Roger Sedarat – Interview

Roger SedaratRoger Sedarat is the author of two poetry collections: Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s 2007 Hollis Summers’ Prize, and Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). His translations of modern and classical Persian verse have appeared in World Literature Today,Ezra, and Drunken Boat. He teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA program at Queens College, City University of New York.

FEBRUARY 20, 2013

Maria Burns: I wanted to ask about, or hear you talk about how Ghazal Games differs from Dear Regime, specifically the writing process and the reception. 

Roger Sedarat: I have to say the first book took me like ten years—taking poems in and out and experimenting with all different styles. In Dear Regime a lot of times when I’m going East and looking at Iran, I do Western forms, or I merge east with west. Dear Regime is a medley of forms. You get Haiku, you get mock interviews, like the mock interview with Haji. It’s much more of a formal experimentation, whereas with Ghazal Games I stick with the specific Persian form of the ghazal. However, within that limited form, I do a lot of experimentation. I just limit it to the ghazal. That’s the biggest difference. In terms of process, writing in this Persian form, you think antithetically to what we’re trained to do as western writers because even if we’re not trained with the sonnet, we’re trained through that spirit of the sonnet where things are linear and things are connected and a really great one thematically coheres at the end in the contained couplet (of the Shakespearean), whereas in the ghazal, a really great writer of the Persian form doesn’t do that. Every couplet is its own poem. You think differently and take that leap from one place to another, and the only thing that unifies it is the repetition of rhyme and phrasing.

With Ghazal Games, because of the form I was working with, it was very much invested with musicality, whereas Dear Regime not as much. I think I had a lot more investment in how things were sounding in Ghazal Games—quick turns from one couplet to the next—and that was a more postmodern kind of playfulness. Not that the second book isn’t political, but I gave myself a lot more permission to go into figurative fun breaking rules. You know, you’re not supposed to write about the feminine body anymore with the blazon of the sonnet and yet what one reviewer, an Iranian/Australian reviewer liked most about Gazelle Games was that I am taking on the investment in physical beauty—for example, writing about my wife—in a way that is kind of self-referencing.

Joe Angeletti: In Dear Regime, I was drawn to “In Praise of Moths,” which is kind of a microcosm of that playing with form. You do a remarkable job blending style and form. How did you determine which poetic forms to combine in that piece, and what recommendations do you have for incorporating humor into a cultural critique without diminishing its message?

RS: Those are two really good questions. I’m a big advocate for writing students and myself to work experientially. You really have to write it out. There’s a reason it took ten years.  There were no sonnets or haikus for a long time, and I was a student of form. I started as a formalist, so a lot of experimentation and then arranging. And I wanted it to be a flow, and I do think about the tradition we’re living in now, the hyper-attention to so many shifts. Even in teaching a class, you really have to engage and shift and live in the world we’re living in.

I love writers who go places where you wouldn’t think they’re supposed to go, like Emily Dickinson with the hymns, how she combines her own kind of agnostic doubts into the form. In terms of writing humor, someone suggested for me to go take a humor writing class with comedians, and it was the most terrifying artistic thing I’ve ever done. I’ve done a lot of terrifying stuff—I’ve done performance stuff—and so I took this comedy class at The New York Comedy Institute, and they’re real comedians teaching it and taking the class, and we do workshop, and it’s terrifying. The writing of it was so different.  I wanted to elaborate and develop and have metaphors, but it was a lot quicker to the turn. Get there fast. There were some great writers, some great comics, and they would workshop my material and just cut out so much. Then you have to go up on stage. For the final, you actually perform where Jerry Seinfeld performed, at Stand Up New York, and your friends come. I understand why these guys self-destruct and take drugs. It’s so scary, and it’s in real time.

There’s a Persian tradition that I’m trying to bring out through humor; it’s called ba-namak, meaning “with salt” or “salty.” And it’s basically what we would call a sarcastic person or dry humor, and I wanted to make that pop out in an Iranian-American not just an Iranian way. And one of the reasons I did it is because when you try to write politics, it’s so hard, and all of a sudden you’re labeled in this certain way. And I do this still.  I do this cerebral shift where “politics” means a mix of poetry and something else—you’re kind of raising your fist and you know…protesting something. Humor seemed to be the way to complicate it. It’s doing something political, but it’s still literary because it’s in this form, and then it’s funny too.

I remember my job talk for the position I have now at my MFA program; I had to give a reading from this book, and one of the academics, the scholars—he said it critically, but I actually took it as a compliment—he said, “You know, I don’t know what to do with the humor. I’m drawn in, and I laugh, but then I feel guilty for laughing. And then I think this is a really dire thing, and should I be laughing, and who are you to make us laugh?” I’m like, “Yeah, good literature maybe should complicate it in some ways.” So, I think that’s the real essence in that I wanted to do: make it complicated in some ways, darkly comedic.

