Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BELONGING: Interview, Exerpt and GIVEAWAY!!!

About a month ago I wrote a review of BELONGING: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World. Since then the author, Niloufar Talebi contacted me and I have had a chance to meet her (in Portland) and also to interview her!! I love the work that she is doing, and wish to share it with you all.

Questions for Niloufar Talebi, author of BELONGING and founder of The Translation Project:

b:Tell us about The Translation Project:

Niloufar:The Translation Project <> is a nonprofit, nonpolitical 501 (c) 3 organization dedicated to bringing contemporary Iranian literature to wide audiences through literary translation, and multimedia projects based on the translated literature. Presenting the literature through theater, videos, etc. is our expanded notion of translation, a further means to familiarize audiences with a (contemporary) literature which has been rather invisible on the world stage so far. Our mission is to include this literature in the modern global conversation.

b:What was the hardest part about birthing BELONGING? When did your dream for this book begin?

Niloufar:The research on this book began in late 2002 when I first discovered and fell in love with the art and craft of translation. At the same time, I began to wonder why the treasures of contemporary Iranian literature (20th and 21st Century) were not known and celebrated in other countries in the same way that, for example, Pablo Neruda is. That's when I founded The Translation Project, and began work on BELONGING, which is a selection of Iranian poets who live outside Iran AND recite in Persian. It took several years to compile a list of them, a list of 140 poets which I make available in BELONGING. I translated about 30 poets over the course of the 6 years, 18 of whom are featured in BELONGING. Translations were done with the assistance of Zack Rogow and Daniel O'Connell.

The most difficult aspect of putting BELONGING together was composing a cohesive idea behind the anthology. As I mention in the 'Notes on Selection', few have dedicated themselves to collection and discourse in this young field, so my challenge was to put the works I found into perspective: to read their work not only within the context of their own work, but within the context of the greater 'modern and contemporary' Iranian poetry, as well as that of world poetry, which is where I think these works ultimately belong, since the poets live the world over. These poems are told from the prism of the iranian experience, but leave a universal emotional impact.

b:How did you select what poets would be translated and which of their works put in BELONGING?

Niloufar: It was a long process. We translated many more poems and poets than ended up in BELONGING. To whittle down the list, I sent out translations to literary publications, to translation competitions, read them at dozens of events, created theater from the poems, made short films based on them, and sent them to other poets and translators for feedback. I took note of which ones made the most impact on readers. Over the years, a cohesive manuscript, a balanced composition of poems of various styles and themes came together. On a practical note, to keep the anthology accessible, I included 6 poets from each of the three generations who live and recite currently, with 5-6 pages of poetry per poet, plus a biographical sketch.

b:Do you think that poets and writers have a different story to tell than what the news media would cover on the nation of Iran? What do you notice as the largest difference?

Niloufar: What appears in the media is rarely about the PEOPLE and CULTURE of Iran; otherwise we would watch shows about Iranian hospitality, cooking, love for the outdoors, family values, the mountain ranges of Iran, miniature paintings, Iranian love for poetry, the art of story-telling (Naghali), the art of the Persian carpet, their celebration of the seasons, and so on. But there are no such show! What is produced and broadcast in the media are convenient snapshots of a manufactured enemy. So it becomes even more urgent to celebrate the arts and culture of Iran, the voice of its people. Poets tell the human story.

b: Reading about different nations is empowering, it rids us of the fear of the unknown just a little bit each time. Thus the world becomes a smaller place. What is your goal for the American audience with the poetry that you translated in BELONGING and that you perform? Has that dream changed as this project gained momentum?

Niloufar: I am always learning in this process. It remains to be seen what an impact the bilingual volume of BELONGING makes on readers, both American and Iranian-American. I hope the average reader, and not only the poetry connoisseur, is able to connect with BELONGING. That is a personal goal for me, to make 'high art' accessible. No one should be intimidated by poetry; it should be FOR readers, not an alienating force against them. Iranians recite poetry on a daily basis, which they use as proverbs, expressions, etc. Accessibility was one of the guiding principle by which the poems in BELONGING were selected. In shaping our projects, responding to audience trends plays an integral role. We know that folks are not reading as much, but are sharing content on Youtube, for example, so we created films based on the poems ('Midnight Approaches'), which appear on our Youtube channel <>. We have also created two multimedia theatrical pieces ("Four Springs' and 'ICARUS/RISE') based on the poems in BELONGING, reaching out to wider audiences. Not only do unlikely audiences gain access to the poetry, but we also provide an opportunity for artists who collaborate with us to engage with the poetry on a deep level, available to them by and large for the first time as a source of inspiration. I would say this has been the innovative aspect of our work, expanding our notion of translation, instigating collaborative projects based on the translated literature to encourage their longevitiy in our cultural consciousness.

b: I see a sense of deep pride in the arts when I read BELONGING, and when I watched the introductory video and the performances. Persia has a deep rooted artistic talent, could you tell me a bit about the impact that legacy has on you?

