Sara Saleh on writing poetry and creating The Gaza Suite

Sara Saleh on writing poetry and creating The Gaza Suite

Sara Saleh is a writer/poet, human rights lawyer, and the daughter of Palestinian, Lebanese and Egyptian migrants. In 2023 she published her first novel, Songs for the Dead and the Living, as well as her first poetry collection The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat.

Sara is the first and only poet to win both the 2021 Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the 2020 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. Her poems, essays and short stories have been published widely and she is co-editor of the ground-breaking 2019 anthology Arab, Australian, Other: Stories on Race and Identity.

In this interview Sara speaks about The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat and reads 'The Gaza Suite'. Sara recently spoke on The Garret about Songs for the Dead and the Living.

Sara Saleh on writing poetry and creating 'The Gaza Suite'


ASTRID: Sarah, welcome back to The Garret. Now, we last spoke somewhere near the end of 2023 about your first novel, Songs for the Dead and the Living. We are now speaking again in 2024 about your poetry collection, The Flirtation of Girls. Congratulations on the poetry collection, and also well done. You do realise I never get to speak to people this soon after their previous publication!

SARA: I know I'm sorry, what can I say? I just really wanted to come back and speak to you.

ASTRID: It is a beautiful thing. How would you describe this poetry collection, The Flirtation of Girls? Let's start with the subtitle or the title in language that I can't pronounce.

SARA: So the subtitle you're referring to, or a translation, is Ghazal el-Banat, and Ghazal el-Banat is a double entendre that translates to the literal translation, which is ‘the flirtation of girls’. Then there is a symbolic or metaphorical translation meaning in Arabic, which is ‘cotton candy’ or ‘fairy floss’. I always forget which is the Australian? Do we say cotton candy? Or do we say fairy floss?

ASTRID: We say fairy floss?

SARA: So American, I watch way too much TV, apparently.

For me, it was obviously very deliberately chosen because of that imagery. And those who read the collection will see that it is a subversion of sorts, but also maybe a little bit deceptive in that it comes across as fun and as flirty, and as you know, that imagery of childhood and of having joy and color. But then, you know, realising that actually it's obviously a lot more than that. And so that, for me was the title. And it is just a bonus because in a little bit of the Arabic title there is a reference to the form of poetry, one of my favorite forms, which is, of course, the ghazal. So yeah, it was just for me, tick, tick, tick.

ASTRID: Now, some of the poems in his collection had been published elsewhere in poetry journals, and many of them are new. I'm always fascinated by how a poet brings together a collection as a whole. What makes it all hang together, and that create that experience for the reader?

SARA: I love that question. It's something I had to think about a lot on multiple levels. For me, every time I write a single piece of any writing, but obviously, in this case, poetry in particular, I'm always visiting and revisiting my intention of why am I writing this? What is the purpose? What is the message I want to get across? You know, sometimes it really is as simple as I just feel like it, I want to write something and I'm writing, and I want to have fun with it. And it's, you know, a thing of beauty. Other times, it's a little more loaded. For me, it was about juggling that process of bringing together all these pieces that I've written, some, as you said, new, some already published and trying to figure out how they fit in a whole. Even though they stand in isolation, I think they do work as, they're tied by a rope, I think there's a thread, there's a rope in there that ties them all together. For me, that was an ongoing process.

Speaking of my poetry, my mentor, I could say, in this case Bella Lee, assisted with that. I got a lot of advice around how to put together a collection that can speak coherently and can allow each of the poems individual breathing space, but also, come together in this cohesive narrative that makes sense and takes people on a journey. However, I don't think it's as simple as a linear… it's not bound in any sense, or reduced to a linear timeline. I think, as a matter of fact, it was a very deliberate choice for me to mess with the linearity and the chronology deliberately because it was, for me, as I said, a network rather than a single group of thought, and having that messing with time to parallel the lives and the experiences of the different women and the different voices in the collection.

ASTRID: You open the collection with a poem, ‘Self-cartography’. It's the prelude to the collection, and it is also a way I think, as a reader, to set out your intention, which was the word you just used or, you know, opening the collection. It's very personal. I guess I wanted to ask you as a poet, a writer, a creator, how do you think about the act of sharing yourself in your art?

