INTERVIEW - Djelloul Marbrook

Warda Atroun interviews Djelloul Marbrook.

A contemporary English language American poet and writer, Djelloul Marbrook was a reporter for The Providence Journal and an editor for the Elmira Star-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, The Washington Star, and Media News newspapers in northeast Ohio, Paterson, New Jersey, and Passaic, New Jersey. His poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in a number of journals. In 2006-2007 and again in 2016 he was the editor-in-chief of the English version of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review.

Q 1. The harvest of your pen is abundant. What influences you before writing poetry?

A. Everything, anything. Sometimes I wake up in the morning speaking gibberish, and from the gibberish comes a donnée. Sometimes a passing face, a glance, a glimpse of a heron taking flight, reflections in a window, a remark, an indelible experience. I have always had trouble filtering experiences, which is why I avoid parties and events, preferring the accidental. I was born, it would seem, with very few filters, and each experience, each apprehension, comes at me at high velocity, as if I were in danger of being run over. It takes me days to process events -- which makes it very difficult for me to do readings. Out of this processing comes poetry, and sometimes fiction. This is the reason I don’t travel much, except of course in my mind.

Q2. Brash Ice is a 2014 poetry collection. Could you please provide a poem from that collection and tell those who may not know more about it?

A .Brash Ice is ice that has been broken and reformed, becoming scarred ice. It is, to my mind, a metaphor for our lives. We are broken and reform ourselves. I have been studying ice in the Hudson River for many years, contemplating its relevance to my experiences and those of others. As a child and young adult I played ice hockey. I have photographed ice formations in many places along the river. My view is that as we age we become very like brash ice, and eventually we flow on, we vanish. But we are essential to the processes of the earth, to its alchemy. Ice has something of the dervish about it -- its task is to disappear without ado or monument. Here is a poem from Brash Ice: 

Handling plutonium

so this business of being you

is about handling plutonium
and is much more dangerous
than your parents said.
you stumbled across yourself so often
you became your own nightmare
and then one day the sun rose
on a world where winners and losers
cast no shadows. You saw no choice
but to turn your back on the game,
to remake the world with your painterly eye,
to be a forensic sculptor, to let
intellect's luminol reveal
what fears can't bleach,
to stare at the consequences
even as they throw dirt on your face.

Q 3. As a former editor for the Elmira Star-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel, The Washington Star, and Media News dailies, what do you consider the major characteristics of a good writer?

A. Courage. Clarity. A fierce commitment to connecting the dots, to showing how one thing impacts another. A sense of the right word, the indispensable word. In America, and perhaps globally, we are witnessing a trivialization of journalism. Journalism’s corporate masters are encouraging the dumbing down of language as the conveyor of thought, and this tragedy is engulfing poetry, and fiction as well. It represents not only the triumph of market over merit, but of the received idea over inquiry. At its core it is totalitarian and degenerate.

Your work Far from Algiers is a prize-winning poetry collection. Tell us more about that prize. What poem awakens your nostalgic feeling for Algeria?

A. The 2007 Stan and Tom Wick prize came to me late in life and emboldened me to respect my own intellect, the little wisdom I acquired at cost over a lifetime. But the collection is not about Algeria. I have no nostalgia for Algeria because I have no recollection of it, having come to America while still an infant, very ill and not expected to live. 

    My entire life’s experience is as an American whose sensibility depends on the English language to express itself. That said, I predictably have had a lifelong interest in Algeria and in Arab, Amazigh and Islamic history and have read to the point of scholarship, however autodidactic, in those subjects. By the time I had the means to travel to Algeria, or anywhere else, I was old and disinclined to travel, preferring to spend my time recollecting and writing. I never knew my father’s family in Algeria, and I never knew him. He and my mother, never having married, parted ways before I was born. But I am now in touch with my half-sister and her mother in Bou Saada. 

    I spent most of my life believing my father, Chehaba Ben Aissa ben Mabrouk, an Oulad Achmed from Ain Rich, had died before my birth, but in 1991 I accidentally discovered that he had lived until 1978. It was a disquieting discovery, and I’m not sure I’ve fully absorbed its implications. It means I was told a reprehensible lie and forced to live with it. It was difficult for my mother’s family to assimilate me, and they never fully did. Nor did she.

    I spent the first five years of my life in Brooklyn with my German-speaking grandmother and my Aunt Dorothy. They were my mothers. No mention of Algeria was ever spoken, and very little was said of my mother. At age five I was sent to boarding school when my aunt fell ill. I spent the next eleven years there. My first name was an endless cause of difficulty and sometimes scorn. My last name is an Anglicized version of the Arab name Mabrouk. This is the childhood experience in which Far from Algiers is grounded.  It is the voice of an American boy who is often perceived as somehow different, somehow troubling, an American boy not quite welcomed by his American family, a baseball and ice hockey player, and eventually a sailor. It is the voice of his dismay, his bewilderment, and his great love for America.

    By naming my book Far from Algiers I intended to speak to the modern condition of alienation and displacement, and in view of the current refugee crisis I think the collection’s subject matter is all the more urgent. The refugee cannot afford too much nostalgia because his or her energies must be directed at acclimating to a new climate, literally and metaphorically. Too much nostalgia will result in a betrayal of the new arrival’s new culture. And one should not go anywhere with the intention of betraying and subverting one's new host, however difficult and wary that new host may prove to be. People who seek new lives in a strange country and then attack that country are untrustworthy, not just to their new country, but to everyone, everywhere. Nonetheless, the lives of arrivals from distant cultures are difficult, even perilous, and they must learn to cope with host hypocrisy -- people saying they’re welcome when in fact they encounter hostility and even oppression. 

