By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
I write because it seems like the most natural thing for me to do. I have always loved writing, whether critical essays, stories, poems, or recording my thoughts in a journal. It is a way of initiating a dialogue with other authors’ work, or paintings, and with other ideas. Writing helps one make sense of obsessions, dreams, emotions, but also helps, as well as reading, to transcend everyday reality, and inhabit a parallel world that can be constantly reshaped by the imagination.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My second collection of poetry, Under Brushstrokes (Press 53, 2015) is, for the most part, inspired by artwork. I have a passion for visual art and I am also an artist. I have painted the cover art, as well as for my first collection, Tea in Heliopolis. In these poems, I try to delve under the artists’ brushstrokes to unravel hidden meanings or create a new version of the artwork, using the music and colors of language as tools.
In Under Brushstrokes, I have tried to use paintings as a point of departure for a flight of the imagination; an attempt at transforming a two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional, almost cinematic rendition that involves all five senses and explores characters’ interiority. I am currently working on two poetry manuscripts in progress, one of them a bilingual Spanish and English collection, and the other inspired by the fissures caused by displacement, and the contrast between past and present.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I have always kept a journal, in which I write all sorts of impressions, thoughts, and epiphanies. I leaf through its pages regularly, highlighting the lines and images that maintain the initial power that compelled me to record them. Oftentimes, an aesthetic emotion is associated with words that resonate in my subconscious. Sometimes it will take a long time, and various attempts, until these fragmented thoughts would trigger new associations, but I keep returning to them, because the entire process represents an exploration of the unconscious.
I revise extensively, and although a poem is never finished, I keep hoping that I’ll get to the point where I’ll feel, even erroneously, satisfied of what I have on the page.
Who are your favorite authors?
This is a question I always knew I couldn’t answer because I was born in Egypt and am of Lebanese origin, and was raised primarily in French, Arabic and English; I then developed Spanish and Italian over time. Usually, my favorite author is the one I am reading passionately and that I keep rereading. Besides the classics, I have always loved Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Aragon and Celan, Proust, Flaubert, and Bachelard, among many. I have discovered Latin American Literature over the past decades and fell in love with the writings of Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo, Rubén Darío, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, to name only a few. I admire several Spanish, and international authors as well like Orhan Pamuk. I am a great admirer of Dante, Italo Calvino, Dino Buzzati and Alessandro Baricco.
There are legions of writers that I admire in English, such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland, my list would be endless. There are several books on my nightstand of contemporary authors that I could also mention! My favorite Middle-Eastern writers are Adonis for poetry and the francophone novelists Amin Maalouf and Tahar Ben Jalloun for fiction.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Whatever I am writing at a given moment always represents the greatest challenge. Whether it is a critical essay, a poem, a short story, a book review, or even this interview. I think it is because for me, at least, writing doesn’t get any easier with time, and that each piece requires a total reexamining of what we have done before. We are always confronted with the necessity of recreating ourselves and finding new ways to express ourselves.
I sometimes write the same poem in French, Spanish and English, and I keep revising back and forth. With each new metaphor born from the challenge of going from one language to the other, the revision becomes endless, and turns into a process of osmosis; oftentimes I lose track of which piece was the original.
What’s your idea of bliss?
I enjoy gardening and planting flowers and bulbs. Being close to nature makes me lose track of time. I love painting, and I have been learning Chinese Ink painting for several years. Painting, practicing Tai Chi, reading and writing are activities that allow me to immerse myself in a different world.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I either don’t remember being that angry, or I must have succeeded to erase it from my consciousness. I have a great intolerance for hypocrisy and injustice.
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
This is a very difficult proposition. I couldn’t choose one book, because I love too many authors and I read in different languages, so I would have to multiply by five the number of books I’d take to keep me company. But if I think of Borges’ assertion, that “one book is all books,” I am positive that with Borges’s complete works I will have more than enough to keep me challenged and entertained.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
I would make sure that my family is safe first and that I can get out of the house.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
For me, a commitment to lifelong learning is the secret for happiness. The most important thing in life is to keep studying, learning new languages, new disciplines, arts, skills, and discovering new cultures and countries. Getting to know and understand more people leads us to the realization that we have more similarities than differences.
Hedy Habra is the author of Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the 2014 USA Best Book Award for Poetry and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award, and her collection of short fiction, Flying Carpets, won a 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention. Her second collection of poetry, Under Brushstrokes has just been published by Press 53. She is featured in The Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Cider Press Review, Diode, Drunken Boat, New York Quarterly, Nimrod, and Poet Lore, and has poems forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Gargoyle and World Literature Today.