SARA: I think it was really necessary for me to position this collection and start with that ‘Self-cartography’, which, I think, in a sense functions as a gentle container – or maybe not so gentle, I'm not sure if so, I'd be interested to hear what you think – but gentle or maybe perhaps very assertive container and a framing device for the whole collection, which for me is about reflecting and honoring the incredible women in my family, chosen and blood, and representation of women and their polychromatic lives in both in my novel and now in this collection.

So, it's much of the same themes, I think, many overlapping themes here, but just done in a different way. And I think for me, it's about women who are presumed to be misunderstood or misrepresented and mistranslated. I feel like I am fluent in their language. I am their daughter. I am their inheritance. I am keeper of that of that lineage. And so, I really wanted to honor and pay homage to them in this collection, and to the complexity of that in this collection. But first, I have to, as I said, really set the tone and frame it from where I'm coming from. And I think that was part of that, you know, for me that was definitely part of the decision as to why I started with ‘Self-cartography’, as an almost a prelude like you've said.

ASTRID: I have had the gorgeous experience or reading your novel and this collection within a few months of each other. Both draw on the experiences of your family, particularly the women in your family. Songs for the Dead and the Living is a fictionalised account of your family's experience, including of the 1948 Nakba and the ongoing ramifications. There are all sorts of different poems in this collection, and sometimes a poem, even if it's, you know, just a few stanzas, in terms of my reading experience, felt very intimate, even more intimate than the fictionalised novel, which was a few hundred pages. I guess I want to talk to you about the power of poetry, and particularly the form of poetry, where you can create that feeling in the reader in just a few lines, almost as much as an entire novel. And it's also a very intimate thing to share with a reader.

SARA: I think there's so much to say on that level. I mean, partly, it's because I think, for me, your juxtaposing tradition, which is found in the form the form of a lot of these poems, including those, of course, you're juxtaposing with the substance, which may seem new or unfamiliar, if you want to call it modern (though I think that is also a bit loaded), but I think that having those things work in tandem does breathe fresh life into these already established art forms, obviously, and keeps them relevant and resonant to audiences like your yourself, but also I would think quite new. Whereas for me, a lot of these poems accidentally ended up being an archive where I feel almost haunted by my own personal and political histories, or I say, an archive of hauntings and of history. For me, that's part of it. I think the other thing is, the fact that you have these poems, again, immersed in language, that is for me a whole culture, there are poems that do, I think, flow seamlessly or have Arabic in there, it comes out in the application of my poetry. I feel like that you're immersing yourself almost in that even in the sound, even if you don't understand the words, per se, but the sound and the feeling. Lastly, it's also, I think, the function of poetry compared to fiction, in a sense, and I've been thinking a lot about this, when I get asked the question of how it is different, how is it different writing a poetry collection to a long form novel. I think we also spoke about this last time, and I said, all the lessons I had learned in my years of writing poetry, I wasn't fully comfortable in the novel until I let go and let those lessons come through. But also, conversely, I think poetry and the poem is a space that allows for very little dishonesty. It is very bare, you have a very little space, of course, to make the point. That scarcity, in a sense, or maybe that economy of language and of word, I mean, a comma, you know, is noticeable on a page, a full stop or lack thereof, what's in there and what's absent. I think all of that speaks to again, the poem and the poetic, or as a way that I would think, to use your word, makes the reading experience a lot more intimate.

ASTRID: I'd also like to ask you about language. Arabic literature has a long tradition of poetry and the poetic form, and that is different to the English tradition. I clearly can't speak or read Arabic. I had the fortune of having studied Latin for a very long time, and poetry in that language is completely different. It's about the verbs, there is no rhyming, you don't do couplets. It's just a completely different experience of the poetic form. I guess that's my clumsy way of asking, what can you bring in from that entirely different poetic tradition into your work in English?

