Poetry is not only an inherently political act, but a deeply personal one: In conversation with Sara Saleh

Sara is a force, using her lived experience to inform a career not only as a writer and poet but also as a human rights lawyer and community organizer.

One of the best and most unbelievable parts of my job here at Missing Perspectives is the fact that I get to read incredible books and then interview the amazing people who wrote them, all in the name of work. Hosting our podcast Booksmart, built on the idea that books are often the key to so many of us understanding social issues is a role that sparks my imagination, insatiable curiosity and the hereditary need I seem to have, to strike up a conversation wherever I go.

Of all the interviews I've done so far, my conversation with Sara Saleh, a Palestinian-Egyptian-Lebanese poet who migrated to Australia is perhaps the most important. Sara is a force, using her lived experience to inform a career not only as a writer and poet but also as a human rights lawyer and community organiser.

We connect over Zoom, Sara's hijab lit by the wintery evening light of a freezing New York where she now resides. When I ask how her family views her writing, which is deeply personal, the joy in her voice is contagious. She is the daughter of immigrants, her parents having experienced multiple countries and exiles. “Heritage is our heirloom. All my parents really had to bequeath to us were stories so it’s sort of inevitable that I became a writer and wrote this book.”

The book we're talking about? Her debut poetry collection, 'The Flirtation of Girls', is an intimate and raw exploration of life between multiple worlds, ideas, and histories all at once. It tackles so many poignant themes from womanhood and the idea of consent/body image to the struggle of disaster and conflict. Amazingly, it's not the only book Saleh has put out this year, also releasing a debut novel 'Songs For The Dead & The Living', which explores similar themes.

Although this is technically Sara's first full poetry collection, she's been living and breathing poetry for over a decade, performing as a slam poet (a space more often than not occupied by marginalised folk) as well as getting published in all sorts of journals and other places. Her work and continual collaboration with Sweatshop, a Western Sydney-based literacy and art-making movement that aims to empower and give voice to culturally and linguistically diverse people has been instrumental in the work she's produced.

It's been a long journey and with this collection in particular, Sara says she was "determined to resist the churn of the industry in its high demand for poets, which feels ironic because poetry also doesn't really sell," according to that industry. Putting the right words to such personal experiences takes time, and is something she felt keen not to rush in spite of the pressure-infused chatter that came from winning a slew of awards in 2020. She says "The process of writing this collection was fun in the complexities of womanhood it allowed her to capture but brought a mixture of joy, grief, light and trauma to the fore." Every single one of those emotions was palpable on the page to me as a reader and all of them felt as though they were given the space to breathe and be exactly what they are, something that not all poets or writers have the skill or the grace to let themselves achieve but Sara Saleh does.

As we talk, it becomes impossible to ignore the spectre of current world events looming over our conversation. As a proud Palestinian woman, Sara is exhausted, oscillating between both despair and hope and despair and discipline, her commitment to making art and writing pulling her through. She says, "Artists have perhaps some of the most important roles in times like these as they create space for collective grief and emotional processing, whether that be through poetry or something else." More than that to her, "art has been the impetus for action in these times. It's been the best way to move people into action, because it's given articulation and emotion, history and shape to things that might have previously been vague, for people new to this."

By new to this, it's clear Sara means people who've only become aware of the tensions and control dynamic between Israel and Palestine since the attacks on October 7th and weren't previously aware that this conflict has been around for a lot longer than that. Case in point: her poems '1948' and 'Live From Gaza' feel like they could've been written literally today. Right now. The minute you’re reading this. Her descriptions of Gaza are so vividly true to what we're seeing play out now, down to the most horrifying details, it took me a second to remember books like these couldn’t be published in a handful of days or weeks. These things take months and yet… the specificity is eerie. 

Sara is more than generous in the vulnerability she shares with me about how she’s feeling right now, “shit” and in her thoughts on the bravery of artists in particular who speak out no matter the cost. When I ask how she feels about the fact people are losing their jobs or suffering other consequences for showing support to Palestine, her tone is matter-of-fact: “It shows a great disconnect between artists who have always been the luminaries at the front of social change, for example the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the structures, institutions and systems that hold power.” She goes on, “What it says to me is that we have power and that we don’t have to just settle for the way things are. What’s made can also be dismantled.” 

As our conversation draws to a close, there’s really only one thing left to ask; what can we do? What do you need? “There’s two things,” she says softly smiling. “Please amplify Palestinian voices, art, literature. And if you’re involved in any institution, particularly an arts one, be aware of where your money comes from and who’s being platformed.”

You can listen to my full chat with Sara Saleh for Booksmart here