Thursday, April 13, 2023 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-w-roja-chamankar-tickets-556253197287
Persian poet Roja Chamankar will join us via Zoom for this hybrid in-store/Zoom event. Born in Borazjan in southern Iran in 1981, Chamankar is a poet and filmmaker with an academic background in Dramatic Literature and Film Studies. She has published eleven books of poetry in Iran, co-written four books for children, and translated two collections of poems from French into Persian. Her works have been translated into several other languages and have won a number of national and international awards, including the Greek Nikos Gatsos prize in 2016. Roja has participated in numerous poetry readings and festivals in Iran, France, Sweden, Austria, Malta, and the United States. A collection of her poems titled Dying in A Mother Tongue was published in November 2018 by the University of Texas Press.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? How did poetry figure for you during your childhood?
RC: I cannot remember my childhood without poetry. I grew up among books. Before I learned how to read or write, my ears were accustomed to the sound of poems and stories that my parents told me. I have a tape from when I was 3 years old, when I had made several rhythmic lines and recited them! My mother used to record or write the lines I “creatively” said. Maybe these were the first steps toward what can be called poetry years later.
CH: What first prompted you to write poetry? What encouragements and obstacles did you find as a young female poet, growing up in Iran in the years following the revolution?
RC: As I said, my first encouragement came from my family because both my parents have been very interested in literature. But yes, my generation was born and raised at a complicated historical moment in a Middle Eastern country, where the revolution had changed all rules—at least on the surface. Moreover, a short while after the 1979 revolution, an eight-year war began between Iraq and my country, Iran. All of this must have had a direct effect on my life, as well as my generation. One might find this effect in my poems. At the same time, I was lucky to be raised in a family where my family taught us (me and my siblings) that there is no limit for you, there should be no limit for you, regardless of who you are. They taught me to fight for whatever I want, and this has been the dominant force in my life compared to the sociopolitical powers in the environment I grew up in.
CH: I understand your educational background includes the study of Dramatic Literature and Film Studies. What motivated you to steer your education in the direction you took? How easy or difficult was it for you to follow this path?
RC: In high school, my diploma was in mathematics. But I did not want to follow its path (which would go toward academic majors such as mathematics, engineering, etc.) because I just loved literature and arts. A love for moving images was concurrent for me along with a love for literature. But I did not want to study literature (Persian literature) at the university level, because the path I wanted to take in literature was different from what the universities at the time could offer. Especially because the academic major in Persian literature was mostly concentrated on classic Persian poetry. I had come to the conclusion that studying film would provide new dimensions for me, for my poetry, that I could not find in other majors.
CH: As a Persian poet, you draw on a rich literary of which the ghazal form and the 13th and 14th century poets Rumi and Hafiz are probably best-known in the United States. What traditions in Persian poetry most influence your work? Which contemporary Persian poets inspire you?
RC: As you said, Persian poetry has a one-thousand-year-old history, with great poets such as Hafiz and Sa’adi and Khayyam and Rumi who form part of the Persianate identity (for Iranians and other people from that region). My first “serious” poems were also in the classical forms (such as ghazal and masnavi and quadruples), influenced by the works of these pillars of Persian literature. My first poems all had classical rhythms and followed the specific rules for classic poetry. But then, I discovered contemporary poets, or the modernist movement in Persian literature that is known as “she’r-e no” or New Poetry. Nima (the father of New Poetry), Forough Farrokhzad (an iconoclast who was the initiator of a new path for Iranian women, in the content and form of her poems), Ahmad Shamlou, and several other poets who rose into power in the 20th century were all very inspiring. I was still a teenager when I switched from classic to the new, ‘freer’ forms of New Poetry. But then I passed this stage too, and for a long time now I have relied mostly on the natural music of words in a structure that I think is a result of my own life, experiences, and circumstances.
CH: In addition to writing eleven collections of poetry in Persian, you’ve translated two from French to Persian, and your own poems have been translated into several different languages. How has the experience of translation influenced how you approach your writing? What are some of the challenges of having your work translated into a language in which you are not fluent?