Niloufar: I was lucky enough to have a direct route to this legacy. Spending time with the iconic poet and thinker, Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000), who visited my parents socially in the 1980's, has no doubt shaped my dedication to this legacy. As T.S. Eliot said in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', tradition is a two-fold concept: what we may think of as 'traditional' was actually in its time art that broke with 'tradition', art that forged a new way ahead. This is what any artist of significance, in any culture achieves to then become part of the 'tradition' of that culture. I hope BELONGING inspires readers to acknowledge and fill in the gap between the great 13th Century Persian poet, Rumi, and contemporary poetry, to examine the poets of the modernist movement in Iranian poetics, which produced a number of other iconic Iranian poets, such as Nima Yushij, Forough Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamlou, Sohrab Sepehri, Simin Behbahani, and Mehdi Akhavan Saales.

b: Has the movement been silenced (and gone underground) for a while in Iran during the wars and the differences between neighboring nations, or is it due to a lack of translation that I personally have not had much experience with Persian arts?

Niloufar: Iranian literature inside Iran has found ways to survive new (and sometimes brutal) forms of censorship, and has flourished, in fact. The number of women writers has multiplied, for example, contrary to what might be expected. And though there have been both scholarly and literary translations of Iranian works, somehow few works in translation have captured the imagination of the foreign readers, at least in this country. The poet, Forough Farrokhzad is becoming more and more known. Shahrnush Parsipur has two books in English translation. Dick Davis has translated classical Persian poetry, as well as the Pezeshkzad novel, My Uncle Napoleon. Moniru Ravanipur's new book is due to be translated into English. Shahryar Mandanipour's work in English translation is due to be published soon. Ibex Publishers has published love poems by Ahmad Shamlou in English translation. A translation of Mahmoud Dowlatabadi's Missing Soluch was just published in the US. And there must be other projects I don't know of yet. So the works are out there. Remember that in the US, only between 0.3% - 3% of books published annually are works of translation, so we must actively look for them. A great resource for world literature in translation is <>

b: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about, or tell us about?

Niloufar: I am working on our next multimedia theatrical piece, due to premier in 2010. Like ICARUS/RISE, it also draws on the Iranian tradition of Naghali (story-telling), adds contemporary content to it and fuses it with western dramatic elements to reflect the true hybrid-Iranian experience in contemporary society. For periodic updates on our next piece, visit

The poetry in Belonging is stunning, see for yourself:

A Bird Is a Bird

When I draw open this curtain
A TV antenna
And often
A few robins
Decorate my morning.

But it is not a scarcity of windows
That has brought me here;

This rectangular blue
I could have had
Anywhere else.
Birds too
All over the world
Sit in such a way
That their velvety breasts
Are within eye's reach.
Now, red robins of black crows,
What difference does it make?
A bird
Is a bird.

To be honest, I don't remember
What I've come here for.
Surely, must have been an important reason.
One doesn't just
Make a vagabond of oneself
For no reason.
When I remember
I will finish this poem...

(BELONGING, p. 83 Abbas Saffari)

Conversation in the Dark
To my dear Jaleh

Mid nights, when I'm ill and awake
And no light is visible even from a pinhole
And the soft song of your deepest breaths
Accompanies the treble and bass of my heart
To the constant ticking of the clock,
Then I see that even if my thoughts are alone,
My heart, in the hollow of my chest , is not.

Softly, I bend my head over your bedside
And lightly kiss your lashes, joined in sleep.
You feel the weight of the kiss on your eye and smile.
I kiss your cheek warm
And although the clamor of your laughter echoes in my ear,
In the dark waves of night,
Your laughing face does not manifest.

Quietly, I strike a match
To illuminate your face,
But soon, the red sulfuric spark,
Rising and falling upon my two blackened fingers,
Dies in the twist and turn of its dance
And again, dense darkness
Settles in our little bedchamber.
I tell myself: Aside from that brief instant-
The moment I glimpsed youf dear face
-My eye does not have fortune to see.

