Following the death of my father and the scattering of his ashes, and having seen John Baldessari’s conceptual beginning via his burning of his art and placing an obituary for it in the local paper, I started burning poems and source texts prior to translation. In part this responds to Walter Benjamin’s famous translation essay that claims the translated text experiences a death then an afterlife in translation. I put the ashes of the Stevens’ poem in an actual jar, reproducing its claim that of textual opaqueness (in response to Emerson, Stevens’ predecessor, who claims transparency/first priority but then sullies his own transparent eyeball with his textual recording of it. On Valentines’ Day, at a reading in Long Island City, New York, I baked the ashes of Hafez’ poem (Hafez was a baker) into a heart cookie, to mix the bitter death with the sweet rising and also to attempt to bring back the heart a la Buffalo 66 wherein Vincent Gallo goes to kill the field goal kicker for the Bills that cost him a bet and sent him to jail then realizes his love for Christina Ricci, opting instead to buy her a heart cookie from a donut shop and return to her in the motel…IMG_0768
Before briefly exploring some Persian connections and implications of this topic, I want to thank writer Facebook friends for introducing me to a couple of great publications: Editors Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil have created an anthology of fantastic writers that capture the art of tattooing in various ways in Dorothy Parker’s Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. Also of interest is Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor’s The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide, a great coffee table book featuring great photographs of literary excerpts tattooed on various body parts.
I also want to mention too that my Queens College Early Americanist colleague Sian Roberts advises researching into “moko,” which,” she says, “is deeply integrated into Maori and Polynesian culture (fun fact: ‘tattoo’ originated as a Polynesian word.)”
In thinking about this topic in relation to things Persian (my commitment for my week of blogging), I also got to know those already in my life by various poetry on their skin. I didn’t know, prior to this entry, that my friend Jason Tougaw, a Comp. Rhetoric specialist (also at Queens College) has a Cocteau drawing of Orpheus, which explains in part why he seems to embody a kind of poetry.Stefanie Simons, who I got to know at Pen America, has tattooed part of an Aracelis Girmay poem on her body (yet another significant reason Stefanie is such a cool young writer). Getting more serious with things—and hopefully I can put a few pics up of what I’m seeing—Claire Van Winkle, poet and translator (and new MFA student at Queens) has this on her arm from Jorie Graham “The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. ~JG” Always, or usually, the arms of these writers carry the words of writers, as if literally connecting to some key influence.
By way of transition to the Persian, Tara Mokhtari, an Iranian-Australian poet and critic who I recently met during her visit to NYC, has the following lines in Perisan on her arm from the modern Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri (about whom I hope to blog soon). She offers the following loose translation: “Live large, and alone, and modest, and unyielding.” Most people, she notes, get a little disappointed when she explains the “alone” part. Writers, however, would surely understand.
I offer these tattooed lines as a greater transition to the well-known early trendsetting images of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who radically politicized the female body with words from poetry as well as other sources. Like Neshat’s work, Mokhtari’s words both attract and subvert attention, as the latter explained how men during her trip to NYC hit on her by using the foreign lines as an entry into the conversation (making the message of valuing aloneness all the more significant).
Those unfamiliar with Neshat’s postmodern treatment of the feminine post-Islamic Revolution—especially following her visit to her country of origin in the 1990’s—might find it worthwhile to check out her Women of Allah series. She co-opts a kind of communal or group definition of the Persian woman in the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reproducing a seeming empowerment with guns, for example, though also rendering the women with little individuality (re-imposing the mystique of the veil, so to speak).
There are far too many things to say and theorize upon as one considers the implications of these seminal images. In a pithy blog entry, it’s perhaps best to let the art speak for and against itself, so I’ll refrain from what will only become a reductive analysis. One overriding question that Neshat’s work continues to brilliantly bring to the surface relates to appropriation and issues of Orientalism.
Obviously the Persian script on female bodies (the artist used her own body in much of this work), like Tara’s tattoo, means something different to Iranians than to those, say, in the English speaking world. The latter can’t help but find another layer in their resistance to understanding, and I read that some have mistakenly assumed they must be lines of the Qu’ran. What does it mean to know, or to not know, that often this amazing calligraphy are the words of the first modern feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzad?
A prodigious amount of tension derives from the dichotomous reception of eastern vs. western audience. Insofar as Robert Frost famously claimed “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” he was pulling a fast one, and his elusive irony gets aptly demonstrated here. The meta-statement itself is poetry, an epigram of sorts, meaning in locating the dislocation Frost paradoxically finds poetry. In her own way, through the resistance of translation and the resulting loss of meaning, Neshat too makes poetry in the English speaking world by allowing the loss.
