A Political Poetry: Reading and Conversation with Solmaz Sharif || Radcliffe Institute

[MUSIC PLAYING] – Good afternoon. Yes. My name is Hisa Kuriyama. I am the Faculty Director for
the Humanities at the Radcliffe Institute. And I’d certainly like to
welcome you, and thank you for coming this afternoon. I also want to congratulate
you for being here. Here you are on a beautiful
October afternoon, October 22, 2018. Hopefully, this will be an
event that you’ll remember for the rest of your lives. You’re very fortunate
to be here for, I think, what will be a memorable event. The fact that you’re
here, I think, probably shows that you already
know the great pleasures you have in store. We’re welcoming,
first, Solmaz Sharif, who I think probably most
of you know something about. But let me just remind you. She is currently the Jones
lecturer in the Stanford Creative Writing Program
and really one of the rising stars in American poetry. Her first collection
of poetry, Look– from which she’ll be
reading from today– was a finalist for the
National Book Award and was named a New York
Times notable book of 2016, Publisher’s Weekly
best book of 2016, The Washington Post best poetry
collection of 2016 and one of The New Yorker’s
books we loved in 2016. It’s won her numerous
literary fellowships. And I think you’ll see
why this afternoon. We’re also privileged to have
Evie Shockley, another very distinguished poet
and Radcliffe Fellow, with us to discuss
some Solamaz’s poetry after her reading. Evie herself is a
prize-winning poet. And her collection,
Semiautomatic, was a finalist for the
Pulitzer Prize in poetry and The Los Angeles Times
book prize in poetry. She’s also a scholar of
African-American literature and is a professor at
Rutgers University. We’re happy to have Solmaz here
not only just because she’s generously agreed to
give this poetry reading, but also she’s with us for
this whole month working on the papers of June Jordan,
who was one of her professors at UC Berkeley. And as you may know,
June Jordan was one of the great poets of
our times and, not least, a very eloquent
reader of poetry. And her papers at the
[? selection ?] do include not only– as I learned just now– papers from her
childhood, but also include an extensive series
of recordings of her readings and her interviews. I mention this
because I think this is one of the things that makes
poetry readings so interesting and engaging, that our
encounter with most poets is with the printed page. But here we have the
opportunity to really hear the music that’s latent in the
periods, the commas, the line breaks, and in her work, Look. Solmaz utilizes not
only these conventions, but also it makes important use
of things like italicization and capitalization. And I’m very curious to
hear how that translates into the spoken word. And I mention this
not least because I think it’s important to
think about poetry readings especially, but also lectures
in general, as participatory events. So she’s reading for us,
which is a opportunity for us. But as listeners, I think
it’s important to think about listening as an activity. And I want to conclude by
giving you a short passage by [INAUDIBLE],, the French
historian of the 19th century, who, in his inaugural lecture
at the College de France, was thanking the people who
were transcribing his lecture but also expressing
certain misgivings. This is December 29, 1842. He says, “You may
think that only one person is speaking here. But you would be wrong. You are speaking, too. I act, and you react. I teach, and you teach me. I can feel your
objections, your approval. How? It’s impossible to say. It is the mystery of great
crowns, the flash of exchange, the interaction of minds. Teaching is not an exhibition. It is the fertile, mutual
communication between a speaker and an audience. Let’s explore together.” So with that, I’d
like you to all welcome enthusiastically
our speaker, Solmaz Sharif. – Thank you, everyone. Hello. I am just so
overjoyed to be here. And I thank you so
much for coming. I’m going to start
by reading some poems from my first collection,
which is called Look. And then maybe I’ll close with
a couple newer poems at the end. But Look is a book that
deals in part with the US Department of Defense’s
Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The US Department of Defense
has its own internal dictionary that aims to supplement
standard English dictionaries, amending the definitions
that we might find there to fit their context. So for example, the
word “look” itself has been redefined by the
Department of Defense to mean, in mine warfare, a period
during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence. And the influence is
obviously the person that is stepping on the mine. So the definition
gives us a kind of example of the twisted
syntax, and the euphemism, and everything that really goes
into creating a language that will allow for violence. And I have always been obsessed
with state-sponsored language, and how violence
against a bodies is premeditated in a
violence against language, how that intersects with
the role of the poet as a caretaker of
language if nothing else, and what it might mean to
make the language of the state reckon with the
language of the lyric and the language of the self. And so that’s where it
starts with this book. Maybe to give us a sense
of the this DOD language, I’ll actually read a poem that’s
called “Perception Management.” It’s an abridged list
of actual operation names taken from the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Perception Management. Antica Babylonia, Baghdad,
Bastille, Abilene, Suicide Kings, Gun Barrel
City, God Help Us, Army Santa, Cave Dwellers, Rock Bottom,
Plymouth Rock, Rat Trap, Cow Pens, Baghdad is Beautiful,
Backbreaker, Block Party, Swashbucklers, Swimmers,
Punisher, Beastmaster, Flea Flicker, Firecracker, Lightning
