In 42 relatively short poems, Mohamed Kheir’s new book “The Bad Habits of the Past” poses the simple questions of loneliness and the aftermath of love in his own elegant style of prose poetry.
An award-winning author, Kheir, 37, is a multi-talented writer published as a novelist, short story writer and poet since 2002, in addition to his work as a journalist.
With his characteristic self-possession, Kheir discusses with Daily News Egypt his new prose poetry collection, poetry itself, and his experience of existence.
What made you write in this emotional course, seemingly coming out of sadness and depression?
This is how you see it, but these poems are the ones I wrote after my last book of poetry “Gifts of Solitude”; then I felt that a large number of the poems, despite tackling different experiences in my life, they have the shadows of the past in them. I wrote a poem called “The Past” moved by these shadows, and it has a line that says “I’m fed up with the bad habits of the past”. I didn’t choose a subject for the book – these poems were written in sporadic times, and I think that a book of poetry is your objective conclusion of a certain period of time.
Does the emotional experience of a reader decide how he/she will receive the poems?
Of course, receiving a text is an interaction between two experiences; the author’s and the reader’s, and that’s what makes the magic of art/literature; that it has no objective meaning, it can’t leave the same impression on different persons.
When you choose poems for the book, do you consider how the reader will receive them?
There are two factors that control the choosing process: first, I eliminate more than I choose, I eliminate poems that have superfluity in them, and I try to choose poems where I see artistic value in them. Second is objective unity or harmony. The poems have to be, at least to some extent, coherent, a matter that affects the choices of poems and even their order in the book.
I’ve read some mini-poems that looked like joints for the body of the book
That’s right, in “Gifts of Solitude”, you can also find that I used blank pages as breaks. My opinion is that the look of the book makes a difference; in the new book I used short pieces most of the time as breaks between different poems.
The dose of personal experience dominates the two books; do you agree that poetry is a selfish act?
Not selfish, I prefer to say subjective. Poetry is the most subjective of all arts. There are arts that are individualistic and some are collectivist. Writing generally, and in most of its forms, is individualistic, but narration has some collectivist trail that is to talk through other characters and their motivations. Poetry is always the voice of the human, your voice, and how existence glides through you. Existence passes through the poet and takes his/her voice and smell and so the poetry has to represent the poet as it comes out of his own experience of existence. For me, in poetry or other forms of writing, but especially poetry, I don’t intend to write. If the poem doesn’t come to me as inspiration, I will never write it.
But sometimes the poet’s experience of existence doesn’t rhyme with the reader’s. Can we say your poems are for the lonely and depressed, or those who experience similar emotions?
Art is generally an expression of pain, an expression of existential issues, and these issues are sad, because man seeks eternity and continuity and life is mortal, so all the time he expresses this existential dilemma. Of course, those who have social problems and live in solitude will feel the poem more; the thin line that poetry holds is making the selfish individualistic sadness, as you call it, a general feeling.
How do you value the interaction of readers with poets, and where do Egyptians stand regarding reading poetry?
There is a problem with the term “poetry”. The poetry that we are talking about here is prose poetry, or what is closer to prose poetry. This genre of poetry has a limited base of readers, and a lot of those readers write in the same genre of poetry. As for the first book, I can say it was well-read, but it is still early to judge on the readership of the new one, but there are good signs. There are people who liked the poems, and their expression “fascinated” them, while others didn’t comment at all.
For me, there is a moment when you are honest with yourself. I’m honestly keen in everything I do in giving it a valuable meaning. I write what I think is really good and sincere. The way readers receive your work is part of the success, but I think that the success of prose poetry in the Arab world has a special standard for me. Maybe you will hear this for the first time, but for me the standard of success is to constantly find a publisher who publishes for you without asking for money or any of these things. My opinion is that in the context of prose poetry and its readership in the Arab world this is a good standard for success.
As we are talking about publishers, who is the publisher who embarks upon good writing, and lets be more specific, good poetry?
Honestly, regarding “good poetry”, we have to salute Mohamed Hashim (of Merit publishing house). As for good writing, there are a lot of publishers; Karam Youssef, my current publisher, really publishes good writing, and my diwan is her first try in publishing poetry, along with Wael Abdel Fattah’s. Actually, Mohamed Hashim has the lead, as he published many prose poetry works, and he knew that they may not have a lot of readers, but he was willing and published because he was really keen on good writing.
Back to the book; your poems were relatively short despite the space prose poetry gives to poet to “play”.
Generally, most of my writings are short, in the new book it is really shorter. This can be for two reasons: maybe its fear of superfluity, or maybe it’s the nervous pressure in the last years that makes you feel you survive with writing a short poem.
Are you generally afraid of being superfluous?
Yes, very afraid, because art is for pleasure, so superfluity makes it poor and you should enjoy art when you receive it.
You use different forms to express your art. When do you express through the novel, and when through poetry?
Sometimes art imposes its form; poetry is the best form of art that when it comes to you, you know it. I love short stories, I read them most and most of the books in my library are books of short stories. I wrote one novel (“Closer Sky”), I’ve always wanted to take up this experience and I’ve been hesitant until (novelist) Ahmed Al-Aidy told me to write a novel, so that after 10 years you don’t say to yourself “I wish I had written a novel”.
You also write poetry in colloquial Arabic. Which is closer to you; colloquial or fus’ha?
At first I used to write poetry in colloquial style, and I was moved by a number of friends who were also writing in colloquial. I used to think that we think in colloquial so we should write in it. I wrote my first two poetry books in colloquial, and I still love them, but later I figured out that I speak best in fus’ha meaning. I wrote a lot of prose in fus’ha, and at the time I wrote “Gifts of Solitude”, I was afraid, but brilliant poet and friend Emad Abu Saleh reassured me and so I proceeded with the book. It has been a long time since I wrote in colloquial. I have a book in colloquial after “Exterior Night” and “Paranoia” that I didn’t publish, it is kind of a secret; a book that is ready with a title and everything. It has a temporary title; “The Impossible”. I don’t know if I’m going to publish the book or not, and I tell myself that if I stayed long years without publishing, I will proceed with it.
You have a strong sense of self-criticism that can last with you after you finish writing. What are the limitations of that for you?
Here comes the idea of poetry coming to you, when it shows you know it. It is, I don’t want to say, involuntary, out of criticism. I think that you know poetry when you read it but sometimes you get deceived at the poem-orgasm moment. The voice of self-criticism is loud for me, because I believe that art’s purpose is to beautify the world not to make people hate themselves. You try to write something so that people read it and feel they read something beautiful, not so that they feel annoyed.
You are a young poet. Who are the other young poets who you like to read?
The problem with this question is that it makes people angry more than it pleases others.
Let’s limit it to prose poetry.
There are good writers: Ghada Khalifa, Malaka Badr, Mohamed Abu Zeid, Ibrahim El-Sayed, and a new voice, Sara Allam; those who write in fus’ha. As for colloquial, there are Abdel Rahim Youssef, Salem Shahbany and Mostafa Ibrahim. There are also young good writers in the Arab region like Samar Diab and Nawal Ali. They write good prose texts, but still I’m telling you I always try to escape this kind of question.
You keep saying that poetry comes to you, but what is your next project?
I don’t know if it is going to be poetry or not. Currently I don’t have any poems except for the book that I told you I don’t know if I’m going to publish.
I actually have a big project, for the first time in my life I decided to listen to others’ advice and focus on one project which is still in the phase of writing. Generally it is prose but I don’t know yet how it will finish, I’m still thinking. I hope that poetry returns, but I don’t know if it will return while I’m in this journalism drag.