On Monday, June 3, 2019, Solmaz Sharif read at Broadway Performance Hall as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures Poetry Series. In the Q and A session that followed the reading, Seattle poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha engaged with Sharif in an illuminating conversation that touched on issues such as erasure, state violence, photography, and advice to young writers. What follows is the transcript of their discussion.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: I found myself thinking a lot about the process of the various poems you read, so I’m hoping that you’ll willing to share some of that with us. The first thing I was wondering about was the erasures. I read in an interview you describe erasure as something a state normally does, and you found that form challenging because of its origins, because of its history. So I’m really curious how you found an entry point that felt acceptable to you in order to create these poems.
Sharif: Thanks for that question. I do think that there was this era—and I guess it’s still happening—where a lot of people were writing erasure poems where you basically take a text, and you strike out words, and you create a new poem out of that text. You can do all kinds of things with that: You can subvert the meaning, you can highlight the meaning, you can do something totally different. But what I found was not enough people were really engaging with how that overlaps with state-sponsored censorship. This was also happening in the era of Wikileaks’s first dumps of American material and data, where we could see all these redacted documents.
And so when I saw that aside in the New York Times [about the redacted letters of Salim Hamdan, who was held at Guantánamo], it seemed like the right point of entry, but I do a few things that are different. One, it’s not found text. I’m not taking a text that already exists and striking it out. The other thing that I do that was ethically important to me—but also invisible to you as a reader—is that I didn’t write a complete letter and then cross it out. So whatever is blank for you is blank for me. I wrote with those gaps. For me, that was important because I wasn’t trying to replicate the violence that was being committed by the Joint Task Force. I was trying to grieve it, actually. And to exist alongside the reader in that absence, and in that not knowing.
I did that because we didn’t have access to those letters, but since then, Laura Poitras has made a documentary film about Guantánamo, and in it she shows an actual letter that Salim Hamdan himself received from his family that’s been censored. And I say that because if that had existed, I wouldn’t have written the poems. Because then it becomes an aesthetic exercise. It makes me a little nauseated actually to think in those terms. I thought instead, how do I apply my poet’s imagination in ways that are possibly politically useful and ethical, and to also talk back to this formal movement that was happening in American poetry at the same time.
Tuffaha: I’m really interested in the ethical interrogation that you engage in throughout these poems. Were there poets who you were reading at the time you were working on this book who were on a similar journey, or who were engaging with these questions in a similar way?
Sharif: Absolutely. So many that I will forget to name. Immediately someone who comes to mind is Phil Metres, whose book Sand Opera came out in 2015, and in his work, he uses the Standard Operating Procedure to erase, and a lot of the testimony from Abu Ghraib guards and survivors. He’s done a lot of work around documentary poetry, and the biggest influence for me was the essay he wrote on the Poetry Foundation’s website, which was the first place I even heard that documentary poetry existed, as a concept. And so I immediately picked up everybody from Reznikoff to Rukeyser, poets that had engaged with documentary practices in their work. And later—I started this book in earnest in about 2007—and shortly after that, or maybe four years into it, I was given Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, which I highly recommend, and for me, is one of the most important books of the 21stcentury, if I have to put a time stamp on it. There are lots of shoulders that I’m standing on.
Tuffaha: The thing that is so moving to many of us readers about the book is the way what’s traditionally called the “political”—for lack of a more creative term—intersects so deeply with the personal. How, even in the elegy, and in other parts of the book, you never get to be in one landscape and not the other. I’m also interested in understanding more about your process as you wrote this elegy. Were there rituals you had to create for yourself? Were there new ways you had to approach the material—because it is so deeply weighted for you and your family—to be able to write about it?
Sharif: That’s a great question. There were no rituals. I’m not a very careful writer when it comes to process, if that makes sense. My process is actually to just have as much material as possible printed out in front of me, and to be interacting with it all the time, and to let that material and that testimony and that history whelm me as much as possible. Which is not an entirely sustainable practice—not one that I advise my students to undertake. So a few rituals might have been helpful to keep me grounded.
Like I said in the beginning, in the quote from Bidart, one of my muses was Nijinsky, who was a ballet dancer who attempted to choreograph a dance of World War One and perform it to an audience as a confrontational act. He famously goes “mad”—to use the language of the time—afterward, and that quote, of letting a war pass through a single body, letting this history and material pass through my body as much as possible, and to be as open to it as possible, is what I did. But again, not so sustainable.
