David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between The Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 61 literary publishers. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature, all in one place. What’s more? For a limited time, listeners of Between The Covers get 10% off all books on All Lit Up with promo code betweenthecovers. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Sarah Krasnostein’s The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle, which James Gleick calls, “Deeply beautiful, and never simple Through six profiles of a death doula, of a geologist who believes the world is six thousand years old, of a lecturer in neurobiology who spends his weekends ghost hunting, of the fiancee of a disappeared pilot and UFO enthusiast, of a woman incarcerated for killing her husband after suffering years of domestic violence, and of Mennonite families in New York. Krasnostein takes readers on an unforgettable tour of the human condition that explores our universal need for belief to help us make sense of life, death, and everything in between.” Says Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, “If reading a book can make you more human, The Believer does just that.” The Believer is out now from Tin House. In the ongoing collective brainstorm that I’ve been doing with the supporters of Between The Covers, a brainstorm of who would be our utmost dream guests to invite, or to invite back on the show, Solmaz Sharif is a name that comes up more often than most. I was telling her, after we finished recording today’s conversation, how different it felt talking to her this time than it did in 2016, even as I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Was it that we had changed and grown? Was it even possible to assess that, given how much has changed in the world, whether the pandemic for the last two years, the Trump effect on political discourse for the past five, the very tangible feeling now of our human deranged climate—not intellectually but in our bodies each year—and the world shutting down, then returning from all of this without a new plan, now reopening with a hope to return to a status quo that was already untenable before any of this became manifest? Certainly, we’ve both been changed by this too, but regardless of reasons or causes, there is a big change between Solmaz’s first book, Look and her second, Customs, even as they are both very recognizably work by the same poet. In preparing for this conversation, I was thinking about the recent episode with Rabih Alameddine and his essay in Harpers called Comforting Myths. One of the things it looked at in which Rabih and I talked about was how the US will take immigrants or diasporic writers within the US, and put them forth as the “cute other,” the other that elevates America’s own self-regard and its own narrative as a diverse melting pot. But that if we were to read the true other, the one not being put forth, the one not being translated, the one speaking to and against the cultural production of empire, that is the last thing the US would really want and thus, the cute other, almost always an American citizen or someone with deep ties to American academic institutions, whether their family origins are from Lebanon or Mexico or Nigeria, this cute other stands in to represent the true other. This makes me think of something Ursula K. Le Guin said in one of our conversations, which is that dictators are always afraid of poets. But what would it take for an American poet to create work that couldn’t be easily metabolized, that actually could strike fear from within, and what would a reader experience in reading such a work, one that might have to not be “good poetry,” to not be on good behavior, to not be these things in order to truly unsettle us? I think these are some of the animating questions and desires in Solmaz’s latest book, a book that unsettled me for sure. In this conversation, I wanted to stay with the gestures and the moves she makes to try to do so, to try to unsettle us, to linger there, sometimes uncomfortably in questions we aren’t supposed to ask, as a way to both evoke and explore the poetics of her latest book, and the relationship between art and politics, words and actions. If you find value in what you hear today, consider supporting this quixotic endeavor, consider becoming a supporter of Between The Covers. Every supporter joins the collective brainstorm that shapes the future writers that are invited onto the show, every supporter gets resource rich emails with each episode, then there are just a ton of other possible benefits from bonus readings and craft talks from everyone, from Kaveh Akbar to Rabih Alameddine to Natalie Diaz to becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public. All of this and much, much more can be found at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Solmaz Sharif.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Poet Solmaz Sharif, born in Istanbul to Iranian parents. Sharif received her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley where she studied within and taught for June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. She has an MFA in poetry from NYU, was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, was managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Arizona State University where she is inaugurating a Poetry for the People program there. Her debut poetry collection Look was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and the winner of the 2017 American Book Award for poetry and it was singled out everywhere from The New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the best books of that year. Yusef Komunyakaa says of Look, “By unearthing, decoding, and reconstructing half-hidden symbols of power built into nomenclature as well as everyday expression, the poet serves truth―sometimes delicately, other times brutally. . . . Each phrase pulls the reader into a system of being, personal and historical, and Look, line by line, extends toward prophecy and harmony.” The publication of Look was also the reason for Solmaz’s first appearance on Between The Covers, one of the most beloved conversations to date. Sharif’s work has been in Harper’s, Poetry Magazine, The New York Times, and the Paris Review. It has been recognized by the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and has garnered her fellowships from the NEA and the Lannan Foundation. Sharif’s love of poetry long precedes her studies or the prizes and accolades. Her first published poem included in the anthology A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans was written at the age of 13. Since her debut, Solmaz Sharif has also been translating the poetry of the iconic Iranian Poet Forough Farrokhzad. She’s here today for one of the most anticipated books of 2022, her second collection of poetry, just out from Graywolf Press called Customs. Publishers Weekly in its starred reviews says, “Sharif movingly excavates in her powerful second collection an internal landscape haunted by psychic dissonance and fractured identity. As the title suggests, these works are preoccupied with the in between. Sharif’s commanding voice reverberates throughout this complex and confident collection.” Alina Stefanescu for BOMB Magazine adds, “While reading Customs, I thought of Edward Said, who, in Parallels and Paradoxes, said that music composed by those in exile reflects not just estrangement from a social world but also from the inherited ‘tonal world,’ the ‘accepted world,’ the ‘world of habit and custom,’ the solid, known world. Sharif’s recent poems lean into what Said calls an ‘absence of tonality … a kind of homelessness, a kind of permanent exile because you’re not going to come back.’ In Customs, the rupture of displacement is replicated in syntax, in the cascade of broken brackets which dilate the text, in the absence of an endpoint or final location. Places are not named often, perhaps because they do not exist. Return is impossible, and the place of origin exists only in the mind. For those in exile, home is nowhere now. There is no closure, no endpoint, no reprieve.” Welcome back to Between The Covers, Solmaz Sharif.
Solmaz Sharif: Thanks so much, David. I’m just so thrilled and honored to be here with you today.
DN: Me too. [laughter] I wanted to start with your relationship to the first person I, to the voice of the new book. Look was more conceptual in structure and more polyvocal than Customs, yet you’ve talked about how, when you were writing Look, you didn’t want the concept of Look to become a gimmick. That the poems, like the long poem about your uncle in Look that brought an I into the book, were part of preventing that. Yet you’ve also talked about how the few poems with an I in Look were often reflexively presumed to be autobiographical and were always looked through the lens of personal narrative, and personal biography. Customs feels like it’s removed a conceptual frame and given us less of a polyvocal chorus and more of a unified voice. I’m wondering how this I in Customs sits in relation to self for you, and I’m also curious about the motivations for the move, not just in relationship to Look but also what does this move afford you, what power does it allow you to wield as a language maker, and what were the attractions of changing the voice for your second book?
SS: I guess I’ll start with the attractions and this idea of the power that it enables me to wield. It’s not exactly how I thought about it. I think I thought about it more as the powers that I am able to diagnose in each mode and how those necessarily shift, so you’re absolutely right that Look is more polyvocal but its nexus of power is also readily identifiable. It’s the Department of Defense, it’s the Department of Defense’s dictionary that I’m dealing with. I’m dealing with state-sponsored violence, particularly in the hands of the military, though that too is porous and plays out in a number of actors and agents. In Customs, I was thinking more about the psychic and interior pressures of power upon a single, and seemingly readily identifiable I or self. The self for me in Customs is personal, and is partly autobiographical. I wouldn’t trust any auto biography that I write. If I were a reader, I wouldn’t trust it. I think I’m a little, what do you call it? I don’t know what this gesture is, like these are like raccoon hands or something, [laughter] like I take freely and readily from other stories, and snippets of story that feel somehow truer to me around what I’m trying to communicate and would probably not pass like a New Yorker profile, like fact checkers account of my life. The self in Customs feels more like a self that is behind the self or a self that is harder to locate that exists and could have perhaps only existed fully in its mother tongue, and will never exist in its mother tongue. I do, yes, mean something about my own Farsi fluency here but I guess that’s the material wrapping of something that I’m investigating, which to me feels more maybe, I bristle at using the word spiritual because I don’t feel right in using it yet, but feels a little bit more beyond the language that I have access to. I was influenced by and I was thinking about, and one of the poems here look that, for example, the I that’s used in Robert Hayden’s American Journal, which is this persona of an alien that lands in this American land and is trying to report back to the councilors about the aliens that are being beheld here. More ironically, about Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, again, that alien self that is bewildered, displaced, and relatively scornful of the land that it finds itself in, in my case, and it’s perhaps imagining a future or a past to which it is reporting all these findings too. That’s certainly a large part of, I would say, especially the first part, then the book evolves from there into shapes that are perhaps more difficult for me to name or locate but I’m happy to do so.
