Omar Sakr on poetry, fiction and the perception of both

Omar Sakr on poetry, fiction and the perception of both

Omar Sakr is the author of three poetry collections, Non-Essential Work (2023), The Lost Arabs (2019), These Wild Houses (2017). His first novel, Son of Sin (2022) was shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards.

Omar performs 'Iris', a poem from his latest collection, at the 6:30 mark.

The Lost Arabs won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the John Bray Poetry Award, the Judith Wright Calanthe Award, and the Colin Roderick Award. Omar is a widely published essayist and editor whose work has been translated into Arabic and Spanish.

Omar last appeared on The Garret in 2002 after Son of Sin was published. Listen here.

Omar Sakr_2023


ASTRID: Omar, we last spoke on a podcast in early 2022 when you had just released Son of Sin, your first novel. When we spoke then you said that to distract yourself, you were working on a poetry collection, and I now have in my hands that poetry collection, Non-Essential Work. Congratulations.

OMAR: Thank you. I was worried. Whenever someone says, ‘You said this in the past’, I'm like, ‘Oh, no’.

ASTRID: More than a year after publishing Son of Sin, I wanted to check back in on that work and ask you how it feels to have had that novel out for a year now.

OMAR: Yeah, it feels good. Mostly. It's interesting, now that I've had the experience of putting a novel out there and touring with it and all the rest, it is hard coming back to poetry. Because there is a substantial difference in how a novel is treated versus a poetry collection. And I knew that and I was experiencing it in the moment. I was getting way more attention for it than I'm used to getting. Even so, it's brutal stepping back into the poet's dismal little shoes and walking in them again and being like, ‘Oh, cool. It's like two months in and I'm waiting for a review’. Compared to Son of Sin coming out and there being six or seven in the same period.

ASTRID: Can I unpack that with you a little bit? I am obviously aware of the differences between how fiction and poetry are received in Australia and how the creative works, fiction and poetry, are received differently than non-fiction of any type. What's your opinion? Why is it like this?

OMAR: Why is it like this? I mean, partially, I think, it comes from publishers who have the viewpoint that poetry doesn't sell, doesn't make much money, therefore we're not going to put as much effort into it. And that's a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's that part of it. I think more people don't really know how to talk about poetry as opposed to novels, or they feel that they can't do so and they're not comfortable doing so, when, really and truly, you can talk to poets the same way you can talk to a novelist. We're chill. We're happy to have the conversation.

ASTRID: That might be the best quote ever, Omar. I love writers, but I admit it's only been in the last five or six years where I have felt comfortable with poetry, which is a strange thing that I have been learning and working on, clearly. Before we dive into the detail of Non-Essential Work, I did just want to stick with Son of Sin just for a minute, not because it's a novel and fiction is inherently more valuable than poetry, but because I wanted to ask you, what do you find, as a creator, what do you find more personal? Is it fiction or is it poetry, or is that a silly question?

OMAR: It's not a silly question. I think for me, I can't speak for anyone else, certainly, it's all personal to some degree. And I bang on about this. I guess I will continue to do so because I don't feel like it's getting through. But I don't really believe in the distinctions that people use as far as fiction is concerned. I don't believe in memory as truth. I believe in it as fiction, as a story. And so to some degree for me, these kinds of things, it all just blurs together. And the only thing that I'm really concerned about is the language that I'm using and how effective it is, compelling or dynamic or interesting in saying that poems are closer to my heart.

ASTRID: Which brings us to Non-Essential Work. It's a relatively new collection. I am going to ask you about specific poems, but how do you think of this collection? How would you like someone in a bookstore to pick it up?

OMAR: I use poetry as a record. A record of my days and my loves, my losses, my fears and fantasies. And to some extent, I have felt that I'm always writing to the past. I'm writing about a distant self, a self that I perhaps imagined even retroactively. I'm now at the point that I'm kind of caught up with myself. My days are right up to where I am currently living. This book charts the loss of my father and the falling in love process that I experienced with my now wife. And those two events pretty much coincided. It was about a month after my Dad passed away, I hooked up with my wife, who had been a friend for over a year. That was the moment. Those two things are incredibly intense, transformative, emotional states of being, grief and love. I've been thinking about it for years and so this is the record of that.

