The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Solmaz Sharif about her new collection Look, the difference between nearness and similarity, the re-appropriation of language by the military, and the level of ownership we have over stories.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Where did you get the idea to pull from the Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as a source for some of the language for these poems?
Solmaz Sharif: My best friend, Samira Yamin, is a visual artist. She wanted to do a series of posters around war photojournalism and wanted me to write captions for them. This was back in 2005 or 2006. I looked into military terminology and saw there was an entire dictionary devoted to it.
N: Does that sort of tension that is happening in the Bay Area come into play in your work? I see a lot of political themes like marginalization and surveillance; were there other major political/cultural inspirations?
Solmaz Sharif: Displacement and police presence I think loom large in my work. At least in my psyche, which behind the work. And in the Bay Area, I’d say. The way populations must be demonized in order for an “occupation” to take hold. These are a few things off the top of my head, at least, N.
Brian S: And that’s the case whether you’re writing about the NSA or about the Iran/Iraq war, I assume.
Solmaz Sharif: Absolutely. For me the nearnesses between these tactics is important to highlight as much as their singularity is.
N: And so often in the US the police is including military and intelligence tools and tactics.
Solmaz Sharif: Yes, N.
I’m trying to use “nearness” instead of “similarity” here.
Brian S: I wonder how many US citizens who read these poems are surprised by that? That you would put them side by side? Have you had any odd responses to that?
Solmaz Sharif: Not directly yet, Brian! But I am anticipating it might come up.
Brian S: Can you expand a little on what you see as the difference between “nearness” and “similarity”?
Solmaz Sharif: I can try, Brian. I think we need to draw connection between oppressions and atrocities and experiences, which is a lyrical impulse, but too often we rely on “equality” or “sameness” as the argument for why this should be done in the first place. “this is JUST LIKE that” as opposed to “this needs to be placed next to that” or “this belongs near that.” The latter, I think, resists homogenization. Or at least the belief that for something to be worthy of entering a conversation it needs to be the same as what is already happening in the conversation.
Brian S: So it’s a way of pushing back against argument by analogy almost? I can see that.
Solmaz Sharif: Exactly, Brian. A mistrust of simile or something. Juxtaposition can be enough for me.
Brian S: I was very taken by “Reaching Guantanamo.” Did you write those poems as letters and then erase them or write them with the blank spaces already there?
Solmaz Sharif: Thanks, Brian. I wrote them with the blank spaces already there. Some of the blank spaces are rather obvious, but others are a bit more extended—a lyric from an imagined song, for example. Those longer ones I never even imagined.
N: I actually found it a bit odd how much care was put into word choice and how few Persian words were actually in the poems.
Solmaz Sharif: I’m curious why you were expecting Persian words, N—
N: There is such a strong tradition of Persian poetry and a strong connection to Iran. Most of the Iranians I know in the diaspora are very connected to their language. With the arts especially. The lack of Persian words to me almost feels as if you are differentiating your work from that linguistic connection and play that happens with immigrants
Abby: Solmaz, that distinction seems crucial. I think for me there is a parallel between how people feel like they cannot empathize with someone unless they have lived a “similar” or comparable experience. Thanks for illuminating those ideas for us.
N: The English, and the military language, were almost suffocating (and that could very well be intentional).
Solmaz Sharif: Thank you, Abby. And welcome! I am skeptical of that word “empathy” for related reasons, I think. That we need to feel we can enter another’s experience for that experience to be fully realized or alive in us centers the self in a way we are often trying to undo with empathy. Most of the time I think we actually mean the word “love,” you know?
Brian S: That military language forced me to slow down in reading, because I felt I needed to think of multiple ways to read those terms. How is this a euphemism versus what it’s saying in the line of the poem, and so on.
Solmaz Sharif: I hear you, N. The suffocation is intentional. I don’t know that I had “suffocating” in mind, but the terms are meant to be disruptive in a violent way. As in, as a writer and a reader, I want them out of the poem. Which is suffocating!
I think sometimes they make me slow down. Sometimes they make me speed up (“oh, enough already!”). I think the latter is just as important since that is how many of us spend our daily lives: trying to look away or look beyond.
N: And there seems to be so much re-appropriation of common language by the military. Even a term as common and seemingly simple as “look” is stolen from the English language and turned into an instrument of violence through the military.
