Tag Archives: W. H. Auden

A Virtual Interview with Roja Chamankar


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.

The Interview

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.

A Virtual Interview with Susan Niz

Susan Niz will be the featured reader Thursday, July 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Susan Niz’s first poetry chapbook is Beyond this Amniotic Dream (Beard Poetry, Minneapolis, 2016). She has a second chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press (November 2019). Her short work has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, The Write Launch, Chaleur Magazine, Typishly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Carnival Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Blue Bonnet Review, Two Words For, Belleville Park Pages, Ginosko, Cezanne’s Carrot, Flashquake, Opium Magazine, and Summerset Review. She has been featured in live poetry shows in Minneapolis. Susan writes across genres. Her novel Kara, Lost (North Star Press, 2011) was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award (MIPA) for Literary Fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Education, raises kids, has been a grassroots community organizer, and conserves Monarchs. She recently relocated from Minnesota (having survived the Polar Vortex last winter) to the Austin area where she will delve into new creative and literary projects and enjoy the sun and warmth.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

SN: In second grade, I got very excited to write a story about a girl who took a car trip with her family.  I loved the way ideas became words that tumbled sloppily across the line, down the page, that a story could go somewhere, that it could be read and re-read aloud. I had a teacher who gave us these spiral notebooks with blue covers. Writing time was a special event and that white space between lines became a place of focus where I could put some of myself, which was better than keeping the pain of my isolated home life inside. Later, when I was thirteen, I had another spiral notebook with a blue cover. It became a secret place to feed lines of hot ink in unraveling scrolls of angst and wonder and loneliness. I called it poetry. I had a lot of questions! I then copied some of my angst in Sharpie inside the entire back of a denim jacket (along with song lyrics from The Cure). This writing thing was mine. It was uncontrolled, it was limitless, and the page always listened. I was hooked on this outlet.


CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

SN: I studied writing and poetry in college as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take classes from some outstanding writers, but I wasn’t ready for the work of revision and I wasn’t yet able to access my voice because I carried a lot of shame from a very turbulent teenage experience. I gravitated to language study, learned Spanish, and became a teacher. I even abandoned journaling and part of me was missing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally found the focus to undertake a big project: a semi-autobiographical novel about a sixteen-year-old runaway. I dove into this in a time that I was waiting for a family and worked on it for several years, finally publishing it after my first daughter was born. I also wrote short fiction and published a few pieces. I published one poem that was written based on an image from a dream that I had. About a year later, the journal asked to reprint my poem in an anthology and I got motivated to try more poetry. It felt mysterious to me and for a while I thought my poems had to be conceived in my dreams! Eventually, I gained more of a flow to writing effective poems. I really developed my poetic voice through a series held in Minneapolis called the New Shit Show. I read at the open mic several times, was asked to feature, then submitted my first chapbook, Beyond This Amniotic Dream, to Beard Poetry. My first chapbook is about the two events of my father dying and my second daughter being born, which happened two weeks apart. I experienced delayed grief in order to be a present mother, and writing the poems finally processed the loss.

CH: I know that you write fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SN: I like to write across genres. In addition to poetry, I write short nonfiction essays, which are autobiographical. I wrote a second novel that did not get published because the revisions required would have taken too much time from my second and final baby. One thing that works with poetry for me is that it can be written in bits and pieces, unlike fiction which for me requires long stretches of focus. I think a big thing that defines me as a writer is that my writing is largely autobiographical. Even the idea of a persona poem is something I have not yet tackled. I plan to continue to keep writing across genres.

CH: How has your life as a community organizer and parent shaped your writing?

