Diode Interviews George Abraham

Editor: What prompted you to start writing poetry?

George Abraham: In high school, I took a Creative Writing class and was forced to write poetry. I was always interested in movies and screenwriting, which was a major component of the class, so I figured I’d just rough through the poetry weeks to learn about more interesting things. Turns out, I ended up loving poetry much more than fiction and screenwriting, and after the class, I would find myself writing poems on the bus everyday. One of my friends who rode the bus with me was a poet in our school’s spoken word group—the Expressionists. He eventually convinced me to come to a meeting, and I fell in love with performance poetry, and started writing poetry with a performative flair ever since.

What writers have influenced you?

I always have to give a shout-out to my mentors: Larry Knight and Perry Divirgilio (Vision) for their patience and wisdom, guiding me from the very beginning of my journey. I find myself being most strongly influenced by my peers/closest friends in the writing community, especially my OASIS friends—Swarthmore’s spoken art collective—Cat Velez, Julian Randall, Noel Quiñones, Nader Helmy, Tiauna Lewis, and many more. Attending national poetry slams such as CUPSI or NPS has allowed me to meet a lot of other Middle-Eastern/North African poets, who have become some of my closest friends and poetic peer mentors—among them are Jess Rizkallah, Hazem Fahmy, Noura Jaber, Marwa Helal, Safia Elhillo, Adam Hamze, and many more lovelies. Aside from my peers, I have learned so much from the writing of Hala Alyan, Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, Douglas Kearney, Donika Kelly, and Ada Limόn—to name a few!

How does your experience as a slam poet inform your work?

Slam poetry has always given my page poetry a sense of urgency and velocity, which I see as necessary qualities for telling my own narrative. The slam community has taught me the importance of honing one’s own narrative, and to be conscious of the space my own work takes up with respect to the larger community. I write to save lives. I write for my community as much as I write for myself. From an ideological perspective, these values and motivations behind writing come from my upbringing in the slam community. From a craft perspective, slam poetry taught me how to have a stronger control of the pace, momentum, and emotions in my page poetry. I write every poem with consideration to how I will read it, and how the intonations, pace, and pitch will change throughout the course of the piece.

Identity and otherness seem central in your work, how does poetry allow you to speak to these subjects?

Again, the relationship between identity and my poetry is largely a consequence of my upbringing in the slam community, which puts emphasis on uplifting one’s own narrative. There is, however, a simultaneous pressure, of sorts, I feel to write identity-specific pieces, and I am grappling with the fact that every poem I write, by nature, is a Palestinian poem, regardless of the subject matter. However, given the current political state of affairs in the US, and the increasingly pessimistic situation in Israel-Palestine, I feel emotionally compelled to continue advocating for the Palestinian struggle through writing, and consequently, my writing on other aspects of my identity has sort of taken a back seat for the moment.

You wrote that you “hope to continue bringing awareness to Palestinian human rights and socio-economic struggles through art.” Can you tell us more about your interest in these issues, and how art can raise awareness?

As a second generation Palestinian-American, given America’s complacency with the Israeli occupation, I feel like it is my duty and obligation to advocate for Palestinian resistance, in order to start dialogue and compel Americans to educate themselves on a side of the conflict that is often erased from public perception. I do not believe that art, alone, can make change in the Middle East; I do, however, see art as a first step in starting conversations. Like many artists of color, I accompany my own art with groundwork and activism, not just with the Palestinian cause, but also with many other intersecting causes such as Black Lives Matter and the ongoing struggle Native Americans face in the USA. Art, in my experience, also functions as a way to create dialogue between different activist movements, and helps create the atmosphere of coalition and solidarity that is essential to all of our liberations. The first step towards liberating ourselves is to make the other side see us as human. I believe that art is the most humanizing force on the planet, and that my poetry is an extension of my humanity.

How do you negotiate/navigate the personal and the political in your poems?

In the current state of affairs, my very personhood is political. The fact that I am a writer from a displaced Palestinian family, in and of itself, is a very political statement, and I have come to realize that I cannot separate the political from the personal in my own work. As I said before, this has placed a sort of pressure on me, and on young artists of color, to write work that reacts to the political day and age in an overt, resistive manner. But I have also come to find the most beautiful, powerful resistance in the subtleties and details of my narrative, because my perception of my own reality is tainted by the politicization of that reality. I do not mean to condemn writers for any sort of subject matter they choose to write about; I mean, sometimes survival, in and of itself, is the strongest political statement we can make.

How would you explain poetry to a four-year-old?

I would say, maybe they won’t understand all of what I’m saying, or maybe they will, but poetry is the art of survival - it is the simplest, most intimate type of storytelling. It is what set Rapunzel free from her confines, what made the gingerbread man uncatchable, and the culmination of everything humanity could never give us. And in that sense, it is a contradiction; it’s a testament to everything we are, and want to be.

Click here to read Abraham’s poems in this edition of Diode.