Marwa Helal Interviews Moheb Soliman
Winter 2016 Issue of Mizna
The work of interdisciplinary artist Moheb Soliman-part poetry, part performance, part visual-asks more questions than it answers. It is generative in that way the best art is. Each onlooker walks away with a different answer to his riddles. In his latest, "Attention Visitors Attention," a poetry installation, which grew out of a project funded by the Joyce Foundation, becomes a collaboration with the National Parks Service, the Great Lakes, and nature itself, wherein poetry lives on a signpost camouflaged as park signage. The experience of these "found poems" is enthralling. We talk about this, climate change belonging, and identity, plus what to pack for a perfect picnic in the conversation that follows.
This exchange took place over Gchat after a brief phone call reacquainting ourselves. Ellipses in the interview were used to signal a conversational pause or trailing off in thought, and are reprinted here true to our conversation. Subscribe now to get a copy
Nature poet: Walt Whitman
Thunder or lightning: Thunder
Picnic essentials: Mmm. Smoked fish, cucumber, some sort of hard cheese like manchego, cherries or melon, some sort of sparkling wine like cava.
Marwa Helal, 9:10 p.m.: So it was nice to catch up a bit. A I was saying... as a teen, when I lived in Ludington, Michigan, a small rural town on the west shore of Lake Michigan, I would go on these solo drives and walks through the sand dunes that were very restorative and inspiring. To try to get back into that place I've been listening to a lot of Bon Iver lately. It gives me that feeling of being out in the wilderness and reminds me of that solitude of my youth. Do you relate to this feeling? Is there an artist that makes you feel like you're in the wilderness even when you're sitting in a busy cafe or at an intersection?
Moheb Soliman,9:14 p.m.: When it comes to wilderness and drives, those two make for very distinctive experiences in the Midwest. It's not as much an escape into nature like the West or on the coasts. But I really appreciate that you brought up music, because it figures a lot into my writing, though there's a tension there always because words are so reductive and music is so beautifully abstract. Experiencing music to me is really kin to experiencing nature, because it's just so fundamentally abstract and extra human. . .music without words especially, but even with words, singing changes the hard, definitive quality of language, which we're completely immersed in. I've listened to Billy Callahan a lot, when I've been out. Formerly Smog. He's such an incredible lyricist but makes so much space with his spare words. . .
MH, 9:19 p.m.: Yes, I love him. "Say Valley Maker" comes to mind.
MS, 9:20 p.m.: I just looked up the lyrics now-wow yes. I love that whole album. And the song "Drinking at the Dam" pretty much sums up so much of what we're saying. The words yeah, but I mean the mood, the sound, the music.
MH, 9:20 p.m.: Reminds me of one of your signposts, "the quieter things get / the louder / the colors / the flora the fauna" captures the synesthesia of the outdoors so succinctly. I was cheering when I read this. What are your thoughts about the connection between the senses and writing?"
MS, 9:20 p.m.: Whew that's a big one Marwa-that's like my existential crisis with poetry and writing. I could find some stupidly dense attempts at describing this in ever essay and grant I wrote in the past ten years. But here goes. . .
MH, 9:21 p.m.: We are here for the big questions. What else is poetry for?
MS, 9:24 p.m.: !! You know, you're so right. The thing that poetry really and truly is for me is getting us as close as possible to capturing how we can't help but live with language. . .yet, we know that our bodies and senses transcend it in experiencing things. So, for me, poetry can work with that because it's non-narrative. It doesn't have to stick to logic and order. It can capture some measure of how our psyche works in the world, and by pushing language to its limits in being the most non-narrative, expressionistic, associative form, it. . .points to its own limit. We can't escape language, but we can at least use it to see that existential condition we are in. And when we tune into it, the natural world really radically forces us to see the limits of what being human is. Poetry does that from the inside. . .and I feel that embodiment and presence and sensuality are so so fleeting. All I can hope to do is work with that tension in writing.
