Books In Conversation
Who's Your Daddy?
SORAYA SHALFOROOSH with Michael Montlack
Soraya Shalforoosh and I were introduced to one another at a party via our deceased fathers. It was the Annual Four Way Books Holiday Party in December 2014 at Martha Rhodes' beautiful Tribecca loft, which was brimming with a varied cast of poets and writers, who had been asked to bring a poem to share that evening. Every hour Martha invited a few of us to read and then it was back to cocktails, Hors d'oeuvres and conversation. When it was my turn, I shared “Questions My Father Asked Watching This Old House,” a poem about bonding with my father after I had come out to him in the ’90s. Little did I know this poem was about to lead to more bonding. With a Persian-Polish-Hungarian-American Jersey Girl I would quickly come to consider a poetry pal and true friend.
This Version of Earth
(Barrow Street Press, 2014)
Soraya read next, a poem about her father. And after that hour’s set of readers had ended, she approached me with her Cheshire cat smile to say she had planned on reading another poem but just HAD to read one about her own father (“Measuring with Dad”) after hearing mine. I blushed. Then we were off ... comparing dads, both earthy, hardworking guys: hers sold and measured carpeting while mine fixed cars. There was even a mechanic in her poem named Lefty! But the coincidences were only beginning. We discussed how we knew Martha, which led to our realizing all the poetry friends and mentors we shared. And then, What? No way! We were both graduates of New School's MFA program too. Seems we had missed each other by just a few years there, but luckily we had found each other now, finally. Instant rapport. Her poetry felt so familiar, like her: welcoming and dreamy, sassy, but deep. I told her I was excited to read the rest of her new book, This Version of Earth, which had been released recently from Barrow Street Press.
She insisted on mailing me one, which she did. And I read it immediately, both charmed and impressed by its range of styles (haiku to songs, narratives to a Yoko Ono acrostic?) and themes (punk rocker to corporate American, Mercury retrograde to losing parents). I was most interested in the poems dealing with her being a child of an Iranian American father during the Hostage Crisis and how that discrimination echoed decades later after 9/11. Being the same age as Soraya, I can remember the “FUCK IRAN” T-shirts people wore as casually as they donned “DISCO SUCKS” pins. I asked her to visit my Poetry class at Berkeley, a business college in Midtown. No, the students weren’t poetry majors, and yes, some just needed an elective that fit their schedules, but I knew they would love her. Instantly. And they did. Maybe it’s because, as Kathleen Ossip writes, “This Version of Earth begins with the voice of the hippest, wisest teenager you can imagine, stuck in New Jersey but heading for Manhattan every chance she gets.”
Michael Montlack (Rail): Let's start with the first poem in your book, “Suburban Diner,” about a teenage speaker (or Soraya?) and her friends having omelets and milkshakes “after discothequing since midnight.” The drunken teen sneaks into her home the next morning through a door where “an Islamic prayer in black Farsi script wards off evil ghosts from entering.” In a way, I, as reader, was entering the house too, and the dual worlds of an American girl with an Iranian father, both facing very real ghosts during and after the Hostage Crisis. This poem was like a welcome mat and a warning sign. Was this your intention? When putting the manuscript together, how did you see this poem in the scheme of the book and its themes?
Soraya Shalforoosh: Funny, ordering was one of the most difficult parts of the manuscript for me. After many attempts, it became obvious that the logical choice was starting at the entranceway. The book has a lot of themes and this poem is a snapshot of them.
“Suburban Diner” is an older poem of mine, so it was nice to have that “younger poet” upfront. The poem also greets the reader with the two worlds of being American and having a father from Iran. Interesting that you say ghosts as the book is very much about death (and life). The entrance way is in a physical home where I was raised in northern New Jersey. This is a “safe, clean” place but also a complicated world.
I’m also in the entranceway of becoming an adult. Though out partying, drinking, I’m very much clinging to my innocence.
I liked starting with this poem as it introduced the many contradictory worlds a person can feel and foreshadows later poems, and of course touches on my heritage.
The book, though very urban, also starts and finishes in the suburbs—New Jersey.
Rail: Do you think your heritage was a factor in your becoming a poet?
