Poetry as Protest: An Interview with
Maryam Ala Amjadi
by Joan Hua
Poet Lore’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue features a portfolio of Rira Abbasi poems in translation by Maryam Ala Amjadi. In the following interview, Ala Amjadi confesses that she cannot recall whether she first read Abbasi in Farsi or English. “I often think that I am in a constant state of translation,” she says. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and has lived in multiple countries since. Her perception of words and meanings embodies a truly cosmopolitan insight, tuning straight in to the shared human experiences of struggle and wellbeing. While studying in India six years ago, intensely concerned with the overwhelming representation of war embedded in everyday language and “the rhetoric of world powers,” she sought dialogue with fellow writers through such platforms as Poets Against the War (PAW). Thus began her ongoing conversation with Rira Abbasi, a known Iranian peace activist.
An award-winning poet herself, Ala Amjadi is the poetry editor of Hysteria, a periodical of critical feminisms, and a current Ph.D. fellow in Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME) at University of Kent and Universidade do Porto. I conducted the following interview through email correspondence, during Ala Amjadi’s relocation from Canterbury, UK—interrupted by a trip to London— to Porto, Portugal.
Joan Hua How did you come across Abbasi’s work? Did you first read her in English or in Farsi? What were your first impressions?
Maryam Ala Amjadi I first came across Rira’s work when I started to contemplate the vocabulary of peace in contemporary Iranian poetry. At the time I was a 25-year-old student of literature in India, and a regular reader of pro-peace/anti-war forums. One of the few interesting platforms that I came across was the Poets Against the War (PAW) movement website. When did the rhetoric of war become the normative and dominant discourse? Why is war always represented as this inevitable, inerasable, and impending event in the rhetoric of world powers? If war is the death of words and the distortion of language, what factors render “peace” as dialogue? Why is the onus of dialogue and “cultural ambassadorship,” however, always shouldered by the lesser privileged and the marginalized? In other words, why does one culture assume the position of the translator/reader while the other is reduced to the position of the translated? Isn’t violence against Muslims and people of color also terrorism? In asking myself questions such as these, I set out to look for Iranian poets who were engaged with this discourse and addressed such immediate inquiries in their writing.
So, I sent an email to poet Sam Hamill, one of the founders of PAW, and expressed my interest in collaboration. He responded with much warmth and welcomed my ideas. In searching for Iranian poets to translate for the PAW, I came upon the website of Iran’s International Peace Poetry Festival, the brainchild of Rira Abbasi. The festival’s charter stated that “Poetry for peace is affiliated to humanity, regardless of race, religion, sex and geography.” I was really intrigued by those lines and I immediately sent Rira an email, asking if she would be interested in an interview. That was the beginning of our ongoing conversation in poetry and friendship. My translations of Rira’s poems along with an interview with two other Iranian poets were eventually published in 2010 on the PAW website.
Your question regarding the language of my encounter with Rira’s work is interesting. Honestly, I don’t recall whether I first read Rira in Farsi or English. I sometimes read a writer in one language and remember or quote them in another. I often think that I am in a constant state of translation. Though we all are, in a sense—some of us more than others. We render the world around us constantly in the languages we think and speak in, whether by choice or obligation. Living in translation is often an obligation for marginalized cultures and identities, a necessity to survive and gain visibility within the dominant language and culture. When I first read Rira’s work and started to translate her, I found that her voice remains with me as the reader long after I have left the page, that her poetry adheres to our shared human experiences of pain, survival, and (the need for) collective joy and wellbeing.
JH Rira Abbasi is a peace activist. In what way is Abbasi’s poetry an extension of her activism? What do you feel Abbasi’s poems do?
MA Poetry, as I once heard the Marathi-language poet Dilip Chitre say, is protest. The pen gives us the opportunity to cross out words as much as it gives us the power to write them.
Rira’s poetry provokes the reader with an unfamiliar rendering of often axiomatic questions that pertain to our immediate human experiences and emotions. A poem first and foremost is a linguistic probability. It begins with a question, a fear, a concern and often concludes with a sense of uncertainty. The first question is, “How do I pass this void (the blank paper) and land in meaning?” Writing is a meaning-creating experience. Then you ask yourself, “Is the poem finished?” Does it sound complete? Will the encounter between the poem and the reader be a meaningful experience? Does a poem ever finish? How could it, when everything around us, when the boundaries of meaning-creating experiences and encounters are in a constant state of flux? I think writing, reading, and translating poetry is to practice a form of tolerance for ambiguity.
Poetry is a house of questions. I don’t want to romanticize the notion of perpetual inquiries taking precedence over answers. I want to emphasize that is important to ask questions, to stand in the face of oppression, pain, injustice, and violence (whenever that is feasible) and ask, why? It is crucial to refuse the illusion of binary boundaries of good/evil, self/Other, safe/dangerous, and so on and to demand transparency and accountability.
