kingdom of babel

Our poetry co-editor Samuel Hughes recently had this exchange with Talal Alyan, our Issue #27 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about political poetry, the concept of change, and the inspiration for his poetry collection Babeldom.


You mentioned that the poems we’re publishing in this issue of Mud Season Review are part of a series that explores the intersection of narrative and noise. What brought you to this project, and how do you see these poems fitting into it? 

I wrote a collection of poetry, titled Babeldom, over the course of two months during the winter of last year. The project was a personal catalogue of, and response to, the immense volume of stories and noise that surround us all. I felt overwhelmed by it. I would overhear a snippet of conversation, and become immensely distressed by the fact that it would eventually evaporate and disappear. I felt this urgency to record. Of course, the task of capturing all of it was impossible. Moreover, I knew that the poems I was writing were merely my own imaginings of what those narratives felt and looked like to their inhabitants. But it still felt like a partial deliverance from this obligation to capture at least some of it before it disappeared.

Babeldom is the result of my exploration of all of this, this kingdom of babel that we all wake and sleep in, in which the muffled noise you hear from across the street might be the prayer or indignation or defeat of the protagonist in another story.


Your primary work, from what I can tell, is political journalism, specifically writing that draws attention to the persecution of Palestinians in the Middle East. Do you see your poetry as part of your political work, or as separate from it? How do you balance the two?

I see it as being separate although, of course, that is misleading. I categorize it as being different in my own mind as a precaution against making ugly things pretty. There are many poets that I deeply admire that can write political poetry without cheapening, or glamorizing, its subject. I don’t possess that particular skill. My immediate impulse in matters of politics is to turn to the clarity of prose. I am only able to write the poetry that I write precisely because I have manufactured this artificial barrier between politics and poetry. I know I am deceiving myself but, for me, it is a necessary lie.


You identify yourself as Palestinian-American. Can you talk a little about what that means to you? How do you experience your nationality? How do you live into it? How has it influenced your writing?

The term is one I rely on primarily for convenience. It’s a subject, identity, that I think many Palestinians spend quite some time interrogating: the question of whether I have a right to claim this identity despite being spared the immediate horrors it is associated with. This process led me to a cul-de-sac, an exhaustion with the subject altogether.

I abandoned this former question of authenticity and began instead to question how being Palestinian informs who I have become. Suddenly, all of these personal characteristics that I have carried my entire life, a deep curiosity about transience and belonging, felt less like emotional dispositions and more like an inheritance. This, I believe, influences a lot of my writing; the unrelenting suspicion that everything that is steady will, given enough time, tremble.


One thing I notice in your work is a feeling of apocalypse. This is explicit in “Fallout,” but I think the tone is there in the other poems in this collection too: “Manifest Destiny” sets us in a fairly bleak landscape, and “Locust” gives us an image of cruel destruction at the hands of well-intentioned gods. Stories do not have sides, but rather journeys have tusks. The world of these poems is to my eye sinister and violent. We see peace only in the ultimate destruction of humanity, and the whole tour is conducted through the tunnel-vision of your short tense lines. Given the sort of events that are unfolding around the world right now, this perhaps hardly bears asking, but where does this sense of doom come from for you? How do you make poetry in a place of desolation?

My interest in these sorts of landscapes comes from the fact that they can set up a compelling backdrop for vulnerability. The exposure to a bleak landscape can, I think, make an act of sincerity or sentimentality seem less paltry or naïve. I really like that. It makes these qualities appear almost subversive or, at least, compels the reader to take them more seriously. It’s like saying, “I know what this world is and yet, and still, this!”


On the other hand, I don’t know that I would call your poems despairing either. How do you navigate these difficult spaces without getting lost in them?

For me, it’s about being fair, and considerate, to the concept of change in all its incarnations. I know that I can write something from a place of abject grief in one day and then be baffled the very next day that I’ve ever been anything but happy. This is simply the nature of things. I try not to do myself the disservice of insisting on emotional consistency simply for the sake of thematic consistency in my poems.


How did you come to writing in general, and poetry in particular?

I came to writing, poetry in particular, through my family. We grew up in a household that read a lot. My sister taught me at a very young age the value in interrogating your emotions and experience. She encouraged me to take writing, and myself, seriously.


You are a cofounder of the online journal Riwayya. How did that come about? What has been your part in it? Has working on a literary journal influenced your understanding of your work?

Riwayya was our bid to provide a platform to a new generation of writers and artists from marginalized communities that felt that their work didn’t fit in elsewhere. I was lucky enough to get a chance to work with Riwayya’s three other co-founders, all incredible writers, to bring this project to life. Yasir, Nour and Hala (my fellow co-founders) have all inspired and challenged me in ways that I could never express enough gratitude for.


Since MSR began as an outgrowth of a writing workshop, we like to ask contributors about their relationship with workshop. What has your experience been? Has workshop been a tool you’ve used as a writer? If so, what kind of experiences have you had with it? If not, do you turn to friends in other ways to help revise your work?

I primarily do one-on-one workshops, although I hope to expand that in the future. For now, I work primarily with my sister during the writing and editing process.


What are you working on now?

I am still in the process of revising my manuscript.


Talal Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and co-editor of Riwayya, an online literary journal. His political writing has been featured in various publications including Vice News, Al Jazeera English, Huffington Post and Daily Beast. He currently resides in Brooklyn.

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