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Well-traveled Poet Finds Consistency in Words

April 20, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Poet, playwright and editor Nathalie Handal has lived in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Arab world. She talks with Jeffery Brown about how she has ensconced her memory and transient experiences in poetry.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, from our ongoing coverage of poets and poetry, Nathalie Handal, a writer and editor who brings poetry from different parts of the world to an American audience. She spoke to us last month while in Washington, D.C., for the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque festival.

NATHALIE HANDAL, writer and editor: My name is Nathalie Handal. I’m a poet, playwright, and writer, and editor of different anthologies.

I’m from Bethlehem. And I’ve lived in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, the United States, and the Arab world.

I’ve had a transient life, and so poetry and the word has been important because that’s what I’ve gone back to, because that has stayed. So I’ve gone back to poetry for my memories, for what I’ve left behind.

I’m always struck by the way poetry addresses our shared humanity. It makes us, you know, go to that place of dialogue. It sort of unifies us in a very important way.

I’m a co-editor for “Language for a New Century,” which I co-edited with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar. We brought together more than 400 voices, different languages, and all these voices sort of echo something of my own personal experience and has been very important in how I move forward, not only as a writer, but as a person in the world.

A reading of 'Blue Hours'

Good evening, everyone. It's so wonderful to be here at the Kennedy Center with all of you. Thank you so much for coming.

When I came to the U.S., they asked me what accent I had. And I said, "I think it's kind of French." They're like, "No, no, no, it sounds Spanish." I'm like, "OK, that's fine." You know, my parents live in Latin America now. If you want it to be Spanish, that's OK, but I come from Bethlehem. They're like, "Oh, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania." And I'm like, "No, Palestine." They're like, "Oh, Pakistan."

This next poem is called "Blue Hours." And it really reflects all countries and all the languages that are now part of me, but never forgetting where I'm from.

"Blue Hours."

In the blue hour,

the negrita cries, I hide

not to deceive the darkness

or myself...

La negrita is not far

from where I stand

her eyebrows

her one hand...

I too am visible now, behind the tree

behind the night, behind the cry

and all I want to know

is her name

and ask her:

have you ever heard

your heart undressing,

seen a stray dog at midnight

and realize he understands this hour

better than you will understand any hour?

have you seen yourself in every woman

with your eyes or in women with eyes

more difficult than yours?

have you ever really heard your voice,

echoing in your nipples?

She offers me tea,

we end up drinking coffee,

trying to reach the bottom of the cup

unafraid...

now, my teeth are stained, my English

failing me, my Arabic fading

my Spanish starting to make sense...

we are in a finca now --

perhaps we are safe,

perhaps we desire nothing else,

but I can't stop bowing in prayer

five times a day,

my country comes to me, tells me:

Compatriota -- I will always find you

no matter what language you are speaking.