OU professor, poet describes art and censorship

Jessica Orlando, Reporter

Oakland University’s Center for Public Humanities invited world-renowned poet Dunya Mikhail to chat about her life and read poetry on Tuesday, Feb 16. 

Mikhail was born in Baghdad, Iraq and moved to the United States 30 years later in 1995. She graduated from the University of Baghdad and went on to work as journalist and translator for the Baghdad Observer.

She faced censorship in Iraq, which led her to move to Jordan and then to America. She settled in Detroit and is currently teaching Arabic at Oakland University. 

Mikhail is considered one of the foremost poets of our time. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Knights Foundation grant, a Kresge Fellowship as well as the United Nations Human Rights Award for Freedom of Writing

Mikhail’s writing has been popular among The PBS News Hour, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian and Poetry. 

Mikhail reminisced about her first literary experiences as a child in Iraq and how her grandmother would tell her Arabic folk stories. She would go on to write all of her stories in a little notebook and even earned the title “The Poet” in grade school by her peers. 

“I had a notebook when I was a child and I rewrote all those stories I heard from my grandmother in my own way, and I remember illustrating them, Mikhail said. 

Mikhail explained that she writes all of her poetry in Arabic first and then in English. The difference in languages have created new meanings and emotions when translated, and it can take several times to get the translation right.

“Translating poetry is like turning a Pursian carpet to the other side,” Mikhail said. 

She talked about the process of writing prose in a dictatorship where there was a lot of censorship writers and artists had to face. Mikhail disguised political critiques as metaphors in order to keep writing prose during her time in Iraq. 

“In Iraq we poets use metaphors not always for the sake of art, but as shields from censorship,” Mikhail said.

After Mikhail came to the United States, she discovered that she only had to use metaphors when she wanted to instead of in every line in her prose to cover up the real meanings of her poems.

“I didn’t want my censors to understand me,” Mikhail said. “I only wanted my people to understand me.”  

Mikhail illustrated that her poetry is a representation of herself and those with similar experiences. She felt that being able to openly express her emotions and experiences not only helped herself but heal others as well. 

“We are sensitive to the feelings of others, but I don’t have something that I need to hide from others and I feel good that I am myself,” Mikhail said. 

She explained that poetry to her was something that inspired others and defined emotions such as loss and war but also care and love. Words and stories have connected humanity for years and will continue to do so for many years to come. 

“Do you think we would waste our time on such a useless thing, like poetry, if we didn’t have genuine care for wonder or art, in general,” Mikhail said. 

Mikhail discussed that the quarantine has both helped poets and hindered them because they could not travel and tell their poetry to others. It has allowed Mikhail to learn more about herself because of the solitude she faced during the pandemic. 

“Solitude is the business of poets,” Mikhail said. “We poets are also the modern nomads because we like to wander from place to place reading our poems and making connections with strangers.”