A Conversation With Peter Twal

Peter Twal is a Jordanian-American electrical engineer, and the author of Our Earliest Tattoos. His poetry collection won the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press). His poems have appeared in The Believer, Poem-A-Day, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review Online, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. Peter lives in Phoenix, AZ with his wife and newborn son.  

 

Rome Smaoui and Claire Kim sat down to interview Peter about his recent poetry collection Our Earliest Tattoos. After Peter’s poetry masterclass at Idyllwild Arts Academy, the Parallax team had a variety of questions about his work and his sources of inspiration. 

 

Q: When did you get into writing?

 

When did I get into writing? It sounds silly but the first instances of writing for me, I was probably four or five. I used to write little prayers. I grew up in a Catholic home, so that was something that I thought a lot about. And so I wrote little prayers. Probably around when I was in middle school, I got into writing poems for the first time. They were terrible, they were trash poems. I think in a way that we all probably kind of struggle in the beginning when we’re just reaching for things that we’re not sure are even there. It was probably around middle school, but I didn’t really get serious about writing until I was in high school, and then later in college where I kind of had to make a decision about whether I wanted to study engineering or creative writing. Ultimately, I chose engineering, simply because I knew I wanted to do both, and I knew I wouldn’t get an engineering job without an engineering degree–that’s the way that companies work, unfortunately–but I always wanted to go to grad school for writing, and I’m really glad that I did. 

 

Q: Why did you choose science and engineering as a career path instead of writing? Does this ever inspire your writing?

 

So like I was saying, it was part practical. Where I just felt like I wouldn’t be given a shot as an engineer without a degree. And it meant a lot to me to pursue that, because it was a passion to me, as a kid. Just tinkering with things and interacting with the world in that way. So even though I was going for an engineering degree, I was doubting it the whole time. I think it was my sophomore year, and I was getting into courses that were intentionally designed to make you fail—they were really hard classes—but more importantly, I remember my sophomore year, I got a 33 on a circuits exam and I went home distraught because I had never done that poorly on a test, and I told my parents “I’m done, I’m not doing engineering, it’s not for me. I’m going to study writing,” and my parents, in their infinite wisdom said, “Okay… but why don’t you just keep going and see where it takes you. And you can still do poetry in grad school, but just stick with the engineering for a little bit longer.” I think that was a real gift. I ended up learning a lot from engineering and that segues into the writing portion. I don’t think my writing would be what it is without my engineering degree, and my appreciation for math and science, and how things interconnect. I think of circuits, specifically. I try to apply that to my poems, because in circuits you can constantly point to power sources. You can point to moments of resistance. Other elements that hold energy and voltage. That’s how I write; that’s how I try to write, at least. I try to map everything out on the page in the way a circuit looks, maybe. Where I understand what it’s trying to accomplish to the best of my abilities, and then build a plan from there. 

 

Q: Each title in this collection is a lyric from “All my friend s” by LCD Soundsystem, what inspired you to use those lyrics? Other than the titles, where do you see the song appear in the collection? 

It’s a really tough one. In 2012, a couple friends came over, and we spent some time together. We had a really nice evening. My friend, Drew, played that song for me and I loved it; it really struck a chord in me. I thought it was a beautiful song, I thought it encapsulated a moment that I was in really well because the song was all about growing apart from people, and I think I was realizing at that time, a year out of college, that I was growing apart from a lot of my friends. Friends that I cared about. And I took friends for granted. I took for granted how good of friends we were and how it wasn’t necessary to communicate all the time, because I knew they were there, I knew they were my friends. So the further I moved away from home, the more I started to write these poems. I felt like it was something that pulled me back home. It reminded me about a lot of people that I loved, and at the same time it reminded me about the distance between them and I. Last September, my friend Drew died. The person who introduced me to the song. And it was a shock to the system, different from anything I had ever felt. It reminded me of what I loved so much about that song, and what I loved about Drew, and how important it was to me that he was one of the people who introduced me to it. Aside from the lyrics, the way that I see that song appear [in the book] is: I think the book deals with grief; to me it’s a series of elegies to a band that had broken up before I had ever gotten to see them live—but then they got back together and I did see them— It was a series of elegies in the way that I think that song was an elegy to a past life, as well. I was writing elegies for the band, I was writing elegies for the people I love, I was writing elegies for friends that I simply thought were separated from me by distance, and I didn’t realise that it was more than that, that it was only a matter of time before they were gone. I didn’t take full advantage of the time I had with them, maybe in the way that the speaker in the song didn’t take advantage of the time he had with the people in his life. 

