Nigel Holt: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East
Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East is an anthology of work from 31 poets who are part of the poetry collective known as the Poeticians.
Sampsonia Way asked Hind Shoufani, founder of the Poeticians and curator of the book, to pick eight writers to be interviewed. In this series we present those poets’ voices and publish a poem from each.
The writer profiled in our fourth installment is Nigel Holt, a poet originally from the UK who now lives in Sharhaj, United Arab Emirates, and allowed us to publish his poem “XVII / The Lover.”
- Nigel Holt
- Nigel Holt is from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands region of the UK. He has been writing poetry since he was a teenager, but left it for over a decade before returning to his craft seriously in 2001.
- Since then, Holt has published over 150 poems in several international magazines both online and in print, including London Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Raintown Review.
- Once a training manager and consultant in the education industry, Holt now works as a full-time freelance copywriter. Currently, he resides in Sharhaj, UAE. Additional examples of his work can be found here and here.
Your poem “XVII / The Lover,” belongs to a series called A Gazan Tarot, that takes 22 different views on the Palestinian situation. “XVII / The Lover” covers a range of emotions: The feeling of entrapment, injustice, revenge, and learning forgiveness. Why did you write this poem?
Each of the poems is a card in a new major arcana (the 22 image cards one finds in a Tarot deck) and takes 22 different views on the Palestinian situation, with a concentration on the plight of the Gazans. I am hoping to find an artist who will illustrate a card for each of the poems in a chapbook. The joker, or L’excuse, the most powerful card in the pack because of its ability to negate any other card, was kept for the American spokesman.
The poems themselves are canzones, a version of the form created by WH Auden. Sixty lines long, with only six end-words that are repeated all the way through, I made the task more difficult yet by making the words fit two rhyme sets.
I wrote the poems in response to Operation Cast Lead, the iniquitous crime against humanity that the Israelis perpetrated on the people of Gaza. Since then, they have done it again. Some of the poems are bleak and hopeless—as are many, many Palestinians. Some, like “XVII / The Lover,” are more hopeful. This poem derives from the spirit of the poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose own relationship with an Israeli Jewish woman, reflects the prisoner here. This poem was also published widely on the net through online Palestinian news agencies as I entered it in a Palestinian literary competition.
I had great hope for change when Obama came in to office and made his Cairo speech. I am not so sure I am hopeful anymore. I fear things will get much worse before they get better, and while the Americans are brokers with unclean hands, this will almost certainly be the case.
Why is the Poeticians important to you?
I searched for many years for a forum for locally based poetry in the UAE—and failed. Failed, that is, until the advent of the Poeticians. It is the only real forum for poets who have more than a modicum of talent, though not without its faults.
Nowhere Near A Damn Rainbow highlights that it’s an uncensored book of “unsanctioned” writing. How have you benefited from being in an uncensored collection?
The book is self-censored. This is the Middle East, and as recent events in Bahrain have shown, writing that hits too close to home will get you a lengthy spell at His Majesty’s pleasure. For me, the lack of censorship has been in the acceptance of the subject matter. In the West, pro-Palestinian poems are not generally well-received, given the pro-Israeli bias in almost every aspect of western culture, especially since September 11, 2001.
Also, writing as I do about Dubai, I have to think about what I can safely publish. Some of my poems certainly could not be published in the UAE as they talk about, for example, a gay Filipino comedian, the murder of foreign sex workers, the behavior of a certain variety of expat, and contain thinly veiled criticisms of aspects of life in the modern UAE. However, some of my “Dubai Fifteeners” poems were recently published in the Dubai-based magazine We Are Here, and have passed the local censors. But I value my freedom, so the more controversial work is published abroad.
Can you talk about freedom of speech in the United Arab Emirates? Which topics are not allowed?
