“Art Can Do That”: Seven Questions for Philip Metres

Philip Metres was born July 4th, 1970 in San Diego, and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Holy Cross College in 1992, then went on to receive a Ph.D. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University. He is now a professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland, teaching literature and creative writing. Metres has written and translated a number of books and chapbooks, including Pictures at an Exhibition(2016), Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Poetic Texts of Lev Rubinstein (2014), Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), Ode to Oil (2011), To See the Earth (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (2007),  Instants (2006), Primer for Non-Native Speakers (2004), Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (2004), and A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2003).

He has received two NEA fellowships, two Arab American Book Awards, the Lannon Literary Fellowship, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, the Beatrice Hawley Award, the Akron Poetry Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and the inaugural George W. Hunt, S.J. Award for Excellence in Journalism, Literature & the Arts.

Metres originally caught my attention with his poem Ashberries: Letters, which appeared in Best American Poetry 2002, which was inspired by his travels to Moscow on the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. As I read more of his work I became intrigued with his passion for the power of poetry and the arts, which can positively affect our society and help us listen to the world around us.

Marie Ostrand: As someone trying to unify two polarized groups, what do you find is the hardest part in finding a middle ground between the voices in America and the voices in the Middle east?

Philip Metres: It’s true that my work as a poet, teacher, scholar, and citizen has been centrally concerned with peacemaking. the capacities of what John Paul Lederach calls “the moral imagination”: empathy, curiosity, creativity, and courage. Exercising our moral imaginations is central to finding the path to peace, and the path of peace. I hope that my poems exercise the moral imagination of the reader (and of myself), as an artistic labor in making a more just and peaceful world, alongside my work as a teacher and citizen. You may also be referring to my course called “Israeli and Palestinian Literatures,” which has a prominent place on my website. That course is an attempt to cultivate in students the moral imagination through exploring the complex story of Israel/Palestine by examining histories and narratives (novels, stories and poems, and films). The course requires students to wrestle with the complex ways in which writers, historians, politicians, and activists tell the story of the peoples and the lands that they co-inhabit. Despite the relative smallness of the place, because of the historical and religious importance of what some call The Holy Land, Israel/Palestine is at the center of our global conversation of how we belong, and the borders (both psychological and actual) that separate us.

By the way, I’m not interested in “unifying” polarized groups, nor in “finding a middle ground,” though perhaps at one point in my life, I thought that this was my job. It may well be the job of a mediator to do so. I cannot “solve” the conflict or colonialism of Israel-Palestine, but my job as an artist is simply to create works that imagine everyone as part of the web of human being, in which we all belong, and to witness to the tragedy of injustice and oppression. As a teacher, my job is to help my students learn as fully as they can to exercise the moral imagination in their attempts to understand the realities and narratives of Palestinians and Israelis, and then to discern what that means for them (for my students) what that might mean for their decisions as citizens and fellow humans.

MO: Having the knowledge you have of both sides, what do you think each is missing most that prevents a subtle harmony throughout humanity from being created?

PM: Peace, or harmony as you call it here, requires a situation of justice and rights to be in place. (I happen to direct the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program, whose name puts it all in there). Peace cannot exist without justice, without rights. For Israelis, peace would mean security. For Palestinians, peace would mean justice and restoration of full rights as human beings. I think that each side is locked in a traumatized and traumatizing narrative about themselves and the other, in which each perceives himself to be the victim of the other. On the level of politics, there is no trust between the political leaders. People, in general, are more ready for peace than their leaders, who often exploit the fears of the populace to retain power. There is also the question of the radical asymmetry of power between Israel as a state and Palestinians as a stateless people.

MO: Do you believe media has helped support your cause and beliefs, or further polarize groups from unifying?

PM: If you mean U.S. mass media journalism, I would say that in general, it has contributed to and even benefited from conflict. The old saying is: “if it bleeds, it leads.” U.S. media and politicians benefit from the status quo of low-intensity violence. It draws eyeballs and confirms people in their suspicions that the conflict is intractable and the enemy is bloodthirsty. However, there also exists now a robust alternative media, where people can get news from other sources, even from everyday citizens. The enemy is just a hurt person whose story is different from yours. We need to scratch beneath the surface of these stories, into the narratives that shape reality. Art can do that.

MO: What made you so passionate to speak on behalf of the Middle-East at a time when America wasn’t all that interested in listening?

PM: As an Arab American, I feel a duty to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak. I can’t be their voice, of course, but I can mark their voices, which is what I was doing in Sand Opera, particularly for those Iraqis who were abused by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison, or taken to secret prisons around the world, or simply harmed or exiled by wars. I can’t make my fellow citizens listen, but I can stand with those who have been silenced, whose voices are ground under by the noise of our imperial self-referentiality (even how we talk about the tragedy of wars leaves out the enemy—from Vietnam to Iraq, our conversation is remarkably dehumanizing).

MO: Do you feel that the use of poetry and creative writing helps reach people better as it may touch on some emotional and creative side that makes them more willing to listen?

PM: Absolutely. As humans, we are more than rational beings; we are creatures with deep emotions, instincts, and curiosity. We seek to make meaning of the chaos of reality. Poetry—indeed, all the arts—can be a technology of meaning-making, of the moral imagination. I’ve staked my life on that belief and work.

MO: Did your travels to Russia during the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship help enlighten capability for all humanity to come together, or was it something you had always believed? If not traveling to Russia, what is it that brought you this aspiration?

PM: I went to Russia after college on a fellowship to study “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” partly because I wanted to learn about Russia (the so-called “Evil Empire”) and its legendary poets, but partly because I wanted to learn how to be a poet myself. I resisted Reagan’s idea that a whole people could be evil, and wanted to learn more about the fascinating Russian culture. I’ve written a memoir about that year living in Russia, and essays from that book exist all over the web now. (I’m currently circulating the book). But I grew up knowing that the world was bigger than America’s idea of it; my parents were cosmopolitan in spirit, having traveled a lot outside the country. Also, as a person of Catholic faith, I believed that all of us are fundamentally part of the same human family, that nationality was a way to divide people.

MO: With so many different opinions out there, and new things happening every day that may take attention away from your cause, what lasting message do you want to leave your audience with so that they may become more involved?  

PM: I’m most interested in the double movement that writing provides. On the one hand, it helps us ground ourselves in ourselves, into our inmost being. I feel that it can be a kind of contemplation, a kind of prayer. At the same time, it can open us to the world outside ourselves, flinging the doors of our awareness open to the mystery of creation at its largest. As a writer and reader, I long for being opened in both these ways, to be changed, to be awakened, and, ideally, to live differently as a result. To live as if peace were possible.

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