On a subway ride, my gaze falls upon a poem on the wall that begins with, “All stars lead to this city.”Next to the poem, which is called “Lady Liberty,” stands an illustration of a woman with sunglasses that reflect the Statue of Liberty. To encounter a poem like this, unexpectedly, provides a momentary sense of peace for me and other commuters squeezed into a packed subway car.
When I later meet with the poet, Nathalie Handal, she aptly describes what I felt. “To be on the subway, and to pause and to read a poem,” she tells me, “How wonderful is that?”
Handal is a professor of English and comparative literature; she teaches, writes about, and embodies life in motion. Handal, who is French-American, dutifully informs me that was conceived in Lausanne, Switzerland and born in Haiti to parents of Palestinian descent. Speaking of the range of her sojourns and travels, she mentions Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. In her account of her own life, the line blurs between autobiography and travelogue. Her poetry, as well as her role as an educator at Columbia, both have an ambitious goal: transcending divisions and promoting reconciliation.
Handal does not have a mother tongue. The languages she has been surrounded by in her life—French, Spanish, English, Arabic, Creole, Italian, Greek, and Armenian—have created a “symphony” inside of her, she says. Handal has published poetry collections, plays, and essays, and edited or co-edited two anthologies of poetry, primarily in English.
Beyond the colorful cosmopolitanism, however, her work has weightier ambitions concerned with international understanding. When we meet, fittingly, at the French bistro Le Monde, she is rubbing her temples after several days of attending the New York City Greek Film Festival. After giving me a brief introduction to a part of Greek history that I am embarrassed not to know well being half Greek myself, her eyes light up as she describes one of the films featured in the festival, Journey Through Smyrna.
The movie, which is about musical collaboration between Greek and Turkish musicians, is set during a painful event in the collective eastern Mediterranean memory: the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Armenians from Smyrna (present-day İzmir in Turkey) and the rest of Asia Minor in the 1920s. Despite its roots in the past, Handal describes the film as “the beginning of a conversation,” referencing the present-day refugee crisis.
This changes the tone of the conversation. We have both had personal encounters with the refugee crisis in Europe: Handal in Scandinavia, I in Greece. What was a tragic interlude 90 years ago now comes to bear on a contemporary issue that seems, suddenly, notwithout precedent.
As I speak with Handal, my impression grows that, beyond anything else, this mission of transnational reconciliation is deeply embedded in her creative drive. In fact, it was at Columbia, which Handal considers the most important years of her creative and intellectual life, that one of her more ambitious works on reconciliation, Poet in Andalucía, came to fruition.
The work is inspired by the the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who had enrolled at the School of General Studies in 1929. His influential poetry collection, Poet in New York, grew out of his reflections about capitalism, racism, and urban life. When Handal revisited the collection while at Columbia, the work “just came back to me in such a forceful way,” she recalls. “And I knew I had to have a conversation with him.”
Handal’s literary response, then, was a “journey in reverse”—an immersion into the south of Spain, from which Lorca had come and where she, too, holds emotional bonds. It was thus that Poet in Andalucía was born. Handal was clear-eyed about her mission: “A search for ‘convivencia’—coexistence.”
“La convivencia,” in its more specific sense, is about the pluralism among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain from the time of the Muslim conquest to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. I see the promise glimmer in Handal as she describes this work, stating that coexistence amongst humans is possible. “Lo que más importa es vivir,” she says, quoting Lorca. What matters most is to live.
Handal hastens to concede the wobbly historical ground on which this project rests. The 700-year “la convivencia” of the Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Spain is considered, by now, a tarnished tale among historians. She laughs, but then her earnesty returns. “One thing none could contest is that they created the most incredible art together.” And the hope that lies in such collaboration alone propelled a project with such sincere stakes in the possibility of coexistence.
This fundamental human drive, then, forms the basis of coexistence that Handal envisions in her poetry. “Can poetry change the world?” she asks, rhetorically, and it is clear that she believes it can. “Can we transcend all the obstacles that we have to confront in order to reach that space? Are we willing? Will our wounds allow us?” The challenge lingers in the silence that follows.
Handal’s teaching, too, bears the imprint of her poetic ambition. At Columbia, she teaches courses on what might broadly be called “world literature.” She has taught a translation workshop for Master of Fine Arts students, as well as Latino and Asian-American Memoir, and, this semester, Arabs in Literature and Film, the latter two courses within the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.
Handal seems to want her students to craft a lens that is at once global and personalized. She describes her courses as a journey, and as students meet the variegated demands of such a journey—attending events, Skyping poets, writing critical and creative pieces—the potential of world literature comes to fruition. “It expands our inner and outer worlds,” she explains. “It takes us to invisible and visible spaces, and to the edges of our creative spirit.”
To illustrate, Handal tells me the story of how she went from getting a graduate degree in English and drama to earning her MFA.
Several decades ago, MFA programs were still comparatively rare in the U.K. But as she worked toward getting her graduate degree at the University of London, it was a process she describes as “painful.” She recalls hours spent at the library, struggling with critical theorists like the opaque postcolonial scholar, Homi Bhabha. “I would spend so much time trying to understand how a critical mind works.”
Though Handal credits the endeavor with making her a better reader, she reflects on how the curriculum was a poor fit for her disposition: “I was a creative mind more than a critical mind.”
Handal first heard of the writing program that would change her life at the Anna Akhmatova Literary and Memorial Museum during a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. “It was like the scene was stripped from a Woody Allen movie,” she recalls. The presenter was none other than Phillip Lopate, who today teaches nonfiction writing at Columbia’s School of the Arts. “He was reading this essay about a very particular part of his body.” She pauses, but does not specify—I decide it’s better not to ask.
She went to speak to Lopate after his talk, and he diagnosed her problem: “Nathalie, you should really be getting your MFA.” She recalls her delight at hearing of the existence of such programs, dedicated completely to writing and taught by well-known writers. Rather than the Homi Bhabha, this was just what Handal needed, and she would soon earn her MFA in poetry from Bennington College in Vermont. She says that it was “the most extraordinary thing I did in relation to my writing life.”
And as we reflect back on “Lady Liberty,” perhaps the most physically-visible piece of her career—the poem that is plastered on subway cars that travel through New York City’s underbelly—Columbia’s influence on her work becomes evident. Handal wrote it, in fact, on the 1 train from Morningside Heights, and it reached a wider audience through Poetry in Motion, a project by the MTA Arts for Transport & Urban Design and the Poetry Society of America.
In its wide dissemination, its empathetic finger on the pulse of a multicultural city, the poem is perhaps part of Handal’s search for “la convivencia.”
As I ask for the exact provenance of this work, the futility of my question becomes obvious. Handal smiles. “You don't always know these things as a poet,” she says. “A poem is born out of a miracle. You write it from something unexplainable inside of you.” She takes a breath.
Have fun leafing through our second issue, and subscribe to our new weekly newsletter, As We See It!