All this week we’ve debating on CAMPUS the issue of how to give voice to the silenced in poetry. The contributions so far have been fascinating, so please keep them coming! For the second act, I interviewed Choman Hardi, a hero of mine and whose poem ‘The Angry Survivor’ provided the centerpiece of this debate.
The following conversation took place last Wednesday evening in both the UK and Iraqi, via a CAMPUS chat room.
Clare Shaw: Hello Choman – are you there? I’m writing to you from my bedroom – it’s a dark and rainy night in Hebden Bridge!
Choman Hardi: Hello, yes I am here. It was sunny today here.
Clare Shaw: So, as you know, I’m currently a doing Poetry School residency, where I’m looking at the creative opportunities – and the ethical challenges – of “ventriloquism” or talking in other people’s voices in poetry …. so I’d like to ask you about this, as you address some of these issues in your Anfal sequence.
Choman Hardi: An interesting issue.
Clare Shaw: You know how much I love that sequence – the first time I read it I felt like I was going to collapse! When I watched you launch it at Aldeburgh I was sitting next to Kim Moore who started crying as soon as you opened your mouth and didn’t stop for the rest of the reading. I love poetry that affects me viscerally as well as intellectually. Can you outline the story behind the Anfal sequence?
Choman Hardi: The sequence is informed by a major historical catastrophe in Iraqi Kurdistan. Between February and September 1988 the Iraqi state attacked Kurdish countryside with conventional weapons and chemical weapons. Six geographical areas were targeted. Over 2,600 villages were raised to the ground. Water sources were blown up or concreted over to prevent people from returning. The civilians were arrested and were separated from each other. Men and teenage boys were killed within days. The elderly were taken to a separate camp where many died of starvation and ill health. Women and children were taken to other camps. Some of these families were also selected for destruction by being shot by the verge of mass graves. A total of 281 gas attacks were launched against civilians and those who were injured at the time suffered from chronic health problems and some died of cancer.
Clare Shaw: Even the bare facts of it are almost unbearable to read. When you add in your powerful creative voice, the impact is tremendous.
Choman Hardi: Thank you. I tried to convey the horrors while at the same time keeping the voice contained.
Clare Shaw: To shattering effect. Now – we were both Arvon / Jerwood Young Writers in 2004 and I’ve followed your work with huge interest and respect since. Until I met you my knowledge of Anfal, like most people I think, was limited to those awful pictures of dead people and children lying in the street. I am so deeply moved that you have given voice to people who otherwise do not have a voice. Can you tell us about that and can you specifically explain why you chose to write in the first person – the “I”?
Choman Hardi: The Kurdish artist Osman Ahmad did an exhibition about Anfal in the Imperial War Mesum. It was a series of drawing, starting with a simple black line which changed into human beings gathering close and closer together. The people were then moving further and further away from us until the final drawing where they all merged and turned into a black spot. I guess that is what happens to masses of people who become victimised in this way. They keep getting further and further away from us till we don’t see them as human beings anymore. They become a black spot in our history. I tried to steal these people back from this black hole, to give them voice once again. Let them tell their story.
Also the more I research, the more I realise there is no objectivity.
Clare Shaw: I can’t imagine a better explanation of the political imperative in poetry and the politics of ventriloquism. You’ve just made me cry!
Choman Hardi: Clare!
Clare Shaw: Research methodology and epistemology are deeply interesting to me. I am really fascinated by how you explore the ethics and impact of research in your sequence and want to ask you a little about this.
One of your poems says “Don’t ask me any more questions / please. Why can’t you people leave us alone?” Was this actually said to you? Did it affect your desire to write this sequence? Why can’t we as poets just “leave them alone”? What drives you to want to tell this story?
Choman Hardi: I have become more and more concerned about our positionality, how no one can really tell the truth. It is all told from one person’s perspective and how the truth is so complex, which is why I wanted to bring in that complexity and multiplicity of voices attempting to tell us something closer to the truth.
Clare Shaw: Do you think that poetry then offers us a powerful way of representing that complexity – knowing through poetry? Or expressing through poetry?
