Sholeh Wolpé is a poet, writer, editor, and literary translator whose work transcends the boundaries of language, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. Born in Iran, she spent most of her teen years in Trinidad and the United Kingdom before settling in the United States. She currently lives in Los Angeles.
Wolpé’s accolades include the 2014 Pen/Heim award, 2013 Midwest Book Award, and 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation Prize. Her poems have been widely anthologized and translated.
Terrain.org: It’s impossible to avoid the political resonance of your work, as a poet with dual citizenship in America and Iran and intimately concerned with questions of home and exile. Iran and its people have been systematically stereotyped and dehumanized in the American media. Where does poetry fit into all that? Do poems have the power to bridge such a profound gap between cultures?
Sholeh Wolpé: In my opinion, 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.
The media sets an agenda by choosing what to show and what to ignore, which creates misunderstanding. For example, when I was a teenager, I knew America only through what I had been allowed to see via films and television. To us, Americans had no regular lives, no imagination or spiritual aspirations. We thought New York was full of gangsters who killed people left and right, and that in L.A. everyone was rich and morally corrupt. I thought everyone rode horses and corralled cows in Texas. Imagine if I had been given Walt Whitman to read at school. Back then there were no translations of Whitman in Persian. He did not exist in our universe. Just as Rumi did not exist for most people in the West. I can imagine the profound effect Song of Myself and Walden would have had on my classmates and me. It would have drastically changed the way I viewed America and Americans. Likewise, if the Americans read translated literature, particularly poetry, from Iran, Afghanistan, India, or the Arab world, it is likely they would begin to see others from a more human perspective—which is more unifying than divisive.
Terrain.org: In the poem you published in Terrain.org, “How Hard is It to Write a Love Song”, we see a clash of the domestic with the political—small everyday joys set against the backdrop of horror and violence in the news. In a world where writers can stand witness to horrific events, how important is it that we celebrate the ordinary and the mundane? How do we make room for—and justify—the celebration of a garden, a hummingbird, a tender moment with a loved one?
Sholeh Wolpé: 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, 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 kinds 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 exists outside of us, unprocessed by our inner psyche? That’s what this poem explores.
Terrain.org: 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?
Sholeh Wolpé: 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.
Terrain.org: In the title poem of Keeping Time with Blue Hyacinths, you write about the tradition of the haft-sin table, which marks the arrival of the New Year. Can you talk about the mingling of cultures that you’ve experienced as someone who was born in Iran, spent your teen years in Trinidad and the United Kingdom, and now lives in Los Angeles? How has this movement challenged or inspired your work?
Home is a missing tooth, the tongue reaches for hardness, but falls into absence.
I left my home in Tehran at age 13. When I realized going back was no longer an option after the revolution, searching for “home” became an important theme in my life. I’ve lived in many countries, towns, and cities, and through it all I’ve acquired identities—daughter, student, wife, mother, poet, friend, feminist, artist, victim, conqueror, teacher. Was the place of my physical birth “home”? Much of my work has been about or influenced by this search, or by examining what exactly “exile” means. Once I was sitting by a pond watching turtles move from one side to the other, and I realized we are all, metaphorically speaking, 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 with us, under our shells. I’m talking about syncing with an evolving self, one that may be connected to a geographical place or a culture but is also capable of creating her or his own internal country, independent of the false boundaries haphazardly drawn by politicians, kings, and conquerors.
I suppose that is why I am so drawn to the poetry of the 12th century Iranian Sufi poet, Attar. I have begun translating his masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds (working title), because it is a gorgeous, profound story of such a journey—the voyage of the self toward the “Beloved,” which is a placeholder for any other term: home, God, heaven, or one’s own soul.
Terrain.org: Tell me a bit about Forugh Farrokhzad. What drew you to translate a selection of her poems into English in the book Sin?