Tuffaha: Because you are a teacher, are there things that you do or that you have learned to do, or wish you would do more to take care for yourself? I ask this for those of us who are writing during wars, and through ongoing wars, and at the border, and during times of state and police violence. I think about your line, “According to most definitions, I have never been at war,” and that really stayed with me. And I thought, what can we say to one another, those of us who are writing in these ongoing states, to care for the self, to care for the writer substantively, and be able to sustain, what kind of things have you learned?
Sharif: I hate to say that I haven’t learned them. I’m okay with giving myself to it, and being eaten up by it, and I think that’s an act of care. But I haven’t found a sustainable way of doing it, and I’m definitely not in the position to offer that kind of feedback, unfortunately.
Tuffaha: Okay, I might let you off the hook if you promise to look into that more, because we need you writing for a very long time. We can make a deal.
One of the questions the audience asked, which is interesting to me, is can you speak a little bit about the use of repetition in your poetics? There are several poems where there is really striking anaphora that transforms the poem.
Sharif: I think because I write my poems general out of a sense of trappedness or crisis, there’s a constant return to the same thing to try to figure it out, to try to name it over and over again. That comes naturally. In terms of anaphora—I said the sonnet is a fascist form. I don’t really write in inherited forms. I am an inheritor of poets like Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks in the Western canon, who broke with inherited form in order to come up with a poetics that was true to themselves and the “we” that they saw themselves as a part of and wanted to name and celebrate.
But I do still think of myself as a very formal poet, so I come up with a lot of closed systems that I write in. And the reason that is because for me the formal shape of a poem is the diagnostic movement of a poem. It is power being enacted against speech and upon speech. So I’m constantly trying to find the shapes that will interrupt my speech, will prevent me from saying what I need to say, exist only in infinitives so there is no subject, ways that I can’t quite get to the thing that I need to say, or that I’m watching what I’m saying. Repetition is one of those.
The other thing I’ve been thinking about is a reaction to Twitter: How to write a poem that doesn’t have a quotable line . . .
Tuffaha: May we all aspire.
Sharif: . . . but has lines that hit you, but there’s something about the returning to them that you have to have context for the line for it to have meaning or import, and that it requires that contextual work, rather than the sloganeering or the bombastic or the immediate and the quick that we seemed to be pushed toward—by algorithm, at this point, and by formal requirement that’s being placed upon our speech, and that we’re consenting to.
Tuffaha: Thank you. I’m just annoyed that I didn’t get to write down what you said, so someone better have written that down, and I’ll get it from you afterwards.
I learned from your book that the photograph that’s on the cover was the first photograph that was taken [in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce]. In LOOK, there’s a lot of engagement with looking, with photograph and capturing by sight, and I’m wondering, because you ended up with the military dictionary, what was the path? Did you begin with the dictionary and then arrive at the visual images? Or is there a relationship between those?
Sharif: The path was messy and difficult to trace and follow. I began with the dictionary, and when I started writing the long elegy that I read from, and I was using his photo album and trying to figure out why it is that I’m so obsessed with photography in general, I started reading theorists around photography. I read Sontag’s On Photography, Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and I did a deep dive into the history of photography, because I am a creature of curiosity and very much a research-driven poet. That’s where I’m happiest, and that’s what I would like to pursue for as long as possible. There were many threads that fell away in the course of writing this book, but photography followed through. And I found this photograph that is by Niépce, who was an inventor, and this is credited as first known photograph. I’m always a little wary with “firsts.” I feel like there is always probably someone before who just didn’t make enough noise.
I was drawn to this image because it was not entirely legible on first glance. You have to actually spend time with it. It’s an image of “real” rooftops, but it’s also one that is impossible to behold in real life. It was a long exposure, likely between 8 and 12 hours, so the buildings are being lit from both sides as the sun moves across. That intersection between representing “the real”—and the obvious impossibility of that—and the way the photograph reveals that it’s not real is central to my practice as a documentary poet.
I don’t take on this crystal-clear objective stance that the photo is the truth. Instead, I like to smudge it around a little bit. And as an aside, the thing that struck me was that Niépce was actually a lithographer before he invented this photograph, but his son was the one who would draw the plates, and then his son went off to war, and Niépce couldn’t draw, so out of necessity he invented this way of drawing with sun. That war connection struck me too. That’s one of intersections of personal curiosity. Plus, it looks like a drone image.
