blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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A Conversation with Solmaz Sharif
captured March 29, 2018

On March 29, 2018, Solmaz Sharif spoke with students and faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University's MFA program.

Gregory Donovan: It’s my pleasure to welcome you and to welcome Solmaz Sharif here to VCU. As you probably are aware, she’s the winner of the twentieth annual Levis Reading Prize for her remarkable poetry collection, Look. She was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents who were fleeing the Iranian Revolution and she has a lot of degrees. She holds degrees from UC Berkley and New York University. She has published her poetry widely and Look has been recognized, not just by us of course, but by many different organizations and other people as it should be; and it was quite notably a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award and a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award and the winner of the American Book Award and the Pen Center USA Literary Award in Poetry, and in the year that it was published it was noted on many different notable-books lists, so it’s not a secret that this is a great book. A lot of people have noticed that and also she’s won other awards for her work as a figure, an important figure and a necessary voice in our country representing the powers that should be enacted to preserve peace, international understanding, and often are not. So I’m grateful to you for that as well.

And maybe I’ll start off the questioning and you all will take over, right? Okay, good. One of the things that happens in the course of anyone reading your book is that of course they’re led to looking at the US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as amended through October 17, 2007, and they find out that there is a multilayered experience waiting for them when they read those definitions and then go to the poem which alters the way you read the poem and it enriches it; but one of the things that I discovered as I was doing that is that it also undermines the terms in the dictionary, or changes them, because it actually turns them into like an extended metaphor and alters the way you perceive this unlikely list of terms. And I wondered how you first decided to start doing that process of importing those terms into your poetry and did that expand over time? What was the process?

Solmaz Sharif: Yeah it was a—it was a long one. I first came across the dictionary in 2006. I was collaborating with a visual artist friend of mine named Samira Yamin whose work deals with war photojournalism, and she was doing these prints that she wanted me to caption. So she would take a war photograph, turn it into a litho, and then she wanted me to throw like a military euphemism underneath it; and I ran out of them off the top of my head, and I Googled military language to see what would happen and I saw there was a whole public document, actually, devoted to creating this language and for a long time I sat with it thinking like, “What’s the one poem I will write with this?” And then I realized it’s not one poem, it’s a book. But I thought the book was going to be a kind of very direct rewriting of the dictionary, almost like a devil’s dictionary of sorts.

So I took the terms and did just very small redefinitions of which a few survive in the beginning—the shorter ones that you see, I wrote hundreds of those—and the problem with that was that I was taking military language and keeping it defined within a war context and using it to describe Afghanistan and Iraq specifically, and sometimes Iran, which are lands and peoples that we understand only through warfare here in this nation. So while my attempt was actually to undermine the language of the military, I was just kind of reenacting it by trying to reveal the truth of it. Then I realized that I—what I really wanted to do was to find a way to force this language into what I was thinking in my head as like American mouths. Mouths that would somehow see themselves as free from this violence or of this language and how might I do that?

So I wrote a few poems in voice I thought of like a debutant, like what would a debutant have to do with this language, and that’s when I realized they were small caps and they would be more markers that are, one, disrupting the narratives that are happening within this nation, revealing the violence that’s just shimmering underneath everything that we do in this nation. And that also fizzled out because that just became a series of ironic poems basically using small caps and then I realized I needed to include some kind of personal narrative in there using these small caps as well so that I hit all these—a kind of range of tonal realities that I was after, and so there’s a longer poem in the middle, “Personal Effects,” that came after that, and I think that was probably the final major movement I made in the in the book. Yeah.

GD: Well it’s, it—that process of expanding what language can do, and what it can mean, starts right away in the book of course, and it’s everyone who reads the book notices how that works with the title. Ironically the military meaning is something quite violent and the ordinary meaning, or the everyday meaning, is something that we all should be doing, which is “look” at this. But then I think of the one of the first poems of the book, “Lay,” which also does that same thing. The military definition is about setting up a smoke screen or directing the aim of a weapon, and then the poem about going to sleep or laying down to rest and they interact constantly throughout. And I thought one of the great ironies of that too, it’s not—I don’t know irony is maybe not the right word—it’s more like operative, aspect of doing that is that it makes the title of the poem suggest that a poem also is a weapon, in the best sense. Its like—

SS: Yeah,

GD: It’s, it’s directing the fire of you know, it’s  . . . it’s engaged in a process of awakening and battle against battle.

