March 19, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 12 – John Mikhail Asfour presented by Elee Kraljii Gardiner

When John died on November 2, 2014 we lost a mentor, a professor, an advocate, a poet, a translator – someone who was capable of captivating the centre even as he stayed attuned to the margins. I met John when he came from Montreal to Vancouver to be the first writer in residence at Historic Joy Kogawa House in 2008. He heard Thursdays Writing Collective at a reading and came over to introduce himself and from that point stayed in contact with the Collective, even though he moved back across the country.

Credit: Rawi Hage

Credit: Rawi Hage

John and I edited TWC’s second chapbook and a larger anthology that would bring Downtown Eastside writers to a wider audience. We worked online together or on the phone, speaking every day as we shaped V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012). We continued speaking daily even when the projects were completed.

Talking with John was a wide-ranging event; he was a voracious reader of novels and poetry and politics and pop culture items. He had several communities of friends both decades younger and older than he  – novelists, filmmakers, teachers, activists, poets, cab drivers, politicians, semioticians, homemakers, people eclectic in interest and background. He was intensely curious about people and very self-aware. His curiosity extended to the people on the bus with him, the new books his friends were reading, what was happening in the headlines. I am not alone in feeling that in any conversation John was already five steps ahead, considering the implications and drawing conclusions it would take me some time to arrive at naturally.

He came to Montreal in 1968 from Aitaneat, Lebanon, carrying in his body the shrapnel of a grenade he picked up as a curious kid. When it exploded it damaged his hands and his eyes. Two years of operations failed to restore his sight, a circumstance that prompted him to wrestle with existential questions at an early age. But the topic of blindness did not define him. In fact, it wasn’t until his most recent book of poetry, Blindfold (MQUP, 2011) that he wrote about blindness. More of an interest, both practically and metaphorically, for John was the experience of cultural dislocation via immigration, an experience that led him to write, “the only home is in the text.”

He published his first book of poetry, Nisan (Fiddlehead) in 1976 and a second, Land of Flowers and Guns (DC Books) in 1981. During his PhD in English Literature he developed a lasting friendship with Louis Dudek, a pal who became his jousting partner and intellectual sounding board. Being trilingual in English, French and Arabic gave John a unique perspective on poetic traditions and led naturally to an interest in translation, a practice he maintained while attending to his own writing. At McGill he began work on When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (Cormorant Books, 1988, 1992; American University, 1992, Cairo, and University of Ankara,1994) which was short-listed for the League of Poets Award (1990) and the John Glassco Award for Translation (1990).

Securing and handling the Arabic texts was a massive labour in the era before the internet or computers and I loved hearing about this process. John received the Arabic poems in hard copy from abroad (weeks if not months in the mail) and his father would read them into a tape recorder to capture the cadence and tone. Then John would listen to them, compose his translations and perfect them in English with a reader and scribe. The anthology marked a breakthrough in Arabic translation in English and is taught in university classes throughout the world. Through this process John became friends with many poets working half a world away – including al-Maghut and Darwish, who he continued to translate.

Visiting with students at BC Muslim School

Visiting with students at BC Muslim School

John had a photographic memory, which made him a great editor – he could jump between sections of text without losing his way, the way he gave impeccable street directions. One time, in the midst of compiling V6A, I forgot about the time zones and called him in the middle of the night to help edit a piece. Although I woke him up he told me to read the piece. He zeroed in on the phrases that needed tweaking, keeping the order of paragraphs straight in his head even though I, with the computer open in front of me, kept getting lost. In the morning when I looked over the editing I called to tell him how stellar it was and he replied, “we talked last night?” He had gone right back to sleep after our call and forgotten all about it.

While he taught at McGill and Concordia he spent much of his time with students and emerging writers seeking editing help or an ear or support. These meetings paralleled his commitment to the community where he advocated on behalf of immigrants and victims of prejudice. His apartment frequently felt like a salon, full of artists and interlocutors. He advised friends and their children on education and career plans, contacted MPs, spent much of his time translating documents, work that continued to his last moments. He didn’t know another way to be. He said, “If I can help, I will.”

John AsfourAmong his influences was William Carlos Williams, who also combined a busy professional life with art. John admired Williams’ use of plain language. Like Williams, John wrote about the human condition, about failures and troubles, but recognized poetry as a place to encounter the sublime. Social justice was part of John’s work, but it was not the driving force. Poetry and music – he played the oud, often at readings his own work – were a respite from the ugliness outside. You couldn’t shock John but he could be astounded by humanity, or a poem, or a concept.

