In Amira Thoron’s first book, For My Father, the reader is transported to the poet’s childhood in Cairo and Martha’s Vineyard. The poet, with sparse and graceful lines, remembers her father, who died while she was still young, and her often difficult interactions with her paternal grandmother. The collection is a haunting impression of a man whose absence loomed large. Thoron graduated from The New School’s MFA poetry program in 2006. Over a series of emails, we discussed her family, her influences, and her body of work.
Tolly Wright: Your first poetry collection For My Father beautifully combines personal early memories with feelings of familial loss and distance. Were there any other poets or collections of poetry that influenced you in your decision to tackle memoir in this form?
Amira Thoron: I thought I was writing individual poems until the end of my first semester in The New School MFA program when my professor, Laurie Sheck, suggested that perhaps I was writing a sequence. It had never actually occurred to me that the poems were connected! To me, the poems were an articulation of recurring images, sensations, and associations that existed inside my head. They weren’t exactly memories but neither were they dreams. They were more like interpretations of the present while still feeling a past that either belonged to me or to someone else. The work moved closer to memoir the following semester when another professor, Fanny Howe, suggested I read essays about elegies, specifically Peter Sack’s book The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats.
That same semester in my literature class with Maggie Nelson, I read Lorine Niedecker’s magnificent poem, “Paean to Place,” which Niedecker described as “a longish poem which is a kind of In Memoriam of my father and mother and the place I’ve never seemed to really get away from.” In reading Niedecker I felt I had found a kindred spirit with similar passions and loves, one who had achieved something with language that I very much wanted to accomplish as well.
Another influence, which was more like a North Star of purpose or feeling, was Lemon Anderson”s one man show, County of Kings, in which he combines prose and rap/poetry to create an incredibly moving memoir where poetry literally saves his life. I’ve seen his play perhaps three times in various incarnations over the years. In writing For My Father I thought a lot about his play; I wanted my readers when they finished my book to feel the way I felt at the end of each of his performances.
In the midst of the intensity of writing when I really needed friends for guidance and encouragement I found them in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and Anne Carson’s Knox. Carson led me to Catullus and the different translations of his poem “101” including hers. I also re-read Sophocles’ Antigone, which I hadn’t read since eleventh grade. The play helped me understand why my need to create these poems felt so visceral and intense. In writing For My Father I was performing my own burial rites.
TW: What were the biggest challenges and rewards that came with choosing such a personal subject matter for your first book?
AT: The early feedback for the manuscript was that there wasn’t enough about the father—a comment that stumped me for a couple of years! I knew it was correct because I had all these half poems about the father which I felt sure were holding a place for something more but I couldn’t figure out how to write about a father I couldn’t remember and whose only form was absence and empty space.
The hardest part of writing was delving straight into that empty space and being willing to stay there long enough to not only observe and pay attention but to actually embody the different states of being that I found there. I would get incredibly sleepy and/or find myself obsessively checking email—anything just to escape! It was also difficult, both technically and emotionally, to assign language to what was unconscious, unformed, or had never been spoken. I had to be patient and persistent. I often felt like some tiny creeping thing inching its way across the floor. Days and days of work might yield what felt like a quarter of an inch of progress. It was slow torture.
As for the rewards—I didn’t realize that in writing and constructing this book that I would create such a real and tangible relationship with my father. I loved how in each poem I got to fully embody and articulate all the different parts of my longing for him—the love, the fury, the desperation, the fantasies. Even though the relationship as articulated in the poems is one way, during the actual creation process I experienced an exchange with him that was deeply intimate and tender. In order to speak him, I had to conjure him and what I found, even in the midst of my most anguished poems, was a deep sympathy and an abiding love. I don’t know if what I experienced came from my imagination, an unconscious memory, or even from some deeper, more mysterious place. The result was still love and an understanding that I had always been loved and, despite how I might have felt as a child, I was never, ever alone.
TW: Many of the pieces capture a particular moment like an out-of-focus photograph—you sharing a piece of gum with your father, gardening with your grandmother, looking at condolence letters. These moments are clear, but their surroundings blur around the edges. The tactile nature of these scenes though is particularly vivid. While writing the poems were you able to physically hold some of the objects mentioned and visit the locations, or did you rely more on your own memory?
AT: I am very lucky that the same house where my father summered as a teenager and where I spent summers as a child with my grandmother still exists and is very much an active part of our extended family. The house is not haunted but we all feel the past flow through us. Many of the objects though slightly changed are still there, still growing, still in use. Oddly, the mind plays tricks—I sometimes experience things as they were even though elements are gone. In rehabilitating a part of my grandparents’ garden, I literally could not see that a large section was no longer a vast swathe of daylilies but a mess of brambles and weeds! I actually cried when we dug up the mess to plant grass instead.