SARA: I love that question. Again, something that I spoke about with Bella, who also writes in multiple languages, so I got to hear from her and to learn from her and as she shared her experiences on that front, and it was very useful, because we discovered as I was talking to Bella that even though… I'm fluent in Arabic, I should say, but particularly a more colloquial Arabic that you'll hear in the streets amongst, you know, everyday people across certain parts of the, quote, unquote, Middle East. But there are very different dialects, and they are very diverse. I almost have to code switch, for example, between Egyptian, Arabic and Palestinian or Lebanese Arabic, the Levant area, compared to if I was speaking with someone from North Africa who spoke Arabic or Iraq or elsewhere. There is a dialect difference. There's also Modern Standard Arabic, and most poetry, particularly traditional poetry, and some of my favorite poets, as well as my favorite songs that were written by poets, composed by poets and sung by icons in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and so on. They adhere to modern standard Arabic. The Quran, also Standard Arabic. I'm simplifying a little bit, but yeah. When I was studying Arabic I often really struggled with understanding the Modern Standard, it is quite difficult, it's much higher level. But even with my limited Arabic skills I could feel the meaning in the poetry of course, I could almost hear the musicality and the malleability of language, I could hear the rhythm and the rhyme. Growing up in high school, being exposed to this form of poetry and then taking that with me when writing my English poetry... I never formally studied poetry. I didn't study poetry in a formal sense, save a few courses at uni, but I haven't, I don't have a Masters, or anything formalised like that. But I've had a lot of training, a lot of workshops, a lot of non-hierarchical community upskilling and support, and inadvertently, taking all the lessons of the Arabic poetry that I grew up on, the song and putting that rhythm and that rhyme and that musicality into the English, that was something that Bella had said to me when we were discussing the collection, and I was saying to her, I admitted a bit shamefully or perhaps bashfully that I'm not formally trained, I feel a little bit self-conscious. She said to me most people aren't and I can tell you have a really good grasp on these things. And she raised them. And we realised together that actually, it was the Arabic poetry that was really coming through.

ASTRID: Would you like to do a reading today?

SARA: Oh, I would love to do a reading today.

ASTRID: Your choice of poem, I have no idea what you're going to read.

SARA: I'm going to read The Gaza Suite, which is technically not in the book. I'm just calling it that, The Gaza Suite. Do we have time for three poems? They are three short ones.

ASTRID: Absolutely.

SARA: The first poem is not in the book. It's something that I wrote in October obviously with everything going on at the moment. The other two are in the book, so I will read their titles so that people can follow along. The first one is called ‘Say Free Palestine’, and it is a meditation after Sean Bonney, who is a poet and an activist as well.


for ‘I love you’ say free Palestine, for ‘snooze the alarm’

and ‘snooze it again’ say free Palestine,

for ‘I need a drink, hold the ice’ say free Palestine,

enter your 6-digit pin here, then say free Palestine,

for ‘Are you saying someone?’ say free Palestine and for

anything ‘pumpkin spice’ say free Palestine,

for ‘I'm freezing my <insert whatever body part here> off’ say free Palestine,

for the ‘Great British Bake-Off and Love Island and The Bachelor’

say free Palestine, for ‘separation of church and state’ say free Palestine,

for ‘Twitter – I'm not calling that shit X’ say free Palestine,

for ‘the limit does not exist’ say free Palestine,

don't say ‘rush hour’ say free Palestine, don't you say Happy Birthday

say free Palestine, definitely don't say ‘Australia Day’ say

land back and free Palestine, say ‘sorry’ then say free Palestine

don't say ‘humanitarian pause’

say free Palestine, maybe don't say ‘there are two sides to this

story’ don't say ‘conflict’ don't say ‘collateral damage’ don't

say ‘eviction’ don't say ‘self-defence’ – just say free Palestine,

say ‘you are a demographic threat’ then say free Palestine, for

‘bedtime lullabies’, sing Dammi Falastinii then say free Palestine,

for fuck the police say … well, fuck the police then say free Palestine

say no justice, no peace,

from the river to the sea then say free Palestine.


So that was the first poem of this, what I have just labeled as The Gaza Suite for The Garret today. And a reminder it is a meditation after iconic poet Sean Bonney.


The second poem, and it is in The Flirtation of Girls, is called ‘There Are No Colonisers in this Poem’.