Poetry is looking at the world from a thousand other windows, or rather as many windows as possible, in the awareness that our vision is fragmented in our human condition, and that we need to envision a less disintegrated world regardless, that it is tremendously important to proactively imagine a different world, to make it a part of our mental and psychic landscape, to believe that kindness and empathy and understanding are not mere textual ideals to pay lip service to, but integral to a healthy life experience that is the right of each and every living body in this world. This conviction is one of the underlying reasons that I translate poetry.
Last summer, I came across a heart-wrenching poem for Palestine by a young budding Kashmiri poet whose poetry connected the struggles of the Palestinians with those of the Kashmiri people. The poem came to me in the hour of the densest darkness. It was the time when the death toll in Palestine had peaked sharply and that night as I began to imagine another life for that poem in a different tongue, I thought that we have to continue to actively imagine another life for those in suffering and under oppression. That it is important to do so, despite recurring setbacks, despite all the obstacles. What would you do if you met such a poem? I simply had to translate it. I had to envision another life.
This is how I feel about Rira’s poetry at a primary level. I feel pleasurably compelled as a translator to imagine another existence for her words, a new platform for the questions she evokes, the voices she summons by transcending her personal experiences, and the inquisitive urges she provokes in the face of power, always treading in love and keeping kindness in the center and close to the heart of her poems.
JH Some of the Abbasi poems in your portfolio of translations to be published by Poet Lore seem to be a hybrid of social poems and love poems, like “Repetitive Sunset,” which opens with intimate heartbeats clashing with the startling sound of bombs, and concluding with the cadence on “drones drones drones.” How do you see the cacophony of this hybrid (and perhaps they are not evoking contrary sentiments) play out?
MA Life has only one direction to go: ahead, even in times of war and conflict. Often even more forcefully in desperate times. Many of the Iranians who lived through the Iran-Iraq war know this. People got married and celebrated their weddings and other life events (under different and often dire circumstances) in some cities while other parts of the country were bombed. Both Rira and I have often shared stories of women in war who told us that they found that they had to dance, make love, laugh, and strive to create a sense of stability in those unstable times. So, I think those sentiments of love and justice are not only not contradictory, but of quite a complementary nature that manifest more passionately and forcefully in desperate times.
In fact, I believe that love is justice. There can be no love without justice, a humane and compassionate sense of justice. On the other hand, I sometimes come across people in social media who have expressed shock and revulsion at how people could possibly go on about their daily lives in the times of conflict and crises without a sense of guilt. I think no one can ask anyone to stop living and laughing, and often the sense of “guilt” we feel is nothing but a beautifully coated sense of shame that echoes our very own privileges. Privileges that also echo back to us our sense of responsibilities. What is horrifying, however, is sheer apathy. That is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. It is terrifying to think that one could wake up one day and see oneself as this dispassionate academic or thinker for whom violence (and the people who are affected by it) is nothing more than a research topic.
Let me share with you a few notes about the translation itself. The ending lines of the poem in Farsi are as follows (a literal translation):
Under repetitive repetitive repetitive bombardments
I decided to substitute the word bombs with drones for three reasons: first, I was concerned that bomb would not thoroughly convey the cacophony that came immediately across in the Farsi reading of the poem. Second, I thought bomb was a rather hackneyed word, thanks to overall desensitizing effects of violent media. I needed to find a word that delivered the cacophonic violence in the poem with more vivid connotations. Third, it is important to me to let my translation work be informed with urgent questions, whenever it is possible and apt to contextualize.
I have noticed that some people assume that drone strikes don’t do much damage because they do not target civilians, that the progress of contactless technology, which has facilitated a more contactless life for the privileged, now also makes contactless destruction a logical and legitimate possibility. This is a highly dangerous assumption. Drones kill and they have killed numerous civilians. You only have to take a look into the number of children and civilians who died under drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan in 2014. Some of these people died as they were going about their everyday lives, some during a wedding that was instantly turned into a funeral.
All these people had their very own dreams and loved ones. Every one of them has a name. Every one of them was important to someone else; every one of them was a child, a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, and so on. It is important to imagine these connections that are veiled in the numbers of causalities of war showered on us by the media. As Kafka says, “War, in its first phase, emerges out of a total lack of the sense of imagination.” It was terrifying for me to see some people argue that “drone strikes” are relatively less problematic and “better” than directly invading another country. How can one possibly compare one act of violence with another with such superlatives? There is something wrong with quantifying violence in this way. We should be able to address and challenge all acts of oppression and violence, without conflating and downplaying one in favor of another. When I explained my choice of word to Rira, she gladly concurred that “drones” was more suitable in this context, as it would make it possible for the reader to transcend the poetic persona’s experience of war and create more relevant and urgent connections to the present discourses on violence.
