Q&A: Solmaz Sharif
1. Did you always want to be a poet?
I wanted to be a firefighter first. Otherwise yes. Ever since I knew such a thing existed, which is as long as I can remember.
2. Do you love one language more than the other?
There is the language I can argue myself in, the one I cannot. There is the language of the brain, and the language of the mind. In both I feel inadequate. Both languages, English and Farsi, have been whittled down, in my home, to essentials, as if tourists. This needs more salt. I am fine, thank you. I can’t say I love either more, but it’s the crisis that makes me write.
3. What has been inspiring you lately?
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Aimé Césaire. Conversations with Ari Banias, Natalie Diaz, Jenny Johnson, Rickey Laurentiis, Roger Reeves, Safiya Sinclair, and Brandon Som. You, Marwa. My students. Touchstone texts forever: Foucault’s parrhesia lectures; Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual; Plato’s Apology.
4. The occupation of Palestine is in and out of the news, now more so with T—-p’s statement about making Jerusalem the capital of I——. I was happy when I saw you were participating in the PalFest Literary Conference but also realize it must have been a nerve-wracking experience [as it was fulfilling]. Can you tell us some of what stood out to you.
I haven’t written about Palestine yet, which is a failure on my part, since so much of the PalFest was geared toward, well, bearing witness. And that’s what has given me pause. So many tours move through Palestine. So many patient Palestinian people—I mean, patient is an understatement; we really need a new word to describe the absolute patience that seventy years of such nonstop needling, such cruelty requires; and I will give an example of a single needling I hadn’t considered in full before I saw it, for example: at Qalandia checkpoint, though not unique to this particular checkpoint, those tall, toothed metal turnstiles that allow one person to pass at a time, would be controlled by a fidget-spinner spinning pubescent and pissed Israeli soldier, a light flashing green above to let a few people at a time into yet another caged area where the metal detector and x-ray machine would be; the number of people allowed in would be random, sometimes one, sometimes three, and as the green light would turn on, Palestinians who can be waiting for hours to be allowed through, would push, in camaraderie in fact, to get as many of themselves through as possible; one younger Palestinian man, for example, handsome and tall, holding back a crowd for a mother with a young child; and how this turnstile controlled by the pissed and pimply fidget-spinning solider would shut at random, often with someone inside, caught there, sandwiched between the teeth of the turnstile, unable to sit or exit or turn much, sometimes with a limb or a bag caught outside, sometimes with a child caught on one end or the other, sometimes elderly and requiring a cane and not able to stand for long, but there they would be stuck at the soldiers whim for however long, in whatever weather—have had to patiently explain to foreign and thereby powerful guests their predicaments. So many guests have passed through Palestine hungry for the most gruesome details—and then what? We writers want to talk about the problems of writing the other, of witness, to remain in the negative capability of these questions, but the answer to these problems is not another travelogue or essay on the problematics of spectatorship, but action. Boycott. That is our one possible exit as writers and actors. I called the above needling, but every ingeniously designed—ingenious in its cruelty, I mean—theatrical gesture could end in death. One soldier had decorated his checkpoint booth window at another checkpoint with neon pink Christmas lights—why do I remember this? The glee with which the soldiers will order one to lift a shirt, or to enter a room, or to go down the other line, and how each and every of these directions can end in death, can end in denial—patience is an inadequate word. Needling is inadequate. Occupation, turnstile, nation, all language requires a better language there. I haven’t found it yet, but I am working on it.
5. What is the best thing about being a poet right now? What is the most difficult?
The best is being able to talk beyond right now. The most difficult is knowing what of right now to listen to.
6. A passage from something you’ve read recently that has resonated:
I’m reading The Bell Jar for the first time since high school. How had I forgotten that first sentence: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
7. What has been your favorite reading or moment at the Poetry Project?
2004. A marathon reading as the Republican National Convention was in full swing. Favorite because it was, too, a great irritant. How few of the poems actually spoke of the wars, directly, specifically. How few spoke directly, specifically of the incarnation of power we were protesting. I knew then more of us had to.