Brian S: It could also have something to do with your intimacy with that material at this point. I’ve been working on poems steeped in the Old Testament for a couple of years now and I can hardly bear to even open the source text anymore.
Solmaz Sharif: An instrument of violence that has been violated by the military, in some way.
LOL! I hear that, Brian. But I am responding more to times people have wanted the terms taken out or the small caps removed because it was “distracting” or ruining the otherwise pleasant enough flow of the poem in a way that didn’t seem essential to the poem. That’s precisely the moment that it is essential for me, though. That is the American moment.
Brian S: ”the otherwise pleasant flow of the poem” seems kind of odd for this book, I have to say.
Solmaz Sharif: Otherwise pleasant flow might not be fair of me, to be fair to them. But just that itch to throw the terms out because the poem would be better without them—whatever better might mean. Less irritating, for one.
Brian S: That list poem, “Perception Management.” It grabbed me because I found myself trying to figure out the kind of people who would come up with this variety of names. Some of them nonsensical, some of them so over-the-top in their attempts at propaganda. How did you decide what to keep and what to toss, and how to order them?
Solmaz Sharif: Ordering and selecting that poem was largely driven by music. They could be really repetitive. The entire poem could’ve probably been operation names with the word “eagle” in them, for example. I wanted to make sure that there were ones that we don’t expect—”Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” or “Therapist” for example—but speak to our every day.
Brian S: Some of them seemed straight out of third-tier video games: Rock Reaper, Iron Reaper, Geronimo Strike, Patriot Strike, etc. And then you’d have Army Santa or Constitution Hammer, which could just be random words picked by a computer.
Abby: That’s really true; thanks Solmaz. I know you probably get this question a lot, but who are you reading? And where do you find inspiration for your style and tone? I really love your work, it was so striking to me when I first encountered it, so I was pleased to receive your book in the mail through this group.
Solmaz Sharif: Abby, I hope you’ll answer your question as well! I love hearing what folks are reading. Style and tone—I think my big three might be Muriel Rukeyser, June Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, though I’m not sure they would be identified in my work. Right now I’m reading Brooks’s novel Maud Martha—it’s just perfect.
Brian S: I just got Barbara Jane Reyes’s To Love as Aswang, which I’m planning on using this fall in my first year seminar. I have Patrick Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian on my dresser, and David Rivard’s forthcoming book from Graywolf as well.
Solmaz Sharif: Love those! I’m especially indebted, forever, to Patrick Rosal’s work. We read him when I was in Poetry for the People at UC Berkeley.
Abby: Solmaz—I have a copy of Maud Martha; thank you for reminding me to pick it up and finally read it! I love your choices, so maybe it makes sense that I am drawn to your work as well. I am not a poet—a huge fan of poetry, and community sharing of poetry (I started and facilitate a local poetry discussion group). But I am reading Danez Smith, Lucille Clifton, Ada Límon, Cathy Park Hong, and more.
Solmaz Sharif: Yes, Abby! Dream team right there!
N: As someone who works with human rights activists on digital rights and surveillance issues, I have become accustomed to militaristic language being used. I love how these poems bring something that I live with (and am trying to help develop new language so it isn’t as militaristic) to an audience that might never think about it otherwise.
Brian, I wonder how much of what we perceive of video game names come from this unconscious militarization that we have accepted. There tends to be so many games with military themes and for such a long time (thinking back to Contra).
Solmaz Sharif: N, totally—that was part of the impulse. To see the violence being done against language and against bodies and then not hear the language in poetry readings, for example. As poets, we talk about language. If we are going to talk about language, then we should look at this language, too.
Brian S: Oh, no question. Especially once the first-person shooter became the dominant format for that kind of game, allowing the player to become the soldier.
Solmaz Sharif: I have a line in one of the poems about how one can play Call of Duty in the Army Recruiting Center in the mall. And, yeah, first-person shooter especially—training device.
N: I remember reading that line about Call of Duty in the army recruiting center and was reminded of the game the army made for recruitment. I think it was called America’s Army.
N: Do you have any recordings of your reading something like “Perception Management” or “Reaching Guantanamo” aloud? The play in language fits so well with the visual. What sort of auditory element to the language of the poems do you imagine or have you created?