MH, 9:37 p.m.: Your park signs encompass an excellent sense of humor as well as depth of feeling and truth. How did you come up with this idea?
MS, 9:41 p.m.: There's definitely humor, and even more like, absurdity. It comes out of trying to reckon with the impossible desire for the "real" of nature, and how in fact it's always managed and mediated. Like there's a poem in that set of signs that uses the bathroom symbols, with this sentiment of "please be real beach / please be real sand / and have been here / before the men's room / before the women's room."
MS, 9:43 p.m.: About national parks signs generally, I was struck by how all over wilderness, you find these plaques posted up with this faceless authority of the National Parks Service just speaking to you, warning you, helping you, and I wanted to commandeer that, I guess. Which I found funny. . .
MH, 9:43 p.m.: Right, let's talk about Egypt and the real beach then. You are from Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of the world situated at the intersection of two of the most incredible bodies of water: the Mediterranean and the Nile. Is this where your relationship with water begins?
MS, 9:45 p.m.: Surely. Surely some part of me feels resonance between the Great Lakes where I've been living all around and the Mediterranean and Red Sea where I spent much of my childhood. I never figure the Nile into the equation, that's really interesting, especially since I'm now living on the Mississippi. But I'd say it's more a relationship with a very special sort of water body, larger than life and as obliterating in scale as oceans, but much more intimate in terms of being so much more closely encircled and traversed by people. Places and people around the Great Lakes and the Mediterranean, respectively, have a very intertwined history, economy, ecology, and that's evident, even when you're on one shore looking out into oblivion.
I grew up going to the Mediterranean all the time, with a big family. They used to put out water melons on ropes overnight to get them nice and cold for breakfast. . .I tried that in a couple of lakes I think. We left Egypt when I was 6. In fact we never really lived near any water again here in the US, but I've been in close proximity to the Great Lakes for much of my life here, and I think I just started to really become fascinated with this sublime body of water at my back door sort of, and a million others' back doors who all live on-and with-the Great Lakes.
MH, 9:47 p.m.: Beautiful, belonging and immigration are prominent themes in this project. Speak to us of these themes, and what does it mean for you as an Egyptian American to have your place in the parks in this way?
MS, 9:47 p.m.: Gulp ok.
MS, 9:48 p.m.: For sure, those are major themes for me always, but always sort of sideways, through the window and never the front door. I really am just enthralled with the natural world in our time and how it shifts our sense of belonging and place and identity, but there's a much more complex and personal aspect to all this for someone who's thinking about these issues as an immigrant in North America.
MH, 9:51 p.m.: Yes, 2ywaa. "Sideways through the window not the front door." I can hear this in Arabic and it is very funny. Well said.
MS, 9:52 p.m.: I mean, by and large, immigrants to the US are after the American Dream in a big way. They want to belong to the mainstream, which we don't actually reckon with very well or often. And their vision of that is shaped by dominant American culture, their access to what this country means, its lands and waters and The West is safeguarded by European colonial culture. So, when someone like me desires to be American, and works very hard toward that as an immigrant in places like Oklahoma and Ohio, in a way I'm really initiating myself into a very incredible and complex nation-building project, with a very particular attitude toward nature and the environment. . .What I mean is, how does an immigrant go about claiming home and lifestyle in a place where they have no roots? How do they even imagine the domain of nature in the first place in their new home? Like, camping itself is a completely different concept here than in Egypt. . .
How do the desires and narrative of an immigrant like myself sit next to the other narrative of those already here? Especially, of course, those who've been here before contemporary North American powers. When I look back on my time in Oklahoma, it's amazing how that thoroughly Native American place did not in any way appear to me. I was busy developing myself according to mainstream America. It's still the same, as I've lived in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Ontario, Quebec, and now Minnesota, all around the Great Lakes, but I have a different awareness that allows me to make my own claims as an American.
MH, 9:55 p.m.: Though the signs were intended to be site-specific, there is certainly a community from site to site or poem to poem. Did this come organically (pun intended)?
