A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 7 of 9
All I wanted to do was write poetry. I wrote about love, unity, racism, and even paper clips. By the fall of my junior year, I had filled several notebooks and folders with hundreds of poems. I was sorting them by preference and quality when it dawned on me that I had written enough poems to create a book. I approached my father about the idea. Although he had been supportive of my newfound passion for poetry, he thought that it was too soon to publish a book.
“Not yet,” he advised. “Keep reading and writing. And memorize.”
But I disagreed with him. What good would memorizing other people’s poems do for me? I had my own poems, and they were ready to be published. We went back and forth about it, but he insisted that although I was writing a lot, and he was very proud and impressed, I was not ready to publish. I conceded. I wasn’t going to break his word. At least, not while he was around.
But in September of 2003, I got my chance. Earlier in March, the United States had invaded Iraq and overthrown the regime of Saddam Hussein. For many Iraqis, this was a fantastic, unfathomable impossibility. For the first time since he had left his homeland in 1980, presumably forever, my father could consider the possibility of going back. Like many Iraqi refugees, he had been forced to leave his friends and family behind. Since then, his parents had died, his friends had fled to countries like Syria, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and his brother had gotten married and had children whom my father had never met nor expected to meet. Iraqis were convinced that the tyrannical Saddam would be succeeded by his even more tyrannical sons. Now, the nightmare was over. My father booked a flight as soon as he could and left that fall. He wouldn’t be back for weeks.
It was the perfect opportunity to create my book.
I gathered my poems, sorted them by topic, solicited a friend to create some illustrations, and designed the cover. I called a digital printing company to discuss my options. I had saved some money while working weekends at a banquet hall, and by the time my father returned, I was ready to show him the whole plan.
“Here are the poems,” I said. “I designed the cover. These are the photos I’ll have on the front and back. I took them myself. These are the drawings, and here is where they’ll go. I called a printing company, the same one that the mosque uses to print its magazine. They said that I could print five hundred copies for two thousand dollars. Look, I saved the money from the banquet hall. It’s all ready. I just need you to drive me there.”
He was silent. He reviewed the pictures and poems. He sat back, took a moment to think, and then said, “OK.”
I published my first collection of poems in the spring of 2004. It was called Renegade Rebel. I asked the school administration if they would allow me to sell it. I was permitted to set up a table in lower B Hall between the main staircase and the Fordson tractor. Students were very supportive. Some would stop by during passing times and buy my book. I signed their copies and they patted me on the shoulder, shook my hand, and hugged me. Others offered to sell copies to their friends and family. Parents came by to congratulate me and offer encouragement. Teachers advised me. Mrs. Ameer met with me after school to proofread and revise my poetry. Mr. Salam would chat with me in the hallway about listings in The Writer’s Market so that I could submit my poems to publishers. Mr. Mortensen suggested that I contact agents who accept unsolicited manuscripts.
“Use punctuation in your poems,” said one teacher. “Don’t leave it out unless you’re making a point.”
“Get away from rhyming,” said another. “If it’s not purposeful, it can be limiting.”
“Memorize,” my father insisted. That’s what his father, Sadik the Word Man, had told him in his youth. “Read the masters and memorize.” It was advice I generally neglected in the beginning. But today, it stands as perhaps the greatest piece of writing wisdom I’ve ever received. I would rephrase it to say, “Memorize poetry now so that you have it when you need it later.”
I’m glad I did. I needed it later.