I still write because I’m sorry

An interview with Ali Abdolrezaei

Ali Abdolrezaei, Iran, poetry
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Ali Abdolrezaei was born on 10 April 1969 in Langerood, in Northern Iran. He graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Khajeh Nasir Toosi University of Technology (KNTU) in Tehran.

Abdolrezaei published his first book of poems Only iron men rust in the rain at the age of 19, which had an undeniable impact on the poetry circles with his speeches and media interviews. Abdolrezaei left Iran in September 2002, after his protest against the censorship of his last books published in Iran, So sermon of society and Shinema, which led to being banned from teaching and public speaking. He lives in London, and he is currently the chair of Exiled Writers Ink in the UK.

His 43 varied books of poetry include In riskdom where I lived, This dear cat, Paris in Renault, More obscene than literature, Hermaphrodite, You name this book, Terror, La Elaha Ella Love and Wisdom of Sin.

Abdolrezaei’s poems are translated into many languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Turkish, Portuguese, Urdu, Croatian, Armenian and Arabic.

Your poetry has challenged traditional Persian poetry. What in your view needs challenging in ‘traditional Persian poetic language’?

Persian poetry has a rich and long history, which has created a storehouse of poetic language with its expressions. A new poet standing before this lineage of poetry confronts something equivalent to the Oedipus complex, as if anything that could be written is already written. What I had to do was to sidestep the traditional, avoiding the archaic expressions and send what is centre stage in poetry to the margin and bring in a shift in the text in favour of the vernacular, the everyday language in a sublimated form.

As one of the poets who contributed to a shift in contemporary Persian poetry almost two decades after the revolution of 1979, can you comment on how this shift came about?

After the Islamic Revolution there was a tendency for poetry in Iran to go back to classical roots. As the regime had problems with modernism, it also had problems with modern Persian poetry, sponsoring more classical poetic forms like the older forms of ghazal and mathnavi, or first generation modern Persian poetry started by Nima Yushij. A decade or so after the revolution, this state-sponsored literature reached a saturation point.

I felt that this language of literature is not adequate to express my experiences of love or daily life in a modern society, our international isolation, etc. It was as if we lived in the basement of Marshall McLuhan’s global village, even though we lived in a post modern context . . . This led to a rebellion in the language of literature. Censorship also was cutting through new stuff. That led to a whole new style that acquired a misnomer of being post-modern.

The New Poetry movement seems to have grown out of a new body of ideas; what was your primary focus when you started experimenting with your poetic language in the 1990s?

This period coincided with the translation into Persian of the body of continental philosophers like Derrida, Barthes, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, or Russian formalists like Jacobson, and all this was new to me. This conflicted and affected my outlook on poetry and so language itself became an object as opposed to a means of expression. There was only poetry about a subject matter. Now a new object was introduced alongside the subject, language itself . . .

What are the basic characteristics of modern Persian poetry?

Nima Yushij and Ahmad Shamloo were our modern poets. After them we have the new modern poetry where language acts as the director, where imagination, thought and motif are all resolved in the language. So language is not just a vehicle, a transparent means of delivering the subject matter. The other characteristic was that traditionally the form was prescribed, but in modern poetry, form is a characteristic of the poem. A second poem following the same form is considered an imitation. In the new approach, the structure is decentred, there is no dictatorship of a single subject. They are polymorphic, polycentric, polyphonic, etc.

Relinquishing the idea of grand narratives, that the aim of poetry should be to express high emotion and to portray forces of nature or history, you write about more immediate themes, in a more colloquial language firmly grounded in reality. Say something about this.

I take the form, the language and the structure of my poems from inside life. With a little intervention they can make new realities. For instance, I take everyday language, polish it, puff at it and return it back to people. My poetry is a cinema of the page. A good reader should be able to see reflection of their own life in my poems. Be able to dream their life into the page they read.

Depending on the theme and the atmosphere of the poem you change your language, so it carries a your signature. What is your view about individuality in poetic expression?

Poetic expression defines the poet’s identity. An original poet has a distinct form of expression. A poet who writes like others is no better than mediocre. No two outstanding pieces of literary text are exactly the same. Poetic expression follows the footsteps of the poetic thought. No single expression is adequate to two different thoughts, however similar the two might be. A poem is born like an individual.