Only worshippers at al-Aqsa breaking their fast / in i'tikaf all night /

the hakawati's stories flare through the Old City / in a crowd

of holiday wreaths and Christmas trees / which are trees and

not barbed wire / There are n colonisers in this poem / only

the old man / stringing and spiralling the cheesy knafeh / orange

blossom syrup caramelising his beard / another daughter returned

from exile / each arrival unclots his blood /

There are no colonisers in this poem / the snow

is unsentimental, the kids throw slush balls

at each other / there is no rush to get to class,

if they truant - it's their choice / they're just doing what

kids do / iced-capped tourists / exit the Austrian Hospice /

hot chocolates warming their mittens / There are

no colonisers in this poem / only lovers in the back

of cars / slipping out of towns and villages with no farewell

or fanfare / for a lick of the big city and their lover's

lips / There are no colonisers in this poem / sparrows

release their breaths in rhapsody / commuters start their morning

shifts / or sleep-ins / the can expect to make it wherever /

There are no colonisers in this poem / water unsullied / clean

enough to quench gardens and groves / sons join their mothers

and fathers / and grandparents for dinner / and arguments are

just arguments and not manifetsos / There are no colonisers

in this poem / there is only wild joy / we are all here /


Shireen would be too.


In the original version it ends with shooting would be here too. But in this one, I've adapted it to add Reefat and Heba because they are beautiful poets who have been obviously very tragically killed, poets and doctors who have been tragically killed by Israel during the ongoing genocide happening at the moment and they are not the only poets and journalists and truth tellers and teachers and yeah, health care workers who have been targeted that I just wanted to honor them, so I hope it's okay. So, if you go back to the original poem, just know that their names should be there.


The last poem as part of The Gaza Suites trilogy is called The Purging and also available in The Flirtation of Girls.


When you reconstruct my jaw

handle with sensitivity,

it is in ruin.

You'll find my mouth open for the first time in a while,

for so long it has been a citadel. An unholy well.

A wail will come out,

don't be surprised if you happen upon other noises in there, too,

my father's praise, prayers for Gaza

nesting in my throat.

You may also detect the perfect English, the Arabic subtitles my mouth

could never accomodate,

and the taste of tears, clementines and cardamon in the hinges...

Baptise this mouth of the screams

and the indignities when they came for us.

Cleanse if of the abstinence, the ghosts of wedding vows

that were never recited.

As you rebuild, the words

may appear in anarchy.

Please, purge them from my mouth.

I don't ever want to see them again.


ASTRID: Thank you, Sara. Thank you for the readings.

The act of publishing is always a big deal. Not that this could ever have been foreseen or planned, but the act of publishing at this point in time, as history is playing out, I don't even know how to formulate a good question about that, Sara. What is it like to firstly have your novel published, and now a poetry collection that also looks at Palestine and your family's history?

SARA: So it’s very confronting question. And, of course, I have given it a lot of thought over the last few months as a matter of ethics and integrity. It's a fine line between wanting to celebrate something without exploiting what is happening at the moment as well are benefiting or profiting from people's absolute horror and worst nightmare in any kind of way. But I do want to take a step back for a second and just say that it was never my intention to publish, I must admit the novel and the poetry collection so close together for a range of reasons. And my publishers, both Aviva from UQP and Martin and team at Affirm, we've had many back and forths about it. In some ways, there was benefit, because at the end of the day it is what it is. And then other conversations that we had, it was like, not ideal, but this is how we're going to make it work. The reason this happened is because what is happening in Palestine obviously did not start on October 7, it's something that has been ongoing, as you know, proven, literally by my collection, which was all written before all of this. And yet, some of the poems in there are as relevant as ever, and might as well have been written about, you know, including ‘The Year that Changed Everything in 1948’, if you swap out 1948 and input 2023 or 2024, and it would literally apply. I have been writing about these issues, amongst many other issues, for a long time. And alongside that have been very active in advocacy, you know, Indigenous solidarity and anti-colonial and decolonial advocacy for Palestine, and alongside First Nations people here on this continent, and so, there have been a number of, I would say, flash points or big moments that have taken up a lot of time. That includes none other than everyone's favorite boycott campaign, the Sydney Festival boycotts.

So having that and having, for example, these big moments in time where we all gathered as community, and it was spearheaded and led by artists, amongst other people and other communities, you know, having that and being on the front lines, has taken a big toll on me. I want to acknowledge that if it weren't for having really supportive publishers who, yes, ultimately have deadlines and have bottom lines and all the things and do want to hold me to account and make sure that I'm doing what it is that I set out to do without compromising the art and the craft and the literature. But at the same time, understanding that you can't sign on artists from marginalised backgrounds and not have protocol, not have support, not have the space to have conversations, to ask what it is that you need and to accommodate the best that they can.