DN: In your BOMB interview with Alina, which I’ll definitely point everybody to because it’s wonderful, you say, “For me, the why of poetry has become the reason revolution must happen to begin with. It’s no longer the conditions that make revolution inevitable, but what’s waiting for us on the other side of it. That required me to be more vulnerable—removing the conceptual frame was an act of that allowed vulnerability,” and in your acknowledgments, you end with a thank you to fear. You say, “Thank you fear, that’s enough now.” I wondered if these two were related, the removal of this third thing as a frame—the dictionary from the Department of Defense—the vulnerability perhaps of a first person address, and the fear possibly of that speaking.
SS: I think probably a lot of what I’m about to describe is absolutely not unusual and it’s a anxiety of first book publishing, and all that stuff, anyway, which is there’s this a strong sense I felt of having to prove myself and prove my intelligence, intention, consideration, learnedness, and all those things, and having a double reaction to the book, or to Look in particular, which was either that without this conceptual frame, there were no poems worth while in the book or the conceptual frame itself was a gimmick and was too easy. I think Look itself is an answer to that first challenge, then with Customs, as I began, I had a more conceptual frame. I thought I was going to do another documentary text. I was looking at the state of deportation cases. I was looking at the process one undergoes to become a naturalized citizen here. I was looking at what these documents might reveal around the values of this nation and what is asked of immigrant bodies, and composure in order to reify those values. But I got very frustrated working with that mode again because I think for me, as interested as I am in concept, I think ultimately, its charge is like, “Here’s an idea that was had. Here is a mode of framing and reading that was offered. Here is a mode that can be adopted by anyone at this point. It is not really my job to read every document to you in this manner anymore.” If I have faith in the concept and the concept can exist beyond the writer, it exists beyond the artist at that point. I think there would be a tremendous amount of ego actually involved in trying to reread every document with my particular moral and ethical goggles on. At some point, I have to just trust that the poems exist as I believe them to exist, which is like a mode of reading that anyone can take up and practice. I think too partly, being in the pandemic, being in this isolation of the pandemic, and being in the noise of the Trump regime, which as far as I’m concerned is really—this might be unfair—but it does feel marginally different from the regimes that preceded it and the ones we’re in now but it certainly was louder in a lot of ways. When things get loud around me about certain things, I don’t quite find the need to diagnose it in my poetry anymore, so I turned instead toward the more difficult thing, which was the conversation that I’ve pretty much denied myself thus far because my poetry has been so top down, has been so materially minded, and has had such an agenda. It’s not that I’m a genderless or I’m apolitical by any means anymore, it’s just that my notions of what politically committed poetry in my hands in 2021, 2022 looks like feels very different to me than it did in 2010, for example.
DN: Your comment about the marginal difference, I remember when you were first on the show and we were talking about Obama at the time, in a similar way, I’m thinking of, for instance, yesterday Biden’s announcement that he’s taking half of the frozen assets of Afghanistan and giving them to 200 Americans who are family members of 9/11 when over half of the people are in acute hunger, and 9 million are already experiencing famine, that it’s going to 200 people. That doesn’t seem like that’s a divergence from the norm either, though it seems loud, it seems like it happened in a way, like in broad daylight in a way that maybe in the past and maybe pre-Trump, it would have been massaged differently or happened in the night.
SS: I wish I could pull up actual news stories about it and look more closely at the language because I wonder if it feels more loud than before or than under Obama, or if it is just as simple as there is a greater, and always present, maybe liberal trust in these democrat moments, at least, in the late 20th Century, 21st Century, that almost undoes the basic reading that exists or something. It’s like we quiet it down or something in the course of our reading, then at certain points, it becomes really difficult for some of us to quiet it down or to see it otherwise. I’m not too sure about this but for me, I think it was a funny thing that Look comes out in the Trump era when really it was written in the Obama era. It feels to me deeply like the Obama, Biden era book actually in response around what is and what is not looked at, and why.
DN: I loved your conversation, which happened a long time ago now with Eileen Myles about Look and about your shared love of film, and the visual, and how Eileen Miles saw the two Os in Look as spectacles or as binoculars. You’ve mentioned before that you could have imagined being a filmmaker if you were better at collaborating with others, and given your love of image, the way you see poetry as observing and attending to what is observed, you’ve even contemplated just having every book you write be another book called Look. [laughter] Thinking of looking, you’ve said that the gaze of the second book is one gaze, one person looking from their subject position, looking from the margins toward the metropole. In your Paris Review conversation, also from years back now, you say, “I’m thinking of Edward Said’s idea of the ‘exilic’ intellectual pursuit. It’s this artistic presence continually outside, questioning and speaking back to whatever supposed ‘here’ or ‘we’ or ‘now’ we’ve created. A nomadic presence, or a mind that is consistently on the run, and preventing these political moments from calcifying,” and later you say, again, talking about the exilic intellectual, “It is to stand outside of and look into, and constantly question and interrogate the collectives that exist.” Thinking of this and thinking of a person looking from the margins to the metropole makes me think of something else that Edward Said himself said in an interview in a discussion about home belonging in exile that he gave for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz where he declared presumably, at least, half tongue-in-cheek but I don’t think entirely so, “I am the last Jewish intellectual — the only true follower of Adorno,” which makes me think that what he is saying is that there is some vantage point, some way toward diagnosis of the center that can only be made from the margins and that beyond the influence that Adorno had on Said’s thought, that perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that there were so many vital philosophical thinkers that were Jewish in the early to mid 20th Century, whether the ones from North Africa, like Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Edmond Jabès or Benjamin, Adorno, and Arendt in Europe because they were the unassimilable marginal figure, or as Emil Cioran called them, failure on the move. But here, Said, in speaking to an Israeli readership, was himself speaking from a similar position as the displaced and thrown out, and perhaps is claiming the diagnostic powers of the margin and speaking too in diagnosing the metropole. I guess this is my long way of asking you to think or talk with us more about the exilic gaze toward the center that I think is the gaze of Customs more so than Look.
SS: That was beautiful. As you were talking, I realized that I have this line in Customs in the last poem that I almost say the inverse but now, maybe I can take some time to try to articulate how I think it’s actually saying the same thing, which is that I say that a poet as a fixed position, most cannot stand to be in for long. I think it has to do with a commitment to its unfixedness in fact, and its absolute isolation, constant movement, and a willingness—maybe some of us are thrust into it and so are forced to develop this willingness, and maybe some of us can just adopt it but—to accept only the briefest awnings as shelters that we maybe step into, step beneath, exchange a few words, then keep moving and are in fact escorted back out of the republic so to speak, to keep moving and ask our questions elsewhere. I think that there is something about the exilic stance that says to whomever is being addressed, that whatever it is that they are considering is not enough, that they’ve left out entire worlds, that they have left out the awareness, that they have left out entire worlds in fact, and it would be impossible to name the contents of the entire world, but it is important that somebody keep reminding us of what is being excluded, what is not being seen, and what is beyond the walls of the kingdom, so to speak, and who is not found in the room. Not as a way of really diversifying the room or making it more hospitable or open and accepting of its strangers and of its guests, but hopefully, I guess the asymptote I would approach, which is the impossible one and probably ultimately undesirable, is the absolute obliteration of the realm, of shelter itself, and whatever it is that tries to have us hold on and guard against change, against upheaval, against strangers, against being humbled.
DN: Let me extend this question with a question from Claire Schwartz, the poet and poetry editor. I’m reading on her behalf to you.
SS: Hi, Claire.
DN: [laughter] Who’s also joining you as a Graywolf poet soon.
SS: Yes, I can’t wait for August.
DN: “I’m lucky to have spent the past months with Customs, to feel unsettled by the violence that the empire makes customary and in that unsettled state, to become differently attuned to the little musics of otherwise. I’ve been wondering about a perceived movement between your texts. Look is so frontally concerned with vision, and in particular, with the camera as a technology of empire. While the opening section of Customs is too, comprised of many poems that name an engagement with the meanings of seeing, this engagement feels to me of a different quality though perhaps the way the passage of time can change the quality of light in a single room. I heard you in conversation with Douglas Kearney, say that documentary is no longer as apt a term as it once was to describe your poetics, and where the camera makes a particular claim to truth of its document, it strikes me that this movement might also register a shift in how you consider vision. Can you then speak to what the practice of revision, (re-vision) means for you and your work, how perhaps the poems or the living between them has instructed you to see or to see seeing differently?”
