Hayan Charara is a poet, children’s book author, essayist, and editor. His poetry books are These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit (Milkweed Editions 2022), Something Sinister (Carnegie Mellon Univ Press 2016), The Sadness of Others (Carnegie Mellon Univ Press 2006), and The Alchemist’s Diary (Hanging Loose Press 2001). His children’s book, The Three Lucys (2016), received the New Voices Award Honor, and he edited Inclined to Speak (2008), an anthology of contemporary Arab American poetry. With Fady Joudah, he is also a series editor of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize. His honors include the Arab American Book Award, a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucille Joy Prize in Poetry from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, and the John Clare Prize.
Born in Detroit in 1972 to Arab immigrants, he studied biology and chemistry at Wayne State University before turning to poetry. He spent a decade in New York City, where he earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program. In 2004, he moved to Texas, where he eventually earned his PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston.
He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Queens College, Jersey City University, the City University of New York-La Guardia, the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and Our Lady of the Lake University. He is a professor in the Honors College at the University of Houston, where he also teaches creative writing. He is married, with two children.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
No huge changes came about because of my first book, though I suppose that’s a relative perspective. For example, my saying “I’m a poet” became a more acceptable response to the question, “What do you do?” But you can be a poet without a book—poets know that. And honestly, I wouldn’t really answer the question that way—the conversation to follow is usually insufferable.
My first book, The Alchemist’s Diary, came out a few days the September 11th attacks, and I was living in New York at the time. That event—more than my book or me—shaped how others saw my identity, as an Arab. Unfortunately, it became more integral to how people saw me or my poetry than my poetry itself.
My most recent book, These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, to me at least, feels lightyears away from my first book. Two decades on, I am a different person in significant ways—the same in some, sure, but I am more aware, have more knowledge, am a deeper, sharper thinker, am better skilled at making poems and knowing how they work, have children, have been married, divorced, married again, have a career (as opposed to a slew of bad-paying dead end jobs), and so on. It would be disappointing and seemingly impossible if after twenty years of life I didn’t feel differently or make poems differently. The biggest difference is that I know what I’m doing now to a degree that was unimaginable in my twenties—or, more accurately, that as a young poet I didn’t realize and didn’t care about. Again, you hope this is typical of any practice, and I hope it continues. If I’m still around and writing poems in another twenty years, I would love to be able to look back and see that I my handle on poetry got stronger.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I write both, and wrote both early on, and even though I felt writing poetry to be more taxing on me, I improved as a poet far more quickly than as a prose writer. It’s as simple as that. It probably isn’t, but that’s good enough for me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I am a slow writer, and my revision process is even slower. Some poems go through dozens of drafts and take years to arrive at their final version. In some cases, even with very short poems, I have up to fifty drafts. More importantly, I’m in no rush whatsoever for a poem to be done. As an example, the long, centerpiece work in These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, “Fugue,” took about 12 years to finish.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Usually, my poems begin with a realization or an idea, one that comes about outside of me thinking about poetry or setting about to write a poem, which is not an act I am very good at. I have had very little success, if any, at sitting down to write, with the intention of creating a poem, and then actually doing so.
And I’ve never worked on a book, not strictly speaking. I think and work one poem at a time. The idea of a book project, or a series of poems, that gives me anxiety. This may explain, in part, why it has taken me so many years to pull together each of my books.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I like getting up in front of people and talking and knowing that they want to hear me talk or read. This makes being a poet and a teacher a lot easier. I have my limits, though. It’s emotionally draining to read my poems, and to give a lecture (something I do at the Honors College at the University of Houston, where I’m part of a year-long course, which I teach with several other professors, and we give traditional lectures, nearly an hour-long each, in front of 300 students). So ideally, I’m doing a limited number of each. Anyhow, the readings, I don’t think they are part of my creative process—they are performances. I’m reading, not creating in the moment. Giving a lecture is a different story because while I have much of what I want to say already down in notes, I am also thinking on the spot, and ideas will come to me and lead me to other ideas, realizations, and so on that I would otherwise have not gone to.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
All my books, in their own way, dwell on and participate in a variety of concerns, from identity to violence to ecology. I find it close to impossible to read any work of literature and not uncover such concerns, if not simply see them on the surface, the exception being those writings that go out of their way to demystify just about everything—and even then, they still speak to something outside the work itself.
