Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Interview with Andrea Assaf, 2017 Freedom Plow Award Finalist!

The Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism, sponsored by the CrossCurrents Foundation and co-sponsored by the Arts Club of Washington, Busboys and Poets, and the Institute for Policy Studies, recognizes and honors a poet or poetry collective doing innovative and transformative work at the intersection of poetry and social change. The award, judged this year by Holly Bass, Dawn Lundy Martin, and 2015 award recipient Mark Nowak, is being given for the third time in 2017. Tickets now on sale! Join us on April 21 at the Arts Club of Washington for the Award Ceremony!

ABOUT Andrea Assaf

Andrea Assaf is a poet, performer, director, and cultural organizer. She’s the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc. which creates, develops, produces, and presents original theatre, interdisciplinary performances, performative acts and progressive cultural organizing. Art2Action  supports artists who are women, people of color, queer or trans-identified, and creative allies. Author and director of Eleven Reflections on September—which has toured to La MaMa, The Kennedy Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and internationally— Assaf is a two-time winner of the Princess Grace Award. Her poetry has been published in Mizna in the United States, Scarf Magazine in London, and e in Mexico City, online and more. Assaf is currently Artist-in-Residence at the University of South Florida (USF-Tampa) School of Theatre & Dance. She currently serves on the Board of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), Alternate ROOTS, and is a member of RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers.


By Danielle Badra

First of all, I want to say congratulations on being a finalist for the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. Thank you for the important creative and social activism work that you and Art2Action are engaging in! Also, as a fellow queer Arab-American writer and educator, thank you for creating a space for Arab and Arab-American voices to be in conversation with veterans and other marginalized communities.

How did you get started in social action work? How did you get started as a spoken word artist? Which came first? And when did you find these two worlds intersecting?

My first activism was in college, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s. I was in the process of coming out, as a young artist living in New York City, and it was the issue wracking my new-found community. I’ll never forget seeing the AIDS Quilt spread across the National Mall. It was at once devastating and awe-inspiring.

I have always written poetry, for as long as I can remember, and I was studying Acting as an undergraduate at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, but I did not imagine performing my own writing until much later. I think I went to my first open mic around the turn of the millennium, at Bar 13 in the East Village. The funny thing is, I went to support a friend, I wasn’t even planning to read! But once I discovered the world of spoken word, I was moved and drawn to the self-revealing experience of performing my poems.

As I was slow to discover myself as a performance poet, I was even slower to start writing plays. It’s taken me decades to claim these titles, “poet” and “playwright”—perhaps because I don’t have a degree in writing. I am largely self-taught as a writer, although I must give credit to the extraordinary mentorship I received as a member of The Writers’ Roundtable, an all-women intergenerational writing group that I was a part of, every other Wednesday, for nearly a decade.

These two worlds of spoken word and activism began to intertwine, really, as soon as I started to perform my own work. My writing is inseparable from my world view, visions, and experiences. As a woman-identified person who loves women, and an Arab American in a post-9/11 context, my entire identity is politicized—whether I’m writing a love poem, or just trying to get to my next gig. I cannot, or perhaps refuse to, disassociate my internal truths from the external realities in which I live. To do so would be incomplete, dishonest. One of the things I strive for most in my work is honesty—those difficult truths which we may not always want to face, but which will ultimately set us free.

I’m thoroughly impressed with the wide range of productions you’ve written, directed, and performed in. How do you choose the productions you want to work on? What are you working on now? And what work of yours are you most proud of?

Some productions I choose, and some choose me. I never accept a project unless I believe in it, and believe in what the work is ultimately trying to say. I always ask, “Why this now?” And if I don’t have a good answer, I don’t commit to it. Sometimes the “now” comes later. I guess that suggests a sense of urgency is important to me in some way—it has to be relevant.

My advice to younger artists is, don’t wait for work to come to you. Create your own projects, produce your own opportunities. There’s always so much work to be done in the world.

Sometimes a project grows out of relationships, such as Outside the Circle—a play I co-wrote with Samuel Valdez (an artist who has Cerebral Palsy), co-created with director Dora Arreola. This project began with a personal conversation about unrequited love, and the non-normative experience of queerness, from living with a disability to being gender non-conforming or LGBT*.

We were excited by the intersectionality of the concept, the opportunity to make connections across communities, and we found theatres interested in commissioning that work. It was written, produced, premiered, and toured within two years, which is relatively fast. Other projects are labors of love that take many years to materialize and garner support.