SS: I’m really moved by that question. Interviews like this are such a gift because this very lonely conversation that I’m having is externalized and gets to be shared. I’d say thank you both for it. I had a material faith in the world. I wouldn’t say faith exactly but it’s a Marxist sensibility and frankly, that’s enough. I think that’s plenty too. My job is to name it as accurately and honorably, by which I don’t mean in celebration but as lovingly or truly as possible, and to just keep challenging and agitating against the lies of language, like language itself is a lie ultimately. I’m just trying to keep it jostling enough and to say something almost true or near true. It was easy to just look up at the world in front of me, then write what I was saying or to open up a YouTube video and describe what I saw, or read a document and record it. For myself, I felt and for a while, I was working on a short story in the voice of a court reporter and a stenographer, I feel very much that in addition to filmmaking that’s probably closer to my practice. I think that’s still true. I think I do feel a slightly more complicated recording device for something that is actually outside of myself. It’s just that I grew less interested in the material world around me because my heart just shattered. The last trip I made to Iran in 2014 was one that a lot of the middle section called Without, which is really based on my entire sense of belonging tied to a material place evaporated, that there was any possibility of that ever happening again, that there would be at some point, a space I would return to and a home I would enter, and upon that entering, I would finally arrive. I knew that was done for me. For a long time, my entire sense of language shattered because my entire sense of just desire shattered. You can’t write without it but desire is really tenacious. It came back and it just wasn’t tied to place anymore, it wasn’t tied to physical shelter anymore. It’s not even a sheltered feeling for me. I’m trying to look at that and in some parts of the book, I’m trying to name the actual visual landscape of that as I’ve experienced it. In other parts, it’s really what happens, yes, what happens to a documentary impulse or what happens to a camera’s eye when it no longer looks out. It’s not even looking in. It’s looking just beyond whatever this is and trying to catch that instead. That’s what I’ve found myself and my gaze entering more. I think a lot of that is ear work now, not just eye work.
DN: Oh, interesting. I want to talk more about that rupture in 2014 but before we do, I think we should hear some poems.
SS: Sure, yeah.
DN: Could we hear, He, Too, then Social Skills Training?
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called He, Too]
SS: Now, I’ll read Social Skills Training.
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called Social Skills Training]
DN: We’ve been listening to Poet Solmaz Sharif read from her second collection, Customs, from Graywolf Press. Coincidental to preparing for today, I’ve been slowly reading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes On Belonging, and I feel like a lot of its animating questions have been communicating with yours. I wanted to ask you about exile in relation to belonging for you. First, I’m going to read one of the more famous lines from Brand’s book, “I am not nostalgic. Belonging does not interest me. I had once thought that it did. Until I examined the underpinnings. One is mislead when one looks at the sails and majesty of tall ships instead of their cargo.” In reading Brand, I find myself envious of Brand’s ability to dismiss the yearning for belonging because when I think of my own life, I have this, I would say, almost ridiculously strong yearning to belong. I’ve never experienced it isn’t a lost thing, I didn’t have a belonging and that then went away but I’ve always felt like it existed “out there,” but that I just hadn’t found it, so there’s a lot of ways I’ve tried to, say, search for a community of my “people” for that possibly mythical place where I fit, where I feel seen, where my life and the customs that I share with others cohere into some sense of wholeness. I feel like I recognize something of both these sentiments in your latest collection. I feel like we see the anguish and the anger in you that feels connected to the possibility that if your family had never had to leave Iran where you would have been born into, and lived in the center, so to speak, that your life would have made more sense. It would have cohered into a whole. I also, on the other hand, think of what you just described around your visit in 2014, which was the way you prefaced your reading when you read at Tin House a couple years ago, that a longing or desire that you held onto, which was central to you in certain ways, evaporated as a result of that visit. You said in that introduction to your reading that you lost language, and the ability to write in a certain kind of despair. I’m curious to hear, I guess looking back seven years later, what that breaking from a longing for belonging, if that’s what it is, what it means for you now in relationship to writing in self, and also what your thoughts are on the original longing, the belief you had that you weren’t living the life you were supposed to live, which appears throughout Customs, of the one you were supposed to have and the loss of that, and what your feelings are about, I mean is the yearning for wholeness attached to home, is that something benign or is that something as artists, that we should be actively wrestling against?
SS: I don’t think it’s benign. I absolutely don’t think it’s benign. I think it’s very dangerous actually. I think home is dangerous. I think home is dangerous. I think the idea of maintaining and establishing a home is increasingly dangerous, maybe even because I do agree with what Brand is saying here or what I hear Brand is saying in this excerpt. At one point, it becomes impossible to see what underpins belonging or various ideas of belonging is pointing to a very particular kind here. Also, we can use it to describe any establishment of a we that necessitates the establishment of a day. That said, it doesn’t extinguish. I thank God for that, that I get to move back and forth between these longings. I thought it was gone forever but now I realize that, and I think I was talking to David Baker about it very early on, I don’t even know that he’d remember this but I said, “I thought the major losses had happened,” and I realized there’s a whole other level of loss possible. He’s like, “Oh yeah, just wait.” [laughter] I think I’m back to that again, that ease around it or something like, “Okay, now my losses are mapped, now I know where they are and I’ve made peace with it.” On my good days, I actually say that the place I am now is the true place and anybody who’s not here is actually a fool. They’re just not seeing the world as it should be seen. They’re not aware of how truly exiled they are, even as they’re operating within a center as they see it. Then I’ve come to my worst days where I still have some hope around it. I don’t mean the absolute abject despair that happens. I don’t know what to do with that intellectually but sometimes, I think it’s the lamentable space. It’s not necessarily the truer space, space of lament and thereby the space of song, and of music, actually, to go back to the Said quote. That’s enough too, but I feel like I get asked questions and I’ve heard you have conversations with writers around this question too, and I still don’t know how to answer them, which is like, “Is poetry itself a home? Is language a home?” On the flip side, “Is it a site of resistance?” The idea of poetry is a sight, a poem is a sight of something. It’s not. It’s absolutely not. I don’t find it particularly useful to try to make it one. But what I’m trying to make of it, because it is a space, what I’m trying to make of it, I guess that’s particularly the place that I won’t ever name. I’ll just have to keep trying to enact it over and over in my writing.
DN: The other thing I was thinking about regarding home and exile was the way you’ve talked about your experience of your family coming to Los Angeles, and living within the Iranian community there, which is the largest one outside of Iran, so you could imagine generically that maybe, that could be a place you would find wholeness or home, but instead, you found yourself ostracized within the community, partly due to questions of class, there was a lot of wealth in contrast to your family and partly, due to a community that you described as striving to assimilate, which your own parents as ex-activist didn’t share. You’ve mentioned that like in so many communities in the US, the prevalence of anti-blackness and anti-Arab sentiments were prevalent, and that when you went to this Iranian feminist conference where Angela Davis spoke and she referred to the audience as women of color, that it was a moment of recognition across nation and race, a recognition that you desired. It made me think of an essay by Christina Sharpe called Lose Your Kin where she says, “One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin. Slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship. Kinship relations structure the nation. Capitulation to their current configurations is the continued enfleshment of that ghost. Refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality. Refuse to feast on the corpse of others. Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative. Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.” I guess that what you’ve already just said about home somehow feels connected to this call.
SS: That moment for me where Angela Davis uses women of color was so astonishing to me as a 15 or 16 year old Iranian-American who is in conversation predominantly with leftist Iranians that are politically minded but don’t have the same language around race, gender, and stuff that we might have and have to develop here in the US. Not that we don’t have to in Iran, we have to, there too, but I find myself having and growing more fluent in, and along a different track than than they did or they would. The term, I was drawn to it because as I felt it done, what still draws me to it, though not necessarily it itself anymore, is the idea of an actual ideological solidarity that might exist and that can be an identity actually. I think that a lot of the identity narratives that I grew up in within university systems here in the US have to do with what you were born, the sociological realities of that birth and what that means and almost quite often, like a depoliticization of that in some way. It almost seems to be happening alongside this effort in the US where the word ideology itself is a bad word. It’s bad, the idea of having a shared belief system or something, even though that’s what we’re operating under all the time but we can maybe collectively also come up with ideas around which we gather. For me, it was this sense of any organizing space or classroom I was in with its syllabus or whatever it might be that said, “Not you, not yet,” that the optional struggle or the strata that seemed beside the point or beyond the point and not belonging here like, “We’ll get to that later, we’ll get to gender later, we’ll get to class later. Let’s do the real work here first, then everything else will work out.” To have that actually be a site of identity that one adopts that is tied to one’s positionality, yes, but not exclusively either, I think that’s what I was drawn to. I think that this ideology I’m pointing to too is a commitment to an obliteration of the kinships that are decided by birth and not having them in my case be the entirety of my being with people and who I am alongside.
