“Wake Up and Write Something, or You Will Be Eaten Soon”, an Interview with Soodabeh Saeidnia

by David Lawton on March 29, 2017

We continue our profiles of poets and writers featured in the great weather for MEDIA anthology The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker today with our interview with the wonderful Soodabeh Saeidnia:

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Soodabeh Saeidnia was born in Iran and received her PharmD and PhD of Pharmacognosy from Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS), Iran. She has worked as a Visiting Researcher and awarded a Foreign Researcher Fellowship to work as a Research Associate in Kyoto University, Japan, as well as Assistant and Associate Professor at TUMS and Visiting Professor at Saskatchewan University, Canada. She has written roughly 150 scientific papers for various academic journals, books and chapters in both English and Farsi.

She is also interested in literature and poetry, and has published a collection of her poems, Harfhaee- Baraye- Khodam (Words for myself), in Farsi. Soodabeh immigrated to the US in 2014, and is now living in Kew Gardens, New York. Immigration was a trigger to her poetry and after that her English poems have been published in different American magazines and literary journals including Squawk Back, Sick Lit Magazine, Dying Dahlia Review, Sisyphus Quarterly, Paradox, TimBookTu, Babbling of the Irrational, Scarlet Leaf Review, SPINE, Tuck Magazine, La Libertad, Tiny Poetry, Indiana Voice Journal, The Pen, and 352 degrees. A number of her poems have been printed in the anthologies, The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker (by great weather for MEDIA), Where the Mind Dwells, American Poet, and Moonlight Dreamers of Yellow Haze. The first collection of her contemporary poems Street of the Ginkgo Trees, and also the recently released anthologies Voice of Monarch Butterflies (Middle Eastern Anthology by Ten Poets from Ganges to Nile) and Apple Fruits of an Old Oak are her completed projects in 2016 and now are alive on Amazon. She is currently working on a project of combined (Farsi and English) poetry.

Her micro-poems are daily updating on her Twitter @SSaeidnia. A number of her poems are routinely posted through her weblog https://soodabehpoems.wordpress.com/ and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/soodabeh.saeidnia.

DL: Soodabeh, we are so happy to have discovered your poetry. Your piece,Rain, in our current anthology,?The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker, is a visceral experience on the page. Both intense and full of humor. Can you tell us about the process that went into its creation? 

SS:  Thank you so much David for having me in this interview and for publishing my poem, Rain, in your anthology. This is a great pleasure for me having a little creation among so many great prose and poems by wonderful poets. Back to your question, I well remember the night I first landed at LaGuardia Airport in January 2014;  it was raining, a real downpour like what I had already experienced in Kyoto, Japan. For me as a Persian who was used to some kind of very subtle and fine rain every so often in the spring and fall in Tehran, such a shower was so interesting and even breathtaking especially when it poured with a strong wind, ice and snow, all together…It was both crazy and lovely!

I was obsessed with that picture, and the day I took my pen to write a poem about it, some other shots of the diverse people of NYC flashed in my mind. People who love to wear special brands regardless of their economy or culture of origin; people who love their celebrities; people who avoid eye-contacting to each other; people who play games on their phones in the subway; people who never stop watching and reading commercials … and snapshots of the criminals and victims on TV news beside social injustice which doesn’t know any borders in the world. It was like all the good and bad fairies and demons of the city were dancing around me and feasting on the corpus of my mind, whispering to my ears, “Wake up Soodabeh and write something or you will be eaten soon.” I finished whole the poem in one-sit and then read it again telling myself, “It looks a lucky poem and is going to be published somewhere!” I also heard the name of GWFM in a workshop from one of my fellow poets, so I found your website and was lucky enough not to exceed the due date for submission. Frankly, this was my sweetest experience of writing and publishing a poem regarding the time I spent, since writing in English was always much more time-consuming than writing in Farsi for me. Furthermore, we, poets, are used to facing a bunch of rejection letters until we find a home for our creations.

DL:  You started out writing in your native Farsi. If our readers wanted a crash course in Farsi poetry, who should they read?

