FORWARD PRIZES: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
MOHAMMED EL-KURD: My first poem was a poem berating the policeman in charge of our Jerusalem neighborhood. I had not turned 10-years-old yet. I grew up with poetry—my mother had been a poet publishing frequently in al-Quds newspaper—so naturally, I wrote it. It was my vehicle for communication, historicizing, persuasion, philosophizing, etc., but I never believe poetry could turn water into wine. Since then my writing style has changed significantly, but there are still cops on my pages and they don’t look very good.
FP: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
ME-K: From the afterword:
‘I may have been sixteen or seventeen when I started writing [Rifqa]…. Poetry was an itch to contextualize, to inform, to hinge severed limbs onto the people to whom they once belonged, to allow those people nuance. At first, I made two mistakes.
The first was that I trained myself to use ‘unbiased’ words. What I’d refer to in Arabic as an ‘entity” would become a ‘state’. Striving for a vocabulary void of accusation, I replaced ‘arrogate’ with ‘confiscate’, ‘dispossess’ with ‘evict’, and ‘lie’ with
‘allege’. This phenomenon is common among writers writing about Palestine, writers who worship the mythology of objectivity instead of satirizing it. There’s this naïve belief that Palestinians will acquire credibility only once they’ve amassed respectability. I did this to appear rational and unhostile. The truth, however, is very hostile.…. The second mistake is what I will call ‘humanization’: I portrayed my people only in the ways that adhere to ethnocentric civility, robbing them of their agency. It is to ‘women and children’ Palestinians to death—to infantilize Palestinians in hopes of determining that, indeed, they deserve liberation… we must qualify our dead with reminders of their nonviolence, humane professions, and disabilities. A Palestinian man cannot just die. For him to be mourned, he must be in a wheelchair or developmentally delayed, a medical professional, or noticeably elderly at the very least. Even then, there are questions about the validity of his victimhood… Humanization, more often than not, does the exact opposite of what it alleges. I no longer feel the responsibility to give humans eyes for humanity.
FP: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
ME-K: It means a lot to be recognized for my perceived literary skill. Still, I have a hard time with such recognition and the tendency to bow my head as it passes me by.
FP: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
ME-K: ‘Born on the Nakba Day’, ‘Girls in the Refugee Camp’, ‘Why do you speak of the massacre at the party?’, ‘Bush’, ‘Kroger’, ‘Martyrs’, ‘Fifteen Year Old Girl Killed for Attempting to Kill A Soldier’, ‘Anti-biography’, ‘Three Women’
FP: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
ME-K: Suheir Hammad, Rashid Hussien, Aimé Césaire, Aja Monet, Audre Lorde.
FP: What is next for you as a poet?
ME-K: A couple of books in the works.
FP: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
ME-K: Write for people. Not for prizes or platitudes. Not for poets discussing your words around their workshop tables. Write as if your poems are open homes. And be stubborn about your sentiment.