As for the locations in Cairo: I was able to visit my father’s grave at the American Cemetery in Old Cairo but the apartment along the Nile where I lived with my parents my first few years is lost to me.
TW: Were you able to speak to others who personally knew your father or grandmother while you were working on this book, or did you worry about your own memories being affected by other’s recollections?
AT: I spoke to many people who knew my father but not to all that I could have. I found myself reluctant to follow through on leads. I didn’t really want to know him as a man with strengths and weaknesses. What I wanted was evidence—that I was his daughter, that I belonged to him, and that he loved me.
I spoke at length and very honestly over several years with a friend of my grandmother’s. I am so grateful for how her compassionate and balanced point of view about my grandmother allowed me to fully explore all the elements of that very complicated relationship.
TW: One poem begins: “The place where I once knew you/ derelict/ obscured.” The father of these poems is frequently being obscured, whether it is by a newspaper hiding his face or his name redacted from personal letters. I found this latter example particularly effective—so much of a person’s identity seems to be connected to his or her name. Could you speak to the choice to withhold your father’s name from the letters?
AT: Revealing his name felt too intimate, too private somehow, and also too particular. The poem portrays one person’s experience of loss. It is very specific and anchored in fact. However, the speaker’s feelings and the questions she asks I feel sure are universal. At one point, for the final page, I chose a single photograph of my father and me. As an ending, it was sentimental; it packed an emotional punch but ultimately it was wrong because it closed the poem down and made it about me only and not the more universal story of a soul’s journey through grief.
And also, if I’m honest, a part of holding back was due to a quality of possessiveness which both speaker and writer share—“I have revealed everything, this one thing I will not share. His name belongs to me.” I tried to show in the relationship with the grandmother that the speaker was also culpable, that she too withheld love, and carried violence within her. The speaker comes from a long line of women who will not speak. Perhaps withholding her father’s name is a vestige of that character trait? Sister Wendy Beckett writes, “There is an enormous tenderness in calling on someone we love by name”—as the writer and the daughter of a man who died, I wanted to preserve some of the intimacy and tenderness for myself. How could I give away his name, a name I rarely ever said out loud even to myself?
TW: I began to cherish the old letters used throughout the book for their possible insights into the deceased father who permeates each moment. Yet, the clues gathered from these letters, without their context, seemed to obscure the man even further. As you read letters from and about your father did you experience these feelings as well? How did you choose the letters to include?
AT: The letters didn’t clarify him for me either but they did prove his existence. As a child, I was never sure he was real since my memories were so vague and fleeting. The most powerful letter, the one that meant the most to me, was a packet of poems he wrote to a friend in his early twenties. Finally, I held a clue, a connection that was both meaningful and tangible. Another favorite letter was written to my grandmother from the nurse who was with him when he died. I very much wanted to include it but it didn’t seem to suit the over arching tale. Its story belongs in some other place.
TW: The poems that were written completely in italics had a particular cinematic quality. Why did you choose to change the font for these poems?
AT: I listened to a lot of music as I wrote and was interested in how instruments and certain melodic phrases repeat, call back and forth, and play simultaneously. Was there a way to achieve this same quality or effect in a poem? I wanted to convey the experience of two separate consciousnesses existing simultaneously. I wondered what it would be like if the girl’s incantations and desperate desires could actually conjure the dead and also if there was a wise, all-seeing and compassionate entity that was both with the girl and part of the girl—she just didn’t know it yet. The italics are the embodiment of these suppositions, these possibilities.
TW: For your next collection do you plan to stick with memoir or change the subject matter?
AT: I think I will always be interested in memory and how the past and present lay over each other and exist simultaneously. I had to write For My Father. I was completely compelled and driven. Now that it’s over, I’m a bit at loose ends. The experience of writing it was like an incredible love affair and I was devastated when it was over. For now, it’s about getting back to my desk, staying open, curious, and diligent.
Amira Thoron was born in Cairo, Egypt and raised in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She received her BA in English from Brown University and her MFA in Poetry from The New School. She lives in New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. For My Father is her first book.
Tolly Wright is passionate about pop culture, Elizabethan culture, and the strange culture of her motherland, the city of Baltimore. Her writing can be found in Time Out New York, Affect Magazine, The Villager, and other publications. She is a graduate of The New School (Riggio Honors Program). Her website is www.tollywright.com. She’d probably follow you back on twitter @tollyw.