Of course there is a lot more going on in Neshat’s earlier work here (not to mention her more current projects with video and film). To a certain extent interjecting the images in the framework of poetry tattoos might seem like forcing a comparison. However, when considering these indelible impressions as well as a kind of permanence through the use of impermanent artistic media, they remain another kind of tattoo pictured on the artist.
To blog is to post to a community, so I thought for this penultimate entry as guest blogger I’d start there, with the value of sharing our work and thoughts about writing with others. As authors we obviously presume an audience, even if it’s in our heads. Community, though, is quite different. It involves give and take support among other writers that exists far beyond the mere workshop. I’m sure this sounds obvious to the point of cliché in the age of so many MFA programs made to accommodate and acculturate developing writers to community. Having written very much in isolation and at times oblivion, without an MFA to my credit, I’ve found that for me it’s been almost as new and novel as blogging.
Before teaching in my current MFA program, where I have the privilege of working among accomplished and inspiring colleagues as well as increasingly brilliant student writers and translators, I existed in a kind of void. I was teaching a full load (5/4) at a community college, during the first two years of which I was also finishing a dissertation for a PhD in English. Of course I had little time to write creatively, though I still managed to eke out poems in very small slivers of free time (In this I heeded the advice of my predecessor at Queens College, Marie Ponsot, who in addition to the teaching and publishing demands at a public university raised several children. When students would tell her they didn’t have time to write, she’d reply, “Do you have 15 minutes??!!!”).
More than lacking in time, I lacked a creative outlet beyond submitting to journals and first book contests. Writing of course becomes lonely business regardless of the circumstances, but I almost forgot, at least at times, that my work could potentially matter to anyone. One day when standing in the hallway and complaining to my friend Joe Bisz, a fiction writer colleague, he drew a small circle on the wall. “Roger,” he told me, “more than a next publication, even a next poem at this point, you need a small circle that supports you…where you feel a part of.”
This looked a lot different than an MFA or even a writers’ group. First and foremost I needed a community. We ended up sharing a lot of our work with each other, and, perhaps more importantly, our lives (like what we were reading, teaching, writing to or for, etc.). At one point we decided to stage a late night/invitation only gathering in one of our offices, which we decorated like an Indian restaurant on 6th street in Manhattan. We decided to call it “The Intellectual Spectacle” and also turn it into a chocolate tasting and multi-media presentation of post-colonial themes behind Joe’s writng. Only colleagues we felt would understand and appreciate our work, along with a few selected students, were invited. I ended up writing a very different kind of poetry because the only stakes were to showcase our work to those who would “get” our sensibilities. After this transformative reading among community, where I let others experience my work, I started writing what has become a lot closer to my authentic voice.
I’m hardly proposing an end to MFA programs (which at this point would put our best poets out of a job), nor denying the work they do to foster supportive communities (I’m told students in my MFA program at Queens maintain writing groups and hang out years after graduation). More and more it strikes me that MFA programs are doing a fantastic job of nurturing a supportive network as opposed to merely professionalizing young writers. However, I’ve become curious about additional communities of support beyond the creative writing degree. As an Iranian-American writer, in this respect it’s been helpful to experience the old country, Iran, by turning further away from the “product” of an MFA or a work shopped poem and more to a kind of Persian model. On Fridays in Shiraz, the city of the great Persian poets Hafez and Sa’edi, the poets gather in the garden. Rather than critiquing strong and weak language or where the poem interprets too much, they recite, often from memory, some masterful work they all know as well as their own poetry. It’s an idyllic and very romantic setting, insofar as their children and grandchildren play together under citrus trees as water flows around them. More than the mere letter, they come to share in a rich, 2 thousand+ year history of a poetic spirit through their work and their lives.
While I’m hard pressed to find personal gardens so readily available in the tri-state area, it occurs to me that I’ve heard several writer friends get the gist of such benefits from organizations founded upon racial and ethnic identification offering communal support. With so little space left here, I can offer at best a very brief introduction along with a link to a few of them (see also the small section in the current issue of Poets & Writers “Alternate Outposts of a Creative Writing Education”):
1.Cave Canem —Unless you’ve been living in Emily Dickinson’s level of isolation (physically as well as racially out of touch from most of the nation—okay, scholars have revealed she forged connections too, but 1700+ poems and not one really on race relations at a rather significant moment in US history), you already know and remain in awe of this one. As written on their website, “Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem in 1996 with the intuition that African American poets would benefit from having a place of their own in the literary landscape.” A literary landscape, a setting upon which to reflect and write, to become a part of, finding oneself belonging there. They feature contests, residencies, retreats, conversations, and so much more. The writers who have had significant interaction with the organization have won seemingly every conceivable writing award, but that’s not the point as much as the consequence of the incredible work organizers and participants have brought to community.
