A Concordance of Leaves (Diode Editions, 2013)
What’s the Story Behind the Chapbook?
“A Concordance of Leaves” details a 2003 visit to the village of Toura in the Palestinian West Bank, on the occasion of my sister’s wedding to a resident of the village. Though I kept a thick journal from that trip to Palestine and Israel, many years passed before this poetic sequence came to me. I’d been educating myself for years about the region, ever since my sister spent a summer in Ramallah in the early 1990s, and tried to make sense of the realities that she witnessed, and that other friends had lived through. I’ve taught Israeli and Palestinian literature since the mid-2000s, and at some point, I decided that the last day of class should include a presentation of my visit, to talk about my personal journey toward understanding. I showed photographs from the wedding, and talked about the flecks of reality that I had come to see with my own eyes, and feel with my own body.
The bits of language translated from my journal remained in an untouched Word file for many years, before I returned to the poem—for reasons that I can’t quite reconstruct. My dear teacher Catherine Bowman once said that her Tarot reader had told her that the soul lags seven years behind the present, and that’s been my experience, more or less. That the lag of the soul rhymes with the poetics of recollection. In other words, some poets may be doomed (or blessed) to work over the past.
That summer, when I looked at that file and started working on it again, this poem kept calling to me, and I kept answering. Once something like a form emerged, more and more sections, like iron filings, kept drawing to its magnetic north.
What’s so great about chapbooks, anyway?
Ever since reading Robert Hass’ multi-sectioned poems from Sun Under Wood (1998), I was attracted to the idea of the poem as an intersection or occasion for multiple meetings. The poetic sequence, the long poem, the epic poem—all have been attractive extensions of the lyric and narrative impulses in poetry. I’ve always wanted to play with narrativity and with ritual, the idea of the poem as a ceremonial event.
At some point, perhaps around the creation of Instants (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), I’d busted out from the four-sectioned poem into something that had its own life; I got interested in the idea of the poetic sequence as a sonnet in which each section was its own strophe. So some of these sequences began as 14-section pieces. But most chapbooks tend to be at least 15 pages, so I began to stretch it even farther.
Once you have a long poem or a serial poem, and you wish it to be experienced in its fullness, you have a problem. How many journals (particularly print journals) want to publish a poem that is 15-25 pages long, if your last name isn’t Ashbery or Graham? Not many. So you either break it up into consumable pieces or search for a press to give it a second life, another skin. Thanks to the proliferation of small presses, this is no longer a problem.
I owe a real debt of thanks to places like Ugly Duckling Presse (the anarchist grandmother of this movement of small presses), Diode Editions (Patty Paine!), Kattywompus Press (shout-out to Sammy Greenspan!), Flying Guillotine Press (Sommer! Tony!), Wick Poetry Series (David Hassler!). They all do it for the love of the game.
What’s up with that title?
I’m sure that I had other titles for this manuscript, but there was a flood in my office at school (thanks to a frozen pipe in the ceiling) and all the old drafts were entirely drowned. Perhaps one was “Epithalamion.” Another probably was “Palestinian Wedding.” I had some others that were also too self-conscious or too literal. I tend to go through a dozen titles as the work continues to develop and evolve. Titles are always placeholders, hypotheses, until they’re not. Then they open up the work into a new dimension. I chose “A Concordance of Leaves” because “concordance” contains multiple meanings that rhyme with the text—agreement, union, an index, etc. The “leaves” are not just the pages themselves, but also the various flora woven throughout the poem, as well as the problematics of exile, which haunt Palestinian life.
A question from Sara Tracey: If this were a “scratch and sniff,” what it smell like?
I’d say that if this were a “scratch and sniff,” this chap would smell like sage tea. I first drank sage tea in this little village in Palestine, and the smell of sage reminds me of visiting South Dakota with my beloved (she taught at Pine Ridge Reservation); but if you scratch that scent even farther, and it also reminds me coming back to the canyons of San Diego, which I used to explore as a little boy. If there’s something that poetry can aspire to do, it’s to be as primal as the scent of sage, as redolent of memory and the combination of thirst and slaking that is sage tea.
How did you get it published?
I had about ten of the poems picked up by Beloit Poetry Journal, and then I submitted this chapbook to Diode for their first chapbook contest. I was thrilled to be part of Diode Editions’ first year of book publications (I was runner-up). Patty Paine, who is teaching design at VCU/Qatar (in Doha, Qatar), had her students design various possible covers. The winner, which I chose, was a lovely colorful (but also haunted) cover. I wanted something that was celebratory, richly-toned, but also textured and real.
What advice would you give to poets about writing their own chapbooks?
Every poem is its own journey; a chapbook is a kind of way station, a gathering of those sojourners. My advice to every writer is the paradox articulated by Kurt Cobain. Take your time, hurry up, don’t be late. Which is to say: work every day. Every day, on poetry. It’s not some sort of affectation, it’s a discipline, a practice. Don’t wait for the muse. That said, let your poems develop—a metaphor that makes less sense now that photography is instantaneous. Let them gestate. Don’t let them go until they’re ready to stand. When you have a whole small gaggle of them, put them together and see if they don’t make a new thing. If they do, then you have something to send out as a chapbook
Born in San Diego on July 4th, 1970, Philip Metres grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Holy Cross College in 1992, and spent the following year in Russia on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, pursuing an independent project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change.” Since receiving a Ph.D. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University in 2001, Metres has written a number of books and chapbooks, including The Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein (forthcoming, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (chapbook, Diode Editions, 2013), abu ghraib arias (chapbook, Flying Guillotine, 2011), Ode to Oil (chapbook, Kattywompus Press, 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (University of Iowa Press, 2007), Instants (a chapbook, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), Primer for Non-Native Speakers (chapbook, Kent State 2004), Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling 2004), and A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (Zephyr 2003).
His writing–which has appeared widely, including in Best American Poetry–has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award (for the forthcoming Sand Opera), the Anne Halley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, the Cleveland Arts Prize, and the Creative Workforce Fellowship (thanks to the Community Partnership of Arts and Culture). His work has been called “beautiful, powerful, magnetically original” (Cleveland Arts Prize citation). Lawrence Joseph has written that “Philip Metres’s poetry speaks to us all, in ways critical, vital, profound, and brilliant.” His poems have been translated into Arabic, Polish, Russian, and Tamil.
from A Concordance of Leaves
because there is a word for love in this tongue
that entwines two people as one
& there is a word for love in this tongue
that nests in the chambers of the heart
& a word for love in this tongue that wanders
the earth, for love in this tongue in which you lose
yourself in this tongue & a word that carries
sorrow within its vowels & a word for love
that exudes from your pores & a word
for love that shares its name with falling
If to Bethlehem we must pass through Wadi Nar
If your license plates are painted blue & black
If your permit permits no passage across bypass highways
If from a distance the road carves alephs or alifs
If no man’s land is where men live who have no land
If you lower your sunshield & block the hilltop settlement
If Wadi Nar is the Valley of Fire
If we must travel beneath the level of our eventual grave
If we arrive & they ask how are you, we are to say thank God
having been warned to tell the truth
and nothing but the truth or else
I shall be subjected to penal action
I, the undersigned, do hereby swear
the sun-cured page of each tobacco leaf awaits
to be crushed & burned into lungs
each olive tree has a thousand eyes
that ripen in sight
& the pomegranates of Toura are little planets
nor mouth nor fence can fit around