Marwa Helal


Ante body (Nightboat Books, 2022)

“Marwa Helal’s Ante body asks us to participate, to stumble through a re-syntaxing of the English language, a language often used to other and exert state power upon those being oppressed. And it is through this re-lensing of language that Helal invites us to understand that before, ante, the exertion of the historical harms there can be a manifestation of radical care and love not just for the few, but for the many.” - Judges’ Citation, Los Angeles Times Book Prize

“—so alive with plurals, so awake to a we-frequency—because it is part of a most vital and mystical practice of undoing. In her precision, she slits the grammars of empire, making language-openings that are brief refuges for her beloveds.” - Aracelis Girmay, ARTFORUM

“In this innovative volume, Helal meditates on how to live both inside and against systems of oppression: patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and carceral government, among others. In lines that mingle pathos with bleak humor, Helal considers what it means, and what it costs, to belong—to the world, to nations, to one another.” - Jen DeGregorio, Poets & Writers

Ante body, Egyptian-born poet Marwa Helal’s second collection, examines race, gender, migration, and language with intelligence and crackling originality… Such complicated, fascinating play with language makes this a collection worthy of revisiting, of frequent returns to puzzle through its many meanings.” - Diego Báez, Harriet Books

“The genre-bending second book from Helal offers a poetic sequence that examines systemic injustice and the psychological effects of contemporary inequalities and calamities. In lines that eschew standard punctuation and syntax rules, the poet circumambulates the topics of capitalism and patriarchy, using the white space on the page to self-consciously push the boundaries of poetic form.” - Publishers Weekly

“The Whiting Award–winning Marwa Helal’s Ante body (Nightboat, May) uses daring language to interrogate the impact of migration in a globalized, capitalist world.” - Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Invasive species (Nightboat Books, 2019)

“Candid and confident about its ecosystems of influence, at times wildly omnivorous and polylingual, purposefully pedestrian at others, the lyrical avatar of Invasive species is one whose existential impulse seems to be rabid availability—to the poet’s multitude of peoples and places—negotiated crossways by a slick, uppercutting investment in infiltration rather than naturalization, divergence (not ‘diversity’), and didacticism as a form of information smuggling.” - Justin Phillip Reed, Adroit

“Because it is timely and because it is born of pure Aries invention, I think everyone should have a copy of Invasive species by Marwa Helal on their desks right now. Invasive species is radical in the sense that it demands change–‘you see I am trying to break the mold I have no form’–and radical in that it seeks linguistic roots: ‘so I made my own term: I, Invasive species.’ This new collection, which defies borders and genres, will show you how to break apart the bureaucracy of daily life (and omnipresent regimes) like a green live thing breaks open old pavement.” - Gala Mukomolova, Oprah Magazine

“Within Invasive species, Marwa Helal disorients space in a way that is both welcome and necessary. In the poem “V,” she describes passing through a tunnel in San Francisco: ‘I look at the fluorescent lights overhead and feel sure that I’ll find Cairo on the other side.’ Here, and elsewhere, movements we’re taught to think impossible become manifest. Our minds are not borderless—we are saturated with the language of the state—but our imaginations can begin to warp the lines. As Helal articulates alienation, she begins to unalienate homes from each other. Moreover, she begins to show how alienation never made sense in the first place. The absurdity of the U.S. immigration system becomes especially clear when she describes, in detail, her path to citizenship.” - Spencer Quong, Paris Review

“Helal’s debut full-length collection, Invasive species, is a liberation from the governance of capital-E English and an embrace of the gorgeous mutations that can be made of its more malleable cousin, lowercase-e english. It’s written in many englishes … Helal harnesses the English (capital E) of governments and visas and borders, wielding it radically and expertly.” - Safia Elhillo, BOMB Magazine

“This is an overtly political book, offering readers a highly interior view of the way immigration policies shape an individual life. ‘Immigration as a Second Language,’ describes Helal’s return to Egypt at twenty-one, (her parents moved to the United States when she was two) and her years-long struggle to return. Complete with meticulous footnotes, a person unfamiliar with this Orwellian labyrinth can get a real education here in painful thinginess: white vans, what color a green card actually is and which versions are valid, tracking and grouping systems, the poet’s hatred of embassies.” - Miller Oberman, Constant Critic