RC: Translating poems (from French into Persian) has mostly meant challenging myself. I believe in free translation, compared to faithful translations, and I think a translator of poetry must have the ability to “recreate” the poem in the second language. That is why translation for me means re-reading, discovery, and creating a poem from a new in another language. Whether as a poet whose works are being translated or as a translator of other poets into my mother tongue, the pleasure of this new “reading” is what makes translation worth it. I have never translated my own poems, but I have been fortunate enough to be in contact with my translators in their process of translation. The main challenge in translations, in my opinion, is to convey the cultural weight of a word to another kind of readership. This is something beyond the issue of “meaning.” And that is why having a literary taste and creativity that allows the translator to recreate is most important.
CH: Your collection of poems in English, Dying in a Mother Tongue, was published in 2018 by University of Texas Press. Please tell us a little about it and your process of writing and collecting the poems.
RC: The poems of this collection are written between 2008 and 2009; an important for me, both in personal life and in social life. I was passing from the peak of young age to the period that the social and political issues were becoming more important to me. When this collection was published, I was not in Iran. I left Iran for continuing my studies in France, but the third edition of this book was released one year after its publication. I was expecting it because I knew after years of writing what I was doing. Several years later, in 2018, this became my first poetry collection that was completely translated into English. Before that, some poems of me were translated from different books. But this specific collection is my first complete Persian book translated into English by Blake Atwood. He is a master in English, Persian as well as poetry and literature. The blood of the poems of this collection is still fresh in my veins.
CH: For you as a poet, what are the expressive advantages that the Persian and English languages convey? What are the limitations?
RC: Well, I should emphasize that I only write my poems in Persian, not in English and not in French. I do enjoy English poems and French poems. But even the feeling I get from reading English, French, and Persian poems are different for me. I love Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and all those French surrealists. I always say that, and I don’t know when and where I first read it, but I believe that you can write a poem in another language when you dream in that language too. But the funny thing is that even my American and French friends speak in Persian in my dreams! So, I continue to write in Persian.
CH: How do you see the influence your education in Film Studies and Dramatic Literature on your poetry? Have you considered taking on the role of playwright or screenwriter as part of your writing career?
RC: Both have been very influential on my poetry. Cinematic capacities have added another dimension to my poetry. I have talked about this in another conversation and say the same again here. From the classical Hollywood style, and films like Casablanca, I learned how to employ the cinematic concept of mise-en-scene in poems; just as Godard’s jump cuts were an inspiration for moving between spaces in poetry. Then, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films taught me how to create a poetic ambience with images. The editing style in Jim Jarmusch’s films inspired the structure of some poems and the use of symbols and metaphors in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films helped me achieve a kind of visual brevity. Also, the type of use of dialogue, scene distance and many other features of playscripts have influenced my poetry. I have had experience of writing plays and screenplays. Maybe in the future I will go back to them.
CH: In addition to your work in poetry, you’ve co-written four books for children. Please tell us a little about them.
RC: This has been one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had, because it is a collaboration with my father. These stories come from my father’s idea: a 10-book series of children’s books with the same character, a little girl named R’oya (literally meaning “dream,”) who loves painting, and her art allows her to realize her dreams. Her color pencils draw for her a parallel world to which she can enter. These stories are partly my poems and partly a narrative by my father. One book is about a forest, one a mountain, one a sea, and one the Milky Way, our galaxy.
CH: What do you like to read for pleasure? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
RC: Over the past few months, I have been holding an online poetry workshop. Each week, we discuss the works of an Iranian and a non-Iranian poet in this workshop along with the exercises that I give to the workshop participants. And so I have been very busy both re-reading some of the masterpieces of world poetry and the new, fresh, and exciting poems of my workshop members. The last books I read for my workshop were mostly the poems of Charles Bukowski and selected poems by W.H. Auden.