A Conversation with Peter Twal

“I try to remember in all that I do–poetry included–that I am a product of the generosity of other hearts, and it’s important for me to reciprocate the love however I can.”


“…Twal’s genius is in the way he knows exactly when to yield the floor to imagination, which wonders and wanders through love and loneliness and friendship and grief in a million fascinating ways throughout Our Earliest Tattoos. ‘I will love my monster,’ Twal writes, and then he proceeds to show us.”

—Kaveh Akbar

Peter Twal is the author of Our Earliest Tattoos, selected by Fady Joudah and Hayan Charara as the winner of the 2018 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review, West Branch, Pleiades, and elsewhere.
Every year the University of Arkansas Press together with the Radius of Arab American Writers accepts submissions for the Etel Adnan Poetry Series and awards the $1,000 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize to a first or second book of poetry, in English, by a writer of Arab heritage. The series editors are Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah. Along with Peter Twal, other winners of the prize include Jess Rizkallah’s THE MAGIC MY BODY BECOMES (2017) and Zaina Alsous’s A THEORY OF BIRDS (2019). The prize is named in honor of the world-renowned poet, novelist, essayist, and artist Etel Adnan, who has published nearly twenty books in English, including The Arab Apocalypse, regarded as “one of the most important works of literature” after the Lebanese Civil War; In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, “a mix of prose, poetry, political insight, philosophic speculation, and historical remembrance honed to mineral perfection”; and Sea and Fog, winner of the Lambda Literary Award. MELUS called Adnan “arguably the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author writing today.”

JR: Congratulations about your book! I’m so floored to read it. How has the process been, from the making to the submitting to the winning to the editing to the place you’re at now?

PT: A million thanks, Jess! It’s an honor to follow your sensational debut.
To say the least, it’s been wild. I feel like my emotional range has expanded beyond what I thought possible, start to finish throughout the process. Sometimes, I’m so grateful it takes everything in me to keep from randomly hugging strangers. Other times, I am terrified that the book is actually coming out! What if people don’t like it? Or worse—find it boring. We all want to be read, seen. It’s a secondary thought, but that this may not happen frightens me. But most days, it’s extreme elation and trying to dance in place Oh So Inconspicuously.

What are you reading right now?

Confession time: the stack of books on my coffee table is getting shameful. My wife Erin just completed her dissertation defense, and I’m just not good with shelves; so, our book tower is becoming more and more Jenga-like—babies, beware.
My contributions to that stack, closest to the top right now, books I’m either reading for the first time or re-reading: The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle, The Real Horse by Farid Matuk, Tunsiya/Amrikiya by Leila Chatti, and Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance by Fady Joudah.
A line I’m particularly taken with right now comes from Farid’s book: “Inside, I took out what punctuation I could to make more room for you.” Man, what? That’s gorgeous. That may be the most loving thing I’ve ever read.

That is so remarkably loving. It makes me think about the way we all write poetry toward the goal of making it an active force in life. I’m thinking about this in the context of relationships with loved ones, with people we meet in passing, and also within communities we keep. How has poetry’s role in how you move through your life changed over the last few years?

Though it isn’t the case for all writers, my poetry really benefited from the time I spent at Notre Dame pursuing my MFA. Tons of folks do just fine without the degree, and Lord knows there are problems surrounding MFA programs that shut certain people out, enable others, etc., but I truly needed that time and space to better understand my art, learn and unlearn a million different things. I was also fortunate enough to have gained unbelievable friends in graduate school and grow personally; so, I just wasn’t ready for the whole experience to be over. The passing of those two years meant it was back to the world of engineering, having a day job, that whole thing. My greatest fear was that I would slip into a routine of 80+ hour work weeks like before and never have the time or energy to invest in my art. Luckily, that didn’t end up happening, and I eventually realized that my engineering career was not a hindrance or obstacle to my writing (and vice versa). It was the perfect catalyst, the palate cleanser I need to keep myself grounded when poetry gets the best of me. Now, when I sit down to write, it feels more like I am sitting down with an old friend than working towards some sort of goal–a friend you sometimes want to strangle but, like, one you will always adore.

