Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 2 — Ruth Awad

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about? Who would you love to collaborate with?

Reading: I recently finished Allison TitusThe True Book of Animal Homes, which I consider a must-read for vegans and animal lovers. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and it mauled my heart in the best ways. I return to every book I have by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, National Treasure. I’m also in the middle of Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, which is the funniest book I’ve ever read.

I watch TV like I have infinite time, so: Game of Thrones because of course, Doctor Who (David Tennant is the best Doctor–come at me), and I finished The Leftovers a couple months ago, and I’m still sad about it.

I’m not sure what the criteria for an emerging or new writer is, but I do think everyone should read Zeina Hashem Beck right now, and I’d also love to collaborate with her. Hi, Zeina.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter? What brings you joy?

Let me tell you about my dogs! Deep in my heart, I know I would probably not be many things without my dogs: a vegan, a diligent-ish writer, a functional human. When I got my first dog Pete 11 years ago, it was like I’d been handed a Get Your Shit Together card. I’m not saying a dog will solve all your problems, but I am saying Pete helped me get perspective on a lot of mine. Suddenly there was this living, unbearably cute creature that relied on me in order to survive! That really made me check my self-destructive streak–it just wasn’t sustainable now that I had her and had to wake up at the same time every day to care for her and feed her and train her. And her companionship healed me in ways I didn’t know was possible. I survived some of the hardest moments in my life because of her (see: the aftermath of an assault, depression, bad breakups, several moves, etc.). When I think about what a gift that is, it overwhelms me. That fortress of unconditional love and the routine of care has helped me do the hard work of actually putting words on the page and weathering the subject matter (notably, I researched and wrote extensively about the Lebanese Civil War for my first book, and I can only imagine how much harder that would’ve been if I didn’t have my dogs to pull me back out of it).

Pete died in January this year and my heart is still broken over it. But the joy is starting to seep back in when I think about her. It helps that my two other dogs Bowie and Winnie are carrying me forward.

What advice do you have for young and emerging writers, particularly of marginalized identities? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Find your community. If one doesn’t exist where you are yet, make one. That’s the best thing about the time we’re in now: it’s so easy to connect with people (all over the world!) about the things you care about.

Best advice I’ve ever received was probably from Judy Jordan who–I’m paraphrasing–told me if I wasn’t plucking my still-beating heart out with a spoon and finding a gopher skull each time I came to the page, I was wasting my time and hers. Essentially, be vulnerable and surprising. She’s awesome.​​​​​​​​​​​​

What advice do you have toward readers who want to be allies?

Don’t be an asshole. Make space for people who haven’t had the opportunities you’ve had. Listen more than you speak. Apologize when you screw up, thank people for educating you when you do, and do better.

We’re living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?

After Trump got elected, I had a long talk with my dad about whether he felt safe with me publishing my book, which is based on his experiences during the Lebanese Civil War, his emigration to the United States, and, to a lesser extent, his faith. I didn’t want to put a target on my Muslim immigrant father’s back, you know? And I’m still worried about that even though my dad was like, “Don’t let fascists take our art.” I’m just trying to keep that in my mind now.

I definitely had Zeina Maasri’s book Off the Wall in the back of my head as I wrote this poem. It’s a collection of political posters of the Lebanese Civil War, which showcases clashing causes, cultures, and ideologies and the rhetoric these warring factions used to sway civilians like my father.


RUTH AWAD is a Lebanese-American poet and the author of Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2017), which won the 2016 Michael Waters Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of a 2016 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Republic, The Missouri Review Poem of the Week, BOAAT Journal, Sixth Finch, CALYX, Diode, Rattle, The Adroit Journal, Vinyl Poetry, Nashville Review, and in the anthologies The Hundred Years’ War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), New Poetry from the Midwest 2014 (New American Press, 2015), and Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press, 2015). She won the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest. She has an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and she lives in Columbus, Ohio. Learn more about her work at www.ruthawadpoetry.com.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.