Mikaila Hanman Siegersma interviews Omar Sakr
Omar Sakr is an Arab Australian poet whose work has been published in English, Arabic, and Spanish. His most recent poems can be found in Griffith Review, Wildness, Overland, Peril, Island, Cordite Poetry Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Circulo de Poesía, Antic, and Meanjin, among others. As well as placing runner-up in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize (2015), he has been anthologised in Best Australian Poems 2016 and Contemporary Australian Poems. Omar’s debut collection These Wild Houses is out now. He lives in Melbourne, where he is the poetry editor of The Lifted Brow.
Poet and radio producer, Mikaila Hanman Siegersma interviews Omar Sakr about his first poetry collection These Wild Houses, what community means to him, the importance of mentorship and being damn proud about your successes.
Mikaila Hanman Siegersma: Congratulations on your recently published collection These Wild Houses through Cordite Books. Can you tell me what the title means to you, and how you came to name the collection?
Omar Sakr: These Wild Houses refers to our bodies, to a sense of being ungovernable, and as well, to the poems themselves. There is a roughness, a not-quite-rightness to them, and threads that tie them together into a coherent structure, sure, but almost by accident, like the sprawl of a Western Sydney suburb. It’s unkempt and messy and surprising, painful yes, but with a grace all its own. Or so I hope.
MHS: I’d also love to know how you ordered the poems; you have sections ‘Ahlan’, ‘The Living and Singing Rooms’, ‘The In-Between Place’, ‘The Laundry’ and ‘The Wide Open’ in which you placed different poems. Could you tell me whether you’ve ordered them conceptually or chronologically, or some other way?
OS: It was conceptual, not chronological, but that’s about as much as I can say about it. Ordering the poems was, in a sense, much like writing a poem. Which is to say that while in the act, it made a perfect kind of sense. That perfect knowing, however, fades afterward. We’re not built to contain it. This is why when writers are asked questions like this, we hedge. We um and aw and build a rationale around it post-fact so we don’t sound completely crazy or like we don’t know what we’re doing. Well, I’m pretty okay with both of those things, so I’ll just leave it at that.
MHS: I am interested in the way you articulate desire in your poems, how queerness, race, places, people and bodies–– HOME is (are) returned to in different ways. I thought about this when rereading your poem, ‘A Communal Wish’:
“[…] our sins calcified / into teeth, an internal inflation system / we carry with us, distributing sediment / and old pains. In this way, bodies / contain echoes from their old form, / distance aches, twinges, remembered / fucks. […] If only we could / stuff countries up in here, soiled / cities and resorts, and iron out / the ugliness stitching flags together.”
What is your relationship to the confessional in your poetry?
OS: Confession is a loaded word in poetry, often used to implicitly discredit the art involved. It’s “raw”, “honest”, “powerful”, “authentic”, etc. I think it’s strange that the idea of autobiography has for so long been spurned as anti-art. Not all documentaries are made the same, for example. Some are garbage. Some are artful. Likewise, not all confessions are raw, first-thought, first-written, and this is especially true: not all confessions are real.
When I was a kid, we had three shower glass panels in our bathroom. One morning my mother woke up and saw someone had written in the faded condensation ‘Fuck you’ in huge looping letters. She was livid. I remember she made my brother, my sister, and I kneel in the living room as she paced in front of us muttering, “fuck me? fuck me?? I’ll fucking show you fuck me.”
She had a thick leather Chanel belt with a gold buckle. My brother was at the front of our line. She said, did you do it? He said no, and the belt whistled in the air, and the buckle bit into his thigh and he screamed like a girl. She asked my sister, did you do it? She said no, and received her own purple stripe. On like this. Did you do it did you do it did you do it. No, no, no. Scream, scream, scream. Eventually, my sister broke. She said she did it, and my mum dragged her off to her room, where the screams continued. What haunts me is not the beating, but the memory of my fingers tracing the letters into the glass. I still don’t know for sure if I did, or if I imagined it later and that’s what I’m remembering now. It has the fuzziness of dream, but time can do that, too. I think it likely I did it, and I think it likely the power of my sister’s false confession spared us.
Anything you remember you have also misremembered, and anything you work over, you edit, even a guilty speech to a priest, you turn into something else—not truth, but something resembling it.
MHS: I heard recently that you received a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on a novel. Congrats, I’m really excited to see what will come out of that for you. You’re such a multi-tasker; poet, essayist, poetry editor for The Lifted Brow, and now potential novelist (and probably many more ‘occupations’ that are not on this list). Could you tell me whether each of these practices inform the other, and how you feel they interact?
OS: Thank you! Poetry informs my everything. Poetry is my eye, everything else a temporary lens I might put over it. I started out with prose, and to prose I am now returning, but it was through poetry I began to understand the mechanics of writing. Essays I look at as poems writ large, and when I started to apply the same questions to them that I do poems—what central metaphor am I working toward shaping, which themes are at work, which lines or paragraphs are doing the heaviest lifting, how can I even the load or otherwise use the weight to my advantage, etc.—I found the form much more navigable. This is true of everything I do. When I allow poetry to be my eye, everything is suddenly that much clearer, that much more bearable.
MHS: Have you had any important mentors over the years that have shared wisdom, taught you invaluable lessons?