Hammer, Iraqi Home Protector, Tombstone Pile Driver,
Bone Breaker, Iron Reaper, [INAUDIBLE] Enjoy Freedom,
Spring Break, Rocket Man, Gladiator, Outlaw Destroyer,
Dirty Hairy, Gold Digger, Unforgiven, Raging
Bull, Thundercat, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” “Look.” “It matters what
you call a thing. Exquisite– a lover
called me exquisite. Whereas, well, if I
were from your culture living in this country, said the
man outside the 2004 Republican National Convention, I would put
up with that for this country. Whereas, I felt the
need to clarify, you would put up with
torture, you mean? And he proclaimed, yes. Whereas, what is your life? Whereas, years after they
look down from their jets and declare my mother’s
[INAUDIBLE] block probably destroyed, we walked by the
villas, the faces of buildings torn off into dioramas,
and recorded it on a handheld camcorder. Whereas, it could take
as long as 16 seconds between the trigger pulled
in Las Vegas and the Hellfire Missile landing
in Mazar-i-Sharif, after which they will
ask, did we hit a child? No, a dog, they will
answer themselves. Whereas, the federal judge at
the sentencing hearing said, I want to make sure I pronounced
the defendant’s name correctly. Whereas, this lover
would pronounce my name, and call me exquisite,
and lay the floor lamp across the floor,
softening even the light. Whereas, the lover made my
heat rise, rise so that, if heat sensors
were trained on me, they could read my thermal
shadow through the roof and through the wardrobe. Whereas, it’s not like
seeing a dead body walking to the grocery store here. It’s not like that. It’s a rock. You know it’s a rock. It’s kind of, like, acceptable
to see that there and not– it was kind of like seeing a
dead dog or a dead cat lying. Whereas, I thought if you
would look at my exquisite face or my father’s, he
would reconsider. Whereas, you mean I
should be disappeared because of my family name? And he answered, yes,
that’s exactly what I mean, adding that his wife
helped draft the Patriot Act. Whereas, the
federal judge wanted to be sure he was pronouncing
the defendant’s name correctly and said he had read
all the exhibits, which included the letter I wrote to
cast the defendant in a loving light. Whereas, today, we celebrate
things like his transfer to a detention center
closer to home. Whereas, his son has
moved across the country. Whereas, I made nothing happen. Whereas, you know not what
shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a thermal shadow. It appears so little and then
vanishes from the screen. Whereas, I cannot
control my own heat. And it can take as
long as 16 seconds between the trigger, the
Hellfire Missile, and a dog, they will answer themselves. Whereas, a dog, they will say. Now therefore, let it
matter what we call a thing. Let it be the exquisite face
for at least 16 seconds. Let me look at you. Let me look at you in a light
that takes years to get here.” “Deception Story.” “Friends describe my disposition
as stoic, like a dead fish, an ex said. Distance is a
funny drug and used to make me a distressed
person, one who cried in bedrooms and airports. Once, I bawled so
hard at the border even the man with the stamps
and holster said, don’t cry. You’ll be home soon. My distribution over the globe
debated and set to quota. A nation can only
handle so many of me. Ditching class, I break into
my friend’s dad’s mansion and swim in the Beverly
Hills pool in a borrowed T-shirt, a brief diversion. My body breaking the
chlorinated surface makes it momentarily my house,
my division of driveway gate and alarm codes, my
dress-rehearsed doctrine of pool boys, and
ping pong, and water delivered on the backs of
sequinned Sparkletts trucks. Over here, Dolly, an
agent will call out then pat the hair at
your hot, black dome. After explaining what
she will touch, backs of the hands of the
breast and buttocks, the hand goes
inside my waistband. And my heart goes
dormant, a dead fish. The last female assist,
I decided to hit on. My life in the American
dream is a downgrade, a mere draft of home. Correction– it
satisfies as drag. It is snarling what
I carve of it alone.” I have an uncle– or had– an uncle who was a
draftee in the Iran-Iraq War and was killed. And I never met him. And I learned that,
when he was killed, he had a slim photo
album on his body. And I also learned that
he had sent letters from the front lines
home to his family. And so I used those
materials, and basically whatever I could
get my hands on, whatever Wikipedia entry, or
little historical document that I could find to
try to piece together, understand this life. And I wrote a long
elegy out of this. It’s called “Personal Effects.” And I’ll just read a
few sections of that. It opens with an
epigraph by Susan Sontag. “Like guns in cars, cameras
are fantasy machines whose use is addictive. I place a photograph of my uncle
on my computer desktop, which means I learned to ignore it. He stands by a tank, helmet
tilting to his right, bootlaces tightened as if
stitching together a wound. Alive, the hand
brings up a cigarette we won’t see him taste. Last night, I smoked
one on the steps outside my barn apartment. I promise, I broke myself. He promised himself
he wouldn’t and did. I smell my fingers. And I’m smelling his hands
of smoke and gunpowder, hands that promised
they wouldn’t but did. You were not ready. But they issued the shovel,
and the rifle, and you dug. But to watch you sitting
there between the sandbags. But to watch the sand
spilling out the bullet holes. But what did they expect? But what did they really think
a sheet of metal could prevent? But I sat rolling
little ears of pasta off my thumb like helmets. But it was not a
table of fallen men. But my hand registered fatigue. But the men in fatigues were
tired of sleeping in shifts. But you snuck into
town and dialed home until you wrote your
fingers were tired. But the code for
