In 2014, I heard Solmaz Sharif read “Look,” the title poem from her debut collection. Look inserts military terminology into intimate scenes between lovers, refashioning hollow, bureaucratic language from the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms with a human touch. (Even the collection’s title has an alternate military meaning: per the Department of Defense, a look means “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of influence.”) At a time when the U.S. automates acts of murder, Sharif insists that war is still personal—perhaps today more than ever. In one of its most quoted passages, she writes, “Daily I sit / with the language / they’ve made / of our language / to NEUTRALIZE / the CAPABILITY OF LOW DOLLAR VALUE ITEMS / like you.”
“By simply placing words from the Defense dictionary in small caps, and deploying them in scenes of intimacy,” John Freeman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sharif has begun the process of renaturing them, putting them in the readers’ hands for examination.” Look confirms what I’ve known since 2014: Sharif is poised to influence not only literature but larger conversations about America, war, and the Middle East. I spoke with her about her influences, the role of the poet in today’s world, and the stories behind Look.
In an essay you wrote for the Kenyon Review, you said, “When I am asked to describe my poetry on airplane flights, at dinner parties, I describe it first as ‘political.’ Then, ‘documentary.’ And these two things seem to, for some, preclude aesthetic rigor.” There’s a popular conception that overtly political can’t have aesthetic value—that a political message degrades the aesthetics. Is your work a deliberate effort to rebut this notion?
Clichéd, bad writing often means clichéd, bad politics, and vice versa. Aesthetics and politics have a really vital and exciting give-and-take between them. I think June Jordan is an exciting example. She was politically astute and radical, but she was also a classically trained pianist, so when you’re reading her work, it’s incredibly music driven and decided. It’s exciting for me to think of poets that are allowing their politics to also be shaped by these aesthetic considerations, and wondering when the poetic will lead you to the kind of political surprise that a dogmatic approach wouldn’t allow. These are the artists that live on the fringes of what is aesthetically and politically accepted.
When I say “living on the fringes,” I’m thinking of Edward Said’s idea of the “exilic” intellectual pursuit. It’s this artistic presence continually outside, questioning and speaking back to whatever supposed “here” or “we” or “now” we’ve created. The word fringe is belittling in a way I don’t intend—I mean a nomadic presence, or a mind that is consistently on the run, and preventing these political moments from calcifying.
I’m interested in how your family came to the United States, and how you experienced the country as an Iranian immigrant.
The dominant narrative of Iranian exile or displacement in the U.S. is one that’s about people who were supporters of the Shah, who was a dictator, and were forced to leave after the Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution. That’s not the only narrative, though. My parents were students in the U.S. in the late seventies, and as the revolution picked up steam, they went back home to Iran, and left again in 1983, and I was born en route out of the country. We moved to Texas so my dad could finish his studies there, and then we moved to Birmingham, Alabama, so my mom could finish her Bachelor’s there, and finally we ended up in Los Angeles when I was in sixth grade. It was the first place I lived that had a sizable Iranian population. There’s actually an Iranian population in Birmingham, but LA has the largest outside of Iran. At that time, it felt dominated by upper-class, well-to-do Iranians who were more into assimilation than my family or I was. I felt immediately ostracized by this group in middle school, when I came. I don’t mean to make it sound like everyone was rich—they weren’t. We weren’t. There are many different Iranian presences in Los Angeles, but I just didn’t have access to them.
No matter where I went, I was outside of whatever community I found myself in, so that even when I arrived in a place where there was a lot of “me,” I was totally outside again. That probably influenced my artistic impulse—to go back to the exilic intellectual—to stand outside of and look into, and constantly question and interrogate the collectives that exist. It’s easy for me because I’ve never felt a part of any of them in a real way.
It’s been important for me to write down as many narratives as I can, other narratives around the Iranian Revolution and the Iranian presence in the U.S., and also the possibility for Iranians to build coalitions with other Third World groups, as Iranians did in the seventies and eighties. That’s the community I come out of. There’s also a rift that happens between first and second generations, because the second generation has woken up to the fact that assimilation is not just a matter of your accent or class or education—there’s an “in” that you’ll never be in because of who you are.