DN: What makes Customs so compelling in that regard is it’s complicated because we also see the rupture of you speaking in English, and wistful might not be the right word, but the desire, and the ache to have Farsi being your active language of communication and art making, then making art with a language you didn’t choose through the accidents, or maybe not even accidents, but the political things that have happened between Iran and the United States.
SS: To me, the naming of that longing and that particular grief, and the realities of it are a necessary or essential part to whatever it comes next, which we’ll see as it happens. But if it really was in the end about Farsi, for example, or if it was really this belief in “had I had that”, I think I would do everything in my power at this point to go back, if that makes sense. I would probably be trying to write in Farsi at this point or I would probably be trying to do as much translation as possible. You used translation in my bio, it’s the thing that I’ve talked to myself out of recently actually or more recently in part because it ended up proving to be one of the more private experiences that I’ve had in language and I haven’t been able to come up with the language for why I would do it publicly, if that makes sense, in this particular case. I think you’re right that it is complicated. It is both of those things. It’s like I have to keep going back to it.
DN: Let’s stay with questions of language or bring more of these questions of exile and belonging into language. I like when Alina, in your BOMB conversation, pointed out how belonging links longing and being. In a panel you had for Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s forum, Literatures of Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance, a panel with Salwa Ismail and Roger Reeves called Political Violence and the Literary Subject, you brought up how there’s a word in Farsi that means is and was at the same time, and that this is was suggests the ongoingness of the “was” but also within the collection itself with the hyper-enjambed poem America or the frequent syntactical thickets in poems with lines like, “Without which I cannot name. Without which is my life,” or the unresolved open-ended brackets in the poem called Without Which, which have lines like, “Of is the thing without which I would not be,” and those brackets remind me also of the way Anne Carson handled her Sappho translations with the irretrievable absences of what couldn’t be retrieved. All this to say that returning to your preface to your Tin House reading, you also said that instead of writing out of this condition that you faced after your visit in Iran, you decided to write into how this condition changed your relationship to language. I wondered if you could speak a little bit to that the way you wrote into a certain loss of language and how that affected language.
SS: I think it affected language in a lot of the ways that you’ve pointed out so generously, which it broke it and it broke it into its smallest parts, and fragments and really I found myself, isolating and obsessing around words of relation, words that really have no sense of their own outside of whatever relation they might describe when used properly and what happens when you lose the actual content of relation, and what might you be left with to describe at that point. I’m trying to remember the first parts of this question because there was something I wanted to say.
DN: About the is was, perhaps?
SS: Oh yeah, maybe. I was thinking about the flash of thought I had around that too. I was pointing to this tense called the relational past that’s used in Farsi and there’s one example of its construction, which is bude-ast that really would translate to “was” in English but more literally “is was.” So much of my writing was the risk of using a very charged word that I’m supposed to be allergic to, obviously, nostalgic and driven by this rear-facing gaze. There’s that sense of when one goes back to Iran for example, like one doesn’t go to Iran, one goes back to Iran, and one expects that Iran will be some fixed relic of the past, a museum of experience that one can enter as a diasporic figure to marvel and touch the things, and feel at home and at ease, then one gets to leave again and Iran better stay the same the whole time that one’s away. I didn’t realize how deeply I was doing that. I didn’t know that I was quite doing that. That was gone, yet as a writer, I don’t really look at the future. I’m not a writer of the imagination in that way. I’m not world making. I’m not pitching us toward anything really. I think time, for me, is always one thing. I’m probably more horrified at how quickly and how forcefully we try to say past is past here, and everywhere I guess. Again, the space or the location of that or what I’m trying to describe in that feels very different. I think one of the lucky things that happened or one of the lucky contrarian things that happened was, and this is a dangerous part of having work out in the public, and being a “immigrant voice” in the US, hearing feedback, hearing your life come back to you, then hearing what an audience, an American audience or US audience might want from you, might want you to perform, and what performance they will project upon you, even if you’re not close to it, the word shootout appears a few times like the places appear a few times but I was also like in English, that’s all they’ll hear, is the place. They won’t hear the grammar behind it or the way not I, the way of being I’m trying to actually describe. That was a useful challenge in this case I guess actually, in a way that my language broke was how do I describe the breaking of language but not describe it solely through, again, like my grandmother’s house being sold.
DN: Maybe in light of that, we could talk about the series called Dear Aleph,. At first, because the first Dear Aleph poem has got a David, Goliath inversion and the second one had the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, and because the spelling of Aleph is the typical way you’d see it for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, I wondered whether the poems were addressed to a Jew or Jews but of course, Alif is also the first letter of the Arabic and Farsi languages though often spelled differently in English.
SS: Oh, interesting. How are they spelled in English?
DN: I’m not 100% sure but I think Arabic, it’s typically alif.
DN: I’m not 100% sure. I think you can write them anyway that’s transliterated in a way that’s close to the way you’d say it but for some reason, there’s these different traditions around the way these are spelled. But you’ve also talked more generally that the epistolary form is perhaps the form of exile or the form for exile. I guess talk to us about the sequence and whether these letters of or for exile are letters to language. Are these letters to a person or are these letters to language? If so, is there something about the first letter of Farsi or the first letter of Arabic or the first letter of Hebrew that would be the letter you would want to address?
SS: I do think there are letters to language, I do think there are letters to origin, to the beginning, the beginnings of language, the first letters of the alphabets, these happen to be shared alphabets. I was thinking of Farsi, to be honest. The inversion for me happens exactly as I describe it and there’s that David and Goliath flip and I’ve also come to understand David as a figure of Palestinian resistance obviously, like the collapse between the stones being thrown by David and by Palestinians, and [inaudible]. When I went to the book itself and read the story, and I read Goliath, I was like, “What did he do? I don’t understand.” [laughter] It’s really that simple. Again, the villain ended up not being as villainous as I imagined it would be. I found myself identifying it with it far, far more. The Rosenbergs are foundational. Ethel in particular appears a number of times in the book coming from a nation and a culture that is understood in the US through the lens of dictatorship, state repression, and all those things. I find it useful to point out where the US has committed these crimes and to remind us that this is just really what a state is, and what a state does if you threaten a state and it didn’t take much to threaten the state. It is illegal to do so in earnest here even. This is the fate that awaits you. That’s treason. It’s apostasy. It’s the gravest sin period. I think that’s what I was thinking about why Ethel kept appearing in my poems throughout too. I was thinking too Emily Dickinson’s The Master Letters and I was thinking of yes, addressed to, and for that reason, I don’t want to spend too much time naming it but unnameable or unnamed origin.
DN: Which made me think of I’m imagining, this is probably shared across the three languages but in Hebrew, Aleph is silent, God speaks the world into being, so the first letter in the Torah is the second letter in the alphabet because it’s the first one that makes a sound and Aleph is the in-breath before the speech. It’s beyond or before language, so it really is the origin letter of not just because it’s first but because it can’t be spoken.
DN: I don’t know if that’s true in Farsi or in Arabic.
SS: Yeah, I wonder. The texts are shared, so I wouldn’t be surprised.
DN: Could we hear the first two Dear Aleph poems?
SS: Yeah. Sure.
[Solmaz Sharif reads from Customs]
DN: We’ve been listening to Solmaz Sharif read from Customs. Let’s spend a little more time with language and power, and the way you engage with it in poetry. In the most general sense, I’m thinking of this great conversation you had with Evie Shockley for the Radcliffe Institute. She brought up that Sonia Sanchez used form to manage her grief when writing about her brother dying of AIDS and you said that it was the opposite for you, that if you realize that a form allows you to tolerate something better, then you want to stop using the form. That for you, form was power enacted and that in a sense, you’re working against language to create something new. In that light, you’re rarely using inherited forms, you’ve used non-accentual syllabics as a way to work against expected harmonies in English. Thinking back to the beginning of our discussion about removing the conceptual frame of Look and creating an exilic personal I on the page, can you speak to some of the animating questions or maybe the things you discovered through writing this way that relate to power and language, and perhaps for that matter, to English and Farsi?
