A CONVERSATION WITH RUTH AWAD
BY PETER LABERGE
Ruth Awad is an award-winning Lebanese-American poet whose debut poetry collection Set to Music a Wildfire won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize from Southern Indiana Review Press. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared in New Republic, the Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Sixth Finch, Crab Orchard Review, CALYX, Diode, Southern Indiana Review, Rattle, the Adroit Journal, Drunken Boat, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest, and she was a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship.
She has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and is the blog editor at Agape Editions. She writes and lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, two Pomeranians, and two ungrateful bunnies.
First of all, congratulations on the release of Set to Music a Wildfire! I was absolutely thrilled when it was picked up, as we’ve (clearly) long been fond of your work. I’d love to know—is there a poem or two that you feel set the scene for the collection and its exploration of guilt, survival, and uncertainty? Which poems from the collection came first?
RA: Thank you! The first poem in the book – “Let me be a lamb in a world that wants my lion” – is the last poem I wrote for the collection specifically to set the tone / encompass the themes and the distances (geographic and emotional) that these poems span. It was important to me that the first poem center my father’s voice and the elements that kept surfacing in the interviews I had with him: his home in Lebanon during the war, his early days of being hungry in America, his relationship with his now-deceased father, his identity as a father himself. Some of the earliest poems I wrote toward the collection are “The Keeper of Allah’s Hidden Names,” “Surah al-Qiyamah: My Father Talks to God When Syria Occupies Tripoli, 1976,” and “Love like Samson’s Lion While My Mother Shaves My Father’s Head” – poems about my father’s faith, the Lebanese Civil War, and my parents’ marriage. I think those poems helped me locate the lynchpins in this collection.
With stunning poems like “My Father in Virginia, Surrounded by Water” and “Inheritance”, Set to Music a Wildfire deftly and intimately explores what it means to define, prove, and exist as family. I’d imagine writing this sort of collection would greatly alter—or perhaps the correct word is ‘enrich’—a great many perceptions. Did you find this was the case for you? And, if so, what do you feel was your most valuable takeaway?
RA: Oh, definitely. “My Father in Virginia…” forced me to think about my parents’ marriage as a romantic relationship and that was edifying – it was the last step in fully seeing my parents as human, complex and fallible and trying to set aside their doubts enough to simply exist together. These poems also made me consider the labor and balance that goes into being a family – the small sacrifices that make it work and the selfish impulses we still indulge.
What was the greatest challenge of drafting, editing, and releasing Set to Music a Wildfire?
RA: Oh, that’s tough. I worked on this collection for about six or so years. I revised and rewrote, revised and rewrote. I think knowing when to stop editing is important. Hopefully you have an editor who can help you hit the brakes. Ron Mitchell was so good with that. I tried to revise or cut a lot of poems from my book at the beginning of this year. Eventually he had to be like, Trust that you’ve done the work.
Switching gears a bit, what’s the most surprising or strange piece of advice you’ve ever received? Did you take it?
RA: Rosanna Warren once told me to never write “below” when “under” will do. In other words, opt for the everyday word when you can, even with prepositions. She was giving me a good lesson in controlling the register of the poem so that I only elevate the language when I mean to.
Speaking of advice—we’re fortunate to have a wide range of emerging student readers following our pages. What’s the best advice for young writers you might offer? And what do you think is the greatest popular misconception about writing as a career today?
RA: There’s this misconception that art can’t be learned – you either have talent or you don’t. But it’s a craft. Sometimes you have to learn the technical side, like how to create image and tone and rhythm in a poem. Sometimes you have to learn how to make yourself vulnerable. So be patient but diligent. Keep reading. Keep learning. Don’t get too comfortable with what you think you know.
And, to close, we’d love some parting reading suggestions. Which emerging writers have you been reading lately? Which emerging writers have got you excited?
RA: I can’t recommend Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes enough. Everyone should stop what they’re doing and read it.
Peter LaBerge’s recent work appears in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the Bucknell University Stadler Center for Poetry. He recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with his B.A. in English, and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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