Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Gulf Poetry
There has been a handful of English-language poetry anthologies that represent poets from specific countries in the Middle East or, more often, from the larger Arabic-speaking world, but no one has yet compiled a single English-language anthology encompassing all the Arabian Gulf countries, and those countries only. Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Gulf Poetry, to be published by Garnet Publishing/Ithaca Press (UK) in 2011, does that, collecting poems from the six Arabian Gulf countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Most were written in Arabic, and this anthology represents their first translation into English. Edited by Patty Paine and Samia Touati of Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, and by Jeff Lodge, formerly of VCUQatar but now at Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States, it contains over two hundred poems, the work of forty-eight poets and fifty translators.
What would become Gathering the Tide started simply enough. In an introduction to poetry class, after reading the required books list, the students wanted to know why the list did not include an anthology of contemporary poetry from the Gulf region.
Why not indeed?
After all, this was a poetry class not in the US, but at Virginia Commonwealth University in Doha, Qatar, where the majority of students are from Qatar and the Gulf region. VCUQatar offers degrees in painting and printmaking, and in graphic, fashion, and interior design. It shares a sprawling 3500-acre campus with five other universities that together form Education City, the largest gathering of American universities outside the US. Education City is a venture of the Qatar Foundation, a private, chartered, non-profit organization founded in 1995 by decree of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. The Qatar Foundation focuses on fostering education, scientific research, and community development.
Around the same time that that simple, but important, question of the lack of contemporary Gulf-region poetry anthologies was asked, the Qatar Foundation issued a call for Undergraduate Research Experience Program (UREP) grant proposals. The intent of the UREP grant is to “engage undergraduates under the mentorship of faculty members in all universities in Qatar on research projects related to Qatar’s national needs.” The students expressed a clear need: the creation of an anthology of poetry written by the poets closest to them. We were awarded a grant to work with students to collect and translate poems from established and emerging poets in the region for use in future poetry classes.
Gathering the Tide would not exist without the four students who worked with us on the project: Aisha Khalid Al-Naama, Fatima Abdulhameed Mostafawi, Hend Mubarak Aleidan, and Sara Marwan Al-Qatami. We spent countless hours together identifying poets in the region who merited inclusion in an anthology. We moved through poems, sometimes word by word, to translate them from Arabic into English. We attended conferences on translation together, and we formed our own translation workshops with poets and translators who were kind enough to come to Doha to work with us. Our students’ work is present in every aspect of this anthology, but we are especially delighted and proud that poems they have translated appear within.
We made for an unlikely trio of editors of an anthology of Arabic poetry in translation. Patty and Jeff have editing and publishing experience in poetry and fiction, but none of us were expert in Middle Eastern poetry, and only Samia, originally from Morocco, is fluent in Arabic. What we did have, though, were those four eager and outstanding students, support both from VCUQatar and the Qatar Foundation, and our own passion for the project driven by a desire to give voice to the poets of this region who have been largely neglected by western readers, and we wanted to give something back to Qatar, a country that generously welcomed us and entrusted us to educate its young people.
The Gulf region has a wealth of talented poets, and in the early stages of compiling our anthology, we consulted Banipal and jehat.com; the anthologies The Poetry of Arab Women, edited by Nathalie Handal, and Modern Arabic Poetry, edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi; and A Crack in the Wall, edited by Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon. We expected this project to be challenging, but finding contact information for the poets we hoped to include in the anthology was an unexpected difficulty. Had we been looking for American poets, the process would have been as simple as searching Facebook, or a university faculty page. Our Gulf poets were much harder to find. There is a higher degree of privacy in Middle East, and of the poets represented in the anthology only a very small number are career poets. Several work at newspapers and magazines, others for TV stations, and several hold government positions, including the Emir of Dubai and Prime Minster and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates. Others own businesses or work in the sciences or law. We are grateful to all those—from poets, to translators, to friends of friends—who helped us make contact with poets. Still, there are several poets we would have liked to include in Gathering the Tide but were unable to find. Their exclusion is regretful, though not intentional.
We decided early on that we didn’t want to merely collect and re-present the relatively small number of poems that had been translated and were available to a western audience. Our goal was to give voice to as many poets and poems from the Gulf region as we could. As daunting and time consuming as it was, we wanted the anthology to contain work translated specifically for this publication. We worked with an incredible team of translators; consequently, over 70 percent of Gathering the Tide is made up of poems that will appear in print in English for the first time.
Our translators were committed to honoring the voice and intent of the poets. We worked closely with the translators and poets, and at times translator and poet worked together line by line. Arabic is a rich, and richly nuanced and musical, language. It is difficult to capture in English, but we believe our translators did extraordinary work echoing the voices of the poets. We tried to maintain a light touch as editors, editing primarily to address mechanics and clarity. Translation and editing is painstaking and difficult work. It requires a delicate balance, and a constant struggle between bringing the poem to the reader and the reader to the poem. We tried very hard to maintain this balance and to create translations that are accessible to a western reader but have not been made over into western poems.
Gathering the Tide was over three years in the making, and, again, it is the product of the work of nearly a hundred poets, translators, editors, and others. We hope that it will enable its readers to come to understand and appreciate differences among peoples of different regions and varying cultures even as they gain a greater sense of, and appreciation for, all that unites us. The poets in this anthology grapple with the same hopes and fears we all do. They celebrate life, they contend with loss. They wonder at contradiction, they marvel at paradox. They do so in a region with a long and exceptional history, and with a fascinating and rapidly evolving present.
We owe our greatest of debts to the stunningly talented poets of this region. We have been amazed by their generosity and overwhelmed by their enthusiasm. They entrusted us with their poems, and we hope we have honored their trust.