Even poetry aficionados might not have heard of Threa Almontaser a few months ago.
The New York City native had just finished her postgraduate degree in Raleigh, North Carolina, and some of her own friends and family did not “get” that poetry was actually a profession, allowing her accomplishments, in her own words, “to fall into the background of things, getting muted”.
That is unlikely to be the case for much longer. The 27-year-old Yemeni-American was awarded the Academy of American Poets’ prestigious Walt Whitman Award for best first book in March.
Thanks to that, her book, The Wild Fox of Yemen, will most likely shoot to the top of the poetry best-seller charts when it is published next year.
In awarding her the prize, the acclaimed American poet Harryette Mullen described the book as full of “poems that sing and celebrate a vibrant, rebellious body with all its physical and spiritual entanglements”.
Almontaser’s poetry sings of her identity, as a Yemeni, as a New Yorker, as a Muslim, as a woman. It cuts through her work, asking what home is. But this is not cliched and simplistic diaspora poetry. Almontaser is confident and relaxed in herself and who she is, and does not necessarily want to choose between one conception of home or the other, but to instead be allowed a voice in all the worlds she resides in.
What poetry can do is make some of these phenomena vivid and personal in a way we’re not used to. If the language we hear on television broadcasts no longer stirs us to do anything more than tweet our dismay, poetry can express something new, and this can energise us to take action.
“I’m adaptable, it’s one of my number one strengths, and I’m grateful for that,” Almontaser says over the phone. “I do write about my ‘place as a Yemeni-American’, and I’m always trying to write to articulate that betweenness of these realms. But the lifestyle I grew up with, moving around a lot, also helped me gain that adaptability.”
Almontaser’s family story is the same as that of many Yemeni-Americans. Her grandfather moved to California as a teenager in the 1950s to pick fruit, and eventually married in Yemen before bringing over his wife and daughter to New York. Almontaser’s mother then married her Yemeni-born tennis instructor father, who eventually moved the family from New York to Florida, and then to North Carolina.
But it is New York that holds the most attachment for Almontaser, and where some of the events that have most influenced her life, and her poetry, occurred. One of her poems, Home Security After 9/11, documents one of the defining moments of her childhood, growing up in post-9/11 New York.
At the break of moon, a front door Herculesed
to pine dust, children dreaming of [ ]
Forced from sleep,
dogs shepherd us into a nightened cave,
where a mother is crying, Let me grab a scarf, just a scarf
The poem paints an almost visual picture of Almontaser’s family being caught up in the many home raids that targeted Muslim New Yorkers after 9/11.
“It was at dawn, they bust down the door, and then came in and brought everyone outside, forcing us into the vans,” Almontaser recalls. “After it happened my mum kept calling and trying to fight what happened, and she ended up with these huge lists of other Arabs and Muslims it had happened to. But we were just silenced, and nothing came of it. And everything just moved on, as if nothing had happened.”
Events like that, and the ongoing war in Yemen, have almost made it inevitable that politics plays a central part in Almontaser’s poetry. For her, poetry can help overcome “empathy fatigue”, and reach people who find it easier to ignore political events when they are delivered through traditional mediums.
“Mixing poetry and politics is crucial when faced with a sense of social powerlessness that can set in after one too many stories about, say, Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, or white nationalists on the march,” she says.
“What poetry can do is make some of these phenomena vivid and personal in a way we’re not used to. If the language we hear on television broadcasts no longer stirs us to do anything more than tweet our dismay, poetry can express something new, and this can energise us to take action.”
That is something that can be seen in the work of the poets Almontaser cites as her influences; the celebrated Mary Oliver, Palestinian-American Naomi Shihab Nye, and the Saudi Bedouin poet Hissa Hilal. But it is probably the work of the late Yemeni poet Abdullah Al-Baradouni that has had the most impact on Almontaser, so much so that she has dedicated portions of her forthcoming book to translations of his work.
Al-Baradouni, who died in 1999, is regarded as Yemen’s national poet. He lost his eyesight in his childhood, and was imprisoned several times for his criticisms of the Yemeni government in his poetry and other writings.
“He was a hero in the country at the time,” says Almontaser. “He was blind, but despite being blind he could still see what everyone else couldn’t, and he wasn’t hesitant to express those views. Just from his work, I began to learn about poetry in Yemen, and tribal poetry, and how it was a tool that was used to record history, and to counsel leaders. It’s a powerful legacy, and I try to embody that on my pages … and drawing on those ideas or feelings that exist in Arabic, but not in English.”
Al-Baradouni lived through Yemen’s 1962 revolution, and the high hopes that came with it, but his later work came to lament the situation Yemen found itself in. With the country going through war, famine, and possibly division, his words: “My country is handed over from one tyrant/ to the next, a worse tyrant/ from one prison to another/ from one exile to another” are still sadly relevant.
Being a child of the Yemeni diaspora, Almontaser cannot pretend to share this pain on the same level as those who do not have the privilege of Western passports. Instead, the pain serves as a comparison between the two parts of her identity. In one poem, Hunger Wraps Himself, she contrasts the famine in Yemen – “The motherland is ironed flat: unclaimed/ edges, hand-dug wells, a grandfather’s/ skeleton” – with life as a well-fed American: “I peel the skin off everything/ even the grapes. I bend my neck/ below a faucet for the gush that isn’t bottled/ or boiled, every sip cool, American, blessed”.
The rich tradition of Arab and Yemeni poetry is clearly a big part of Almontaser’s heritage, but her writing style – almost artistic in its layout at times – is evidently more influenced by free verse than the metered rhythm of traditional Arabic poetry. That stems from her upbringing in the West, but also as a result of discovering that poetry did not “have to rhyme”. Discovering that there were poets from her own background, or who were people of colour, allowed her to experiment with her own style.
“I did try the traditional styles,” explains Almontaser. “I wrote ghazals and couplets, but I think being able to start the poem by writing it in free verse and then fitting it into a container later helped me a lot, because I was able to just get everything out without having to revise and edit while I’m writing, and erase myself in that way.”
Almontaser describes the culmination of her poetic journey so far, The Wild Fox of Yemen, as a “love letter” to Yemen and its people, as well as being a portrait of young Muslim womanhood in New York. The Wild Fox character is a recurring theme in her poems, a “trickster” as she describes it, and one who constantly questions and causes mischief. “Troubling the order of things, whether it’s a certain aspect of culture or womanhood or citizenship, is something that the fox does well, and I imitate that in my poems,” as Almontaser puts it.
It is a characteristic that Mullen, in awarding Almontaser the Walt Whitman prize, described, in a positive manner, as “reckless”. For Almontaser, it is an acknowledgment of her independence as an unpublished poet. But she also knows that that freedom of anonymity has now disappeared.
“Right now, I write for whoever I want to,” she says. “I know it’s my own original, genuine voice. But when you start writing for institutions, then things can change. I’m hoping to avoid that for as long as possible.”