“I HAD / TO. I / learned it.” So begins “America,” the opening poem of Solmaz Sharif’s breathtaking second collection, Customs. The fragmented confessional poem prepares the Iranian American poet’s readers for a shift from her first book, Look — which redeployed US military language to highlight the country’s crimes in the post-9/11 era — to a more intimate exploration of exile in a deeply broken America. Customs, as the title suggests, also examines poetic traditions (often showing us the customs only to break them) at the same time that it introduces readers to aggressive customs officers at the US border. The collection considers the cost of making a life as a woman of color in a country founded on white supremacy.
Unapologetically political and deeply lyrical, Sharif’s second book illustrates why her voice is one of the most illuminating in poetry today. I recently caught up with Sharif to talk about her poetic journey, as well as why she couldn’t write much in the Trump years, and whether poetry can ever become a home to the displaced.
NATASHA HAKIMI ZAPATA: You wrote your first published poem, which appeared in A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans, when you were 13 years old. What inspired you to write verse from such a young age?
SOLMAZ SHARIF: I have always just loved language. When I was a kid and before I could write, I would doodle what I thought was cursive and I’d hold it up to my mom and be like, “Am I saying anything?” I wanted to know how to be able to communicate, and to communicate in a way that would be recorded and would not be interrupted. Writing just always felt like a really important and lucky endeavor, and then poetry in particular, because I just loved the ability to break a line. I was no longer held back by grammar and syntax and diction. I could say whatever I want, and then I could say it doubly or triply just by ending it where it’s not supposed to end and starting it where it’s not supposed to start. So it felt like a more wild space for me. It also just felt so immediately and viscerally emotional. These are the reasons that I found myself drawn to it, but more simply, too, my mom is a big reader and read poems to me often. It was this honorable and accessible calling in our house. So I just found myself gravitating toward it.
What were some of the forms that you first experimented with?
Oh, I never liked forms. I went through that phase where it seemed like everything was supposed to rhyme, so I wanted to rhyme every line, but I always felt really frustrated in forms. One of the first poems that really took the top of my head off was Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” It was a form in a way, but it was a form that she had invented. There was a closedness, but she had invented the parameters of that music and of that closedness, and it sounded alive and familiar in ways that most inherited forms just didn’t for me.
Look, your first book, was published in 2016, a year in which the United States seemed to lurch further right than it had previously with the election of Donald Trump. And yet your book, which put a light on American atrocities that are often sublimated in the public sphere — a denial that some link to the rise of the far right — was a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award, as well as the winner of the 2017 American Book Award for poetry, among other honors. Were you surprised at all by how Look was received?
Most simply, yes. In part because I had been working on it for so many years and I was really trying to get it published, and, more anecdotally, because the atmosphere in which Look was written and “American letters” writ large at that point felt pretty hostile to work that would be considered overtly political. And this thing happened in 2016 that cracks me up, which was, there was a kind of almost panic by some critics that had been pretty disdainful toward political writing and political poetry. The panic was, “What do we do now? And who are our poets? And what do we say?” It is like they weren’t trained for this moment. Whereas for me, it’s not that 2016 is a non-event, it’s just that 2016 is an inevitable result of the Obama era, which is an inevitable result of W’s reign, and on and on and on — it’s a direct line.
There’s a way that Look in fact was written predominantly during Obama’s presidency. So there’s something actually about the chill of that kind of liberal civility that I respond to and against. That is where I feel more disturbed. And we feel a return of that a little bit with the Biden administration, I’d say. The buttons have been buttoned up again. It is in that atmosphere that I feel even greater discomfort, strangely enough, than in the Trump administration. You would think that that would be the time where I would talk about the nonsense of political language, but I found my work actually gets really quiet because when it got so clear and so obvious, and when the crisis is so pronounced and so noisy, there isn’t really much I felt I needed to do as a poet. I’m trying to actually name the things that aren’t necessarily being named at that moment.
While Look overflows into both the public and personal with the shrapnel of war language, Customs offers an often vulnerable look at life in diaspora, in displacement. Do you see the two books as a continuation of one poetic journey or as two distinct projects?