 

Q: Why did you choose to write sonnets? What was the process of writing/deconstructing these sonnets? 

 

I think sonnets are one of the earliest forms of poetry that I dabbled in. I started writing them when I was in college, and I just thought that they were so compact and neat. There are obviously the really popular Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms, but there is a long history of people who have tried to take the sonnet form and adapt it to their own style. I felt a calling to do that. So, I wrote all of these poems, and they were all fourteen lines to begin with. I knew that they weren’t sonnets by definition for many other reasons. Sonnets have different formal elements like an “if/then” structure to them, that I liked and enjoyed working with in my poems. So like I was saying, at the core of it, they were all fourteen line poems. When I began the editing process, a lot of those poems got a little longer, and most of them got a little shorter, and probably about half of them ended up being fourteen lines. I wondered if that still meant they were sonnets? I think that kind of got me thinking about form in a new way, because what is it about a form in poetry that says “Yes, you are a sonnet” or “You are a ghazal (غزل)” or any other form? I think there are elements that are maybe more important than others, but I think my poems are now haunted by the sonnet form. To me, that doesn’t make them any less sonnet-like, and even if these poems remember being sonnets at any certain time, I think to a certain extent that still kind of makes them sonnets. As tough as it was to cut away some of the more formal elements that I thought proved that they were sonnets, it kind of opened up a new realm where I felt free to put the form of the sonnet in service of my poems, as opposed to putting my poems in service of the form. 

 

Q: How did you decide on incorporating such unusual characters such as death, God, and the Mars rover? 

 

Going back to growing up in a religious family where—I mean as an Arab— religion is almost part of your identity. It’s something that I still think about, it’s something that I still struggle with, and I am constantly negotiating what I believe with myself. I’m still trying to figure out what my fate is in my life, and what its role is at that given time. So in this book, it was kind of an opportunity for me to work some of that out. It’s easiest for me to understand God and death as concepts when they are brought to my level, which is being that of a human. A human in this current age and being kind of shallow—or mischievious, or needy—the not great things about being a person, that we all kind of do. It was also a chance to poke fun at myself, because in making God or death say something in the book, I was thinking back on things that I had said or done in some fashion. There are only a few instances of that because I think I tried to make God and death way more…bratty. So that was the idea behind that, it was about how I can take these grand concepts and bring them down to my level so that I can understand them a little bit better. As for the Mars rover— aside from my obsession with it at a scientific level— I think I had a few poems in the book where I had essentially tried to make the Mars rover out to be a God figure, where they’re far away and in communication with humanity in some way, but never present. Always watching, always in echo. To me it just seemed like a connection I felt like I had to make between those two characters. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems address modern technology and ideas in relation to timeless poetic themes like love and death? 

 

I guess, thinking about technology, characters are constantly texting in the book. I came into the texting game very late, and I text like a ninety-four year old man because it’s heavily punctuated, so I would text how I would read off from a page and would be like, “Yeah, that sounds like a sentence.” When I tried to put that into the book, it forced me to relax some of those tendencies, those twitches, and how they I guess are related to concepts like love and death. It goes back into bringing it down to a new level that I don’t typically interact with. I think these are very lofty concepts that we think of as hard to understand, but the technology is so embedded in our lives and we don’t find that hard to understand at all. However, when we talk about love or death, it seems like this far-off thing that we can’t really grasp as a larger presence in our lives. 

 

Q: How do you think your poems deal with the idea of permanence vs. impermanence? What made you feel drawn to this concept? 