SS: I guess most simply that they’re one of the things I’ve come up against and do believe more and more. Do I believe that, huh? I want to say that it’s inescapable. I want to say that it’s like a necessarily painful, cruel betrayal to try to render something in a poem and that putting it to language, and more politically—I think English in particular, but maybe that’s not fair actually. Maybe this is larger than that, it’s a problem quite larger than that though I think there is a problem particular to putting in English that needs to be unpacked—it’s to me and in my practice, an unnecessarily violent and exclusionary act, whether there is an obvious formal structure that I am imposing upon the text or whether I am moving and perceiving free verse. I know a lot of poets and I love a lot of poets that enact freedom on the page, and see the page of the site of freedom. But if it’s like no tears for the writer, like no freedom for the writer, no freedom for the reader, it doesn’t exist. As long as it doesn’t exist, I’m making a gesture with my hand like if it doesn’t exist in the world until liberation is actually present, whatever that actually may mean until it’s over, whatever this is, it won’t exist on the page. I need the writers who do enact it on the page because that work has to be done and my soul needs it. But my own practice is that as long as it is intolerable, it will be written intolerably and it will be experienced intolerably by the reader. If I feel that I am in a toxic bath every time I enter a workplace or something or every time I enter, no offense to the faculty meetings I’ve been to, it’s just like these structures that we have to enter, then that’s what the poem will do as well. I put my faith in that diagnostic mode. I have found that in my own life, just by virtue of getting tired of naming the same things over and over, and over, things in my life have changed. They’re very small, it’s not, but I do think there’s a possibility there, I think there’s a possibility of fully and deeply inhabiting the poison that is.
DN: I have another question for you, this time, from performance artist and Poet Fargo Tbakhi.
SS: Hi, Fargo. [laughter]
DN: He’s going to ask this question himself.
SS: Oh, great.
DN: Here we go.
“[foreign language], Solmaz. I’m sitting in deep gratitude having been able to spend some time with Customs. What a true gift it is for this book to be in the world. There are so many wonders I have around the book but today, I thought I’d ask you about civility. One of the things I understand Customs to be doing is tracing the stultifying, neutralizing violence of civility as a ritualized set of performativities required in order to live as an American subject, beginning with the first poem America and continuing throughout the book to lurk within every potential intimacy or speech act. You’ve written before about the relationship between activism and the lyric, arguing that our political imaginations can benefit from the criticalities contained within our lyric ones, so I wanted to ask what you’ve learned about the rituals of American civility from the uncivilized lyric voice of this book and vice versa, what the book’s voice learned from your experience of these rituals? Thank you as always for your language and the better worlds that it makes possible.”
SS: Merci, Fargo. It’s really great to hear your voice, Fargo. I’m going to try to do your question justice here. First of all, thanks for recognizing the lack of civility in this work. I don’t think it’s that necessarily pronounced but I feel there’s a lot of seething in it. That’s for sure. I think I had greater faith at some point and in parts of writing Look, though not in the entirety of when I was writing Look around content, and that really what’s missing are specifics and stories. If we had these stories and if the stories were told through the lens of elegy for example, if lives were treated as grievable, to use Butler’s term, and those lives were named, and the concrete of their lives were brought into this lyrical space, some good would come, something would happen. I’ve discovered that the machine metabolizes all. Obviously, I’ve been told this by many before. It’s like maybe it’s a stove that we have to put our hands on ourselves, I don’t know. I don’t have faith in nouns anymore. I don’t have faith in the content of bills or policy or anything of actions, necessary as they are, as really being the thing that we need. I think actually, one of the main ways that civility plays out is through syntax and grammar. As long as we are using, I’ve said this elsewhere but I’ll say it here because I do find myself sometimes surprised that poets, that certain poems and I find myself wondering why it is that they’re drawn to that poem, and are we reading different poems? We probably are reading different poems actually and that’s fine. There’s an excitement to that. There’s a richness to that. But as long as we use the syntax that we use to describe, or they use—they can be self-selecting. It’s fine—they used to describe, like Vienna to describe Tehran or something, they will love us and they will love our poems, the jamming effect politically has to come on the level of syntax. I haven’t figured out how to actually do that. Maybe this is just the limit of the lyric itself that I’m up against and maybe it’s asking too much of it. But that’s the wall I’ve been hitting with this book, Fargo, and that’s the wall that I’m trying to break through with the next one.
DN: Let me extend Fargo’s question or at least, connect it to something else that it makes me think of. You gave a craft talk at Tin House called A Talk Against Goodness and you begin with a non-white writer who says that as marginalized people, we need to focus on writing well, but then you go on to unpack what writing well really means in the context of a creative writing world that was originally funded into existence, partially by the CIA or that a former president of the Poetry Foundation did US Intelligence counterinsurgency work in Sub-Saharan Africa. What does it mean to write well when the project itself institutionally was funded in order to establish an American cultural hegemony around the world? Ultimately, you wonder how much our ideas of good poetry line up with notions of good behavior of civility, of all sides matter. In asking the question of whether a “good poem” might be irreconcilable with the reckoning that we actually need to have, which I think is connected to some of what Fargo’s asking and you’ve already answered. You quote June Jordan in that craft talk who said, “If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth. It will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good to you, either,” then you proceed to look with skepticism at the various Maxims you were taught regarding the qualities that make a poem good. Given that so many of the people listening are writers or art makers or aspiring writers and art makers, maybe we could just spend a moment to talk about some of those “good ways” of writing that you are suggesting we should be suspicious of for these reasons.
SS: Absolutely. I want to say that I think that the scholarship that the Bennett and [inaudible] and the number of people have done to reveal the ways that the CIA has been involved, and funding and establishing our creative writing program, has been great and also unnecessary, yet I don’t know that we needed it. I think they are people who would, I just wish that we could presume that literature is being written within a nation and in that nation’s predominant language is a national project unless proven otherwise. Right now, we have these agencies and we can point to them, and be like, “See, this is how it lines up,” but really what it is as a writer is without tremendous resistance to it, it’s going to just be hegemonically consumed into this national project, glorifying project, and cultural projects. I did want to just say that it’s the danger of naming the DoD too. When I did Look, I think a lot of people were able to think, “Oh, what a horrible thing they’ve done to language,” not, “Wow, I do this language all the time.” That’s what it means to speak here in this nation. I don’t quite want that to happen in this conversation. But I think a lot of these things we take for granted in the workshop, it should be sonorous and precise, and it should not tell and certainly not be didactic, it shouldn’t stake a claim of any kind, it shouldn’t make an argument, that’s for sure, or it is the argument with the self, not with the other because that exists, self and other exists. One can only show in a poem without telling what is shared with that audience for example. It’s already presuming a certain cultural common denominator that might not exist for all of us. For the rest of us, there’s an amount of telling that’s involved in order to just communicate the basic content of our lives for example. Obviously, that’s not the only part or limitation of “Show, don’t tell.” I think the more dangerous part is that a poet and a poem does not make an argument, a poet and a poem does not make a statement, the poet and a poem offers a space of negative capability that a reader can enter and contemplate for themselves this complicated moral quandary or whatever, when in reality, there are certain things that just need to be told and need to be said, and said simply and directly. Great poets have done it throughout time. Actually, I’m allergic to using the language of great writing, greatness, and all that, but find me the great poets that didn’t tell. We’re creating entire generations of poets that are working in a mode that is—and I don’t have anything against any of the component parts that I’m about to name. I just think they’re dangerous when they are presented as the best way forward for everyone—working in a mode that is common, like commonly image based, relies on empathy, that was the other thing, you couldn’t be scornful toward anyone or anything, there are no enemies in a poem, everybody is complicit. More and more, you have to reveal your own complicity in whatever you say, which is this self-absolving liberal tick that has appeared in writing in US literature in the last 15 years or so. There could be an epiphany but there shouldn’t necessarily be a neat and moral conclusion if that neat and moral conclusion is political. [laughter]
DN: Let’s stay with empathy for a minute too, because in the one of the Dear Aleph poems, you have the great line “Empathy means laying yourself down in someone else’s chalklines and snapping a photo,” and perhaps similarly elsewhere, you say, “Like, I’ve decided, is the cruelest word,” and you’ve talked about an allergy to similes and that they’re often for you moments of ethical failure. I would love just to spend another beat, not with the expectation that poems should be empathetic, but maybe questioning empathy in its own right, which seems to be what you’re suggesting with that line.