[Photo – Poetry and music – he played the oud, often at readings of his own work.]

After this third book he and Alison Burch translated a volume of selected poems by Muhammad al-Maghut entitled Joy is Not My Profession, (Véhicule Press, 1994). He received the Joseph S. Stauffer Prize in 1995 for his poetic work as he balanced literary life with public activism. John served as the president of the Canadian Arab Federation from 1996-2002, an encompassing position that had him travelling to Ottawa several times a week to contend with political claims. During this time his fourth book, Fields of My Blood (Empyreal Press, 1997) was released. Here is a poem from that book:

 

His commitment to community is something I witnessed in real life but it wasn’t until I factchecked this article with the help of his daughter that I learned about other accolades. Many people would have crowed about these honours but John did not. In 2002 he was the recipient of the first national Volunteer Sector Initiative Award with recognition by the Prime Minister of Canada. In 2007, he won the Charles-Biddle Quebec Citizenship Award.

2011 saw the release of two books: Metamorphosis of Ishtar by Nadine Ltaif, which he translated from the French (2011 Guernica Editions) and his book of poems Blindfold, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011) which was nominated for a ReLit Award.

The Metamorphoses of Ishtar by Nadine Ltaif translated by John Asfour is read at the Guernica Editions launch on November 27, 2011 at the Supermarket on Augusta Avenue in this video.

John loved reading “In the Metro” from Blindfold aloud – he had a playful, teasing sense of humour and this one allowed him to provoke laughter in his audience. Worth noting: John instigated the installation of the yellow stripe of raised bumps along subway platforms in Montreal that alert the visually impaired to the edge of the platform.

Lionel Groulx Metro Station

Lionel Groulx Metro Station

In the Metro

They pass me by,
I hear their voices, their steps, smell
their perfume and at times,
I run into them head on. Apologies

ensue and I imagine
their jaws drop, their minds
race to make a comment,
or alter their reaction to rush
and offer assistance
instead of a damn.

Some jump out of my way
as my cane bruises their ankle.
Others ignore me and some
squeeze my arm
ready to lift me off the ground.

I am the darling of the metro riders,
my cane taps its way to the door,
finds an opening
and many jump to offer me a seat.
“Dear ladies, kind gentlemen, thank you.
This is humanity at its best,” I’d say,
“this is humanity at the peak of refinement:”
I can hear their brains humming:
I watch them watching me,
dark glasses prevent me
from seeing their eyes,
their urban clock
ticks away their own stress
and sidetracks them
from seeing beyond my external self.

I want to reassure them,
whisper in their ears
that this reality is less painful
than a pin prick on a cloudy day,
that the rest of what they see
is operational and we all learn to adjust,
that the blindfold between us
is only a thin film of moss
and none can envision what awaits all of us
at the next station.

On this wagon of the metro
we all endure the consequence of the night before
and bear the mishaps of our past.
We all speak to walls or to open doors,
to our cats or a glass of wine, to the emptiness
or the passion that gives meaning to the music
we listen to in time of joy or sadness,
and expect morning love will still be
love at night.

Let’s find out before the next stop
how many loonies dance on a head of a pin,
how many ounces of democracy can we fit into one purse,
how many kisses can a lover tolerate before
his lips burn out
and how many deaths do we have to cause before we know
that our own skin is mortal? Let’s partake
of all the secrets hidden in our pockets,
let’s exchange sins before
the conductor tickets us for this assembly. A blind man

is a national treasure among you,
a symbol, a metaphor of all your idols
and you are such a great audience!
Let me then,
expound my theories, indulge me,
let me tell you what others failed to say:
the world we live in is exactly what we made it to be. One day,
dear ladies, I shall
make love to you all
and gentlemen, I will preserve you
in a poem
precisely as you are.
Merci d’avoir voyage
avec nous.
Bonne journée.

John had a sense of humour that careened from provocative to corny to defiant to the point where you couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not. It used to drive me crazy when he would talk about his own work beginning, “Elee, you know what is fantastic about this poem?”

I’d say, “John! You can’t brag about your own poem like that.” And he’d answer, “Well, is it a good poem?”

“Yes.”

“So I should not say that?”