Shiraz was down. But all of Shiraz was down. But the sheet lightning
above the Ferris wheel of rusted bolts. But I’m sure they are
all right, you wrote. Well, to reassure yourself. But the wind like an old mouth
shaking the unnamed evergreen outside my window. But what I mean is I’d like
very much to talk a bit. Hello. Daily, I sit with
the language they’ve made of our language
to neutralize the capability of the
low-dollar-value items like you. You are what is referred
to as a casualty, unclear whether from a catalytic
or frontal attack, unclear the final time you were
addressed thou beloved. It was, for us, a catastrophic
event, just destroyed. Died of wounds
received in action. Yes, there was early warning. You said you were especially
scared of mortar rounds. In execution
planning, they weighed the losses, the
sustainability, and budgeted for X number of you. They budgeted for the
phone call to your mother and weighed that against
the amount saved in rations, and your taste for
cigarettes, and the tea you poured your
boys, and the tea would have poured
me approaching, hello, the change you
collected in jars, jumping a bit as
the family learns to slam the home’s
various doors. What I see are your
hands peeling apples, the skin curling to
the floor and one long unravel, a spit-up film reel
loosened from its canister. And I’m not even sure they
are apples, quince, pear, some desert potato with a stem. From the number
of peels, I assume you’re feeding the
other men in your tent. Your head is down. Maybe the cameraman
asks you to look at him and you couldn’t stomach it. Maybe around you today they
fell until you didn’t understand how you hadn’t been hit. I decide you were happy for
the knife in your hands, the white dust on
your bare feet. I am happy to see your
bare feet in this photo. They are the only
things that made me cry. It’s that they existed and that
they, appalling, look so dead already. I think it’s fair to
say you want something to do with your hands, whether
or not the photographer placed the apples in front of you,
whether or not they are apples, whether or not
earlier that day you saw a friend’s lungs peeking
out the back of his throat. I cannot name the weapons
leaning on the wall behind you. Kalashnikovs, Howitzers,
as you write a letter. I wrote, I burned my
finger on the broiler and smelled trenches, my
uncle pissing himself. How can she write that? She doesn’t know, a friend,
a daughter of a Vietnam vet, told another friend, another
daughter of a Vietnam vet. I write him daily. And so I learn to ignore him. And so I begin to
list pocket contents as if filing an autopsy report. And I place in his hands
a metal tongue of a fly. And I place in his hands a metal
tongue of a tank control board. And I place in his hands a Bic
lighter and loose-leaf paper. And I place in his hands
a trigger, a shudder. And still, not even a
bar of his laughter. And by April, the
script in his letters grew tighter, barbed, men
in a shoulder-width trench. And when I sounded out
‘mean’ to mean landmine, a hole appeared in his letter,
and I couldn’t look at it. And I drove into a
pothole after a pothole. And I drove past 100
balloons held down in a net. And gone even the
netting over his helmet. And alive, we
bring out his hands to hold together his neck. And I place in his
hands his head. And I place in his
hands my hands. And I place in his eyes look
we share in the rear view. And a place between
us a bar of laughter. And I place between us the
looking and the telling they want dead.” So I was asked to
write a nature poem. And I tried to write one. And it’s called “Inspiration
Point Berkeley,” which is a place in Tilden Regional
Park in Berkeley, California and has this great peace grove. Anyway, it did not stay
in nature for very long. But one of the things
that I was thinking about as I was writing this poem
is if settler colonialism was a certain kind of
sentence, what might it be? And then it became
very clear to me immediately that it would
be a run-on sentence that is grabbing as much as
possible comma by comma. And of course– or
maybe not of course– but I am interested in the
ways that, quote unquote, “land preservation,” and the
construction of parks, and the maintenance of parks is
lined up and lines up with land grabs in a settler
colonial project that aims to create a land
that is seen as free of people. So, “Inspiration
Point Berkeley.” “Consider Kissinger, the
honorary globetrotter of Harlem who spins on fingertip
the world as a balloon, the buffoon erected
and beplaqued here by the Rotary Club as evergreen. And in this peace grove planted
alongside Waldheim and Nixon, Bush, Herbert Walker,
and Mother Teresa, one Pope, one Dalai
Lama, one Dr. King. Kissinger, who is the one
the bunnies in Hughes mansion voted MILF, and is named here in
our great tradition of naming, as on the Anza expedition
the Conquistadors dropped armored mission,
after armored, mission after saints, Luis Obispo,
Francisco, et cetera. Up this Western coast,
my lover and myself now, by cleared path regard,
hardly touching each other or the invasive grasses
the Conquistadors also brought, perhaps by
boot sole, perhaps by taste, as we like to do
to tote, and plant, and raise a home we can recognize,
even when we want a new. We two innovators
who love to recognize each other by shoulder stoop,
by tone, behind closed door, or down beyond the trail bend. And so the grasses
are Mediterranean, as were the Spanish in what was
before their former windows, as is Vista Point, which is
where we are asked to stand to see before us land unnamed
and imagine ourselves, we twin atoms, as the didactics
that the trail heads suggest, witnessing the native flora
that, before eucalyptus and other pacification,
flourished here, didactics that provide a
painted rendition of the lands, wild flowered and alive,
before the Spanish came. And we came behind them. And there is not a [? wan ?]
