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Glenn Shaheen

Dementia Unit

One moment. I remember a ditch. A ditch 
where the young mother's body was 
dumped. There were crosses and bluebonnets. There is

an apartment overlooking a rainy city and the news 
discusses the implication of sunshine. I shake just 
thinking of the airline. A company is almost

a living thing. I've forgotten who I am a few times. 
From surgery, from drugs. The police are searching 
all the cars on the north side of the block today,

and the south side of the block tomorrow. They say 
it's very important, but I don't think there's anything 
I want them to find, personally. Personally, I'd take

the door with the tiger, but that would be an accident. 
It's my luck. There's a tiger behind every door. A plane 
crash beneath every plane. A carjacking on every corner.

Dread sprouting from every word. From Aryan to Zion. 
From Assisted Suicide to Zen Meditation. Ha! You thought 
I was beyond that. Above that. A stray bullet hits

the woman in front of us at the bank. In front of both 
of us. When I tell the story I say she was in front of me, 
when you tell the story you say she was in front of you.

The truth is she was just in front of the bullet. What 
will it take for us to learn the value of our pitiful lives? 
I mean all of them, put together, a wisp in the corner

of a dark room, a missed word in the middle 
of an epic bildungsroman about sorcery and betrayal 
in the most carnal sense. One gasp in a silent crowd.


A Guarantee Of Protection

I, nameable. I, a collection of syllables. I, policier. I, "All 
Night Long" by Lionel Richie. I, lion. I, impervious
to most insults yet few objects. I, terror incarnate. I, devil's
advocate. I, devil. I, many ones and zeros. I, proud Canadian.
I, born from ruin. I, protector of small rodents. I, filled 
with bones and blood. I, mud. I, sheet music. I, broken chair.
I, unfilled calendar. I, loud music, yet played
softly. I, aimless clicking through many pages. I, summing
it all up in too few words, it gets confusing. It is called 
meandering and pointless, and the important issues are lost
in the fury of it. I, unproud Arab. I, the fury of it. I, a deliveryman
of pain. Don't worry though, it's only mine. I, terrified incarnate.
I, technology. I, your voice as you hear it when you read silently.
I, silent. I, consumer watchdog on the take. I, not making it.
I, swindler. I, geekgasm. I, speechless for a change, are you
happy? I, last word, but not a very good one. Tell them I said
something. I, the filth and the shit. I, an impenetrable shield.
I, happy for a bit. Come to me if you want to know the truth 
about me. I, a little bit of truth here and there. I, the fox
but not the hare. I, broken down when you can't see. I,
the moment before sex, and the moment right after. I, after.
I, all night. I, misdirection incarnate, you don't know just 
what it means. I, all night. I, too drunk to dance. I, all night.


At 1:30 in the morning somebody bangs on your back door. A woman wails outside

     in the distance. Her sobbing gets closer.


You wake to sirens and the power is out.


On a clear day, one lightning bolt cuts the sky.


Somebody has smashed the window of your car and taken nothing.


The cellar light is busted and there is a groan in the farthest corner.


You have 10 unanswered messages from your father and 3 from your ex-girlfriend

     left on your machine.


Tanks are on the news, slowly rolling down an emptied city street.


The grocery store out of water, gas impossible to find.


The eyes of the dead have been painted over in the old photographs to make them

     appear living.


Who was that begging at your door? "Please, please, it's so cold, I'm sorry, he

     meant nothing."


You drive by three black men beating a fourth on the ground. You don't stop.


In the cemetery, graverobbers have struck your father's tomb again. This time, the

     body remains unfound.


Picking up the phone to dial you hear somebody's faint, panicked breathing.


You pass the body of an old man on the side of the darkest country road.


O, gods of fear! Are we arrogant to believe the world will end in our lifetimes, as if

     we in all of history were so important to pull a chair up to the big exeunt?


Your family left you to face all of this mottled dark alone.


The knives have been removed from the table settings.


Somewhere, A-10 Tank Killers are photographed for a magazine cover. This is only

     meant to impress, darling. They are loaded with the most colorful blanks.

BIO: Glenn Shaheen received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Michigan, where he edits the journal NANO Fiction and is the poetry editor for Third Coast. His book of poems, Predatory, won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and is available from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, Subtropics, and elsewhere. Additionally, he presently serves on the board of directors for the Radius of Arab-American Writers, Inc.