SS: Sure. I mean I, I certainly have opened the book up to that reading and poetry up to that reading, though I myself fight it and really hesitate to use militarized language even metaphorically. And I’m really trying to find or point to a new kind of attention—the kind of attention that’s lacking in the military—and so the response to that is not necessarily a weaponizing of poetic language either. Though it’s a fair . . . it’s a fair reading yeah, in there.

GD: One of the things that also happens in your book is that I—for instance I was noticing that there’s a poem named “Ground Visibility” and then there’s a poem named “Force Visibility,” and when one looks at those two they’re opposites. “Ground Visibility” is a really heartbreaking poem and, you know, and “Force Visibility” is actually kind of funny. And you seem to have the ability to offer us different, different kinds of experiences, so it’s not always—

SS: I hope so.

GD: It’s not the same. It alters and moves back and forth.

SS: Yeah. I hope so, thanks. Humor, I mean humor is really important to me as an individual and it’s not something—I find it really actually difficult to pull off in a, in a poem and if it comes through it’s . . . it’s, I don’t know, I don’t know. I can never intentionally make it kind of happen, but I grew up around a lot of dark, dark, very, very dark humor and so it’s been like a very important part of my sense-making and survival so it would make sense that it would seep into the work as well. Yeah.

David Wojahn: When I was teaching the book with my class, a lot of whom are here, you know one of the things we kept coming back to is regarding this not as a collection of lyrics but as a . . . as a single long poem. And I’m really interested in hearing who your inspirations were for this particular kind of documentary poem, Look. You know, what, what models were you looking at as from poems and from other mediums when you’re composing?

SS: Sure. I would say that this—probably the single biggest influence and most obvious influence would be Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead. Which, I don’t . . .how many, have people had a chance to read that in this? Yeah. It was just reissued actually and I haven’t checked out the reissue with the with the new introduction, but I’m very excited about that because it’s been out of print outside of the collective. And it’s a long documentary poem that deals with a mining disaster in West Virginia and was a major labor dispute. She went down and conducted interviews with miners that had survived and were dying of silicosis, I believe is how you say it. And so that’s a huge . . . that’s a huge influence on me, the way that she weaves in the voices and the testimony of other people and her stance, which is not entirely objective. It’s not—her self is not entirely absent, you know. She, she very much shows her hand in her, in her role in all of this and is not interested in concealing that which has been very important to me.

Charles Reznikoff’s work—Testimony, Holocaust—have been very important but also as, as documentary poems, but also as documentary as a kind of documentary enactment that I . . . I wanted to fight against actually and to undo a little. And to say maybe it’s . . . it’s not enough for this book or for myself necessarily to just—not just, but you know—to take, to take testimony and just place it back in front of us. That I don’t want to—while I have a faith in documentary and, as a didactic form necessarily, one that is reeling information about real lives and, and, and real moments in an effort for social justice—I think its important that I myself as a poet and as a lyric self enter the scene.

And related to that I would say, actually not a not a poem but a film by an Iranian filmmaker named Abbas Kiarostami, that’s called—how is it? Oh, Close-Up. I’m sorry it’s called Close-Up, and I highly recommend it. It’s about a guy who’s from like the south of Tehran, which is a poorer area of Tehran, and is obsessed with and a huge fan of an Iranian filmmaker named Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who’s a huge figure. And this guy is on a bus one day and a wealthier woman from the north of Tehran sits down next to him. He’s reading one of Makhmalbaf’s screenplays and the woman asks him, “Are you Makhmalbaf?” And he says, “Yes I am,” and so for weeks he comes and goes from their house, as you know this very wealthy home, and pretends that he’s this director; and it’s a true story. And Makhmalbaf—Kiarostami sees the, sees the story in a newspaper after the guy has been arrested and decides to make a documentary using the people that were actually involved, to, as . . . they reenact basically everything that happened. And I won’t give away the end but there is a very important intervention that happens in the end as a filmmaker that to me has been like a real kind of groundbreaking moment and very instructive in terms of what I want my own role to be in a documentary environment. Which is one that is of an active—you know that we can’t just back off into an objective stance, and so if we can’t, then maybe there are times in which we should actually take action.

GD: One of the things that happens often in your poems is that they will open up possibilities of multivalent readings, lots of different possibilities. For example . . . what is the name of the poem, the poem that is about the guard and going to—in the poem the person who is speaking the poem looks through the small—

SS: Oh, “Ground Visibility.”

