Celebrating poetry of the people: an interview with Mohammed al-Kurd

Mohammed al-Kurd

George Abraham

Mondoweiss  /  November 19, 2021

George Abraham talks with Mohammed al-Kurd in an expansive interview about Jerusalem, the revolutionary potential of poetry, and Al-Kurd’s groundbreaking new book, Rifqa.

 In celebration of the recent release of his debut poetry collection RIFQA, I sat down with Mohammed al-Kurd to speak to him about this groundbreaking collection. The following is the blurb I wrote for his collection, out now with Haymarket Books: 

At its heart, RIFQA is a call to build a better elsewhere for Palestinians, in & beyond language: an ars poetica beyonded into unity intifada, where Palestinians are loved into present tense. Beyond a failed imagination of poetry that’s more “theatre over thunder,” beyond a poetics where elegy is merely a symptom of border, Mohammed al-Kurd weaves the ancestors and Land into every breath of these poems. “Every grandmother is a Jerusalem,” Al-Kurd reminds us, in jasmine-scented memory, in liminal space and punchline, in auto- and anti-biography. Here is poetry the whole of us can turn and return to – even in grief, even in contradiction. Liberating itself from respectability & other colonialist gazes weaponized against Palestinians, here is poetry insistent on truths we’ve carried for generations. JERUSALEM IS OURS. Al-Kurd writes this with its whole chest, knowing our lives – the whole & future of us – depend on it. 

George Abraham

Thank you for joining us, Mohammed! I just wanted to open up with a question of what’s moving you nowadays? 

Mohammed al-Kurd

Well, first of all, thank you so much for having interest in interviewing me for this. It’s an honor. I really, really appreciate it. And also thank you for the blurb. I also really appreciate that. And it’s a pleasure to be speaking to you now to answer the question, what moves me these days. To be completely honest with you, obligation, an impending, looming sense of obligation makes me get my work done.

I love that! I just want to write “obligation” on a sticky note and post it on the wall – that’s beautiful.

I’ve loved reading through this book, from the galley for my blurb to now seeing the final version out in the world. I know that you’re a spoken word artist and have done a lot of interesting performance work, such as your recent spoken word album, so I wanted to ask about your process, writing a book as a performance artist? How did you see your performance background coming into your process of bringing this book to life on the page, textually?

Thank you. I think so much of my poetry is really heavily musically informed. It’s really influenced by patterns I see in rap music, or in traditional rhyme in Arabic poetry and stuff like this. And I think composing that on the page was a challenge because I still wanted it to maintain its musicality, but it presented me with this new challenge of — would this poem be able to stand on its own in a page without being read to an audience? And that kind of forced me, in a good way, forced me to pay really close, obsessive attention to each line to make sure everything was perfect.

And that drove me crazy writing the book. I rewrote so much all the time, all the time. I mean I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was looking through the book the other day and, red penciling things I could have done in a different way still.

First books are especially hard, and I’m excited to be speaking with you as an artist who just debuted as well, because I know other young Palestinians who are writing their first books will be reading this! 

Thinking about this book’s relation to Palestine, the figure of Jerusalem is something I’m especially interested in here. At one point you write, “every grandmother is a Jerusalem” and even go on to invoke the self as a Jerusalem in “Anti-biography,” which is one of my favorite poems I’ve read in recent memory. I’d love to hear you speak more on this imagination driving the book: Jerusalem as a temporal spatial capsule that lives and breathes through bodies and generations.

 Yeah, absolutely. I think Jerusalem is a city that is really unique in this world in the sense of the hyper-surveillance, the hyper-militarization, the very specific approach to culture and religion, and the approach to life in Jerusalem. It’s just unlike any place else in the world, and it’s very violent. And yet it’s still, and I don’t want to do the whole romanticizing thing, but it’s still very beautiful in a lot of ways. And it’s also a reminder of the Empire being finite, right? Jerusalem has had so much turmoil and wars and occupations, and they’ve always always fallen and Jerusalem remains for its people. 

