Trauma and the Obligations of Poetry: A Conversation with Harold Schweizer

Laura Solomon (LS): Your poem “Shayma Interviewed by a Medical Red Cross Staff Member in Corigliano Calabro” begins with an epigraph from a story that appeared in the Independent:

“A ‘ghost ship’ carrying hundreds of Syrian refugees including pregnant women and children has been towed safely to Italy after being abandoned by its crew.”

The poem then takes its shape in couplets that perform a Q & A which feels simultaneously otherworldly and of the world’s actual events. The first line reads “What is your name?” and is followed by “Yes, I. Shayma. My father fell.” Can you tell me—who is Shayma?

Harold Schweizer (HS): The abandonment of the refugees by the crew of the ship that was supposed to bring them to safety replays a version of all the abandonments they have suffered and will suffer. To respond by writing about them is to counteract such abandonments. It is to say, I will not abandon you. It is to say, “Here I am,” as French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes our obligation to a person who suffers. So, that’s the setup for, and the obligation of, the poem.

The most direct answer to your question about Shayma is this: she is a nine-year old Syrian girl, whose age suggests a simultaneous inward cohabitation of defenseless innocence and acute moral awareness. Shayma is a face among the faceless thousands who undertake the perilous journey to safety. In another poem, I express the impossibility of the refugees’ dilemma in the phrase “if we do not drown we burn.”

What the Red Cross staff member is about to hear will be the fragmented reconstruction of a trauma that renders Shayma’s narrative, as you rightly note, both real and otherworldly. Whereas the staff member’s language throughout this piece is overtly prosaic and rational, Shayma’s responses are, as the questions intensify, increasingly descriptive of a trauma that cannot be conveyed through conventional language. Already in the opening line, she seems as if called out of a trance when she responds: “Yes,” and then in answer to the question—“I”—and then, as if in a slight hesitation remembering her name, “Shayma.” In other words, these three opening words exemplify the fragmentary reconstruction Shayma attempts throughout. Abruptly upon recalling her identity, she utters her most pressing concern: her father has died—the word “fell’ implying a mysterious cause. Loss begins to unravel the identity haltingly accomplished in the first three words, as if Shayma wanted to ask, who can I say I am, if my father—who likely survived her mother’s and sisters’ deaths—is no longer with me?

LS: One way to read this poem is to surmise that this is Shayma’s first attempt to recount what has happened to her and that this initial communication bears tremendous consequence with regard to her self-identity—which, as you’ve just pointed out, has been irrevocably redefined. On one hand the Red Cross staff member fails her, doesn’t or can’t connect with her; on the other hand, that questioning voice opens up a space for her to explore, through speech, who she is now in the wake of tragedy. One could also read this poem as the umpteenth time Shayma has related her grief to someone who ultimately cannot comprehend it. Either way, we experience both Shayma’s pain and the limits of the interviewer’s ability to empathize. While writing this poem, how aware were you of the navigation between these two personas, and what were your qualms, if any, about assuming these voices?

HS: I appreciate the complexity of this question. Given the constraints of access to help and services the refugees face on their flight from Syria, I would assume this is the first time Shayma is interviewed. I imagine her being otherwise hidden, even forgotten, in her anonymity amongst the thousands who are trying to escape the violence of war. Yes, I would agree that the interviewer’s questions open up, as you say, a space for Shayma within which she gropes for memory, articulation, connection, and continuity while at the same time she might be terrified by the haunting images of her family’s destruction. In some sense you are right to say that the Red Cross staff member—who could be either male or female—can’t really connect to Shayma and thereby fails her. But it’s not a moral failure; anyone listening to a traumatized person must necessarily fail to grasp the depth and severity of the wounding. Every trauma, even if endured in a collective catastrophe, is suffered individually—and thus, to a large degree, each trauma is suffered in searing solitude. The various misalignments between the questions and Shayma’s responses point up the unspeakable that resonates in the very gaps of the misconnections. Here, then, is another aspect of Shayma’s solitude—a solitude all the more painful since she has to all appearances arrived in Coriglio alone and bereft of her family. While the agony of the sufferer is simply unimaginable to the person who witnesses it, we cannot conclude that the interviewer does not make every attempt to connect with the girl.

I was very aware of the difference between the two voices and wanted purposefully to bring out Shayma’s traumatized speech by contrast with the interviewer’s conventional language. Qualms? Yes, because I need to do justice—morally and poetically in this case—to my obligation to speak on behalf of a person whose trauma I must make neither spectacular nor sentimental. I must acknowledge precisely that solitude of which I spoke above, and I must not write out of self-interest, but in the interest of another. Indeed, the otherness of Shayma’s speaking is as other to me as it might be to you; I too cannot fully comprehend the privacy and horror of her references. But I am, of course, finally not the judge of the success or failure of my attempt to assume those voices.