SS: Yeah, I hate empathy. [laughter] I think empathy has its uses, and its uses are self-preservation. Yes, maybe in every interaction, we don’t appear in completely porous open ways. What it is is like, “I will experience you for a moment in a way that I can enter and exit and still go grocery shopping undisturbed.” It’s emotional and it’s used in workshops often. I found myself in 2014 using it in a workshop for somebody’s poem and I was like, “You know what, actually I’m going to stop, the word I need here is love. There needs to be love in this part and there isn’t love.” Why is it that empathy feels like the okay word to use here and not love? I was like, “Well, what does empathy allow?” It allows the absolute and unhindered continuance of what is. I’m very much against that. I’m very much for ending that. I think the only way to that is actually love.
DN: I’m going to quote you back to yourself.
SS: Uh-oh. I hate empathy?
DN: [laughter] No, not that. You’ve said that empathy is the language of the grant application in the boardroom, that empathy, as you just said, you could step out of it into a life like a therapist can open and close the door, and that love is none of these things. Love can get you fired. Love is ungradable. Replacing the word empathy with love will reveal the lie, which I love. [laughter].
SS: Thank you for loving it. [laughter]
DN: Let’s hear the poem Patronage. Afterwards, I want to take some of these questions into a different place around being a poet in the world.
SS: Okay. There was another part of your question I wanted to say something about but I’ve forgotten.
DN: Oh, we were talking about similes.
SS: I will just say similes quickly, for me, is this, and in general, it’s not unlinked to my resistance toward the word equality for example or whatever insistence on similarity or sameness as the only way of being in relation to each other, a fear of difference that undergirds both of those things, and the ways that simile is often used to argue or elevate the value of one or the other side of the simile; to say this is just as good as that or this is just as beautiful as that thing and not allow the thing itself to be enough, I find that particularly cruel and often an ethical failure and a political one, to be honest, and a failure of solidarity quite often. I think I’m particularly sad about it or been out of shape about it because so much of my life exists in it too, of trying to piece together some kind of a life wherein I am, again, to go back to belonging, I’m actually in and of, I have to do it through like more often than I would like.
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called Patronage]
DN: We’ve been listening to Solmaz Sharif read from Customs. In your review of Philip Metres’s Sand Opera, you quote the poet and filmmaker Forough Farokhzad who said, “What’s it to me that no poem in Farsi has used the word ‘explode.’ From morning to night, every direction I look, I see things are exploding.” This quote makes me think of something Robin Coste Lewis said in a talk of hers, that in the 40s when Gwendolyn Brooks was asked why her sonnets always ended in slant rhymes or off-rhymes, she answered, “Because these are off-rhyme times.” In the spirit of these quotes, I wanted to take the questions you raised in Customs off the page and outside the book, both to the world of the classroom and then questions of being out in the world at large also. I’m thinking of something that Roger Reeves said about his own work, “I’m always playing, figuring out how to make a different set of time inside someone else’s time. I have a friend who’s a Victorianist, and he talks about time in the metropole versus time in the colony. And how there’re two different sets of time. I think about Fred Moten’s notion of imagination—within something, you build something else. He calls it ‘invagination’ in In the Break. I think we can do that with time. That’s what aesthetics allows us to do, to change time in this really interesting and concerted fashion.” I think about this when I think about the possibilities in a classroom, of creating a different time, of building something else there that is different than what exists when we leave it or before we arrive. I’m thinking again also about your experience in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, something that you’re starting your own version of at ASU. I wondered if we could talk about both how you experienced that space as a student and how you’re imagining your version of it in Arizona.
SS: Yeah. I could spend all day in those quotes. I’ve thought often about what it is that stuck with me about particular classes and not others, and why was it. So often, I actually don’t remember a word of what was said or I don’t have a sense of a lesson I came away with. I think maybe it is like what Roger was describing, a time within the time or something. I remember being in a class with Professor VèVè Clark at UC Berkeley. She played for us a love supreme and it was like a boombox in the front of the class. I just remember hearing the entirety and her pacing. I don’t remember the conversation we had about it. I have a lot of lessons from Poetry for the People but it’s also because I think I worked with it for many years. It was an exercise of repetition. But again, it was just this feeling of like they become these kinds of pin drops in your life or something and you remember the shift in the temperature and this reminder of the intensity of aliveness that you’re in at any moment and you can tap into at any moment, and how exciting it is actually to be in art and to be in writing and to be in language and to be with each other asking these questions. That it’s really, for me, not about, in the end I guess, the conclusions of those questions or what the content even of those questions, but the feeling of it.
DN: Let me ask you more specifically because when I was watching you talk about it on the Jordan tribute panel, one of the things that you really foregrounded, which maybe I wonder if this is related to this way you’re describing an intensity of aliveness, was how ethically messy things were. You talked about how Jordan didn’t wait for an academic to approve what she did and the value of creating a space that takes questionable risks essentially. One of the instances you mentioned was that when the Gulf War broke out, she put a translated Quran on the table and said, “Arab literature is not being taught on this campus and we need to teach it,” and you commented that this could easily have been stopped and shut down because not all Arabs have the Quran as their book of faith, not all Muslims are Arabs, etc. But the example that was most wild to me that you brought up was asking students to write in Black English and African-American Vernacular English. To me, imagining white or Asian-American or Arab-American students writing in a Black Vernacular or to somehow workshop people who’ve written in it, seems like there’s a hundred ways it could go horribly wrong for every one way it could go right (whatever right means). But you said that the workshop remained messy all the way through and that sense of feeling threatened to the core is what Jordan was pushing you toward. Because when we’re talking about civility and incivility within your work, and then thinking about pedagogy and thinking of ethical messiness, or when Christina Sharpe says, “We must become undisciplined. We must become undisciplined, outraged, and immoderate in our work,” I guess I wondered what, if at all, classroom experiments you might consider taking those risks with your students and in that spirit.
SS: I also want to say that Poetry for the People is taught to collaboratively. June is working with us, a cohort of like 15 or 20 student teacher poets and they’re collectively deciding what to teach, which of these lessons to, this is a story I’ve heard about the Gulf War in the Quran and we’re going to do this like that, that kind of thing, and I know poems, you were taught to write in black English or in African-American Vernacular English in her class and I know the roots of that are her own work in the 70s and 80s in New York, which is an essay Nobody Mean More To Me Than You that documents this work with students. I haven’t done that lesson on my own here at ASU, and I wouldn’t, and I’m aware of that too, that there is a particular lesson missing actually. In other words, I am not approaching it, not that I am not assigning the assignment, maybe I wouldn’t assign the assignment but am I even giving the lecture at this point? I’m not, and I need to think about that. But we do things that other people don’t necessarily do. I have colleagues that rightly or wrongly, they have a list of things that should not happen in a workshop. You don’t write a persona poem. You don’t use slurs of any kind. You write solely from your own experience. I don’t know how to enforce any of those. I don’t know who I can tell to use a slur or not. I mean I do know, but as soon as I try to actually vocalize it, all the assumptions that I’m operating under have to come to the light, and that’s the part that feels like you’re going to use like Bernice Reagon’s term, like you’re going to keel over and die at any moment when you’re in that coalitional space because you’re so challenged to the core. I’m deeply invested in working with students and with each other to figure out how to articulate our own ways through these ethical challenges rather than waiting for an expertise to be developed for us to tell us what to do. We figure it out, and really us figuring it out is a choosing of our own failures. Ultimately, we will fail but we pick intentionally what we will fail at. The discourse around who can do what and how and why, my follow-up question for myself is always what happens if I don’t do it? What happens if I don’t do it? What happens if I don’t figure out how I might do this thing and try to do it as best as I can and present it as the beginning of a failure? If that makes sense. I remember I did a lesson when I was at Stanford. Just to give an example of an ethical failure in a classroom, one of President Trump’s first actions was the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan, which is the largest outside of a nuclear warhead, I don’t know how many megatons it is. I was thinking of June Jordan as I was writing over and I came to class and I said, “Okay, class is canceled. You’re going to go to the library and find as much writing from Afghani poets as you can in the library and bring it back.” They went and they came back with four books. I remember from that day I didn’t know how few there were. We talked about what they had found and then afterwards, we talked about what it meant to have this assignment come out of this political moment and the failure of that, and the failure of the imagining of needing to know this literature beyond our military interventions in the region. Later in the semester, I asked them to do something public with one of the poets that we’ve read in class. Overwhelmingly, they chose Adrienne Rich. We read Black-American poets, we read poems in translation, we read all over the map. The class was pretty mixed but essentially, to put it bluntly, people either read within their own identity or they read Rich publicly. I was like, “So what happened?” They said, “Well, we don’t feel like we have a right to read this Brooks poem on the corner.” Yet here it is again, here’s yet another way that white supremacy regenerates itself and it’s being done out of this noble ethical move that I think is misguided in a lot of cases. I think very often it comes down to between the option of like, I’m not saying this to the students of this particular class, I’m saying this as a general atmosphere I’m sensing, between the option of doing the work and not doing the work and saying I haven’t done enough of the work, to do the work as if there isn’t enough that’s actually possible within my lifetime. We are choosing more and more to not do the work and have a good ethical packaging for it. I’m obviously simplifying a million factors at play here.