ASTRID: One of the several poems that stood out for me in this collection, Omar, was the poem titled ‘Iris’. And I think that is about your wife, but it is also about your writing and the place at which you write and your creativity. I was wondering, if I could be so bold, would you read Iris?

OMAR: ‘Iris’.


If any room can be said to be mine,

surely it is this one, the desk at which I perform

my agonies, and yet my wife


though she uses it less, still can reveal

compartments I never knew existed as if

her presence alone expands the world.


I thought I was present. I thought I knew

how to occupy a space. To understand it

intimately, if not possessively.


I fear to have not known every part

is not to have known it at all. The empty

eyes in my memories darken,


the holes hoot – we could all be

strangers all the time.

My God, the joy of that. The terror.


We're not ready to love each other that much.


The sun is streaming through the window.

An awful line except now

your gaze is diverted and I can try again.


Sometimes choosing not to see is a survival

tactic. Sometimes I am in love

with oblivion – leaving myself behind –


through the startlement of creation

in the black eyes of the rats scooting

across the neighbours' fence outside,


or the blank circles of unrendered faces

above the sidewalk making everyone

both guest and ghost. I refuse


to put glasses on this life, all of it

is a brilliant distraction from the wound

O to be the light coming out


to know the room, to make clear what is

beyond it, to invent a wife kind enough

to reveal what I missed.


ASTRID: Thank you, Omar. That's even more beautiful when you read it than when I read it in my mind.

OMAR: Well, thank you. And if Audible is listening, get in touch.

ASTRID: Why the name ‘Iris’? I know one can't pick apart poems like that, but why ‘Iris’ for you?

OMAR: Well, it is quite literally the eye, you know. Part of your eye, so what you can see. There was a line in a previous version of this poem where it referred to insults as a knife in the iris. And so it was even more literal then. And I have keratoconus. I have an eye condition where my corneas are not shaped the same way other people's are, and it's a degenerative eye condition and so I'm thinking a lot about eyes, what I can see, what I can't see. Which is partially what the poem is about, but it's also about my dissociation.

And I've been thinking about this a great deal because over the past couple of years I've been diagnosed with ADHD and autism. And it has explained a lot of the absences in my memories and in my days. Yeah, thinking a lot about absences, about what I miss and what I don't and who calls attention to it. And I was trying to find a way to think about that moment as well, that moment of you missed this, you didn't see this, literally out of your world, however familiar you think you are with it, you just didn't see it, couldn't grasp it. And I was trying to recast that moment so that I'm not approaching it from a defensive position. I'm not frustrated or annoyed by it, but instead simply grateful.

ASTRID: Thank you, Omar. After I finish interviewing you, I'm going to go read that poem again in a whole new light. In the collection, there are several sequences of poems and they all have the same title. There is ‘Relevant to the Day’, and if I counted correctly, there's about six. And there is nine ‘On Finding the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be upon Him, in Dante's Inferno’. They're not all in a row, they're spread out in the collection. As someone who has only come to poetry and learned how to speak about poetry in the last five or so years, what do the sequences mean for you and why do they always, deliberately so, carry the same title?

OMAR: Yeah. I've been somewhat obsessed with titles recently, and when I say recently, I mean over the past five years. In The Lost Arabs there's a sequence of poems called At the Site of the Future Memorial where I do the same thing. I think there's five or six of them, but they're all together. And the impact of having them all together is intense, I think. And so I was mindful of that in having these two sequences in this book, which is partially why I separated them. But I think the repetition of the title enables it to haunt the book, enables it to haunt the reader. This is one of the functions of trauma. The way it bleeds through and recalls itself brings you back to that moment or experience. And so I am partially replicating that. ‘Relevant to the Day’ is really, I think it was the genesis of this book because I was so tired of hearing the word relevant attached to my work.

Like, ‘Your work is so relevant because your communities are being attacked’. And it's so horrible to have that put upon you at the front of every conversation about your work, because it's saying, ‘We're only talking to you because of this’, as opposed to the skill and craft and power of your work. I wanted to dig into this idea of what is relevant and timely. And again, this is not far from my practise in trying to record my days, trying to anchor myself so that I'm not pulled into another absence, another small moment of oblivion. I was just creating these images and at first I had the dates of each day in the poem so that I was like, ‘Oh, maybe people will go and look up that date and see what headlines were in the news and see what images were in the public discourse’, and so on and so forth.

