Poets of a feather

Poets are famously solitary, but Ghayath Almadhoun and Marie Silkeberg decided to pool their talents, writing a 200-page collecion of poems.

The Swedish writer Marie Silkeberg and the Palestinian poet Ghayath Almadhoun co-wrote To Damascus. Courtesy Cato Lein
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Ghayath Almadhoun, who grew up in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria before moving to Stockholm, met the poet Marie Silkeberg making "poetry films" in her native Sweden. The odd creative couple eventually spent three years collaborating on what would become a 200-page collection of poetry in Swedish entitled Till Damaskus (To Damascus).
Initially each wrote in their native language. The next step? Translation into English, which provoked further discussion, before Silkeberg, who is a professor of literary composition at the University of Gothenburg, produced a final text in Swedish. For two of the poems, Silkeberg and Almadhoun took turns to compose their verses line by line.
Both are currently engaged in making poetry through film and voice-overs, mostly about conflict in the Arab world, which Almadhoun then posts to his YouTube channel. His work has been translated into many languages.
How did you meet and what drew you to one another?
Marie: We met at a poetry reading. I was working on a long project with poetry films. After I heard him read, I asked him to write a text of the last one. He agreed. I was touched by his force as a poet, his anger, his pride, and that he knew more than 125 names for the desert.
Ghayath: We met in poetry reading, and so on.
Do you see any similarities in your experiences growing up?
Marie: I see no similarities, whatsoever. But meeting Ghayath made me remember my childhood, the house I lived in as a child, memories buried very deep inside me. I have no explanation for this, it has nothing to do with similarities. I'm just grateful to have experienced it and it may be one of the reasons for having continued working with this book.
Ghayath: No, I see no similarities, and because of that, I worked with Marie. If we had similar childhoods and experiences, I do not think that we would do it, we want to complement each other, not to be copies of each other.
How did your different cultural backgrounds impact your writing in the book?
Marie: The difference was essential, the reason for even trying. For me it meant questioning almost everything - why I write, how I write, for whom - and it made it constantly interesting, even in the despair, the fear of failure, in the moments and zones of non-contact - the joy of getting to know and learn from a different perspective.
Ghayath: It takes us to new places in writing. I've learned a lot from the experience of writing with Marie. I see that differences between cultures enrich poetry.
Poetry is not traditionally a collaborative medium. Why did you decide to do this project, and how did you make it work for both of you?
Marie: "Why" is often a very difficult question to answer. The challenge, the impossibility, the desire to know, to relate to what seems very foreign to you, a turbulent time in the world with the Arab Spring, and the change from revolution to war in Syria. We wrote separately, often in different countries, even, while one of us was travelling. The translation of Ghayath's texts into Swedish was a point of contact, a third ground. Since I don't know Arabic, we worked in English, in long sessions of discussions and explanations. And anger and confrontations. And laughter - I love the Arabic jokes.
We had only one rule - no censorship, no one had the right to say no to a line, to a word, to a poem. "Yes, and...?" That was the rule, and it might be one of the reasons why the book is so long.
Ghayath: Poets may be selfish, but their ability to experiment within themselves may surprise you. We see it like this: to get to the new poetry you need sometimes to try a new way of writing - it could give you the ability to create something different.
We decided to write this book because we felt that there was something we wanted to say, something missing around us. It was a difficult and rich experience.
How did the process of merging languages work?
Marie: There is no merging of languages in the book. We are too distinct as poets to merge. But the presence of another voice, another poetic tradition, another experience has influenced my writing and my poems in a way beyond my control. It has created some sort of silhouette of foreignness in my poetic language.
The book, even though we've signed it together, consists of poems written by us, side by side.
Ghayath: The effect was on us as individuals, not on the language. We did not merge languages, we learned from each other so we used the language in new ways.
You took it in turns to write some of the poems, line by line. How did this work?
Marie: Not so difficult as it might seem. We wrote them at the end. We had worked with the translation for a long time; been reading and listening to each others' poems for months, years even. Ghayath wrote one line, translated it into English and sent it to me. I translated his line into Swedish, and wrote one line in Swedish and sent it to him, et cetera. How he translated it I don't know. The chance of mistranslation was high and productive. Essentially, I think it was possible because it was created in an atmosphere of trust.
Ghayath: It was a great experience, something entirely new, line by line, until the end of the poem.
What made Syria a good subject for a book of poetry?
Marie: Not good. Only necessary in this time. What it was. What it is. But Syria isn't the only subject in the book - the globalised world, migration, power structures, economic injustice, living, ageing, the risk of communication are some of the others.
Ghayath: The theme of the book is not specifically about Syria. Damascus is the oldest city, and any city is a reflection of the first city. What is happening in Syria now has happened elsewhere, and will happen in the future, somewhere else.
The Road to Damascus or To Damascus means metaphorically a dramatic change in life, because the life of the Apostle Paul changed on the road to Damascus.
. Attend a poetry-reading session, complemented by oud music, with Marie Silkeberg and Ghayath Almadhoun on Wednesday at 6.15pm at The Tent