Tuffaha: It does. Without reading the description, that’s what I assumed in the beginning, so I was intrigued by the history. I have another audience question: You mentioned writing about places like Iraq and Afghanistan to Americans who mostly understand those regions through the lens of the American military complex. How do you reconcile writing about war to an audience whose gauge of our region always essentializes being MENA [Middle Eastern and North African] with violence, destruction, and death?
Sharif: Aha! I want to have a longer conversation with you after this. I’m still figuring that out. I have to say this book . . . okay, I’m going to give the uncensored answer to this: When I started this book, I was thinking of very particular rooms and readings—they were small—that I would find myself in that were not even talking about the war, or the wars, or the military industrial complex. I wanted to disrupt those rooms, as much as possible. This is also a point of personal obsession and pain for me that I had to name: my relationship with warfare, my inheritance there.
I have been fascinated though by the insistence upon treating this text and the significance of this text as something that is autobiographical to me. As in, there have been responses to the book that say the significance lies in the fact that an Iranian wrote this, which is absurd on one level—because that’s not an Iraqi or Afghani, so there’s that—and also because I was forty days when I came here, so what is my inheritance there? In the book I’m trying to reveal that as much as possible—that moment of, “you can’t write that because you don’t know that,” but then my whole life exists in the not knowing. My whole history is that not knowing, and so if I want to know my family, I have to reach toward that.
But ultimately, I wanted the aim and the gaze to be on state-sponsored language, and one of the counterbalances I have and that I think is important is that ultimately my purpose is to end this stuff. This is a text that intends to be anti-imperialist. Period. It is not to be a representational text. Period. I think writing from that impulse has been important to me, but responses are new to me. And so I’m curious how the next book will respond, which is why I want to have a longer conversation with whoever asked that question, because it is very important to me, and haven’t quite figured it out. This is my first book, and my understanding of audience has shifted dramatically.
Tuffaha: I guess the second part to that for me, and you’ve started to talk about it, is how has writing this book changed your relationship to language, given the deep dive you’ve done into the ways we hear these words and the violence that’s been done to language by all of the states that are implicated in the writing? Has it changed you and how you write, now that you’ve gone through this experience?
Sharif: Absolutely. I think the book deals with the Department of Defense’s dictionary, but I’m irked by dictionaries period. I’m irked by lexicography. I’m irked by the attempt to fix language, which is a medium that is alive and constantly in flux, and should remain so, something that’s passed back and forth between us and co-written and freaks as much as possible. I think my job as a poet is to keep that alive as much as possible.
I also find that my work has gotten a lot more broken. Moving back and forth between a text that is not your own and is so different than how you actually speak or want to speak, for as long as I did (which was eight years), definitely changed the way I finish sentences, or don’t finish sentences, and the words I reach for. My work before this didn’t have quite as many stutters or silences as it does now. I think I am also way more attuned to questioning and looking at all the ways now we are asked to change the language that we use to describe the world around us. Not just the language that the state uses, but the language that we use internal to describe the world around us, to communicate to each other, so that we are pleasant subjects of the state, so that our affect and our tone is calm and clear, so that it seems as though everything is tolerable, and it is our job to make it tolerable internally by changing our own language. As a result, I’ve been doing more of deep dive into cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, self-improvement industry—all these ways we are being asked to change our very speech and language that we use to describe the world in order to be accommodating subjects of the state.
Tuffaha: Who are you reading now, and I include writers that are not new, but you are returning to, that you are rediscovering?
Sharif: I just revisited Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, which is a huge text for me. And I just went to Left Bank Books today and picked up Brian Teare’s new book, and I started reading that today as well, and it seems incredible. I can’t wait to get back to it.
Tuffaha: Another question from the audience that I’m going to amend slightly: What’s your advice for young poets, and what’s your advice for readers? We always hear about what poets should be doing, and what writers should be doing, but I feel after listening to you that readers are partners in that responsibility. What’s your advice for readers, not just writers?
Sharif: I don’t have an advice, per se, but I do have a plea, which would be to incorporate or add a political reading of every text that you come across, every poem that you come across, because I do believe that certain poems and topics are relegated to the political, while other bodies, and other narratives, are seen as free from the political. Really that should be happening on the level of a reading, rather than just on the level of the writing and the writer deciding certain content is political. That would be my plea.
To the young writer, I would say write what you’re scared to write. And I would say, write directly toward a person or a part of yourself that needs to hear from you, and keep that as your aim. Make it as intimate as possible.