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My thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me to guest blog for the week. My week of blogging concludes with a brief recommended bibliography of Iranian-American writing. Of course there is much more than this, and I’m sure to regret missing some books as soon as I post. (Fellow Iranian-American writers, please don’t hate me if I leave you out; this is not easy, and keep in mind I’m basically a house husband when I’m not writing, with 2 young boys intent on destroying the house unless supervised). By all means add on in the comments section with other recommendations. Like the content of my brief updates, these selected texts vary in their investment in Iranian and/or American culture, as well as the degree to which they inhabit the formative hyphen between “Iranian” and “American.” Anyway, here it goes: Sons and Other Flammable Objects, by Porochista Khakpour. This was a favorite of both my graduate and undergraduate students in sections of Middle Eastern-American literature I taught last semester in the Queens College English department. It was a New York Times’ Editor’s Choice Award and has won almost too many awards to list here. There are better reviews than I can post, but I mention as a key take away Khakpour’s ability to seamlessly underpin a contemporary post-911 story of an Iranian-American family with Oedipal drama from classical Persian antiquity. It’s also just great storytelling, and the Iranian connection is never forced, meaning it’s integral to the narrative. Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer This novel, based mostly in Iran but written in English, has also been reviewed so widely and so favorably that it’s especially reductive to offer further acclaim here. The story localizes the harsh political effects of the Islamic Republic of Iran soon after the Islamic revolution by focusing on a Persian Jew imprisoned because of his class and religion. It came as no surprise when I read that the author cited Ha Jin’s Waiting, as an important influence. Though in its own way, Sofer’s novel reads with such great passion and clarity. Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated into English by Shole Wolpe. There are a lot of great translations of Persian poetry out there, and this is one of them. I cite this particular book, winner of the Lois Roth Persian Translation Award, because it better translates the work of the first real modern feminist poet as poetry than some other more academic attempts. Of this I remain rather opinionated, having read far too many scholars attempting to give life to ancient and modern Persian verse though ultimately settling too much for meaning without sufficient attention to style. Wolpe uses her skills as a poet to bring both together here. When Skateboards Will Be Free, by Said Sayrafiezadeh Like translations of Persian poetry, there are a plethora of memoirs by Iranian- Americans. I post this one for two reasons: 1). As ethnic genre, the Iranian-American memoir is almost monopolized by females, and... Continue reading
Posted Aug 27, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
To blog is to post to a community, so I thought for this penultimate entry as guest blogger I’d start there, with the value of sharing our work and thoughts about writing with others. As authors we obviously presume an audience, even if it’s in our heads. Community, though, is quite different. It involves give and take support among other writers that exists far beyond the mere workshop. I’m sure this sounds obvious to the point of cliché in the age of so many MFA programs made to accommodate and acculturate developing writers to community. Having written very much in isolation and at times oblivion, without an MFA to my credit, I’ve found that for me it’s been almost as new and novel as blogging. Before teaching in my current MFA program, where I have the privilege of working among accomplished and inspiring colleagues as well as increasingly brilliant student writers and translators, I existed in a kind of void. I was teaching a full load (5/4) at a community college, during the first two years of which I was also finishing a dissertation for a PhD in English. Of course I had little time to write creatively, though I still managed to eke out poems in very small slivers of free time (In this I heeded the advice of my predecessor at Queens College, Marie Ponsot, who in addition to the teaching and publishing demands at a public university raised several children. When students would tell her they didn’t have time to write, she’d reply, “Do you have 15 minutes??!!!”). More than lacking in time, I lacked a creative outlet beyond submitting to journals and first book contests. Writing of course becomes lonely business regardless of the circumstances, but I almost forgot, at least at times, that my work could potentially matter to anyone. One day when standing in the hallway and complaining to my friend Joe Bisz, a fiction writer colleague, he drew a small circle on the wall. “Roger,” he told me, “more than a next publication, even a next poem at this point, you need a small circle that supports you…where