GD: Yeah, “Ground Visibility,” that’s right. And at the end it’s uncertain whether it’s the guard who’s being looked at or the prisoner who’s being looked at by the speaker of the poem, and I really enjoyed that kind of opening up of possibility and I assume that was quite designed. There’s also, that same kind of thing happens with language itself, the kind of language you use. I think in “Dependers,” that poem, at the end of it you say, “They, when they took him out the fridge.” And you use that language so at one point I was thinking well maybe that is the way those folks who experience that would speak English, you know. Then I thought on the other hand it’s like vernacular American language and would be spoken by a lot of different populations in the United States that same way; and that particular moment reminded me also of how during those massive, you know, human-wave assaults during the Iran-Iraq War they would manage the release of bodies to families by freezing them in freezers and then thawing them out later and dribbling out that population and everything. So that moment just seemed to—I’m sort of explaining how I was hitting all of these different kinds of meanings at one time.

SS: Yeah I think, I mean I think that that’s the possibility I turn to poetry for. Otherwise this could have a film, it could have been a—you know it could have been any number of things. I studied sociology, you know, I’m interested in the language of power and interrogating the language of power. But I want to do it through a single self, you know, and through a subjective self and one that that is constantly doubling and tripling meaning—and time and self and other and location and that’s the kind of pressurized language that I can really only find in a poem and a kind of space that I can only find in a poem I think. Which is why I’ve turned to it, yeah.

DW: That notion of self-reckoning, self-discovery—it’s really one of the prominent themes of the “Personal Effects” poem. And—which is you know a wonderful accomplishment—I wonder if you could talk about writing that poem, the process of that one?

SS: Yeah I wrote the “Dependers/Immediate Family” poem that I wrote I thought was—I wrote that one maybe in 2008 or so. And I thought that was the elegy for my uncle that would be included in the book, and after I—I read that poem at a reading that my dad attended and it was the first time that he’d heard me read actually. He said something that was like you know, “Why don’t you ask me more about your uncle?” and I was like, “Because you don’t talk.” I tried to ask him a little more but he, he gives a lot of one word answers. It’s not you know—but he did tell me that he has a slim album of photos that my uncle had on his body when he was killed and that there are some letters that survived from the frontline and would I like to see them? And so I said, “Yes, I would love to see them,” and I took those with me to Provincetown where I had a seven month, or eight, or an eight month fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center.

And I spent months just with those photos, and then those photos led me into photographic theory, and into—so I was doing . . . I’m very research based. I just want to follow footnotes and that’s what gets me excited and that’s what keeps my work going, and so from there I’m . . . I’m then like studying the Crimean War, which has nothing really to do with the poem itself, but I just keep following these threads as I’m reading longer elegies alongside it also. And I had the luxury of space and time and literal physical space, like a lot of surfaces to just lay a lot of things out on, otherwise I don’t think I could’ve actually carried it in my in my head that long. And at some point I realized I needed . . . I needed the poem to be about my uncle and be about the Iran-Iraq War, but not remain just about him or about that war, to blur the borders between himself and all the dead that were thawed, and between that war and all the wars that have kind of happened and what are the—what’s the overlap between state-sponsored violence and state-sponsored language between all of these cultures and histories and how can I kind of embody that. And then also, what are the different kind of languages that have—that would describe my uncle back to me? You know like, what would a Wikipedia describing where he was sound like? And what does that failure sound like when it’s put up against my own longing or, you know, a more at times even like erotic address, you know? And how do you how do you use that lyric address to highlight the failures and the violence of language that’s happening otherwise.

GD: That was one of the things that happened in that very moment of the poem I was just chatting with you about is that one of the comparisons that immediately occurred to me was the lies that were told about casualties in the Vietnam War. And how there were these false reports put out about very small American casualties, huge Vietnamese casualties, and then just a few weeks later if you looked in the back pages of the New York Times you’d see them altered, and they were going in the other direction. And no, the—we were not winning that war. And so I thought that your book very successfully engages all different sorts of audiences and allows them to identify with your experience and the experiences that you’re talking about there, and I’m glad to hear that you really had that in mind.

SS: Yeah, I think I’m constantly trying to fight the whatever notion of “there” or “that,” or you know that we might . . . we might have that might enable us to kind of disconnect from what is happening in others and to complicate and blur that line as much as possible. Yes?