I’ve read and taught ancient literature for many years, and those works reveal that our many of our concerns today are old as dirt. Some are new, obviously, but if they are described generally enough, it becomes clear that we’ve been dealing with similar problems as the ancients, just differently. I’m not 100% sure, for example, that my children, if they choose to raise children of their own, can even live where we now live. Another way to state this concern: our world is falling apart, is fragile. We live in Houston, and there’s a strong possibility that in a few decades, the geography will change so dramatically, because of the climate crisis, that the city as we know—portions of it, at least—may not be inhabitable or else may be too dangerous, too unpredictable to live in. It already feels that way. Only a few years ago, Hurricane Harvey dumped 60 inches of rain on parts of Houston—that’s 33 trillion gallons of water, in about a week. Places that have never flooded, not since records began being made, were under water. That’s a concern. But is it new? No.
I’ve also always been very concerned with political violence, the history of which has unfortunately touched the lives of my family all too closely. And that kind of violence, from the perspective of the last few decades, seems ever more likely. It was always present in my family’s homeland (Lebanon), and in my hometown (Detroit), and it seems to be more pervasive today, more spread out, targeting more people, more groups, and the rules have changed, the technology on which violence thrives has become more sophisticated.
The list of concerns goes on and on.
What I won’t do, as far poetry goes is allow the concerns to take the reins. I’m not writing theory, I’m not writing newspaper stories, or history, or memoir, or political manifestos. Yes, genres blend. Yes, disciplines inform each other. Yes, the boundaries are porous, and at times they disappear. But I write poetry, which is to say that’s what I have in mind when I am making a poem. This informs not only what I do and how I do it, but also what I knowingly resist.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
After years and years of thinking about this question, because we’ve been asking it of writers for a long time, I’ve arrived at a very simple reply, one that I believe wholeheartedly. First, we should do good. Second, “we” is not limited to “writer”—by “we” I mean all of us, everyone, regardless of our many titles or roles (no one is only a writer, after all). What doing good requires is constant and continual reassessments of the good we do, the good we believe in, the good that we may not know, the good that’s required of us. It’s never-ending, constantly changing work—being and doing good.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
During the “draft” period, I only show my poems to a few people—less than a handful. And even then, they only see drafts that have gone through many revisions. Once those poems make it into a book, which has so far happened four times for me, I’ve only worked closely with editors or readers twice—once with my first book and the second time with These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit.
Hanging Loose Press published my first book, The Alchemist’s Diary, and I spent a couple hours on the phone with an editor going over line edits. That was it. My second and third books, The Sadness of Others and Something Sinister received no editorial feedback other than what I had sought out from friends. With These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit, I received excellent copy-editing feedback from a few of the readers at Milkweed Editions, and minor as the changes were, they strengthened the poems, and I’m grateful. Both instances, by the way, with Hanging Loose and Milkweed, were pleasant, and for that I’m grateful.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t seek the admiration of people whose work you do not admire.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to children's books to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I feel comfortable moving between genres, though I haven’t always. The transition from poetry to prose proved to be the most challenging mainly because some of my habits as a poet, which became ingrained in my writing practices, turned out to be obstacles to writing the kind of prose I wanted to write. The way that poems can condense story into a few stanzas or even a few lines doesn’t necessarily work well with fiction. Even an epic poem does not do narrative, plot, characterization, and so on the way that a novel or short story does. Simply, the readerly expectations differ, dramatically, and it took lots of practice, and failure, for me to learn how to adjust my writerly habits accordingly.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
In my 20s, I wrote late at night, sometimes until the early morning hours. In my 30s, I wrote for several hours each day, in between work, classes, after waking up, before going to sleep. I became a father at age 38, and it was around then that the writing routines vanished. Now, I write when I can, however much I can. And if I cannot write, I don’t sweat it.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I have no problem at all going long periods without writing. I don’t think of these periods as writer’s blocks or being stalled, either. I am just not writing. I’m still thinking, reading, being in the world, and those things have always determined what I write, how I write. If I haven’t written in a while, those will perhaps lead to something. If that happens, great. If not, that’s fine, too, and at that point I suppose I will be done writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
When I hear the word “home,” I invariably think about my childhood home, in Detroit. And cliché as it may be, I go to my mother’s cooking. Her food was delicious. Friends would gladly drive long distances to eat her food. She almost always used sauteed garlic in her dishes, and loved to use olive oil, so those two things, especially together in a frying pan, that’s the scent of home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
That’s so true, so often—our own ideas, stories, myths, and so on growing out of, coming from other writings. It’s why we know so much about our ancestors, however far back we go; it’s why we can know so much—almost all our ideas, stories, myths, gods, devils, philosophies, discoveries, were preserved and passed down through the written word. But, yes, other forms inform and influence my work. The one that I’ve become much more attuned to than ever before doesn’t quite fit the categories above, and in fact it’s more a lack of form than the presence of one. I have aphantasia, which is the inability to make mental images or to be able to form a mental image of an abstraction. When I close my eyes, and I “think” of a person, object, place, thing, or even an abstract image (counting sheep), I cannot see anything in my mind’s eye. There’s only darkness. If I think of a tree, I know what a tree is, and I’ve seen many obviously—my mind understands “tree”—but I cannot form the image.