It’s always been my square one, because I grew up in Jerusalem. It is a place where ethnic cleansing is a legal matter, like you can get it at your door in the mail or, like, you could see it a few minutes away if you walk down the street. This is the kind of place I grew up in, and I thought that was the norm.

I thought police, violence, all of these things on such a massive scale, but also on such a small scale, I thought that was the norm. And then when you look outward in the world, there are places similar to Jerusalem, but nothing is like it. 

And when you interpret the world through Jerusalem, you remind yourself of what you deserve, of your right to fury, your right to dignity, right? It teaches you dignity. It teaches you how to stand up for yourself to a certain degree because you’re like being shoved from all places. They want to displace you, they want to silence you. They want to do this, they want to do that. So you stand up for yourself.

‘Jerusalem is a reminder that Empire is finite’ and ‘interpreting the world through Jerusalem,’ PHEW thank you for that answer! 

As someone who has grandparents from Jerusalem, that really resonated with me, and thinking about their narratives of displacement. And one of the things I love, as a Palestinian-American reader, is that RIFQA simultaneously started at a baseline like “this is the unequivocal history of Palestine and anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that is just not welcome in the space.” But you also move beyond rote explanation and justification of Palestinian history and humanity – the implicit assumption that any reader that comes into this book, in my reading at least, is checked at the door. Readers have to see us as human. 

So, I’m interested in how you were navigating both the history you’re writing from and how this played into your approach to the poems, but also moving past the stuckness of Zionism. The way that Zionism makes us stuck in its colonial rhetoric that perpetually tries to reduce, flatten, and dehumanize Palestinian writing. I’m curious to hear how you were able to break out of that kind of limited understanding of the world through poetry specifically?

Well, you know, I think the strategy of Zionism has long been the logical fallacy of a red herring of distracting you from the main point and putting you on the defensive. Right? And when you look at that from outside of it and think, hold on the material conditions are as such: I am living under military occupation. My home has been taken over. The second part of my home is about to be taken over. A huge chunk of my family is in exile and cannot return ever, this and this and this and this and this. And yet I am on your TV show and you’re putting me in a corner interrogating me as if I am the person committing the crimes? No, I’m not going to stand for this. I’m not going to be accused. And I think that’s where, again, it boils down to dignity. And it boils down to understanding that people don’t accuse you because they’re interested in what you say and what you have to answer, they accuse you to smear you with the accusation, period. 

So, in writing, I’ve made my own pilgrimage from writing to humanize the Palestinian, hyper-emphasizing the victimhood of the Palestinians, offering hyper-visibility to the women and children and all of these things that we see throughout the decades. I’ve gone through that. But I decided to, at some point, kick my feet up on the table and say, this is what’s up! I’m not going to just humanize because, first of all, you recognize that when you portray a person so flatly as just the victim, sometimes a victim that is not angry, you know stuff like that, it’s really super idealistic and romantic. When you portray them so flatly, you actually dehumanize them because anger and fury, and the desire for revenge or the desire for recourse, all of these things are very human. 

And second of all, when you hyper focus on this victimization, it is because it follows the logic of ‘I am going to show you my victims and you are going to empathize or sympathize with these victims and thus speak up,’ but you cannot negotiate with someone holding the gun to your head. You cannot negotiate with that. Right? So when we send our children to Congress to go talk to congresspeople and make the case for our humanity while Congress is sending almost $4 billion to the Israeli occupation annually, you understand that these people, I don’t think conscience is a solution we should be looking to, because they don’t have it.