SS:   Oh David, this is a really hard question. You know it depends on their taste of poetry. We have famous poets like Ferdousi and Khayam who lived about hundreds to a thousand years ago, and their poems are still alive in daily conversation of the Iranian people. I found Khayam’s Quatrains in Queens’ public libraries. His poems are short, sweet, sharp and logic-based (since he was also a mathematician). Ferdousi great book of Shahnameh is an epic all about the ancient Persian mythology. If your readers like to read some poems related to Sufism and mysticism, I may recommend Hafiz’s and Rumi’s sonnets.

As a matter of fact, Persian poetry has gradually changed and evolved during the 20th century (like in western countries). The poets who graduated from European universities became more familiar to the contemporary, modern, and post-modern poetry. Nima Yusheej is well-known as the father of modern poetry in Iran. He broke the rules of classic poems, traditional forms and rhymes for the first time. Mehdi Akhavan-Sales, Sohrab Sepehri, Ahmad Shamloo and Forugh Farrokhzad were all pioneers in modern poetry; I love their free styles and metaphors, and can suggest their collections to your readers. We have also a few young talented poets who write post-modern sonnets and free verses, although their poems have been the target of controversy inside Iran.

DL: You have said your immigration to the U.S. in 2014 acted as a trigger which caused you to begin to also write in English. What is it like for you to cross back and forth between these languages? 

SS:  I started writing prose and poems in Farsi at 12 but in English at 40! It looks funny but I think I needed to develop my language and vocabulary. The more I read of American poetry, the more I fall in love with it. Undoubtedly, English is an amazing language and at the same time, one of the most difficult ones for ESL students and writers. If my fellow Iranians asked me why, I would say since English language provides so many (literally) wonderful words and expressions which enable you to translate one sentence to different verses regarding both the direct definition and metaphoric meaning. For instance, if a translator other than me wanted to translate one of my Farsi poems, they would probably choose the words with direct meaning of my Farsi text. However, I often write something in Farsi and would rather choose something a little different in English; something that makes sense for Americans as well. Although it may change the meaning of my Farsi verse, it is somehow my better choice.

Besides, I found myself in love with mixing English and Farsi lines and stanzas. I’ve been writing – maybe it’s just trial and error- a few poems in which a whole line is in English and the next line is in Farsi. Such poems can be read by bilinguals of course but the lines are arranged in a way that either Farsi or English reader can read the language-related lines and figure out the whole story.

DL: What English language poets’ work has helped assimilate you to writing in the language? 

SS:  The English language poets’ work helped me a lot and I mean it. When I read “Stranger! if you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you/ not speak to me?/And why should I not speak to you?” by Walt Whitman or “I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you — Nobody — Too?/ Then there’s a pair of us!/ Don’t tell! they’d advertise…” by Emily Dickinson, I remind a few lines in Farsi by Sohrab Sepehri like this one: “If you are looking for me, I’m behind nowhere.” When I read “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, I can’t help remembering of a poem by Shafiee-Kadekanee, which is currently written on a well-known wall in Netherland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KecbhPRv4Y). I also found common senses between “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou and feministic verses by Forugh Farrokhzad.

On the other hand, I really love some advanced metaphors in English, and also the stanza and line breaking which seems so strange and crazy to Farsi readers. In classic Persian poetry, we aren’t used to leaving a sentence unfinished at the end of a line or suddenly breaking it to the next stanza. However, western poets do it so skillfully! I like this and sometimes follow exactly the same in a Farsi version, depends on the poem. I believe such inspirations bring a fresh breeze to my translations. There are further differences: We (I mean Persian poets) wouldn’t give titles to poems; We wouldn’t tell a whole story in a short poem and would rather leave it mysteriously open to different understandings; Farsi readers mostly avoid listening to a poem with pointing to sexual parts of the human body, talking about GI movement, using coarse or foul language, although the young generations of the Iranian poets often copy that in their songs and poems.

It’s not just about common sense and similarities in conception of poems between two different cultures. The unique and special forms, personifications, advanced metaphors, even humorous alliterations and repetitions are all so compelling and intriguing for me. I daily read the contemporary and modern poems, as many as I can find online, in magazines like NY Times, Poetry Foundation, Rattle …, in the anthologies like The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker or in the books like Harvest the Dirt by Wil Gibson and Joanna Fuhrman’s The Year of Yellow Butterflies. Frankly, I’m inspired by good English poems and can’t mention the name of so many great poets who I read regularly.