you feel a part of.” This looked a lot different than an MFA or even a writers' group. First and foremost I needed a community. We ended up sharing a lot of our work with each other, and, perhaps more importantly, our lives (like what we were reading, teaching, writing to or for, etc.). At one point we decided to stage a late night/invitation only gathering in one of our offices, which we decorated like an Indian restaurant on 6th street in Manhattan. We decided to call it “The Intellectual Spectacle” and also turn it into a chocolate tasting and multi-media presentation of post-colonial themes behind Joe’s writng. Only colleagues we felt would understand and appreciate our work, along with a few selected students, were invited. I ended up writing a very different kind of poetry because the only stakes were to showcase our work... Continue reading
Posted Aug 26, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
After finishing a review of Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati’s new translation of the modern Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s long poem Water’s Footfall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian culture’s long and inventive accommodation of other traditions. Art in the United States from its inception has appropriated traditions so well that at times it seems Americans, myself included, think that they invented the kind of radical intertextuality that so defines our contemporary aesthetic. I’ll not go deep into Sepehri’s work or the translation of it, but the gist of what I continued to find in revisiting this poem in such a well-done translation is how subtly and smartly Persian modernism absorbed European and far Eastern influences, even while retaining its cultural identity. While much less audacious (and egregious) than Pound's or Eliot’s cutting and pasting foreign traditions into their work, Sepehri fuses his own experience of an Iranian tradition with a wide and interesting range of outside sources. Ironically, what we’ve come to call “intertextuality” in the parlance of reductive academic post-structuralism, arises from a quotation in response to another text. While Mikhail Bakhtin receives credit for the literary concept, Julia Kristeva’s coinage of the term in her summary of Bakhtin’s writing on dialogism typically gets used to describe it: “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Taking that mosaic as a kind of Persian carpet, Sepehri’s absorption of other influences links to an Islamic as well as a more specifically Sufi tradition to create something new, a kind of Persian romanticism for the modern era. Such intertextuality most attracts me to the experience of Iran as a hybrid (Iranian-American) poet and critic in the 21st century. Poetry offers one of many mosaics that reveals how the Persian culture has retained its identity—including its language—despite the conquest and spread of multiple invaders and influences, retaining its pre-Islamic figurative and literal history following the Arab conquest and spread of Islam, for example, through the writing of Ferdowsi’s famous epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). When my wife’s cousins picked us up from the airport in Tehran, Radiohead played in the car as we drove passed mosques listening to snippets of calls to prayer on loudspeakers. As far as America goes, which politically positions itself antithetically to the Islamic Republic, friends and relatives in Iran watch the same reality t.v. shows as my wife in the U.S. The cultural interchange of course cuts both ways, (or rather a zillion ways, considering how multimedia has amplified the intertexual crossings among most cultures of the world). I’m told that Ryan Seacrest is soon to host a reality show featuring rich Iranians in Los Angeles. As much as poetry defines the very character of Iran, a country that names its streets after poets and where even the illiterate can recite Hafez from memory, a multitude of pop culture signifiers reflects and expands upon Sepehri’s revolutionary moves. Music, of course, is a... Continue reading
Posted Aug 25, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
A quick entry today, yet one keeping with the Persian connection and the aforementioned quote by one of the old masters summarizing the classical verse of Iran: “The poetry is in the rhyme.” So a list of some memorable, and at times favorite, rhymes. There are some from poetry, but I’ve tried to explore further territory. I’m also going to qualify these as I don’t offer them as the all time best. Some I merely adore for how they work in context of the greater work, theme, etc. Again, I’m selfishly setting something in motion in hopes of reading a score of favorites from others: I leant upon a coppice gate When Frost was spectre-grey, And Winter's dregs made desolate The weakening eye of day. The tangled bine-stems scored the sky Like strings of broken lyres, And all mankind that haunted nigh Had sought their household fires. --Thomas Hardy ("The Darkling Thrush") “Grab your dancin’ shoes/We’ll go and end them blues ‘Cause I ain’t got, nothin’ but time.” --Hank Williams (Ain’t Got Nothin’ But Time) “Oh mighty warrior