Every poet has his or her own style and approach to writing. What is yours like?
Handal: I love mornings, waking up at 6 a.m. and writing all day.
I go everywhere with a notebook. Although I am usually very organized, my words and sentences are scattered. That chaos is comforting. It’s another discovery.
I am continuously writing in my mind. And my absolute favorite and most productive place to write is in my apartment.
WRR: Do you have any suggestions for people interested in writing and publishing poetry?
Handal: Read voraciously, from all genres and styles. Write, and don’t think about publishing. When your work is ready to be published, you will know what route to take.
This is Kaitlyn Seay’s First Byline for Wild River Review. WRR's First Bylines program provides beginning writers with an internationally recognized platform as well as editorial guidance and online publishing education for their professional growth.
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Handal’s written works include The NeverField and The Lives of Rain, the poetry CDs Traveling Rooms and Spell, and, of course, her newist book Love and Strange Horses.
Visit Nathalie Handal’s Website here: http://nathaliehandal.com/index.htm
Love and Strange Horses; University of Pittsburg Press: http://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36094
"Pendule," "Intermisión," "The Unnatural Apologies of Shadows," "Love and Strange Horses--Elegía Erótica," and "The Hawk Quartet" are from_ Love and Strange Horses_, by Nathalie Handal, © 2010. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.