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Sholeh Wolpe
Los Angeles
Sholeh Wolpe is a poet and literary translator.
Recent Activity
"They are apostates and must not contaminate the resting place of Muslims.” Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I believe that seeing the world through another person’s eyes forges an inner shift towards an ever-expanding movement and that poetry, too, can precipitate such change. Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
In 1955, Davood Pirniya, a music lover and a well-connected and powerful man within the Iranian government, used his political resources to fund and establish an orchestra, bringing in the best vocalists and composers for a new radio program that presented a gorgeous marriage of music and poetry. He called the program Flowers (Golha). The earliest version, Eternal Flowers (Golhayeh Javidan), featured poetry by beloved ancient poets: Saadi, Rumi, and Hafez. In each program selected poems were recited by a mellifluous voice, followed by a musical interlude and then golden-throated singing to a beautiful composition in traditional form. Later, in Multicolored Flowers (Golhayeh Rang a Rang), poems by contemporary poets were also included in the program. Although singing poems is an old Iranian tradition, these programs introduced to the public—young and old, rich and poor—work by new poets as well as by ancient masters, in a form that was pleasing to the ear and the heart, the mind and the soul. These radio programs became immensely popular in both cities and villages, among the well-educated as well the illiterate. Iranian diva, Homeyra The programs were numbered. Here is number 570, with Homeyra, one of the divas of the time, singing poems by two contemporary poets as well as Iran’s beloved Hafez. The program begins with an introduction of the artists; then Firouzeh Amirmoez recites the first section of the first poem. After a brief musical interlude, Homeyra sings that same section. Listen: Today many of Iran’s talented musicians and vocalists live in exile. Here in the United States a well-known and immensely talented Iranian vocalist and composer, Mamak Khadem, is among a handful of musicians in exile who have kept this beautiful tradition alive. In her 2011 album, A Window To Color, Mamak brings to musical life Iran’s beloved 20th-century poet, Sohrab Sepehri. Here is a video renditions of one of the songs, "At the Water's Edge" (Labeh Aab): In recent years Mamak has also begun composing traditional Persian music for poems written in English or in translation. In 2010 she performed my poem (written in English,) “I Am Neda,” at the Billy Wilder Theater for an event sponsored by PEN USA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Two years later, in her album Widow to Color, Mamak sang Sepehri’s poem “Az Sabz Be Sabz” (Green to Green) in translation. It’s enchanting to hear the English words dance between Persian melodies. Here is a portion of “Green to Green,” along with its translation. I wish I could play the entire song here, but if you are interested, download it from iTunes. Better yet, get the album. It comes with an insert with all the translations. From Green To Green From Green to Green Iranian poet, Sohrab Sepehri(1928-1980) (by Sohrab Sepehri, Translated by Sholeh Wolpé) I, in this darkness wish for a luminous lamb to come, to graze on the grass of my weariness. I, in this darkness see my outstretched arms Mamak Khadem, Iranian-American vocalist and composer wet beneath... Continue reading
Posted Jan 29, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Have you ever been to a foreign film or opera where you got the feeling you were missing the point of the story, or had been cheated of the poetry of the dialogue, poem, or lyrics because the subtitles or supertitles were badly translated? The first clue may be bad grammar or misspellings, as in “launch” for “lunch,” but not all poor translations leave that kind of footprint. More often, they simply render the film or the opera cheated of the power it has in its original language. I recently saw Iran’s film submission to the Academy Awards, Today, at the Palm Springs Film Festival. It is a beautiful film about a taxi driver in Tehran and a young woman who gets in his taxi. She is pregnant, bruised from beatings, and in labor. What follows is a heartrending depiction of a sweet young woman dealing bravely and innocently with her lot in a man’s world, and a simple taxi driver’s capacity for compassion and kindness. It’s a film that rivals last year’s Academy Awards winner, A Separation—except for its subtitles. THEY SUCKED! Didn’t the director, Reza Mirkarimi, care about translation? Was he clueless about how important subtitles are in a film in which every line matters? Or was he simply unaware that the translator of his film was unqualified for the task? When a film director, vocalist, or composer is focused on his or her own art, he or she must not forget that an audience unfamiliar with the language and culture of the work enters the film or the opera through the gate of translation. For example, if you are presenting a musical about a poet and use translations of his or her work by different translators because this serves your production politically or financially, you render the poetic voice in translation uneven. In doing so you cheat the poet, who if dead cannot protect the integrity of his or her poems. You also cheat yourself by rendering your own production weak. When you have a beautiful, important film, and you pay no attention to its subtitles, in effect you are being unfair to your writer, your actors, your audience, and yourself as a director. As we walked out of the movie theater, a woman behind me told her husband: I loved this film but I have a feeling I missed out on a lot of what characters were truly saying. I turned around and said: Yes, you did. Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