Shalforoosh: Yes, heritage was very much on my mind. I can tell you firsthand I have been pissed off many times in my life about stereotypes and misperceptions of what a person from Persian heritage is like. I also knew that people I love, respect, and admire can say really dumb things about people who are of Middle-Eastern origin. I realize I too can be stupid and misinformed. And that’s why I try to use dark humor to convey some simple messages. I think when we laugh—a shared laugh, we build a bridge. I am not about building fences or walls. I’d prefer to be inviting. But I can’t also erase the part of me that was quite traumatized as a kid seeing my dad assaulted for being Iranian. My father was a big guy, larger in life in personality—he came home broken. I can’t erase that hurt, or ever understand how someone could commit a hate crime, but I can speak about it in a way that's engaging and enlightening (I hope). I also wanted the book to have positive perceptions of Persians—yes, hope that is a take away.
Rail: Did you set out to write poems about your heritage or did it just happen on its own for this project? Were you writing with a book in mind or did that emerge after you had written a good number of these poems?
Shalforoosh: I have a specific project in mind while writing my next manuscript and it is very different than writing and then gathering all the poems and making a sequence. When I graduated with my MFA, I knew my senior thesis was not ready and needed more depth. I had no time frame in mind. I kept writing whatever I felt like writing or personally needed to write. Then life kept happening, and writing is therapy. When my mom died unexpectedly, I was pregnant—in my first trimester. My mother was my best friend, so it was natural that I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I remember sitting in parks wiping the tears away and writing kept my mother alive to me. It was connection. Being pregnant, there were no bad habits to turn to for solace. I had to write, there was no way of numbing the pain. So that darkness completely changed the direction of my book. I was emotionally devastated on one hand and on the other hand life was happening literally inside me. The continuation of family was in me. That’s where so much of the rebirth in the poems comes from. Literally, as my mother died, a new life was emerging. My mother was a lapsed Catholic turned Unitarian/neo pagan. It was quite easy to adapt elements of my Persian heritage and Zoroastrianism when speaking about her. The eternal return, the repeating of cycles.
Then just a few years after she died, my father died. And that feeling of being parentless and having my young son to raise changed my work again. I wrote not just poems about death, but about all the vulnerability was just spilling out of me, and my childhood became more vivid. I would sit at my desk at work and feel the waves of the various vacations I took with family over the years underneath me. Mom and I went to the Cape a lot as adults too. I have to say, as you may also feel, that one never feels so adult as when both parents die. I remember telling my therapist, it felt like the playwright died and I’m on stage improvising my lines. Holy shit, I’m here without parents. It’s lonely. So many times in the beginning, I’d want to call one to tell them news about my husband or son. Nope—not there. But the page is. For me the book is a tribute to my family and is family. A very emotionally honest tribute. But that became apparent after I wrote the death poems. In fact, my manuscript was already accepted by Barrow Street when I wrote and published several of those. I was supposed to be finished, (oops) and I just oozed out a lot of poems in the final stretch and inserted them into the final manuscript. So the book is messy. I took away section breaks intentionally. I wanted the reader to feel the upheaval I felt. I hope people feel they don’t know what emotion will happen next. That’s how I felt for so many years.
Rail: You mention a “specific project in mind” for your next manuscript. Can you talk about it some? How did you come to the material and how does your writing process differ for this book?
Shalforoosh: Yes, so, I always seem to have many pots boiling at once. I’m trying to focus my attention on the second poetry book which is based on the lives of my husband and his family and their story. My husband is Kabyle from North Africa. I knew little about the Berbers or Amazighs (free people) before I became involved with Yanni, but their story is fascinating. Algeria, as we know, was colonized by the French and there was a very bloody revolution that expelled the French. However, the Berbers are not Arabs, and have their own identity, language, and beliefs. The Berbers and Arabs have not always had an easy coexistence. My husband tells stories of his family not being allowed to speak their language in public for instance. They are independent people who are so powerful, and I admire how they keep their unique culture and identity. This book will use poetry to tell stories of my mother-in-law hiding jewelry from the French soldiers who came looking for gold and jewels, how women scarred their faces with charcoal so they would not get raped. My father-in-law was captured by the French as a prisoner. He was due to be executed and at the last minute his Jewish friend saved his life. The very real stories of my in-laws obviously capture my imagination; yet they remain untold. I am using their tales, and I also do some research when I visit Algeria. There is lots of interviewing; use of found texts, photos, tales, images, folklore, and music; and translation. My in-laws know this is my project and are easy to talk to about it. Their stories of survival and selflessness are so incredible, they need to be told.
Rail: Sounds like a fascinating and unique project. Are you using persona at all in this manuscript? Or poetic forms? The subject certainly strays from your first book. Do you feel the manuscript is stylistically different from This Version of Earth,too?
Shalforoosh: Thank you! I hope people find it fascinating. For me it is an underrepresented story.