100%! Two responses: first, I’m interested to hear about politically what you think the realm of possibilities are within poetry, specifically as a genre, within this larger politic of language. And second — where do you wish poetry would push further, or how do you wish poetry could push further into these conversations? Because I don’t think every conversation needs a poem, honestly. And so it’s just a question I’ve honestly been wrestling with. I think all poets wrestle with that ‘why poetry?’ kind of question? (laughs)

I don’t know. I don’t think many people read poetry. I don’t think poetry often is accessible. I mean, honestly, I think a lot of the poetry in the world is really boring and I can’t read it. Let’s be honest here. 

So, why poetry? I’m not sure, I go back and forth about this whole idea of the power of language, and, while I don’t think language is inherently powerful I do think narrative is incredibly powerful and the ability to narrativize. The ability to illuminate or emphasize certain aspects of a narrative is incredibly powerful in creating cultural and political change.

And poetry, especially in the Palestinian tradition, has long been used to translate political changes or upheavals in the time, or fuel people to engage politically. I’m always reminded of Rashid Hussein writing a satirical poem kind of explaining the meaning of a certain law that made it legal to confiscate farmers’ lands. Right? Saying that God has become a refugee, but it explains what’s happening, and it helped mobilize and feel people against that law. So I do believe in that role of the poem.

But I think poetry could learn from the people. I don’t necessarily think poetry is what is helpful to people. I think poetry could learn from the people, and I think we should all be striving, and I say this to myself, because I don’t think I achieve this much.

I do think there is a tool, be it didactic or revolutionary, in poetry. And also it allows you to kind of make your political convictions in a way that you’re not allowed to institutionally, and to simplify theories and introduce people to new visions and rounds of perspectives that you would not be able to do traditionally. And I think those are things that we should be grateful for poetry for. But at the end of the day I think poetry is poetry. And I don’t think it’s a miracle.

I love that answer in so many respects because it’s a needed reminder, to anyone reading this interview, that the real poetry is our communities and our people, not in the halls of academic institutions. That’s something I’m a firm believer of, especially as a spoken word artist myself — American poetics owes a massive debt to the traditions of its Black, Indigenous, and non-western diasporic communities. And one of the things I loved about this book is the way that lyric collectives live and breathe throughout the entire collection, from the epigraphs to poems written after Naomi Shihab Nye, for example, to the Aimé Cesaire references, and more. 

Who are the people without whom you wouldn’t have been able to write this book? And anyone you want to just shout out in particular, perhaps people you want to turn others to more?

I would rather shoot myself in the foot than shout out one person. I feel so scared of missing someone. So, I’m not going to do that. I can tell you who we should be reading. 

I think who really influenced me is my mother, Aja Monet, Suheir Hammad, Franz Fanon, Aimé Cesaire, Ghassan Kanafani, and most of all, Rashid Hussein. I think those are my influences. I apologize if I’m forgetting somebody, but those are my influences. But there have been many, many, many, many, many people without whom this book would have been possible.

And there have been many, many people who’ve taught me so much about the world and without whom this book wouldn’t have been possible. And shout out to Lauren. Yeah, because I always forget to shout her out. Sorry, that was such a chaotic answer.

No, I love the chaos! 

Another thing I want to think about is the really complicated relationship the book has to autobiography. There are these incredible poems, running throughout the book, that explicitly address and tackle autobiography, which ultimately culminate in this gorgeously complicated anti-biography poem. I’d love to hear you say more about how that kind of sequence and how that thought process evolved for yourself? 

Yeah. There’s a hundred and ten ways to say this. One interpretation could be that I’m narcissistic and self-obsessed, and another interpretation could be I’m very reflective and I tend to live in my own world sometimes. I’m often reminded of Audre Lorde saying, if I don’t define myself for myself, then I would be crushed into other people’s definitions, or something like that. Forgive me. 

Yes, this idea that I have to kind of articulate my personhood has been helpful for me throughout the years. And reading it back is not always easy. It’s quite difficult to read back something very autobiographical. Your interpretation of yourself changes as you grow older. This book was written across the stretch of five years or something. I think the pandemic really messed us up, and that’s why I wrote an autobiography. I was like, there was no more. There was nothing more. There’s nothing in my brain anymore. And I don’t know if it was just because of the pandemic but I just became very weary of civilization and social order and politics and geopolitics and all these things. And I started to think more along these lines. 

