Our latest review is of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi.
Niloufar is an extremely talented translator and performer, and runs the very impressive Translation Project, which promotes contemporary Iranian literature through a variety of media. A great example of what they do is the Icarus/Rise performance, videos of which can be found on the site.
Peter Conners, the author of Of Whiskey & Winter and Emily Ate the Wind, as well as a forthcoming memoir entitled Growing up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead. He’s also an editor and marketing director at BOA Editions. More info about all his projects can be found on his website.
Peter’s review of Belonging is very enthusiastic:
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.” [. . .]
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. [Click here for the rest.]
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I am in no way qualified to discuss Iranian poetry as it relates to the country’s larger social, historical, or literary culture. The sad truth is that the number of critics in America who are qualified—fully, truly qualified—to critique a translation of Iranian poetry is miniscule. However, I was comforted when I came to this passage in the introduction to the new anthology, Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World: “In 2002, when I began my research for this book, my goal was to discover and explore Persian poetry created by Iranians living outside Iran who had left because of the 1979 revolution. Aware that the rich tradition of Persian literature can be intimidating and difficult to penetrate, I embarked on this journey with a sense that I was already behind.”
It seems that even the editor and translator of this outstanding anthology, Niloufar Talebi, is daunted by the deep history and major role that poetry plays in Iranian culture. And she is an Iranian who grew up surrounded by poets, most influentially Ahmad Shamlou (1925-2000) who Talebi describes as “one of Iran’s greatest thinkers and cultural icons, an artist considered a national treasure to Iranians everywhere.” In her introduction, Talebi describes the literary salons that her parents would host where Talebi—a small girl, eavesdropping from the other room—would hear the strains of classical music as Shamlou held forth on lines of poetry by “Nima, Lorca, Neruda, Hafez, Akhmatova, Antoine de Saint-Expery, Langston Hughes, Baudelaire, Hedayat, and Farrokhzad.” As Talebi’s interest in literature grew, Shamlou provided her with books and guidance.
After reading her introduction and the first few sections of Belonging, I realized that Talebi had accomplished perhaps the greatest service that a translator of Iranian poetry for American audiences can provide: she made the Iranian poetic landscape feel familiar. Not only familiar, but modern, full of laughter, rich with wonder, completely joyful and terrible and worthy of revisiting multiple times. Without being able to compare it to the original Persian, I can only say that the poetry in Talebi’s translations is lucid, rich with music, and highly accessible. It is useful to know that all of the poets included in this collection are “79ers” which means that they immigrated after the 1979 Iranian revolution. This knowledge gives extra resonance to a poem such as “To a Snail” which reads in its entirety:
To A Snail
Oh you little home-on-your-back!
Weren’t you afraid that my huge foot
Would sweep you away?
Last night, under the rain,
You slid into my sneaker
You return to your green birthplace
Leaving me covetous, longing for mine.
Even without knowing that “To a Snail” was written by a “79er” in exile from his homeland, this poem can be appreciated for its purely poetic merits. The clear, simple language matches the slow, simple movements of the snail. The short, finely tuned line-breaks move the poem forward with subtle, steady propulsion. The pining first word “Oh” in praise of the snail along with a first line punctuated by an exclamation point reminds us that this ode to nature has its roots in the spirit of Romanticism. In short, this is a finely wrought, lovely poem, regardless of its lineage. In fact, learning that its author, Majid Naficy, had more than ten of his relatives—including his brother—executed in Iran before he fled the country via Turkey in 1983 freights this little poem with more baggage than it deserves. Then again, what tremendous heart to write such a delicate poem of praise after suffering such wrenching loss. Indeed, the brief biographies that Niloufar Talebi includes before each poet’s selection are illuminating and illustrate the geographical fracturing of Iranian poetic culture. However, I am tempted to urge you to skip those biographies on first read; to simply go through the book enjoying each poem as its own pure creation. After that, go back and read the entire book again, including the informative, often heartbreaking biographies. On the first reading, you will come away with a memorable poetic experience. On the second, you will come away with a deep understanding—and profound respect—for the hardships these poets have suffered and the incredible hearts that they have to keep creating their art. You will also come away with a truth that runs through all countries and runs counter to all oppression: you can’t kill poetry.
I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with Niloufar Talebi at an American Literary Translators Conference in Montreal a few years back, when she was still translating the poems for Belonging and looking for a publisher.
