Monday, April 16, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Solmaz Sharif

by Danielle Badra

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 19-21, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action: Louder Than a Gun – Poem for Our Lives, Friday, April 20, 9-10 am, Lafayette Park (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door)
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10 online and at the door)

Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

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Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Solmaz Sharif holds degrees from New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied and taught with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. She is the author of the poetry collection Look  (Graywolf Press, 2016),  a finalist for the National Book Award. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Witness, and other publications. She is the former managing director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and her work has been recognized with a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, scholarships from NYU and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. She has also received an NEA fellowship and a Stegner Fellowship. In 2014, Sharif was awarded a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, as well as a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg fellowship. She is currently a lecturer at Stanford University. Learn more at her website. Photo by Arash Saedinia.

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Danielle Badra (BD): First of all, it is an honor to be interviewing you for Split This Rock Poetry Festival. When I first read Look, it was for my graduate thesis workshop in the final year of my MFA at George Mason University. I was assigned to introduce and lead discussion on your book to my fellow classmates. This was in the Fall of 2016, just weeks before the Presidential Election would once again force Americans to truly look at themselves and wonder, “what the hell is wrong with us?” Reading your book at this time felt very appropriate, and even healing for me personally, as I’m an Arab-American who has continually been looking at my country’s murderous mistakes with heartache and defeat.

One of my favorite aspects of Look is that it asks the reader to do just that, look at the world around you, look at the war around you, look at what you are protected from, and think about what your experience would be like if these militaristic terms were used to detonate your home instead of to disrupt a poem. I see your book Look as a directive, for a largely American audience to wake up and witness the injustice the U.S. imparts on the world, often without anyone knowing about it. And for a global audience, to witness the current refugee crisis, to not look away and, also, to act.

Did you write Look with the intent of provoking social change? Do you see this book as a form of political action, and if so, what action do you hope your audience takes in response to this text?

Solmaz Sharif (SS): If political action were the goal, I wouldn’t have chosen poetry as the medium—the audience is too small, the medium is too slow, and our need for political action and change far too urgent. The book is an enactment of and thereby a plea for a kind of attention, one that acknowledges what Judith Butler calls the "grievability" of lives. Perhaps this is what you mean by social change? It is a faith placed in a long-term that cannot be measured.

The job of the poem (I tend to think in terms like “job” and “duty” and “responsibility,” though readers are free to exchange these terms with “possibility” or “joy” or some other soft-footed term) is to make alive in the reader the rendered experience, which may or may not awaken possibilities of political action, but I don’t believe in vanguardism in literature or in politics, so I don’t have an action I’d prescribe. This makes me more of an agitator than, well, a legislator, because, yes, even my political poetry forefather Shelley’s famous dictum, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” irks me.

That said, my intention as a person is to end US imperialism, at home and abroad. Period. This intention does not evaporate when I write a poem, just as no marker of identity, no meal eaten, no words read, no lullabies sung, no spiritual sense of place, no sense of self evaporates, though some might insist it does and should.

DB: You said in an interview at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop that you approach poetry more as a form of reading than a form of writing. That even writing a grocery list can be a poem if read with a poetic lens. That you approach your source texts as poems to interact with and respond to. What is it about the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms that became a catalyst for these linguistically complex and politically layered poems? Why this found text? Why not another military text or government document?

SS: I am a poet, so language is my medium, and the DoD’s dictionary is a violence against language itself. Beyond the DoD, my problem is with lexicography writ large. The fixing of language, its standardization, the decisions behind how words are to be used and aren’t, often by committee, is a doomed and often imperial enterprise.

Language is, sure, a shared medium, so we must have some idea of how we are each using it, some sort of agreement, I guess. But dictionaries are doomed. Any number of obscure military manuals, any state-sponsored language can and should have lyrical pressure applied to it, but it made most sense to use their very own dictionary.

DB: Master Film” is gorgeous and heartbreaking and intensely personal. The reader feels emotionally connected to and invested in your family in this poem, unable to look away when it ends with a direction not to look. This seems to reveal a desire to simultaneously illuminate the struggle of a family in transition, in transit, while also protecting this most vulnerable moment of the father crying—you redirect the language from your baba’s words to your own to take the action and the vulnerability off of him.