in the painting, not a bowl or blanket, not a toe
or term of endearment, not a mother, not a swimmer
in the painted pre-Spanish San Pablo creek. Though, there are
realistically-rendered salmon. There is nothing that has
nothing to do with this.” The first two lines
of this poem are lifted from a translation
of Ovid’s “Ibis” poem, which is a cursed
poem that he wrote in exile. And it’s written in the
middle of these poems that are really pathetic
and heartbreaking pleas to be allowed back home. But then there’s this
elaborate curse that comes in. And so I left the lines. “Desired Appreciation.” Until now, now that
I’ve reached my 30s, all my muses’ poetry has
been harmless, American, and diplomatic. A learned helplessness is
what psychologists call it, my docile desired state. I’ve been largely
well-behaved and gracious. I’ve learned the doctors
learned of learned helplessness by shocking dogs. Eventually, we things give up. Am I grateful to be here? Someone eventually asks
if I love this country. In between the
helplessness, the agents, the nation must
administer a bit of hope, must meet basic dietary needs,
Ensure, by tube, by nose, by throat, by other orifice. Must a fist-bump a janitor. Must muss up some
kid’s hair and let him loose around the Oval Office. Click, click. It could be cameras or the
teeth of handcuffs closing to fix the arms overhead. There must be a doctor
on hand to ensure the shoulders do not dislocate. And there must be Prince’s
“Raspberry Beret.” Click, click. It could be Morse code tapped
out against a coffin wall to the neighboring coffin. Outside my window,
the snow lights cobalt for a bit at dusk. And I’m surprised
every second of it. I’d never seen the
country like this. Somehow, I can’t say yes. This is a beautiful country. I have not cast my eyes
over it before, that is in this direction. It’s how John Brown put
it when he looked out from the scaffold. I feel like I must muzzle
myself, I told my psychiatrist. So you feel dangerous? she said. Yes. So you feel like a threat? Yes. Why was I so
surprised to hear it?” That poem led me down a rabbit
hole of self-help texts, and the self-improvement
industry, and, specifically,
all the ways that we are asked to change or
alter the language that we use to describe the world around
us in order to make ourselves better subjects and in
order to be able to tolerate what is surrounding us. So I see it as a
inverse of “Look.” I’m looking, basically,
at how power insists upon our own personal inner
language, and the language that we use to speak
to one another, and the challenge that
we present ourselves with to be altered in order to live. So this poem, called
“Social Skills Training,” begins with two lines that are– I was reading those studies that
are kind of like negotiation tactics. If you want to get
this thing done, word it this way, not this way. And so they’re lifted
from two such studies. And you’ll see. “Social Skills Training.” “Studies suggest, ‘How
may I help you, officer?’ is the single most disarming
thing to say and not, ‘What’s the problem?’ Studies suggest it’s
best to help reply ‘my pleasure’ and
not ‘no problem.’ Studies suggest it’s best
not to mention problem in front of power, even
to say there is none. Gloria Steinem says, women
lose power as they age. And yet, the loudest voice
in my head is my mother. Studies show the
model we have in mind isn’t the mother that exists. Mine says, what the
fuck are you crying for? Studies show, the baby monkey
will pick the fake monkey with fake fur over the
fur-less wire monkey with milk without contest. Studies show, to negate a
thing is to think it anyway. I’m not sad. I’m not sad. Studies recommend regular
expressions of gratitude and internal check-ins. Studies define assertiveness
as self-respect cut with the deference. Enough, the wire mother says. History is a kind of study. History says, we
forgave the executioner. Before we mopped the blood,
we asked, Lord, judge, have I executed well? Studies suggest, yes. What the fuck are you
crying for, officer? the wire mother teaches me to
say, while studies suggest, Solmaz, have you thanked
your executioner today? Dear [? Aleph, ?] like Ovid,
I’ll have no last words. This is what it means
to die among barbarians. Bar, bar, bar was how the
Greeks heard our speech– sheep, beasts. And so we became barbarians. We make them reveal the
brutes they are, [? Aleph. ?] By the things we make them name. David, they tell me, is the
one one should aspire to. But ever since I
first heard them say, Philistine, I’ve known I am
Goliath if I am anything. America. I had to. I learned it. It was if. If was nice. I said, sure, one more thing– one more thing. Eat, it said. It felt good. I was dead. I learned it. I had to.” I’ll read one last
poem to close. And then we’ll move on into
a conversation, I hope. This poem is called
“The Master’s House.” “To wave from the porch, to let
go of the garage, to disrobe, to recall Ethel Rosenberg’s
green, polka-dotted dress. To call your father
and say, I’d forgotten how nice everyone in
these red states can be. To hear him say, yes, as long
as you don’t move in next door. To recall every drawn curtain in
the apartments you have lived. To find yourself, at
33, at a vast expanse with nary a pirates of
guidance, with nary a voice, a muse, a model. To finally admit out loud
then, I want to go home. To have a dinner party of
intellectuals with a bell, long arm, lightly
tongued at each setting. To sport your done gown,
to revel in face serums, to be a well-calibrated
burn victim, to fight the signs of aging,
to assure financial health. To be lavender sachets, and
cedar lining, and all the ways the rich might hide their rot. To eye the master’s bone China. To pour diuretic in his
coffee and think this erosive to the state. To disrobe when
the agent asks you. To find a spot on any
wall to stare into. To develop the ability to leave
an entire nation thusly just by staring at a spot on the
wall as the lead vested agent names, article by
article, what to remove. To do this in order to do the
other thing, the wild thing. To say, this is my filmdom,
the master’s house. And I gazed upon
it, and it is good. To discuss
desalinization plants. To date, briefly,
a banker, a lapsed Marxist and hear him
on the phone speaking in billions of
dollars, its residue over the clear bulbs
of his eyes as he turns to look upon your nudity. To fantasize publishing a poem
in The New Yorker eviscerating his little need. To set a bell at each
intellectual’s table setting, ringing idea after idea,
and be a simple-footed help rushing to say, yes? To disrobe when the
agent asks you to. To find a spot on any
wall to stare into, to develop the ability to leave
an entire nation thusly just by staring at a
spot on the wall. To say, this is my filmdom. To recall the settler who, from