I don’t know if it’s in a poem particularly or not, or maybe I didn’t even put it in the book, but I wrote a reference to wanting to pick lice or I wished I was a monkey picking lice or something like that, like something very silly. It’s just like this kind of erasure of the self, or denial of the self. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but yes, it has happened a lot. 

Also, while editing this book, I was reading and consuming so much “I am” sentences, and I wanted to break it all down with anti-biography. This book is kind of structured in the way, where the first chapter is very Palestine 101. And then by the fourth chapter, we’re getting into more like ‘poetry poetry’ that’s not so explicit oftentimes, but more satirical and mystical, or surreal, and more authentic as to how I think within myself. There’s a shift from defiant to despondent to exhausted which is symbolized on the cover of the book. Right? This was a painting that was made in commentary about the state of the Palestinians after Oslo nationally. And this book is also about that.

I’m just looking at the cover now and just how oh, my gosh, chills are running down my spine right now. Again, just to emphasize for our readers, you all really need to buy this book and to go on this journey, because I think that structurally, it’s an incredible read. It’s not a trivial read. And I think this is actually the opposite of selfish, the opposite of narcissistic. In a way, I think that this is the kind of book that really interrogates and scrutinizes the self in a way that has a very grounded politic, obviously, and has a very grounded kind of craft arc simultaneously. This is a book that de-centers.

On that note, I want to kind of end with two more community-centered questions! Hearing you talk about the process behind RIFQA, I’m thinking about poets in our communities like Marwa Helal who is always editing and re-imagining their work even as it continues to live in the world. And any act of publishing is just a snapshot right now. So I’m curious about, what was the most surprising thing that happened as you wrote the book in terms of, like, the discovery, or maybe the editorial, however, you want to take it, what was the most surprising thing you found as you edited and wrote Rifqa?

Well, I think the most surprising thing about the book was, basically I got this book deal with Haymarket a few months, two months before we got the displacement orders from the Israeli court. We got the orders in October. And then we started the campaign, but then the campaign really took off in May. 

So, I had this book deal a half a year before, and I was already kind of almost done with it, and then boom, the readership went from a very tiny audience to a bigger one. I could say that at least, a bigger audience. And that was the most surprising and panic inducing and crazy. And yeah, I just didn’t expect that.

Just to go back to the question of de-centering for a second, I don’t know a single poet, especially in America, who would ever be named a Time 100 person and then immediately release a statement actively refusing the celebritization, and reminding all of us that the point is, has been, and always will be Palestinian liberation. This was heard and admired deeply among many of us in the diaspora. I think it’s a wild testament to the current state of reality, that the most surprising thing about this book is a colonialist power, not the actual writing or publishing process. This is a really important answer for everyone reading to hear.

And you know, that statement on Time 100. I don’t view it as a sacrifice. I view it as the thing to do, because as I said, it is a positive indication of centering the Palestinian cause in the mainstream. Again, this has been done throughout history where there’s a crisis and then you consolidate its victims with the mainstream. And then you kind of do this public consolidation, public appreciation, and then the rest of that community is forgotten. And that’s not the point. Right? While getting my picture up in Time 100, my friend, my neighbor, is spending his third month in jail for doing the exact same thing I did. They just don’t have visibility.

Yeah. And that’s what visibility in American Empire looks like: ‘look, we checked our box!’ And again, that’s something that I want to point every reader of this interview towards: this is not just embodied in your actions in daily life, but in the work of the book itself. In every little minute detail of how you assemble this book.

Thank you, thank you so much.

No, thank YOU. I always like ending on kind of communal things! Do you have any advice for Palestinians in Palestine, or in the diaspora, or anywhere in the world, navigating getting your work published and out there, and or just writing advice? 

