Poem-A-Day: Fady Joudah

So we come to the end of another National Poetry Month, and I’ve loved sharing these thirty poems with you, and I realize I haven’t included enough prose-poems, a form I rather like.

Here is one by Fady Joudah, a poet who is also my friend who also lives in the same city I do (more or less) whom I also don’t see very often for long stretches at a time and then we find ourselves in the same place over and over again for a few weeks or a few months. I love that.

He and I were both coincidentally featured at a reading in February. Then both coincidentally featured on a radio program last week. Who knows what will be next or when?

Here is his poem “Palestine, Texas” from his latest collection Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance — which, by the way, is absolutely wonderful, if not his best thus far.

Palestine, Texas

“I’ve never been,” I said to my friend who’d just come back from there. “Oh you should definitely go,” she said. “The original Palestine is in Illinois.” She went on, “A pastor was driven out by Palestine’s people and it hurt him so badly he had to rename somewhere else after it. Or maybe it goes back to a 17th century Frenchman who traveled with his vision of milk and honey, or the nut who believed in dual seeding.” “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s when an egg is fertilized by two sperm,” she said. “Is that even viable?” I asked. “It is,” she said, “on rare occasions, though nothing guarantees the longevity of the resulting twins.” She spoke like a scientist but was a professor of the humanities at heart. “Viability,” she added, “depends on the critical degree of disproportionate defect distribution for a miracle to occur. If there is life, only one twin lives.” That night we went to the movies looking for a good laugh. It was a Coen brothers’ feature whose unheralded opening scene rattled off Palestine this, Palestine that and the other, it did the trick. We were granted the right to exist. It must have been there and then that my wallet slipped out of my jeans’ back pocket and under the seat. The next morning, I went back. With a flashlight that the manager had lent me I found the wallet unmoved. This was the second time in a year that I’d lost and retrieved this modern cause of sciatica in men. Months earlier it was at a lily pond I’d gone hiking to with the same previously mentioned friend. It was around twilight. Another woman, going in with her boyfriend as we were coming out, picked it up, put it in her little backpack, and weeks later texted me the photo of his kneeling and her standing with right hand over her mouth, to thwart the small bird in her throat from bursting. If the bird escapes, the cord is severed, and the heart plummets. She didn’t want the sight of joy caught in her teeth. He sat his phone camera on its pod and set it in lapse mode, she wrote in her text to me. I welled up. She would become a bride and my wallet was part of the proposal. This made me a token of their bliss, though I’m not sure how her fiancé might feel about my intrusion, if he’d care at all. “It’s a special wallet,” I texted back. “It’s been with me for the better part of two decades ever since a good friend got it for me as a present.” “He was from Ohio,” I turned and said to my film mate who was listening to my story. “Ohio?” She seemed surprised. “Yes,” I replied quizzically. “There’s also a Palestine in Ohio,” she said. “Barely anyone lives there anymore. All of them barely towns off country roads.”


photo credit Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah has published four collections of poems, The Earth in the AtticAlightTextu, a book-long sequence of short poems whose meter is based on cellphone character count; and, most recently, Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. He has translated several collections of poetry from the Arabic. He was a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2007 and has received a PEN award, a Banipal/Times Literary Supplement prize from the UK, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Houston, with his wife and kids, where he practices internal medicine.

Featured Poet: Fady Joudah

The world is too much with us. This poem, which I think about often, is a reflection of that.



My daughter
.                        wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking

She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?


Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet and physician. He is the 2007 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition for his collection of poems The Earth in the Attic. “Mimesis” appears in his book Alight, published by Copper Canyon Press.

In Honor of National Poetry Month This Year…

…this time I’m NOT hosting a contest!  I know, I know, SHOCK.

Instead, I want to share other people’s poems with you.

We’re kicking this month off with another poem by Fady Joudah, whose collection Textu I reviewed on this blog not too long ago.  This is “American Gas Station” from his book The Earth in the Attic (published in 2008 by Yale University Press as the winner of that year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets).

Happy National Poetry Month!  And if you’re out there writing a poem, I would love to know about it.