In 2013, the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa launched a multimedia web gallery with 52 weekly installments of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself in 15 languages. Each installment of the poem was supplemented with commentaries from distinguished scholar Ed Folsom, and poet and literary translator Chris Merrill, who is also the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. When I was commissioned to translate this American classic into Persian for the Whitman Web, I knew it was going to be an all-consuming project for the next 52 weeks of my life. When I first read Song of Myself in college, I wished I had read it in translation when I was in school back in Iran. It would have changed my perspective of the United States in a radical way. At the time what I knew of America came through the lens of Hollywood Westerns, dramas, and TV soaps such as the very popular Days of Our Lives. Here I was now with the means and opportunity to give my fellow Iranians Whitman’s masterpiece. I was excited. I was also terrified. What a daunting, humbling, and at the same time exhilarating project! Translation is re-creation. I knew I had to re-create Whitman’s poem in a language and culture fundamentally different from English and the world within which Whitman lived. And I knew I could not do it alone. So I called my friend, Iranian poet and translator Mohsen Emadi, who lives in exile in Mexico City. He was a poet I trusted and whose work I had translated into English. Together we planned to work on Skype and re-create Song of Myself into Persian. As poets we were united in our approach to literary translation. We both believed that we owed the poem (and Whitman himself) our absolute best to deliver a living, breathing Song of Myself in Persian—a re-creation. Sholeh Wolpe and Mohsen Emadi working via Skype On our first day of collaboration, we spent two hours discussing how to translate the title. We settled on Avaz-e-Kheeshtan. Still ahead were weeks of such discussions and of cutting to the marrow of the poem. Some nights I went to sleep with pages of the sections we were translating scattered on my bed. I studied each section in depth, produced the first draft of the translation, and sent it to Mohsen. He then sent me his draft, after which I responded with mine. We’d then Skype and work on the fourth and fifth drafts together, mouthing the words to compare their music and discussing the use of one word versus another, in terms of implication, historical reference, and musicality. Whitman sang in my head for those 52 weeks, spoke to me, teased me with lines I thought impossible to translate. This is a poem that is deeply rooted in American culture and expressions—expressions in need of interpretation or complete re-creation, as in the case of such lines as “Endless unfolding of words of ages!”... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
At the 2014 AWP conference in Seattle, I went to a reading sponsored by Slapering Hol Press, the African Poetry Book Fund, and Prairie Schooner, presenting poets from a new collection. Instead of putting seven poets in one anthology, the editors Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani gave each poet a chapbook, then put the seven chapbooks into a beautifully designed box called Seven New Generation African Poets. The poets are TJ Dema, Clifton Gachagua, Tsitsi Jaji, Nick Makoha, and Len Verwey, Warsan Shire, and Ladan Osman. What a brilliant way to introduce young African poets to the American public. “We are finding in these poets,” writes Kwame in his introduction, “a cadre of writers who remain committed to the rich and enduring challenge of finding a voice and idiom that manages to reflect a quality of modernity operating in African cultures.” I was particularly taken by Somali-American poet Ladan Osman, who won the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan poet residing in the UK. Ladan’s poetry is unaffected and simple, unabashedly alive in spirit, and full of interrogation—desperate questions that are flung our way with care and craft: Ladan Osman If this poet is white in third world countries, what am I here? It’s possible I’m just like the wind in the curtains. or Why do rocks enslave water? What is the slave’s poem? Does the sea favor its roar or murmur? Warsan Shire’s poems knocked the breath out of me. Her voice is unbounded, original, and honest. In Conversations about Home, she writes: Warsan Shire No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another son, another tongue, or another language. I know a shame that shrouds, totally engulfs. I tore up and ate my own passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget. I am thankful to Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani for selflessly and diligentlysupporting such bright new voices from Africa. Literature can serve as a bridge between cultures and people, and in these dark times what better way to serve humankind than to build that bridge, poem by poem. Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, photo by Don Usnerwhat Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