Audience: So you said that you’re trained as a sociologist and I was just curious about how, like, the discipline of sociology and, like, the practice of research informed your poetry, and how, like, researching for poetry is similar or different than, like, academic research?

SS: Yeah, that’s a great question. I was a sociologist; I was trained in sociology but I . . . I hated qualitative research. As much as I like the process of interviewing people and learning about people, I don’t like then distilling people down into some kind of, I don’t know what. To kind of, you know—I feel like when I’m reading qualitative research a lot of times what happens is that somebody offers their testimony, and then the expert comes in and explains the significance of that testimony, and I think the testimony itself does that explaining if we just let it do so. So, qualitative research was out for me. Quantitative research was always out for me because I’m not so interested in numbers. And instead I was focusing more on media actually, and how the New York Times—what I focused on in particular was New York Times representations of Palestinian women in the early part of 2002, and really going through and trying to look at what languages were used and how were these women described or not described, you know? Because representations of women, particularly in the Middle East, are tied very closely to our own hawkish tendencies, right? And so how do you describe a population?

So for example, when we’re talking about Afghanistan, we are talking about efforts at liberating the women of Afghanistan, right? But if you’re talking about a nation that you’re not necessarily trying to invade or liberate, then how do you talk about the women there and what happened? But as I was doing that I found myself quoting poets in my paper, you know, and like I kept trying to make, it I kept trying to actually make it a more . . . I kept trying to make it a long poem for myself, you know? And I also think that I am driven very much by—Roland Barthes has a book called Camera Lucida where he talks about the photograph and he says that the photo has two kinds of modes of information, if you will. One is the simulacrum, which is just the information that’s in the photograph; so you see this room and you’re like, “OK it’s a photo of the room and there’s this many people at the table”—that’s . . .that’s it, right? But then the other thing is the punctum, which is the thing that jumps out and punctures you as the reader or as the viewer, and for everyone it’s going to be different and it’s always a little strange. And so he talks about—he uses a photograph and he talks about this belt that this woman is wearing and that’s his punctum in this moment, right?

I’m more interested in the punctum and just putting those together, and a poem is where you can actually do that. That’s really the kind of attention that I find myself cultivating as a poet, is going and looking for the little things that are jumping out and puncturing me and trying to document them to get them down. And I couldn’t really do that in a, in a sociology paper or in the social sciences without an army of footnotes, you know—I’ll use “army” in this case, an army of footnotes—to kind of justify my gaze or my, my reason for interest here or my, you know. Or the possible significance to the field but—that kind of stuff. It wasn’t a posture that I was interested in, really.

Audience: I think like—talking about audience and kind of how we relate to this—I think a lot of us in our class were drawn to the, the “Soldier, Home Early, Surprises His Wife in Chick-Fil-A” poem. And we found like all those videos are real YouTube videos and like, growing up on YouTube . . . I don’t know, I guess I wondered how, like, what importance you saw in that because that’s drawing on kind of a very different bank of information than that dictionary you used. I don’t know. I just thought that was interesting and I kind of wondered what your process was going through that poem.

SS: I think that, I think that was a like twelve hour day in front of YouTube and just clicking link after link after link obsessively. And it started with soldiers that are reunited with their dogs, you know, and then . . . and then realizing that these are all tropes and that there are actually multiple, multiple videos here. And they’re really painful to watch and incredibly moving and poignant, and then there are also these recurring things that happen too, right? There’s a lot of there are a lot of girlfriends; there’s a lot of getting married; there’s a lot of heteronormative reification happening. And so I wanted to point to the sadness of it—the moments of sadness like a child not recognizing their own father for example, but also the the fact that this is so recurring that it at some point it becomes almost like a plug-and-play kind of phenomenon of this incredibly moving moment. And so constantly through the book that’s what I’m trying to do is like move between the very particular and really honor the particular and recognize the particular and mourn the particular, but also point at how huge the particular is and how it becomes, I hate to use the word “universal,” but it becomes universal in a way, or there are ways that it becomes way larger in that moment and representative of larger things. So that’s what I was, I was doing. But that was definitely another moment of punctum—of like watching these videos and what’s the quote that jumps out at me and writing them down and not necessarily knowing why or what I want to do with them yet until I had them all down and then could kind of play around with them.

Audience: I don’t mean to take the focus off of your work at all, but do you have any advice for us young poets who often tread to abstraction and have some issues in our poetry?