And we would begin a debate on modesty, confidence and plain speech that would end with him acquiescing – momentarily – with a smile in his voice, “Ok, I will not say what I think.”

Certainly, he did not shy from saying what he thought about someone else’s piece of writing. He would tell an author, “the problem with this is…” or “what you are doing wrong here is…,” comments one could find rough. Yes, his tact was blunt. He didn’t think being a good writer equates to being a good person. He considered a text at an objective remove. Long after he commented on a piece he would worry, not about the writer’s feelings, but if they were going to accept his opinion.

John’s most recent work is a translation of a book of poems by Faraj Bayrakdar, Mirrors of Absence, that is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in spring 2015. Bayrakdar was imprisoned for 14 years in Syria for “literary” crimes. It was he who said, “The freedom within us is larger than the prison that holds us.”

In his last months John investigated the fatal changes happening within him, both mentally and physically, with his own perfect blend of logic and intuition. He drew from the scholars who inspired him and the everyday people who were his companions. When the doctors came to speak with him and discuss the psychological impact of dying John listened to everything they had to say with an open mind. And then, when they left, he giggled about how rudimentary some ideas were. Because of course, John had touched the corners of his predicament and considered his situation as if it were a poem.

Here is a poem he wrote for his dear friend Louis Dudek from Blindfold.

We Only Meet in a Poem Now
For Louis Dudek

How do the features of the city change
and when is the present tense no longer applicable?
How did you pass into the damp ground
and leave poetry unattended?

You and I
drilled death, waged war on the poem
and never knew that it would create such a distance between us.
Everywhere you leave something, you leave no one,
leave the books and the music notes,
leave us unable to write. All the lampposts
are plastered with faded paper signs and the trees
on Ste-Catherine street are leafless.
There’s no war here but a fabricated threat
of terrorism.
The criminal law is rewritten
and racial profiling is permissible.

Children are dying elsewhere
and their deaths do not reach us in time
to instigate more grief.
All the headlines in all the papers
have declared the loss of that familiar innocence
and we all have embraced a nightmare
unlike any our ancestors
lived through. The features of the city
have changed and we sold civil liberty
after you left.
Why am I so full of fear
unable to unearth you, fill you in
on how we get on in your absence?

Another Christmas has passed and you have missed
our rendezvous.
A lunch and a coffee and an exchange of gifts
that we both promised we wouldn’t buy the year before.
Then, you bring out your notebook
and read to me:
“Our age is not the age of the poem,

and this country will never rise to our ideals,
nor will death change what we are.”

Let me ask again:
where does the soul go
after we close our eyes
and where the memory of the languages?
And is the still body
the only fragment that remains?
Does the poem suffice when all else fails?

Your place in history has not been made
and one day, this country will have to transfer
your words and passion into action.
One day, we will all have to die
or be hypnotized by the smile
inside the words you left
by the power of death and by the power of your lines.

Let’s assume, then, that the mind has it all
yet refuses to relate it in language
or sleeps
to protect what should never have been said or written.
How were you able to pour all of it out
and be elated by the experience.
How you alone knew the course of events
and the direction this country would choose?
When I stand,

here, close to the walls of the library,
it is not the books or the notes that come to me,
not the awards and recognition.
It is not death or music that haunts me,
not the fate of our planet or who will wage the next war:
it is your voice reading and assessing,
explaining and debating concepts and theories,
giving literature its power of renewing itself;
it is your passion to live and educate, your love of the poem,
exposing our greatness and making us vulnerable.

It is your warm smile.
But still, an old argument
rises to my lips:

what is the worth of this
country
which does not return your passion?
What is the meaning of a poem
that cannot be heard?

Days before he moved on from us, one of the Montreal General Hospital volunteers brought a therapy dog into John’s room. The dog, whose job it is to calm patients and their families, is named Finnegan. When John asked the volunteer if the dog was named after James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a book that he loved, she said she had never heard of it. He explained the connection and why he treasured Joyce’s writing. In the beginning of his own book Blindfold, he begins with a quote from Joyce that brings me comfort as I think of him now: “I have a hundred worlds to create and I am only losing one.”


Elee Kraljii Gardiner directs Thursdays Writing Collective and is coeditor with John Asfour of V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012), which was shortlisted for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award. She is also the editor of six books from the Collective, most recently The Stanza Project (Otter Press, 2013). Her poetry earned CV2’s Lina Chartrand Award in 2011 and is published online and in journals and anthologies.

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