JH What were some concerns or goals related to translation you had while putting together this portfolio? What about considerations with regard to selection of themes?
MA Translation is, of course, very different from appropriation, which could be one of the hazards that translators face while rendering core concepts from one culture to another. It is crucial for me as a translator to educate myself and acquire an overall awareness of the history and cultural contexts of core concepts both in the source and target languages as much as possible in order to understand the socio-cultural implications of the words I employ and the power they entail. Cultural appropriation reduces cultural symbols and elements to readily accessible commodities for profit and gain without any respect for the source culture from which they were taken. Moreover, appropriation reinforces negative stereotypes often through exoticization and fetishization under the banner of “love” and “adoration” of certain decontextualized cultural elements.
One of the most urgent questions that I ask myself immediately after the first draft of translation is “does this text now sound like a poem?” Poetry is primarily written to be read out, recited, and performed, and sometimes shouted on mountain tops. Preserving the poem’s sense of rhythm and meter is integral to a good translation. One must, however, also take into account how this sense of rhythm and tone are rendered and modified in the target language. I often use repetition of certain words or phrases as a tool to create this sense of rhythm, a sort of linguistic echo.
Rira is often passionately devious and creative with language. I needed to think of strategies to ferry across her playfulness with words into the English language. For instance, in the poem “I, the Reproduction,” consider this verse:
My body is an utter dictatorship of awakening
I caress it to sleep under the name of Neo-Nuzzlepam
I had initially used the original compound, Neo-nazepam. I am grateful to the Poet Lore editors who asked me to clarify this term. This made me rethink my translation. Neo-nazepam is a fabricated word by Rira and a play on drugs with sedative effect that have the suffix “pam”, like Diazpam and Clonezepam. One of the meanings of ‘naaz’ in Farsi is ‘caress’. The neo part is also a play on a political philosophy like neoliberalism, for instance. I finally decided to translate it as Neo-nuzzlepam which seems to be closer to Rira’s choice of word. Throughout all my decision makings, I tried to remain in conversation with the poet as much as it was possible.
JH “Valentine/The White Sheep” is brimming with juxtapositions of culturally specific references. First of all, could you explain the double title?
MA While only one day is dedicated to love, war is the currency and rhetoric of our everyday. The day of love is just another day in the market where capitalists continue to make profit on the backs of the lesser privileged, underpaid men and women and child labor. White sheep dolls and teddy bears sewn up by sleep-deprived children—who never get to play with the same dolls themselves—are sold in huge numbers and exchanged as tokens of love. But even wars don’t stop for the day of love, in the words of the poem’s persona who is addressing a letter to his beloved Leyli, “one cannot abandon one’s homeland on the day of love.” Just like the white sheep doll that is stitched by children whose lives are “cheap tokens” in a capitalist system, the soldier’s life is also reduced to a commodity of war.
He desires to escape the empty routine of the army like the red flowers that “are pinning to escape the walls.” Everything in that poem is in a state of escape or the desire for it. If only the days for love were as countless as the days of war and violence, if the economy of war would become the economy of peace, the economy of love, the soldier would be able to escape this reductive identity that dehumanizes him and renders him into an object, devoid of any sense of agency.
JH Leyli is a popular and common subject in traditional Persian love poems and songs, referencing a love story of Leyli and Majnun chronicled in ancient Persian poems, whereas Valentine is a Western concept now saturated in mainstream culture. And then there’s the martyr to be named Hossein, Superman, and red flowers, etc. Could you talk about these interwoven, cross-cultural references and the effects achieved by this juxtaposition? How did you handle them in translation?
MA Leyli is a strong and recurrent symbol for the beloved as you mentioned in love songs and poems in Farsi. In Rira’s poem, it is clear that the persona is addressing the beloved through the mere use of the word Leyli. But I wanted to make sure that Leyli is read as an indisputable and a strong symbol of love as it is understood in Iranian poetry. So, I decided to expand the word into a phrase, “Leyli, my love,” which I think works quite well in an epistolary poem in English. Broadly speaking, red flowers, red tulips, and red poppy flowers are also recurrent symbols of love in Iranian poetry. And Hossein, while a strong Shiite element, could be the name of any man, any martyr in history, one of the numerous people who died in the war and whose names are now rendered as designations for specific urban spaces. I do agree, however, that these elements would probably conjure a more nuanced set of imagery in the mind of the reader in Farsi, due to a shared knowledge of Iranian culture and history.