DN: Sure. I wanted to take this to maybe a more fraught place also outside of the classroom. [laughter]
SS: Oh, okay. You’re really bringing it. All right, let’s go.
DN: In your Lightbox Poetry interview, they ask you if you think creative writing can be taught. You say the craft part of it can be taught, but that part of it is just giving a damn. You share an anecdote about Thích Nhất Hạnh where he asks audience members to turn to the person next to them, hug them, and introduce themselves to each other. Then after that, he asks them to do it again but this time, first really holding within themselves that they’re both going to die, that the person you’re going to hug and yourself are both going to die, and noticing how that experience of hugging this stranger and then introducing yourself is different. You’ve said that attention and care and urgency that creative writing requires, the type of vision or gaze that sees everything shimmering, precarious, and aspiring to a language that could live up to it, and you’ve also said also that the duty of the writer is to remind us that we will die and that we’re not dead yet. But thinking of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s legacy, which is deeply connected to both that of Martin Luther King and of bell hooks, I wanted to ask you about the question of violence within Customs and not just the violence inflicted on the marginalized, though this is very much present in the book, but also the possibility of the violence that will be returned upon the empire. I think of you saying, “Marx has always been a huge influence on me: the point isn’t to think about the world, but to change it. As a writer, my addendum is that the point of literature isn’t to just understand the world, but to end it.” Then Fargo Tbakhi’s pinned tweet, “Palestinians are reminding us that decolonization is not abstract. It is material. It is violent. It is not popular, it will be resisted and debated by the entire structures of the monstrous colonial world. And it is the only way forward, and it is the only path of life.” Or from June Jordan herself in, perhaps, one of her most notorious poems; poem about police violence, which opens with the stanza, “Tell me something / what you think would happen if / everytime they kill a black boy / then we kill a cop / everytime they kill a black man / then we kill a cop / you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?” I feel like you gesture in this book toward something similar. In that panel you did with Azareen, you looked at literature as what you called “a defiant archive” and that it’s the specifics and in the minute quotidian places that the master narratives fall apart. But I think you could say, and I think it seems intentional on your part, that unlike Jordan and unlike other places in your work, in this regard, you leave things unspecified. I wonder if this is connected back to your distrust of content now also, but the speaker who alludes to the “wild thing” that they might do if they can remember what it is. The way the book opens with the hyper-enjambed poem America that feels strangled in a corset of sorts but ends in a way that is wildly open that feels electric with danger as if the speaker or the writer has left the page now to go do some unspecified thing off of the page. One thing that happens with you not specifying any of this that I really like as a reader is that it puts the onus on us as the reader to see how we’re seeing you from our subject position to what we imagine yours is and then what we would imagine that you or the I in the poem would go do. But all in all, I think the different time you create in this book, this notion of Moten’s invagination, it doesn’t feel like you’re creating a different time within the book as a safe haven within a larger thing, but rather, almost as if you’re smuggling some things in, in order to burst out is how it feels as a gesture. I guess I want to hear more about this, the role of the wild thing off the page, which is definitely something that obviously, you’re not specifying what June Jordan’s specifying, but I think there’s something similarly provocative in what you’re doing in Customs.
SS: Yeah, thanks for that. I think often about, just to go back to our workshop question and the question of like “thank you for that, that’s enough now,” and just thinking about all the [inaudible] and conclusions and statements that have been massaged out of my poems for years, partly because of the workshop, partly just because of the state itself, and partly because of my own interest and suspending the conclusions that I might most immediately draw, which sometimes I question their bombast and their theatrics sometimes, I guess I’m a firm believer in I don’t really talk about violence or anything unless I’m really ready to go there. I also don’t use words like revolutionary often or anything unless I know exactly what I’m saying. The reality is by really saying those things in this podcast, it’s actually a very dangerous thing to say in this country still. I nod to a number of poems in this book and one of them is Gwendolyn Brooks’s Beverly Hills, Chicago, and there’s a line where she says, “They make excellent corpses, among the expensive flowers….” thinking as she drives through this wealthy white Beverly Hills neighborhood in Chicago, or the speaker does. I remember reading that and saying, “Did she really just say that? Did she say that I hear and not what do you think would happen, I think “or I hear and not” a kind of anger and scorn that is necessarily repressed here in this nation, that I found repressed in my work through the workshop through my own fear. But also, who said smuggle, I like that, this idea of bringing it in a way as to get away with something, as if I’m actually planting these signals for a future that will look back and say, “Oh, she said that people were reading this part of it but actually what she was saying was this whole other thing that is far more threatening.” I often say I think of my poems as laced and arsenic. I like to think in terms of that and what I might get away with, and what it means to hurt a reader and who to hurt in that kind of context. I think that’s speaking to your question.
DN: I do too.
DN: Could we hear The Master’s House.
SS: Yeah, sure. I will say about your question, I think I’m more interested in what people might say around it and I’m more interested in what that conversation might look like. I think often of those lines of June Jordan’s and I think of how absolutely dangerous and risky they were and remain and will be again.
DN: And there’s that famous clip of Angela Davis, I think in the 70s and maybe the 60s when she’s asked about violence, and she flips the script back like, “Who’s committing violence?” If you’re living in violence, if you’re living in a world as the victim of violence, I’m not the one to be questioned about the return of it.
SS: Yeah, no. Then there’s a famous interview with Ghassan Kanafani where he says, “It’s the conversation between the sword and the neck,” when he’s being asked by I think a French journalist about violent resistance against Israeli occupation, for example, and can he enter a conversation instead? I think at a particular dinner table, I have found myself with flower arrangements and silverware I’m trying to pretend to know how to use, where this conversation has come up. It has come up, I will say, that I believe in self-defense. I think this comes back to it. But I also think there’s a charge that’s just beyond that, which is that beyond self-defense too.
DN: But then see, that’s for the tension that I thought was interesting about Thích Nhất Hạnh, King, and bell hooks who clearly are not, at least, I don’t think they’re naive people. I also think they have revolutionary consciousness and also for bell hooks, it would be, I don’t mean this in a simplistic way, but the revolution of love.
SS: Right. Or King’s Beloved Community.
DN: Yeah, but also principally not going that one step beyond self-defense.
SS: I understand. I do think historically again and again, we’ve been shown that it really doesn’t happen otherwise.
DN: And even someone like Nelson Mandela who was involved in an armed revolution has been re-metabolized as if he was a non-violent resistor.
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called The Master’s House]
DN: We’ve been listening to Solmaz Sharif read from Customs, just out from Graywolf Press. I want to spend a moment around something that you’ve said that I find really remarkable. Maybe this points back to valuing ethical messiness and the uncontrollable again. In your Paris Review interview from years ago, you talk about how you describe your poetry as first political and then documentary. Then as a push back against people who say this writing precludes aesthetic rigor, you say, “Clichéd, bad writing often means clichéd, bad politics, and vice versa.” You said elsewhere that negative capability and thought leads to negative capability in action. I wanted to spend a moment with this interplay between politics and aesthetics. I haven’t yet got to the thing that I really am compelled by, but mostly people focus on the effect politics has on aesthetics, or questions of the effect the political has on aesthetics. Here is an example, your pushback against the idea that it can’t be rigorous or good if it’s political. But you also think in this conversation about the reverse. You say, “It’s exciting for me to think of poets that are allowing their politics to also be shaped by these aesthetic considerations, and wondering when the poetic will lead you to the kind of political surprise that a dogmatic approach wouldn’t allow. These are the artists that live on the fringes of what is aesthetically and politically accepted.” I love this idea of political surprise, I guess, that a politics that isn’t dogmatic, as you say, but a politics that’s open to be surprised and even be surprised by the work we’re doing in the aesthetic realm. I wondered if me, reading that back to you, I know it’s a while ago so who knows if you’re connected to it these days or not, but talk to us about the political surprise for an artist who’s engaged in politics.