Sholeh Wolpé: I met the poet Galway Kinnell at a festival in Idyllwild. He told me he had been to Iran on a Fulbright and had met Forugh Farrokhzad, a poet who later died in a tragic car accident in 1967, at the age of 32, and went on to become an iconic figure in Iran. I was drawn to her poetry even at age 12, and kept a collection of her poems hidden in my room. My parents never forbid me to read her poems because they didn’t know I was such a devoted admirer of her poetry. Forugh was the first female poet in Iran to write completely from the perspective of a woman—socially, politically, emotionally and sexually. Her work is outwardly accessible and can be read at many levels, by all ages.
My own first collection of poems, The Scar Saloon, had just been published. Galway said: You are a poet who writes in English and is fluent in both cultures and languages—why don’t you translate her work? I listened to him and spent two years translating 41 of Forugh’s poems. In the process I learned a great deal about her as well as myself. Translation of poetry is an act of re-creation. You lend the poet you are translating your own poetic voice. That was the beginning of my obsession to re-create poems I’m translating into poems that are as good and stirring as the original.
Terrain.org: In Sin, you write that an interviewer once asked Farrokhzad to comment on the fact that her poems were “clearly feminine.” I’d like to rephrase that question for your own work. Do you think it’s fair to say your poetry deals with feminine issues and images, or would you respond, as Farrokhzad did, that gender cannot play a role in art—that it’s self-destructive to think in terms of feminine issues rather than human issues?
Sholeh Wolpé: I have written a great deal about human rights violations against women, and about myself, and of 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. I agree with Forugh that the question itself is flawed and irrelevant. Why isn’t that question asked of men? Why the categorization? In large bookstores authors are separated by gender and race as if their race or gender defines what they write about.
Terrain.org: Certainly an openness about sensuality and sexuality is something your work and Farrokhzad’s have in common. And I think it’s something Iran and America have in common, that both countries have and still do consider the expression of female longing and desire to be outside of the mainstream and potentially dangerous. Do you think women can turn the tables on male poets and become voices rather than objects in lyric poetry?
Sholeh Wolpé: This is a complex question for which there is no simple answer. I can only hope that human society is inching its way towards such a paradigm shift. We need total and complete transformation in outlook and philosophy worldwide before women cease to become “objects” in poetry and the arts, mainstream and otherwise. I believe the push towards this shift must first come from a united front consisting of both women and men. It is important—if not imperative—to break rules and expectations. If a line is drawn over here, we must step over it and draw our own line over there, or not draw it at all but keep on walking.
Terrain.org: In many of your poems, the idea of what it means to be a woman is intricately tied up with voice. In “The Rosetta Stone”, for instance, you describe how in the Persian language “silent” and “mute” are compliments paid to women. There’s a wonderful moment in another poem, “The Prince”, where the narrator concludes that what counts is “the grit to say no / to what is hurled—words, glances, bullets, all.” Tell me about how you see Iranian and American writers tackling this dichotomy of silence and voice.
Sholeh Wolpé: Forugh Farrokhzad in her poem, “Only Voice Remains”, writes:
Voice, voice, voice, only voice remains. In a world of runts measurements orbit around zero. Why must I stop?
The four elements alone rule me; my heart’s charter cannot be drafted by the provincial government of the blind.
Poets are beaten, humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, maimed, beheaded… you name it. But as I have said and written over and over, poetry is like rain. It cannot be arrested. A million umbrellas of censorship cannot stop it from seeping into the ground and feeding seedlings that will bloom. You can put poets in front of an armed squad, but their poetry is impervious to bullets.
Voice matters and change requires courage. In increments or in wide strides, movement is imperative even in face of danger.
Terrain.org: I love the surrealism of many of your poems, and particularly the intermingling of the human with the natural world. In the poem “The Chill”, for example, wolves, lions, and swans become inseparable from the female body. These images struck me, because of course there is a long and often demeaning tradition of conflating women with landscape—but here, neither woman nor landscape play passive roles. There’s strength, beauty, power. Can you comment on how you view nature as an active force in your writing?
