Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…

Omar Sakr is that rarest of unicorns – a successful poet. Treating each word with care, he conjures images that are crisp and blooming.

He’s written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and The Saturday Paper, among others. His work has also featured in Meanjin, Overland, Mascara Literary Review, Kill Your Darlings, and Archer. He is currently co-editing the forthcoming issue of Cordite Poetry Review.

What are the common themes in your work?

The bulk of my early poetry is concerned with faith and loss, home and family. Increasingly, I am concerned with landscapes, identity, and how the two intersect with language.

Where do your ideas start? Is your mind constantly ‘on duty’ thinking of ways to describe things, or (more annoyingly, in my experience) seeking out symbolism in everyday things?

Honestly, it changes from poem to poem, and from medium to medium. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. I will say that increasingly I’m making an effort to take poems out of the everyday scenarios around me. Not to create poems, to take them—they’re already there. I have this idea that most of us sleepwalk through the day: you have your job or your class to get to in the morning, a regular routine of getting to and from home, even a discernible pattern to your social calendar. Your brain doesn’t have to do much work here, especially the creative part, so it goes to sleep. Jam earphones in and everything fades to a background blur. You know where everything is, so you’re on autopilot.

I noticed this when I went overseas for the first time by myself, because I felt awake for the first time. I didn’t know anyone, I had to pay attention to the roads and the way cars went, I had to be hyper-focused to ensure I didn’t miss any crucial transport connections, etc. As a consequence of that focus, I started to pay attention to what was occurring around me, the people on the buses and the trains and ferries, the conversations they were having; the stray animals on the streets and alleyways and winding through chair legs at cafes. Vignettes became apparent without effort. Images and contrasts I would never have imagined presented themselves with ease.

I feel like I’m cheating now, but my daily practice—here at home, where sleepiness seems to fog each day no matter how hard I try—is to do my best to pay attention to what’s occurring around me. I find some of my best poems this way.

Is there a time of day when you’re most productive? Or is your creative flow arbitrary?

I’m at my most productive in the early afternoon, ranging from midday to 6pm, for no other reason than that’s when I am most awake. I’ve had sleep and chronic fatigue issues for most of my life, so that’s definitely had a big impact on my work. I find it harder to write at night, but I can do it because I’ve frequently had no other choice, needing to work in the day to earn a living. All of which is to say it’s got nothing to do with creative flow, and everything to do with having the energy and time to write. The best window for that is the afternoon, so I seize that opportunity whenever I can.

Creative flow and productivity are not necessarily entwined.  You can feel ideas and stories rushing at you any time of the day, but you might not have the ability to deal with it. In that situation, you just have to jot down what you can and deal with it at a later point in which you can be productive.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished another revision of what will be my first poetry collection. Outside of that, I’m slowly building a second collection, and working on a few personal essays.

What part of the process brings you the most joy? 

The writing! It can also be the source of the most pain, and the most frustration, but when it really starts to sing, there’s nothing else like it.

How much focus do you place on the structure of a poem – does it have a responsibility to carry meaning as much as the content? Do you follow any set rules? 

No, I don’t follow any rules – where would the fun be in that? Each poem has its own structure, and part of the joy of free verse is discovering that structure anew each time. I don’t know whether it has as much a responsibility as the content, but the two should be complementary. You’ll know you’ve done it right if you cannot conceive of the poem looking any other way.

Speaking at Bali Emerging Writers’ Festival. Source: Omar J. Sakr Facebook

Some people have a tendency to view bisexuality with scepticism (ie. they must just be confused). How do you experience attraction?

In theory, I am equally attracted to men as I am to women. Which is to say, on a daily basis, I am as struck by beautiful women as I am attractive men, but in practice, I almost exclusively date women. That’s due mostly to my upbringing and the intense fear I had of ever being caught, and it’s something I’m actively trying to undo.

I’ve had most of a lifetime to build up expectations and desires about being in a relationship with a woman, dreaming about it, seeing it play out in stories and video games, poems and movies, so it’s what comes easiest to me. It’s a comfortable space I’m aware of and enjoy, so I haven’t ventured as much into the male territory. Maybe that will change and maybe it won’t. Ultimately, I don’t care which gender I end up with, so long as we have love and respect in equal measure.

How do you define love?

This is virtually impossible to answer. I don’t want to define love: I’d rather spend a lifetime looking for the answer than to know it in full. I don’t think it’s some generic force, either, I think it’s specific to the individuals in whom it grows. Each love is a different kind of love. Not lesser or more, just different.

What’s your cultural heritage? And how do you relate to your family?

