Basim al-Ansar: ‘Poetry Is the Source of All the Arts’

Poet Basim Alansar was born in Baghdad in 1970. He has been publishing his poetry since the early 1990s and, since 1998, has made his home in Denmark. In 2009, he the only Iraqi poet to be named one the Hay Festival’s “Beirut39,” a list of 39 promising Arab authors under 39.
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This kicks off  a series of interviews on Iraqi poetry: with poets, critics, translators, and others. 
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alansarArabLit: Do you associate yourself with Iraqi poetry, or primarily with Arabic poetry? What is contemporary Iraqi poetry–what are its characteristics?
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ــــ بصراحة، أشعر بالحيرة من هذا السؤال. لا أعرف ماذا أقول؟ أنا شاعر انساني أولاً وأخيراً. الموضوعات التي اكتب عنها انسانية اكثر مماهي محلية. ولكن بكل تأكيد هذا لا يمنع من القول، بأنني كتبت عن الهموم العراقية باعتباري جزءاً منها وولدت في أحضانها. ولكن من جهة أخرى أنا ضد التنميط، وضد أن أضع نفسي ضمن جيل معين. الشعر عندي مهمة فردية. رؤيا خاصة. وكل بيئة أعيش فيها استلهم منها اشياء عديدة تدعم مهمتي ورؤيتي الشعرية. لايوجد هناك شعر عراقي وشعر عربي وشعر فرنسي الا من حيث اللغة. اما القضايا التي يتناولها الشعر برأيي يجب أن تكون انسانية شاملة ووجودية.
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Basim Alansar: To be honest, I’m puzzled by this question and don’t know what to say. First and foremost, I am a humanist poet. The topics one chooses are for human reasons, not for local ones. This doesn’t mean that I don’t write about Iraqi concerns as part of getting to the essence of my humanity. But, on the other hand, I am against profiling and against placing myself within a generation. My poetry is an indiviual task, a private revelation. Every place where I’ve lived has inspired many things that underlie my mission and vision. There is Iraqi Arabic poetry and French, in terms of language. But the issues addressed by poetry, in my opinion, should be comprehensively humanitarian and existential.
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AL: An Iraqi poet told me last year that the time for Iraqi poetry is over, and this is the age of stories and novels. Is poetry still relevant to an Iraqi readership?
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ـــــ مع احترامي لهذا الرأي إلاّ انني اختلف معه تماماً. الشعر منذ بداية ظهوره وهو للنخبة وليس للعامة. وطوال التاريخ نسمع هذا الرأي. ان الشعر قد مات. الشعر لم يمت ولن يموت، لأنه ببساطة ولد بطبيعته للنخبة. والنخبة لن تموت. بل انها تزداد على مرور الزمن. مشكلة من يقول هذا الرأي انه يتحدث عن مايقال عنه شعر. الشعر قليل عبر التاريخ، والشعراء أقلية، وهؤلاء لم يموتوا حتى الان ولن يموتوا. أما ان الشعر في العراق تراجع، فهذا لا يهمني أبداً، لأنني لا أكتب الشعر لأنني عراقي، وانما اكتبه لأنه اختارني لكي أكتبه.
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BA: With all due respect to this point of view, I disagree with him completely. Since the beginning of poetry’s appearance, it has been for the elite and not for the general public.And throughout history, we have heard this opinion: that poetry has died. But poetry has not died and will not die, as by its nature, poetry is created for an elite. This elite will not die. Rather, it increases over time. The problem of this view is that is what is said to be “poetry.” There has been very little poetry throughout history, and the poets are a minority. They’re not extinct yet and won’t be. If the poetry in Iraq has decreased, then I don’t care at all, because I don’t write poetry because I’m Iraqi, I write it because poetry chose me to write it.
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AL:  Where do you find your readership? Where do you think your readers are located?
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ــــ مثلما قلت قبل قليل، أن جمهور الشعر هم النخبة، وهذا يكفيني.
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BA: As I said earlier, the readers of poetry are the elite, and this is enough for me.
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AL: I know you told Sousan Hammad that you started writing because your father was late with chocolates. But why poetry? Why write poetry?
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ــــ الشعر عندي رؤيا وتأمل، وأنا منذ الصغر أرى صوراً غريبة وعجيبة في المنام وفي الصحو، حتى انني شعرت ربما أكون مريضاً نفسياً، ولكنني على يقين بأنني كنت أرى صوراً تعطيني اللذة الروحية وتجعلني اتسامى وأتعالى عن كل الامراض النفسية والسلوكية. أنا ميّال للتأمل منذ الطفولة. ميّال للعزلة والصمت، مع أنني أبن الصخب والحياة والليل والسهر والخمرة والتمرد. لكنني أقول أن تأملاتي الحياتية والوجودية قادتني الى الشعر. أو أن اصبع الشعر أشار لي وأرسل ملائكته وأخذني من يدي الى بحره الأبدي. الشعر هو مصدر كل الفنون والاداب والعلوم. انه روح الوجود، انه معنى حياتنا. وأنا اتأمل كثير في روح الوجود وفي معنى الحياة. لهذا ربما أصبحت ميّالاً للشعر.
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BA: With poetry, I have revelation and hope, and since childhood, I’ve seen strange and wonderful images in both dreams and while awake, such that I felt I might be mentally ill. Since childhood, I have been inclined toward wonder. I’ve been inclined to solitude and silence, although also to bustle and nightlife and wine and rebellion. But I’d have to say that existential reflections are what led me to poetry. Or the finger of poetry points to me and sends his angels, and takes me to a place of eternal freedom. Poetry is the source of all the arts, and literature and science. It’s the spirit of existence, the meaning of our lives. And I meditate a lot on the essence of existence and the meaning of life. This is perhaps what made me predisposed to poetry.
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AL: You mentioned Badr Shakir Al-Sayab as a particular guiding light for your poetry. Do you have a favorite poem of his, one that has lit your path?
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ـــــ الشيء الذي أثارني في السياب هو حزنه وحياته التراجيدية. كما أن بعض قصائده وليست كلها أثارتني جدّاً، مثل غريب على الخليج وانشودة المطر. أثارني أيضاً نجاحه في تمرده الشعري على الشعر الهمودي. ربما هو لم يكن أول من كتب الشعر الحر، ولكنه أكثر من رسّخ الشعر الحر. هذا يعني بالنسبة لي بأنه كان متحديّا ومتمردأ وطموحاً. وهذا مايثيرني بأي مبدع على كل المستويات. لأنني طموح وأحب التحدي والتمرد. أشعر بأن هناك صوتاً في رأسي يخبرني بأنني يجب أن أفعل شيئاً ويجب أن أكون شيئاً في الحياة. لهذا أحببت السياب مثلما أحببت المتنبي وابو نؤاس وابو تمام ورامبو ولوتريامون وادجار الان بو..الخ.

