A Writer’s Notebook: Found poem (from Nizar Qabbani)

I’m in Dubai this weekend, visiting friends.  Yesterday, I spent part of my day on the Dubai campus of Zayed University, where, in a hallway leading to the campus library, I found a row of large, framed prints, each bearing–in Arabic and in English–lines of poetry.

The lines all come from existing poetry, but they are quoted from at least three different poems and appear out of order.  Arranged on the wall this way, they create a kind of Dadaist found poem, which I present here.  I’m typing it in two different orders because, though I read the English on the wall from left to right, the Emirati students here would read the Arabic from right to left.  So, on the left, I present it as I read it; and on the right, I present it in reverse, as an Arabic speaker would read it.

And then, below, I’ll explain how this works, for those of you looking for an exercise.

Imagine, even perfume knows Banishment and Exile. 

Every time you traveled

Don’t you know how to draw a bird?

Like a child

Asking about the return of its mother

Love has no notebooks

But this is a prison, father.

Swim and fly by yourself

And I tell him, son forgive me… I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.

And I tell him, son forgive me… I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds. 

Swim and fly by yourself

But this is a prison, father.

Love has no notebooks

Like a child

Asking about the return of its mother

Don’t you know how to draw a bird?

Every time you traveled

Imagine, even perfume knows Banishment and Exile.

So far, I’ve identified two source poems for these lines, “I am not a teacher” and “A Lesson in Drawing,” both by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani.  I suspect the rest of these lines also come from Qabbani poems, but I haven’t yet found translations to match the lines I saw on the wall.  If anyone recognizes the rest of these lines, please leave the titles of the poems in a comment (and link me to translations if there are any online)!  I’m new to Qabbani, but the poems I read while looking for these lines are astounding–I am definitely a new fan.

As for the found poem exercise, there are a few ways to go about this.  The purest way is to read an existing text as a poem, altering the way we interact with it.  My first (lame) attempt was when I read line breaks into the way the warning on a school bus was arranged:

school bus
STOP
children loading
and unloading

Such a deep message about the dangers of losing our kids to education, eh?  But you get the idea.

In Dada poetry, the poet takes a slightly more active role, “finding” words in existing texts and then cutting them apart and rearranging them to create new art.  It’s the source of our now-beloved distraction, Magnet Poetry.

Here at Zayed University, the framed prints on the wall combine these techniques, preserving whole lines but arranging them on the wall in a new art form.  I’m calling it a “found poem” because to an Arab reader familiar with Qabbani’s work, these are simply quotes, references meant to evoke the poems they come from, much like my friends sometimes use song lyrics as status updates in Facebook.  But to my eyes, unfamiliar with Qabbani’s work, they formed something new.

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One thought on “A Writer’s Notebook: Found poem (from Nizar Qabbani)

  1. I am so happy to read this. This is the kind of info that needs to be given and not the random misinformation that is at the other blogs. Appreciate your sharing this beneficial content.

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