behind, his mobile phone said, I’m filming you for God. To recall this sad God, God
of the mobile phone camera, God of the small black
globe and pixilated eye above the blackjack table at
Harrah’s and the metal tooth pit at Qalandia
Checkpoint the same. To recall the Texan that held
the shotgun to your father’s chest sending him falling
backward, pleading. And the words come
to him in Farsi. To be jealous of this, his
most desperate language. To lament the fact of your
lamentations in English, English being your first defeat. To finally admit out loud
then, I want to go home. To know, for example, in
Farsi, the present perfect is called the relational
past and is used, at times, to describe a historic
event whose effect is still relevant today,
transcending the past. To say, for example,
[SPEAKING FARSI],, translates to the
Shah was a dictator. But more literally, the
Shah is was a dictator. To have a tense of “is
was,” the residue of it over the clear
bulb of your eyes. To walk, cemetery after
cemetery, in these states and nary a gravestone
reading Solmaz. To know no nation will
be home until one does. To do this in order to do the
other thing, the wild thing, though you’ve
forgotten what it was.” Thank you. – Thank you, just thank you. Oh, I can’t believe
this is the first time I’ve heard you read– – Oh, my gosh. – –live, so to speak. So I am deeply honored
and delighted to be here to talk with you
about your work. How many have read some of Look
beyond what we heard today? Yes, all right, this is
the audience we need. And I hope the rest
of you will join us. So I actually want to start with
one of the lines from your book that I consider the most
load-bearing line or one of the most load-bearing lines. It’s in the title poem, “Look.” It comes near the end. You read it today. “Now therefore, let it
matter what we call a thing.” The project of this
book, in so many ways, is to have the reader confront
that proposition about the use and meaning of
language, and to really think about what it
means to use language, and why there’s such an urgency
around that project for you. Could you talk a
little bit about what it means to be a poet
writing in English in the context of this book? – Yeah. OK. I want to say something
about that line that you pointed out
first, if that’s OK. The first poem,
“Look,” I wrote– I worked on this book
for about eight years. And I wrote that poem
late in the game. So I got to basically
go back and say, what’s the opening poem of the book? And I thought, what
is the argument that I want to make, actually? What is it that I want to enact? And then I also thought,
this is not just the opening poem to a book. But it’s the opening
poem to the first book of hopefully a life of books. And so I challenged myself
with the question of, what is a statement
that you can make that you feel like your
entire writing life will be held in that statement? And what is the role of the poet
as you see it or understand it? And it simply was that it
matters what you call a thing. And it should matter. And my role as a poet, in part,
is to remain vigilant over that kind of mattering and the kind
of care and attention that is behind language and the words
that we use to describe each other– or not– and to point to its absence. My relationship to English, in
particular, is a difficult one. English is, in many
ways, the language of my own dispossession
and exile. I feel pretty
inadequate in English. Or I feel like I am not saying– yeah. But I think that sense of lack,
or this idea that I can’t quite say what I need to
say, and I don’t know enough words in this
language to name my life is something that
led me to poetry. Because when one
has only a few words to describe one’s
whole life, then one has to become very
creative in how you place those
words, to communicate that the totality
of your thought, and your mind, and your heart. So that’s also part of it. – Yeah, and English,
do you consider it your first language? – I consider it my
second language. Though, I spent
the first two years of my life learning
Farsi at home, basically. But that was in the US. So English was always around,
and in my ear, and everything. But it was the language that
I then had to learn, I think, after Farsi. Yeah. – Right, right. And so that
magnifies the problem that writers like Ntozake
Shange and NourbeSe Philip have also talked
about, which is– and you referred to this– this language being a
language in which you are– did you say dehumanized? – One could say that, yeah. – One could say that– in which some of us have
been colonized or enslaved. And as a writer, you
have to come to the page, and think about how to use words
that either didn’t have you in mind or did have you
in mind in different ways. – What did he say today? What kind of Middle
East am I today? Anybody? John? Unknown! Thank you, yes. There are known knowns,
and known unknowns, and other unknown
Middle Easterners. – OK. Yes, the depths to which
language can descend. So I’m also thinking
a lot about the idea of defining terms,
and redefining them, and the occlusion of meaning. But then also, what
it means to write in– let me say it like this. If you come to writing with
a certain kind of skepticism or wariness about the
kind of cynical way that the language
can be used, how do you find your
way to what might be possible in a language? What are the possibilities
of language for you? – I think the
possibilities of language are the possibilities
of power itself– and in that way, huge, and
endless, and terrifying, but also terrific, perhaps,
if it is kept alive, and if it is kept in
constant rotation, and if it is as messy,
and as collectively described and
realized as possible. And I think that
that’s part of my role is to keep language agitated
in that way if I can. And I think that I live for the
moment where a thing is named, and there’s a spark
of recognition. But that naming has not
yet become calcified– or a thing that then is
pinning something down, and becomes something
to a definition, or a meaning to police
in any kind of way. And poetry feels, to me, to
be one medium where that is– it’s a requirement
of poetry, almost, just to keep language
that agitated and alive. And so politically, I think
that that is really important. And the possibilities
are endless in that way. – I love that word “agitation”
for the political meanings it brings, as well as
the sense of that’s what a washing machine does. It’s agitating. So you’re cleaning it somehow
of some of that baggage. There are so many places
to go once you raise the idea of the political,
which your poetry does from the beginning. We could talk about June Jordan
as an influence, to what extent she might be responsible
for a pathway to showing you what you could do with poetry. – Every extent, yeah. – Yeah. [LAUGHING] Put that on the table. And also, just what– you gestured to