MS, 9:57 p.m.: Well-only a third to half of the texts were written entirely new for this project. But each sign was developed for each site, specifically. It was great, in some cases, to get to come back and apply text to its exact space of inspiration. But I would say that any continuity that surfaces is because of my preoccupation with the overarching themes of this project, and in all my Great Lakes work, with the intersections of nature, culture, identity, and belonging. So if a sign is about a river mouth and a lake body, for example, and it's located at and actual site where those two things flow together, that correlation is meant more to make the text gesture at being a functional park sign. But finding that site-specific aspect is just a concrete pretext to hopefully effectively prompt some much more philosophical/existential thoughts about how we experience this sublime natural/cultural space.
In my Great Lakes work, in these sign poems, and in many other projects, I feel conflicted about the subtexts of the natural spaces that I claim and work on, but I can't just let go of my whole life here in North America and how I've grown to love its wilderness.
MH, 9:59 p.m.: I hear you, speaking of North America. . .I'm writing you from Brooklyn in early November where we are having 70+ degree weather! Whew. What are your thoughts on climate change? What impact have you observed in the parks and lakes you've inhabited during your
MS, 10:01 p.m.: Well. Yeah, it's been wonderfully, unfortunately warm this fall here too. In 2015 right before I went through your part of Michigan, there was a giant storm right up near your old turf of Ludington that really mangled much of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. The famous Mount Baldy also of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is now indefinitely closed because of shifting sand because of water levels, I believe. I also met with a variety of environmental organizations as I was traveling around the Great Lakes in 2015 who would take me out and show me different environmental impacts and Anthropocenic solutions. Lake Erie is back to bursting with algae blooms and they're tackling that really hard with the agriculture industry. Mining also in Minnesota has had some serious impacts and work being done, but that's not climate change per se. I would say that the impacts I saw, in a way, are just a lot of different types of people and organizations working together in novel ways to raise awareness and create new relationships around water issues. . .
MH, 10:06 p.m.: I want to talk about my favorite sign. . .One of your sign poems instructs: "don't forget to quit / don't forget to drop everything / in the water." It recalls a kind of fantasy, doesn't it? The overworked American who finally gets a break and yearns to dissolve into this mysterious liquid body. Please tell us more about this poem and this walking a fine line between being human and being animal.
MS, 10:09 p.m.: I really love your reading of that, it hadn't occurred to me at all to think of it quite like that, thank you. I love that poem because it does sort of try to hint at the ruse of accomplishment that we're all inundated with.
MS, 10:13 p.m.: It asks people to try and give themselves over to something beyond human and to appreciate human limits. It sort of humorously also says things like don't forget your allergies in spring humility, don't forget to do this impossible thing communing with nature through all we really can do-litter, like nature "litters," dropping a ton of leaves all at once all over the place. . .The poem makes these pleas too, to wilderness and wildlife, but sort of implores people to see these desires as impossible-asking an animal to stay sweet, to not change. Here's a big point: to me, we are not in fact part of nature but are very deeply and self-consciously apart from it. That's not the tact that progressively we are supposed to be taking in reconciling the damage we've done or in imagining a future, but I for one think it's just very true, and also actually just not possible to commune with the natural world-all harmony out on the mountaintop is pure projection. We ceaselessly implore nature to reflect our desire back to us-in cute ways, stunning ways, etc. This sign is trying to reckon with that desire, and its impossibleness. I love the first line most actually, and it's become a mantra for me in a way of life: "It doesn't get any better than this," is a profoundly ambivalent notion, frankly. It's really true is the thing; it's just that it's really true no matter how bad things get. So why not take a picture, even in this homely Midwestern nature, before things get too beautiful, as the poem says. . .
Mizna is a Twin Cities non-profit arts organization that promotes contemporary expressions of Arab American culture. We publish the literary journal Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, produce the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, and offer varied other readings, performances, art projects, and community events involving an exceptionally talented and diverse range of local, national, and international Arab American artists.
Cinema Arabiata an Arab film blog by Mohannad Ghawanmeh.
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