Sholeh Wolpe

Interview by Nadija Rebronja

You say you don’t belong anywhere and that you have an accent in every language you speak. What do you think about poets and the notion of belonging? Can poets belong to anything or they only belong to poetry?

I left my home in Tehran at age 13. After the Islamic revolution I realized going back was no longer an option. I felt stateless and “home” became an
important theme in my life. I’ve lived in many countries, towns and cities, and over the years I’ve acquired many identities—daughter, student, wife, mother, poet, friend, feminist, artist, victim, conqueror, teacher. But where was home? Was it the place of my physical birth? Was it where I hung my hat? Much of my work has been about or influenced by this search, or by
examining what exactly “exile” means. Where do I belong?
One day I was sitting in a garden watching turtles move from one side of a
pond to the other. I realized we were just like those beautiful creatures. We
have a place of birth or a habitat, but no matter where we go, “home” is what we carry inside of ourselves. I’m talking about syncing with an evolving self. We may be connected to a geographical place or a culture but we are capable of creating our own internal country—independent of the false boundaries haphazardly drawn by politicians, kings and conquerors.

Today, I stand under the banner of literature.
Today, I belong nowhere.
Today, I have an accent in every language I speak.

What is the language you dream in when it comes to poetry? What is the language you think in when it comes to poetry?

I can only write in the language I dream in. I stopped dreaming in Persian long ago. That is why I write in English. When I translate Persian literature, it’s my way of connecting with my mother tongue. When I read Persian poetry out loud, it vibrates in parts of my soul that are often hidden and untouched.

You translate works of Iranian, more precisely, Persian classics. Your translation of Attar’s work The Conference of the Birds to the English language attracted a great deal of attention. It presents a different vision of Iran to the West, it also presents Islam in a way we don’t often see today.

Although Conference of the Birds comes from Islamic tradition, it draws from Sufi mysticism. Its message is completely anti-dogma, anti-racism, antinationalism and anti-extremism. Attar tells us that the distinction we make between church, pagoda, temple and mosque are meaningless. We must walk the Path and travel towards our Creator. He says our destination is like a grand ocean. We all end up at its shores. Some take a long time to get there. Others arrive quickly. He says, try to arrive as a pure drop of water so you can join the ocean and become one with your Creator. If you arrive as a pebble wrapped in your ego and fantasies, the ocean will welcome you as well, but you would sink to the bottom only knowing yourself— never the ocean.

You have translated a famous Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. How do you think a good translation of her work can elevate her to the stage of good “world” poetry such as that of Zymborska, Milosz, and Akhmatova?

Forugh Farrokhzad is one of the most significant Iranian poets of the twentieth century. Born in 1935, she was a poet of great audacity and extraordinary talent. Her poetry was the poetry of protest—protest through revelation of the innermost world of women. their intimate secrets and desires, their sorrows, longings, aspirations. Forugh lived the way most women secretly longed to live but lacked the daring or know-how. However, she did this at great cost to her family life. She lost the custody of her only biological son, had to spend some time in a sanitarium where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy, and endured great abuse by the media who refused her the seriousness and respect granted to her male contemporaries. She died in a car crash at the age of 32.
My translations of her poems, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad
(University of Arkansas Press) is already in its second edition and fourth
printing. People love her. When I began translating her work, I knew it was
time for the world to become better acquainted with this remarkable poet
who won the heart of a nation through her poetic talent, her perseverance
and courage. She was years ahead of her time, both stylistically in her poetic language and in what she had to say. For the first time in the history of Iranian poetry, she dared to write from the perspective of a woman, socially, sexually, emotionally and politically. Forugh and several of her contemporaries revolutionized the poetic language of a culture steeped in formal poetic style, and difficult vocabulary. She employed language that was simple yet multilayered. With each reading of her poems you find yourself holding something new, and you feel compelled to go back to each poem not because you didn’t understand it the first time through, but because you know there is more — always more. And you are never disappointed.

You often stay in Europe, visiting poetry festivals and residences. It can be freely said that you are familiar with the contemporary European literature as much as with American. Do you see the differences between the tendencies in poetry in Europe and America?

Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing writes, “The sun, along with its other activities, creates rain.” I think poetry is like that rain. It is created by the social and political activities that surround it; it is created by culture, music, history and art… everything the poet is surrounded with. So yes, I do see quite a bit of difference between what’s written in Europe and in the United States.
Politicians, corporations and the media have created an artificial world where it is always “us” against “them”. Many people passively accept this fabricated world without questioning the forces behind wars, religious bigotry, and political and financial gain. We get so caught up in this artificial game that we forget who we are, where we come from and what really matters. Poetry pulls us out of this passive acceptance. In that sense, until recently, European poetry has been more relevant and powerful in the lives of people. Until recently, majority of published poets in the United States have been white, and somewhat removed from the rest of the world. I clearly remember how after the 9/11 tragedy, poets began to write more political poems and people began to seek solace and guidance in poetry. Poets became more relevant. Today there are many African-American and immigrant poets whose voices are being heard. At least much more than before. And that’s a good thing.

When writing about your poetry, critics mostly use terms such as humanity, humaneness, culture, freedom. How much is it important for poetry at this moment to question humanity in the context of the contemporary world?