SS: I think for me, my definition of political too is pretty close to just social. It’s the idea of being with other people and that power necessarily appears in that moment and must be dealt with and must be passed around as quickly as possible, perhaps, or as evenly as possible. I don’t know what it is exactly, but must continually be questioned. I’m thinking about the exilic stance and the nomadic stance that we were talking about earlier, and that also informs my, and that perhaps we were using it to describe one’s relationship to the metropole or to the center but I would also use it to describe my relationship to the fringes and to political action. I think a poetic sensibility in this case is one that is not afraid of betrayal and of betraying. I don’t mean in the service of a state or in a service of power, but the moment when the revolution itself becomes power, which is that thing that we’ve seen over and over again. The failure or success that I’ve lived in the aftermath of that too, has to be betrayed. I think that betrayal for me comes out of my more poetic allegiances, which are allegiances, to go back to hooks, and to love, to the erotic, to the ungovernable that’s shared between us. It’s unnamed and unnameable. That necessarily contradicts the dictatorships that follow and must be necessary.
DN: There’s something that just comes to mind now. I don’t know if I’m going to speak it well, but thinking about my own engagement in activism, which goes back a long way, and then my engagement in writing, one of the things that I often—I don’t know if this is related to political surprise—but one of the things that I find that’s often hard for me is the way sometimes polarized political situations can really flatten language in a way that is actually the opposite of observation. What I mean by that is I had this guest on many years ago, Sallie Tisdale. She, for a large part of her career, was an abortion nurse. She’s, of course, pro-choice and she wrote an essay that attends to the observation of doing her job. That essay includes descriptions, and because that essay describes fingers, spinal cords, or other things that are now in the trash can, people thought she was writing an argument for pro. People wrote to her angrily, and she acknowledges it. In the real world, this gives ammunition, we’re supposed to call it a zygote, of course, sometimes it is, or a clump of cells and you’re giving this leverage to the other side in this political debate simply by attending to the experience of what she’s doing. That’s where I find this compelling, I guess, around can our aesthetics change our politics, not can it make us pro-life instead of pro-choice. But her position is a complex position, she believes you’re killing something when you do an abortion but she also thinks it’s the best case scenario in a fraught circumstance more often than not. Not that I’m saying I’m advocating that position or even saying it correctly, but I guess the political surprise is compelling because so often in activist circles, I feel like things are put forth because of the utility they have in an argument but not because they’re actually true in a lived sense.
SS: I think so much of writing for me or my writing too, I might not be visible or anything, but is against utility actually and trying to be a guardian of the seemingly irrelevant or just the small that makes up the content and quality of our lives. That gives us, again, the impetus and the necessity for revolution, I’ll use the word here. I think there are definitely moments I’ve had and there are moments I can think of where an allegiance to a lyrical rigor has led to some politically questionable calls on my end. There’s one in particular I haven’t been able to rectify or reconcile, I should say, and I talk about it in A Talk Against Goodness, and it’s a scene that I couldn’t work into the title poem of my last book Look, and the entirety of the scene. It got worked down in the poem to an exchange between the speaker and a republican that’s present at the Republican National Convention, but the real meat of the story was the exchange between the speaker and the white liberal who was also protesting the Republican National Convention and decided to side with the republican against the speaker. Just too many words to get to the contents of that story. I think about that often. That lyricism in that moment or lyrical revision actually did this thing that we’re trying to not do. It flattened the story and it went down this path of least resistance, “Okay, we’ll just stick to the extremes that we know because it takes far more telling to bring in the other person and reveal what is happening there.” That’s one tension that’s unfortunate that I’ve noticed. But I think that idea of betrayal I’m talking about is more linked to what this example that you’re bringing forward. I have also been in positions and places where the poem makes me say something I’m surprised to say, or in order to actually be a poem, I have to say certain things that aren’t as easily appropriate or something. I don’t have as tight a grip over the moral ramifications of it. But I think that as long as there is a readership, I think this points to a problem of the readership and not a problem of the writing itself.
DN: It’s complicated because we can’t be naive to the ways our writing is going to be used either. Tisdale wasn’t but at the same time, it’s like–
SS: There’s a lot I don’t write because of that.
DN: Yeah. Maybe as a last question, I want to stay off the page for another minute, both when I talked to Natalie Diaz and when I talked to Kaveh Akbar, they were I think, in some similar ways to you, thinking about bringing concerns of poetry off the page and into the world but also what poetry can’t do that the poet as an activist has to do in other ways. I know many of the poets you admire had careers that demonstrated this, not just June Jordan, but certainly her, but George Oppen who had two separate poetry careers with decades in between as a union activist or Muriel Rukeyser, but someone who I spoke to Kaveh Akbar about, who he, in particular, teaches that I know is also close to your heart is Forugh Farrokhzad, who, in so many ways, ignored established customs, the “proper way” of getting published or how you were supposed to write as a woman, what you were supposed to write about, and she suffered deeply for it, not only having her child taken from her electroshock therapy, her work being banned, her life in exile where she became an equally noteworthy filmmaker. I guess circling back to looking at the gaze in your work and how you said you seek an intensity of regard and experience, or the lines of Farrokhzad herself, “Life is perhaps that enclosed moment when my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes.” I know you mentioned earlier that you don’t say that you’re translating her poems anymore, that’s a private experience, but is there a way you could speak to us about her and the persistence of vision to borrow the phrase from a sequence of your poems and her importance to you, or what aspect? There are so many aspects to her life narrative that I could imagine would be the ones that were particularly compelling to you, but I’d be curious to hear if you feel comfortable speaking about it.
SS: Yeah. There are a lot of aspects to a life narrative. Part of why I wanted to translate her and have my own experience of her was that it was almost impossible to deal with her work in English without the packaging of her life around it. So much of that packaging feels too tailored for a Western audience. Again, here is the believered Iranian woman and the first and the lonely. She calls herself lonely, and always followed by wasn’t that awful, I don’t hear you doing that, I’m just laying out my own relationship to her in English and trying to figure out what I might add to it, but I would read these intros about her work and herself and I was like, “Okay, but what’s the actual tone of it? What’s the actual temperature of her work?” I can see it but I’m not quite sure what’s happening. Can I recreate that for myself in English somehow? Can we have a conversation like that? I can’t answer you when it comes to gaze and her gaze, I can say that being in her syntax for as long as I was and being an Iman Biyavarimbeh Aghaz-a Fasl-e Sard, her last poem, the Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, just a very long poem, was like in 2014, I think, I spent a winter reading only Dickinson and transcribing Dickinson and it broke something open in me and being in Farrokhzad syntax did a similar thing, and I think a lot of my willingness to look beyond the material to name the material, actually or to make the material make sense, came from her landscapes and her own explorations of domestic spaces in particular, at AWP hearing Ghassan Zaqtan read with Fady Joudah, his translator, and going to butcher the answer he gave but he was talking about generations of Palestinian poets and how there’s the Darwish generation and the poets were like portraits above the mantle in the home. Then his generation is like the poet is in the home, like in the hearth sitting with the people, like that shift, so spatially, how do you describe yourself within the house? Farrokhzad has this poem, it’s a very short poem, and she asks if a friend is coming over to her house to bring her a lamp in a window so she can look out at the alley below, that particular gaze as held within and is looking out and is reporting back that relationship to the domestic and the public, and the interior and personal and the collective, is I feel at home, oh, I used it [laughter] I don’t feel at home. That’ll be an approximation for what I feel.
DN: Okay. Or maybe a solidarity.
DN: A kindred moment.
SS: Yeah, maybe.
DN: Or maybe not kindred, we shouldn’t use kindred.
SS: I was going to say I feel like we’ve necessarily problematized a lot of words today, but this particular moment that’s before we find the word for the thing itself, and I’m just looking at another person and being like, “You know what I mean?” and the other person’s like, “Yeah, I know what you mean but we can’t–” that’s the feeling I want to make alive in my poems, that’s about as close as I can get.
DN: Let’s go out with two more.
DN: I’m thinking Persistence of Vision: Televised Confession, and Into English.
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called Persistence of Vision: Televised Confession]
[Solmaz Sharif reads a poem called Into English]
DN: Thank you, Solmaz, for returning to Between The Covers.
SS: Thanks so much, David, for having me back. It’s been a real joy.
DN: We’ve been talking today to the poet Solmaz Sharif about her latest book, the poetry collection, Customs from Graywolf Press. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Solmaz’s work can be found at solmazsharif.com. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener supporters. You can find out more about all the potential benefits of becoming a listener supporter from rare collectibles, to bonus audio, to the Tin House early readership program at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.