An Interview with Glenn Shaheen by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: I just love "Dementia Unit." It utilizes such a strong voice and leaps almost effortlessly from one idea to the next in a way that I rarely see pulled off so convincingly. It's obviously a poem about that central question: "What / will it take for us to learn the value of our pitiful lives?" I'm wondering how difficult a poem this was to write. With its associative construction and somewhat relaxed voice, it comes off as one that might have fallen out of the sky in a few drafts. Of course, that rarely happens; it seems more likely a lot of work went into this poem to make it seem so effortless. 

How concerned are you with the "tightness" or economy of language in your poetry. "Dementia Unit" isn't an extraordinarily controlled poem when it comes to the level of the line; rather, it's relaxed, colloquial, almost conversational. Why use this approach in this poem in particular?

Glenn Shaheen: I find one of the most difficult elements of poetry is determining how much artifice I want to leave exposed in each poem. Of course, a poem is by definition artifice (as is all writing), but the layout of a poem is an acknowledgment of that structure, to lesser or greater degrees. In "Dementia Unit" I did want to make it seem relaxed in its diction, but to work that relaxation against the subject matter and the form, destruction and mental anguish written in tercets and an almost regular footed line. I guess it's easier than solving a murder, but it takes me a long time to get it the way I want it, and then I just hope it works for the reader.

AMK: I recently gave a reading where another poet who was reading made the comment that stanzas in a poem implicate narrative. I'm not sure what he meant by this. It seems to me that there are plenty of poem in tercets, couplets, etc... that aren't narrative at all. Which brings me to "Dementia Unit"... would you call this a narrative poem, a lyric poem, or something entirely different or in between? Why the tercets rather than a single stanza?


GS: That's an interesting view for that poet to have - it sounds like somebody with an agenda. If by "narrative" he meant a directing hand, the poet trying to lead the reader to experience a set of images or meditations in a particular manner, then I can get behind that. When one creates a stanza, you are choosing a mode of isolation, which of course presents a unity among the words located within that division. If sometimes that forms a story in the reader's mind, that's ok I suppose - but placing the corpse of a squirrel next to a hatchet can also create a story in the reader's mind and that doesn't mean there is one.


If there's a narrative I'm interested in with my poetry, it's a tonal narrative. For example, if I try to tell the story of a bat coming into my house at night, I could present to you the factual details of the event. You could pass a test about that Bat Night, yes, and depending on what descriptors I use, maybe it would even be a scary and funny story. But if instead I presented a series of images and linguistic fragments that accurately replicated in you the reader the series of emotions I experienced when the bat came into my house, then isn't that a more faithful narrative? Even if none of those fragments and images have anything to do with a bat? You may know nothing of the bat, but you would know (if I was successful) the particular terror of the bat for me. That might be the goal of all of poetry, actually, now that I type it out.

AMK: "A Guarantee of Protection" is a wild poem. I can see it being quite a performance piece. Do you ever "perform" your poems? By perform I mean something beyond merely reading... What's your take on the whole reading versus performing debate/discussion?


GS: I try to read my poems in an exciting manner, not in the poet reading voice that I'm sure everybody can do a great impression of, but I don't consider myself a performer. I think when we do readings we should put in an effort to read our work in a more interesting way than if a stranger picked up our stuff and read it out loud for the very first time. Even that is too much for some poets, though, based on the readings I've attended.

AMK: I recenty went to see "Slam Nuba," an award winning slam team here in Denver. They were pretty amazing; the acting was phenomenal and energetic in a way a typical reading rarely achieves (if ever), and the writing was pretty good. I left the show trying to figure out what it was about slam that I innately felt was different from poetry. It eventually occurred to me that slam poem is more like a monologue than freeverse. "A Guarantee of Protection" might be both...

GS: That works for a lot of first person poems where the lens is turned inward - I think that's the charm of slam poetry a lot of times. It is very performative in nature, like we're watching people tell us honest and true things about themselves in an intimate manner, with all of the emotional ticks you might notice your best cousin demonstrate when telling you of her recent breakup. But if you watch a slam poet do the same poem twice, all of that is revealed to be a different kind of artifice - all of the ticks happen in the same place, it's carefully rehearsed. To perform slam poetry, you need to be part poet, part actor, I say in all of my authority of never having performed any slam whatsoever.

AMK: How did you come up with this structure of "I, ..., I, ..." Why is this poem not a prose poem given its free-flowing nature?

