January 25, 2016KR Conversations

Solmaz Sharif

sharif-microinterview-carouselSolmaz Sharif’s first collection of poems, Look, will be published by Graywolf Press in July. She has most recently been selected to receive a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award as well as a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Her poem “Desired Appreciation” can be found here and appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Desired Appreciation”?

I wrote “Desired Appreciation” while in New Hampshire after reading the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA Torture. I knew I would have to respond in a poem, but found it harder and harder to contain the actual brutality described, none of which was new to me, within the poem. I had only taken Emily Dickinson with me to New England. I was wondering why poets nowadays don’t write poems of disdain, or where I can find such poems. Why such emphasis on empathy and compassion always. Why I should talk about torture while maintaining empathy for the perpetrators or the national narrative that creates and excuses them. It made me think of how dangerous it feels when I am asked if I love this country and why that is. I read Ovid’s “Ibis,” which is this gratuitous curse poem. I swiped some translation of his opening lines.

Could you tell us a little more about “learned helplessness,” which is at the center of this piece? When did you first read about it? Do you know more about the study of “shocking dogs” that you mention at the beginning of this poem?

In 1965, Martin Seligman, the father of the “positive psychology,” author of books like Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, conducted an experiment using dogs. The dogs were restrained, would intermittently hear a sound, and would receive an electric shock soon after every sound. It was Pavlovian training, except the dogs learned to expect a torture they could not escape. The dogs would eventually stop fighting it. He then placed the same tortured dogs in a different room, one that they could escape by jumping over a short wall. The same sound, the jolt. Even though escape was possible, the dogs wouldn’t try. They had developed “learned helplessness.”

In a $180 million contract, the CIA secured two psychologists, referred to as “SWIGERT” and “DUNBAR” in the report, to develop and loosely monitor their torture program. These psychologists cite the concept of “learned helplessness” as the foundation for their “menu” of torture strategies. It is worth noting these psychologists had zero experience as “interrogators,” zero knowledge of the languages or cultures they would be “interrogating,” zero moral or professional competence. I’m not sure what a resume for such a position might be, and I certainly wouldn’t want one to exist to begin with, but, like, one of the psychologists had written his dissertation on how diet and exercise impacts hypertension.

I wanted to know who “SWIGERT” and “DUNBAR” really were. I wanted to see their faces. So in my research, I came across their admiration for Seligman’s work. And a rather creepy encounter—a gathering of intelligence agents, police officers, and professors that Seligman threw soon after 9/11 to “brainstorm about Muslim extremism.” One of these psychologists—“Doc Mitchell” colleagues call him—was in attendance and approached Seligman, gushing. Seligman says he thought nothing of it and is “grieved” that his work has been put to such use. I have yet to find Seligman explaining what a gathering of intelligence agents, police officers, and psychologists brainstorming about “Muslim extremism” was supposed to produce if not precisely this.

This poem addresses difficult questions about how to relate to your country in (and after) times of violence. You’ve reflected on the aftermath of warfare in your upcoming book, Look. Could you talk a little bit about how you address this particular political moment in your work? Are there other poets you’d recommend who are grappling with similar themes and questions?

Whatever the policymakers may be calling it today, if we are to take the historical markers of invading Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11 for granted, we have been at war for nearly fifteen years, and we have not seen upon our soil a single expected marker of that warfare—bombed out buildings, ration lines, lack of power or penicillin, cancer rates skyrocketing from depleted uranium, spoiled food in the freezer, and on. There is a schizoid split—to be in the middle of our longest, most expensive wars while also not really seeing it. We can largely confine the wars to something that happens over there. There are many domestic over theres as well. For example, in 1985, the police dropped a bomb on a West Philadephia block, and yet we say war does not happen here. Aerial bombardment, of course, is not the only tactic of warfare—its tactics are sexual, economic, physical, and psychological. Within and without the US, warfare is something that happens in certain neighborhoods, to certain bodies, and there is always some candlelit, park view dinner undisturbed and oblivious. Or as Denise Levertov writes in “Tenebrae”: “And at their ears the sound / of war. They are / not listening, not listening.”

What does this have to do with my poetry? In the lyric, what here and there? What before and after? For the United States, there is no after violence. Perhaps more accurately, no before. This nation, as any settler colonial nation, is in perpetual war. And this perpetual war does not preclude pockets of calm. My job is to break that calm. Or to point to its brokenness. If the calm shrinks down to one well-ventilated powder room in one well-maintained mansion, then there is no calm. This is, in part, why I use terms from the US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms in my book as small caps—little ruptures that point to the violence being committed against bodies and language, and the domestic realities this violence permeates.

As for poets today—so many to name. Most immediately I think of Phil Metres, who has been doing such important work around documentary poetics and the wars on terror. I’ll have a review of his book Sand Opera up here soon.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think I talk to myself more. I think I talk to different writers. I think the self I hear speaking my poems is a bit more beyond myself. I think I am less affirmative or hoping to have curative purpose. I think I am not fighting as much my generally doubtful, often reticent temperament. Nor its swings towards righteousness.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing? 

Probably film—especially documentary film that is not straightforward, objective, omniscient, strictly veracious. Kiarostami’s Close-Up, for example.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Not exactly advice, but a friend called my writing “dictatorial.” I nearly took their L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-loving head off, but it has proven a tremendous thing to sharpen myself against.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

You know, it’s nice not to know exactly. I know I’m writing poems around displacement in quantitative syllabics. I know I am thinking about the phenomena of “persistence of vision” and the mechanics of motion picture. And televised confessions. And revolution. I know, too, that I am translating works by Forough Farrokhzad, an Iranian poet of the mid-twentieth century who deserves to be an international figure.