of great fighting stock, Might I inquire to ask, eh…What’s up doc?” --Bugs Bunny (from parody of Wagner’s Ring Cycle) “I got the cleanest, meanest, penis You never seen this stroke of genius” --Notorious BIG (One More Chance) “Me/We” --Mohammad Ali “And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the feary power Of unreflecting love, then on the shore Of the wide world, I stand alone and think, Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” --John Keats (“When I Have Fears…” “So if you are out there waitin’ I hope you show up soon ‘Cause my head needs relatin’ Not solitude.” --Neil Young (“Lotta Love”) “Livin’ life without fear Puttin’ five carrots in my baby’s girl ear.” --Notorious BIG (“Juicy”) “Has the light gone out for you ‘Cause the light’s gone out for me. It is the 21st century.” --Radiohead (“Jigsaw Falling into Place”) Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity – --Emily Dickinson “Don't ever fix your lips like collagen Say something where you gonna’ end up apologin’.” --Kanye West, “Can’t Tell me Nothing” “This heavy historical sail Through the mustiest blue of the lake In a really vertiginous boat Is wholly the vapidest fake.” --Wallace Stevens (“Sailing After Lunch”) Continue reading
Posted Aug 24, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Tattoos, unlike smoking, remain pretty cool. They’re also here to stay (and in keeping with the loose Persian connections, please allow the pun). I thought of introducing a brief collage of poetry tattooed on strangers and friends. Of course I suspected something like this had been done before, but I had no idea of the quality nor the extent of such projects. Before briefly exploring some Persian connections and implications of this topic, I want to thank writer Facebook friends for introducing me to a couple of great publications: Editors Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil have created an anthology of fantastic writers that capture the art of tattooing in various ways in Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. Also of interest is Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor’s The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide, a great coffee table book featuring great photographs of literary excerpts tattooed on various body parts. I also want to mention too that my Queens College Early Americanist colleague Sian Roberts advises researching into “moko,” which,” she says, “is deeply integrated into Maori and Polynesian culture (fun fact: ‘tattoo’ originated as a Polynesian word.)” In thinking about this topic in relation to things Persian (my commitment for my week of blogging), I also got to know those already in my life by various poetry on their skin. I didn’t know, prior to this entry, that my friend Jason Tougaw, a Comp. Rhetoric specialist (also at Queens College) has a Cocteau drawing of Orpheus, which explains in part why he seems to embody a kind of poetry. Stefanie Simons, who I got to know at Pen America, has tattooed part of an Aracelis Girmay poem on her body (yet another significant reason Stefanie is such a cool young writer). Getting more serious with things—and hopefully I can put a few pics up of what I’m seeing—Claire Van Winkle, poet and translator (and new MFA student at Queens) has this on her arm from Jorie Graham “The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. ~JG” Always, or usually, the arms of these writers carry the words of writers, as if literally connecting to some key influence. By way of transition to the Persian, Tara Mokhtari, an Iranian-Australian poet and critic who I recently met during her visit to NYC, has the following lines in Perisan on her arm from the modern Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri (about whom I hope to blog soon). She offers the following loose translation: "Live large, and alone, and modest, and unyielding.” Most people, she notes, get a little disappointed when she explains the “alone” part. Writers, however, would surely understand. I offer these tattooed lines as a greater transition to the well-known early trendsetting images of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who radically politicized the female body with words from poetry as well as other sources. Like Neshat’s work, Mokhtari’s words both attract and subvert attention, as the latter explained how men during her... Continue reading
Posted Aug 23, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