LS: I’ve been reading your collection The Book of Stones and Angels, and I think the observation that “each trauma is suffered in searing solitude” is central to the poems in that book as well. Nevertheless, formally speaking, “Shayma Interviewed” is quite different from those in your book. Could you talk about how your writing has recently been changing and why? Or is this poem an outlier?

HS: Yes, that thought is likely central to those poems as well, and it is probably what compels me to write. To write about trauma, in other words, may be a personal necessity. While those poems with their obsessive troping of stones as hermetic markers of traumatic secrecy seek to invoke a redemptive, angelic opening I have sought, in some recent poems, to give voice to trauma in more historical contexts. That is to say, I’m asking myself: can the one who may have wrest his tongue out of stones lend the same tongue to others? Hence Shayma, nine years old, almost silenced by Assad’s barrel bombs.

I have also more recently gone back into my prehistory, so to speak, in a long poem of some 2,600 lines entitled Miriam’s Book, to find a justification, moral and aesthetic, to speak on behalf of others, or even more daringly, to assume their voices. Miriam’s Book is about a young Jewish woman’s traumatic experiences in World War II and, subsequently, her child’s exposure to her mother’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

Formally, “Shayma Interviewed” is only a slight stylistic departure. Several poems in The Book of Stones and Angels also lean towards dialogue, but none so explicitly. I want now to experiment with poetic form to make it permeable, so that it might absorb some contemporary history that cannot be contained in, say, lyrical convention. Hence the genre of the interview, or in another poem the genre of the testimony, or in another yet the disruption of poetic form and syntax by traumatic memory.

LS: When researching your work for this interview, I expected to find multiple volumes of poetry and was intrigued to discover instead the considerable effort you’ve devoted to literary philosophy over the years. I am particularly eager to read Suffering and the Remedy of Art, given our conversation thus far. Have you always written poetry? You write with a feeling for imagery and poetic form that suggests a lifetime of practice, and yet it seems you’re just beginning to publish your poems.

HS: Thank you for these very generous words. Indeed, I started writing poetry in earnest only in 2005 or thereabouts. But I’ve hummed to myself all my life and have secretly composed lines and verses in innumerable notebooks. When I wrote “Of Stones and Angels,” the title poem of my book, I had not even dared to think to seek publication for it. It is only because of the generosity and encouragement of poets like Katie Ford and Tess Gallagher that I began to take my poetry seriously. That said, my work in criticism and literary theory is not really antithetical to my writing of poems, and I’d like to imagine that my prose has always gravitated—sometimes perilously—towards poetic rhythms and phrases. I hope that I might have learned something from poets like Rilke, Wordsworth, Stevens, Merwin, and Bishop, and I am deeply indebted to the philosophic prose of Maurice Blanchot, Walter Benjamin, and Emmanuel Levinas, and to novelists like W. G. Sebald and José Saramago.

In Suffering and the Remedy of Art I argue that a literary education can teach us how to attend to a suffering person. In a more recent book, On Waiting, I examine that question more deeply; there I propose that reading, writing, thinking, empathy, and appreciation are all functions of waiting—and that waiting, as Simone Weil has suggested, must be relearned as a form of attention. On Waiting departs from the academic style of some of my earlier writings and marks more overtly a passage toward the writing of poetry.

LS: You mention W. G. Sebald, who also began publishing creative work (to great critical acclaim) somewhat later in life. What do you find to be the advantages of having postponed a poetic practice and/or a publishing debut until now? I suppose an answer to this question might be inferred from what you’ve just asserted regarding Weil’s theory of attention, but perhaps you could elaborate on the benefits of waiting as it pertains to writing.

HS: I grew up in Switzerland, where one was commonly discouraged from writing poetry. If I had voiced such an intention, it would no doubt have been judged as presumptuous. We have Goethe and Schiller, the bearded guardians of the canon would have said—why should you want to compete with them? Thus the postponement of my writing of poetry was in good part culturally determined. Since today my creative work is free from any professional obligation, I experience it as a great freedom, a privilege—the privilege of having been allowed to find a voice—for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t really think of an advantage that postponing one’s writing career might afford other than that one might perhaps avoid the inauthenticity of imitative writing, though I would say that waiting is an essential aspect of writing itself. Writing is a kind of waiting. As I write I have to wait for that which wants to come into words. If I look at a page of writing all I see is time traced in words. What is visible at first is nothing but the namelessness of time—in the sentence, the line, the page. The poem that waits to be born by such means is not yet visible. But the very discipline of writing might help it to emerge, and what I then see is that I have made something out of time. I have resisted the anonymity of time. To write is to write against those aspects of time by which we are erased and forgotten. Thus, the test of a persuasive poem for me is whether something comes about in it. Does Shayma come about in that poem? Does her suffering? Or is that poem just time traced in words? Does she remain hidden and forgotten, or does she come into words?



Laura Solomon, public outreach and digital projects manager at The Georgia Review, is currently co-executive director at the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Hermit (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011).