SS: Be on the punctum. Something that’s very easy and very simple and I think useful is to literally just name objects that are in front of you—small things that are in front of you—and just follow . . . follow your gaze for a little while and see what that might open up in a very kind of literal way, actually. I think that—I’ve used the word “attention” a few times here and I, I’ll backtrack for a second and quote a Buddhist by the name of Thich Nhat Hanh, who at one point was giving a talk, and he asked his students, or the people present at his talk, to turn to the person next to them and introduce themselves and say hi. And you do so and they turn back and then he said, “OK, now turn and do that again but knowing you both will die.” And there’s a shift in the attention in that moment and a shift in—not in the action, not in the fact of what happens—but what is directly behind what happened. And so how can you cultivate that kind of attention to whatever you bring? And if that attention leads you to abstraction then . . . then follow it, but I bet you that, that I would assume that there would be a greater . . . I use the word “truth” a lot, you know, there would be like a greater truth behind that abstraction for you. Yeah.

Audience: Thank you.

SS: Sure.

GD: At one moment in a poem of yours you had—it said something like—it mentioned New Wave cinema and said, “And I don’t get it.” And I had not long before watched the film Pickpocket by Bresson and I kind of failed. I had different responses to New Wave cinema, but I was made aware that Bresson forbade his actors from showing emotion and they were not to act actually; they were to be puppets just moved around. And so that led me to thinking, “Well, what’s the parallel with that kind of theorizing, that kind of thinking in poetry,” you know? And it’s rooted somewhere in the debate and struggle between narrative and lyric or something like that, and I wondered where—how you see yourself in that?

SS: The narrative and lyric?

GD: Yeah. It’s a false battle.

SS: It is a false battle. I think—I think there is another . . . there’s another battle too, which is the Levertov-Duncan battle of Robert Duncan telling Denise Levertov that, you know, the point of poetry is not to oppose evil but to imagine it. And that’s one that I’m constantly like, “Oh I don’t know, I think it’s both, it’s a combination.” But then so to make up my mind I thought of it as there are two busses that are departing: and one bus is full of people that think, you know, writing, the purpose of writing is to oppose evil, and the other is, you know, and which bus do you want to be on in the end to argue with, you know, or against? And that’s when I was like, “OK oppose evil, like I would rather be on the oppose-evil bus asking us to imagine evil than the imagine-evil bus.” But so in the terms of lyric and narrative I think I would probably end up on the lyric bus. But asking us to not forget narrative and also acknowledge how narrative is happening in lyric all the time and . . .and yeah. But it is a false—it is a false line, I think, as just about all lines are. Yeah.

GD: Yeah I think—I think all lyric is rooted in narrative even if it isn’t employed.

SS: Sure, sure yeah.

Kathy Graber: So I heard—I’m thinking about our graduate students who are, some of whom are, doing their thesis now, so it’s a very anxiety-provoking experience. But I heard you mention that there are poems in here that you wrote in 2008, and so maybe you could talk a little bit about how you long it took you to bring the book into being and encourage them with the fact that there may be work ahead of them.

SS: Yes. Yeah I started, I would say I started the book in earnest, in late 2007, early 2008; it was published in 2016. One thing that was very helpful to me on the more, like, logistical side of things, or the maybe the business side of things, I don’t know, was that when I was in grad school Nick Flynn visited our class and he told us that Some Ether took five years to publish, and at that point I was like, “Five years?” You know that concept hadn’t really crossed my mind. I thought this was a thing you just send it out and then it gets picked up and you move on. And that’s when I kind of adjusted my, my expectations and decided that in terms of publishing I would pick where I wanted the book to be and send to those places until I was barred from doing so.

So Graywolf, for example—I think the first time I sent to them was 2011? And it was rejected and very nicely, but also like, “Just take it somewhere else,” you know? But in terms of the—I’m, I’m grateful for that too because it’s a very different book. It is—I feel like there were actually three manuscripts behind this book, and though I have, I had a conceptual frame that I saw through, I think it’s not unusual for a first book to have multiple books behind it, actually. I’ve spoken to many writers that have written, you know, their first book published is really their third or fourth manuscript that they’ve written. And to be OK with that, or even eager for that, actually, I think has also been been helpful. And I also thought it was—after, after grad school was done and I started working and everything, it was really important to me to keep a cohort of writers around and find other writers that I could continue sharing work with, sharing accomplishments with, sharing rejections, with all that kind of stuff. And so that was very helpful in terms of keeping writing a central part of my life as the real world crept in outside of grad school. Yeah.

