Friday, December 15th, 2023 11:40 am

The third portion of AJ Naddaff’s conversation with James E. Montgomery on In Deadly Embrace delves into Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s poetry itself, as well as his personal insights on and journey with both the work and his collaborators. 

AJN: For readers who are curious to know details about the content, what is being described in the poetry?

JM: There’s a number of hunting animals described: some with two legs and two wings, some with four legs, such as horses and cheetahs. The overall context or situation for each poem would have been the individual hunting expedition, at the end of which these poems would have been composed or sung or declaimed—usually with, say, the falcon in the background, on the perch, listening to the poem. The non-human hunter was the honored member of the gathering. As we discussed, the poetry is also so imbricated with power and political demeanor.

AJN: How does the history of falconry inform the context in which you translate?

Falconry Day, Hisham Binsuwaif from Sharjah, UAE, via Wikimedia Commons.

JM: I toyed with the idea that the falcon was expected not only to listen to the poem but somehow to understand it. Because hunting has a long history of being connected with shamanism, in which the shaman would assume animal form in order to pierce the veil of the unseen, there is a sort of blurring of species boundaries in these poems between the human and non-human animal. And the way in which the falconer communicates with the animal through calls strikes me as being a use of non-language-based sound in order to achieve communication between a human and non-human animal. I think that spills over into some of the almost incantatory aspects of the poems. This will feature prominently in the poetry of Abū Nuwās in the forthcoming volume of the hunting poetry series, titled A Demon Spirit

AJN: Whenever we do these interviews, I also ask you about your personal insight into the poems. And I remember with pre-Islamic poetry, you talked about your connection as being more emotional than lived because you have, say, never wielded a sword or rode a horse. But I think I remember you mentioning you went to a falcon refuge in Abu Dhabi. What was that like?

JM: There is a famous falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi where the falconers take their birds to have their annual check-up, say having their wings repaired or their beaks cleaned. In the early days of LAL, we organized an outing to the falcon hospital. There was a small museum attached to a hospital at the end of the tour. And there was a poem on the wall by Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, about hunting with a falcon. 

My Emirati Arabic is almost nonexistent, but when I finally got help in understanding what the poem meant, I thought, ‘you know, that is so familiar. I have read that kind of poem before when I last worked at Abū Firās al-Ḥamdānī.’ I translated the poem at the end of the introduction to Fate the Hunter.

AJN: So that trip planted the seed for this five-volume hunting poetry series?

JM: It did. At the end of the trip, I said to the editorial board of LAL, “Do you think this is something the project would consider?” We are always looking at ways to tie the project to its institutional and geographic home, the United Arab Emirates, and given the popularity of falconry there, it seemed to be a way to somehow connect.

AJN: Speaking of falcons in poetry, I recently stumbled upon this book H is for Hawk. Did you ever consult it when approaching hunting poems especially related to goshawks?

JM: Yes, I did and I know the author Helen Macdonald as well! H Is for Hawk [Book]

AJN: I just started it a couple days ago, and the premise is fascinating: Macdonald decides after her father’s death to try to train a young goshawk, which are notoriously difficult to tame. 

JM: At an early stage in the project, before I had gained confidence, I contacted Helen Macdonald, who is an excellent historian of science, an amazing poet, and a first-rate falconer herself. She combines all three of those skills effortlessly in a way that I can only look at in awe. So I invited her to lunch, and she accepted, and I showed her a couple of my poems. I thought ‘I need to have an expert look these over.’ She was very encouraging and helped me with a number of aspects and reference points of the hawks that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire otherwise. In many ways, she is kind of godmother of the project, if I can put it like that.

AJN: What a coincidence; I’m glad I asked you about that. Let’s finish this three-part interview series with some questions about another poet you worked with on this project—Richard Sieburth. Could you talk about that relationship and how it began?

JM: I got to know Richard in the early days of LAL, before we even had a single book, because he was one of the most passionate advocates for the project at NYU and at NYU Abu Dhabi. Richard taught French, German, and Comparative Literature at NYU but he knew Phil Kennedy, the general editor, and had been a sounding board for Phil during the planning stages of the project. In one of our first meetings in Abu Dhabi, Richard came along and we got talking over lunch and dinner, and he and I discovered that we had a lot of interests in common and were excited by the same sort of things. We became friends. 

AJN: How did you begin to work with Richard not only as a friend, but also as a translator?

 JM: In the early days of LAL, we used to organize workshops in which we would ask various experts to come and talk to us. We had Dimitri Gutas from Yale come to us and talk about editing manuscripts: the rights and wrongs, what to avoid and what not to do, and so he gave us a whole session informing our philosophy of editing. 

We did the same with Richard and Peter Cole, who is at Yale, and who is a brilliant poet and prize-winning translator, as is Richard. They came and gave us workshops on translating poetry. They are both experienced teachers and did this in a number of ways: their first step was to take a draft translation of a poem and go through it line by line; in the second half of the session they asked everyone in the room to provide their own translation. So, there were thirteen versions of, say, twelve lines of poetry, put up on a screen. It was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I have been a part of, not only for the diversity of thought but for the sheer joy of it.

AJN: Your first translation collaboration with Richard goes back to ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs.

JM: Yes, by the time I came to do War Songs, Richard had already been part of the project; he and Peter had contributed items to the original group translation, so it seemed only natural to me to reach out to them both as our teachers, mentors, and gurus. 

Their consensus was that the original form of the translation (in which LAL board members collaborated in small groups to translate the poems) did not work: one comment was that you can’t translate poetry by committee. My fellow editors encouraged me then to produce my own translation, which I worked closely on with Richard; I felt that his contribution to the volume was such that we were effectively co-translators. 

In the subsequent volumes, the translations have largely been my work but with Richard’s criticism and suggestions as the editor. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s dedication to Ezra Pound at the beginning of The Waste Land, for it was Pound who helped bring The Waste Land to life. Sometimes it feels like that when working with Richard.

AJN: What do you love the most about working with Richard?

JM: Richard doesn’t know any Arabic and has no extensive knowledge of Arabo-Islamic societies beyond what he has read in the course of the last ten years of working on various translations; he also worked with Michael Cooperson on the superb volume of al-Ḥarīrī’s Impostures (Maqāmāt). But that is precisely why he is the ideal reader for me. If I see he has gone off and read the poem in a way that I didn’t want it to be read, then I know I haven’t done my job properly. 

In the end, no matter how hard I try, Richard always has a better word, a better eye for detail and how the whole poem fits together. He is just a genius. He always sprinkles the poems with stardust and turns them from being ordinary to—in the case of Ibn al-Muʿtazz—almost like photographs or little gemstones. I might have dug the gem up and cut it, but he applied the polish and the sparkle to it.

James Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall. His latest publications are Fate the Hunter: Early Arabic Hunting Poems, and Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein.

AJ Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.