On the other hand, I think some of these interlaced cultural elements could somehow be worked out by the intended readers. It is important not to underestimate the investigative power of the readers of one’s text. In fact, one of the concerns in preparation of the texts for this portfolio was that I did not want my translations to simplify the joys and pleasure of deciphering poetic complications by making every verse transparent to the reader. A good translation should of course bear semantic clarity, but it is not the nature of Rira’s poetry to use words with fixed and instantly decipherable meanings. Often a word or a sentence can be read in several ways, and as Rira reiterates in the poem, “I, the Reproduction,” “I will not open it! I shall not elaborate!”—she refuses to offer anything but fluidity to “foul-smelling mouth” of the dictator, the hegemony of meaning. I feel her poems say, come dance in this ambiguity with me and learn to enjoy it.
JH A couple of the poems in this portfolio are deeply rooted in a specific locale, the city of Tehran in “Tehran V,” for example. You were born in Tehran but also lived in India and now Portugal. Tell us more about the relationship between the poet and the locale from your perspective. How do associations with a specific place transform to be universal in translation, or do they not?
MA Poets often write about places they have never visited or places that don’t exist, geographically speaking. What makes our experiences of borders and places meaningful are people. The power of imagination negates this orthodoxy that creative experience is bound by time and place, although it may be informed and challenged by it. The experience of writing and reading across languages is evidence that people can transcend the boundaries of cultures, race, class, and gender and make meaningful connections.
The settings of poems in my second book involve the triad of Tehran, Pune, and Iowa, where I was a writer-in-residence at the International Writers Program (IWP) in 2008. Though these poems rarely mention any specific locale, I realize that it only became possible for me to write them in those specific places. I became more aware of the relationship between spaces, encounters, and poetry, particularly after I wrote my first few poems in England over two years ago.
Going back to those poems now, I see how experiences and encounters with racism and xenophobia, as well the experiences of those I was a witness to, have inevitably emerged in those poems. These experiences have in turn sensitized me to my own privileges back in Iran. I was born and partly brought up in Tehran and have had the privilege of living in a few different countries. It may all seem self-evident, but it is crucial to note how our experiences of different locales are informed and challenged by the intersectionalities of race, class, gender, and so on. And how encounters with one city sensitizes you to your lived experiences of other locales.
Rira’s poems may often be set in a specific locale like Tehran, as you noted, but what I focused on during the translation was how the lived experiences of these spaces have shaped her poetic and political trajectories, how the poet associates and registers emotions and meanings with a particular landscape.
JH You yourself also edit Hysteria, a journal of critical feminisms. And you also write poems bearing strong social messages. How do you see your poetic work overlap with Abbasi’s—in terms of social activism and the art of poetry? How has translating Abbasi’s work influenced you as a poet?
MA Translation of good poetry, by which I mean poetry that I find simply impossible not to translate because of its immediate relevance to shared experiences and emotions, keeps me sharp and homeward, particularly when I wander away from writing poems.
I write poetry in English. Poetry first happened to me in English. I have often said that the language that you sigh in is your mother tongue. I sigh in Farsi, most of the time, but I think, dream and write in both English and Farsi. So, I often find that I have to translate my own poems into Farsi, specifically during conversations and discussions with Farsi-speaking poet friends like Rira. Hearing each other read out poems in different languages has enriched our sense of rhythm and poetic perception beyond these languages.
Translating a poem is like rewriting that poem and arming it with lexical and semantic survival skills for a new form of existence, a chance to redeem what was perhaps left unsaid at the turn of a new phrase or sentence in the source language, to live that unlived life and to ritualistically resurrect the sensual memory of the poem with a new taste, a new sound, a new life.
On the other hand, it is vital to strengthen solidarity and stay connected with those who are open to dialogue for a healthy living. While we may not all walk the same path, it energizes us to be able to connect with fellow artists and human beings who are headed in the same direction, those who decenter manufacturers of violence and their allies (those who rationalize it) in their dialogues, arguments, and imagination. Those who remember to keep and remind us to keep kindness at the center of our hearts all the time, despite all that is going on. Every day. All day. It’s a practice. A necessity for me.
It is wonderful and heartening to be able to share these experiences with a friend and fellow poet, like Rira. And to have the honor of co-creation and collective contribution with passionate and concerned people in a platform and movement like Hysteria. A huge share of my sense of creative hope and resilience is nourished and strengthened by such connections.
Maryam Ala Amjadi
Maryam Ala Amjadi is an Iranian poet, essayist, and translator. She is the author of two poetry collections and translator of a collection of Raymond Carver’s poems into Farsi. She is also an editor for Hysteria, a periodical of criti¬cal feminisms. Presently she is a PhD research fellow in Text and Event in Early Modern Europe (TEEME) at the universities of Kent and Porto.
Joan Hua’s work has appeared in Poet Lore and Asymptote Journal. She is currently the guest editor for Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.