Tuesday 28 July 2015

Iranian poetry, concrete poetry…

The London streets of 2015 are paved with poetry.  It’s quite something to have to choose between several seriously interesting events, which is what happened throughout Saturday.  When I started reading and listening to a lot of poetry 11 years ago there was far less going on.  It’s tempting to use (or misuse) words such as exponential and explosion.

Poetry International on the South Bank was featuring poetry and poets from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of this in conjunction with the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) whose spring issue featured Iranian poets of the 20th and 21st century. 

Stephen Watts heroically covered the last 1,000 years of Persian poetry in a talk.  Infinite possibilities opened up – a whole civilisation in poetry – as he moved from Ferdowsi’s 11th century epic the Shahnameh via Rumi to 20th century greats Nima Yushij and Forugh Farrokhzad and 21st century diaspora poet Ziba Karbassi.

Stephen, himself a poet and translator, tried – tentatively – to identify the distinguishing features of Iranian / Persian poetry.  Classical and modern poetry share, he felt, “a pared-down richness of language”.  Poets are at ease with abstractions and poems may be both rooted and take off – soar – as Rumi’s work does.  Modernists from the 1930’s onwards reacted against the ossification of Persian poetry and their social and political circumstances; they took on the natural language of their surroundings. The best of their poetry combines inwardness and openness.  

This may make little sense without examples; the new MPT contains translations of work by twelve poets.  I find it quite difficult to extract quotes – is Iranian poetry also hard to break up; might this be to do with abstraction?  Here is part of leading modernist and pioneering woman poet Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem ‘In Darkness’, translated by Sholeh Wolpé:

I called your name
Your name I called holding
my own being like a bottle
of milk between my hands.

The moon’s blue gaze
rapped against the glass.

From the cicada city
a blue song was ascending,
slithering like smoke
against window panes.

I was a little disappointed that only two of MPT’s featured poets were female – Stephen said he thought some of the best poetry being written now is by younger women.  But he added that some of the best may be on the margins, unpublished, whether for political and/or other reasons such as geography and language.  Many languages beside Farsi (or Persian) are spoken in Iran, including Azeri and Kurdish. 

The energies of the 1960s and 70s in opposition to the Shah’s rule, both secular (mostly from the left) and religious, were suppressed after the Iranian revolution.  Writing carried on, often in secret; there were workshops.  Some poets have dared to use their own name, some use pseudonyms and some write anonymously.

Poets in Iran have risked much, even life.  Nasrin Parvaz and Hubert Moore talked about their joint translation of contemporary poets – bringing them “out of the shadows” by various routes.  Parvaz herself was imprisoned for many years in Tehran and condemned to death. 

The first poem they read was by an unknown woman in the notorious Evin prison.  The speaker, along with fellow prisoners, watches a woman leave the cells, her walk perfuming the air.  The ambiguity about where she’s going, to her native mountains or to death, makes the poem all the more powerful – you long for it to be the first while knowing it has to be the second – but then perhaps death is a returning home…  And this poem itself has a story.  The poet, before her own execution, passed the piece of paper to someone else who memorised the poem before confiscation by the guards, and carried it in her head and out of prison on her release.  

Parvaz read a couple of poems in Farsi – I’d have loved to hear more.  As someone in the audience said, didn’t they rhyme?  Someone else said that Farsi rhymes anyway, all the time.  The audiences for both talks were very engaged – a woman stood up and talked about Rumi, there was an exchange about whether it mattered if one says Iranian or Persian, and Farsi or Persian (“no they’re the same”, or “yes it’s still highly political”).  A debate nearly happened about whether exiled writers' work is as valid as that of those who’ve stayed in Iran – a theme surely familiar to all diasporas.

Some of Parvaz and Moore’s translations are in MPT, including three short poems by poet and construction worker Sabeer Haka.  ‘Mulberries’ starts like this and the rest is here.

Have you ever seen
how their red juice
stains the earth where they fell?

For more background, MPT have put on their website an interview with literary critic and translator Atefeh Tahaee who is based in Tehran.  Here’s the first paragraph:

Iranians love poetry. The best evidence for this is the constant incorporation of poetry into daily life, a habit which began in the distant past and still continues. Poems, both ancient and modern, run through people’s lives: in proverbs; in the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and Yalda in the deep midwinter; from the mouths of TV and radio presenters; in the voices of singers and the tunes of musicians; in newspapers, postcards and even in the street where you can buy Hafiz’s auspicious verses for divination for just a coin.

Stephen Watts recommended Six Vowels and Twenty-three Consonants, an anthology from Arc of Persian poetry from the early Middle Ages until now. 

It was impossible to go to everything; the events on Saturday overlapped (why weren’t some of them scheduled for Sunday when mostly workshops were programmed?).  There was a session on why Afghan women risk their lives to write poetry, another on war poetry and one on poetry in north-west Pakistan under threat from the Taliban.  I think everything was recorded, and hope the recordings will be made accessible.  In the meantime Selina Rodrigues went to all three sessions and is writing a guest post about them, to go up on Displacement next week. 

Then there was the proportional representation demo outside Parliament: I spent about 10 minutes there after getting crushed in a scary 20-minute human traffic jam on the embankment between the London Eye and Westminster Bridge.  The demo was disappointingly not a crush but apparently the speeches were good.

A major anthology was launched on Saturday too, at the Whitechapel Gallery – The New Concrete (Hayward), edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe and described as “a long-overdue survey of the rise of concrete poetry in the digital age”.  I can’t wait to have a look at this. Good concrete poetry sets different parts of the brain working together in unaccustomed ways; and there’s something wonderfully geeky as well as aesthetically pleasing about words and letters being unusually patterned, decorated, represented, combined, etc. 

In the evening there was a big reading with the poets (those who’d got their visas in time) and translators at Poetry International.  There was the monthly Shuffle at the Poetry Café, a couple of whose readers are on the Forward first collection prize shortlist.  I missed both of these because it was also the launch of poet Hannah Lowe’s book Long Time No See (Periscope) which promises to be a fascinating mix of imaginative reconstruction and memoir.  It’s Radio 4’s Book of the Week this week, read by Hannah herself.    


  1. Dear Fiona

    My favourite Persian poem remains 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam'. I remember an Iranian woman on Woman's Hour complaining bitterly about the current political situation in Iran. When Jenni Murray asked her where she'd been when the Ayatollah Khomeini landed from Paris, she admitted that she'd been in the crowd cheering him home.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. I expect lots of people did that, desperate for regime change. Then their hopes were dashed.

  2. Dear Fiona

    Or, in other words, be extremely careful what you wish for! Several years ago, I left a comment on Katy Evans-Bush's blog predicting that the Arab Spring would be an unmitigated disaster. At the time no one else agreed with me. After living in Turkey, Tunisia and Kuwait, I like to believe that I know something about the Arab world.

    Best wishes from Simon