It’s absolutely the continuation of one poetic journey. So much of what Look could and could not do has informed what Customs does and does not do. As I mentioned, I found my gaze moving inward as the external public world grew louder. I was surprised to find that happening, but it happened. Also, as Look was received and as I entered the literary world, for lack of a better term, and as I discovered that, similar to what I’ve been saying about the Biden administration or the Obama administration, that actually there are ways that this power is very clearly operating within the customs of the literary world that must be named and addressed. The more I saw that, the more I found that I couldn’t not write about it.
I am really invested in diagnosing and naming power and all the ways that it malforms and obliterates our lives. But whereas Look was about a single kind of state-sponsored agency as a locus of power, Customs is actually about all the other, more quiet ways that power is operating on us, whether it’s through self-help books and manuals or it’s the actual machinery of publication. And the core of both of these books and the core of the gaze of both has been one of exilic wandering and longing.
Edward Said once wrote,
Much of the exile’s life is taken up with compensating for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule. It is not surprising that so many exiles seem to be novelists, chess players, political activists, and intellectuals. Each of these occupations requires a minimal investment in objects and places a great premium on mobility and skill.
Does this resonate with you?
That resonates so deeply. There is something about my commitment to poetry that’s born out of my awareness of a precarity and that there are times and ways that a life gets stripped down to all one can carry. There are times that one is not allowed to carry anything, and so one can’t even carry a novel in that moment; one would be lucky to have memorized some poems for the road, and one would be lucky to be able to compose those poems in one’s head. It just so happens that the music of poetry is easier to memorize in that way. Having grown up in a feeling of that precarity, having spent my life wondering anytime I purchase an object, if I’m willing to move it, thinking about the box that I will have to find that could possibly fit the thing, has maybe made me predisposed to poetry.
Can poetry become a sort of home? And is there such a thing as “The End of Exile,” as one of your poems is titled?
I don’t know that poetry itself is a home. I don’t know that anything’s a home, to be honest. I’d be lying if I said I felt at home anywhere. Maybe that’ll evolve over the course of my life, maybe I’ll find a sense of it. When I’m not in the kind of “woe is me” nostalgic trap of exile, what I feel is a sense of the greater truth of having of living on the other side of loss and being reduced down to the things that remain, which end up being not much. Poetry is one of them, because language is one of the things that remains. But even that I know to be incredibly fleeting. So I’m freed from the belief in ever being at home; I think it’s an illusion, and when I’m in a good place, I think how fortunate it is for me to be disillusioned.
One of the lines about exile that I’ve been carrying with me from Customs for a couple of months now is, “To walk cemetery after cemetery in these States and nary a gravestone reading Solmaz / To know no nation will be home until one does.” It made me consider how, for generations, my mother’s family was in Mexico and my father’s family was in Iran, and how my American life is never going to emulate theirs in any way. It feels like this thread has been broken, and I am caught between these cultures in the US, which, for me, has become a never-ending liminal space, not exactly home.
Several poems in Customs also take place in liminal spaces, such as on national borders where a bureaucracy based on white supremacy reigns supreme. Do you see poetry as a site of resistance, as in your poem “He, Too,” which is a dialogue between a US immigration official and a poet?
There have been days in my life where I would answer yes to that question. I would answer yes immediately. But it’s been a while now where I don’t think it is. A lot of my poetry is born of defiance or even just petulance sometimes. I don’t know that poetry is a site of resistance itself. To me, it feels more like a kind of anguished record of what’s happening. That’s because so much of my writing is invested in a kind of more diagnostic mode of being, so I just want to name what is: like here is an individual conversation between the speaker and a customs officer, and here’s how it goes. And the poem can offer a space that exists outside of that exchange.
There’s something about interrogation in particular. It’s one of the most isolating moments that you have. You are facing a badge and you have to respond to anything that is asked of you, and there are no witnesses, so to speak — there’s no one on your side. In that way, poetry can offer a nice escape, or a kind of future orientation. I can record something far beyond this room, beyond this time, and imagine an event and create an audience that would be as infuriated by this moment as I might be. I think I resist calling it a site of resistance, because a site of resistance would quite literally and materially do something to that moment instead. For whatever reason, I want to keep these two things apart.