how long you were working on this book,
which came out in 2016. You started, I think, in 2011. – 2007, 2008. – Oh, right, right. OK, so it seems
to me, as someone who sees you as a kindred
spirit in poetic terms, that what it meant to write
“political poetry” in 2007 or even 2011 is a different
thing than what it means today and the way that
word might circulate. So I would like to
just throw that at you. Do you embrace the
term political poet? What did it mean to you then? What does it mean to you now? Has it changed? – Put simply, the role
of the political poet it is to speak truth to power. And so that is something
I’m invested in and a term that I use
to describe myself and my process for a long time. And I have been advised
on numerous occasions by various people
to not use the term, in part because it is seen
as potentially pigeonholing and limiting. But I’m not worried
about that, honestly. It doesn’t faze me
in any real way. I have noticed, I think, a shift
in the reception of or even just the use of that term,
political poetry, in the US, particularly in this
post-2016 Trump era, where, for many people– or some people. I’m not sure the number– this was a moment of crisis. So, how did we end up here? While for some of
us or many of us, it was a continuation
of what we had already seen to be true in many ways. And in that crisis, I
think, many American writers started to ask, where
are our political poets? And well, we’ve been
here the whole time. And we have been writing. And June Jordan is one of those
people that is a political poet, and is sorely
under-taught, and has modeled so many ethical
and political positions that, really, I think it would behoove
us all to spend time with her work at this point– and at any point, really. Her influence on me
has been tremendous. I actually never got a
chance to work with her. Her name was on the
schedule of classes when I signed up for
Poetry for the People. And when I showed up
to the first class, she was on medical leave. And this interesting
thing happened– so Poetry for the
People, that semester, they were teaching poems
in African/African-American traditions,
Asian/Asian-American traditions. I can’t remember
the third group. But the fascinating
thing was happening where it was like,
she’ll be here next week to do a guest lecture
on this thing. Because that thing
is clearly the thing that she should be giving
a guest lecture on. And every week, every topic in
this global body of literature seemed to be the precise lecture
that she should be giving. And I thought, wow, the scope of
that mind and that sensibility. But week by week, she
was unable to come. And she died that summer. But I’m spending time
right now on her papers. And there’s notes on an early
class that she gave on Brecht. And there’s a quote of
his that she’s written– I don’t know where. So if somebody knows
where this quote is from, please do let me know. Because it’s just been
this scrap in there– but where Rex says, evil
has a physical address. And I think of June’s
insistence on specificity, on naming FBI, CIA, Lumumba,
Nkrumah, using actual names to locate not just
evil, but celebration. And that insistence
on specificity is really something
that’s guided me, and something that
I’m invested in, and I also think that
perhaps something that has been repressed
in American letters writ large as a lesser
than or a writing that refuses to transcend
the specific into this universal realm. And so part of my
answer to those critics who might be asking, where
are our political poets, it’s, what in poetry
have you valued thus far? And how have your values
repressed political possibility in American poetry if
you’re not seeing it? – Right. What do we reward? And what do we disseminate
and perpetuate? June Jordan is having something
of a renaissance right now for reasons including the
fact that her papers have been opened up here at Radcliffe. And I have so many
friends who’ve come and been with you
virtually in the stacks or in the archives. And so it’s an exciting moment. She seemed to be prescient about
everything and, as you said, have something to say meaningful
and powerful about some so many of the things that
we’re confronting. I’m going to try to shift
gears, probably roughly. Because there’s a whole
other aspect of your work that I want to
bring to the fore. And maybe one of the
ways to do that is– you talked about
naming and specificity. And it made me think about how
much her poetry uses lists. You also use lists. And you are a virtuoso in a
number of different forms, like lists, the epistolary poem. You use syllabics. You, of course, do
this marvelous tour of “the definition poem.” You seem to reach for a
number of different tools to bring out the things
that concern you. Could you talk a little bit
about the form of your poetry? But also, because it’s
connected to the ideas that we were talking about
in terms of the political and what’s rewarded– Sonia Sanchez has said that
she used form, specifically rhyme royal, to write about the
death of her brother from AIDS. She used form as a way
of managing her grief to keep something poetic
happening as opposed to just the meltdown on the page. Could you talk about your use
of form generally, but also in relation to what
I can only Imagine is the intense grief under
which you were writing or about what you
were writing in Look? – My relationship to form
is restless, and nomadic, and constantly shifting. I rarely write in
inherited forms but instead come up
with formal restrictions to place on my poems as the
poems have decided them for me. And when I think of form, I
think of form as power enacted. And I think that form can be
one place where we can diagnose the ways that power
might be interrupting speech, or preventing speech
from reaching where it needs to reach, breaking the music. I’m drawn to syllabics
that are non-accentual, because they are supposedly
such an unnatural thing that you could do to English language. They are basically order
for the sake of order, just random numbers that have
decided what a line will be, or not be, and where it
ends, and where it doesn’t. And I find that my own
relationship to English is closer to that than
to a free-verse position. – A lyric position. – Or a lyric position, yeah. And so I don’t know
that it enabled– I’m trying to figure out my
forms relationship to grief and to that kind of holding. I do know that, if I feel like
I am doing something in order to make the thing that I’m doing
somehow more tolerable for me, my own impulse is
then to stop doing it. So if I had been doing it, I
was doing it without knowing, if that makes sense. – That’s interesting. So it’s the opposite for you. You want something raw. – Yes. – Yeah. That’s a very vulnerable
position to place yourself. And do you find that– how do you think about that