I feel like obsession is a universal poet thing. Is obsession a big part of your life as a poet? What is its relationship to your poetry?

Oh, totally. I don’t know if it’s always a healthy relationship though. Too easily, my obsessions shift from what I’m writing about to what I’ve written. I’ll cling to a draft and need weeks away from it before I’m ready to revise.
This to say, I am (for the most part) grateful for my impulse to linger, to give inanimate objects a made-up voice, and laugh at their jokes. It’s truly a thrill when others absorb your obsessions through artistic osmosis as well. We all sort of live for that, right?

Definitely! I find myself seeing patterns in life that I may not have caught before reading certain poets. I think of Lorca’s lizards, his moons. I was even reading Etel Adnan and my mind threw lines from her toy soldiers to yours! Are there poets that have written their obsessions into what you notice around you?

I don’t know how pervasive these are in my everyday life, but they certainly jump to my mind first right now: Johannes Goransson’s endless campaign against taste, Kaveh Akbar’s palpable appreciation for wonder, and Marosa di Giorgio’s fascination with finding danger in just about any single thing.

There is a playfulness to many of your poems but it never leaves me stranded. I find myself my feet still planted firmly on the ground, my eyes ricocheting to all the whens and whats and wheres you’re pointing out, sparks flying. I can only imagine what the inside of your head is like as you encounter all of your poems before they are poems. Before the words come to you, where in your body do you feel all this?

Favorite question so far! My throat—that’s it. My emotions get the best of me all the time. Been that way since I was a kid. So in one sense, my heart’s to blame, but when you toss in my weird guilt complex and the need to confess things, it amounts to a welling up in my throat.

I love that. It makes me think of the throat chakra and since you say your heart is sort of to blame, the heart chakra, too.

The Throat chakra is about the expression of yourself: Your truth, purpose in life, creativity. Note that this chakra has a natural connection with the second chakra or sacral chakra, center of emotions and creativity as well. The throat chakra’s emphasis is on expressing and projecting the creativity into the world according to its perfect form or authenticity.” (.)

The fact that you feel it in your throat and in a way that wells but does not stay stuck – it emphasizes to me just how spiritual and necessary poetry is, not a mode, but a Something, a current, a movement through you and of you. I’m not sure I have a follow up question, but I wanted to share that association I had.

So anyway, I was reading your poetry on the train and when I read “I’m the rain man of counting eyelashes” I yelped. What a cool line! Your poems are full of moments like this. It makes me wonder, do you have a collection process? What does that look like? Are you an archivist before you write or an archivist because you write?

Thank you! & wow, I’d never considered that distinction, but I love it. I think I’m an archivist before I write. At least, I hope so. My favorite poems are the ones that make me feel alive. I latch onto them like a dead battery does to a charged one, waiting for the jolt, you know?
Daily, I jot down random lines, images, sounds, bits of conversations or even words that catch my attention until my “bank” is full. Then, I sit down to write. Dr. Frankenstein and what not. Take a bunch of dead and make something hideous or lovely. Bring the poem to life.
Also, there’s this T.S. Eliot quote: “A poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work when it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” I strive to keep my mind busy in this way and stockpile my archive, doomsday-prep-style.

What is your favorite snippet in your archives right now?

Back in March, Stephen Hawking passed away. When I heard the news, I wrote this down:

Stephen Hawking died today.
He died in his sleep, they said.
He didn’t die in his sleep, his research said.

It’s a pretty unexciting snippet, but it’s tied to the theory of the multiverse–infinite timelines, universes, possibilities, etc. That’s like a super rudimentary, pop culture-esque explanation of the multiverse, but it’s an idea I’ve been fascinated with for some time now. In short, I’m writing a Stephen Hawking poem, and it’s got me Real Jazzed.