I am proud of all my work, in some way. The fact of actually doing it—seeing something to completion and releasing it in the world—always feels like a minor miracle to me. I am also very proud of all the exceptional artists I get to work with; I feel honored by their collaboration. At the same time, I always feel my work is flawed, unfinished. Perfectionism is humbling, I suppose; at least, it keeps me driven. Having said that, I do feel proud of Eleven Reflections on September—perhaps because it’s so close to my heart, perhaps because it keeps evolving.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I’m working on a new project, which I simply call DRONE. I envision it as a high-tech, large-scale, ensemble-based, devised theatre production. I’ve found it extremely hard to fund—as work about war, critical of U.S. policy, often is—so I’ve recently decided to just focus on writing the script. I’m enjoying the writing. I’m also terrified of it. The more research I do on drone warfare, the more terrifying the future seems. Yet that is what I do as an artist: go toward what I most fear, in hope of disarming it.  

What suggestions do you have of ways people can use poetry and writing as acts of resistance, particularly in the next four years under an administration that seems set on defunding arts and eliminating anti-discrimination policies?

Write with people whom you perceive to be very different from you. Create together, collaborate, wrestle through it. Walk into your fear. Explore unexpected intersections. Open to self-examination, and allow yourself to be confronted by difficult truths. Then stand on stage together, share a microphone, and bring your audiences, your communities, into the same room. Let your work be a beginning, a spark, a catalyst, not an end in itself.

I think, in the current political climate, there is a tremendous amount of fear. It is easy, and tempting, to succumb—to hide under the proverbial blanket, and hibernate until this long winter of discontent passes. There are those among us for whom the risks are too great, and we must respect that, and support them. But to the extent that we have any privilege at all, we must leverage that privilege to speak, or forsake it to risk action. We must remember the sage words of Audre Lorde, that our silence will not protect us.

The night after the election, still reeling from the news, I attended an event hosted by my local arts council. The mood in the gallery was thick, and ironically, the central image was an enormous red shark hanging in the middle of the room. As we gathered, somewhat sullenly, our host said, “Well, historically, great art has come from times like these.” A little laughter released the tension in the room, and we couldn’t deny that she was right.

We must look, now, to those times and places in history when artists have been the creators and leaders of resistance, visionaries and partners in vast social movements, and catalysts for change. If we have to go underground, or turn deeper into symbolism, or rise up in the streets, or take risks we’ve only dreamed of or are frightened by—now is the time. Now is the time to create, to be agents of change. I often say that for me, art is the craft of transforming destructive energy into creative energy. Now is the time for transformation.

As Islamophobia steadily increases across this country, and around the world, is there literature or other artistic resources you would suggest to help folks open themselves to  and become educated on the Middle East and Islam?

Read the great Arab and Arab American writers. A few who have influenced me include Kahlil Gibran, Nizar Qabbani, Nawal El Saadawi, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Suheir Hammad, Naomi Shihab Nye, Dunya Mikhail, Heather Raffo, Nadine Touma, Philip Metres and Mohja Kahf. I was introduced to many of the contemporary writers by Mizna, the Arab American literary journal, and RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers. Both organizations are wonderful resources.

Also explore Persian poetry. Rumi is, of course, still unparalleled; and Hafiz—one could spend a lifetime exploring the ecstasies of Sufi poets. There are also tremendous contemporary poets in Iran today, many of whom have not yet been translated into English. Music is a great place to start. We used a piece by Hossein Alizadeh in an earlier version of Eleven Reflections… It’s important to remember that, in many Central and West Asian, Mediterranean and North African traditions, poetry was most often composed, rather than written, sung, or chanted; the separation of poetry from music is relatively recent in human history. 

I also want to mention the importance of Somali poetry. Before war decimated Somalia’s social systems and created the refugee crisis, Somalia was known as the “Nation of Poets”—with an incredible depth, breadth, and wealth of poetic traditions and structures. I’m sure most Americans don’t know that, and poetry is not the first thing they think of when someone mentions Somalia. As with all of our war-torn lands, we must not allow our poetic traditions to be decimated, or lost in the rubble. They must be revived, taught, and practiced. They are also evolving, finding voice in other contemporary forms, such as Hip Hop. The first album of K’Naan, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, for example, had a profound impact on me.

Why did you start Art2Action? What sort of initiatives does your organization engage in?

I originally started to use the name “Art2Action” in 2003, when I produced my first solo show at the NY International Fringe Festival. Years later, in 2010, after various professional incarnations, I decided to start my own non-profit organization. Why? Perhaps because I wanted a certain amount of independence, to follow my own vision and passions.

