The Ms. Q&A: How Poet Marwa Helal Uses Poetry as Preservation

Marwa Helal’s chapbook I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN (No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press, 2017) is a powerhouse debut.

The collection intricately fuses the writer’s Egyptian upbringing with life in present-day Brooklyn—not to mention an impressive background in nonfiction, journalism and international studies. Her poems are further informed by her love of contemporary music, memory and dreams. She delivers on the line: “i am trying to tell you something about how / rearranging words / rearranges the universe,” with specialties in synthesis and structure. Her invention of “The Arabic” poem has been widely adopted, leading Brooklyn Poets founder, Jason Koo, to say she’s “changing the way English-language poems are read based on her experimental work with forms.”

Ms. spoke with Helal about her chapbook, entry points through memories, the role of distance and themes she’ll continue to explore in her full-length collection Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019).

poem to be read from right to left

language first my learned i
see see
for mistaken am i native
go i everywhere
*moon and sun to
ل letter the like
lamb like sound
fox like think but

recurring this of me reminds
chased being dream
circle a in
duck duck like
no were there but
children other
of tired got i
number the counting
words english of
to takes it
in 1 capture


*شمسية و قمرية

The Arabic is a form that includes an Arabic letter with an Arabic footnote, and an Arabic numeral, preferably written right to left as the Arabic language is, and vehemently rejects you if you try to read it left to right. To vehemently reject, in this case, means to transfer the feeling of every time the poet has heard an English as Only Language speaker patronizingly utter in some variation the following phrase: “Oh, [so-and-so] is English as a Second Language…” As if it was a kind of weakness, nah.

How did the Arabic form come to you?

The Arabic came as a direct response to all of the times I have heard someone say “they’re English as a second language,” about brilliant students, academics, writers and, yes, poets, too. Often times they try to mask their disdain or jealousy as wonder. And so I set out to write something that would only be immediately legible to those who have had the experience of living in another language. The parameters were chosen based on the form the poem came in, not the other way around.

Is it exciting to see other poets using the Arabic? How has it spread?

I’m thrilled the Arabic has spread. I’ve seen more known poets such as Safia Elhillo use it as well as emerging poets, Zaina Alsous and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. It’s amazing when they ask if they can run their work by me to check the form, like checking math homework or something. It has also been taught at a writing group that is held at the Arab American National Museum, as well as classrooms in the Bronx and the UK.

Can poetry be an act of resistance or power shift?

The resistance is in the refusal to assimilate, the preservation of our native languages, the creativity in that preservation. It is in understanding that there is a particular language [they] want [us] to know, that particular language that is taught in schools, and the rules or codes implied in that agreed upon language and resisting those implications or overturning those agreements. But at the end of the day NO LINE IN THE ENTIRE AMERICAN CANON ANSWERS THIS QUESTION BETTER THAN SOLMAZ SHARIF’S FROM “[Persian Letters]”: We make them reveal / the brutes they are, Aleph, by the things / we make them name.

Can you talk about your process of creating I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN?

The manuscript has been in the works since I returned to the U.S. from Egypt in 2008 and began freewriting about that experience. I was determined to create a work that spoke across all of the locations I have inhabited and my own complex identity; one that has been shaped by a life of moving a lot. The core tenants that guided me were a commitment to transferring the feelings of displacement through the work, staying true to the feeling of being in both places at once and how the speaker’s location is constantly shifting or standing in one place but simultaneously experiencing all locations or dislocation at once—the reader can be the final judge and that’s the fun of it.

A poem that speaks to that concept:

photographs not taken

airbags opening during the crash,
a life saved;
DJ armed with two milk canisters,
when the three of us were still friends;
my mother’s birthmark next to mine,
both on the same spot above our right knees,
hers brown on white,
mine white on brown,
proof: i am negative of her image;
flames moving upwards from the charcoal,
singeing my eyebrows and eyelashes;
flames that lit nashwa’s soft sweater,
we were playing with sparklers in bideen;
flames in a trash bin, a homeless man,
winter in mansurah;
train light reflecting on rails when it is still arriving;
train light reflecting on walls when it is still arriving;
my mother when she was younger than me;
my father when he was younger than me;
my youngest brother’s hand reaching out of the bathroom door,
open and waiting for a towel;
the Green Day CD my father threw out the window,
lying on the side of US131;
my grandmother tucked in for her afternoon nap,
the light in her window,
the light the day i left;
mezo’s big toe,
before i left;
all the dawns i slept through,
before i left;
my own face,
looking back at his,
before i left;
your face,
the one
reading this.