idea of rawness in relation to creation? Is poetry about beauty for you? Or how would you define
beauty in the context of that kind of creative act? – I don’t define beauty. I don’t think much of beauty. I don’t think much about it. I think much of it. I don’t think much of
beauty, I don’t think. I think the thing
I’m more after truth. And maybe it’s beauty. But what I’m after is
an intensity of regard, and attention, and experience,
and naming in a way that heightens our awareness
of our own precarity and our own mortality. And perhaps, sometimes, that
finds beauty but not always. And that’s not really
the kind of anchoring or guiding star for me
in that way, actually. – This is not emotion
recalled and tranquility. – Yeah. [LAUGHING] – Right. I want to keep an
eye on the time. We want to have some time for
questions from the audience. But I will take this opportunity
to maybe ask you one or two more. Can you talk a little
bit more about the way you use form in your poetry, not
in relation to inherited form, but the look of your
poems on the page. I was really struck by
Hisa’s opening comments about taking notice
of the way you use the small caps to
signal these terms, that you’re drawing from the
US Department of Defense’s Definitions Dictionary. But we don’t hear them. So there are other poems in
which you use blank space to represent censorship, or to
represent an untranslatability, perhaps other things. I don’t think you read any
of those particular moments. Are they readable? What is the meaning of silence
in your poetry in relation to language? And how do you think
about that visual form? – So I have a number of
poems in the book that are imagined letters to
a Guantanamo detainee. And it’s called
“Reaching Guantanamo.” And I wrote it after I was
reading a New York Times article about the mental
health status of detainees. And this was in 2008. And there was a line
in passing that said, mail that reaches Guantanamo
detainees is heavily redacted by the Joint Task Force. And it moved on from there. So I wrote a series of imagined
letters with redactions. And the redactions are just
noted by white space as opposed to a black bar. There’s something about
the white space that also feels more
terrifying to me, because you can’t quite
tell where it ends. Like at the end of
the line, you don’t know if the white
space is continuing. And it’s not as
defined and contained. And for me, in
those poems, it was important to really name and
honor the spiritual violence that’s carried out by
these acts of censorship, and how they are
designed to, in fact, make a prisoner then
question their own reality, and what is before them on the
letter, and in front of them. When I read those poems,
my voice just drops out. And I leave silence there. And I do think it’s
possible to read. In terms of the DOD terms that
I use where I use small caps, I wanted there to be multiple
experiences of the work. So there’s one
experience that one has when I read the poems out loud. And then one can then go and
look at them on the page. And there will be another
veil that’s dropped over it. And it’s a veil that’s
pointing to the violence that’s just shimmering
underneath the language that we’re using
this whole time. And I liked the idea of having
a doubled experience of reading the poems and having them be
somewhat deceptively one thing in a reading and then
another thing in the book. And also, the experience of
reading the book and the way that the line
breaks are happening is very different than the
way I read the poems out loud. And so one can kind of see,
visually, these moments of more, like, violent
interdiction in the poems themselves, which was
important to me for this book. – It’s really effective. There’s so many moments
in the book that leave me silent or speechless. I think one of the poems that
probably grips me the most– this is back to one of
the definitional poems– “Theater.” There’s something about– the
speaker of this poem narrates his own death, basically. And of course, you could
think about Randall Jarell. But you remake that idea
in such a powerful way– the meaning of the word theater
in terms of theater of war, and the meaning of theater
in terms of acting. And it all comes
together so amazingly. I just had to have
a moment to gush. – Thanks. – So before we open
it up for questions, I’m going to ask
you an open-ended– perhaps difficult– question. And that is, what was the
most difficult thing for you in writing Look– most difficult and
most challenging? – I think the most
difficult thing remains the reality
of the violence that Look is talking
about and looking at. And there is a quote in
here from a Frank Birdart poem written in the
voice of Nijinsky, the ballet dancer that
famously attempted to choreograph World War
I to upset his audience and lost his mind. And I think of that movement
and that dance that doesn’t actually exist anymore– that I know– as the muse behind
my own process and position in writing this book,
which makes it and made it necessarily overwhelming
and so difficult– but as it must be. I wouldn’t trust
it if it weren’t. – We could talk about
ethics and the ethics of putting the reader somewhere
that you haven’t been. And that’s not the gesture
that you’re making. So thank you so
much for this work. – Thank you, Evie. Thank you. – Solmaz is open
to your questions. And there’s a mic
here in the aisle if you would like to go into
some of the territory I haven’t gone into, please come a forth. – Hi. You both mentioned the
problems of untranslatability, and your issues with
working in English with the cultural background,
and talking about issues that relate to your identity. How do you negotiate not
putting in too many words that aren’t English? Or when you do use those
words, what is the intention? I find this to be a problem
when I’m trying to write, because my first
language is Turkish. And to put in a lot of
words from a home language often confuses an
alienates the reader. And that could be the intention. But sometimes, it
might be too much. So how do you
negotiate that balance? – OK, I’ll start with a
pet peeve that I have. It’s actually an inside
joke in my family. There’s a movie called
The House of Sand and Fog about an Iranian family. And the way it works
is the patriarch– I can’t remember his name. But he’ll say, he’ll go
Farsi means “my boy.” So to our ears, we’re
hearing, “my boy, my boy.” And so we get the Farsi word. But then, so we
are not alienating this English-speaking
audience, we get the immediate and one-to-one
translation of that word. That, I absolutely
refuse to do in my work. Because that’s
basically, then, assuming that no Farsi speaker
will ever hear the poem and is absolutely
not the audience. That said, I acknowledge
and I am writing in English. So my target audience will be
English speaking in some way. And I think of those moments