It is said that poets are the truth-tellers of their time, like mirrors held up to the society in which they live. They also say that poets bear witness.
Personally, I do not write to have an impact on the world, although I hope they reach out and touch the reader in a way that impacts their perspective. But I’m not a preacher, nor a teacher of any kind. The only time poems have any impact on any society is when people stop, listen, and pay attention to what the poets are saying. The impact is not because the poet intended an impact, but because people paused and made time to truly listen. What I write is from an urgency I feel within myself. I have written a great deal about human rights violations against women and about myself, and course I have and will always write as a woman and from a perspective of a woman, because obviously I am a woman; but I’m also a human being, a poet, a lover, a mother, a friend.
A people is not always its government and conversely, a government does not always represent its people. However, what can represent a people are their literature and the arts. That is why I also dedicate a great deal of time to translating Iranian literature to English. I want people to look at Iran through the lens of literature and see them as a people, a culture, and not a dark stain on the map, or as “terrorists.” That’s the beautiful thing about literature. It brings us together as human beings—directly and not through the distorted lens of religion or politics.

In one poem, you write a letter to America that came to your room in Tehran when you were eleven. Is America today, in your poetry and in your dreams, azure and orange, like the sky and poppies?

We are solitary creatures. We view the world from inside of ourselves. And when we are in a meditative state, the juxtaposition of what is out there and that moment’s internal experience can have a profound effect on our psyche and on how we see the world. What does blue mean unless it is thrown against yellow? If you put grey in the middle of olive green, it will look like a different color than if you put it against lavender. Try it. Each time your eyes will see the grey as a different color. The question is: what is “reality”? Context and background alter how we see things. Whatever we hold inside of ourselves comes from what we gather and process from our immediate surroundings—the kind of books we read, to the movies we see, the human interactions we have, etc. What does any of it mean when thrown against what exits outside of us, unprocessed by our inner psyche? That’s what this poem explores.

I’m interested in how you write about matrimony in your latest book, Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths. There’s such despair in many of the poems, as you describe the physical and psychological dismantling of women trapped in the strictures of marriage and motherhood or wrenched through divorce. And yet there’s tenderness, too, that arises in surprising and unexpected ways. What inspired these themes?

I married for love. I was very young and he was older. There is danger in unions like that. However, what I write about in Keeping Time With Blue Hyacinths is not so much about the strictures of marriage and motherhood as it is of the uncertainties they create in a relationship where beauty is darkened by misunderstandings, where moral judgments sully trust, and careless unkind words or actions corrupt the air inside the home. I know there are many women out there who see themselves in these poems. My voice is theirs too. But moving forward and upward is paramount. Without tenderness and a sense of humor life gathers weight.

As a literary translator, can you explain why it’s important to translate literature to another language?

I am a poet and writer who translates. Not the other way around. I translate because I believe literature has the power to bring people of different cultures and languages together. These are dark times and as always, the light of literature and the arts is necessary to brighten our lives and bring us closer to one another. As a bilingual, bicultural poet, I feel it is my duty to do what I can, as effectively as I am able— to re-create our beloved poetry of Iran into English, as poetry. Persian and English are as different as sky and sea. The best I can do as a poet-translator is to create a reflection of one in the other. My translation becomes a re-creation that reflects the original. The sea can reflect the sky with its moving stars, shifting clouds, gestations of the moon and migrating birds—but ultimately the sea is not the sky. By nature, it is liquid. It ripples. There are waves. If you are a fish living in the sea, you can only understand the sky if its reflection becomes part of the water. That reflection is translation.

We live in a world torn apart by various ideologies. Every day, we hear about how different we are. For me, the only thing that really draws people together is the arts. And I want to be a part of that process. Because on one hand, you can despair and say, as a writer I can just write my poems or write my plays. But because I am bicultural, and bilingual, and because I am a poet and a writer, if I do not translate, it’s a sin. Through translation and re-creation, I can bring different cultures together.

You are also a playwright. Tell us about your most recent play.

Yes, my new play is an adaptation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. When Ubuntu Theater’s managing director Michael Moran approached me with the idea of adapting it for the stage, I was already thinking about doing it but had not yet started. It seemed we had found each other at the right time. He commissioned me to write it and after a full year of writing and workshopping, it premiered at the Ubuntu Theater in Oakland on November 30. I was directed by Italian director, Giulio Cesare Perrone. While writing this play I maintained the basic overarching structure of Attar’s story while exercising creative freedom as the playwright. I added comedy, magnified the existing humor in the stories, and did not shy away from making references to our modern political and social issues. I blurred gender roles and demanded a multi-racial cast. It is a play that is entertaining and funny while faithful to Attar’s profound and timeless spiritual message.

Tell us a little bit about the story of The Conference of the Birds.

In The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world gather and acknowledge the Great Simorgh as their Sovereign. Simorgh is a mysterious bird who dwells in Mount Qaf, a mythical mountain that wraps around the world. The Hoopoe is elected to lead them through the perilous journey. They cross seven valleys and of the thousands of birds only thirty reach the abode of the Great Simorgh. But that is not the end of the story. Something unexpected happens. You will have to see the play or read the book to find out.

Out of the languages close to our region, you have been translated to Macedonian so far. How familiar are Americans with the Balkan authors?

Yes, Nikola Madzirov translated my poems into Macedonian. He is a great poet whose work I love. Translation of literature is like building a bridge of light between people and cultures. It connects us and is impervious to bombs and grenades. We owe a big debt of gratitude to poets who translate poetry from around the world, including from Balkan languages. People such as Sean Cotter and Mihaela Moscaliuc who translate Romanian poets such as Nichita Stanescu and Liliana Ursu; Charles Simic who has translated many Serbian poets; Igor Isakovski who edited anthology of Macedonian poets by bringing together many fine translators; and Miroslav Nikolov who has translated Bulgarian poets such as Lyubomir Nikolov. These are collections I know about. I am sure there are others I have not read because they are not translated into English.

Prethodni tekstovi: Naslikano sunce, Sposobni smo da stvorimo svoju vlastitu zemlju, 1. dio, 2. dio