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St. Olaf student honored in national creative writing contest

What St. Olaf College student Joud Haidar ’22 is most proud of about his poem “Khalil Hawi’s Neighbor” is not the honor it received in a national creative writing contest — it’s that it is the first piece that he has written that feels authentic to his experiences. 

Haidar’s poem received an honorable mention in the 2022 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Intro Journals Project, a national competition among undergraduate and graduate students who have been nominated by AWP-affiliated member programs. His piece will be published on the AWP website in recognition of his outstanding work. 

“The project does not categorically distinguish between undergraduate and graduate entries. Joud’s honorable mention means that his poem was selected from among thousands of entries and is an extraordinary accomplishment,” says St. Olaf Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs.

Joud Haidar ’22

Haidar says he draws inspiration for his work from his experiences growing up in the mountains of Lebanon. One of the first pieces he wrote was a memoir about the war he lived through in 2006 when as an eight-year-old he was bunkered down in the basement as bombs dropped outside of his home. Not knowing if he or his family were going to survive, the memoir serves as one of the earliest reflections of his experiences in Lebanon. 

“Lebanon lives in a dichotomy of falling apart and pulling itself back up and surviving and then going through another war. The country has been torn apart many, many times by wars and conflict, but at the same time, it’s a beautiful place: very diverse, very vibrant, and very lively,” he says. “Eventually, I realized that my identity is entangled with that. My inner conflicts, my life trajectory cannot be separated from these events that occurred and the history of Lebanon.”

“Khalil Hawi’s Neighbor” is another reflection of life in Lebanon. Khalil Hawi, a great Lebanese poet and writer, took his own life upon witnessing the Israeli Army invade Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in 1982. “I projected my own ideas, my own fears, my own reflections upon what Khalil Hawi did from the perspective of his neighbor,” Haidar says. “I try to understand why somebody would do something like that. That’s why I talked about freedom and was this an act of ultimate freedom where he did not want to surrender himself to occupation? That’s the background of the poem and the themes that are covered in it.”

“What makes this poem extraordinary is its unflinching commitment to that neighborly intimacy, to life, and to the poet’s powerful gestures and words in resistance to an occupying force’s destruction and forced removals,” Kwon Dobbs says. “Joud’s final lines interpret the elegiac convention of bringing flowers to remember one’s deceased beloved, but most importantly, they’re a searing act of attention: ‘As I was escorted away from our shared balcony, / I worried who would water these jasmine flowers?’ Joud is asking readers, who will nurture the blossom of memory, who will mourn with their tears, who will give witness as only a neighbor can?”

What makes this poem extraordinary is its unflinching commitment to that neighborly intimacy, to life, and to the poet’s powerful gestures and words in resistance to an occupying force’s destruction and forced removals.Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

Haidar says with this piece, he focused on writing in a way that is authentic to his experiences. 

“As someone who grew up where I grew up, getting out, getting scholarships, and entering the world and getting higher education, you get used to telling your story. However, what you get used to is telling your story in the way that people want to hear it,” Haidar says. “I was writing with a superficial approach that is understandable to people who have not lived similar experiences as me. Think of a poem that is translated. You’re translating certain emotions, but you’re losing a little bit of its essence and its substance to make it understandable to a newer audience, and that is what was happening. I was writing from the surface so that people can relate.”

However, this changed when Haidar was enrolled in Kwon Dobbs’ course, English 150: Craft of Creative Writing. Kwon Dobbs encouraged Haidar to go into the details of his story and write for himself and his community, and not to worry about explaining to a U.S. audience.

“And that’s what unlocked the authentic approach and brought in the experiences that mostly stick out and will be understood in their fullest meaning to someone who grew up in the region,” Haidar says. “What Professor Kwon Dobbs and I worked on was how to bring out my authentic voice that is not catered to an audience that is not me. What she taught me was how to write for myself, and that is worthy of the world listening to. The only comfort that I got from sharing this poem was that this is the first piece that I have written that talks from my perspective to me, and is not written from me to the other. It’s an authentic poem that I wrote for me, and it happened to be shared.”

Having the piece win an honorable mention from the AWP is an added bonus, Haidar says.

“It definitely comes as something to celebrate. I’ve always been skeptical of publishing work and sending it for people to review. I think that’s when a writing piece expires — when you send it to be assessed and put a value on it by someone else,” says Haidar. “But at the end of the day, every writer’s doubt is that whatever you’re writing is not worthy to be shared by others. The affirmation that you get from knowing your words are welcomed by others is boosting and fuels more writing. It gives you confidence.”

Haidar is currently in the process of creating his own poetry book. In the future, he hopes to start writing plays and more pieces in his first language, Arabic. 

“I’m not sure if I’m going to publish the book or if I’m going to keep it for myself, but I’m going to keep doing it even if it ends up just being a memory for me. Leave it in my drawers for years to come and reflect on who I was at the age of 23,” he says. “The goal now is to figure out a balance between doing something meaningful enough for me as a job and to stay true to my beliefs, while at the same time, doing creative work and producing something that is considered art.”