I founded Art2Action, Inc. in order to support the development of my own work, but also the work of other artists of color, women-identified artists, and LGBTQ artists. Under this umbrella, I create, develop, produce and present original theatre, interdisciplinary performances (including poetry and spoken word events), and progressive cultural organizing.  Art2Action is a very small organization, but I believe we have deep impact.

I generally tour my own work, nationally and internationally; and present the work of other artists in Tampa (where I live now), in partnership with the University of South Florida and community venues. For example, 2014-16, we presented a multi-year series at USF called “THIS Bridge: Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim Artists,” focusing on mostly women artists, mostly based in the U.S., who are creating contemporary work in multiple disciplines. Our local community-based work, on the other hand, is currently focused on veterans, particularly those in recovery from PTSD and other mental health challenges.

When did you decide to start working with Iraq war veterans? What was the impetus for this social action, and what have been some of the impacts of this collaboration?

My first encounter with an Iraq War veteran was through Elia Arce’s multimedia performance, The Fifth Commandment, in 2005. She was collaborating with Matthew Howard, one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). I did a workshop with them, and wrote a monologue that became part of the touring production. I knew that Matt was struggling with something, but I did not have the framework to recognize it as Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) at the time. Years later, in 2011, while I was creating Eleven Reflections on September, I knew I wanted to partner with IVAW. I connected with one of the St. Paul-area field organizers, and he did a couple of events with us. Now, when Eleven Reflections… tours, I always try to reach out to IVAW branches in the area, to see if they want to offer workshops together or participate in post-performance dialogues.

In 2012, I was invited by Linda Parris-Bailey, Executive/Artistic Director and resident playwright of The Carpetbag Theatre, to direct her newest play. The script was still in development at the time, so I was able to participate in the research, as well as early ensemble explorations and dramaturgy. The play, Speed Killed My Cousin, centers on the story of a African American woman, a third-generation soldier, who returns from Iraq and struggles with PTSD, Moral Injury, and her family’s history with vehicular suicide.

In conjunction with this project, Carpetbag Theater offers Story Circle workshops, Digital Storytelling for veterans, and post-show dialogues; as the play tours, we have these creative encounters with U.S. military veterans across the country. Through this work, I developed an on-going relationship with the VA in Tampa. In 2013, I began co-facilitating a weekly performing arts workshop at the PRRC—Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center. Initially, I thought this would be a short-term engagement. But here I am, four years later, and I’m still going every week when I’m not on the road.

I often reflect on what draws me to this work. If someone had told me, shortly after 9/11, that I’d eventually be working with U.S. military veterans, I would have called them crazy. But as soon as I started doing workshops with the veterans at the PRRC, I was hooked. Why? Perhaps because all my assumptions and stereotypes about who veterans are and what they believe were shattered. Perhaps because people who have committed themselves to recovery are no longer hiding, and don’t have energy for falseness. Perhaps because being part of the healing process is so rewarding. Or perhaps because I, too, am broken, and art is the cracked mirror through which we can see ourselves, our society and what we have done, more accurately.

In my playwrighting, for some reason, I often find myself obsessed with the character of the perpetrator, rather than the victim. I’m not sure why this is, but I think it’s because the perpetration of violence is what I’m trying to understand—not so as to justify it, but so that I can learn to stop it, or undo it. I have been researching, and trying to figure out how to represent, trauma for most of my adult life.

I am interested in illuminating the connections among different kinds of trauma, from various intersecting sources, domestic and global. Repetition is elemental in the atomic structure of trauma. All my traumas are bound to yours; they orbit each other like molecules or planets, bound by the gravitational pull of this dark matter that none of us can see, but which affects us all.

I believe that most of us are both—victims and perpetrators, at the same time. Most abusive parents, for example, were abused children themselves. Most homophobes are people who have been so deeply repressed in their own sexuality that they lash out against those who exhibit liberation, or nonconformity.

As an Arab American, I am suffering this era of anti-Arab warmongering, but as a U.S. citizen who pays taxes, I am also responsible for funding these wars. I cannot blame the soldier who holds the gun, without also acknowledging that I helped pay for the gun. Perhaps both of us did so unwillingly, yet we did it.

