Iranian-American Poet Solmaz Sharif On The “Revolutionary Possibility Of Writing”
“Art is a way of feeling less alone,” says the Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif. If art is a connecting rod; a hand reaching out as though from nowhere to comfort and affirm you, Sharif is one of its most considerate guides. She is an academic (assistant professor of English at Arizona State University) as well as a poet. Her work, which frequently asks its reader to consider the human cost of war and hatred, has earned many accolades, including the 2017 PEN Center Literary Prize for her first collection, Look. It was also a National Book Award finalist in the US.
I ask if her current collection, Customs, an unapologetic interrogation of the borders we build around nations and people, is a snapshot of our time. “My focus is far narrower,” she says. “I’m thinking of one individual private conversation between two people across a vast space.”
The language in Customs is, indeed, often conversational. The stories are of families and homes left behind; of the stark inhumanity of border checkpoints; of holding on to a language that doesn’t quite feel your own anymore. These shards of memory and experience will resonate both with those who understand and those who wish to.
Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents in the process of immigrating to the US, Sharif views herself as content misshapen by form. There is a sense that her ‘otherness’ – as a writer of colour often penning the experiences of the diaspora and those who find themselves stateless – has been tokenised. “This fetishisation is structural, and as long as the structure exists, there’s only so much I can do,” she says. “But I refuse to let it knowingly deform (any further than it already has) my own relationship to poetry, which is something that predates the structure and will outlive it.”
Sharif’s intellectual curiosity comes across in profusion; always thinking, always reaching for the next linguistic opportunity, mining more and more meaning from each sentence, word and pause. Perhaps the best way to describe her is creatively restless. “I wanted to move towards the more revolutionary possibility of writing,” she says. Earlier, she has spoken more about the cadence and rhythm of her work than of its political content. “I’m a deeply formal poet, but I believe form is something that happens to content and that has malformed or prevented content from living in any other way. Not knowing what it might be has been one of the central concerns and conceits of my work so far.”
When we discuss what she might create next, she says it is not an idea, but rather a tone: “bemused”. “I’m sorry that’s so inarticulate!” She grins, then starts to laugh. “I bet you thought I was going to say something profound about the situation in Iran and all I said was – a tone of bemusement.”
Customs by Solmaz Sharif is out now
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar