Poetry Far from Home
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Last September, the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) ruled that manuscripts from countries such as Iran, Syria and others with which the U.S. is under a trade embargo cannot be edited, translated or published.
Although the work she deals with is published outside of Iran, the vague rules put Niloufar Talebi – writer, performer and director of The Translation Project – in an awkward position, as her work is expressly designed around translating, editing and publishing Iranian poetry.
"In the post 9/11 climate leading to the U.S.-Iraq war, Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries have been mushed into one murky, Arabic-speaking, terrorist-threat-to-the-free-world zone," said Talebi, who lives in San Francisco. "Most Americans, even educated ones, are not aware of the vast differences in language, religion and government between Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan – a shortcoming that can be corrected by introducing literature in translation into the American culture."
Though the consequences of the OFAC ruling are still murky, it is enough to spark concern in Talebi. Meanwhile, she's pushing forward with her project.
The Translation Project seeks to track the rich tradition of Persian poetry in diaspora since the 1979 revolution, now that so many Iranians reside outside of their home country.
|Ziba Karbasi's "Love is Lemony," translated by Talebi:
For Ali Abdolrezaei who stood by me and I never returned to myself
Now that you draw the pink veil
Lashes and neck, long
My head cockeyed out the nook
We stand facing each other
"Persian poetry is such a complicated area of discussion and one that I am still investigating," says Talebi. "In a nutshell one could say that the newer poetry has a more relaxed narrative style, experiments with newer forms, perhaps inspired by world poetry, and the subject matters range from deeply personal to erotic and takes fresher looks at the conditions of estrangement, hybridized living and recreated identities. The mid- to late 20th century Iranian poetry is just as different from the contemporary poetry as Stanley Kunitz is from Mary Oliver."
Poet in Exile
Talebi was born in London to Iranian parents and lived in Iran intermittently until she was fifteen, leaving the country after the 1979 Iranian revolution (earning her the title of '79er from a fellow Iranian American friend who immigrated before then). Having grown up in a household surrounded by "inspired poets, passionately engaged in the creation of literature" it's not surprising that she would mastermind such a project.
The project began back in 2002 when Talebi was approached by an American poet friend – who was doing co-translations of Uzbek poetry – to collaborate on translations of Iranian poetry.
"I picked this one legendary Persian poet, Forough Farrokhzad – who died in 1967 – to translate, thinking it was a good idea. But my poetic Farsi needed help and I kept calling my parents with questions." Her parents referred Talebi to an Iranian poet in Los Angeles to help with her Persian language skills.
"It was a beautiful, collaborative process; I became addicted to this chain-link process, going from one information source to do my translations, and then re-shaping them with my friend, who spoke no Persian, but who brought her American poetic sensibility to the work. A Persian poet friend was the one to say to me, 'What about us poets in diaspora? We haven't been translated!' I saw the dire need for this collective voice to be heard, so I researched from January to August 2003 to form the concept of the anthology.
With funding from the Christensen Fund in Palo Alto, the Translation Project, whose ultimate goal is to publish an anthology of these contemporary diaspora poets, is now a multimedia project with spoken word, performing arts and DVD components, stretching its fingers internationally to reach the poets where they may be found, from Slovakia to Australia and of course, the United States.
"My goal is to begin a careful examination of this new voice, and to raise enough interest in American readers, editors, translators and ultimately publishers to propagate the presence of this literature in the United States. It's my dream that contemporary Iranian literature be as present on the world stage as classical Iranian literature – translated for decades – and contemporary Iranian cinema have been," she said.
"Iranian culture is a culture of many things: poetry at the top of the list," said Talebi. "I've had to get to know the culture and the poetry much better than I thought in order to complete this anthology."
This has been a greater challenge than she first anticipated.
"It's been difficult to get in touch with 80 poets in diaspora when few people give few phone numbers. These poets are like an endangered species, darker-skinned artists often living marginalized lives. They tend to be very sensitive. I've had to do my investigative homework. If you ask the wrong person for a phone number, they will lose faith in the project and feel negatively toward it."
Another challenge to the project has been her realization that in order to create an anthology of new Iranian poetry she had to significantly beef up her own knowledge.
"I realized that even though the anthology might represent only fifteen poets, I would be wasting my time if I didn't read the entire body of work out there and assess it for contextual standards and hold it up to general standards of poetry. I decided ultimately that I had to seek out work that has grown, which might ultimately exclude some poets who were established before the revolution, but whose work frankly hasn't changed. As a result, I've been doing the research as if it's a scholarly work, though I don't want the product to actually be scholarly," she said.
This aesthetic has drawn her toward poets who are writing about the experience of living out of their home country without falling back on tired themes and poets who have experimented with different styles.
"I don't look for poetry of exile, but poetry in exile. I'm always searching for poetry that's more personal and has fresh themes or new ways of describing the day to day life of being a person who doesn't necessarily belong where he or she lives, or can successfully blend the political with the personal. I find very little of that."
While this project has transpired outside of the setting of the Bennington Writing Seminars where she does her graduate studies, she has acquired some support from professors such as poet Jason Shinder.
Soon she will be courting publishers.
"I'd go with a publisher that wouldn't fetishize the project for their 'literature-of-color' niche. I would also like a publisher that would be interested in starting dialogue in educational circles because that's where we can plant the seeds of understanding. I want our knowledge of "the Iranian" to graduate from "mystic dervish" or "Muslim fundamentalist" to "21st century citizen of the world."
Though the project has grown much larger and more complex than Talebi first imagined, there are benefits that she couldn't have gauged before she began.
"When I began this process of translation, I suddenly found more serenity as an immigrant. I didn't realize that for eighteen years I had been anxious and unsettled. This process is an expression that pulls from all of my fragmented selves and merges them so I can behave like a whole person."
Visit www.thetranslationproject.com for more information.
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a freelance writer living in Northern California and the host of Word by Word: Conversations with Writers, on KRCB Radio.