Two types of people could be poets. One type lives differently, the other thinks differently, even if they live like others. Of course you can have both of these in the same poet (Rimbaud?). This uniqueness in thought or existence inevitably translates into the individuality of their poetic expression.

Your work consists in different forms and subjects. What do you think about the form and the subject matter in your poems. Should all poems, in your view, deal with a subject matter or be about something in your view?

This depends on the type of poem. Some poems are avant-garde pieces of interest to other poets, where the writing is the subject. The conditions and the atmosphere are the motivating force of the piece. For me to write, I first need to discover something. This can be the discovery of a form. Or it can be the discovery of a subject, a motif, which then brings about its own form and language, adequate to its description or expression.

Do changes in the literary form and subject matter become a way of helping political and social changes?

Poetry in Iranian culture is the first art form, and people regard a poet as a prophet. A successful new poem, in form or content, will start its impact on those at the tip of the cultural pyramid and gradually seeps down to the rest. Of course it takes time – but gradually people take on the messages inherent in the new form or content and bring it to life – nothing immediate.

How did you mould your language into new forms to communicate new experiences?

I don't mould language into new forms. Language should be free to choose its form. The new experience finds its language so it chooses or finds its form, and as the form takes the right shape it will find its audience. In my poems, I usually approach the language as a function of the history and the character of the theme at play.

Tell me about your views on the problematic nature of language . . .

There is always a gap between the heart and the hand, what your heart wants to say and what language as a human product can offer. So when someone is being flogged, there are no terms for the expression of the pain. We don't have words for all the feelings or expressions. So one has to play with language and emotions, which can then be interpreted by a reader.

How did you avoid confining yourself and your creativity within the straitjacket of Persian orthodox tradition?

As we confront new phenomena in the world, it is inevitable to create new poetic structures adequate to the new subjects. I try and breathe life into the new, to create enough attraction for the readers to displace the old. As I said above, it is about helping the margin and the centre swap places.

How does your sense of identity interweave with your innovative forms and language and keep on changing?

Behind each of my poems I am one of a number of Ali Abdolrezaeis, depending on the mood or state of mind I am in at the time of writing. This persona brings language and form that is adequate to or is expressive of me at the time

I notice you don’t use traditional forms and rhyme, why?

We have traditional forms like ghazal, which I love as a classic form of Persian poetry. And I still use this form when I write to a woman I fancy. But I don’t consider this a true poem. I believe true poetry is written in absolute freedom. When you follow a pre-established form then you are following rules dictated by the form. In poetry now, each poem comes with its own specific structure. 

I always use my knowledge of classical forms. But my best work happens when I betray them.

How do you work on the sound-patterns of the words in your poetry?

As I mentioned, I am well versed in traditional patterns and forms of rhythm and rhyme in classical Persian poetry, but instead of following these patterns I find it more expressive to use forms of alliteration and internal rhyme. And I often use tone rather than rhythm.

What do you think of the stability of the identity of the writer and the relationship between writer and critic in your poems?

I strongly believe in the exercise of democracy in the text, and I dispose of the dictatorship of the all-knowing narrator. This is perhaps because of my reaction to dictatorship in politics. In my polymorphic poems I usually oppose the rule of the all-knowing narrator with critical voices and in this dialectic the reader will have to participate to complete the poem. On the other hand, I put the critic in an important position as the main reader, the one which the poem addresses itself as primary. I also think that the most successful poets are their own most ardent critics.

Do you believe that a good poem must have a clear-cut meaning, and if not, why not?

I disagree. Poems with clear-cut meaning take away the freedom of the reader. Because of this, alongside every primary motif in the poem, I introduce some secondary motifs, so the reader has a freedom to take away different meanings. I don't like a poem where all critics get the same view of its meaning.

In your poetry there is a tendency to use personal references, and you play with the multiplicity of meanings, can you comment on this?

I strongly believe that if a poet can enter his life into his poetry and express it artistically he will have expressed something about everyone's life, because modern lives share a lot of similarities. I also believe in focusing on detail, and don't follow the tradition of writing grand narratives.

Do you think that there has to be a difference between everyday language and the language of poetry? If yes, why?

