Salon Preview: “I exist, / rebel”: In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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Next week we’re going to be joined by Donald Nicholson-Smith to talk about his deft translation of In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, a career-spanning work by a poet widely considered to be the leading contemporary voice in North African poetry. I recently had the chance to immerse myself in Laâbi’s In Praise of Defeat, and it was a memorable experience.

Poet, activist, former prisoner, exile—these words all define Laâbi, and each of these identities exists in the liminal space of being and not being. These are the spaces where a poet observes, an activist takes action, a prisoner leaves one prison for that of memory, and an exile is present in his current city, one foot remaining in his home country. What makes Laâbi so important for me is how he as made these liminal spaces his own.

As In Praise of Defeat shows, Laâbi’s early poems are poems of protest and of incarceration. They powerfully evoke the need for poetry to bear witness. Laâbi was jailed in Kenitra Prison 1972 for because of his writing and as a co-founder of Souffles, the influential literary journal. He was sentenced to ten years and served eight, spending some of that time in solitary confinement. His poems detail the torture that he suffered.

The powerful poem “Beneath the Gag, the Poem,” an excerpt of which appears in In Praise of Defeat, is at once account of torture and incarceration, a cry to humans and poets to bear witness, and evidence of the transporting power of metaphor. The directive “Write, write, never stop” propels “Beneath the Gag.” As a poet of witness, Laâbi explores how memory and the need to record the experience are the primary tools at hand:

Write.
When indifference vanishes. When everything speaks to me. When my memory gets rough and its waves break against the shores of my eyes.

I tear amnesia apart, rise up as an armed and implacable reaper of what is happening to me, of what has happened to me.

In “Beneath the Gag,” you can feel the writer trying to survive. The pace at which the poem is delivered, the passion, and the choice of metaphors conveys a singular mind attempting to sustain itself and not break. That command over metaphor, knowing when to use some metaphorical language and when to keep his words startlingly unadorned, makes the poem more than just a chronicle; it is an experience.

This is just the beginning, as In Praise of Defeat spans 40 years of Laâbi’s writing, from 1972 through 2014. If this kind of powerful, visceral poetry is your kind of thing, we hope you’ll join us on November 10 when Nicholson-Smith discusses Laâbi’s entire career in depth and delves into the challenges of bring such remarkable words to life in English.

Here are the details if you’re able to join us at the Salon:

  • Thursday, November 10
  • doors 5:30, event 6:00
  • Two Lines Press offices, 582 Market St., Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94104
  • free drinks and snacks

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