    The United States has absorbed wave after wave of immigrants and asylum seekers, but that experience has been and still is painful, troubling and troubled. It’s a great human experiment, and in this time of globalization it becomes one of the great challenges of our time, how to make each other welcome on the surface of the earth. Tribalism and nativism are under attack, and as we see in people like Donald Trump and Jean-Marie Le Pen, some are firing back, as we saw in Adolph Hitler and his gang. The immigrant and the host, both of them, are heroes in a great drama, and sometimes a great tragedy.

Q 5. As an American writer born in Algeria and a former editor-in-chief of the English version of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review how do you find the writings of non-native speakers of English? What’s your advice for them and for all poets hoping to get their poetry collections published?

A. (I should say, as a marginal note, that Arabesques Review has been revived after an eight-year hiatus, and I am again its English-language poetry editor.) That’s a perilous question. The boarding school in which I grew up was English, established on U.S. soil for English children evacuated from the bombing in East Anglia. I was sent there because it was Christian Scientist, and my mother at the time was interested in Christian Science. So I became grounded in English writing before American, and I am still well grounded in English writing. Indeed, one of my poetry publishers, Leaky Boot Press, is English. American literature came as a glorious surprise to me when I was 15 and in my second year at a prep school in Manhattan. I was ecstatic. The Anglophone world is nuanced, highly nuanced. There are many dialects here, in the United Kingdom, in Ireland, in Canada, in India, and elsewhere. I’ve been on intimate terms with East Anglian sounds, Irish-American sounds, North Carolina sounds, Sicilian-American sounds, Yiddish sounds, German sounds, and any patois heard around New York City. My first novella, Saraceno, has been called a tone-poem, partly because of its variety of New York patois. All these sounds play a role in my poetry and my fiction. Concerning your question about my advice to non-native speakers -- I really don’t feel comfortable offering advice, because becoming recognized as a writer is a struggle hard won, in which I’ve learned one should never presume mastery of a language, any language, even one’s own. Hubris and presumption will always be a writer’s worst enemies. 

    Read the classics, that should go without saying. But somewhere in your career confront the question of whether you want to write as well as you can or whether you want to write to sell books. Marketing always trumps merit in the short run because we live in a corporatist and corrupted world. Writing what is authentic to you, what is true, may not mean success. But how will you define success -- true to yourself, or received well in the marketplace? This is your major challenge. Some few writers can do both, but very few. Consider Salman Rushdie, a world-class writer to be sure, but would he have been so successful had he not taken on Islam and gotten himself a stupid fatwa, issued by a stupid man? Or take Vladimir Nabokov. He was already a highly regarded novelist when he wrote Lolita, but it was Lolita, because of its strange sexuality, that brought him lasting fame. So the question is, do you want fame or do you want above all else to be true to yourself? Can you have both? Sometimes, but rarely. Another way to put it is this: Are you a writer or a dervish first? I am a dervish, and I pay the price every day.

Q 6.  What poems of your collection Brushstrokes and Glances  do you consider most successful?

A. If I didn’t consider them all successful I wouldn’t have included them in the collection, but some are certainly better than others, more memorable, truer perhaps. The most ambitious poem is really a suite of poems that --with an eerie prescience, perhaps -- envisions Manhattan under water. Here is Part 1 of the suite:

Manhattan reef

The curator speaks
Enjoy the sunlight now,
some of you will be eyeless
down by garnets and beryls
in tunnels and watery cathedrals.
More always rises than meets the eye.
Waters rise to spare you beetles and flies,
to harbor your predecessors and womb
a new idea of creatureliness.
You were a jeweled motherboard
whose green brushstrokes of circuitries
hypnotized the peregrine that nictates now
in the antennae of drowned towers.
Now you are the moorings of dirigibles,
buoys and sea gongs for ospreys and ships.
Squid will massage your orifices,
stars will sequin you and check
your many-chambered heart.
No more hours or holidays,
no special exhibitions. Storms
will be heaven's business, whales
will sing of the coming race;
even blades of light
will learn to rust.

Q 7. Djelloul Marbrook served the written word for many years and still is garnishing readers' shelves with outstanding fiction and poetry. Is writing your only passion? How do you enjoy your retirement?

A. Writing is my retirement. It’s what I promised myself to do when I didn’t have to earn a wage. But I was never sure I would or could do it. Somehow the 9/11 attacks inspired me to try. I had been writing fiction falteringly before the attacks. I had given up poetry in my 30s when I decided I wasn’t saying what I meant or meaning what I said, but was writing for effect. After 9/11 I began walking around Manhattan with a notebook, thinking I would take notes about my feelings. I was trying to reaffirm my great love for New York as well as making myself at home in a city that my mother had made somewhat inhospitable to me. After a few weeks I began noticing that my notes were distinctly prosodic. I began to recognize the meter, the stress, the occasional interior rhyme, the enjambment.


Warda Atroun is an Algerian poet and writer (pen name, Warda Al Barbar). Copy editor: Joneve McCormick.