There’s a lot of anti-Black, anti-Arab, anti-Indian, and anti-Pakistani—and on and on—racism within the Iranian community. But my experience is one of obvious allyship between these communities. I’m more interested in what brings us together and what our nearnesses are, but this can sort of dumbfound some members of the Iranian community. When I was sixteen, I went to this Iranian feminist conference, and Angela Davis was the key speaker. She referred to us all there as “women of color,” and some of the women in the older generation were squirming in their seats. It was the first time I’d heard the term, and I thought, that’s it. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to name. Whatever struggle is deemed optional or needs to be postponed, that’s my community. But that statement didn’t make too many people happy at the time.
Look, to me, has a very female point of view. Women’s relationship to combat—though it’s changing with the evolution of war itself—is usually more oblique. We often play more supportive roles, though our experience is no less devastating. Is there significance to approaching war and surveillance as a woman?
Before I was even a poet, when I studied sociology, what I wanted to look at were media representations of women—Palestinian women in the New York Times, for example. How are women described by media, or by state-sponsored language, in warfare, and how is that representation used to justify state-sponsored violence? Women are often purposefully brought into descriptions of what war is—to justify the rescue of a nation, or to justify its decimation by showing its entire people as despicable or threatening, for example. By default, war seems to be just what happens to men on the front lines, during wartime. The boundaries of warfare—who it affects and who it doesn’t, and for how long—are very much divided along gendered lines, historically. I definitely wanted to challenge those lines.
The book’s power is in its observations of the long-term effects of wars on individuals and families—some of its less-discussed casualties. I think part of the reason you’re able to take this view is because you’re a woman.
I think you’re right. There’s the old personal-is-political adage. But then, to be a woman is also to know that your body and your self and your mind are subject to and delimited by power at every turn, even in your own house, in your own lovemaking. There is no part of your life that has not been somehow violently decided for you by a narrative that was established before you were even born. This is not only true for women, right? It cuts across various identity strata—queerness, race, class, ability, et cetera.
But to have that sense of precarity or vulnerability questioned and challenged by misdirection—for example, when you’re told that you’re overreacting, that what you think is going on isn’t actually happening—this is how the U.S. largely deals with warfare. They say, The war is no longer happening on this block, what are you talking about? That’s something that’s natural to my experience as a woman, and something that seems necessary to expose over and over again. I want to talk about how far-reaching these effects are and how intimate these effects are and how there’s no part of our bodies or desires that are not somehow informed or violated by these atrocities. This is a conversation that began with my own gender.
Audre Lorde’s essay on erotics was a huge influence on me. When she talks about the erotic as a dark feminine power, that’s an argument that could be made here, but I’m not as comfortable making that argument myself anymore. I think all of these questions—what is femininity, what is darkness—and I’m so up in the air about them myself that I don’t really know what to say, other than that I feel, as a person and especially as a woman, that I am under constant threat and attack, and it’s not just me that’s happening to. Somehow, I want the work to show that every time you’re washing the dishes, every shower, every grocery trip—that’s all informed by this violence, whether we’re seeing it or not.
There’s a constant awareness of surveillance in your work—in one poem, you mention that you start every phone call by saying, “Hello, NSA.”
The U.S.’s surveillance capabilities are not lost on me, and we’re pretty aware of this history—or maybe we’re not, actually. It’s definitely been in my awareness over the course of writing this book, and it’s something I did want to highlight. When we think of political repression, for example, or of a police state, we think of something that just happens abroad in Eastern European countries, or in Iran, whereas I understand America as the nation of COINTELPRO. How do we realize, again, that all of our lives, no matter who we are, are being surveilled, some more than others, and that we’re living in an increasingly repressive environment? How do we realize that whatever we see to be happening “there” has already happened “here”?
The poems in Look are united thematically—the majority of these poems include rewritings of terms from the Department of Defense dictionary. I find this kind of conceptual project very interesting. Did you set out to write your first book in this way, or did it morph over the course of writing?
