Shara Lessley, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale (New Issues, 2012). Her awards include the Mary Wood Fellowship from Washington College, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, and Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship, among others. A recent resident of the Middle East, Shara was awarded a 2015 Poetry Fellowship from the NEA and is currently editing an anthology of essays on poetry and place with the poet Bruce Snider. Her poem “Letter to Bruce in Paradise, Indiana” can be found here. It appears with another poem in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Letter to Rania in Amman”?
I’d already written “Letter to Bruce in Paradise, Indiana” for The Explosive Expert’s Wife (which meditates on the years I lived in the Middle East) and knew the poem needed a counterpart, one that would appear later in the book. In some ways, Bruce and Rania mirror each other. Although the geographical perspectives in the poems are reversed, the epistolary mode establishes intimacy from the get-go. Letter poems are terrific in that they facilitate both self-reflection and the anecdotal. The form is also great because it accommodates the kinds of quick shifts that happen in everyday conversation, or in writing we typically think of as being “stream-of-consciousness.” As a poet—as an American expat—I’m very mindful of how I write about the people of Jordan, as well as the place. Writing from an outsider’s perspective is fraught with risks—appropriation, inclination to romanticize the material, or render someone or someplace as the exotic other. In this case, I wanted to write a love letter without objectifying my friend or reducing her to a cultural token. I hope that “Letter to Rania in Amman” emphasizes the fact that our collective humanity transcends place. The milestones we share as people really have nothing to do with one continent versus another. At the same time, for Rania and for me, Jordan is at the heart of all of this. Or maybe Jordan is the heart of it. Our story wouldn’t be our story without the country itself. In this sense, the poem is also a love letter to the kingdom itself.
Midway through the poem, you write: “Sunday / I followed a woman through Target / feigning interest in robes to hear her speak / Arabic. ahmar or aswad?—she didn’t / know.” What effect does a familiar language have in a foreign place? It appears to be a moment of connection, but there’s a disconnect at the end of this—can you talk a bit about “she didn’t / know”?
Research suggests that that studying a foreign language fosters empathy in children. I suspect the same is true of adult learners. Although I worked hard to learn as much conversational Arabic as I could, my speaking skills were rudimentary at best. Even my mistakes—and there were many, many mistakes (the sun is “a giant apricot!”)—gave me joy. When struggling to communicate, small successes warrant celebration. Simple things, like reading billboards in Arabic or lists of ingredients at the grocery store made me happy. (Still make me happy.) It’s true that in the early months after returning to the states I shadowed a woman in a Northern Virginia Target to listen to her debate the merits of long-sleeved shirts (not robes, as in the poem). She was with her husband, who couldn’t care less about the patterns or price tags in Women’s Wear. I didn’t really care either, but was hungry for those sounds—those rich, guttural sounds of a language that was everywhere around me for three years. And because there are so many regional dialects in Arabic, I was especially excited to recognize speech that echoed the Jordanian vernacular. So I stood there for awhile, sort of answering in my head, trying to remember how to say things like, “The orange blouse with the blue flowers is beautiful” but opting for simpler phrases. Jameela jidaan, for instance. And you’re absolutely right about the disconnect at the end of the scene (“. . . ahmar or aswad?—she didn’t / know”). The “she” may as well be me at that point. Although benign in the poem (the shopper is trying to decide which color she wants), not “knowing” can be painful. When I came back to the states, my Arabic all but vanished. And this loss—not unlike saying goodbye to a dear friend, to a community you love—is another layer of grief.
The narrator of your poem is reflecting both on the past and how quickly she (or you) has arrived in the present. Further along, she imagines their sons meeting as adults. How did you settle on this sense of time, this sense of fast-forwarding and rewinding all at once?
“Letter to Rania” is about longing—longing for a city, a culture, a person (a people), a particular moment in time. Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances—I think Hass nails it in “Meditation on Lagunitas.” Desire doesn’t play by the rules of distance, or time. This freedom—the ability to move beyond the confines of daybreak and dusk—is one of the lyric’s gifts. When I’m writing a poem, time doesn’t define me. Its power doesn’t shape the stanza or bend the line. The sad (inevitable) fact is that Amman continues to move on. Even if I return to Jordan in the near future, the kingdom will never be what it was those years I called it home. Thus, my impetus as a poet to flash forward to the boys. It’s unlikely my son, who was born in Amman, will reunite with Rania’s. But the poem allows me to imagine an alternative. It gives into the fantasy, so to speak. Within the lyric, I can map a path back—even if that path is in snow.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Time! Time is the big theme of this conversation, I guess. It’s all about scraps of time. Real time. Stealing time. Between picking-chunks-of-green-toothpaste-out-of-my-toddler’s-hair time, and keeping-an-eye-on-when-we’re-going-to-run-out-of-milk time. In the beginning when I was young and hungry and relatively unobligated, the hours I spent reading and thinking and writing and making mistakes on the page seemed limitless. Life is more hectic now. I teach privately and have two young children. Improvisation has become necessity. Because of the current political climate and danger in this country, I also feel a heightened sense of responsibility and urgency. Whatever I put in the world I want to count.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
Bruce Snider and I are co-editing The Poem’s Country (forthcoming 2018), an anthology of essays on poetry and place solicited from a distinguished group of writers including Shane McCrae, Monica Youn, Peter Streckfus, Sandra Lim, Wayne Miller, and Nick Lantz—just to name a few. The project has been a labor of love, truly. We have essays on cosmo-poetics and aquariums. One writer narrates a horse necropsy; another recalls the riots in Compton. Our contributors share their thoughts on the gay rural poem, how neuroscience shapes our perception of place, Pima song and the ethics of food production. There’s a wonderful lyric essay on an invented land called MOTHER.
I’m writing essays about Jordan—trying to tackle some of the more complicated stories that couldn’t withstand lyric compression. I’ve also moved back overseas (this time to England) where I work with Oxford Writers’ House, an organization that connects people with the city’s literary groups, events, and resources. It’s a juggling act, really. This, with a husband, two kids, and a dog. Like everyone else, I’m trying to keep all the balls in the air.