2. Kundiman—Co-founders Joseph Legaspsi and Sarah Gambito (interesting that like Cave Canem, this too was founded in community, meaning not just one go it alone writer) started Kundiman (modeled upon Cave Canem) to give Asian American writers greater access to each other. According to Legaspi, “building community as well as fostering the poetic voices of Asian American poetry is at the heart of Kundiman’s mission. We do this by gathering Asian American poets together and providing them a safe, creative space. Since 2004, Kundiman has sponsored an annual national retreat for Asian American poets. For five summer days, fellows—those who are accepted and attend the Kundiman Retreat—are in residence, immersing themselves in poetry through workshops with renowned Asian American poets, salon readings, talks and, most importantly, writing. It is also important to be with people of the same background. There is an innate sensitivity and immediate understanding of shared histories and cultures. Most fellows frequently express how they don’t have to ‘explain themselves’ while at the retreat. Many of them come from places and backgrounds where they feel isolated as Asian Americans and/or as poets, so the retreat as a gathering ground becomes even more vital and crucial.”
Association of Iranian American Writers (AIAW) was founded in 2008 by poet and editor, Persis Karim, who had had the experience of bringing together writers for two first of their kind anthologies of Iranian American writing. With east coast co-director, Manjijeh Nasrabadi (again an important shared leadership), AIAW, according to Karim, “aims to foster a community of ethnic American writers who have several goals: creating a forum for issues, concerns, and experiences of writers of Iranian heritage; offering support, advice, and organizing readings, workshops, and gatherings; and finally, to create a platform to highlight the work of Iranian American writers by sponsoring a website that features the work of these writers. AIAW is also engaged with organizing regular face-to-face meetings to give each other feedback about writing and to offer suggestions about publishing. The organization now has over 55 members on the West Coast, East Coast and places between. AIAW is concerned with writers who tackle cultural, political and writerly issues that have relevance to English-oriented writers. We also support and host programs to bring awareness about the condition of writers and censorship in Iran.”
I include this third organization because I’ve personally benefited from it. A member from its inception, I’ve had a chance to fellowship with writers from shared hybrid backgrounds who really understand what it means to grow up and write as “Iranian American.” I found new work in various genres I admire here, and I’ve also come to discover, almost by accident, that my fellow members were in fact an important first audience of my work, an integral circle within which I can both give and receive in the creative process.
My week of blogging concludes with a brief recommended bibliography of Iranian-American writing. Of course there is much more than this, and I’m sure to regret missing some books as soon as I post. (Fellow Iranian-American writers, please don’t hate me if I leave you out; this is not easy, and keep in mind I’m basically a house husband when I’m not writing, with 2 young boys intent on destroying the house unless supervised). By all means add on in the comments section with other recommendations. Like the content of my brief updates, these selected texts vary in their investment in Iranian and/or American culture, as well as the degree to which they inhabit the formative hyphen between “Iranian” and “American.” Anyway, here it goes:
Sons and Other Flammable Objects, by Porochista Khakpour.
This was a favorite of both my graduate and undergraduate students in sections of Middle Eastern-American literature I taught last semester in the Queens College English department. It was a New York Times’ Editor’s Choice Award and has won almost too many awards to list here. There are better reviews than I can post, but I mention as a key take away Khakpour’s ability to seamlessly underpin a contemporary post-911 story of an Iranian-American family with Oedipal drama from classical Persian antiquity. It’s also just great storytelling, and the Iranian connection is never forced, meaning it’s integral to the narrative.
Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer
This novel, based mostly in Iran but written in English, has also been reviewed so widely and so favorably that it’s especially reductive to offer further acclaim here.The story localizes the harsh political effects of the Islamic Republic of Iran soon after the Islamic revolution by focusing on a Persian Jew imprisoned because of his class and religion. It came as no surprise when I read that the author cited Ha Jin’s Waiting, as an important influence. Though in its own way, Sofer’s novel reads with such great passion and clarity.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated into English by Shole Wolpe.