DL:  I see from your blog that you are currently engaged in a project where you are translating submitted poems in English into Farsi for an anthology. How has that project been going? What have been the challenges in transferring others’ work into your native tongue? 

SS:  Thank you for asking this question. I like to talk about it. You know there are approximately 110 million Persian speakers worldwide, with the language holding official status in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, and I know there is a very limited number of translational poetry since the 80s and those are only from very well-known International poets. So I thought I can gather the popular contemporary English poems by living poets – not by dead poets’ society!- and not only enjoy myself through the act of translation, but also share it with Farsi-speakers. The title of the project is “Where are you from?” and the final anthology is supposed to be a bilingual collection of short poems, haiku and micro-poetry. I also invited Aimal Zaman Yusufzai, who is an Afghan bilingual poet, to cooperate with me as the co-editor in this endeavor. I’ve benefited greatly from his Afghan vocabulary which includes a lot of beautiful, poetic words rooted in ancient Persia when Iran and Afghanistan belonged to the same empire. So far, we have received about 100 submissions and ended up selecting 50 of them, the submission is still semi-open to the interested poets though!

Selecting the best fit to the book is the hardest step of the project. Some poems are strictly religious, political and erotica so that we have to exclude them. On the other side, there are amazing submissions which are great for reciting in English because of their tone, rhythm, and other language arts but the concept is narrow. Such poems focus only on particular events, western experiences and cultures which are not familiar to the eastern readers. Only people who live here can connect with such poems. I hate to reject them but I have to. When we come to the love poems, nature and social issues and judgments, it’s easier to convey the concept and feeling to the reader. I mean the results of these themes make sense more than what other themes do. I also enjoy working on mysterious and sophisticated poems and try to keep in touch with their poets to make sure if I get the concept properly.

I would like to use this opportunity to invite your readers, who are interested in translational poetry, to give us a chance to read their poems and may choose them. The more diversity in the book, the further number of Farsi-readers would find their favorites.

DL: You were called back to Iran due to family issues at the beginning of January, shortly before the new U.S. administration tried to institute their first travel ban. Would you mind telling us how this affected you, and how the controversy over this issue is viewed by your friends and family back home? 

SS: That’s right. I had to go back to Iran to take care of my Mom, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and heart problems at 77, but my family advised me not to go out of the U.S., since they were afraid I couldn’t enter again. The funny thing is that we are Permanent Residents of the U.S. and my son goes to school here. I feel guilty to choose between staying in the country I love and visiting my parents in my motherland! It’s a complicated feeling of grief and anger, fear and anxiety. Actually, I had already canceled or postponed a number of my work plans like my reading for GWFM and my poetry class. Then after the travel ban, I had to cancel my travel and missed my plans anyways. My friends and family in Iran are worried about us, even my son keeps asking if we are going to go back to Iran after all these years we spent on our immigration process. He loves to live and study in NYC and you know we had a choice between Canada and America. We lived for one year in Saskatoon (Canada) and then decided to choose the U.S. Families are now departed and can’t visit each other; Students who have gotten scholarships can’t get visa; Researchers and university professors who were granted fellowships can’t continue their research projects here anymore. It’s just a chaos in people’s long-term plans and doesn’t make the U.S. more secure for sure.

DL:  We have scheduled you to feature at our Parkside Lounge series this coming September 24th, as part of a program for National Translation Month. I know that’s a way off, but what can we expect to hear from you on that day? 

SS:  To be honest, I haven’t decided which poems I’m going to read yet but I want to choose from the categories below for sure:

A mix poem made of Farsi and English lines; A classic poem which catches the ears with its Farsi rhythm and repeating rhymes; A free style poem together with a few tiny and micro-poems.  It depends on how many minutes I will have. In closing, I would like to transfer my sincere thanks and appreciation for this opportunity. I’m so thrilled to recite in my mother tongue for English speakers and lovely poets of New York. I hope they will like it and enjoy listening to the song-like poems in one of the most beautiful languages in the world.

DL: Thank so much, Soodabeh!

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