How do you approach writing about family members? Do you ever find yourself caught in an act of self-censorship? Do you find yourself struggling to find a balance between revealing your family’s experiences while shielding your family from overexposure?

SS: Thanks for the kind words here. That poem, for whatever reason, gets read as autobiographical the most often. Why? Because there is a single discernible “I” in a book that is otherwise largely polyvocal? Because it is a discernible immigrant narrative? No reviews have quoted a poem like “Force Visibility” and called it autobiographical, but there have been reviews that purport to tell my biography, and this bio is straight up lifted from “Master Film.” I haven’t figured it out.

But to your question, I find myself caught in self-censorship all the time. This is a legacy of centuries of monarchy, state-sponsored surveillance, notions of propriety wrapped up in necropolitics. My parents challenged this with their lives. They raised me knowing what I say might cost my life, might cost a friend’s life, but I have to say it anyway. Those have been the stakes. They have made it known to me on a number of occasions that I must write what I must write, including their lives. This is incredibly courageous on their parts.

After a review that mischaracterized and objectified my parents, my mother was justifiably hurt. My father was unbothered. “Let them know you come from nobodies,” he said. An anecdote to explain what he meant: There is one history book about the revolution in Iran that mentions, in passing, a “brave young woman.” She remains unnamed and appears as a supporting character to a man, famous revolutionary character, who is named.

When I happened upon this sentence in the history book, my hair stood up. I know who that unnamed woman was. That is the sort of nobody I come from. Her life reduced to one moment of declaration in a prison that sped her execution—she remains unnamed, but there she is nonetheless, in history now. That is how we have touched and shaped history, how we have wanted to. Sometimes happily nobody, sometimes relegated to nobodies, but always knowing history is a thing made by nobodies. And so to write ourselves, our lives, the shadows of it into the record, into any record, my chance to do this, you better believe I’m going to write as many nobodies as possible, my family included.

DB: What are you writing now? Are you doing similar work with found text and linguistic reclamation as political action?

SS: Not necessarily found text, but I continue looking at the languages of power, how they play out on our psyches and our bodies and our polis, and how a poem might intervene there.

DB: How do you select which found words to work with in your poems? Do you start by writing a poem then inserting found terms or finding the term and then writing the poem around that term? Likewise, how do you know when a poem is finished?

SS: It was a bit of both—sometimes the words dictated the poem; sometimes I wrote the poem, then went searching for the terms.

DB: What are you reading right now? What authors inform your poetic style?

SS: I’m rereading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for the first time since high school. Eliot’s essaysAimé CésaireEtel Adnan’s In the Heart of the Heart of Another CountryJennifer Hayashida’s exciting forthcoming collection, A Machine Wrote This Song. Everyone I read informs my style (returning to The Bell Jar makes me wonder how many of my obsessions and moves were planted by this novel, for example, and how many others read at fifteen, at thirteen, at twenty-three) though it’s been Rich and Brooks and Jordan and Rukeyser that I can point to most obviously.

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Additional Links

Sharif and all the Festival Featured Poets in the April 2018 Poetry Magazine

Sharif's Kenyon Review Conversation (The Kenyon Review

"Mess Hall" and "Dear INTELLIGENCE JOURNAL," by Solmaz Sharif (The Quarry)

Sharif reads at the Lunch Poems Series (UC Berkeley)

The Lyric Self is the Political Weapon” Solmaz Sharif’s Look, by Eve F.W. Linn (The Critical Flame)

"Solmaz Sharif and the poetics of a new American generation" a book review of Look by John Freeman (LA Times

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Danielle Badra received her BA in creative writing from Kalamazoo College (2008) and her MFA in Poetry at George Mason University (2017). Her poems have appeared in Outlook Springs, 45th Parallel, The California Journal of Poetics, Bourgeon Online Journal, The Greensboro Review, Bad Pony, Rabbit Catastrophe Press, and Duende (forthcoming). Dialogue with the Dead (Finishing Line Press, 2015) is her first chapbook, a collection of contrapuntal poems in dialogue with her deceased sister. Her manuscript, Child of the Universe, was a finalist for the 2017 Berkshire Prize for Poetry from Tupelo Press.

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