And then I was like, ‘Nah, let's not do that. ‘Let's obscure it a little bit, the way days are generally obscured and the way they all fall into each other. This too replicates traumas. Yeah, that's kind of what's going on behind the repetition of titles. And then as well with ‘On Finding the Prophet Muhammad sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam in Dante's Inferno’, there are some moments that are so generative, some ideas, some phrases that are so generative that you can return to them and move in a completely different direction with it as a starting point. And so that's also what I'm doing, is going back and recasting it.

ASTRID: The poem I wanted to talk to you about, Omar, is the double spread, I guess, ‘Poem after Christchurch’ and ‘Postscript for Poem after Christ Church’. I wanted to ask you, is there a technical name for how you did that? But also, I wanted to let you know that I stared at that page for quite a long time. And I thought about what happened and I thought about words and their power, but I also thought about their inadequacy. I guess I wanted to ask you about the poems.

OMAR: Yeah, I think this is a through line with this collection is questioning the utility of poetry, the act of witnessing and of language itself, even as I'm also contesting the public framing of art as non-essential. I'm capable of many different things simultaneously. And so yeah, this is an example of me not walking away from an absence, not papering over it, but allowing that absence to exist in its own right. Rather than talking about futility, really inhabiting it, which is painful too. I'm glad to hear it had that effect on you. That is the desired effect. As far as the page lineation is concerned, that wasn't necessarily... I mean, I think they're two separate poems, but they're attached. One's on one page, the other is on the next. That's all that there is to that. If there is a specific term for it, I'm unaware of it.

ASTRID: Changing tack a little bit, Omar, you have recently become a parent, which is an incredible life event. I wanted to ask how that affects, if it does, your creativity, aside from I'm assuming having less time.

OMAR: Yeah, less time, less energy for sure. Which is not insignificant, it's very significant. And in saying that this book, when I said that it comes close to my present, it doesn't actually encompass parenthood, though it does end on that note, on the beginning. But there are some poems in there about getting to this point and about the idea of parenthood and reflecting again on being a child as well. So that's all there. As far as how being a father is going to impact my creative process, I'm really not sure. I think it will take me some time to figure out what those changes are. At the moment I'm just trying to survive.

ASTRID: Well said. I noticed that some of your poems are dedicated to individuals, and the poem ‘For a Country that Cannot Keep Its Children’ is dedicated to Ghassan Hage. I am delighted to have an interview with him coming up on The Garret.

OMAR: Oh, fantastic.

ASTRID: I wanted to ask what his work, his huge body of work, has meant to you.

OMAR: Oh, man. Yeah, Ghassan Hage, I mean, he's an extraordinary intellectual. His work has, in the same way that ‘Iris’ talks about a simple observation expanding my world, his work has dramatically expanded my world through the ability to see clearly how power functions, particularly where it intersects with race. And when -- it's hard -- when you are the subject of so many different kinds of attacks, when you are subject to power utilised in such a negative way, such a damaging and violent way, principally through language first, being able to articulate what is occurring is essential, right? In order for you to be able to fight it, to preserve your selfhood as well. This is what Ghassan's work does, for our community especially, but also for so many. He lays it all out so clearly. And so yeah, I'm hugely indebted to him. He's also just a beautiful, kind, funny man.

ASTRID: In our last chat, Omar, we got a little bit distracted because we started talking about fantasy. You did mention back then, and I'm sorry that I have a transcript reminding you that you mentioned this, but that one day you might write speculative fiction and specifically fantasy. And that is my most beloved genre, and I wanted to ask if that is still a live idea for you.

OMAR: Mine too, you know. My beloved genre. And I still read so much of it and I still love it so much. Yes, is the short answer. I feel both closer to doing it and further away, just because the ideas are so present in my mind, and I feel like my subconscious is busy figuring out various details. And it's kind of like saying, ‘All right, it's there in my brain. It's ready, get going’, and yet I'm further away because I have less time and less energy than ever before. I really hope that I'm able to do it sometime in the very near future.

ASTRID: Omar, I promise I'll buy 10 copies and come to the launch. That would be the most exciting thing for fantasy to be published by you in Australia. Thank you for chatting to me again, and congratulations on Non-Essential Work.

OMAR: Always a pleasure. Thank you so much.