Poetry in the Middle East is a game of literary Russian roulette: If I came too close to the political and religious agendas of the elite, I’m pretty sure I’d hear about it. After all, this is a country where one in fourteen people work for the police apparatus, and security is becoming more of a concern. I carefully censor my own work. Theoretically, I could be charged with insulting other (government-friendly) leaders, or be executed for blasphemy, but as I am firmly below the radar, this is unlikely to happen. If I go viral for any reason, however…
What misunderstandings does the West have about Middle Eastern literature?
In general, I’m not that sure that they even know it exists. When Eastern literature does come through the cultural filters it is often renegotiated as pap spiritual feel-good, such as Coleman Barks’ god-awful “translations” of Rumi. Dick Davies, a professor of Persian, has translated Sadi, and keeps to his original. Also Banipal magazine, for example, often prints the work of modern Arab writers in translation, but not, notably, of modern writers in English in the Middle East. I am still waiting for a good translation of the complete works of Mahmoud Darwish, despite his death several years ago.
What are you working on now?
I’ve had somewhat of a dry spell recently. Up until a year or so ago, I would write three to four poems a month on average. In the last year I have written two poems. Partly, perhaps, because I’ve diverted my creativity into writing for work—I’m a full-time freelance copywriter now—and partly because I haven’t felt inspired. Dry spells are cyclical, and eventually, I’m sure, more will come. I am in discussion with a publisher over the “Dubai Fifteeners.” There are over sixty poems in that project, so that could fill a collection. Let’s see what 2013 brings!
A life is proof that things can change;
were always simple. No hearts
and flowers, stars
to wish upon and moon beneath, my strengths
were cold and logical, iron strengths,
unyielding to resistance, metal bars
that circumstance could never bend.
were me, for I was hardened to the strengths,
that growing up, were built on
welts made scars.
The scars a whip produces, the livid scars
that life in Gaza strokes and turns to strengths,
the slow, deliberate flail that
stroked the lengths
my childhood reached, the
anguished, painful lengths
of adolescence spent in jail, the lengths
of emptiness in solitary where strengths
were born an alien birth. I counted lengths
of time in strokes of sunlight, I counted lengths
in stripes of passing time, I looked at stars
that glistered on the golden blistered lengths
of dusk and pondered on the shameful lengths
that I would seek for my revenge. The bars
were steel, the bars were fixed, the bars…
were full of laughing men whose
of service served to wield the
whips, which scars
we bore, were made from. And they,
did they bear scars
living in their luxury? What scars
did they accept? How far to go? What lengths
to tolerate for acquiescence? My scars,
I thought, would never heal. A rash of scars
my shame concealed beneath
my growing strengths.
How could I know that others had their scars?
That those who carried weapons carried scars
as bright, as livid, as a strip of stars
that shone across the evening sky? Her stars,
those that led her to me past her scars,
past the whisky breath that sealed in bars
from pain that whipped up
hatred, defined the bars,
that held her locked in an embrace, the bars
of memory that would not give. Her scars
were every bit as real as anger’s bars
that kept her hatred bottled. She held the bars
tight-gripped between her
tight-gripped around a glass.
The hooch disbars
the conscience, the crushing
guilt, the iron bars
of hatred that times forge. Our usual strengths
relax, collapse, we free our inner strengths.
Bereft and lonely children in packed bars,
we cannot look up to the night-bright stars
for the memories they stir. We search for stars
instead in others, those lonely, burning stars
within the eyes of those for whom loud bars
are places we escape to, a room of stars,
constellations of consolation, throbbing stars
that heal us from life’s pain and form our scars.
That evening as I gazed into her stars,
the supernovae of her shooting stars,
when gently reaching down to
stroke the lengths
her sorrows had extended, I knew the lengths
my vengeance sought were distant as the stars.
And she, the fear she counted in her strengths,
was suddenly not there. I know my strengths,
they stretch beyond what wrongs
we do, our strengths
can always overcome the bitter lengths
we seek in looking for revenge, the scars
we seek to raise in welts from iron bars.
We need to look inside to find our stars.