How does your work as a journalist inform your work as a poet?

I think journalism was a way to feel my way through difficult experiences and feelings (I chose that career path as a result of 9/11). It was also a convenient excuse to explore my curiosities or obsessions. While journalism felt like a shield, poetry feels like walking around with my veins exposed. Those journalism skills come in handy for poetry: a false sense of objectivity, which I relish in dismantling through poetry; an ear for a good line or soundbite; a keen discerning eye and a bent toward [true] justice. Not that false brand most news organizations are selling these days.

The book opens with a Fady Joudah quote about memory: “Memory, with its trident recall, imagination, and transformation is translation’s muse and taxonomy. Memory is sometimes unconscious cognition, other times absence…” How does memory work as an entry point into your poems?

That epigraph is really important to me. Most of the memories that make up this work are emotional or sensory and serve as dots on my own personal world map that is taking shape in these poems. Memory, that experience of fact and fiction, informs the stitching of the leaving and returning documented in my work.

Funny story, I added the epigraph following a rejection of an earlier version of this manuscript from the author of the essay that epigraph is from, Fady Joudah, who along with Hayan Charara, judges the Etel Adnan prize. I ain’t mad though, they selected the work of my genius-friend Jess Rizkallah of The Magic My Body Becomes fame. Wanted to mention it because we don’t talk about the beauty or serendipity of rejection enough.

And you eventually found a good home with “No, Dear” press. 

No, Dear is a wonderful Brooklyn-based press run by four amazing women: Jen Hyde, Emily Brandt, Alex Cuff and T’ai Freedom Ford—all strong writers and poets. They publish both a journal and chapbooks like my own. I was nominated by a dear friend and esteemed poet, Jenny Xie, to submit for a series they wanted to create highlighting works by hybrids—people from more than one culture—and so I submitted a sample and was thrilled mine was selected along with Joshua Escobar, Viktoria Peitchev and Maria Rubio. We were asked to brainstorm a title for the series and came up with TRANSFORMIGRATION, a word that encapsulates what our work does and that is to hopefully transform the experience of migration.

Your use of form is noteworthy. Any thoughts on your approach to picking the right structure for a poem?

Thanks. I think I was a poet writing or trying to write prose for a long time, so I enjoy the freedom poems allow. In choosing forms, I listen to what the poem wants.

Are there female poets you admire?  

Suheir Hammad for brave witness; Solmaz Sharif for her consistent ability to strong arm your brain; Harryette Mullen for her playfulness and subversiveness; and I am so grateful to have been taught by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor and Simone White who pushed me in discovering new forms. I also love Airea Dee Matthews, Ladan Osman, who I believe you’ve featured before, and the young genius Aria Aber, a trilingual poet of Afghan and German upbringing.

This is your first collection—was there anything surprising about the act of putting it out in the world?

Oh, the best audience response was a woman who came up to me at the chapbook launch to tell me she had been inspired by one of the poems to quit her job. I’m definitely here for women who want to work on behalf of themselves. Other than that, it’s truly a wonderful feeling when you’ve made a book about all the places you’ve lived and then to see friends in all those various places holding and sharing the book.

The lines “this is how trauma learns to behave” and “i ocean you” seem to touch on what you’re circling. What do you hope readers will take away?

“i ocean you” is a feeling that needs no explanation for those who have endured separation from loved ones across large distances and for those who have been paying attention to the migration crisis playing out before our eyes. I hope readers bring their own experiences to it and that it inspires them to take on their own healing and understanding of trauma. I want readers to viscerally feel through my work how deeply I believe our identities are inextricably intertwined and that we have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to work harder and to do better in this life.

You can connect with Marwa on Twitter.

“poem to be read from right to left” appears in Winter Tangerine magazine and I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN, No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press, 2017. “photographs not taken” appears in BOMB magazine and I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN, No, Dear/ Small Anchor Press, 2017. Feature image from Marwa’s website:


Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.