GS: Earlier I spoke about wanting a line to work in tandem with the sentence (or fragment, here) and image (and of course by "in tandem" I also mean by subverting them). Here it could be easy for a reader to become trapped by the form, to ignore it because of the repetition, and I felt by placing those line breaks in some rhythmically abrasive places (after an "I," for example) it continues to call attention to the obsession with self.


AMK: What's up with your titles? They're rather random at times.


GS: Ha, I don't think they're random! These three poems I think the titles are pretty self-explanatory, but in my book, for example, there's a poem called "The Blueprints Of The Disastrous Medical Complex Are Hung In The Expensive Museum Above Selected Pieces of Bone And Rubble And A Fake Burnt American Flag On Which The Stars Have Cleverly Been Replaced By Dollar Signs." It gets a big laugh when I read the title, sure, and that particular image (narrative moment perhaps? There's a subject, verb, and object!) is never referred to again. In this case, though, I want the absurdity and violence of the title to affect the reading of everything that comes after it. I look at titles as the haze that drapes over a poem, and while they don't need to be related in a linear sense, I feel that they affect the reader's approach to the poem, even if it may seem random.


AMK: Is there a term for a stanza of a single line, like couplet, tercets? Why compose "Cant" in this way?


GS: A monostich is a single line stanza. There's a few poems in Predatory written in monostichs. I feel that form allows one to segregate a particular lyric moment more drastically than even a stanza would allow. It works (in my head at least) the same way a numbered section works, without the tyranny of order numbering imposes. Each monostich ends on a period, and there's no real line to balance against that. "Cant" is one of the starker poems in the book, and I felt that extreme stutter worked best for its subject.


AMK: I love that line "O' gods of fear!, are we arrogant enough to think the world will end in our lifetimes..." It reminds me of a discussion I had with friend and fellow poet Jeffrey Shultz about the end of the world and the Apocalyptic Literature that has emerged from this notion over the years and, seemingly, quite a bit more in the last few years. He said, essentially, that every generation, every society fears its end not because it's actually scary but because it would validate the fact that we so fear it in the first place. Is that part of what this poem is about?


GS: I think its extraordinarily conceited to think the world will end in our lifetimes - not just because, as the poem says, the idea that we are so special to see the end, but the idea that the world couldn't possibly continue without each of us. That's like imagining that every time you leave a party it instantly stops. The next day somebody tries to tell you about some crazy hookup that happened at two in the morning, and you're just like "No, the party ended at 11:30." Ha, no, that's just when you left. Everybody else kept having fun. I think it's "fascinating" that we are so obsessed with the end right now - a time when interconnectivity and the ease of communication have made us exponentially less violent. Of course, it's in a lot of powerful people's best interest to keep us in a mindset of fear, because it makes us purchase or vote according to their needs, and what greater fear than the End of Everything? Whatever "Everything" is, and whatever "End" even means.


AMK: I presented a paper on the Southern poems of Brian Barker a few years back and read some of his works as part of that presentation. At some point, a professor of Modern Poetry (not be mistaken for Contemporary) expressed his annoyance with "our [Contemporary poet's] obsession with the list poem." They've been done a million times before, he said.

I, for one, love list poems and really could care less if it's a form we've seen a million time. It's kind of like the observation Chris Rock made on the Daily Show this summer, that people hate it when they hear a joke they've already heard but will watch ridiculously predictable TV shows and will watch the same movie over and over again, and will even get angry when they go to a rock show and the band fails to play their big hit, which they've of course heard already.

What's your take on poetry and originality and/or "newness?" Publishers deem to be more obsessed with it than ever before...

GS: How quaint that a professor of Modern Poetry would berate any kind of obsession in any era - the modernists wear their influence on their sleeves as much as anybody. Not that I'm criticizing the modernists of course.

I don't believe in newness, really. We're all writing toward one voice screaming (whimpering?) against the behemoth of history. That is, poets now end up saying the same things in the same ways poets have been saying for centuries, albeit maybe a computer or television will show up every now and then. Just various shades of suffering and promise.


AMK: Do you think your poems are new, original? They certainly don't feel terribly derivative to me.

GS: I don't think any poet thinks of himself or herself as new and original - we're too intimate with our own influences. They're always shifting, too, as I read new stuff. I'm as influenced by a poem a friend emails me as I am by Lunch Poems or Overlord or a video game I play

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