Do you want to speak to the significance of the Toy Soldiers in your book?

Throughout the book, there’s a thread of images which stems from an interest in (but also aversion to) footage I used to see on Arab news stations. Forever ingrained in my mind are shots of lifeless bodies being hoisted onto stretchers, blood-soaked women wailing, and rubble in all directions. And this was just the evening news, you know, that my folks watched for maybe 10-15 minutes. I think of this often. Years later, it’s still a struggle to digest that devastation.
But that’s how it should be. Why should any aspect of war seem like simple addition or subtraction? And yet, we’re trained to feel this way. From the start, as kids, down to the toys we’re gifted. Enter: toy soldiers. Their poses are violence epitomized, on the precipice of taking a life or having one taken from them. But their faces are smooth, green, purposefully deprived of expression to make it all easier to digest. And I played with them without thinking twice.
So really, including the toy soldiers alongside graphic imagery is meant to be a reminder of how palatable war is made in American culture and that we should double-take, in the very least, when we encounter these things.

That is so profound. As a fellow Arab-American, I know what you mean and feel moved by this meaning and device. I think how you have in your own way synthesized this part of the hyphenated experience is an example of how Arab-American poets are writing from every imaginable register – which is the most obvious statement, but the American habit of tokenization forces us to repeat this again and again. The way we craft proves what we always say about Arab-America not being a monolith, but rather so necessarily, brilliantly prismatic. In a conversation with Hayan Charara, you said something beautiful about how you picture your Arab-American identity. Would you like to repeat it here, or elaborate on it?

Sure thing! The gist of it was that I see generosity as a defining metric for my “Arabness,” as modeled for me by my folks and others. Chiefly, leaving a homeland to create another for later generations is a sacrifice I will never know,  but it was commonplace for so much of my family. So, I try to remember in all that I do–poetry included–that I am a product of the generosity of other hearts, and it’s important for me to reciprocate the love however I can.

Does your work as an Electrical Engineer find its way into your poetry?

Perhaps not literally in content but very much so at the level of process. In truth, engineering and poetry are quite similar. It’s just invention & iteration. Creation & cultivation. Everything we build can be improved upon which is, like, THE most thrilling curse.
A specific example though: poetry as circuitry. When I write or revise, equating elements of the poem with parts of a circuit really snaps things into perspective for me. What’s the power supply of the poem? Its resistance? Where are the short circuits? The images with the highest capacitance? And so on. Is that weird? It’s probably weird.

What’s your favorite memory about birds?

My old job took me all over the place. This one time, in Eemshaven, Holland, a buddy Klas and I were walking to a little tavern just outside of a shipyard where we’d docked. Must’ve been the witching hour because they came out of nowhere, about half-a-dozen seagulls, swooping down on us like bombers, picking at the hoods of our sweatshirts and shrieking something vicious. We probably came too close to a nest or something. Anyway, we bolted, chased for a good twenty yards or so, eventually emerging unscathed. Anymore, I don’t play when I see a seagull. They have my respect, ugly as they are.

How does environment affect your writing?

I totally organize my life by place. There’s this coffee shop by Purdue’s campus where I pretty much wrote my whole book. I’d sit down, throw on some headphones, read a bit, and watch people, and write. But like, writing at home? I just can’t do it.  I crave visual noise, need to be in the right space, physically, in order to work, which is probably tied to some weird loyalty complex (guess I’m full of those?), but I digress.

What’s something you want to shout from the rooftops?


What’s something you want to whisper to a tree?

Are you afraid of heights?

Who are your influences, both poetic and not?

My wife, Erin. LCD Soundsystem. My family. Patricia Smith. The TV show Community. Electricity. Ross Gay. Good coffee. Almost all film and television, really. Erin. Raymond Carver. Etel Adnan (lol, of course). Dean Young. My faith. Heather Christle. Kindness. Darwish. Adonis. & Erin. & Erin.


                                                                                                            Photo: Nicole Cromer


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