Recently, I had the good opportunity to interview Iranian born poet Sheema Kalbasi who is also a human rights activist and translator. She's also the director of Dialogue of Nations through Poetry, director of the Iranian Women Poetry Project, and co-director of the Other Voices International Project.
Her collection Echoes in Exile (PRA Publications) was a Best Books Award Finalist by USA Book News. In addition to her own poetry, she also translated an anthology of women poets from Middle Ages Persia to Present Day Iran titled Seven Valleys of Love (PRA Publications).
One of my favorite pieces from Echoes in Exile is:
Deep in the mouth,
Ivies have grown.
It is rather tricky
To claim her as mine
Now that I have given her to you.
Take good care of her.
And here is the interview:
What are you currently up to?
I am working on the Danish to English translation of a poem by Pia Tafdrup for the forthcoming print publication of the Other Voices International Project, a collection of poems edited by my friend and literary colleague, Roger Humes, and myself. The anthology is the work by a number of poets from our UNESCO endorsed "cyber-anthology" of world poetry which is located at www.othervoicespoetry.org
You were born in Tehran, Iran; you are a Danish citizen; and you currently live in Washington, DC. How has your sense of place affected your writing?
Often when I am asked this question I reply by quoting from Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and philosopher who writes: "He who does not prefer exile to slavery is not free by any measure of freedom, truth and duty." As a person who has been displaced on more than one occasion living and experiencing life in places with such differences in the legal, social, and political system has definitely influenced my writings.
As a Danish citizen I have experienced social discrimination, but this is far from what I experienced and observed in Iran. The country where I was born and raised in until the age of fourteen is ruled by a regime that has institutionalized gender apartheid; has mass murdered dissidents and members of religious minorities; has destroyed holy sites and cemeteries of people of "unrecognized faith"; has denied higher education and work to Bahaies; has executed people by brutal methods such as stoning; and has arbitrarily arrested and jailed hundreds of journalists, bloggers, and other activists.
In the United States where I currently live, the rights of each individual are much more protected by the legal system than in any other country where I have lived. Surely, there are human rights abuses committed by the U.S. government from time to time, but those eventually always come to light. Abu Gharib is such an example.
In my writings I address these issues. I know what it is to be scared of falling bombs, as I know what it is to be paralyzed by fear. I experienced it at the age of 8 when several Iranian cities, including Tehran, were attacked by Iraqi missiles. The bombings killed some seventy elementary school students, and the air raid became the topic of one of my longer poems entitled "Let's Dance Cha, cha Oil," where I write: "The concentration of oil in my body is higher than Central Asia/And this makes it even more critical/To experience life/As a human with socialization goals/Because during the school hours/I and the other students had to learn/How to hide under the desks" (Echoes in Exile, P.R.A., 2006).
You are the director of the Iranian Women Project. What is the purpose of this project?
My mother's grave is in a new land far from where she was born, raised and worked. She was the first Iranian woman with whom I had contact, a lover of literature and willful creature who encouraged me to write as a child. I created this project to honor her memory so that she and other Iranian female poets living in Iran or elsewhere receive the international recognition they deserve.
You've worked as a translator. Do you feel the familiarity with multiple languages has enhanced your poetry writing?
Perhaps knowing several languages makes my poetry more inter-cultural and inter-textual without alienating or overshadowing my background both as an Iranian born, and a voyager.
In Seven Valleys of Love, you translate the works of women poets "from Middle Ages Persia to present day Iran." Did you notice any threads tying the poems together throughout the ages?
The thread tying the poems together is the anthology’s historical overview.
Your English-language collection Echoes in Exile contains poems of loss and pain, but also poems of desire. What do you feel ties this collection together?
My experiences as an individual, a woman, a lover, a human rights activist, a mother, and an exile.
Do you have any sort of writing routine?
Yes. I have disciplined myself to write every day. Sometimes I start as early as 5 a.m.
Which poets are you currently reading?
I am reading Fahmida Riaz, a Pakistani feminist poet, and of course one of my all time favorites whose poetry I can never get enough of, the Iranian-Canadian poet and filmmaker Naanaam (Hossein Martin Fazeli). Your readers may want to familiarize themselves with this poet's writings and watch one of his latest films at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=O02yAAmU3Ww.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?
I don't like receiving advice when I haven't asked for any and don't see why other people, including poets, would be any different than me.
For more information on Kalbasi, check out www.frontlist.org.