An excerpt from

Putting Down Roots: Montreal's Immigrant Writers
by Elaine Kalman Naves

Chapter 6 "The Homeland Stakes a Claim"
Putting Down Roots: Montreal's Immigrant Writers
Elaine Kalman Naves

The John Asfour Interview

Asfour's first poems were written as a teenager in a school for the blind in Beirut. Speaking totally matter of factly, he recounts how, in 1958, "during the civil war in Lebanon, weapons and bombs and material of all sorts were all over the place, and I picked up an object when I was playing with a few kids and it turned out to be a bomb. And it exploded in our hands. My part of it is that it hit me in the face. I didn't lose my sight right away, but I lost it about three, four years later, after a few unsuccessful operations."

When Asfour began writing poetry in Arabic in the school for the blind in Lebanon he wasn't yet aware of the formal rules of classical Arabic poetry, but he subsequently took to them easily and published in Arabic while still a youth back home. One of the most respected achievements of his mature years is When the Words Burn: An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry 1945-1987 in which he translated and edited the work of some forty writers and to which he has written a lengthy scholarly introduction.

In 1968 he immigrated to Montreal and two years later began to study philosophy and political science at Concordia University. A chance course on the short story diverted him to English literature "and all of a sudden there was this magnificent, incredible world that opened for me. And, luckily enough, any book that I needed was available on diskettes or cassettes." He was particularly drawn to the work of Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and began to write his poems in English. He went on to study with Louis Dudek at McGill, eventually earning a doctorate and writing his first two collections while there.

Asfour may write his spare, tightly- controlled poetry in English, but his themes are soaked by the experiences of his formative years in Lebanon. As Dudek observed in the preface to Asfour's second book, Land of Flowers and Guns he writes naturally and inescapably with "a tragic seriousness that is not available to most of us."

The poem "Elegy" for instance, repeatedly reiterates the haunting refrain "Write me an elegy,/ Write my country an elegy." I asked Asfour if those lines written more than a dozen years ago still apply. Is Lebanon still his country?

"What can I say?" he replied. "It is. I was born there and I have a loyalty and attachment to it· In my dark moments, I think that this generation that left that region has suffered quite a bit and probably will suffer the rest of its life. To me, it's probably the displaced generation, the generation that doesn't have a place to call home."

He was brought face to face with this a few years ago on a reading and lecture tour to the Middle East. "I visited both Palestine and Israel. One of the things that hits you right in the face is 'Where is your loyalty now?' To the Palestinians to whom I spoke in Arabic, I was a Canadian. I was s foreigner·And here [in Montreal], it doesn't matter what you do, you're always 'the Lebanese poet' or 'the blind poet' or the this and the that. It's easier for humanity to pigeon hole or compartmentalize it's own·Although I love this city and I love being here, and I made a life for myself here despite everything else.