Like a child fearing darkness,
I pave a path to your embrace
And petrified of something I can't name,
I steal this wisper in your ear:
Kinder than all the world's kindliest creatures!
Oh friend, sweetheart, mother, companion on this voyage!
Scream away so even stone-hearted death
Does not undo us in the promisted moment!
For we both know that in a riotous
World of swarming crowds,
And of all that avails on the endless horizon,
If we have a destiny, it is our loneliness.

And this house, smaller than a boat, sails us-
The distressed-into the sea exile.
But on the alarming horizon of this sea,
Night prevails
And reveals no path in darkness
To tomorrow.

(BELONGING, P. 25 Nader Naderpour)

Don't you love it!?
I have a copy of BELONGING for one lucky commenter thanks to Niloufar Talebi and North Atlantic Books!

Do you want it? Here is how to get it: Comment on this post, telling me what you love about poetry and get one entry, blog about it on your blog and get two more (but make sure you tell me that you did :)! You have until the 14th, I'll pick a winner on the 15th.

I honestly really want to keep this copy, as the one I have is an advanced readers copy, and this one I just got is much nicer than mine, but I won't be greedy, I will give it for someone else to enjoy :)


Ramya said...

oooh!!!!! i loved the book when you reviewed it a while ago... and now you are actually giving it away!! i definitely wanted to be counted for that!! does first in comment line increase my chances??;) anyways, what i love about poetry is the fact that you can say so much in so few lines! more than the actual lines, deciphering the meaning behind the poem is so fascinating.. esp poems that reflect cultural richness..there's so much to learn from them!! its amazing that you got to meet niloufar..

Debi said...

Oh, I hate that question! Seriously, I've always loved poetry, though I go through periods when I definitely find myself reading more of it that at other times. And I've often pondered that question. I honestly don't know what draws me to it...after all, it's such an incredibly varied medium. Maybe it boils down to the fact that it's all about feeling, not about thinking (for me, that is...I know lots of people love to analyze it and pull it all apart and search for deeper meanings). But I love reading it aloud and getting lost in the sounds and beauty of the language. Okay, and blah, blah, blah...I'll shut up now.

Well, actually, first I'll say thanks for the wonderful interview! Fascinating stuff.

beastmomma said...

What a wonderful interview! I especially appreciate all the great resources. My favorite thing about poetry is how it can tie a simple experience into something more complex and also can make something complex into a simple experience. Here's crossing everything in the hopes of winning!

Trish said...

Ahhhh! My internet keeps going out and I lost my entire, long comment. :(

Let me try to reconstruct. Grrrr!! (that wasn't part of the original comment...just trying to blow off steam).

Ok. I'm glad that you had this experience with the author for purely selfish reasons. :) I remember you reading this for the read-a-thon but I missed your review in the aftermath when I was so tired I didn't blog or read for a week then went to Argentina for another week. Glad you brought this one to my attention again.

What a fantastic experience getting to meet the author and interview her. The project sounds amazing and I would definitely love to learn more about Iranian literature as I know so little about it. Please enter me for the drawing!!

What I love about poetry. Hmmm. To be honest I haven't read a whole lot of it since finishing grad school, but I do really enjoy it. I love the language and the way that the writers play with the language more than in normal literature. I love the feelings that envoked within me as I read the poems. My favorite, which I could read a million times and still take away something new, is The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot. And of course I love all things Whitman--his Song of Myself is one that I could pick up at any place in the poem and fall immediately in love with it again and again.

Ok, saving my comment just in case! Thanks again Bethany for reintroducing me to this book of poems. And sorry for the novel of a comment!

gautami tripathy said...

What I love about poetry? It is not an easy answer. Especially as I write poetry on my other blog, rooted.

Poetry speaks out to me about deeper issues in just a few words. I like the images created by it. I can't describe how I feel while reading it or writing it.

I read a hell lot of poetry. Fom Chaucer to Mervin. Wordsworth, Pope, Burns, Browning, Frost, Eliot, Plath, Parker, Welles, Mary Oliver are just a few I mention here. Each has a distinct style and very good on their own.

Reading and writing poetry is one of my greatest passions. Rumi, Gibran take me into an entirely different world.

Saying that, I would truly love to read this book. It looks like a great book to own for a poetry lover.

Great interview!

bethany said...

the polls are closed, thanks for entering!!! :)