A Book to Devour

In late 2010, at the end of the first decade of the millennium, Shabnam Piryaei – a poet-teacher-filmmaker-born in Iran just after the revolution and raised in California – published her first book, Ode to Fragile. This book is a collection of her poetry and writings that meet at the intersection of prose, poetry, and plays – three of which have been produced as films. Through her voice as a writer and the voices and images espoused by the diverse, magical, realistic, abused, and abusive characters is a powerful reflection of power dynamics in our collective, glittering and scarred, human experience.

As a reader devouring the pages of this book, the craft of Piryaei’s poetry places me in the corner of a room or in the suicidal edge of a windowsill where I can feel, the gravity of the characters’ loss, the extremity of their situation, the depth of their love. The poems in this book are an invitation by the author, for the reader to enter into the world of familiar-strangers on the page, who pause, erase memories, walk where their daughters may have died by missile attacks, or watch sugar crystals sink effortlessly in a teacup inside a tortured interrogation room. By virtue of acknowledging and expressing – without the tackiness of explicit or direct naming – that the relationship between the power-full and the power-less is at the core of the human experience – the writing in this book is inherently and indirectly political.

With economy of language, the book strikes a power-punch of sharp, clear, contrasting, heart stopping, yet delicately precise, awe-inspiring imagery. The characters and the imagery from this fantastic work – the mothers, grandfathers, interrogators, prisoners, wives, and children and their real world or magical-realism moments in which we (the readers) meet them, are so strong that they surround you, inside the room, the train station, the library – while you are holding the book and reading. I love this book – the pages are so well written, so strong, concise, precise and creative. This is a book outside the box of books. There are many good and really good poetry/prose books that have been published. This collection of works is excellent. It sets itself apart from other good books, by other authors, by the level of the quality of the writing combined with the book’s creative DNA.

Each poem made me more ravenous for more. Reading on the Q train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, over the bridge, I was transported to Evin prison, to a quiet living room, to a river, to a Palestinian street, to a porch in front of a large house somewhere in Alabama – or it could be along the Caspian sea, I was transported to the writer’s anticipation, to a drawer in an overcrowded morgue, to a park bench and to the in between “milk ribbon” places of magical realism carried by the breeze.

To me, as a first generation American born Iranian, the images referenced in Shabnam Piryaei’s poetry puts into words the emotions associated with Iran, our family histories, and the world around us. Piryaei writes from a place of acute awareness of who are the missiles launched by and on whose children’s heads do they land, in Beit Hanoun, or elsewhere, an acute awareness of the power politics in our world.

The book contains images and references familiar to Iranians, because of our history and the stories contained within our homes and communities. The Iranian qualities of the content are, however, not clichés drawing upon over-used cultural symbols such as pomegranates, kabob, olives, or the word “revolution”. The book’s references to Evin, prisons, cells, noose, interrogators, the crowd – are not overused themes of political history, they are employed in precise moments of poetry, reflecting moments that we shared as a people, as political communities, as Iranians. This is a very important work reflecting the human condition from the perspective of the most vulnerable, powerful, real and magical positions occupied by the characters inside these poems and inside our real-world prisons, cities, and Diasporas.

That this title is printed in lower case letters and placed unassumingly at the bottom of the page is (in my opinion) no accident. The subtlety of the title reflects both the writer’s sense of humility and her cunning skill in crafting subtle words of (sometimes) ordinary images to carry the reader in the most powerfully loaded moments and emotions.

As I type this review, on a snowy Monday in New York City, I ask myself, how does one actually conduct a review of another person’s creative work? I am still exploring the answer to that question, but what is clear to me is that this is a very important book, quietly – unassumingly – stepping into the world’s canon of great poetry. This book is a tremendous work, both important and personally absorbing – it will grab you, the reader, and hold you where the characters are holding their breath.

Shabnam Piryaei graduated from the University of California at Berkeley (where we first met). This is her first book and the beginning of a lifetime of her writing awaiting much deserved publication. Her films will be available this coming year, three of which are based on scenes from the book.

When I was first asked to write this review, I conducted an interview to learn more about Shabnam as a writer. The interview with the author is also available on Iranian.com. The book, Ode to Fragile, is available on Amazon and at the Barnes and Nobles online store.

An Interview with Shabnam Piryaei

Shabnam Piryaei, a graduate of the University of California Berkeley, is a poet, teacher, and filmmaker. Her first book, published recently, Ode to Fragile, is a powerful collection of poetry and “scenes”. Her works have been published in Runes: A Review of Poetry, The Florida Review, and The Furnace Review. When I was first asked to write a review of Ode to Fragile (the book review is available on Iranian.com), I decided I also wanted to learn more about Shabnam as a writer. This is an interview with the author.

During what time period did you start & complete the works in this book?

