Meanjin: When did you begin to write poetry or to write more generally?
Omar Sakr: I was 15 when I first started to write with the intention of becoming a published writer. However, I was never into poetry—unless you count the poems in Lord of the Rings, which I loved as a boy. I only started writing poetry seriously in 2013, while undertaking a Masters at USYD. I enrolled in the class on a whim, and very quickly realised this was what I was supposed to be doing all along. Small wonder I had struggled with fiction for so long; it isn’t my natural form. I wish it hadn’t taken so long to discover that, but better late than never.
M: Are there points of constancy between your poetry and your prose? Have your interests or influences remained the same?
OS: I’ve written very little in the way of prose since I started writing poetry, so as far as points of constancy are concerned, I can’t say I’ve discovered any beyond a general sense that the quality of language employed has vastly improved. My interests and influences have definitely changed. Prior to 2013, I would say my reading primarily consisted of science fiction and fantasy books where now my reading is dominated by poetry and skews toward what the mainstream would be more likely to term ‘literature’.
Influences are hard to pinpoint until you’re a significant period beyond them, but I can definitely point to the late great Philip Levine as an example of a poet who had a marked impact on my writing. If you go back further, the names you begin to see are very different: Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez for example.
M: How would you describe Australian poetry?
OS: I’m not entirely sure how to respond to this, purely because I am fairly new to it. I do not seek out Australian poetry all that much—I simply seek out poetry, from where and when it comes isn’t important to me. That it’s great is all that matters. I am perhaps showing my generation’s outward-focused gaze here, in that I very much see myself as a global citizen, a global poet, as keen to read the works of Arab poets, Spanish poets, Native American poets, Polish poets and so on, as much as Australian poetry.
M: This issue of Meanjin asks whether there is a crisis in democracy. What do you see as the role for artists and writers in this debate?
OS: I’m surprised that the crisis is followed by a question mark. When the so-called ‘leader of the free world’ is decided as much by Super PACS and corporations as anything else; when democratic uprisings are ruthlessly squashed in the Middle East and the world does nothing but watch as millions are displaced; when elections are routinely rigged with laughable results; when our options are reduced broadly to two equally bad choices without another viable alternative, I think it ought to be clear that something is very amiss. Something is rotten here and we should absolutely be interrogating it at every level. Is this really the best we can do? How very depressing if so.
As for the roles of artists and writers, well, I don’t like absolutes. I’m not one to say a poet must do this or a writer must do that, but I will say that I’d like to see more of a political engagement from all of us. We are uniquely equipped to cut through the dross and nonsense so regularly spun by political entities—as ably demonstrated by Richard Flanagan’s recent piece in the Guardian—and we should be doing so at every opportunity. One thing I appreciate about this issue of Meanjin, in fact, is that it wears this political exploration as brashly as it does. The cover with its bevy of caricatures seems to say ‘let’s own this ugliness, let’s sift through it until we find some answers.’
Personally, I see my own role to be relatively simple: I just need to make you feel. The emotion itself is irrelevant, so long as I am able to cut through the mass of cynicism, the lethargy and hopelessness which is endemic today. Even if I just piss you off, I will have succeeded.
Emotion engenders action far and away more than logic and reason, which is why conservative governments are so often successful—they don’t so much illuminate the oil-wells of fear and hate and distrust in all of us as set them on fire. I suppose you could say artists and writers have plenty to learn from them, as to how to manipulate a reader; we just need to use those skills in the opposite direction, to illuminate rather than to cloud, to inspire rather than suppress, to strengthen the bonds between you and me rather than obliterate them, and so on and so forth. Preferably without mixing your metaphors as readily as I do.
Omar Sakr is an Arab-Australian poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications. He was recently shortlisted for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize and the ACU Poetry Prize. His poem Election Day was published in Meanjin’s The Democracy Issue. Subscribe to receive your issue.