My experience with the ghazal, as both a translator from the classical Persian as well as an Iranian-American poet writing in the form in English), gets me thinking comparatively, both in terms of time and space. New translations of any great writing will always appear, in part because literary styles change along with a reading audience. Thinking about how this form reaches from the 13th and 14th centuries to today, even as it spans regions (from Iran to America), continues to offer a kind of intercultural space for some postmodern funkiness. I didn’t think, out of all the things in the world to blog about, that I’d find myself here, but to make it worthwhile, I want to focus on form in relation to theme. If I remember correctly, T.S. Eliot has that great metaphor about theme or meaning in a poem as analogous to the meat the burglar throws the guard dog as he sneaks into the home for the jewels (the style). To a great extent, the “beloved” in the ghazal has served as the desired object, especially for Persians, who adapted the longing for the divine into such a sensual and tangible form, wherein the beloved becomes the material manifestation of divine presence. As a result, writers like Hafez began juxtaposing the high and the low, esoteric theological matters with full red lips, long before rock n’ roll was invented, let alone rap or hip hop. Of course, some of these depictions do not safely fall under the rubric of political correctness. This makes the current writing of the form that much interesting, when considering a Persian writer like Simin Behbahani who, while honoring the form of the ghazal , inverts the gender of the beloved, a politicized/feminist statement on the centuries old tradition. For all their erudition, readers then and now are still dogs, regardless of the desired object, so I thought if only to satisfy my own hunger, I’d throw out contemporary manifestations of the beloved—objects of transcending desire—as they surface in different kinds of writing. Again, it’s not like these have direct relevance to the form, but they do capture something of the spirit of longing for the beloved, albeit within the context of the culture in which they are written. Here’s a little list arising from a survey of some favorites. They are off the top of my head—lines to and for various beloveds—and admittedly they tend to get too male/chauvinistic. I really would like to see collective posts here, various lists from men and women: Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend I want to guard your dreams and visions Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims And strap your hands across my engines --Bruce Springsteen “Pray and play, play and pray.” Miles Davis “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too.” --Wicked Witch of the West, Wizard of Oz “In this country first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
“Lil’ Wayne writes ghazals.” This from Program Coordinator and poet Reynold Martin to the amazing group of teens doing spoken word (and so much more) at Urban Word as he introduced the workshop I gave on the ghazal a couple of weeks ago. Thanks to poets doing well with the form in English—especially the likes of Marilyn Hacker, Suzanne Gardinier, and the late Agha Shahid Ali—more often than not the form needs little introduction. Thankfully, it also lends itself to so much clever invention in our trans-cultural age that it spontaneously receives an introduction like the one from Reynold. One of the many classical masters from Iran aptly defined Persian verse by saying, “Poetry is in the rhyme.” That may sound a bit antiquated, even among contemporary Iranian writers, who tend to break away from the established Persian form of the ghazal. Yet rhyme of course endures, insisting on making itself heard, whether in the original poems of Rumi and Hafez or the lyrics of Lil’ Wayne. In asking the teens at the workshop why rhyme keeps coming, and also what is it about rhyme for Rumi and others that inherently makes for us a kind of spiritual connection, versions of the same response answered both questions. Basically, as they observed, it links what might not belong together, cleverly connecting as it helps us to remember. I get the gist of Reyold’s comparison, but following the workshop I needed to explore it for myself. First, a very brief recap on the form of the ghazal. Sticklers will rightly get upset and say I’ve glossed too much here, but it’s a blog entry, for goodness sake. Rest assured, there are ample resources out there to better and further introduce the form. I’d say a good place to start is Shahid Ali’s introduction in his anthology: Ravishing Disunities: Real Ghazals in English. Anyway, here is a short overview, followed by a comparative analysis to Lil’ Wayne and others: The ghazal is a poem comprised of autonomously closed couplets, wherein each stanza stands independently from others. A recurring rhyme followed by a repeated phrase concludes both lines of the first couplet as well as the second line of the remaining couplets. Typically, the convention calls for the poet or persona to include his or name in the concluding couplet. Emerging in 7th Century Arabia, the form became especially well known through the 13th and 14th century verse of Persian poets such as Rumi and Hafez, making its way to later poets writing in Urdu such as Ghalib. It has been adopted by other poets writing in Hebrew, Turkish, German, Spanish, and English. To give an excellent example, here are a few lines from Shahid Ali’s poem, “Even the Rain,” Even the Rain by Agha Shahid Ali What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain? But he has bought grief's lottery, bought even the rain. "our glosses / wanting in this world" "Can you remember?" Anyone! "when we thought / the poets... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
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Aug 20, 2011