The oldest piece in the book is from 2006, but the majority of the pieces were written in the last three years or so. A lot of the scenes were written in 2007, as part of what I considered at the time to be just a writing exercise. Christmas of 2006, I was given as a gift a book by Suzan Lori-Parks entitled “365 Days/365 Plays”, in which she wrote one play every day for 365 days.

Before I even started reading her book, I was so inspired by the idea of it, that I decided I would make a new years resolution in which I would write one character every day for 365 days. At the time, I think I wanted to inhabit other voices and perspectives more organically and intricately in my poems, and so the only rule that I established was that I had to be writing in the first person, through a voice that was not mine. Initially I just assumed that I would be writing a poem every day, but writing poems for me is an often agonizing, extremely long process, and so the quickly jotted down poems I was writing in the beginning were, I thought, terrible. And so, I think pretty early on, the characters started turning into scenes/very short plays. I grew up reading a lot of plays, so I think that definitely had an impact on how naturally that genre emerged in my writing. Because I treated the characters as a writing exercise, I was really uninhibited in what and how I was writing. It became a sort of “audience-less” text, one that I didn’t try to categorize or control or judge.

Later, when I was putting together the book, I had these 365 characters, some of which I really liked. And one day I said, I wish I could just put them in the book, and someone asked me, “Why not?”, and I thought, yeah, why not? I mean, nothing was stopping me except my own concerns of what is and isn’t acceptable as a genre.

And so I decided to put them in the book, as a “part II”. But, there was a sort of disconnect, you know, something was missing when it was just poems in the first half and scenes in the second. So I decided to incorporate poems into each of the scenes.

My loyalty ultimately lies in poetry, and I feel that everything I do, the scenes, the films, they are an extension of or emerge from my poetry, and so, for the second section of the book, I wanted to create pieces in which neither the scene nor the poem served as an appendage to the other part; I wanted each to be able to stand on its own.

For some scenes, I specifically composed a poem in relation to the scene that had already been written. But, in other cases, I assembled this union between a scene that had already been written, under certain circumstances, at a specific time, with a poem that I had written under separate circumstances, and at a different time, and the end result of their juxtaposition became something bigger than the individual pieces.

How has growing up Iranian/Iranian-American/with Iranian parents, impacted your work as a writer and poet?

I left Iran when I was almost three, and I didn’t go back until I was seventeen years old. But, culturally, I grew up in a very Iranian home. I had to speak Farsi in the house, I was read bedtime stories in Farsi, and my father would, especially on the weekends, play classical Iranian music in the house (Shajarian, Alizadeh…) My mother, after long days of work, would teach me to read and write Farsi from elementary school textbooks sent from Iran.

Also, my father is a writer and studied literature, and he was always very engaged with the arts. Growing up, there were always at least a few Iranian artists, writers and musicians around.

For example, during car-rides, even up through my adolescence, he preferred “creative activities” over listening to the radio, so we would play games, or he would teach me songs in Farsi that we would sing together.

I have so many memories of my father reciting classical Persian poetry, sometimes just murmuring poems to himself, and often he would translate these pieces for me. And as I grew older, I was struck by the creativity and the potency of the images in the poems; their use of metaphors was often overwhelmingly beautiful. He would translate for me pieces of Hafez, Khayyam, up through Nima. So I’m certain that those experiences really informed my aesthetic, and my philosophies of what literature, and in particular, poetry, should be.

Poems and Play-Poems or poetic plays – what do you call them? How do you name them?

I don’t really have a consistent name for them. I usually refer to them as “scenes”, but I think that’s only because it’s a convenient way for me to reference them. I mentioned that I grew up reading a lot of plays, from a very young age, and so I had a certain affinity with the genre. But also, because I grew up with so much solitude in my childhood, I would get caught up in so, so, so many “scenarios” in my mind. I still do.

I remember when I was six years old, my parents ran a pizza place, and they had set up a bed-like area in the office, and I would be there for hours and hours by myself, just day-dreaming. It wasn’t my parents’ fault that I had to spend so much time alone; they had been in the country for less than four years, and were struggling with a new business, and they had no family to leave me with; so I would just be at the pizza place all day after school and all day on weekends and in the summertime. And the “scenes” would include everything, from very quotidian things, like reenacting a conversation in school that went horribly, sort of re-writing it into what I “should have” said, or fantasizing a scene about a boy that I liked, to being someone else entirely, in made-up circumstances, some of them marvelous, some of them horrible—very often culminating in something very emotional or dramatic.

So really, these were, and still are today, something like extreme day-dreams, in the sense that if I let myself get carried away, if I become too invested, I’ll end up publicly weeping or talking aloud to myself or to the people in the scene in my mind. And I’m not acting; I’m really inhabiting that moment, and that character and those circumstances. There are times, still, when I go to wash my hands, and I glance at myself in the mirror above the sink, and two or three minutes later, I catch myself really about to start crying or yelling, really being this other person, or myself, in these other, imagined circumstances.