American Gas Station


I never knew Bob.
He was older than some countries
Or a staleness between the teeth and lips,

Nothing the tongue can’t sweep away
With few strokes in the middle of mountains
Which are creatures of god.

I had already seen the black-magic-
Marker sign taped to the glass door
Of his gas station,

In the god-damned Sierra,
Where I was grand and American,
Chrysler red and rented, running on empty:

Bob died last night.
And the pumps were locked,
The moon a cataract,

And the man inside, head in one hand,
Waved me away with the other.
I never knew Bob —

But I imagine him bald,
Scalp showing through the mesh of his hat.
I was on vacation,

Tired of killing
Patients and saving them,
And the thought that I might walk for miles

Up mountain roads near dark
Angered me. I admit
What  wanted:

A Coke and a bag of chips.
The key to the toilet after traveling for hours.
I wanted to fall to my knees for oil.

And I admit I have, too many times,
Run on pressurized fumes that pop
Like soda when I finally reach a station.

And because of it,
I was once late for an anatomy test.
And because of it I now

Reset the odometer
Each time I fill my tank,
I measure emptiness.


TEXTU by Fady Joudah: A Lyric in Brief

Just being around Fady Joudah causes my brain to operate in lyric, to think in snatches of poetry as ephemeral as they are light.

Simple phrases formulating in my head about the most ordinary things become filaments of verse, appearing in my mind’s eye as I think them and then disintegrating to make way for the next fragment at such a rapid pace I can’t even stop long enough to write them down.  Suddenly a simple self-command such as “park the car on that side of the street” becomes a metaphor: the busy downtown street is now a rainy gulf teeming with waves of traffic, my car a tiny craft pitching forward to a parking meter that in my imagination faintly resembles a dock strewn with fallen flowers.

Sometimes I wonder, if this is the effect he has on other people, what must it be like to live inside his brain?


TEXTU by Fady Joudah
image of e-book cover borrowed from Goodreads

Fady’s Textu (published by Copper Canyon Press) is a collection of short form poetry launched only as an e-book, in part due to the nature of the genesis of the form: the poems in this collection conform to the length of a text message, exactly 160 characters, each poem determined in part by character count.  The first thing I thought when I began reading them was, My students will love this.  So many of them feel intimidated when I ask them to write a poem.  For so many of them, the stormy chasm between poetry and their comfort with and understanding of it might as well be filled with basilisks.  But ask them to write a text message with an unusual image in it?  That, they can do.

Enter Textu, and suddenly poetry becomes more accessible because it feels familiar.  The e-book format is also inviting, since on an e-reader, every book is just a file of words, a novel is the same size and weight as a mechanical engineering tome, the same as a novella, the same as a short story, the same as a collection of verse.  There is nothing unfamiliar about e-book files because — despite the obvious differences in formatting once you get into them — they are all alike subconsciously, and therefore – take this leap with me — one does not feel the Otherness of poetry in an environment where poetry is not read enough.


I asked Fady once about how he came up with the idea for the Textu form, which plays on the words “text you” and “haiku.”  He said it came from noticing how much time people spend texting.

“I found myself playing with the language while sending texts to friends, and then it dawned on me, as one of them quipped about my poetic texts, why not harness my anxiety about not being able to write longer poems, due to time constraints, clinic and home, into the art of the short poem through the medium of text message.”  (He then developed this idea into a meter for stanza length to use in some of the longer poems in the collection.)

Time constraints?  Anxiety about not being able to spend enough time on one’s manuscripts?  I can relate.  I began writing what I call “short form debriefs” because of this very problem.  It’s been helpful.  Rather than strive to craft a longer poem about Lots Of Big And Important Ideas, take a single moment and fill it with highly developed imagery and a single specific idea.  I shared this method with my students, too.  The response?  This is good, this is satisfying.   

This is accessible.