KG: So how similar is this book to the book you submitted in 2011?

SS: It’s not. It’s hardly, yeah it’s hardly—I mean, maybe a third of it? But it feels, that third feels, so different now, yeah. That book was closer probably to my thesis, actually. And my thesis was, didn’t have “Personal Effects” for example, it didn’t have that final more personal moment, and I wasn’t willing to do that or add that earlier on, yeah. I thought it would be more important without it.

KG: Thank you, that was the point.

GD: You mention that the change had to do with importing more personal information. Were you relying, early on, on research in a different way than you were by the end?

SS: Yeah. I would say—I mean, early on I was looking a lot at human-rights reports coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, military documents, WikiLeaks when WikiLeaks first broke using a lot of their material. And also work by unembedded journalists that were reporting, like a journalist by the name of Dahr Jamail for example, who was reporting out of Iraq; Jeremy Scahill’s work also around Blackwater. So, I was reading a lot of of nonfiction that was being written around the wars and that was not really being published in in mainstream—mainstream medias cannot be used in the same way anymore. Afterwards I think ,yeah, that by the time I started to get more personal; that’s when I also—I was looking into like photographic theory, I was looking into all kinds of random stuff where I was like, “I’m not exactly sure what this has to do with the DOD or with the war in Iraq right now,” or you know, somehow I’ve gotten here. It was very different towards the end, yeah.

GD: Sounds like you follow a kind of faith in the process, that you trust if it leads you to someplace strange like, “What the hell, I don’t know.”

SS: Yeah I know I, I try to it—I don’t know, it feels more tortured in the process. It feels like I’m just existing in failure, you know, and like reading a thing where I’m like, “Why are you reading this thing?” This thing doesn’t, you know, and then six years later I’m like, “Oh, that thing has led me here and that’s why I needed it.” But Zora Neale Hurston called research “formalized curiosity,” and I . . . I think that’s true and that’s kind of what I lived by. So it’s actually a—I find it a way to contain and guide my curiosity, you know? You can just follow a trail of of work by other people and words that were written before you and so it makes it less daunting for me to approach the, the void so to speak. Does anybody here use research-based practices or documentary, yeah? What are you working—yeah, what are you working on?

Audience: Actually, it’s been a while, but when I was writing about Palestine I was doing a lot with, like, a hundred years ago and, like, I haven’t written about it in a while but I was thinking—I was thinking about, like, how you are using like language and all these different voices. Because it’s when I was reading your book, because I know, like, that feelings like there are so many voices coming and coming in and, like, they start to inhabit your head. So yeah, I can really, I . . . I thought, I thought . . . I just love the way you use these all caps, the like, small caps—I know, like I’m just really visual so, and they’re a visual element. They work so well and just kind of enjoyed, like, getting into those lines and, like, seeing how you, like, work with syntax and the visual elements and, like, how they all work on their own levels. Kind of cool. But yeah, I mean you can get really lost in the—or like, do you ever get, or I mean, did you have these moments where you had to, like, step away from the research ever? Or if it like, you know, like becomes too much?

SS: Probably, but I didn’t.

Audience: Yeah?

SS: There were times where it might have been wise, wiser to, actually, to be perfectly honest, but I, I didn’t. Yeah. I’m, I’m just kind of, yeah.

Audience: Full internalization.

SS: Yeah. There’s a—you know I use a quote from a Frank Bidart poem in the voice of Nijinsky and it says, “Let this be the body through which the war has passed.” And I think Nijinsky—who tries to choreograph a dance, World War One basically for an audience that doesn’t want to see it—is a kind of unspoken muse for me in this book and it didn’t end very well for him so. So it, I mean I just want to be honest about my own ways of dealing with this material or not . . . or not dealing particularly well with it and what I’m learning from that, yeah.

GD: In your poem “Desired Appreciation,” you take us to Inspiration Point in Berkeley, and it was a shock to me to find out that there was a place where memorialized at the same time—and you point this out in your poem—is Martin Luther King and Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and—

SS: They’re, they’re, yeah—

GD: It’s like, it’s mind-blowing and also it immerses you in this strange historical development where people, at one point seen as peacemakers, are clearly later on, I think at least to a lot of us, seen as perfectly the opposite, you know? And I just enjoyed that very much, but also I liked how your poems immerse some of us in other researches. I didn’t know about the place or that I wanted to know about it.

