Jessica Abughattas: Songs of Ancestry and Writing the Past

Jessica Abughattas is a Palestinian American writer from Los Angeles. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, where she is the Poetry Editor of Lunch Ticket. Before pursuing an MFA in poetry, she interned at Write Bloody Publishing and served as Editor of Currents Magazine. Her poems are forthcoming in Drunk in a Midnight Choir.


Hannah Gardner speaks with Jessica below.

I was particularly struck by the final lines of “My Great Grandmother Almaza”: “Go and tell her the news, she is risen. / In Jordan two hands dip a baby into the river, / is it a baptism or a drowning? A baptism or a drowning?” Can you talk about the religious imagery and reclaiming that occurred here? What inspired this imagery?

In literature and in life, no one makes it out of the water unchanged. The water, in this case, is my grandmother’s decision to immigrate to Los Angeles. She changed everything for me before I even existed. My grandmother is a devout Catholic, and she learned that from her mother. For generations, my ancestors lived a modest, rural, pious life that is entirely foreign to me, a lifelong Angeleno. In this poem, I’m imagining my great grandmother, the legend — a woman who lived her whole life in Bethlehem, grew her own food, baked her own bread, raised seven children. What would this woman say if we woke her from her grave and explained how I live my life today? Unearthed the world of her descendants? Would she marvel at the abundance and ease in which I live? Would she consider it the death of tradition, or a rebirth? I’m not really sure. Then I arrive at the ultimate question when considering diaspora, do my actions honor or erase my ancestry? What is my identity? 

Additionally, those final lines are extremely powerful and evocative. How do you know when a poem is finished? Do you write with a particular landing in mind?

Thank you. I don’t think (my) poems are ever finished, but I learn to live with their imperfections. I’ve continued to tinker with these pieces even after they’ve been published (thanks to the gracious editors at Roanoke Review).  

I don’t write with a specific ending in mind. I’m usually writing to discover, and I’m not sure where I’m going until I’ve stopped. I’m interested in endings that leave me gutted, when the poet has posed some suspenseful or intriguing idea, then it just ends. I like the space it gives the reader to imagine, the resonance of it. I love when I’m reading and end up yelling at the book in my hands, “How did they just do that?” So I guess that’s what I work toward. 

Both of these poems seem to stem from personal experience. What is your process for writing this kind of poetry? To what extent do you remove yourself from the writing process in order to craft such meaningful poetry? 

When it comes to these poems in particular, I’m writing about events I did not witness. My great grandmother died long before I was born, I’ve never lived in Palestine, so on. I only know about these experiences from family legend, so I’m already removed by several degrees. Sharon Olds does this thing in her poetry where she describes herself in situations before she existed, for example, from the unique vantage point of being a speck inside the organs of her mother (“I wish I could have sung, to that daughter, my mother, from within her”*). I’m fascinated by this perspective. I also like to insert myself in my family history. In “Nakba,” I’m imagining myself at my grandfather’s house several decades before I’m born, describing what I see as events unfold. It’s not biographical, rather it’s my imperfect, anachronistic visualization. My advantage, of course, is knowledge of the future. 

Similarly, why did you choose poetry as your medium of expression to share such personal events? 

Poems are bursts of energy; I have a short attention span. I can live a whole lifetime in one poem and then move on to the next. Also, poetry is akin to the tradition of storytelling, which is probably my favorite art form. There’s something about speaking a story or a poem out loud that feels old and sacred to me.  

The imagery in “Nakba” emphasizes the idea of a larger entity consuming the individual. For example, the speaker says “I am crushed / between two incisors” and “I am the meat in the cheek of the soldier who gnashes / his teeth as he follows orders to disaster.” Can you talk about why you chose this particular imagery when writing about this event? 

That’s an astute interpretation, one that I wasn’t consciously aware of. I think I needed something physical to anchor my concept of self in a time before I was born, so I imagined a physical sensation to exist within.  

I suppose the opposition of large and minuscule objects suggests inequality and oppression, too.  

What inspires you to write? 

Right now I think a lot of poets are concerned with being topical and reacting to events as they happen. That hasn’t been too successful for me. I’m currently obsessed with excavating within myself for material. To quote Whitman, I contain multitudes. I can probably write poems about my childhood for the rest of my life, though I’ll likely move on to another obsession soon.  

Do you have any current projects?

I’m completing my MFA in poetry.  

I’m working with my friend, poet Chelsea Bayouth, to organize an event that would feature Jewish and Arab poets together, a dialogue. That’s in the works. It will be a dream for me to see that to fruition.  


*“I wish I could have / sung, to that daughter, my mother, from within her” is from “San Francisco Bay Ode” in Odes by Sharon Olds.