Well, I almost didn’t when I heard you were doing the interview.
I’m not that bad…we go way back, after all! I think of us as brothers, almost twins.
Says you. I already have an identical twin, thank you very much. Come on, let’s get this over with.
All right, all right, anything you say. So: for most of your career, you’ve published poetry and literary essays. But now you have two books out, companion pieces, one a book of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin, while the other is a book of long form journalism, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees. About ten years ago, you began to write these essays, in part about refugee issues in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And you’ve also written about the situation in Libya just before the second civil war broke out a few years ago, as well as your trip to Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself in the region. Can you explain how a poet came to write about these issues?
I started doing this kind of journalism back in 2007, when I was asked to go to Lebanon just after the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War. I didn’t anticipate a war, but that just shows you how green I was. If you write about refugee issues, you’re forced to confront the facts of war, famine, and disease. But you also learn how a camel seller is using his cellphone to drum up business, or how a young boy and his friends cobbled together a play station from old computer games.
Since I’d never written this kind of journalism, my learning curve was pretty steep. I remember that on the eve of my departure to Lebanon, my visit was delayed because a prominent Christian politician had been assassinated. But when I stepped off the plane in Beirut six months later, I learned that a car bomb had just exploded in the ABC Shopping Mall. That set off a series of tit-for-tat bombings and reprisals that resulted in the worst internal violence in Lebanon since the 1980-1995 Civil War.
My first brush with that kind of conflict was certainly an eye opener: I saw how a bomb’s blast wave shattered the show window of an Armani store, which created a vacuum that sucked the clothes out of the shop and into the street. Very odd to see a $1,000 suit lying rumpled on the ground among rubble and shards of glass.
Another time during a famine in Mogadishu, I watched a two-year old boy, who had fallen into the apathetic drowse that precedes a coma, rouse himself to bite into a nutritional biscuit. The sugars hit his system, his whole body gathered strength, and he sat up, suddenly alert. Then he took the shiny foil the biscuit had been wrapped in and began throwing it in the air, the infusion of calories reawaking in him the instinct to play.
Of course, I understand that it can be hard to focus on events that seem to be happening so far away. But for me, the way Americans respond to these issues says a lot about how we conceive of our freedoms and responsibilities to one another both here and abroad.
What has your journalism taught the poet in you, and what has your poetry taught the journalist?
Oddly, what the journalist taught the poet is just how high the stakes are, no matter what you write. During that trip to Lebanon, I was taken to Qana in the south where most of the fighting had taken place. Joseph, the young man who took me there, was one of the first members of the Red Cross allowed into the village after a bombing during the 2006 war. In the smoke and semi-darkness, he came across a little girl buried up to her neck in rubble. So he dug down with his bare hands as far as her arm pits, took hold of her under her arms, lifted her free—and discovered she’d been blown in half. He looked as if he were about to tear up. I told him he didn’t have to go on with his story, but he looked me in the eye, and said: “I’ll tell you what happened, but you must promise to tell my story.” I’d never felt such a sense of responsibility, almost a kind of commission, in all my life. How a cultural outsider can tell that story is another matter, but one thing I think that’s crucial is to be up front about what it is you don’t know—and find a way to build that into the piece. Nonetheless, that moment has permanently raised the stakes on whatever I write.
And I guess what the poet taught the journalist is NOT to offer solutions or do pundit-speak or pretend to be an instant expert: to avoid broad strokes in favor of the small picture, the local details and intimate truths that make up daily life. And if you stick with those truths, you’ll find that what you’re writing about is the gap between political commitments—mine are pretty boring, off-the-rack lefty—and what you feel when those commitments are put to the test in real life—what you might call political emotions. I was in Libya after Gadaffi’s downfall, something that my political convictions told me was necessary and just. But as I watched him on a YouTube video being beaten to death on the hood of a truck, what I was felt was far more conflicted than my political convictions could explain. I want my writing to embody that conflicted state: not editorialize about or around it, but recreate it.
So as both a poet and a journalist, I’m trying to find a language, or a language is finding me, that honorably upholds the complexity of experience; the difference, as I said earlier, between settling for what you ought to feel, and what you really do feel. And to do that, I think you have to keep yourself open to lots of different frequencies. I’m looking for a music of clashing tones, not iron smashing against iron. And as I’ve learned over the years, that music sometimes isn’t easy to reconcile with what you thought were your everyday commitments. So whatever ethical statement I arrive at arrives as part of the texture, by discovering the right words to conjure the look of those Armani clothes blown all over the street.
But that means I live a split screen existence: in my head, I’ll see a man on a garbage heap in Nairobi pincering through the trash for a few rice grains while I’m simultaneously on the phone to some computer techy trying to talk me and my ancient MacBook Pro down off a ledge. That’s just the condition of my life. And after all these years, I wouldn’t—and couldn’t—have it otherwise.
So I just saw a picture of you in the Provincetown Banner, a newspaper in Provincetown, MA where you were recently giving a reading. You were jumping out of an armored vehicle in Mogadishu. Any comment?
Well, when you’re in these situations, it’s vital to maintain your sense of humor. One look at that photo, and you’ll see that I don’t really qualify for the WAR IS HELL persona. I’m wearing a baby blue helmet and a baby blue flak jacket—yes, baby blue. My helmet doesn’t fit, I’ve got an odd smile on my face, as if to say “I know that you know that I know I look ridiculous,” and if I’m not mistaken, my flak jacket isn’t velcroed correctly. I should say that there were two colors I could have chosen from—the other was dark blue. Of course, what I didn’t realize at the time was that one color meant you were affiliated with the UN, and the other meant you were non-affiliated. And if you were kidnapped, which happened to two aid workers while I was there, then the color you chose, depending on who kidnapped you, might very well determine if you lived or died.
When I asked our security officer which color I should choose, he looked me up and down and shrugged, “Whichever one matches your eyes, darlin’…”
Tom Sleigh is the author of the essay collections The Land Between Two Rivers and Interview with a Ghost, and ten books of poetry, including House of Fact, House of Ruin, Station Zed, Army Cats, and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. He teaches at Hunter College and lives in New York