Sholeh Wolpé: When I look up at the night sky, at all those beautiful blinking stars, the steady gaze of planets and the airless blackness of vast spaces between them, I’m filled with an overwhelming gratitude for this beautiful planet, our home in the universe. You have to travel a long way to find a place like this. I love its every grain of sand, every boneless worm, every snowflake. Perspective is everything. Images and words can be hijacked and misused to do harm or push an agenda. As a poet I choose to re-claim them and make them mine.
Terrain.org: You also recently translated the poetry of another writer considered a radical in his own time—Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Can you talk about your experience as a translator of poetry? What draws you to that work, and what opportunities or challenges do you discover in the Persian and English languages?
Sholeh Wolpé: In 2012 the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program commissioned me to translate Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself into Persian. I asked Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi to join me in the project. What a daunting, humbling but at the same time exhilarating project! I was excited. I was terrified. Translation is re-creation. How were we to re-create Walt Whitman’s poetry in a language and culture so fundamentally different from English language and the culture Whitman lived in? Mohsen lives in exile in Mexico City, so we had to work on Skype. On our first day of collaboration, we spent two hours discussing how to translate the title. Words are pregnant with insinuations. We had to be careful. On a few occasions I made up new words in Persian. We worked hard and finished one section a week, 52 weeks of hard work, heated discussions, and sometimes for me, sleepless nights. In addition to delivering each section every week, I was also to deliver a recording of my reading it. The recordings and the translations are available on University of Iowa’s Whitman Web and will soon be available in print in Iran. In the end, the outcome was glorious. Indeed, Whitman is even more melodious in Persian. Go ahead, give it a listen: http://iwp.uiowa.edu/whitmanweb/fa/section-1
Terrain.org: Do you think it’s still possible to write “radical” poetry—in the sense of poetry that overturns old norms and ingrained notions of how people are supposed to act? Is that something a poet should strive for?
Sholeh Wolpé: For me, a good poem allows the reader to find himself or herself inside it. Poets have nothing new to say. There is a poem by John Ashbery called “Late Echo” that beautifully expresses this very sentiment. What we are good at is avoiding clichés and saying the same old things in new ways, put them in new light, or in new settings. The reader in turn connects to the poem because she is somewhere inside the poem. What he has tucked in the back of his consciousness rolls forward, unfolds, and emotionally moves him to take a step towards the poem and hopefully change perspective, even if it is just a little, even if it is temporary.
In the same breath I can also say many poets, writers, and artists have their moments of oneness with the universe. Some call it God, but that’s just a word. You can spell it backwards and get another image. What I’m saying is that I believe there is a force that embraces all of us; we keep trying to harness it, name it, own it; we fight wars defending the empires we imagine it rules, but what we don’t do is sit in awe of it, like the man in a Rumi poem who forgets his thirst when he sees the moon’s reflection trembling on the well water.
Terrain.org: Were these the themes that first intrigued you when you first began writing poetry—political activism, feminine voice—or did start your journey as a writer for entirely different reasons?
Sholeh Wolpé: No, none of that. My journey began with my love of language and an imagination bigger than my young head. Later the language I knew was taken away from me and replaced with a new one (English). I stopped reading and writing in Persian because I wanted to fully learn and master this new language. I didn’t begin to write and publish my poems until I learned how to translate my imagination into English.
Terrain.org: You have edited two anthologies, Breaking the Jaws of Silence: Sixty American Poets Speak to the World and The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles. Can you talk about what inspired these projects, and how you selected the poems to include?
Sholeh Wolpé: What do Americans know about Iranians outside of what is presented to them by the media? 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. I wanted to bring to the American public diverse Iranian voices—the young and the old, the famous and the unknown, the modern and the ancient—where Iranians could be seen through the lens of humanity. I was delighted when the collection won the Midwest Book Award. That meant people were reading it and taking notice. It was reaching hearts and minds. However, there needed to be a response to these Iranian poets, as well as other poets of the world, from the American poetry community. Many third-world poets often wonder why they don’t hear from the poets of this country. Therefore, with PEN USA’s support, I embarked on collecting poems from 60 distinguished American poets that directly or indirectly address the world. Breaking the Jaws of Silence is a collection of poems that not only meditate on principles of freedom, justice, and tolerance but also boldly and directly address specific countries. Poets in the anthology include many American poetry luminaries such as Natasha Trethewey, Robert Bly, Rita Dove, Naomi Shihab Nye, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jorie Graham, Carolyn Forché, Alicia Ostriker, Dana Gioia, Jean Valentine, Quincy Troupe, Gerald Stern, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, and many others.