In the lead up to this, my novel was supposed to be released, probably, I think, at least six months before it was, but it kept getting pushed back because of those big moments that I mentioned. And again, Martin and team were all very supportive and tried the best they could to work with that, knowing what it is that we were going through and experiencing, and how much time it was taking up. I do want to acknowledge that.

I think for me, there is a bigger conversation to be had around publishers who say that, generally speaking or broadly speaking, that they want to support writers, particularly diverse writers, to be more inclusionary, to have these voices in the literary landscape as they're critical, despite what some booksellers may say. Sorry, that's a little shade on a certain bookseller in in Melbourne, I think. You know, they understand that. I think they realise that there has been a long history of inequity and barriers to us being included in these spaces. It's not that we were ever silent or not talented or did offer that we don't have, as you rightly said, a long history and heritage of art and poetry and literature and so on, it was just that, as with many other communities – particularly again, First Nations, given that we're on Stolen Land – we have been willfully excluded and marginalised for a range of reasons. And so, I think, for me, this speaks to the fact that publishers really need to consider when wanting us and as we should be, that it's not a token, it's not a tokenized, you know, box ticking exercise, but real structures need to be put in place real supportive mechanisms to address these inequities. We don't all have the luxury to write for the sake of writing, without adding those additional, as I said, structures.

In any case, to go back to your question, that was the delay in why my books were so closely aligned. I think right now, the way that I'm feeling is very mixed. Because as I said, it's hard to celebrate with everything going on. I'm so proud. I've waited a long time, I worked really hard, you know, as did many others who were involved. The process of bringing out a book isn't just actually the writer, it's not a solitary thing. It is, it does hinge on having a whole village as they say. There are a lot of people involved. I am proud. I want to celebrate. But at the same time, it's difficult to do that with everything going on.

When I was expressing these feelings of guilt, of course of survivor's guilt, of trauma, of shame, to my partner and to other people the response was, it's not the worst thing in the world, that people are taking an interest, it's a positive thing.  I can only control what I can control, and to quote my partner quoting – and I'm probably butchering my partner quoting Spivak – you can only do the most ethical thing with the information that you have at the point in time that you're in. So, yeah, definitely butchered that. But the point is that I can't control the fact that people are wanting to read my book, and it's getting a lot of attention for a whole range of reasons, I can only do the most ethical thing, which is, say thank you. I am grateful for that. But also, to say this was, this is for my community. I really want to acknowledge that and celebrate them and honor them. But I also hope that down the line we don't have to keep writing poems and literature because of the ongoing in justices, and that one day we will be able to… we have a responsibility as artists to write that stuff, but also we should have the freedom to write anything we want. One day I look forward to having just those freedoms to write, you know, whatever I want, whenever I want, and maybe just block everyone go live my dream, which is to write as a recluse in a tree house. And, you know, never do social media, again, respectfully. But yes, it's a privilege, I just want to acknowledge that as well.

ASTRID: That sounds an amazing dream, and is very similar to my dream, but instead of writing I'll be reading in my future. That was a beautiful answer, Sara, thank you for articulating that.

I want to ask about another poem in your collection The Flirtation of Girls. It is called ‘Progressive White Lover’, and then it has a little note in italics saying after EvN. Now I have no idea if that EvN is referring to Ellen van Neerven.

SARA: It is.

ASTRID: Wonderful. That makes my question even better. I want to ask you about contemporary poetry and the linkages between it and how some poems or poets can talk to each other. Ellen van Neerven has appeared on The Garret before. The idea of poets being in conversation together is beautiful and intriguing. Can you talk to that?

