Saturday, September 19, 2009
Poet Djelloul Marbrook: A Poet Who Is Never Far From Algiers.
I met Djelloul Marbrook through my friend Gloria Mindock, a fellow Somervillian and publisher. Marbrook wanted me to write a piece on Somerville's Bagel Bards and the literary scene in Somerville in general. I did and he published it, and later he sent me his book of poems "Far From Algiers", the 2007 winner of the Kent State University Stan and Tom Wick First Book Poetry Prize in Poetry. Marbrook has also had a distinguished career in Journalism writing for the Washington (DC) Star during the Watergate era, as well as The Baltimore Sun and other papers. His poetry has appeared widely and in top shelf literary journals like: The American Poetry Review, Istanbul Literary Review, The Ledge, and others. I spoke with Marbrook on my Somerville Community Access TV show " Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer."
Doug Holder: You were born in Algiers when the city was a French colonial outpost. Your mother was an expatriate American Artist. Your father, a Bedouin. Tell us a bit about your mother--and what was it like in Algiers at this time?
Djelloul Marbrook: I came to New York City as an infant. I have no memory at all of Algiers. I lived briefly in Algiers, then my mother went to England for a few months, then she came back to the U.S.
DH: What kind of influence did she have on you, the nascent poet?
DM: A big influence. I have a painting of hers on the cover of my book. Her name was Anita Rice and she was born right near this studio in Chelsea, Mass. She was one of 4children. She moved to New York City and started working as a fashion model, and then as a fashion "pirate." These women would model the design of the houses they worked for, but they would also memorize the other houses' designs. They would go back to the studios they worked for and report back about the other designs. In essence they pirated them. It was very lucrative. Many of the models were talented artists. And in fact some of them were art students like my mother. She used the money she made to go to France to study art. Eventually she wound up in Algiers, which at the time had several large art colonies. Before this she lived in a city that was literally the gateway to the Sahara and she fell in love with this famous Bedouin tribe. She met my father, who was a member of this tribe, and got into a romantic triangle with my father and his girlfriend. It was an exotic beginning but my life has been rather pedestrian in comparison since.
It seemed my father didn't want to leave his companion. He in effect didn't take responsibility for me. My mother took me back to New York City. She left me with my grandmother in Brooklyn. They raised me for the first five years of my life. And my mother continued her art studies in Manhattan, and also taught at the Art Students League. When I was five she sent me to a boarding school on Long Island where I stayed for 11 years. So I really only lived with my mother for three years. She married a very successful Sicilian immigrant. He sent me to prep school and college.
My mother's art did have an influence on me. Most of her paintings I have in my head, the way some poets always have some poets in their heads.
DH: You started writing poems when you were 14 while roaming around Manhattan. You stopped for awhile and began writing again at 67 after 911. What inspired you to write at both times?
DM: I always read a lot of poetry. The boarding school I went to was British. And they were very big in the arts. I knew the poetry of Oliver Goldsmith, I could recite Andrew Marvel, and so forth. So when I got to New York City, and discovered all the Americans, this was a huge revelation. It was quite exciting. It was a good experience. I actually continued to write poetry into my 30's. And after I had a series of breakdowns, I realized at this time that I was hiding behind the opacity of the language of my poetry.
I was horrified by 911. I was walking endlessly around the city-trying to get at the enormity of the situation. I had a notebook in my pocket to take notes, but I found these notes were lines of poetry. I started out just being deeply offended by the attack. I was not thinking about my own heritage. The American response of”Let's kill them all!" reminded me of my own feelings of not always being welcomed in my own country. I think America, even now, is in denial about its nativist impulses. If you look at the pictures that came out of Washington you see overweight, old, white men, guys who sent an army to Iraq and Afghanistan, an army that looks like our United Nations army. The men who send the troops are not part of this diverse demographic.
DH: Did your poetry act as a catharsis to this?
DM: No. But there was a realization that for me a poem is an algorithim which I came to comprehend anything that was on my mind for the moment. It helped me have a new understanding of poetry in my own life.
DH: In Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep," he writes of the lyrical beauty of the old world culture a young Jewish boy experiences while assimilating in the melting pot of New York City in the 1920's. Was this in a way why you wrote "Far From Algiers"-- a way to reclaim your culture, your roots?
DM: I was thoroughly assimilated. I grew up among British children who were sent here for schooling. I didn't have any roots that I remember. My mother renounced her former affection for Arab culture. My mother literally erased my father. I knew that my father was a Bedouin, so naturally I was curious about it. I had minored in Arab history at Columbia, so I had certain knowledge. I was curious. My name Djelloul has served to isolate me at times. People always stumbled over a foreign name. So it was a constant reminder to me of my otherness.
The role that Arabs played in Western Society was that as Jung wrote: "The Dark Other." There is nothing new about the clash with Arabs; it is a very old conflict. I don't really consider myself an Arab-American because I grew up in Wasp culture. I can't reclaim my culture but I can learn about it.
Far from Algiers
An unnamed race slips by
ethnographer and xenophobe,
roiling bowels and hackles,
Genomes tell us nothing
about our overlords;
we know we're an underclass
to these corsairs and otherlings.
They break our doors at night,
take our wives and children,
foul our consensuses with ideas
and scat full-sail on glassy seas.
Though we take them to our beds
they're unwelcome in our churches;
they profane our certainties
and stir up gifts renounced.
South of every guarded circle
is a Barbary where our rules
stand on their heads and dance
to tunes of turbans and scimitars.
Their ships fly no flags until
it's far too late and we're engaged
in the kind of bloodiness youth
prays for to spite the social good.
Every simpleminded day
guards against kidnappers,
every complacency has its dey
fat on ransom in some Algiers.
If there were no Barbary Coast
to haunt our dreams and genes
we'd eat potatoes, bed our cousins
and be as stupid as we want to be.