What I love about anthologies that are organized in a coherent and deliberate manner is that the combination of poetic voices play like musical notes that come together as symphony. They become a collective identity.
Terrain.org: There’s a poignant line in your poem “The Outsider” where you write, “I have an accent in every language I speak.” If you could write a recommended reading list for people who live in exile from their homelands, caught between cultures, what would be on it?
Sholeh Wolpé: In the past two decades there haven’t been many such poets, caught between cultures and languages, who write in English. But there have been and increasingly are many talented prose writers, many of them women. I find that interesting and delightful because back in Iran the majority of such writers historically have been male. A few names that pop into my head are Gina Nahai, Porochista Khakpour, Azar Nafisi, Nahid Rachlin, and Jasmin Darznik. I also recommend Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers, edited by Persis Karim and Anita Amirrezvani, which showcases short stories and novel excerpts by many talented writers, including the ones I mentioned.
Terrain.org: You’ve taken perhaps an unusual path to becoming a poet—you have a master’s degree in Radio, TV, and Film from Northwestern University and another in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. What advice would you give young poets and writers?
Sholeh Wolpé: Growing up, I never thought of poetry as a profession or as something one can study to become. I read widely and although it would have been nice to formally study literature, I never felt I was missing out by not getting degrees in those fields. I had led a self-directed life since I was 13 years old, so I knew I could study and excel at whatever I wanted on my own.
My advice to young writers is this: read widely, think independently, live fully, and travel adventurously. Do not narrow the road of your life. If you have not gathered perspectives and voices and if you have not learned to think independently, then what you write will have the depth of a sewing thimble.
Another piece of advice: the success of others, including your friends, has nothing to do with your own achievements. Envy and jealousy are poison mushrooms. They don’t make you bigger or better. Every tiny bite poisons your life and eventually your own writings. Celebrate the success of your friends. Help them. It elevates you. It makes you a more genuine writer.
Terrain.org: Tell me more about the projects you’re working on now.
Sholeh Wolpé: I am translating Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (working title), which is one of the definitive masterpieces of Persian literature. Farid ud-Din Attar (1145-1220) was one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets of Iran. In fact Rumi considered him a literary and spiritual influence. In one of his poems Rumi wrote:
Attar traveled all seven cities of love While I’m still at the bend of its first alley
The Conference of the Birds is a symbolic story of the soul’s search for truth. Mysticism teaches that truth does not reveal itself outwardly, and that we must search beneath the surface of things for meaning. It is this form of active search that gives purpose and a sense of direction to our lives. The Conference of the Birds has never been translated into free verse by a poet who writes in English, so it’s time to bring to the public a fresh, poetic, free-verse translation. I was just awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for this project and am in the process of applying for other grants so I can dedicate the necessary time and resources to this challenging and rewarding project.
I’m also working on my next collection of poems, as well as a group of essays. Some days I don’t emerge from my writing studio until late at night. I do try to take breaks to stretch or go for a walk, but I admit I don’t do that enough. So when I’m invited to give readings at festivals or colleges, it’s very good for me. I love connecting with students and audiences. A beautiful energy is created at such readings.
On another front, my play Shame was staged in March as a staged reading at the New Ohio Theater in New York City. The greatest number of human rights violations worldwide has been and are committed against women and girls. Shame is about burdens women carry and sacrifices they make to avoid dishonor. It is directed by Caryn West and produced by Marc Weise.
Melissa L. Sevigny is a poet and nonfiction writer from Tucson, Arizona. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University and works as a science communicator. Her first book, Mythical River, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press.