My heritage is predominantly Lebanese. I am half Turkish, but I didn’t come to know my Turkish family until I was 15-16, and only then sporadically. It’s taken some time to grow into that aspect of my heritage, that part of my family, my identity, but it’s been a rewarding process. I’d describe my relationship to my family—both families, really—as a closeness held at bay.

I love them so much, but I’ve kept myself distant these past few years, fearing their (assumed) backlash to my bisexuality, which most are ignorant of to date. Last month, I came out to my brother however, and he accepted me right away, revealing my assumptions as mean and petty. I don’t have enough time or space to explain how fundamentally that has altered my world. For most of my life, my family has flickered like an illusion, there one minute, insubstantial the next. Until now.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

A friend of mine, Najwan Darwish—an incredible Palestinian poet and all-round wonderful man—was apologising for not responding to an email I’d sent, and I was trying to brush it aside. I said something like, “don’t worry about it, it was a minor query.”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “there’s nothing minor in life.” Words which resonated then and still do now. Every so often, I turn them over and find some new meaning there. Don’t minimise your hurt, don’t undercut your own feelings or the feelings of others. Nothing is irrelevant, pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.

Photo credit: June Ramadhan

Who are your influences/idols?

Stephen King was an early influence for sure, alongside Roald Dahl, and later Ray Bradbury. In their work, I found a weirdness not unlike mine – by turns delightful, insidious, and terrifying, it was often situated at home or born of domestic fears.

As for poetry, to which I’m still relatively new, I would name Philip Levine, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Tracy K. Smith as influences and idols both.

In terms of taking on feedback from editors/publishers, how do you decide what’s worth listening to?

Good editorial advice is the same as good writing: you recognise it when you see it. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how personal the work is, either the writing is effective or it isn’t. If there’s ever a real conflict, it most likely has nothing to do with the feedback and everything to do with my attachment to the work. Either way, in that scenario, it’s probably best to put the piece away for a while, because I’m clearly not done working through it and therefore not ready for it to be out in the world.

In the case of articles, op-eds etc., it’s a little different. You’re always going to make compromises. Most of them will be cutting unnecessary words, but there’s usually a meatier snag or two as well. The best advice I can give you is to always be polite, always be kind, and try to reach that middle ground. If you can’t—and I have to stress this – pull the piece. This will be difficult, especially if it’s for a big publication that you know would be a big boost for your profile, but it’s the best option.

I have a fairly militant mindset in this regard, especially with pushy editors, because when all is said and done, it’s my face and my name attached to the work—I’m the one who will invariably get attacked in the comment section and hounded on social media. That’s the lot of virtually every POC/woman/minority who speaks publicly, and for many others as well. It’s just not worth it to publish something you don’t believe in completely.

What are your biggest frustrations when it comes to writing? 

Not having the time to write, to be able to give myself fully to it, will always be my biggest frustration. In terms of the actual process once it’s begun, it’s my own lack of patience. It takes a fucking long time to write well, and even though I know that, I’m still guilty of sending off work before it’s ready, because it’s new and shiny and exciting, because my own exhaustion keeps hoping this time the shortcut will work. It’s a stupid impulse and I need to put an end to it.

Where can we find good, young Australian writers at the moment? 

Look to Scum Mag, Archer magazine, the Canary Press, Peril, and Tincture Journal. Look to the Blak & Bright festival, the Emerging Writers Festival, National Young Writers Festival, and Sweatshop – you will find young Australian writers doing good things there (also a few older ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that either). 

What places in the world have profoundly affected you?

I spent three months in New York a year ago, and I’m still reeling from that time. It had a huge impact on me, in the same way that Istanbul did, in fact: it was a riot of colour. Everywhere I looked, a multitude of people that looked like me and didn’t, so many different shades of brown—crowds I could melt into. It’s a feeling I have all too rarely here, which may be as much my fault as anything, to be fair.

Working from home, how do you keep yourself sane? Do you have a routine or set practices? Do you have to get out of the house just for some colour and movement?

What on earth gave you the idea I was sane? I’m out here actively trying to make a career as a poet, which is the definition of insanity.

I actually try to get out of the house as much as possible. I do a lot of work in the local library just to switch things up and ensure I don’t feel too claustrophobic. I’m wary of making my work desk a place of resentment and stress as well, so it’s good to work in staggered bursts and balance it out with some leisure time.

I do have a good view out my window which showcases plenty of colour, but I still make sure to go for a walk every day, not just to stay healthy but also as a key part of my creative process, as far as being a part of and paying attention to the environment I live in.

Omar blogs here and tweets from @OmarjSakr.

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