OS: I feel like the authors of every book I’ve read are my mentors, they have shared wisdom with me, helped me learn and live and love. On a more personal level, Judith Beveridge has played such a huge role in shaping my poetic outlook, and in providing a role model of generosity that I aspire one day to replicate, to give back to others as much as she has given me. Likewise, I look to Michael Mohammed Ahmed, the brilliant author of The Tribe and director of Sweatshop, as a figure of inspiration in my community, and also to Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, who I can always count on to provide sage advice or a laugh, which is sometimes more valuable. I am ludicrously blessed to call each one my friend and to have them in my life.
MHS: What does it mean to you to share knowledge, skills and resources within a literary industry that is very much inextricably linked to capitalist success and performance-based triumphs?
OS: The thing that interests me most about this question is the anxiety it reveals. “Capitalist success and performance-based triumph”. I mean, you could argue that every profession is tied to capitalism. It seems to be only in the arts that our work is devalued to the point of nothing, and there is such shame associated with success. Partly, I’m sure, there is that Australian tall-poppy syndrome at work, digging into us to say don’t grow too far beyond the rest, or if you do, keep real, real quiet about it. Listen: I come from a poor, violent family. I marvel every day that I’m alive and still functional, let alone writing. Let alone here, being asked questions as if my answers matter. Which is to say I’ve come too far and worked too hard and overcome too much to be quiet about my triumphs. I want to perform them. I want to shout it from the rooftop, because every poem is a triumph, every breath. Shout it out, people. Let me hear your voices, I want to know what’s got your blood pumping, because if you work in this industry, you sure as shit are not a capitalist success. In fact I’m fairly convinced Capitalism hates me. It’s out there somewhere in an ill-fitting suit and an inflated toupee gut-screaming about these idiot commie hippy art freaks who go down a road of poetry or fiction despite the million and one signs saying ‘BROKE’ or ‘FISCAL UNCERTAINTY’ or ‘MAFUCKER CAN’T YOU READ? YOU WILL NOT OWN A HOME.’ Capitalism does not want me or my poems; it hates bodies like mine in particular, the marginalised, the queer, but this heinous bitch is our mother and this is what I know best, so I’m going to make sure I survive this too. I’m going to make sure I get paid. It will never be much, but all I’m aiming for is just enough to live. Which is still a tall order.
And of course, everything is a performance. Even this. To me, what matters at any given moment is: who am I performing for and why? At the most basic level, the answer is myself. There’s no one I want to convince more, and there’s no one less convinced. Outside of that never-ending dilemma, there’s the audience who don’t see the anxieties of the artist behind the scenes, they see only the performance, it’s a kind of perfect artifact from which they can take what they need. And the audience in my mind is fundamentally comprised of queer people of colour, young people from marginalised communities, the dispossessed and traumatised, who are always told implicitly and explicitly, from their families and society: be quiet. Put your head down, grind away at some job and be ground down by it. Say nothing of your suffering and especially nothing about your joy. So I say again: fuck that. Jump up and down and scream when you land a poem or story, whether in your own journal or some lofty publication—own your triumph. It is beautiful.
MHS: Can you tell me what community means to you; within the world of poetry and poets and with different communities of people, ie. queer, POC (People of Colour), Muslim?
OS: I quite simply couldn’t survive without my community, without my queers, without my POC peers, especially those I’ve come to know through Twitter and social media, bless their beautiful hearts. They save me all the time with their brilliance, their insight, their willingness to get into the mess of it with me and never, ever shy away from complexity. Whenever I’ve had to ask for help, someone has answered, and even when I haven’t, the offer has been there. What can you call that, except family? How else to describe it except as utterly essential? How else to receive it except with gratitude.
MHS: Is it important for you to feel a part of a certain ‘type’ of poetry or within a larger and longer genealogy/lineage of poets and poetry?
OS: No. I have a longer answer for this but then I have a longer answer for everything and I’m mindful there has to be a point when I shut up haha.
MHS: What are you inspired by? Is it purely other poetry/poets that stimulate creative energy, or do you also feel drawn to film/photography/other visual and physical arts?
OS: Any kind of writing can get me going. Good writing does that: a page or two into a short story or novel, and I’ll have to put it down because it’s sparked something in me. It’s made finishing stories and books much harder, to be honest. And what I’m responding to, I’ve noticed, is not a line or a plot or idea, it’s typically an emotion. Anything that makes me feel something, a song, a movie, a poem—inspires me. (Shoutout to Rihanna’s ANTI for being a constant wellspring I can return to when I’m feeling tapped out.)
… Now you are about to read the poetry of an Arab Australian, which is a rare thing when it shouldn’t be. Now you are about to read the work of a queer Arab Australian, which is a rare thing when it shouldn’t be. Now you are about to read the life of a queer Muslim Arab Australian from Western Sydney, from a broke and broken family – not rare, but it should be.
This is not a definitive statement on Islam. This is not a definitive statement on Arab identity, not Arab Australian identity, not bisexuality, not even Western Sydney. It is a statement – an exploration of me and what I’ve seen.
The only thing I ask of you is that you do not stop with me. Discover the other diverse writers and poets in this country – find us, find our books. We’re here, and we’re growing.
Read Judith Beveridge’s introduction to These Wild Houses.
Buy the book here.
Mikaila Hanman Siegersma is based in Narrm/Melbourne on Wurundjeri country. They are a poet, editor, radio producer for 3CR and the Marketing and Communications Manager at Australian Poetry.