Deema Shehabi: Poet in Exile
Deema Shehabi’s first book, Thirteen Departures from the Moon (Press 53, 2011), has been called by Naomi Shihab Nye a map that’s “huge and deep as she weaves the threads of landscape, earth, and sky, into a cloth wide enough to cover everyone.” She has been praised both for her well-honed, extravagant lyrical voice and also for her narratives that, in writing from a unique time and space, speak to the widest world.
How does your identity as a Palestinian woman, and your international background, inform or shape your poetry?
Certainly, the first impetus for writing poetry began with experiencing the foundational loss of Palestine, the way of life there told by the stories of my mother and grandmother (who were both gifted storytellers), and the loss (by geography and migration) of an extended beautiful family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of them courageous, vibrant, and utterly human. That sorrow—and an accumulating desire to immortalize that loss—spurred my poetry. I began searching for a language to give to that sentiment. The language that initially emerged carried a foreign sentiment with it, so it took a while to make it less strange to the American reader.
The voice that rises in poems from Thirteen Departures from the Moon took a couple of decades to develop fully. In looking back at the trajectory of my writing, I discovered that I often oscillated between strangeness and familiarity and between acceptance and rejection (and perhaps I still do). When I arrived in the US in 1988 and walked around an American college campus, I couldn’t help but feel alienated despite my tremendous excitement. Because of that alienation or exile, I turned to writing as an anchor. It provided me with respite from that gnawing feeling.
You write in poems like “At the Dome of the Rock” and “Blue” with lavish longing for your homeland and sorrow for its age-old losses and conflicts. Does your poetry continue to spring from this source, or have you turned to different sources in recent writing?
The source is constantly changing. In recent writing, I’ve turned more toward listening (I mean really listening) to people’s vernacular in speaking. This has given rise to new writing, which is more prosaic than my early work. I am currently collaborating with the poet Marilyn Hacker on a renga collection that started in January of 2009 during Israel’s invasion of Gaza. We each take a word from each other’s renga and braid it into our own renga, resulting in a kind of call and response effect that has taken place over several years now. The personae and geography may change but the renga are anchored by a kind of fragmentary narrative.
Another source that I’ve turned to in recent years is the love for the beauty of the land where I live now. Mt. Diablo and the surrounding valleys, creeks, and rolling hills are a perennial source of inspiration.