I love the way so many of these poems play.  Is it commonplace to say that a poet plays with language?  Of course.  Does that make it any less true?  No.  Consider one of the first entries in the collection, “Descending Tongue”:

.          I am a fig of your imagination
.          fig meant for it

.          you’ll care a fig
.          give a fig bleach it

.          my flesh is red my milk white
.          my skin is honey sweat

Focusing on the entertainment of the evolving antique expression and pun distracts me from the real sensuality of the poem, so that when I arrive at the last couplet I feel surprised.  I remember the title of the poem.  I remember that I love figs.  I bring a myriad of associations to the experience of reading the poem, some innocent and tender from hours spent playing under and harvesting from the fig tree as tall as my childhood home in the corner of our backyard, to the chapter of fig recipes in an aphrodisiac cookbook on my kitchen bookshelf.  The poem invites me to play.

In his poem “Eurydice,” he eliminates the myth from the Greek story, thereby humanizing what might have been a distant, academic anecdote.

.          Low visibility midsummer fog
.          you are deaf cold your eyes

.          a grasshopper statute
.          of limitations on return

.          Now you are declassified
.          it is about to snow

I love to teach this poem, along with Seamus Heaney’s “The Underground,” as an example of the myth poem.  What could feel more heartbreaking than the inaccessibility of one person – lover, parent, child, moody BFF – to another?  And who doesn’t understand that?  The myth has been made personal, just as the Textu form has made poetry personal to an audience so far removed from “Dover Beach” and “Dulce et decorum est” that verse had become anathema.  Fady similarly re-introduces Ariadne, Penelope, Scheherezade, Zeus, Abraham.

The poems in this collection touch on more than love, of course.  There are politics, medicine, the struggle for an understanding of how our systems of government and the labels we use for them confound us, thoughtful questions on the nature of poetry itself, open text messages to old masters of letters – explorations which, for me at least, cannot be separated from the poet who writes about them.  Fady incorporates the modern vernacular of an age both scientific and technological into stunning images as light and ephemeral as the filaments of poetry I can’t help but think and yet not fully grasp when I am around him.

And then, after a series of poems which feel both grounded and esoteric, a very concrete foray into the most recognizable “When the Grandmother Dies”:

.          it’ll be kept secret
.          from her four daughters

.          who’ll be flying in
.          from three different countries

.          after years of absence
.          reunion ends


.          When the grandmother dies

.          it’ll ruin summertime
.          for the grandkids who

.          in their mothers’ grief will eat
.          okra each day

.          fresh & leftover
.          till it tastes like ash


.          When the grandmother dies

.          the groundskeeper will beg for cash
.          he comforts her he’ll say

.          & the sisters
.          will reply

.          Were it not for you
.          the dead would have died


Love occurs in Textu in so many different ways.  Near the beginning and end of the collection we have poems of romantic love, as if suggesting that such a thing can envelop a person, can ground one in both reality and lyric.  This, like the accessibility of the form to people who are terrified of writing poetry themselves, comforts and energizes the reader/writer/student poet.

Anyone who knows me or who has read my responses to other poets’ work knows how much I’ve struggled with being a poet, a teacher of poetry, a reader of it.  It’s such a subjective genre and one so misunderstood and maligned, sometimes even subconsciously or apologetically by others who love literature.  How often have you heard someone say they would love poetry if they understood it?  Or if they’d been taught any interesting poems in school?  Or if they felt confident enough to tackle it?  (Forget for a moment that these excuses at times shuck one’s own responsibility for reading and thinking.)

The familiarity of the form Fady has codified makes poetry a real thing, an integral thing, a seemingly easy thing to attempt, while the poems in Textu are yet finely wrought.  I challenge you to read this collection and then not feel moved to compose one yourself.

Start small.  You have 160 characters.  Don’t worry about punctuation.  Play.


N.b.  In this review I refer to the poet by his first name because he is a personal friend of mine, and because I don’t call him by his last name.  This may count as a disclaimer for my endorsement of the book, if you like, if that matters to you, but understand that even if I didn’t know him, I wouldn’t change any portion of my opinions here.  Textu is a lovely and worthwhile addition to any personal library.  The poems and quote I’ve used here have been used with Fady’s permission.