of untranslatability– like, what I’ll do
is I’ll take a lyric. And then one line
will be in Farsi. And then the next line of
the song might be in English. And so it kind of
carries, but it’s not necessarily a translation
of what preceded. And I think that’s closer
also to how I talk. Like, I’ll slide into Farsi,
and I’ll say something. And then I’ll pick it
up again in English and continue like that. And so that helps
really keep the poem as close to my own speech and
syntax of thought as possible. I think alienation
is fine, ultimately. I think, like, why not? And I also like the idea of– to go back to agitating
a reader a little bit, or irritating a
reader a little bit, and perhaps making gestures
of closure in some places. And carving out spaces of
cultural or linguistic privacy in a poem, I think, is
incredibly moving and full of potential. It’s not one that I have mined
extensively, but I admire it. – Hi. Evie, it’s great to see
you and see both of you. I’m wondering if you
can talk a little bit about what this means to be
kindred spirits for each other? – Oh. I said that, so it’s
not fair to ask Solmaz. For me, it just means
that I recognize in her a similar desire to find
truth, speak about it, name it, and to do so in a way that
communicates to readers, and might move us beyond– and we talked about this– beyond feeling, towards action. – Absolutely. And I want to go
back to something that you had said, which was
that the point of language and then writing ultimately
is one of connection– after what I just said
about irritating a reader– but to have the ultimate goal
be one of that kind connection. But you’re deciding
where you’re connecting, and to whom you’re
speaking, and what you’re doing with your
language, and what you refuse to do with your
own language, as well. I find that that is
an area of kinship and overlap for us, too, yeah. Thank you. – Thanks. – I want to thank you both
for this honest interview, and for your very brave
work, and for agitating us into more connection. My question was related to
the first one, which is, do you write in Farsi ever? And if you do, do you
come to different truths or a different perspective? – I don’t. And I wish I could,
because I’m sure I would. Yeah. And I think the knowing
that I’m missing that is one of the
hardest losses, actually. Hi. – Thank you, both, firstly. And then I have a
two-part question. The first part is
in relationship to when you were talking
about writing Look and about, specifically,
how, in coming back to it and writing the title poem,
you thought about what the argument of the book was. I’m sort of wondering how you
conceive of books as projects and, specifically, how
that language of the book as an argument– or
I guess, ultimately what the purpose of a book
is for you in your writing process? And then the other
part of the question is in relationship to this. You have a really
wonderful essay in The Volta called
“The Near Transitive Properties of the Political
and the Poetical.” And in that essay,
you talk about eraser and, specifically, how erasure– it’s, as of late, been more
predominant in American letters and in poetry. And you talk about how it
has this connection, though, to military violence. So I just would like to hear
more about that, specifically how you came erasure
in your project and how you negotiated that. – So in terms of erasure, the
formal tactic of redacting poems or any kind of found
text and then creating a new poem out of it, it had
become fashionable in a way that I found chilling because
of the word itself, “erasure”– because of the action itself,
which is necessarily violent. But it was being
done to texts that have no obvious relationship
to violence, particularly state-sponsored violence. This was a tactic that was
proliferating alongside all these Wikileaks
that were giving us all these documents of
state-sponsored redaction. It just seemed to
me that it would be irresponsible
of me, as a writer, to attempt erasure without
acknowledging its relationship to actual erasure. And I think those
are the projects of, quote unquote, “erasure”
that I’m most drawn to, a book like Zong for
example, where you are using the violence that
is being committed against the language in the text
to diagnose and enact a greater violence. And it’s an actual
violence that is done against bodies and people. So other than those
imagined Guantanamo erasures and a few poems where
there’s missing words, it’s not a tactic I really do. But even with the
Guantanamo erasures, for example, I did not write
an entire poem and then black it out. Whatever is missing for the
reader is missing for me. It felt to me like it would
be some kind of trickery or some kind of cleverness to
have a complete poem that I can access and that is being
withheld from the reader. Now this is something that is
not acknowledged in the book. I don’t know that any
reader will necessarily know that reading the poems. But it’s the kind of
ethical consideration that I find very important
in my own practice. In terms of book,
that’s harder to answer. I saw that the DOD has
its own dictionary. But I had to sit on it
for at least a year. Because I kept
asking myself, what’s the one poem that I’m going to
write in response to this text? And it took me a
long time to realize it wasn’t a single poem,
it was a whole book. My own brain thinks in larger,
more symphonic constructions. It’s very difficult
for me to narrow down on one single thing. And so books, to me, and
having a book-length question that one can keep wrestling with
over, and over, and over just feels like the kind of thinking
that I want to be engaged in, one that gives incredible
consideration and time to, in my case, usually ethical
concerns and considerations– but also, through that immediate
and short poetic burst. So that tension of
the long, the huge and the very small, and
particular, and specific is one that I find
really exciting as a book-length thing. Does that answer? Yeah. Thank you. – We will take the liberty
of asking the last question as a segue from that
or a closure point. Do you have a new
project that you’re working on that you’re
willing to talk about? No. – I do. No, I do. I’m trying to
figure out how to– yes, I do. The poems that I read tonight– the last two poems– are
going into this new project. And my obsession remains
with, how does power impact and decide what we
say and how we say it? But the gaze is a
little different. And I am following a
single voice, I think, this time and a
single alien in exile that is critiquing the
metropole, so to speak. And the working title
is Customs right now. So I’ll just leave
it at that, yeah. – Well, I’m ready
for it whenever you’re done writing it. Would you all please
join me in thanks Solmaz one more time for this
amazing [? evening. ?] [MUSIC PLAYING]

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