JA: I don’t think I would phrase my question the way he did, necessarily, but it’s definitely an experience that I had.

RS: You get all different reactions. I mean, some people think it’s really funny, and some people are like, “Whoa, you know, I’m not sure…”  My wife’s Iranian, but she grew up in Lubbock, Texas mostly, which is a pretty conservative place.  The American side, they still live there. The aunt and uncle that we go stay with when we visit, they were telling me, “We really like your poetry, but you sometimes go too far for us, Roger. It’s just too naughty.”  Well, ok, I’m doing my thing, I’m sorry. But then it’s weird because they also like George Carlin, and I’m like, “Maybe you should take a look at that, because he’s pretty…” You know, they’re conservative, but they also love that kind of humor. That makes them complicated too, in a good way.

MB: We’re talking a little bit about cultures, and you kind of hit on something that I wanted to talk about in terms of your audience and how you think of your audience. Do you think in terms of culture?

RS: Yeah, I do. You guys are top notch here. I mean, these are troubling questions, but I really do. When I write, I think about my college students—diverse undergraduate at Queens College—and maybe they don’t like poetry so much. I want to reach them, but I’m also really attentive to the Iranian audience specifically—Iranian-American and also specifically Iranian, and then the American poetry tradition. So, you can see this postmodern move with the American poetry audience of how I want to be with it, and, you know, edgy and not taking the poetry so seriously, like a hipster or something. But then the Iranian side, it’s like I can’t leave the classical tradition. I love the classical.  I’m into reading translation at the reading center from the fourteenth century, and it’s really an influence. I write everything from a place of Sufi mysticism, that kind of classical Persian music. I have it on all the time in a stream – there’s like an Internet radio, Radio Darvish. So, I have that in mind. And all that complicates it. I guess my first reading with Dear Regime was strange because it was at a venue in New York. It was at the old Bowery Club, but it felt just like a wedding, where seriously the Iranians all sat on one side, and then the Americans—some of my students and colleagues came—sat on the other side. And it was this divided, this bifurcated room, and it was a really strange reception. And, honestly, the Iranians got some things that the Americans didn’t, you know, like joke-wise, or maybe like a deeper level of significance of why I would say that my wife is so Iranian that we got audited and she brought gifts to the IRS. The Iranians really got that because there’s this nth degree of showmanship, and you seriously give till it hurts in a performative way in the culture. And the Americans got it, but maybe not as much. And there were other times where it was maybe flipped when I was being more American, and the Iranians were not fully appreciating, I guess.

MB: And in Ghazal Games, I was struck with the actual games. You’re taking about spin-the-bottle, hangman, and things like that. I think of those as very American or Western games, and how did the Iranian audience interpret just the games themselves?

RS: The games themselves. Well, you know, the first one where there’s a blank space in the most important, crucial place in all of the ghazal, and a lot of time you put the beloved there, and I took the beloved out. So, Iranians would really tap into that. And I guess it’s like any culture: The younger generation, they think it’s really cool and fun because they listen to Radiohead in Tehran. But the older generation, like my father’s family, back in Iran, they question how this could be poetry. You don’t do that. It’s just too violating. You’re right to ask that, because these other ones, where the games are more specific to Americans, it’s more of a place – it’s more specifically playful in English. They would probably get it if I’m writing a vertical ghazal. They take those kinds of tests, a version of our scantron tests, but they’re not called “scantrons.” And true-false they might get, but, yeah, I think it tends to err more on the side of American gaming for the most part. Like truth or dare, my kids are playing that now. You’re helping me think about this.

MB: I mean, just like spin the bottle.

RS: I don’t think they do have spin the bottle. Maybe they have something like it. That’s when ultimately these are places for that question where it’s really forcing me to make decisions, and I think I was really erring on the side of writing a book in English as a hybrid identity, as it were, so I’m probably going to wax more towards something that I’m familiar with. So, that’s a really good question. Although I didn’t really reference it, I was thinking about Hangman too and about the terrible hangings of the Islamic regime and that kind of stuff too.

JA: As you talk about operating between two different cultural forms and then operating between cultural attitudes for things like games, that draws me to the way you work between the opposition between the rational response to where geopolitics needs to go, and an emotional response to the way people are being treated or influenced socially. And I get a lot of that balancing act of the rational response and the emotional instinct. How do you balance those?

RS: That is really hard to balance. You know, there’s a lot politically that I do take out.  It’s where I was not too mean, but maybe just too heavy-handed towards a certain direction, and I had to pull back. Editing is an important part of that process for sure. I tell students, even without thinking about a full collection, that I’m a big fan of over-writing, you know, like having too much and then shaping. Because you can have too little, but you can’t have too much and then you can pull back. Also, form is a really good place. It’s a cliché, but there’s a comfort in containment. Where it helps you limit. And I probably would get into a lot of trouble if I let myself be like Whitman or Neruda in Canto General, you know, just let me go for it guns blazing kind of thing. There are places where I can let myself be, but it comes out in a certain contained place and then it surfaces again. It’s more like a Freudian repression, and then there are these pockets of places where it’s allowed. The nice thing that’s surprising with the balance is then humor. Puns come when you don’t expect it. Humor comes when you’re not trying to be completely humorous. And then vice versa: you’re playful but then there’s something serious. It’s a weird kind of process balance that kind of materializes..