Choman Hardi: I think poetry can do that. I wanted to make my own position clear too, which is that of privilege. I wanted to show how knowledge about all these things affected me and changed my life
Clare Shaw: Good point to raise that. I’m working on a ventriloquised sequence myself and it troubles me that, whilst my intentions in “throwing my voice” are very good, in practice, by imposing my voice on people who are already silenced – I silence them again. What do you think of this?
Choman Hardi: About people wanting to be left alone: this is a particular case, I guess. These survivors carry the burden of telling the truth and making sure that period of history is recorded … this is a huge responsibility. But it has also trapped them in this position at times. People repeatedly want them to talk about these issues which are terrible and depressing. They become eternal victims and some of them reject that position, some reject our definition of them, some want to get on with their lives. Telling the truth is no easy business.
Clare Shaw: As a survivor of psychiatry I can empathise with the feeling of being repeatedly consulted, whilst often having my views and experiences anonymised.
Choman Hardi: The people I interviewed are not silent in the sense that they are regularly called on to give interviews during commemorations and for the purpose of documentation and documentaries. What was difficult was not that they don’t have a voice in the community, it was mostly the way they are represented, how their stories are edited, cut down, shaped for different purposes. They wanted their story to be told as it is, with all their anger both at the Iraqi state and the Kurdish government. The other problem was that their voices never reached the outside world.
Clare Shaw: Strange because that doesn’t sound like voice to me, it sounds more like just speaking. It is as though they are represented in a uni-dimensional way. Did it then become very important to you to represent them as full human beings, with all those contradiction and depths?
Choman Hardi: Women died, suffered, were ill and poor as a result of a major political event but no one knew about it outside the Kurdistan region. I guess I wanted to represent them on the world map.
Clare Shaw: Have these people read your poems? How did they respond? Do you think that they have a sense of ownership of the poetry?
Choman Hardi: No they have not because the poems are in English. I need to translate them. The problem with translation is they may come across as flat in Kurdish. I hope that they won’t feel misrepresented.
Clare Shaw: I’m interested in how these people have their voices and their stories subject to editing, to representation, all the time – as though their stories are co-opted. And how we avoid co-opting those stories which are we both most deeply driven to tell. In some ways, i think I refer to your work as a model – how stories can be told in a painfully true way. I’m aware though that this came at a price to you, which you write about in ‘Researcher’s Blues’. I want to end with this question, about you ….
“All I can do now is keep walking / carrying this sorrow in my soul”. In your poetry, there is the sense that, rather than you as a poet inhabiting other people’s stories, other people’s stories come to inhabit you. Can you end our conversation by telling us a little more about this?
Choman Hardi: Yes! I suffered from a lot of depression after doing the interviews and when I was listening to and trying to analyse and understand them. Some of the sentences entered my dreams. Some of their fears became mine. I was full of voices, of painful stories repeating and echoing in my head. There were days that I wanted my life to end. I wished I would be run over by a car. I wanted to end my misery.
I felt very guilty for putting people through so much pain, by asking them to tell these stories and then leaving them behind. I felt guilty because I could not help them in any direct way. I also felt guilty because for a while it seemed that I could not finish the research and could not write the book so it will seemed pointless all the pain I put them through. I had help from a nutrition specialist, a therapist, a swimming instructor, my family, poetry writing. And of course later with finding love again.
Clare Shaw: I also think of Selima Hill saying “walk naked into the shower of truth”, which I always thought was a funny phrase – but sometimes in poetry, submerging yourself in truth is like walking into flames.
Choman Hardi: I know that this is not what everyone expects of poetry and not everyone’s thing. I do what I can and try to do it to the best of my ability. I hope at least that I have not sacrificed poetry for the stories. I don’t think I have though, I know some people believe that about my work.
Clare Shaw: I think of the image of a rescuer dangled down a shaft to bring out the child trapped there. I feel like you’ve done this with poetry. Thank you for describing this process with such openness and humanity.
Clare Shaw: Keep on doing what you do. And keep on being well. I hope you get everything you need to sustain you. Thanks so much for answering these questions.
Choman Hardi: My pleasure. Likewise bequrban, keep well and keep writing.