It has been a pleasure blogging for the Best American Poetry this week. As promised, here are two poems by Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Mates Night comes then darkness past night’s darkness-- eyes hands then, rhythmic breathing in – out in – out and the drip drop drip drop drip drop of water slipping from the tap then, two cigarettes two spots of glowing red the tick tick of a clock and two hearts steeped in loneliness... (from Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpe) Wind-Up Doll Even more, oh yes, one can remain silent even more. Inside eternal hours one can fix lifeless eyes on the smoke of a cigarette, on a cup’s form, the carpet’s faded flowers, or on imaginary writings on the wall. With stiff claws one can whisk the curtains aside, look outside. It’s streaming rain. A child with a balloon bouquet cowers beneath a canopy. A rickety cart flees the deserted square in haste. One can remain fixed in one place, here beside this curtain…but deaf, but blind. With an alien voice, utterly false, one can cry out: I love! In the oppressive arms of a man one can be a robust, beautiful female-- skin like leather tablecloth, breasts large and hard. One can stain the sinlessness of love in the bed of a drunk, a madman, a tramp. One can cunningly belittle every perplexing puzzle. Alone, occupy oneself with crosswords, content with unimportant words, yes, unimportant letters, no more than five or six. One can spend a lifetime kneeling, head bowed, before the cold altar of the Imams, find God inside an anonymous grave, faith in a few paltry coins. One can rot inside a mosque’s chamber, an old woman, prayers dripping from lips. Whatever the equation, one can always be a zero, yielding nothing, whether added, subtracted, or multiplied. One can think your eyes are buttons from an old ragged shoe caught in a web of anger. One can evaporate like water from one’s own gutter. With shame one can hide a beautiful moment like a dark, comic instant photo rammed deep into a wooden chest. Inside a day’s empty frame one can mount the portrait of a condemned, a vanquished, a crucified. Cover the gaps in the walls with silly, meaningless drawings. Like a wind-up doll one can look out at the world through glass eyes, spend years inside a felt box, body stuffed with straw, wrapped in layers of dainty lace. With every salacious squeeze of one’s hand, for no reason one can cry: Ah, how blessed, how happy I am! (from Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, translated by Sholeh Wolpe) Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
The 1979 Iranian revolution was a people’s revolution hijacked. Whether Muslim, Jewish, socialist or atheist, all fought side-by-side to end one tyrannical regime to only find themselves in the clutches of another, even more ruthless and oppressive. But in a country like Iran, literature, and particularly poetry, is like rain—it cannot be arrested. Vast umbrellas of censorship can be raised, people can be forced underground and into dungeons, but the water will eventually seep in, cleanse, nourish, and create a new landscape. In Iran’s Green Revolution we see signs of saplings that have broken through pavements and are growing fast in the streets and squares. Anthologies such, Let Me Tell You Where I’ve been (edited by Persis Karim), Strange Times My Dear (edited by Nahid Mozaffari), The Forbidden: Poem From Iran and It’s Exiles (edited by Sholeh Wolpé) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East (edited by Reza Aslan) empower these saplings. This power does not just come from their fellow Iranians, rather it comes from all human beings in every corner of the world; it comes from readers like you who allow in your lives the transformative power of literature. In This Dead-End Road They sniff your breath lest you have said: I love you. They sniff your heart-- (such strange times, my sweet) and they flog love at every checkpoint. We must hide love in the backroom. In the cold of this dead-end crooked road they stoke their pyres with our poems and songs. Don’t risk thinking, for these are strange times, my sweet. The man who beats at the door in the nadir of night, has come to kill the lamp. We must hide light in the backroom. Those are butchers in passageways with their chopping blocks and bloodies cleavers. (Such strange times, my sweet) They hack off smiles from faces and songs from mouths. We must hide pleasure in the back room. Canaries are barbequed on flames of lilies and jasmines… (such strange times, my sweet) and the devil, drunk on victory, feasts at the table set for our wake. We must hide God in the back room. (Poem by Ahmad Shamlou, Translated by Sholeh Wolpé) From The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and It’s Exiles, (Michigan State University, 2012) Continue reading
Posted Nov 8, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Today, I’d like to share with you a poem by Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), a gifted painter and poet who drew his images from eastern mysticism. I think it’s a fitting poem to read one day after the presidential elections. It’s a poem that in its own timeless way addresses many issues we grapple with today, issues such as the environment, United State’s foreign policy, and our sense of responsibility towards each other and towards our fellow human beings around the world. Continue reading
Posted Nov 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
At a time when literature and the arts, and just about everything else in Iran were dominated by men, when very few women were respected as poets, a young woman by the name of Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) began writing and publishing poems that radiated with sensuality, pushing the boundaries of what could be uttered or put on paper by women. Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Literature in translation is a tool necessary in building bridges that connect people of different cultures and religious persuasions. Continue reading
Posted Nov 5, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Nov 5, 2012