There are a lot of great translations of Persian poetry out there, and this is one of them. I cite this particular book, winner of the Lois Roth Persian Translation Award, because it better translates the work of the first real modern feminist poet as poetrythan some other more academic attempts. Of this I remain rather opinionated, having read far too many scholars attempting to give life to ancient and modern Persian verse though ultimately settling too much for meaning without sufficient attention to style. Wolpe uses her skills as a poet to bring both together here.
When Skateboards Will Be Free, by Said Sayrafiezadeh
Like translations of Persian poetry, there are a plethora of memoirs by Iranian- Americans. I post this one for two reasons: 1). As ethnic genre, the Iranian-American memoir is almost monopolized by females, and so having a male perspective is worth noting. 2). This one is especially exceptional. Focused on providing a lucid perspective of his childhood in a household defined by communist sensibility, Sayrafiezadeh’s book offers great humor as well as insights into the dynamics of family. The author has recently won a Whiting Award, had a story appear in The New Yorker, etc. If that weren’t enough reason to envy him, all of my female students have crushes on him. (Bastard).
A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans, Edited by Persis Karim and Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami.
While other Iranian-American anthologies have followed (and even more are on there way), I cite this one because with it these two editors really defined—even founded—what has come to be called “Iranian-American” writing. (Persis Karim is also the founder of The Association of Iranian American Writers, about which I blogged yesterday). The range of genres and voices provides a great perspective on what it can mean to live as an Iranian-American (even the brief forward offers great insight into such a hybrid space).
The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, by Hooman Majd
Majd thinks, and writes, like a true intellectual, looking deeper into surface level analysis on the political state of affairs in Iran. He especially excels at making insightful connections of culture, people, and specific events within the Islamic Republic of Iran, such as the last contested presidential election. I daresay if you are looking for one recently published book to understand the current situation of Iran, this is it.
The Drama of Ezzat Goushegir
Though she writes in several genres, I especially want to plug the plays and monologues of this Chicago- based author. We read together on a panel at last year’s AWP panel, and she performed a piece about an older Iranian woman struggling with her life as she worked behind a cosmetics counter. This 15 minute monologue had impeccably timed humor and a very authentic voice that consistently emerges in Goushegir’s other work as well.
A quick entry today, yet one keeping with the Persian connection and the aforementioned quote by one of the old masters summarizing the classical verse of Iran: “The poetry is in the rhyme.” So a list of some memorable, and at times favorite, rhymes. There are some from poetry, but I’ve tried to explore further territory. I’m also going to qualify these as I don’t offer them as the all time best. Some I merely adore for how they work in context of the greater work, theme, etc. Again, I’m selfishly setting something in motion in hopes of reading a score of favorites from others:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires. Read the rest of this entry »
PBS Frontline: Tehran Bureau:
by Aria Fani
[ spotlight ] Roger Sedarat’s poems reflect his mixed identities as an Iranian American. Using the formal characteristics of the ghazal, he masterfully recreates the qualities of classical Persian verse in the English language. He could be considered a successor to poets such as Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), a Kashmiri American who authored several collections of ghazals in English. Sedarat brings the musicality of the ghazal into the lighthearted atmosphere of his English verse. He has an enviable command of language and creates narratives that are imaginative and sincere.
Read full review
by Tara Mokhtari
“Experimenting with traditional poetic form is not a new concept. John Keats wrote his poem ‘On the Sonnet’ warning of the dangers of constraining the ‘muse’ to strict form. Imagist poets like Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell adapted the haiku form to English-language verse. Where there are rules, there are rebels.
Read full review
After finishing a review of Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati’s new translation of the modern Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s long poem Water’s Footfall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian culture’s long and inventive accommodation of other traditions. Art in the United States from its inception has appropriated traditions so well that at times it seems Americans, myself included, think that they invented the kind of radical intertextuality that so defines our contemporary aesthetic.
I’ll not go deep into Sepehri’s work or the translation of it, but the gist of what I continued to find in revisiting this poem in such a well-done translation is how subtly and smartly Persian modernism absorbed European and far Eastern influences, even while retaining its cultural identity. While much less audacious (and egregious) than Pound’s or Eliot’s cutting and pasting foreign traditions into their work, Sepehri fuses his own experience of an Iranian tradition with a wide and interesting range of outside sources.
Ironically, what we’ve come to call “intertextuality” in the parlance of reductive academic post-structuralism, arises from a quotation in response to another text. While Mikhail Bakhtin receives credit for the literary concept, Julia Kristeva’s coinage of the term in her summary of Bakhtin’s writing on dialogism typically gets used to describe it: “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Taking that mosaic as a kind of Persian carpet, Sepehri’s absorption of other influences links to an Islamic as well as a more specifically Sufi tradition to create something new, a kind of Persian romanticism for the modern era.