“But Invasive species also reimagines the conventions we have come to expect from poetry. It’s as if Helal proposes that, in this instance too, we should re-examine the confines of definition and the rules that restrict belonging.” - Rigoberto González, On The Seawall

“Helal pushes against artifice, or perhaps more accurately, she seems most interested in what happens when the fourth wall dissolves—when writer and audience actually see each other, eye to eye.” - Irene P. Mathieu, Muzzle Magazine

“Helal’s first and often stellar book belongs to many categories, and to none … The volume shows her powers — and her amply justified anger … Helal’s essay on her departure and her return takes up most of her book … That essay’s sad, or shocking, moments build to a muted, perhaps optimistic conclusion … Other, shorter segments of the volume show just as much fire, and more variety. The more-than-clever opening piece introduces a form that Helal dubs ‘the Arabic,’ whose lines must be read (like Arabic) right to left as well as left to right … Helal’s title puns on the ecological concept of invasive species … The poet may be safe in Brooklyn now, but how many others — how many other Arabic speakers, how many Arab-Americans, how many African-Americans — are not? … Such questions generate Helal’s best work … It is a push that could, and should, open doors.” - The New York Times

“When you study international studies and journalism but also pursue a career as a poet, the text you produce might be poetry, but it might be international studies, or American studies, or Middle Eastern studies, or African studies, or comparative literature. It might be biology. Invasive species is a critique of Americanness, whiteness, and the homeland security state, and also a love letter to Helal’s country—'both of them'—and her mentors, living and dead … It is a work of anger, frustration, grief, exhaustion, and loneliness, but also one of hope. It is a work of scholarship, undeniably, except it comes from a future where scholarship has been decolonized and the International Studies Association comprises academics, poets, domestic workers, researchers, taxi drivers, and community organizers. Or perhaps there will be no International Studies Association, because there will be no ivory towers to contain it.” - Sophia Steinert-Evoy, The Believer

“Marwa Helal’s Invasive species would be worth reading if all it did was give readers a deep look at the United State’s complicated and deeply racist immigration system, which it does quite well … The thing about invasive species is that they often thrive in their new environments, outcompeting the species already existing in that niche and creating a new ecosystem, no matter what humans try to do to stop them. And that’s the tone Helal strikes … There’s amazing humor, killer craft and wordplay.” - Brian Spears, The Rumpus

“…ambitious, groundbreaking … Helal’s incisive lyrics cut to the core of persistent issues and explode boundaries between genres … Footnotes and citations complicate the relationship between author, text, and audience, as the book defiantly refuses to categorize itself … Helal has succeeded in generating poetry that is uniquely African, Arabic, and American. Highly recommended.” - Diego Báez, ALA Booklist

“Physical, psycho-spiritual, and linguistic displacement form a nexus of poetic lines that course through this restless, memoiristic, and deeply felt debut from Helal.[…] Helal finds in poetry something that goes beyond resistance or balm, and might even approach hope.” - Publishers Weekly


“The foothold into these poems is a kind of transience. I Am Made to Leave I Am Made to Return magnifies voices in conversation across eras and oceans.” - Xan Phillips, Wildness

“This debut chapbook is fully realized and deeply felt. After finishing it, one keenly anticipates the 2019 release of her first full-length book, Invasive species, from Nightboat Books. If this chapbook is Helal’s starting point, her trajectory promises to bring us into remarkable universes.” - Ann Davenport, Run&Tell That

“…Helal troubles a linear and progressive narrative of Arab immigration to the United States. Rather than imagine that relocation to the United States as a singular, fixed act, or that it reaps positive rewards for the immigrant, Helal highlights the fraught relationship Arab immigrants have to their new country of residence. She does so by pointing to the imperial violence that may have caused Arab departure from the Middle East … Helal’s work also explores how Arab immigrants are in constant motion among multiple nations and locations, thereby muddying the permanence of immigration and the definition of the term itself.” Dr. Mejdulene B. Shomali, The Immigrant Experience, Salem Press’s Critical Insights series. April 2018. (pdf)


The PEN Ten: An Interview with Marwa Helal by Alejandro Heredia, PEN America

‘To Renounce Awe in Something Large is to Make the Large Thing Untouchable’ By Hanif Abdurraqib and Marwa Helal, The Lifted Brow

The Ms. Q&A: How Poet Marwa Helal Uses Poetry as Preservation by Emily Sernaker, Ms. Magazine