I’ve been writing about war for over a decade now. Not through my lived experience, but through that mirror we, as artists, hold up to life. As a Lebanese American who grew up in the 1970s-80s, I have been aware of this thing called war since I was in elementary school – not just because I saw it in movies, but because I knew that somehow, it had something to do with me, with my identity. Arab Americans, in my generation, unfortunately, have never had the privilege of being unaware, of simply not thinking about, war. Just as people of color don’t have the privilege of being unaware of racism.

What moves you to continue doing this type of work?

I don’t think most Americans, in the 21st century, have a clue what war is, or what the U.S. military actually does; we only know the mythologies that we have been taught, by politicians and the media. When you hear the real stories of people who have been inside it, something shifts. I know there are many people in the United States, fellow citizens in my own country, who might never come to see my work, simply because I am of Arab descent. They may never walk in the door to hear me speak, or pick up a poem with my name on it.

But those same people might come to hear a veteran. So if we can work together—if I can stand on stage, or even behind the scenes, with veterans who share the same message—then perhaps we can create change. We can reach more people together, from very diverse communities, and inscribe an indelible mark on our collective conscience.

Could you describe the process of composing “Eleven Reflections on September”?

The process of composing—thank you for using that word—Eleven Reflections on September was deeply personal to me. I began writing the poems in 2001, out of sheer emotional necessity. I lived in New York City at the time, less than a mile from the World Trade Center towers.

 At the same time that I was processing the shock of the event, the devastation of my city, I was also confronted with my identity as Arab American in new, accusatory, and alarming ways. Poetry was, for me, as it has always been, the place I go when prosaic words fail, when narrative no longer makes sense—when reality becomes so unintelligible, and emotion so uncontainable, that only poetry can express the grief, or fear, or vastness, to help piece the world together again.

So I wrote some poems, in the moments and years following September 11th, 2001. It wasn’t until 2007 that I began to weave these pieces together into a series, thanks to a writing residency at Hedgebrook. In 2011, with the support of Pangea World Theater and a Princess Grace Award, I had the opportunity to develop the poetry series into a fully-produced, multimedia work of theatre.

Because I was exploring and wrestling with my Arab heritage, as well as the post-9/11 backlash of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, I was curious about the question: What would happen if I set my poems to Middle Eastern music? This was an experiment that I thought might fail, because I had no experience collaborating with Arab or Middle Eastern musicians, let alone any knowledge of the musical forms; I didn’t know if my very American, spoken word, and experimental theatre aesthetics would combine well with the music.

So I invited some musicians to collaborate, and began to explore… And then I fell deeply in love with the music, and the experience of performing with all the exceptional musicians who have been a part of this multi-year touring project. I have learned from them, and they have informed my writing, as well as my understanding of myself as a woman of Middle Eastern descent. I am perpetually grateful for this gift.

Who is your target audience for this necessary meditation on a post 9/11 world?

Eleven Reflections on September has two primary audiences, in my mind. One is Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim people, especially women, for whom I hope this work offers a space of mourning and pride. We are so busy being strong in the face of crisis, that we don’t often have safe spaces to just cry—to grieve, to mourn—especially in public. The theatre can offer that space of personal journey and communal experience. At the same time, the beauty of the music, and perhaps even the tradition of poetry itself, inspires pride in our cultural heritage.

I always offer post-show dialogues with each performance of Eleven Reflections…, because I find that some people really need to talk after this piece; I feel gratified when the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim audience members feel empowered by the work.

The other equally important audience is members of the American public who have lived through the post-9/11 era without ever, perhaps, hearing the emotional experience of an Arab American expressed, particularly through the intimate voice of poetry. Some of my favorite audience members are those who were unsuspectingly brought by a friend, or who decided to come not knowing what to expect, or who are just on a subscriber list—and suddenly find themselves hearing perspectives and stories they never imagined, or feeling empathy with a people they previously only encountered as sensationalized images on the news.

I don’t want monolithic audiences that already agree with me; I want the work to be experienced by people who imagine themselves to be completely different from me. In that sense, mainstream America is a target audience, because that’s where the work can be most transformative. That’s where meaningful change could happen. Not that live theatre is mainstream, or poetry for that matter; but as much as I love performing in major cities and important venues, I also love bringing this work to places, such as small town theatres or red-state campuses, where people who’ve never talked to an Arab American might come and have an experience that shifts their perspective forever.


Danielle Badra is completing her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University. She is an intern at Split This Rock, and the poetry editor of So To Speak, a feminist literary and arts journal. Her poems have appeared in Outlook Springs, 45th Parallel, and The California Journal of Poetics. Dialogue with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is her first chapbook, a collection of contrapuntal poems in dialogue with her deceased sister. 

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