Such intertextuality most attracts me to the experience of Iran as a hybrid (Iranian-American) poet and critic in the 21st century. Poetry offers one of many mosaics that reveals how the Persian culture has retained its identity—including its language—despite the conquest and spread of multiple invaders and influences, retaining its pre-Islamic figurative and literal history following the Arab conquest and spread of Islam, for example, through the writing of Ferdowsi’s famous epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings).
When my wife’s cousins picked us up from the airport in Tehran, Radiohead played in the car as we drove passed mosques listening to snippets of calls to prayer on loudspeakers. As far as America goes, which politically positions itself antithetically to the Islamic Republic, friends and relatives in Iran watch the same reality t.v. shows as my wife in the U.S. The cultural interchange of course cuts both ways, (or rather a zillion ways, considering how multimedia has amplified the intertexual crossings among most cultures of the world). I’m told that Ryan Seacrest is soon to host a reality show featuring rich Iranians in Los Angeles.
As much as poetry defines the very character of Iran, a country that names its streets after poets and where even the illiterate can recite Hafez from memory, a multitude of pop culture signifiers reflects and expands upon Sepehri’s revolutionary moves. Music, of course, is a relatively easy to grasp study of cultural interchange and transformation. Iran hosts underground heavy metal bands, which have been covered in the recent movie, No One Knows about Persian Cats and by bands like Angband.
Not only is there a Persian genre of rap/hip hop, but several subgenres. Like Sepehri’s poetry, the rather popular Hich-kas posits a kind of transgression of authority (in the streets as opposed to in nature, like the poet), even as it juxtaposes a certain youthful rebellion with a reverence for God.
Rather than writing with a linear plan, linking and hyperlinking to such intertexual moves in cyberspace allows one to follow trends, outlining and reposting such videos while being led to the many next big things. As I try to stay with music, in answering an email from an Iranian filmmaker friend I’m suddenly watching basketball. Like jazz in the modern and postmodern era, which originated in America and has gone on to morph into many interesting and spectacular kinds of new music while retaining the semblance of key elements like syncopation, phrasing, etc. (which in themselves vary by culture) basketball now more than ever has seriously started to proliferate throughout the world (with a recently retired superstar in Yao opening up the sport to China and a Russian billionaire owning a US team hosting games in his home country).
As I keep writing this blog, two close friends, German-American and Iranian-American filmmakers Till Shrauder and Sarah Nodjoumi have also recently emailed, informing me that they are in the process of finishing a documentary about an African-American basketball player relocating to Shiraz, Iran, to join the country’s “Superleague.” The same rules of the game apply in Iran as in the U.S., and also as in the U.S., Iran features international players. The audience, of course, has changed, with women forbidden from attending the games.
More on this another time, or another blog, but I’ll out myself as an academic who finds amazing poetry in basketball (one thinks of Ed Hirsch’s famous basketball poem, and, going closer to the source, to any number of actual teams and players throughout the history of the game). Though I’ve yet to see a game played live in Iran, I have seen sufficient footage of this forthcoming documentary to find inspiration in the same sport but in a different culture. Reading basketball as a text as I return to the definition of intertextuality as “a mosaic of quotations…the absorption and transformation” of disparate influences, I discover I’m moving, with the postmodern world, toward witnessing a new formation, a “trans-cultural” “trans-formation” of a poetry that refuses to stay in one tradition.
by Roger Sedarat
From Roger Sedarat’s collection of poetry Ghazal Games (2011, Ohio University Press).
Hafez, the baker, could see what I mean;
If she were a spice, she’d be cinnamon.
It’s both terrifying and exciting,
The idea that she’d see other men.
Oh God, I’d sell my soul to watch her walk;
Hear my prayer, and grant me this sin. Amen.
I heard the great poets of Shiraz sing
Through olive vein-lines of her Persian skin.
I know; this ghazal objectifies her,
Ignoring feminist criticism.
Reversing the Cinderella story,
She turns all princes into cindermen.
“Your next patient, doctor. It’s Roger S.”
“The one love sick for his wife? Send him in.”
Ghazal Games overflows with intelligent charm: its well-formed couplets, fueled by iconoclasm, are blessed with clarity, goodheartedness, pizzazz, and prankishness. Let’s crown Roger Sedarat the king of Carnival; long may he reign.
–Wayne Koestenbaum — author of Best–Selling Jewish Porn Films