 

Wow…these are all stunning questions. The poems deal a lot with grief and I think grief is a permanent thing in my life. Whether it would be people in the past and mourning them or people that are soon to pass, like in this book, there are a couple of folks who were really important to me as I was writing these poems. Maybe as I was writing this poem, I was working through this idea of impermanence and letting it go. Memory is something that is permanent, but also impermanent, and it’s constructed by both us and our surroundings. So we have this idea that memory is pure, imperfect, and untouchable, and it’s always not, it’s always tainted. When we make the connection in our minds, we begin to appreciate the parts that are permanent, which are emotions that are attached to the memory. Maybe going back to my point on grief, it’s a different way to understand what we’re taking with us and how we shape ourselves with those things that we take with us. 

 

Q: What is your favorite period of literature, or genre, and why? Are there any other genres you feel particularly drawn to?

 

Favorite genres of literature—definitely poetry! But if we’re talking about periods, when I was in high school, I read a lot of romantics, romantic poems, and I was so struck by them. How vivid the imagery was and how much they felt. I think sentimentality gets that grab in writing or art because it’s perceived as being like weakness, or it’s also an engendered thing, but I love sentimental writings, and I think the romantics were seen as the sentimental group. So back then, I was really struck by that. I haven’t really read much about it since, but that’s probably the group that I still appreciate. 

 

Q: Are you working on any new projects? 

 

So, I read four poems last night at my reading, that were new, and that were not in the book. If I’m being honest, I haven’t written much new stuff for a long time. I don’t know why it has been difficult. I think now within the past years, I moved, started a new job, my partner and I had this new baby, and I think a lot has changed, so a lot of how I moved through my life has changed as well. I typically used to go to one spot at a coffee shop and write. That was how I did it, and I can’t do that anymore, so I’m having a hard time getting back into any form of consistent writing. So, long answer, I don’t think I have any projects right now. I have a lot of poems that are cooking and a few that are finished, but I don’t know at this time if there’s anything more than a stack of poems, pages, and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with letting them sit, spend some time together, and work themselves out to a certain extent. I think every time I come back to them, I start to make new connections, and I think a new project will come out of it eventually, but I can’t say that I have anything other than a few poems at the moment. 

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, did you have a particular target audience in mind? Who do you hope will read this collection? 

 

I think I talked a little bit about this yesterday, about the way I had to relearn what it is to be an Arab body at this current time. As a kid, I let a lot of things go that I took for granted and didn’t think enough about my role in society, the responsibility I had, and what it was to be an Arab. So, when I began to edit this collection, that changed, and I hope now that other folks in my community who maybe grew up in a similar way that I did without realizing how Arabs are being portrayed in popular culture and how they are depicted in the news. I hope other folks, who don’t realize how harmful some of those things are— as I didn’t when I was younger— would encounter this and maybe gain something from it. 

 

Q: What advice would you give to the growing writers and poets?

 

I think two things. One, reading is writing. Even if you’re not putting something on the page, but you’re still taking in the work of others, you’re participating in writing in some way and you’re learning. I didn’t think that enough when I was first starting out. I thought writing was me sitting there, putting words down and I didn’t read enough other poets until a poet that was very kind and helped me a lot at LSU (Louisiana State University)—where I was for my undergraduate— shared a quote with me. She said, “The relationship between reading and writing is like eating and shitting.” The other thing is that, even if you’re not reading, writing is always happening. Writing does not necessarily have to be an active thing at all times. If you’re walking around and absorbing the things around you, and taking notes on them, you’re still eventually contributing towards writing. For weeks, I would jot things down that happen around me, whether it would be things that I would see, things that I hear, and I would eventually sit down and think how these pieces fit together, if they do at all. So, there are a lot of different ways to write, and I think in this society that we live in, there is an emphasis on production and producing work no matter what you do, even if it’s not about writing. “You’re only worth on your current output” is a thing that we’re taught, and it’s really terrible. I think writing could push back against that, where you don’t have to be constantly producing poems or stories to be a writer or to be at any given time.