The first half of Dear Regime is sort of like this.  It is so dire and people really are on death row, but then the part B is like, “But poetry doesn’t make revolutions,” and it’s this figurative play, and we just have to have fun. And it’s sort of like the book is a balance of poetry being really, really serious and poetry being maybe not so serious. It’s interesting to take those two approaches in one collection. And I was really warned. Big kind of names that had read it or heard me read, they had warned me that a political book, you know, doesn’t make for good poetry or great poetry. I was kind of warned against it. Not only the politics, but then I did humor, and other things to it, but I needed to do it, I think. Wallace Stevens said that we really don’t choose our material in some ways; we just write what we were fated to write. He couldn’t be somebody else. He had to be Wallace Stevens.

MB: Talking about poetry and revolution, and particularly in light of recent events—I know that you blog, and you have a poem called “Facebook”—how do think social media influences the literary arts, and what role has it played in your work?

RS: It’s played a lot. I used to be a snob about print journals, and I love that Panhandler is doing stuff online. When I started writing poetry, I posted—it’s not a peer-reviewed thing—on If you’re Iranian they put it up there. And still, from fifteen years ago, I have Iranians writing me from all over the world about that stuff. In Los Angeles, in Tehran, in Germany, these Iranians are like, “I love your haiku I found online.” And I’m like, “Really?” They don’t care that I published in New England Review. It means nothing to them. It’s like reaching and connecting, and I think that for my material, I read so much from what people send me, like through YouTube and even stuff we’re not supposed to see that the Iranian government tried to censor. It came to me that way, and in friends sending me things, and the immediacy of it, I guess, is a really big part. And now, in the Haji character—you know, I write some Haji poems, more in Dear Regime—but I’ve done performances and I do these things and take these chances and like twenty people are in the audience and then it just goes away. So I started having people record it and then I have a HajiSedarat channel. Now, I don’t post it to Facebook for everybody, but I’ll send it to people who are interested to check it out, and then I reach a whole kind of new audience, like where poetry comes off the page. And so it’s just a whole other venue, more like dramatic performance, I guess, connected to the poetry.

I really, really want the poetry to do different things, you know. We’re living in that age where it does. The youth at our school, at the MFA program, they get it because they’re doing it. At one in the morning they’re playing in an indie band in Brooklyn, and then they’re shooting a movie, and they’re doing something else, and they’re writing poetry. And I like all that, that it comes together and can be cool. I’m kind of interested in exploring where else it can go in terms of social media. Some of the best stuff I’ve been exposed to, somebody’s posted. And the other thing, in terms of protests, during the 2007 crackdown in Iran, it was just horrible. I was personally connected to people, and it was just terrible for me. I had kind of a nervous breakdown. And I was on this panel of Iranian-American writers and scholars in New York, and this one guy who had an important professor line, whatever, a good job, he was being the scholar he’s supposed to be and saying things like, “We’re all so irrelevant here and all we can do is study it in America.” Meanwhile, in that very same audience was this nineteen-year-old Iranian girl who had just come from Los Angeles and who had seriously had like a million people turn out for something that she had mobilized, you know, and all through social media. I told this guy, “That’s a poem.” There’s something happening there in that collectivity that’s she’s rallying and connecting it to her voice, and I wouldn’t necessarily side with the irrelevant part. I think voices are reality. I’m a different—and I’m sure you guys are too—I’m a different person because somebody said something to me, through music or otherwise, that just came at a really important time. Maybe it wasn’t even political, per se, but it touched me in some real way.

For example, I’m doing this reading today at UWF, and somebody posted something about my reading online, and then this woman found out about me in Florida. She lives not far from here, apparently in some Sufi Iranian-American commune of sorts. She said it’s deep in the forest. I don’t know. She has five kids. She wanted to come to the reading, and she’s taking care of her five kids and doing other stuff at this place, this place where she lives. But she found my bits and my poems online, and she said, “I wish I had enough money to buy your books, but I found this poem and this poem, and I really like them.” I’m really interested, and I Google her, and I find some of her poems, and I like what she’s doing. She’s got a lot of rhyme. And I write her back, and she’s like, “Oh my God, that made my day! I can’t believe you read my poems. It’s so awesome. And we’re two poets!” I’m not like Kid Rock playing next to my hotel (nor would I want to be) room tonight, but who cares? It’s like one poet is connecting with another one, and there’s a real powerful interchange when that happens. And it’s an online thing, or not just online, but it’s a lot. I’m so excited about it. I feel like I’m just catching up to it.