It became much larger than I anticipated, and I had to just stop it, basically, because it’s a conceptual frame that could continue ad infinitum, which is true of a lot of conceptual practices. I did not know it was going to be what it is. I discovered the dictionary in 2006, and it was another year or two until I actually started using it. I thought I was just going to write one poem that deals with the dictionary—then I realized I could write a whole book in response. As soon as I realized that, I started looking at other books that do similar work. M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! was a huge influence. That came in a later iteration of the manuscript. Later, too, I was directed to Code Poems by Hannah Weiner. Earlier on, there was Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead. Martha Collins’s Blue Front invited and encouraged a more personal narrative. With each discovery, the manuscript would shift in response—I’d think, This has already been done, or, I haven’t tried this thing yet, I didn’t realize I could do this. It started as a rewrite of the dictionary, and wanting to redefine the terms to reveal the truth beneath the terms. It then evolved into revealing those terms as a part of our lives everywhere, daily in the U.S. I think the last major piece that went into it was the long elegy, “Personal Effects,” that I wrote for my uncle, and that was probably when I thought that it was pretty much done. That was the last major piece the book needed.
I’ve seen you mention June Jordan over and over in interviews. I know that you studied in her Poetry for the People (P4P) program at UC Berkeley and list it as a huge influence in your development as a poet. I came across this quote from her—
The task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks … I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something.
Can you talk a little about the program and why it was so important to you? What do you think your role is, as a poet?
There’s this vein of self-affirmation that runs through that generation of radical poets—this need to define and affirm a collective identity that is otherwise despised. That’s actually one place where I feel I split off. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s just because I think of poetry, right now, at least, in the way Dunya Mikhail, the Iraqi poet, described it—as diagnostic, rather than curative. I think June was a poet of vision, and I think that I’m more reflective. I haven’t quite gotten to that moment of vision yet. I just trust and know that certain lives need to be looked at very closely, and need to be grieved, and need to be considered—and affirmed, I guess.
The P4P program was the most rigorous education I’ve ever received. It’s an amazing pedagogical model that June Jordan set up after decades of teaching. My understanding is that she was teaching an African American poetry course in the African American Studies department at Berkeley, and a women’s poetry course in what was then the Women’s Studies department, and she’d walk into these classrooms, and one class would be predominantly African American men reading African American poets, and the women’s studies classroom was predominantly white women reading women poets separately. She thought, These two classes need to be in the same room, and they need to be talking to each other. That’s how she came up with P4P, which was housed in the African American Studies department.
Each year, the program would focus on three different ethnic groups that we would have to learn to somehow define and describe a history of. When I took the class, it was one of the few—if not the only—class that was teaching Arab and Arab American poetry on campus. She started doing that right after the first Gulf War started.
As a student, you were in a class that you’re co-teaching with other undergraduate students and members of the community. You see a poetry that’s not being taught, and that you yourself know zero about, and instead of just lamenting that you’ll never have the expertise, you just figure it out. You read as much as you can, and you get up in front of the class and give a lecture. Maybe you fail publicly, but it has to be done. When you see work that’s not being done, you go and you do it. You don’t wait for someone else to.
I haven’t really seen a model that is so pedagogically complete and radical anywhere. It was her attempt at Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beloved Community.” It was the closest I’ve gotten, for sure.
Jordan was all about building multicultural alliances. I wonder how you, as an Iranian American, interact with the various racial justice movements in America that—at least at the moment—are dominated by discussions of anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism.
I think we need to be very, very specific in naming the racism, the multiplicity of racisms, we face. Meaning anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, for example, must be named and highlighted. This does not preclude my own involvement or visibility as an Iranian American, and I shouldn’t be the measure by which this conversation is had, anyway. I think the more specific we are, the more inevitable it becomes to see the relationship between various powers. If we are naming the arrest of black men without charge and without trial, for example, well, I have something to add to that, something that wouldn’t be added if the conversation remained “we all face racism.” The more specific we become, the more obvious the relationship between these oppressions, the more dangerous and visionary the conversation.
You ask about movements. I do want to step back for a moment and say I believe all action is political, and poetry is an action, so I believe poetry is political, period. I have a hard time, though, saying that my poetry is activist, or that poetry in general is activist. For me there’s an important distinction to be made. I don’t want to front. As political as my work might be, and as much as I might be thinking about how these things play out globally, as much as I might think or write about anti-Black or anti-Latinx racism, I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time. That’s the most direct way I can put it.
Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel, What We Lose, is forthcoming from Viking. She currently serves as deputy editor for Phoneme Media, and lives in Los Angeles.