SARA: Yes, I'm a huge fan of that. And you may notice, you may have noticed in the collection that I draw on a lot of, as I said earlier, Arab tradition and almost even mythology and iconic Arab artists, without necessarily being applied to them, but also wanting to build on them and honor them in that way and to speak to them speak back to them. So definitely something that I do throughout the collection, where there are a lot of poets that have poems after or I'm inspired by, you know, speak to and indirectly respond to even in one poem in particular. So, with ‘White Progressive, it's actually after Ellen's poem, it is published in Overland. It's an incredible, absolutely iconic piece of poetry, that when I read, I was like, damn, this is evoking a lot of feelings. I can really relate to some of the themes that are in that piece. The poem itself speaks to white violence, and also way that it can be very… we are gas lit by white violence. We see that every single day in the colonial imagination, it extends to everything. And it's a mechanism for control. And it is mirrored, you know, that violence is mirrored in nature, it's mirrored in our bodies, we experience it viscerally in the most intimate ways and forms in the most, you know, personal but also on a very structural level. The end is also such a big triumph, I think, I don't want to ruin it, I really want people to just go read it.

And in it, there's also references to policing and cop behavior as well. And for me, I thought to myself, you know, there are people who take up the caricature of cop and cop behavior without necessarily actually being a cop specifically, so that the metaphorical behavior, or the taking up the performance of policing others and perpetuating the violence that we see, we are subjected to in systems by white supremacist violence. And for me, nowhere is that more evident than in a lot of leftist spaces, where there are people playing dress up, playing revolutionary, playing progressive, there are people who genuinely think that they are on the left side of things on the more progressive radical, however you want to label it, but it certainly doesn't correlate, they are inconsistent, their values and beliefs are inconsistent with their behaviors and the way that they perpetuate that violence.

For me, this was very much a metaphor and to speak back, or speak with Ellen inspired by that piece, and a reflection of that cop behavior that we see in the  spaces and the narcissism and the violence and, of course, a hint of misogyny in there as well. What I loved about that piece is sort of the double takedown in that it spoke to the individual violence that is carried out by that particular character, as I said, but it also makes reference to mainstream media and the way that that violence is also very much propagated, and almost I would say, led by those outlets. I really, really enjoyed writing that poem. That's all I can say.

ASTRID: I love that poem. My final question for you, Sara, follows on from the act of publishing. By publishing and sharing your work you are, of course, sharing things with readers like myself. As a reader, as a lifelong reader, I interpret that as a gift, I think that writers sharing their work that I then get to enjoy, you know, on my own time, in my own space is a gift. What is it that you hope you are giving and sharing with readers like me?

SARA: I will, firstly, it's a real honor to have people pick the collection up and make space for it in their selves, their minds, their bodies, their shelves. I really want to acknowledge that. And I think, obviously, there's so many things for me, that I think about, again, probably overthink when I'm writing these collections and writing these pieces. Ultimately, I do want to say that I think it is such a huge privilege to have this access and to be able to publish in this way and to reach people in this way. But I think for me, it's partly about knowing that this is my domain where I get to reaffirm, you know, my imagination is where I play, where I where I gain power, despite the colonial violence in the way that it extends to everything and tries to touch all and does touch all our lives. But it's also about being able to exist beyond that, and being that in all its messiness.

I think I called this collection a hot mess at some point. I love that, I hope that people take it up fast, but also go slow if they can, and maybe return to it again and again and sit with it and be okay with the fact that it is yeah, a hot mess. But for me also, I think poetry in particular is… I want to say for lack of a better term, almost like a secret that you're telling and sharing and then letting go. And so, once it's out there, it has its own life. It has its own, you know, it's free to take flight. It's free to land wherever and with people and, you know, people will have their own conversations with it and interpretations and reactions to it. I think for me, that is very separate, because I think a lot of times people read a poem and think, ‘Oh I know this person now’, or this must be their truth, or their only truth or their experience. They reduce it. And it is, again, it is exciting. It's a privilege to have that, but I also think it can be a bit counterproductive or counterintuitive, almost. So I have these poems, and I write them and I look back and I'm like, ‘Well, I probably wouldn't write this poem again at this stage, you know, in time a year later, two years later in retrospect, but who I was at the time and where I was at, and my feelings and my thoughts were all valid and writing it then at that time makes sense. But would I go back to that? I mean, who I am right now, probably not. The thing is like these poems exist out of body and it's important to remember that.

ASTRID: If this collection is a hot mess, it is a powerful hot mess and a beautiful one. Congratulations.

SARA: Thank you so much, Astrid.