SN: As a parent, I learned to write sleep-deprived and all hours of the day, which made me a more adaptable writer. It made my writing time much less frequent when my kids were little, but luckily I stuck with it slow and steady and was able to create work and publish occasionally which added up over time. As a community organizer, for a long time I struggled with the idea of writing creatively about Resisting, instead of only more personal topics. I felt that as a white, straight, cis-gendered ally, I had to consider perspective carefully and not try to write a story/poem that wasn’t mine to tell.  I think I finally bridged this when I wrote poems about school shootings, a topic that touches me personally because I am a parent. I also use nature imagery to bridge topics. For example, a poem about stitching the wound of a snowy owl (What passes through flesh/ Is forever) is about sexual abuse. Having found a way to enter writing of Resistance, I feel more freed to continue to write about topics such as immigration issues, as my husband is from Guatemala. Writing poetry also made my campaign and advocacy writing more effective and emotionally connected.

CH: What is your writing life like?

SN: Usually slow and steady, but I feel like my move to Texas has helped it pick up momentum. I carve out bits of time to jot notes or record poem ideas using voice to text if I’m running around, then write them out late at night. When I can keep an observant view of the world around me, I get more ideas for poems. When I can read more and hear other poets read live, I write more poems. When I have time and want to produce more, I read a favorite book of poetry and engage in a read-write-read-write cycle, drawing inspiration from the poems. I’ll generally write new poems for a few months, then revise, then submit, and repeat.

CH: What inspired the title of your forthcoming chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk? How did you arrive at this sequence of poems?  

SN: The title speaks to the potential absurdity of the connections I attempt to make with nature. I went to Mustang Island last year with my family. A naturalist had set up a tent and table to show beach-goers some of the sea creatures. I get extremely excited about this stuff. The moments of learning the names of animals, of witnessing them in the wild, are thrilling to me and make me feel very alive. I just moved to Texas from Minnesota, and I’ve raised Monarchs the last several years and I miss them a lot, but I’m planting milkweed and hope to see them in September. The winters there were very hard for me, and warmth and wildlife and time outdoors means I am not in hibernation, which became increasingly brutal to endure. An earlier draft of this chapbook was called “Measure My Wingspan in Words,” which is a line from a poem that is in the book. Maybe that title worked would have worked as well. I write poems about motherhood, which I think sounds saccharine, but I write about the harsh and dark corners of motherhood after a difficult childhood, and with nature often as a refuge and a vehicle for emotions and metaphor.

CH: By the end of this year, you will have published two poetry chapbooks since your novel, Kara, Lost, came out. What are you working on now? Where would you like to be five years from now?

SN: I have been writing a few poems and also short non-fiction pieces. Maybe next I would like to publish a full-length book of poetry or of the essays. Maybe I feel like I can be a little more patient about that now. I’m also working on planning for a poetry workshop that I’ll be leading at several local libraries this year called “You are a poet.” It’s for beginners and all levels. I want to feel prepared with a whole bunch of writing exercises that I probably won’t have time to squeeze in. If I do it well, the participants will do a lot of writing and I’ll do not too much talking. (Please like “Susan Niz Writer” on Facebook to find out where to join a workshop.) In five years, I hope to feel part of the poetry community in Austin. My writing goals have shifted from lofty aspirations to more finding what is fulfilling, challenging, rewarding—without boundaries. I will regather my strength to use my writing abilities to continue to Resist. I think we each need to focus on developing whatever our individual superpower for protest may be—whether it’s organizing, speaking, writing, leveraging and sacrificing privilege, gathering resources—and hone that power, or we’ll get tired of screaming.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?

SN: Making time to go be a part of live poetry is so important. Nature experiences are a given in my life, but following them up with writing is necessary. Establishing boundaries with my kids for them to be more independent and allow me time to read, write, get out. That is the hardest, but easier with time. I think, too, setting goals and having some ambition and also self-love and patience when it comes to setbacks. I’m looking on the bright side of life in between writing poems. Poetry writing can be emotionally painful, but finding joy and ease in other areas of life is important for self-renewal.

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

SN: Jim Moore, Larry Levis, Adrienne Moore, Louise Erdrich, Laura Kasischke, ee cummings, Ocean Vuong, Federico García Lorca, W.H. Auden, Danez Smith, Kendrick Lamar

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

SN: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, and also Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir, Jill Bialosky

Cindy, thank you for this opportunity to reflect!

CH: You are more than welcome.