June 7, 2013KR Conversations

Solmaz Sharif

SharifcarouselSolmaz Sharif is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University where she is working on a poetic rewrite of the U.S. Department of Defense’s dictionary. A 2011 winner of the Boston Review/Discovery Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in jubilat, DIAGRAM, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and others.  Her poem “Personal Effects” appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?

I’ve been working on a poetic rewrite of the US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms for several years now. My own experience as an Iranian born in Turkey beneath the long shadow of the Iran-Iraq War has always been an impetus behind this project. As an Iranian abroad, this experience was quintessentially American—the warfare was happening over there. Less American, perhaps, was being from the there. Regardless, the being from an elsewhere forced me to cultivate an image, as many have, of the home they left. An imagined place. This imagination-building happened to coincide with a war that killed 1,000,000 people. My father’s brother, a draftee, was one of those killed, shortly before I was born. I have often wondered about him—his taste in food, his crushes, his bikes—and had tried many times to write about him, resulting in many failures.

A few nights before I left for a winter fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, my father pulled a slim album from his sock drawer. It contained a couple dozen photographs that my uncle had on his person while he was on the frontline. Most of the pictures were of him— posing with other soldiers, interrupting a phone call his mother wanted to make. Interesting, I thought, to want to see and carry yourself, more than your friends and family, around with you as you were sent to the front.

A sociologist by training, I turn most things into research projects. First, I looked into the Iran-Iraq war, from Wikipedia entries to a cache of photos of veterans a family friend (and historian) was generous enough to pass along. Then I looked into photography as a medium—Barthes, Sontag, down to Errol Morris’s latest. Then, I remembered I was working on an elegy, so I read as many of those as I could—Tennyson’s “In Memorium,” Shelley’s “Adonais,” Milton’s “Lycidas,” Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” alongside Mark Doty’s Atlantis, Susan Howe’s That This, Denise Levertov’s The Sorrow Dance. Mark Doty’s work led me to Beethoven’s “Grosse Fugue,” which joined Alizadeh’s “Bi To Besar Nemishavad” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as the soundtrack to composing the piece. I’m not a composer and I don’t have a musical vocabulary, but it did feel musical or cinematic the way I was trying to teach myself to weigh and wed so that the whole piece, now twenty pages (though it varied from two to fifty), developed a discernible syntax. With seven undisturbed months in a mostly-shut-down town at the end of the world, I had the luxury of accumulating and adding all the languages and materials essential to the sociohistorical narrative that subsumed my uncle. I got to write page after page in notebooks, narrowed them into ones worth typing, then narrowed those into ones worth placing next to each other, weighted with stones from the nearby harbor. A ramshackle, beach-combed altar of language debris I hoped would bring me closer to him.

I didn’t meet the ultimate goal, to speak to or at least to get to know my uncle; that was the hardest part. In fact, the more I looked at the photos, the more I handled the materials, the more I objectified him and trained myself, as I say in the piece, “to ignore it.” I read pieces in progress for a reading at the FAWC. Later that night, I had an emotional breakdown. I’d heard recently, secondhand, of a war photojournalist who photographed the unearthing of Saddam era mass graves in Iraq, as families attempted to identify members by clothing scraps, accessories, anything that had survived decay. He said, I am told, that he shot and shot and when he let the camera fall on its strap, he finally saw where he was, he finally saw what and whom he was photographing. He cried. The hardest part is putting the camera down.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

Most of it is typical: don’t be a perfectionist, write, write everyday. I am at my best, I feel guilty to say, when I write for thirty minutes every morning. That gives me more material than I can tame. I’m surprised to find that in addition to empathy, my writing requires a callousness. Maybe this is the nature of the material I immerse myself in—mostly testimony of warfare and imprisonment. Maybe this is the nature of the craft—that putting language, putting music first requires a kind of violence.

Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?

I’m drawn to Lana Turner and jubilat, because they consistently publish some of my favorite living poets and that makes me trust the people they introduce. I follow Poetry, skipping excitedly to the letters to the editor. I also read US Weekly. But I have to say, I have a fantasy of starting a literary journal that is only made of work that has been rejected by other literary journals, so that each issue would be a shadow of an existing journal. It would be called something like The Others or The Rejects or Vulture and there would be a New Yorker shadow issue, for example. This is my primary obsession in general: what is missing? Who? I just need to figure out how to do this without turning editors against me.

Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?

Larkin’s notion makes me lament my loss of Farsi because with it I lost the non-gendered third-person pronoun. So my immediate response to reading this proclamation is that, well, clearly it’s not me Larkin is taking into account. And then, of course, I think, Solmaz, just stick to what he’s saying conceptually. He seems to invoke a linearity that isn’t convincing. Is this a poet retreating into his own obsessions, returning and shaping some wisdom, that is then consumed for generations to come? Sure, some poets and poems will work that way. When it comes to my DOD poems, many times the terms in the dictionary are what spark the poems, though I guess one could argue the original emotional concept, namely wanting to interdict the obliteration of language and bodies, still came first. My view in general—of history, of art-making—is not a progressive one, as these stages read to me, but more dialectical. On a smaller scale, I am not certain an emotional concept exists purely separate from verbal device—not even, perhaps, in one given, individual mind. Even at its most private, it’s in conversation with the world. To feel, upon reading a poem I wrote, exactly what I felt first, is impossible. My feelings as the poet are not the only way to feel reading the poem, nor should they be. I do hope my poems are felt.

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?

Write the last poem you will ever write. Then wait a while and write it again. The books should be worth burning.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.

Throughout my undergrad at UC Berkeley, I worked with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, which, at the time, felt like the whole world. Now I see how rare, how valuable that space was. Though June Jordan died the first year I took the course, it is structured to be taught by “Student Teacher Poets,” often themselves undergraduate students at Cal. Even today, these three identities, publicly and privately, feel to me inseparable. The class was one of the most rigorous I’ve ever taken. For instance, no one is offering a class on Native Hawaiian poetry. Well, then, you better put one together and know your stuff well enough to lecture on it before 150 students in a fully accredited university course, you nineteen-year old you. It was challenging and invigorating and I owe a lot to my co-teachers and all the visiting poets (from Bei Dao to Haas Mroue to Ruth Forman). Most of all, the Student Teacher Poet who taught me: marcos ramírez. Who so venerated our time together, he chewed out a woman who wandered in absentmindedly and interrupted our first session with a verve that made me make sure not to cross him. Who would make me produce double-digit revisions of a poem as though there was no other way it was supposed to happen. Who taught me it’s all an experiment. Who in workshop constantly spoke the word “risk.” Who gave me Mahmoud Darwish and the Misty Poets and Leonel Rugama and Milton. Who gave me June stories about her driving, her laugh, the poets she chewed out. Who scared the living lights out of me. Who, when I ditched class certain I was going to drop it and never again share a poem with another soul, called my dorm room and left me a message saying the last poem I sheepishly turned in to him (and only him) I was going to have to read to the whole class as an example, as an example to myself. Who with one phone call changed the course of my life. Who taught me to go where the fear is. Who, when I cried in workshop trying to read a difficult poem, as I cried trying to read and revise “Personal Effects,” held my hand and told me, Keep going. Because of him, I go.