This is something I realized only several years ago. I also took phrases like “mind’s eye” and “picture in your head…” to be figurative, not literal. Then I discovered that people do in fact see images—that people can recall images in their minds, that they actually see narratives unfolding when they read stories. That is amazing. It’s amazing because I cannot.
This realization about myself led to another: that my inability to make mental images has influenced how I use images in my own writing. Which is to say, imagery is central to my work. When I’ve admitted my aphantasia to others and suggested a strong link between this condition and the imagery found in my writings, people have usually responded with surprise. Their surprise, I translate as follows: “How can you write imagery if you can’t see it?” To me, the opposite seems to be truer: How can a writer who cannot not make images in their mind not insist on them in their writings?
As a reader, I am grateful for vivid, exact, and unforgettable images and descriptions precisely because I cannot see them in my mind. If the writer makes me feel images more deeply, more viscerally, then the “images” stick with me, resonate with me, and impress upon me. If a piece of writing is impoverished, in terms of imagery, then I don’t see anything. So I took it as a given that in order for imagery to make an impact, it had to be very well-written, and clear, and concise, and memorable.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love and admire great stand-up comedy. Over the last several years, I’ve been listening to comedians the way I read poets, paying attention to what they do, how they do it, and that’s impacted my own writing. For a story to be funny, for a joke to land, it has to be well written; it relies on structure, on pattern, or timing, on sound, and so on.
The best stand-up comedians have made me laugh out loud, to cry tears of laughter, even as they’ve touched difficult subjects. But they could also be talking about the dumbest, most ridiculous thing you can think of. Either way, they bring joy. And there’s not enough of that in the world.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Move to another country.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I wanted to teach early on, though I did not pursue that until graduating from college. As an undergraduate, I thought I would become a doctor. My parents thought so too, and so when I decided to quit pursuing that path—about three years into a pre-medicine curriculum as a college student—it upended the dreams my parents had for me. By then, I was sure, too, that I wanted to be a poet. And I pursued the two, teaching and poetry.
For several years, I used to make furniture (stand-alone cabinets, beds, chairs), and I sold a few pieces to the few people who came across what I had made or heard about my woodwork through word of mouth. For half a minute I considered going to a woodworking school. But I wanted to make fine furniture, unique pieces, and I assumed, rightly or not, that I wouldn’t be able to make a living doing that—instead, to make ends meet, I figured I would have to churn out kitchen cabinets or built-in bookcases, which I didn’t want.
I love watches, and I’ve learned how to repair them. I’m not an expert, but I can buy watches that need repair, whether new or vintage, and most of time I can bring them back to life and make them look and run like new. But, again, to do watch repair, or watchmaking, or watch design as an occupation means getting into business and that has never interested me.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I came to writing, my life was chaotic, out of control, and out of my hands. I needed something that would allow me to impose some measure of control and order to my life. Writing did that. Other practices may have achieved the same thing, but I found writing first. Had it just been writing in and of itself, I doubt I would have stuck with it. That is, along with writing poetry came new relationships and friendships, with other poets, with teachers, with communities.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Every Fall, I teach texts from antiquity, and I just finished rereading The Iliad and am starting Antigone—both great books. A more recent book I read that was incredible: The Trembling Answers, a poetry collection, by Craig Morgan Teicher.
As for films, while it’s not that recent, I just watched Ziad Doueiri’s West Beirut, which made me laugh out loud and broke my heart.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Trying to stay sane while raising pre-teens. I may not be succeeding.