Well, I’m not sure I will answer this question, but I will say I’m not sure if I’m in the position to be giving people advice. Let’s start there. But if I’ll say this in terms of publishing, you should be obnoxious. You should just be persistent. That’s like, the one thing is that you should just like, ask and ask and ask within limits don’t like harass, but you should be at least persistent and assertive about why your voice must be heard, especially as a Palestinian, because we are working against the machine, not with it.

My advice for writing is to try as much as you can to identify where you’re censoring yourself and don’t censor yourself.

And in terms of writing, this is advice I wish I could take and you think when you read me, you think I’m very unabashed, you think, but even still with everything that I write, I do employ a certain level of censorship that I have to overcome. And I think we all do this. When I say “we” I mean Palestinians, and we have been trained to do this, right, to adhere to these standards of speech that literally always put us in the corner and lower the ceiling to suffocation. So my advice for writing is to try as much as you can to identify where you’re censoring yourself and don’t censor yourself. And I’m not asking you to be outrageous on the page, but you can be smart on the page, and still loyal to the truth.

Yeah. Retweet, I have nothing to add. (laughs) I almost want to end on that note. I feel like the last question is really cheesy now, in retrospect with all these elegant things you said! I’ve been thinking with a lot of other fellow Palestinian artists in my community about the tweet, like your free hashtag, and for people who don’t know, it’s this gorgeous coming together of Palestinians in exile and diaspora in the land itself and talking about, what would we do if Palestine were free.

And I wanted to just make space as we closed up. If there’s any wish or hope or dream that you wanted to put into the air for the community, for you, for your loved ones? Not to be cheesy or optimistic …

No, it’s nice. Oh, my God. You know, I’m a very deeply cynical person, a glass half-empty type of person. This is a really challenging question. I swear to God.

My favorite place to be in the world is the beach. It’s my favorite thing to do. And I just hope that one day all of us could go to the beach when we please and not have to be in an open air prison. But in order for us to get to that point, I hope that there will come a day when the idea of somebody living in an open air prison, of somebody approaching their seven decades and not ever going to a beach, is so outrageous that people collectively reject it.

And it is so inconceivable and incredible to me that I am this age living in this year and reading about such atrocities in history. And yet, Palestinians still live in open air prison, and it doesn’t cause global outrage. Sorry, I have to make it political. I have to do the annoying speech I can’t . . .

I’m so emotional right now. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, Mohammed. And thank you for everyone reading! 

 Check out RIFQA, out now with Haymarket Books

 Mohammed al-Kurd

Mohammed al-Kurd is an internationally-touring poet and writer from Jerusalem, Palestine. His work has been featured in The Guardian, This Week In Palestine, Al-Jazeera English, The Nation, and the forthcoming Vacuuming Away Fire anthology, among others. Mohammed graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a B.F.A. in Writing, where he created Radical Blankets, an award-winning multimedia poetry magazine. He is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Poetry from Brooklyn College. His poetry-oud album, Bellydancing On Wounds, was released in collaboration with Palestinian musical artist Clarissa Bitar. Apart from poetry and writing, Al-Kurd is a visual artist, printmaker, and most recently, co-designer of a fashion collection with Serbian designer Tina Gancev. Mohammed spent his undergraduate weekends performing poetry at campuses and cultural centers across the United States and hopes to continue in the post-COVID-19 era.

George Abraham

George Abraham (they/he) is a Palestinian American poet, writer, and engineer who was born and raised on unceded Timucuan lands (Jacksonville, FL). Their debut poetry collection Birthright (Button Poetry) won the Arab American Book Award and the Big Other Book Award, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a board member for the Radius of Arab American Writers, and recipient of fellowships from The Arab American National Museum, The Boston Foundation, and Kundiman. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, Mizna, and elsewhere. A graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard University, they are currently a Litowitz MFA+MA Candidate in poetry at Northwestern University.