SS: Yeah, that came because I—actually, Kenyon Review was going to do an issue on nature poetry, and so the editor there was like, “Do you have anything?” And, or, “Can you—do you think you can, you know, write one that I could look at or something?” And I was like sure; so I really wanted to write a nature poem actually I tried really hard to write a nature poem, and I ended up in Inspiration Point which is a park in Berkeley and I ended up of course starting with Kissinger; like, this is how my brain works. Somehow I found Kissinger in the middle of, of nature. But yeah the Nobel Peace Prize does not have the best record for actual peacemakers sadly, and so that’s the peace [unint.] is recognizing, yeah. Yeah?

Audience: I was just wondering if you could talk a little about, like, the political in your work and what, like, you mean by the word “political.” And if you believe that, like, poetry has the possibility to change stuff like the political reality?

SS: I use “political” in a very loosey-goosey kind of way, which is enactment of power, basically. And power happens any time you enter a social space. So if there’s more than one person present there will be power at play here. Even with one person present, the language that you’re using to describe your own life is power happening somehow—there’s some kind of power relationship happening. And so I think it’s because a poem is that social moment and is in language. I mean, it’s impossible for it not to have a political reading or a political meaning behind it, and I . . . I’m more interested in actually instead of—I think the question is often like, “What’s the role of the writer and writing political work? What does political work look like? What does this look like?”

I’m more interested in like what does a political reading look like? What does it mean if we look at every poem, every text, every piece of information expecting to have a political reading out of it, or looking at the power that’s actually being enacted behind it, as a part of the whole holistic reading that we will have, right? And what might happen to us as people if we start doing that? And start bringing that, again, attention to everything that we do. And I think that is the, that is probably the most radical possibility of a . . . of a poem, is the act of transferring that poetic and by that, by extension, that political reading to the rest of our lives and to the languages that we’re constantly encountering and coming across. Otherwise, in terms of the faith of the poem changing something or changing a reality, or stopping a, you know, a bill from passing or something like that I—I don’t, I don’t necessarily think so. I am invested in and believe in Baldwin’s millimeter of, of change, millimeter of cultural change, you know, and I do, I do have faith in that and I think that is . . . that’s plenty, actually.

DW: We probably have time for maybe one more question if there’s—anybody wants to ask a final question?

Audience: Are you currently working on any new projects?

SS: Yeah.

Audience: And if so can you talk about them?

SS: Sure. I’m working on a few different things, which is a bit of a problem—it’s a gift and a problem. I’m translating a Iranian poet by the name of Forough Farrokhzad who’s the godmother of the free-verse movement in Iran and died in the midsixties in a car accident at the age of thirty-two. I’m translating her last two collections; one was published posthumously and is very slim, but really mark her, her break into free verse. That’s something I’ve been doing and something I can do as I travel, too, which is nice, you know? Because I can drop back into a single poem and kind of work through a poem that she’s written in a way that I can’t with my own work which tends to be longer too, or I like to work in a longer form.

And then I’m doing—I’m writing a book that feels, it feels like an extension of Look in a lot of ways and that I’m still interested in the language of power. But it’s, it’s an inverse so that, where Look was again like a polyvocal self that’s, you know, with a single power source: the DOD, right? That’s playing out on all these different lives. I’m doing, like, a single self that’s speaking through a power that’s a little more amorphous and difficult to locate and name. And part of that happened because I, I—in the course of writing a poem in there called “Desired Appreciation,” I came across—I wrote it after I read the Senate report on torture that came out in 2014. And I followed the psychologists that had created the torture program in the CIA and saw that the roots of their torture program are actually in a mode called positive psychology here in the States, which is a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy offshoot. And there are these predominant modes of psychology and psychotherapy that ask you, as an individual that’s suffering, basically to change the language that you use to describe the worlds around you in order to make the world around you more tolerable.

It never addresses the problem that’s lying in the world around you, right? So the problem ends up being the language that you’re using to describe the world to yourself and how to kind of shift that. And so from there I’m looking also into the self-improvement industry writ large, and all these different ways that we’re asked to alter what we say or our affect or our tone in order to get what we want and to get ahead and that kind of stuff. So, it is . . . it is a language of power but it’s more internal; it’s more internalized, yeah. Yeah.

GD: Thank you so very much. Thank you.

SS: Thank you. Such a pleasure. Thanks.  

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