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BA: The thing that is compelling about Sayyab is the sadness and his tragic life. Also, some of his poems, not all, have lit my way, such as “Stranger in the Gulf” and “Rain Song.” Maybe he was not the first to write in free verse, be he is the one who cemented its freedom. To me, this means that he was defiant, rebellious, ambitious. And I relate to this on many levels, because I’m ambitious and love challenge and rebellion. I feel that there’s a voice in my head telling me that I should do something and I have to be something in life. For this, I like Sayyab as I liked Mutanabbi and Abu Nawas, Abu Tammam and Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Edgar Allen Poe, etc.
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AL: You briefly ran a literary magazine. Do you think there are the right outlets for poets to share and develop their creative work? Particularly with so many Iraqi poets in the diaspora?
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ــــ الان وسائل النشر اصبحت متاحة للجميع. حتى الفيس أصبح مجالاً للنشر. المواقع الالكترونية أيضاً. لاتوجد مشكلة في النشر لأي شاعر.
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BA: Now, publication is accessible to all. Even Facebook has become a place to publish. Websites as well. There is no problem in publishing for any poet.
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AL: Do you stay in touch with the poetry communities in Iraq? Do you feel part of the poetry communities in Denmark?
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ـــــ أنا مع تواصل دائم مع الشعراء العراقيين والعرب والعديد من الدنماركيين. لكنني لاأعرف أصرار الكثير على تنميط الشاعر في اطار بلده. أنا لا أنتمي في الشعر الا الى الشعر. اما في قضايا الحياة فأنا عراقي وانساني وكوني. بصراحة لستُ معنياً بأن أكون شاعراً عراقياً أو دنماركياً، لأن الشعر لا هوية له سوى الرؤيا والتأمل، وأنا أنتمي لهذه العوالم فقط.
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BA: I’m in constant contact with Iraqi and Arab poets, as well as many Danes. But I really don’t know about this insistence of pigeonholing poets within the framework of his or her country. As in all life matters, I am an Iraqi and a human being. To be honest, I am not concerned about whether a poet is Iraqi or Danish, because poetry has no identity beyond its vision and reflections, and I belong only to these worlds.
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Al-Ansar’s poetry:
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From “I Have Nothing to Say!” in Banipal 37
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“A Panorama of Wonder” and other poems, in Beirut39


Categories: Iraq, poetry

10 replies

  1. Thanx a lot for this awesome interview. Well-done. I’m proud to say that I’ve known Basim for over twenty years, and I’ve read all of his works. He is as good in poetry as he is in fiction.
    Cordially,
    Maitham Salman

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