In your breathtaking poem, “The Master’s House,” you redeploy the language of American slavery to connect the dots between the oppression the United States is founded on to the cruelties it imparts at home, in Iran, and around the world. Why was it important to you to establish this link?
It was important to establish the link because it’s also important to establish my own complicity and what it is that I participate in and that we participate in when we come to the US or when we’re in the US. I’m hoping that within the accurate naming of these various complicities and the ways that they overlap, I also am naming the ways that the violences might overlap as well. That just seemed really important to do.
It was one of the poems that really connected your two books, that built a bridge between them for me. Can you tell me a bit about where one of your poems starts for you?
Often with an irritation; a thing that’s not right and won’t leave me, keeps nipping at me; a thing that collapses when I try to say it in regular speech. Sometimes it comes as a single image. Sometimes it comes as a word that’s the green that everything pearls around. And sometimes I’m lucky and it comes as an entire sentence. With Look, there was a lot more wanting to decide what a poem was and was going to be, and then setting out to write that poem. And with Customs, there’s more of actually just following the poems themselves and seeing where they take me.
What’s your relationship to the city of Los Angeles, which appears in both of your books, and what does it represent in your work?
I hadn’t really noticed that Los Angeles figures in both books, because, if you ask me, I would say that I don’t write about place often, or much of my work is kind of placeless. I move face to face and room to room. I can see interior spaces. Maybe I can see the stretch of a single block, but never a city. And I never think of the city and I never want to take the temperature of the city, in large part, because it is the most immediate, painful reminder that I am not living where I’m supposed to be living in some way, which also means how I feel I’m supposed to be living. Place reminds me of my displacement, and it reminds me of all the ways that I’m alienated.
What differences do you find between expressing yourself in Farsi or English (for example, you have a line about how “in Farsi the present perfect is called the relational past, and is used at times to describe a historic event whose effect is still relevant today, transcending the past”)?
I write in English and English exclusively. I translate sometimes from Farsi and I thought I would publish those, but I have decided against it because translation oddly felt more private than my own writing does. What drew me to translation was that I want to be able to experience the poems that I’m reading in Farsi with that same immediate kind of visceral response that I experience poems when I’m reading them in English, and I was wondering, “Can I give that to myself somehow?” My command of Farsi is not strong enough to hear a poem aloud for the first time and have my hair stand up. I have too many questions first, and then I have to hear it again. That tie feels very much severed for me and it’ll never grow back, I don’t think. English means a way of signaling the impossibility of actual return, so that even if I physically go back to a place that I’m supposedly from, without a number of things, language chief among them, I won’t actually have returned. It signals my ostracization from what my taproot is. In that way, every time I speak in English, I am choosing and delimiting an audience, and it’s not necessarily an audience I would choose. It’s just an audience that I’ve been forced into, and there’s a sense of defeat in that, too. There’s just this sense of vacancy. To be in English and to speak in English, it just doesn’t feel like I have very many people with me; it feels like a very lonely endeavor, even though I know that’s not true. I know it’s the language that rules the world, but there’s this way that it feels very lonely.
I’m struck by the fact that you don’t want to publish the translations you’ve been working on. You have the poem “Into English,” which is a rumination on translating the work of the modernist Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad — whom you refer to, intimately, by her first name, describing the work as “private.” It’s not easy to come by translations of Farrokhzad’s poetry in English, and, selfishly, I would love to specifically read your translations because I sense you’d bring a vital perspective to them. Are you still translating her work even if you’re not planning on publishing it? If so, why are you still translating her work?
Because it’s for me. Maybe at some point in the future, something will come of it. It’s a deep and private correspondence with a poet, that’s not like correspondences I have with poets in the English language that I don’t necessarily share with people either. There are a lot of translators I really love. I rely on translation. I love translation. I just can’t talk myself into doing it for anyone other than me.