(To be frank, I knew immediately that I was going to like Niloufar, when, after an ALTA dinner, she came up to me and said that she’d always wanted to meet me since coming across a Reading the World display in City Lights. Flattery from an attractive member of the opposite sex about one’s literary activities goes a really long way . . . )
Niloufar is incredibly energetic and ambitious. In addition to editing and translating Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World, (just out from North Atlantic Books) she runs The Translation Project, which is dedicated to bringing Iranian literature to the world through a variety of activities, including an Iranian Literary Arts Festival and ICARUS/RISE a multimedia theatrical performance. (The link above goes to a few YouTube videos of the performance.)
We’re planning on running a review of Belonging in the not-too-distant future. In the meanwhile, it’s great to see the book—and Niloufar—receiving some good attention, such as this interview by Omid Memarian of the Inter Press Service.
She says this anthology reflects the great stylistic variety among expatriate writers. “In my research for the anthology, I was able to find 140 poets living outside Iran and reciting in Persian. No doubt this is a partial list, from which I translated about 35 poets, and eventually featured 18 in ‘Belonging,’ six from each of the three generations reciting. [. . .]
“Bottom line, the literature in translation has to find readership in order to have presence and impact. So the questions to ask are whether enough work appears in translation, whether they are the ‘right’ works for the readiness of the receiving culture during a particular historical and aesthetic period, and whether the translations are effective. Then there is the question of the editor/publisher’s willingness to publish and invest in works of translation – which compose only 0.3 to 3 percent of books published annually in the US.”
Talebi feels this is a particularly good time for a volume of expat Iranian poetry to appear on the market, evidently for reasons unconnected with the ongoing political tensions between the American and Iranian regimes.
“Immigrant or exiled writers who continue to write in their mother tongue don’t always have the opportunity to communicate their work to readers in their host countries, since language is the tool of their metier,” she said. “‘Belonging’ opens a channel of communication between readers of English and Iranian poets who live outside Iran and recite in Persian.
The collection is beautifully produced and looks fascinating. In addition to the poems themselves, one of the features I really like is the “Partial List of Iranian Poets Around the World” that can be found at the back and used as a sort of guide for future reading. In fact, I wish more anthologies had something like this. It would help build a wider context for international authors.
The current Quarterly Feature at ArteEast is It Deserves and Commands Your Attention, a fascinating collection of Persian fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Here’s editor Richard Jeffrey Newman summary of the contents:
I will not pretend that the poems, essays and stories gathered here represent anything other than the relatively small number of people who sent them to me or from whom I solicited them. Nonetheless, I do think they begin to sketch the outlines of the landscape my question was intended to uncover and begin to explore. Among the writers represented here are two women from Iran, one a young poet of 24, the other with an established career as a writer and editor, each of whom write poetry in English; there is an award-winning Iranian-American poet; a poet born in the year of the revolution who now writes, in Persian and Swedish, in Sweden; another poet published here in translation has been barred from entering Iran for more than two decades. There is a fiction writer from the United States who has made her career out of writing the Iranian immigrant experience. You will find translations of classical Persian literature, a fictionalized memoir by an academic from the United Kingdom and a short story by a man who is now a well-known Iranian director, but who began his career as a fiction writer deeply sympathetic to the Islamic Republic.
Seems to me that there’s a lot of interesting Iranian Persian writing out there, but that it’s sort of “under the radar,” at least from a mainstream perspective. (As if great literature from other countries/languages is getting tons of attention.)
In addition to this great publication, anyone interested in Iranian literature should definitely check out The Translation Project which is run by the amazing Niloufar Talebi. I’ll post more about this in the future, but as a taste, here’s what they list online as their Current Projects:
1. An Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Poetry Around the World, forthcoming summer 2008 (North Atlantic Books) edited and translated by Niloufar Talebi. It offers a comprehensive yet eclectic view of poetry generated outside Iran since the 1979 revolution by both established and emerging Iranian poets. Poetry IN diaspora, not OF diaspora, means that editorial decisions will not focus on the subject of exile, but on the quality and growth of each poet’s work during their time spent outside of Iran.
2. Multimedia Iranian Literary Arts Festival, November 13-17, 2007 in San Francisco. This multimedia festival will feature a new theatrical piece based on Iranian poetry, called ICARUS/RISE, panel presentations, readings, translator’s forum, film screenings and more.
3. Midnight Approaches…: DVD of short films. A multi-dimensional, evocative and entertaining DVD of short films based on contemporary Iranian poetry, it features an Introduction to Persian Poetry, 6 films based on contemporary Iranian Poetry translated, adapted and brought to life with music, performance and dance. Musical compositions by master musicians such as Ostaad Nejad, Hafez Modirzadeh, royal hartigan and David Molina, and more. Get you own copy now and support the organization.
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