Solmaz Sharif: There’s a recording of the Guantanamo letters on my website. I read the white spaces as abrupt silences.
N: I will have to give it a listen! 🙂
Brian S: Did you time them so that the longer blank spaces were longer pauses? 🙂
Solmaz Sharif: I did! They are indeed longer pauses lol.
Brian S: Have you read any of the poems Jill McDonough‘s written in the voices of drone operators? She’s pulled from interviews with them to create these really haunting works.
Solmaz Sharif: Not enough of them, Brian! Were you fellows together? She was a fellow, right?
Brian S: Not together. I think she preceded me. I was there from 2003-5. But Habeas Corpus is one of my favorite collections of the last fifteen years. I freaking love that book.
Brian S: How long did you work on this book?
Solmaz Sharif: I started in earnest in 2007 and finished, like, yesterday—eight years.
Brian S: And in a way you still don’t feel finished? 🙂
Solmaz Sharif: Sadly, this book keeps writing itself and would continue to do so. But I’ve stepped aside from the DoD dictionary. That’s the closest to “end” I can get.
Brian S: I’d like to talk about “Drone” for a moment, and how you’re using the “I” in that poem. There are places where it seems clear to me that you’re not talking about yourself but others where maybe you are. How are you making that first person work in that poem?
Solmaz Sharif: It opens with a quote from Frank Bidart’s poem in the voice of Nijinsky: “let this be the body through which the war has passed.” What would it mean for a war to pass through one body? I’m not a dancer, but my body is behind the “I”. The self is seen as porous and polyvocal, the borders between self and other have been interrogated in theory ad infinitum, so I just stood on that.
An “I” that is ever-implicated, ever-shifiting, ever-precarious. And so the poem swirls, or drones, with variety of found testimony and text around warfare.
Brian S: Is that also at play in the third section, where you have someone say “How can she write that? / She doesn’t know”?
Solmaz Sharif: Absolutely. Know what? Ultimately, I know nothing. I mean that. As someone subject to displacement, my entire life exists in imagination, in the unknown. All of our silences exist in the unknown. Also, the burden of narrative shouldn’t rely on immediate survivors alone. We in the States have the luxury of “not knowing” just about everything we do globally, or domestically for that matter.
Brian S: You echo the lines before that in “Drone”: “I burn my finger on the broiler and smell trenches” and “my uncle pissing himself.”
Solmaz Sharif: Yes. My right to write those lines was questioned because I, of course, don’t know and so how dare I. Well, I better dare, I say.
Brian S: And yet we act as though we know everything, and we don’t hesitate to let the rest of the world know that. The US is the global version of straight white male privilege, I guess.
Solmaz Sharif: And bingo.
How do you weigh this question in your work, Brian? Writing what you know or don’t? How would you say, I mean.
Brian S: So much of what I write is personal. Even these poems I’m writing using the Old Testament as source material come from my experience being molested when I was four years old, so I’m thinking about that destruction of trust tied in with faith and so on. And the other poems I’ve been writing lately are very family-oriented, so I try to make them personal, all the while acknowledging that I’m also making stuff up because I can’t know it all, or even really know more than my own perspective on it.
Solmaz Sharif: (I keep typing and erasing in response to what you bring up, but I realize we are almost up on time!)
Brian S: Oh, I can hang around for a couple more minutes if you want to go over. 🙂
Solmaz Sharif: Well, there’s so much! The acknowledging that we don’t know when we write what includes others, but not necessarily making the same acknowledgment when we write more personal stories—I don’t. Is the implication that we harm others if we aren’t factual but not ourselves? Or if about ourselves, then others are not involved? Or somehow are taking ownership over their stories in a way that we don’t have a right to? I’m just so curious about teasing that out.
Brian S: Are you working on anything new or different yet?
Solmaz Sharif: So to be brief: I am working on translations of Forough Farrokhzad—a largely free verse Persian poet (and filmmaker!) who wrote in the middle of the 20th Century.
But I want to thank you so much for having me, Brian. And N and Abby! This was a real delight and a gift.
N: Thank you very much!
Brian S: Thank you for writing such an amazing book and for agreeing to join us tonight. See you online!
N: I really appreciated and enjoyed Look, Solmaz!
Brian S: Where the NSA is watching our every move.
Solmaz Sharif: GOOD NIGHT, NSA!
How rude of me….