Profile: Ghada Khalifa challenges convention in her poems

Ghada Khalifa began as an amateur poet.

“I first made an exhibition of my paintings. I wrote some text for the exhibition’s brochure, and someone told me that I write well, so I started writing poetry.”

She started her artistic career as a painter, putting together an exhibition of portraits with her sister. The exhibit was a success, and so was her writing.

“I started then to rethink my priorities,” she says. “I thought that maybe my career is in writing.”

The 34-year-old is now a poet, painter and book cover designer. She published “Spilling Her Beauty in Vain,” a collection of free verse writings and prints of her paintings, earlier this year. The collection shares the unique style of her first book, “She Jumps from One Cloud to Another,” published in 2009, mixing her two art forms.

“Painting is vaguer than writing; a line or color can evoke different interpretations, but I know exactly what I want to say, so I prefer poetry,” she explains. “And maybe I’ve reached a limit with painting that I can’t overcome. That doesn’t happen with writing.”

She continues to paint, however, and shows her work along with her writing. Both techniques seem to complement one another. Whereas she trusts herself in writing more than painting, she paints what she “cannot express in words.”

A great deal of Khalifa’s poems feature romantic relationships. Some critics described her last book as being about a woman searching for a man.

“I thought that was a very limited view of my book. It is like when a film includes sexual scenes that are central to the storyline, and people respond that it is a pornographic film. I do write about relationships, but it’s not what my work focuses on,” she says.

To painters, Khalifa comes off as old-fashioned, and poets think she is too bold, she explains. And indeed, the way she expresses her emotions in writings is quite bold, and sometimes shocking. Khalifa recounts how during a poetry recital, an audience member asked her if she was Lebanese.

“‘I’ve never heard an Egyptian write like that,’ he told me.”

Khalifa writes about herself and what she describes as ‘the suppressed personalities inside’ her, which is why readers find many voices and conversations in her poems. She abstains from tackling “big issues.” “After all, I’m no Mahmoud Darwish and I won’t ever be,” she explains.

She likes the poems of Amal Donqol that deal with human issues. But apart from that, she experiments on her own rather than following in the footsteps of great writers. She updates her blog, “The Lady of Beauty,” regularly.

“I cannot deny that I love my blog more than my books,” she says. “The blog allows me to experiment with writing; it contains drafts of my poems. They are like the primary sketches of my paintings, full of emotion.”

She describes her blog posts as “open texts” that are not limited to a literary form or genre. Her approach is spontaneous, and that is why she and her growing fan base seem to enjoy it so much.

She has been invited to poetry recitals at the Arab World Institute in Paris and the Voices of the Mediterranean Festival in Lodève, France over the past year, where she was well-received. Seeing people of different backgrounds relating to her writing has inspired confidence in the poet, but she is quite happy keeping her approach spontaneous and does not want to write stories or novels.

“Although fashionable, that requires a strength that I don’t currently have,” she says. She would instead like to continue writing about themes she feels strongly about. Although her second book, “Spilling Her Beauty in Vain,” is more experimental than her first, certain themes and keywords remain prominent in her writing.

“It’s not my second book; it’s the real first [book],” she says. “In ‘She Jumps from One Cloud to Another,’ I was writing and wanted to know people’s opinions on my writing; in the second book, I was completely indifferent, free.”

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