PANHANDLER: Roger Sedarat – Interview

October 19th, 2014

Maria Burns: I wanted to ask about, or hear you talk about how Ghazal Games differs from Dear Regime, specifically the writing process and the reception.

Roger Sedarat: I have to say the first book took me like ten years—taking poems in and out and experimenting with all different styles. In Dear Regime a lot of times when I’m going East and looking at Iran, I do Western forms, or I merge east with west. Dear Regime is a medley of forms. You get Haiku, you get mock interviews, like the mock interview with Haji. It’s much more of a formal experimentation, whereas with Ghazal Games I stick with the specific Persian form of the ghazal. However, within that limited form, I do a lot of experimentation. I just limit it to the ghazal. That’s the biggest difference. In terms of process, writing in this Persian form, you think antithetically to what we’re trained to do as western writers because even if we’re not trained with the sonnet, we’re trained through that spirit of the sonnet where things are linear and things are connected and a really great one thematically coheres at the end in the contained couplet (of the Shakespearean), whereas in the ghazal, a really great writer of the Persian form doesn’t do that. Every couplet is its own poem. You think differently and take that leap from one place to another, and the only thing that unifies it is the repetition of rhyme and phrasing.

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Nader Naderpour | Panhandler Magazine

October 19th, 2014

Published in Panhandler Issue 4

Nader Naderpour (June 6, 1929 – February 18, 2000) Born in Tehran and receiving his early education in Europe, Nader Naderpour returned to Iran to publish his first collection of poetry in the 1940s. In the later 1960’s, he helped found “The Association of Writers of Iran” and directed the literature department of the Iranian National Radio and Television Department. He fled the Iranian Revolution in 1980, living in France until the late 1980’s, when he moved to the United States. Regarded as one of the leaders of the movement of “New Poetry” in Iran, he published nine collections of poems. Naderpour was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded the Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant in 1993.

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Sonnet Ghazal for Janette

October 19th, 2014

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 Game #1

October 19th, 2014

Think of the greatest love you’ve ever had ( ).

Write his/her name in the space provided_____.

As long as you reiterate this name,

The semblance of this ghazal is complete:_____!

Don’t doubt, no matter what terror may come,

That God will fill your emptiness with Dear_____.

For me, Janette. For Dante, Beatrice.

For Rumi, Shams-y-Tabriz. And for you?_____.

Space makes the greatest rhyme. Sufis know this,

In spite of their lust for someone just like_____.

Now burn your useless books! You’ll learn much more

Inside schoolhouses of desire taught by_____.

Is it so silly, making readers work?

Doesn’t most poetry ask you to find_____?

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here

To join (state your full name) and (state his/hers)_____…”

Computer code, universal language,

Breaks down when translating the essence of_____.

Would you obsess over your petty shame?

Instead, substitute it with a kiss from_____.

All maps lead you to bliss. Your G.P.S.

Just estimates the time and distance to_____.

Before the loggers come for the last tree,

Write this last line with a sharp knife: I ? _____.

At this point, do you think you really chose_____?

Before you were born, you were chosen by_____!

FRONTLINE: These Basijis in Me

October 19th, 2014

‘These Basijis in Me': Roger Sedarat’s ‘Ghazal Games’
by ARIA FANI

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.

Am I reared rude enough in the U.S.

To violate the sacred ghazal form?

For Persian speakers, the ghazal form evokes both love and mysticism, both Hafez’s highly cultivated phraseology and Saadi’s sublime imagery. To more traditional readers of poetry, Sedarat’s new collection, Ghazal Games, may constitute a violation of cultural reverence. Sedarat’s transgression is not limited to the nonchalant tone of his ghazals, but is found as well in the nature of his themes. Sedarat uses his verse to voice his unwavering opposition to the Iranian government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Traditionally, poets and other writers in Iran whose literary expression mirrors their political views have been overlooked, disdained, and at times banned from reading and publishing.

Made-up American superheroes

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Cafe Nadery NYC – Oct 25, 7pm

October 19th, 2014

Get Tickets

Mehregan is a new Iranian-American literary and culinary arts festival celebrating the ancient Iranian holiday marking the coming of Fall. This first annual New York City-based festival will take place Saturday, October 25, 2014 at Café Nadery in Greenwich Village.
Mehregan honors the change of seasons with a day of events by prominent Iranian-American writers, foodies, and musicians. Authors featured include Tara Bahrampour (Washington Post journalist and author of the memoir To See and See Again), Roger Sedarat (poet and author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic), Amir Parsa (author of Divan and Open Epic) and Sara Goudarzi (poetry featured in Taos Journal of International Poetry, Drunken Boat, and The Adirondack Review). Journalist and food writer Leila Darabi (Tehran Bureau, everydaytrash.com) will read and invite participants to be interviewed about their experiences with Iranian cooking.
Mehregan will also feature videos of shows from the golden age of Iranian TV, a Pomegranate Peel-Off challenging participants to take apart the convoluted fruit for prizes, and a special performance of Iranian pop/funk hits from the 60s and 70s by members of the Farsi-funk music group, Mitra Sumara.
$15 tickets provide all day access to events with a minimum purchase of $20. No seating guaranteed. $40 tickets include all day access to events, a prix-fixe dinner served at 7pm and seating for the band’s performance.

Burning Poems/Source Text of Translation

December 3rd, 2011

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…

Tattoos and the (interdisciplinary) Art of Persian Poetry

August 27th, 2011
DerrickTattoos, unlike smoking, remain pretty cool. They’re also here to stay (and in keeping with the loose Persian connections, please allow the pun). I thought of introducing a brief collage of poetry tattooed on strangers and friends. Of course I suspected something like this had been done before, but I had no idea of the quality nor the extent of such projects.

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.JasonStefanie 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.

TarainkBy 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 seriesNeshat1She 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.Neshat2

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.  Neshat3

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.

Identifying Beyond the MFA: the Value of Writing Communities

August 27th, 2011

Writing communityTo 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??!!!”).  Ponsot

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. GardenRather 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.

Towards an Iranian-American Reading List

August 27th, 2011

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:

SonsSons 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_shirazSeptembers 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 Skateboards
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).

World betweenA 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).

DemocracyThe 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 Ezzat
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.