And frankly, I love this part of me— I’m grateful for it, because it gave me very real company when I was alone, and it still is an integral part of my relationship with myself.

In regards to the scenes that I write, I think that this quality I have, in which I so thoroughly inhabit these scenarios and characters in my mind, certainly help in allowing me to write the scenes.

Whereas writing poems is for me a very lonely and often agonizing process, writing scenes is fun, and fluid. And the processes are entirely different; in writing poems, I am experiencing a very explicit confrontation with myself, and exploring parts of me that aren’t necessarily accessible or pleasant. But the act of writing the scenes is really an act of transcription. The second I try to step in and tell the characters who they are, or what’s happening in their lives, the whole thing disappears, it just loses life. I need to be listening very closely, and trusting and loving the characters as they are revealed to me.

Who are some of your favorite poets and novelists?

I think the first books that always come to mind are God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez. I very often turn to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. And I love anything by Kafka, Julio Cortazar, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Suzan-Lori Parks, Nabokov, Orwell, Salinger, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Allende’s House of Spirits, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina… I’ll stop there, because this is a dangerously long game. In terms of poets, Forugh Farrokhzad and Alejandra Pizarnik and Octavio Paz and Lorca and Neruda have probably most explicitly affected my writing. And most recently, I have been exploring Li-Young Lee.

Much of your work involves/reflects/gives an image to power dynamics – interrogator and the tortured, for example, or a wife having second thoughts about going back inside an abusive household, tell me about this, do you see it as power dynamics? Tell me more about this?

I grew up in a home in which my parents were always openly discussing and analyzing and often criticizing the political and social hierarchies of the world. They had both participated in the Iranian revolution, and as a result of it, had to leave their country a few years after it took place. I had no siblings until I was already an adolescent, and I had no extended family nearby, and honestly, no friends or activities outside of school, so I grew up being always either alone, or surrounded by adults who were constantly engaging in very thoughtful and passionate conversations about the state of the world, and power and powerlessness, and racism, and poverty, and art, and so inevitably thinking in those terms became very natural for me. Basically the issue of humanity was always present, and I think that the role of the arts and literature, for my parents, was a celebration of humanity.

So I think these issues emerge organically in my writing because they’re reflective of how I perceive the world.

But also, at the time that I was composing Ode to Fragile I was particularly, almost obsessively, pre-occupied with human vulnerability, and the need for all humans, no matter how scarred, or broken, or numbed, to ultimately be loved.

At what age did you start writing? Why and how did you become a writer?

As far back as I can remember I’ve had journals and notebooks in which I would write “dear diary” type content, or I would draw things like Simpsons characters, or write poems. I remember for example writing a rhyming poem when I was very young, about two potatoes getting married and then drawing a picture of a potato bride and a potato groom holding hands.

Although what I was writing was really horrible, not just when I was young, but all up through college, the most consistent factor is that I was writing, and the genre that I turned to when I was most urgently in need of expressing myself was always poetry.

Tell me more about the movies connected to some of your writing.

In 2009 I directed three short films, one of which is completed, the second I hope to finish by March of this year, and the third should be done by the end of the year. Each film is based on a different scene from the second half of Ode to Fragile, and all three incorporate poems taken from the first section of the book that the viewer either hears or sees. Miriam’s Song, the first completed film, has screened at film festivals in the U.S. and internationally.

How do you hope your writing impacts the world?

Classical Iranian poetry, and really poetry in general, is so respected and so prevalent throughout Iranian culture and society. People memorize poetry, and turn to it for advice, for tools in interpreting their lives, or they buy poem-pieces on street corners along with packets of gum. Every Iranian new year on the Iranian networks people read poems, as a part of the act of marking and celebrating the new year. Can you imagine on NBC or Fox, someone, every year, as a custom, reading a poem after the ball drops in New York?

There is really a terrible aversion to poetry, in particular non-performative poetry, here in the U.S., and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t have a lot of exposure to it; they don’t have “practice” with engaging with that form of communication, and so it feels like work to have to go through it. It’s just not an integral part of American life.

So I really want to help bring poetry more into the foreground of popular culture, and I think in many ways the scenes and the films are steps toward that process. For example when A Time to Speak was performed in the U.K., there was also a poem that was involved in that piece, and when the films are screened at festivals, in theaters, and later when they are watched on computers, people will also be hearing and reading poems.

In a more personal sense, I want to be, as Arundhati Roy says, “hitting some deeply human chord”. I want, as simple as it sounds, to connect to other people. Deeply. And I want the reader/audience to be unsettled enough that something is revealed. But that act of revelation is only possible when I am honestly excavating and revealing myself in the process of producing my work.

Interview questions presented by Bahar Mirhosseini. Shabnam Piryaei’s book, Ode to Fragile, published in 2010 by Plain View Press, is available on Amazon and the Barnes and Nobles online store.

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