A Conversation with Seif-Eldeine Och, Poetry Chapbook Winner
This year’s chapbook contest was, for me, full of surprises and strength all throughout. Each year that I judge becomes more difficult, given the quantity and the quality of the work we receive, and I was certain that I had read the winner on numerous different occasions. That is, of course, until I came across Seif-Eldeine Och’s “Voices From a Forgotten Letter: Poems on the Syrian Civil War.”
Seif-Eldeine’s collection of poems is unique. It is special. Through numerous different voices and lenses, Och does not simply give to us a portrait of a nation at war but, rather, the feeling of existing, when war seems to be all around you. Rather than going the typical “Western Media” route of keeping the focus on the atrocities and horrors of such a conflict, he brings us into the homes and lives of everyday Syrians, and he shows to us all that war is so much more than just soldiers fighting. These poems are delivered with such a cool head and even keel that one can’t help but become immersed not just in the conflict, but in the ongoing everyday lives of people who, while not involved in the fighting, endure it as a part of their daily life, and accept that—war or not—their lives must still be lived.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Seif-Eldeing via Zoom, whilst locked away in a hotel room in Quantico, VA, and babysitting my infant son. These are two things I would recommend to NO ONE who may be trying to comfortably interview any individual, but we managed to pull it off. For your reading pleasure, I give you some of the highlights from our conversation below:
M: So why don’t we start with you telling us all a little bit about yourself, as the person and the writer?
S-E: Yeah! Well, I am a Syrian-American, and I am a huge Celtics fan. I have to mention that; that’s a big part of my identity, too. Being Syrian is a big part of my identity. My dad grew up there and came here in 1981, and I was born in 1986. I visited there a lot when I was young. I went for the first time in 2001, and then multiple times after. The last I visited was 2009, and the war – the protests began in 2010 – and the war began in 2011, so I was pretty close to that time.
M: So you were there almost as the tension peaked, or when everything was coming to a loggerhead?
S-E: No. I was, like, right before that.
M: Okay. And, as an aside, as a native New Yorker, I won’t take issue with you being a Celtics fan. We all know that the Knicks suck. But does this also make you a Red Sox fan?
S-E: Yeah I am a Red Sox fan, so you got me beat with both of your teams. The Mets are good this year.
M: They are! But all that means to any good Mets fan is that we’re overdue for an implosion. We all know it’s bound to happen. One of those “Don’t trust to hope” kind of things.
But anyway, you were born in the States, but you had visited Syria numerous times through your young adulthood. This is very cool. Very interesting, because when I first read your collection, I had assumed that you were born and grew up in Syria. The reality of everything in the narrative had me dead certain that you were a native Syrian who had emigrated here, possibly at the start of – or during – the conflict.
S-E: Yeah . . . I took a lot of time, you know, taking in interviews; taking in documentaries; taking my own experiences and education. I was a Middle Eastern Studies major in college, so I was using that and a lot of elements that were just there, and happened to be useful at a time I think it’s needed.
M: I couldn’t agree more. So where did you go to school?
S-E: I went to Tufts University.
M: Very cool. So, was it like a part of your major to conduct a lot of these interviews, or was it a personal choice?
S-E: Neither, actually. I just looked into documentaries from outlets like Vice News, and interviews I found online. The Washington Post had a lot of great material. U.N. Aid actually had a lot of great material that I lifted from. Like the detail about the pet pigeon in one of the poems, that is from an U.N. Aid advertisement.
M: I did love the line with the pigeon. It gave such a more personal nature to that poem, and I think it really conveyed a sense of sparseness or scarcity to the front. So you kind of found all of these poems through various witness documentaries and interviews? Things any of us could have seen or found, but more than likely glossed over?
S-E: Yeah! And then I took the scaffolding of the poems from a lot of different – I would say – blue-collar American worker poets, like Phil Levine . . .
M: There is definitely an air of Phil Levine and Larry Levis that I can grasp from reading your poems, and I think that kind of scaffolding helps to set the tone for this collection. I was very amazed at how even-keeled these poems are, especially given the weight and severity of the content. You keep such a level-headed tone that, no matter what was being shown or given to us, it seemed like just another day.
How did you manage that, especially with such heavy and emotionally personal content?
S-E: I think the better question might be: “How do I ever get out of that tone?” I try so hard to get out of that tone sometimes. It’s just something that . . . It just comes natural to me. It’s a tone that I work in. My second manuscript has a completely different tone from that. At that point, I wanted to grow into something different. I don’t want to be repeating the same thing my whole career, and this is just the start.
MB: How much difficulty did you find transitioning all of this found material onto the page in the way you did? Was there much manipulation involved?
S-E: Not a lot. Not a lot. So, I sort of compartmentalize when I am writing. So I’ll have the scaffolding from the imitation, then I’ll have . . . Maybe I’ll be looking at the article, and I’ll take the information from the article and fit it into the syntax and the feeling, and the tone of the poem I am using as a model. And that makes it easier. But dude, I take YEARS to make edits on these poems. These poems are coming from, like, 11-12-13 years ago.
MB: I was certain of that. From what I know of the Syrian Civil War is that when the Obama Administration ended, it seemed like the major news sources all started to go: “Let’s just close this thing out.” It seemed to just fade out. And I am sure that it’s a conflict that – if not still ongoing – has a long process of rebuilding ahead.
S-E: There is limited action currently. Right now, it’s more of a refugee crisis, but there is still fighting in the north – in the Kurdish section – and in Halib, where a lot of terrorists are. But the government has retaken control of massive amounts of the country. So, the conflict is sort of limited nowadays.
So, I sort of process my emotions through my poetry a lot. In my day-to-day, I’m not thinking too much about the Syrian conflict or other things. I’m trying to relax because that work does take a mental toll if you’re just doing it all day long. My job is like that. It’s very emotionally challenging.
MB: What do you do, if you don’t mind my asking?
S-E: I am a TMS Technician. I treat people with major depressive disorders. So I make sad people happy.
MB: Which can be a very emotionally draining thing. Would you say, in your approach to your poetry, is it kind of a way of processing or offsetting that emotional drain?
S-E: Not really. It’s more just processing my emotions and my thoughts and how I view the world. I was concerned about getting caught up in overarching narratives and such. I wanted to get down to different points. I tried to write from as many points of view as possible. I was trying to explore as many psyches as I possibly could.
MB: Which you certainly accomplish in this work. I am very excited to help get this book off the ground with you. You really do have a gift for voice, and for viewing.
So, the one question I ask to each writer is: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anybody who is working to publish a manuscript of poems, or just working to get themselves published? Really, to anyone who is trying to get themselves into this realm?
S-E: Honestly, if possible, get a job where you can write on the job. Or just write any way you can. Was it T.S. Eliot who used to write on the bank checks?
MB: I think that was William Carlos Williams. He used to write on the prescription pads.
S-E: Yeah. That’s the best way. As a poet, you may not be looking for the most glamorous job, anyway, so something that will pay the bills and keep food on the table, and allow you extra time to write is just perfect.
MORE FROM AUTUMN 2022 (4:2)
do you see me, Maya Hersh
Delineation of a Woman’s First Child as Her True Religion, Abduljalal Musa Aliyu
Busted Cantaloupe: Pilgrim, Isibeal Owens
Pray the Elegy, Njoku Nonso
Semper Augustus, Jessie Zechnowitz Lim
THE SEA SQUIRT LOSES ITS MIND, Claire Scott
The Long Call of Yearning, Guy D’Annolfo
Djinn and Men, Biswadarshan Mohanty
Last Communion, Joan Kwon Glass