Yes. I will be using Persona poems. Cleared it with my in-laws, so I can “speak” on their behalf. I will be using other forms too, such as found poems. I hope to make this book more experimental by using historical information, interviews, newspaper details, and many languages, maybe some art work; it is going to all center around this experience of being Kabyle. After such a personal first book, it’s refreshing and rewarding to step into someone else’s story. The poems I have written make me more amazed at the bravery of my mother-in-law and father-in-law. Though one thread both books will have in common is bravery: people who have faced social upheaval and discrimination and yet never lose their sense of humanity.
The ramifications of the French colonization of Algeria still shows its ugly scars today. Most people don’t know that the Amazigh were there prior to the Arabization and have their own language, religions and identity too. There are protests for Kabyle and other Berber rights today.
Rail: Which poets (classic and contemporary) most influence you and how? And are you familiar or getting familiar with any Kabyle poets?
Shalforoosh: Influence is a funny thing. I’d say I try not to limit myself to any genre or style. I read all kinds of poetry, and also music influences me. I think the way I read my poems reflects that I am a music head (my subject matter does too). I was very lucky to have tremendous mentors and teachers. When I first moved to New York, I took a workshop with Martha Rhodes. She is a phenomenal instructor and poet. I learned so much from being in her workshop for years. For a while I was the Assistant Director of her reading series and helped out with Four Way Books in the beginning. This was an amazing influence. I heard reader after reader, poets I knew well, people I did not know. It was an education. I’d buy books, go to the poetry dinners after. I met these incredible writers and at that point I never formally studied poetry outside Martha’s home. As an undergraduate I was a Philosophy major. I did not take creative writing as an undergrad. Working for Four Way, at the CCS Reading Series and in Martha’s workshop helped me get into the MFA program at the New School. Again, I was so fortunate to study with the best: Susan Wheeler, David Trinidad, David Lehman, Robert Polito. These were my first real poetry workshops at a college. I fell in love with all my classmates, professors, the assignments. It was magic. We had such a wonderful class. It was the inaugural class of the New School Writing Program. During the day, I worked at the Jazz Office at the New School as Office Manager. It was the best combination of worlds. Music and poetry, poetry and music. The jazz professors and students were a source of inspiration; sometimes they would have me come jam and read with them at shows. I will never regret those tired hours of leaving Nightingale’s at 2 am improvising with world/jazz musicians and having to go to work and school the next day. I was truly exhausted, but I was so creative.
Right now, I am making an effort to get to now Kabyle poets. Every summer we go to Algeria and I hit all the bookstores looking for poetry books. There are few translated into English. Most are translated into French. I buy every thing I can get my hands on, old and new.
Rail: How would you describe your experience of having a first book come out? Any happy surprises? Disappointments? Things you would have done differently? Or advice for poets with first books coming out?
Shalforoosh: Interesting questions! So, I may or may not be different than some other first book poets. I was forty-five when the book was published, I work full time in a completely different industry and am a mom of a seven-year old (who is very busy). It’s a lot of juggling. The addition of the book coming out sort of changed the balance to my being in front. I was very nervous about it coming out, what would my co-workers think? My family? I wished my parents were alive—I really wished they knew. I was stressed out. Don’t get me wrong, I was also thrilled and beaming with joy. It was a million feelings at once. My son actually does acting, and the day before the book party, I was on set with him, for an episode of the Jack & Triumph show being filmed in a Firehouse upstate. It was relaxing to be in a different world. Then I got a call on my cell from Peter Covino saying that the book sold out the first copies sent to Amazon. It was thrilling! My book was on back order and it hadn’t been released. I didn’t know how to respond. That was a surprise.
One thing I learned after that is that book sales go up and down. Down and up. I still can’t predict if a reading will be well attended or not. What I wish I did was more work on the publicity. For some reason, and I don’t know if other poets are like this, but helping other people with anything is so much easier than helping one’s self. I find the “PoBiz,” to borrow a friend’s term, challenging. What I recommend, if you are like me, is to find someone to help with sending out books and with publicity. Or maybe form a group with other poets to keep on track. My good friend Jeffrey Conway was coming out with a poetry book at the same time. I was lucky to have him to talk to. I know I am lucky to have had wonderful mentors and peers around me, so lucky to have Barrow Street and its amazing staff.
Going back to my mother, the death of both my parents is a big theme in the book. After publication, I was in contact with the minister at the Unitarian Church in California where mom was a member. I sent them a copy and they had a service for her (and another member). Some church members read my poems in her memory. After that service, a few contacted me, saying they felt her spirit that day. I was so moved that they reached out to tell me their experience. I feel most proud how my parents are now immortal in a way.