This depends on the time and place or atmosphere the poem comes from or goes to. If it is a poem about historical times, one should use archaic language. But in most of my poems, I use the language of the day. Though, this is not the same as everyday language, which is something I take, polish and then give it back.

Some of your well-known poems truly break grammatical rules. Under what conditions could poetic license include breaking grammar?

In Persian, the word for grammar is the order of language. And because I have always distanced myself from order, I look to beauty when I rebel against grammar, and this is like walking a tightrope. You might fall anytime. But I only take this risk, when beauty comes out of it.

Persian readers recognise you as a poet of language. Language is a means to what end for you?

In my poetry, language is everything and it is the only thing that I have, it was always my second mother. I know poetry is so much about perfect verbs and hunting for elusive nouns. I know a poet's job is to shape the world as a word, to name the unnamable and stop the words which are going to be forgotten, but I prefer to forget these all.

The majority of poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of sex. Although a poem starts itself in pleasure and ends in wisdom, poetry is the art of uniting sex with words. You know poetry is the art of breathing shadows. Each word has a shadow that walks between the lines on the page. English is not my main language, so the shadows are so far from my fingers when I write in English. There is as much difference between my poetry in Persian and English, as between the smell of a flower and of a perfumer's shop. I believe the worst fate of a poet is to be in exile, where he has to write in a foreign language.

You are now the Chair of Exiled Writers Ink in London. What does this organization get up to?

Every year a lot of writers come to the UK either as immigrants or as exiles.  Because of their lack of familiarity with the new culture and language, EWI provides a platform for them to go about their career as writers in the new country. For instance they organise monthly poetry performance events at the Poetry Café and help exiled writers reach a new audience. When I came to the UK, they very much helped me relaunch my work in London. They have  also organised translation projects and published chapbooks and a poetry journal, Exiled Ink engaging various sponsoring bodies such as the Arts Council or collaborate with the English PEN. I owe them a lot so I am giving back by collaborating in their work for new comers.

You have a collection of poems named In riskdom where I lived; tell us about the title, especially the word ‘riskdom’. What is the poetry of risk?

The poem happens in the risks it takes, and without risk no poetry is written that can be called fresh. The title in the original uses the adjective meaning dangerous, as the name of a place.

In the naming of this book, risk in riskdom is like the king in kingdom - in this case, of poetry.

You mentioned that the poet in Iran is considered as a prophet. What do you think about this interpretation of the poet in culture?

I don’t agree with this cultural interpretation. During the act of a creative mind, the words are re-born in poetry. That’s why I believe there is no similarity between a poet and a prophet. I think Ishmael couldn’t be Abraham’s son; he was a poem that Abraham had never written. The difference between a poet and a prophet is being ready to kill himself not his son.

What are your expectations of your readers? Do you write your poetry only for the sophisticated reader? Or do you omit the obvious for the reader to contribute?

Carl Sandburg wrote that poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance. But I don’t know what poetry is, I only know what it’s going to be or how my creative reader can rewrite it. I only encourage my words to dance and play the wrong role. My readers can’t find poetry in my texts unless they bring some new ideas with them. Each poem carries within it the soul of another poet who’ll write; It only can help him or her to write again. It’s not easy to tell a real poet from the poem. A real poet never listens and he says nothing through creating silences around words. Poetry always rebels against what it was before. I think poets are word architects, but when all is said and done a poet is not much more than an archivist.

When do you feel the urge to write? Do you believe in poetic inspiration?

I don't believe in inspiration to write a poem. Instead I believe that for writing one needs creative energy. When this energy is sedimented the writer starts to write. In other words the writer should be in the mood to write.

Do you think of poetry as giving birth? Or do you feel as though a poem you’ve written is a piece of your flesh?

My best poem is my life, which is burning me, and my poems are its ash. I think the best poem is never started and it’s never finished either, because when its poet was writing it, he or she had rubbed out the other poems by others.

At the end of the day Ali, why do you write?

I’ve learnt from W.B.Yeats that out of the quarrel with others we make polemic; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry that is a mirror, which makes beautiful that which is distorted. I write too much, because I need to turn on some lamps in the darkness of my mind. I still write, because I’m sorry.

© Abol Froushan & Arjun Bandyopadhyay  
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