“Both a Poem and a Microcosm:” An Interview with Roja Chamankar

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Roja Chamankar’s Dying in a Mother Tongue is a poetry collection on the brink of loss, violence, coming into language, adulthood, and emigration. First written in 2009 (in Persian), when Chamankar was about to leave Tehran for France, Dying in a Mother Tongue is first a diegesis of a relationship’s destruction. The poem moves from detailing the pains of intimacy — on the macabre side: the feeling of a sea creature “tenderized” by the sun, self-flagellation, scratching and gouging — to an escalation towards violence represented by the collection’s second theme: borders, infrastructure, and sovereignty. The poem “STAND CLEAR” exemplifies this elision between intimacy and geopolitics.

I can’t connect

to this stretched-out space

the screaming skulls

the strange, compact shapes.

The shape of looking into someone else’s eyes

of touching someone else’s hand,

a hand that rejects while saving you

a hand that saves while rejecting you.

Such is love”

like a gash

its mouths open up

and its two heads never meet

Stand clear of the closing doors.

(14-15, “STAND CLEAR”)

This short section of one poem moves rapidly from a) a feeling of disconnection to b) the extreme experience of another’s ambivalence to c) an unmanageable wound, to d) the ironized intrusion of New York’s MTA announcer, “Stand clear of the closing doors.” An emotional door has indeed closed for the speaker so the transition is sensible, but at the same time the sudden shift in locale and perhaps even language signals an incredible, almost dissociative emotional leap. This speed of feeling as poetic gesture occurs over and over again in Dying in a Mother Tongue, and even seems to increase in frequency as the relationship described travels through the stages of dissolution. The political turns also become more frequent. The speaker’s feeling after the relationship’s immediate destruction is described as ecological disaster, pollution, and war:

I am pregnant with curses

pollution and pain.

Pull me in

pour into my gulf!

Drag me out of my body’s eternal shaking

Haliptus!

Hidden from the sea weed, your sin

trickles onto my skin.

growing

infecting my blood

 

My blood runs to the earth

while my heart goes to the water

….

Slime women to the mouths of fish

grass-green fish

inhaling at the corners of this blast.

Sea weed is born

for tiny chunks of life

for new forms of war

war

war

until whatever victory

(28-30, “THE SEAWEED’S MAGIC”)

The melancholia of mourning — the loss of a living person whose habits and thoughts and personality nonetheless exist with aliveness inside the person who is experiencing the loss — is described as a problem of porous borders.

He just sat inside of me

searching me

searching my world

searching inside of me for the world

He plucked a word from deep within my folds

and placed it on his temple

his brain decaying.

His sprinkled words

from his mouth onto my life.

The flimsy borders inside of me collapsed

my flimsy borders collapsed

I, a flimsy border, collapsed.

(44, “COPY”)

Then, in the concluding sections of the collection, when the speaker moves (haphazardly) through Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief — bargaining, and anger and resolution distance — the metaphor becomes infrastructural, “I’ll be a coastal road/and you be the sea.” Finally, the last stanza of the collection brews with simmering political tension, though it’s hopeful about the capacity for change:

This time

put a mole under my lip

so that the earth doesn’t recognize me.

It was a mistake:

I was about to remove my foot from your shoe

but I stepped on a landmine.

Between all of these wishes and this middle east

a flag trembles on a tail

and with each bark

we slip greedily into the skin of a cat

the end.

(60, “I MAKE WISHES”)

Politics and intimacy are united in Dying in a Mother Tongue by the speaker’s abjection from both. She is abjected from both political reality and emotional reality.

The term abjection, as far as I know, first came into common usage through the work of Julia Kristeva, who is trained as a psychoanalyst and a close reader of both Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan. The concept of abjection, which Kristeva derives from her work with object relations theory is closest etymologically and conceptually to the analytic concepts of projection and introjection, the first discussion of which can be found in Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism.” If projection is the thrown shadow of an internal object on an external thing (a person, perhaps a pet, perhaps a fetish object), and introjection is the internalized idea/feeling/concept/object of an external thing, abjection is that which has been cast out from the self which the self is nonetheless in part or in whole dependent on. Examples of abjection include vomit, menstrual blood, corpses, terminal wounds, Karposi’s sarcomas, or affects, as Kristeva wrote, such as ,”an error that disassembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells your debt, a friend that stabs you.”(4, Powers of Horror)

The speaker of Dying in a Mother Tongue is abject geopolitically because she is intruded by places she’s not in, polluted and threatened by environments that are out of her control, and dependent on locales distant in time or in space. She is likewise abjected emotionally from the relationship which girds the entire collection. Most of the poems in Dying in a Mother Tongue are poems between an “I” and a “You.” but the speaker is not lovelorn, and these poems are not monologues. The “You” of Dying in a Mother Tongue is an occupier, an unforgiving hand, a force majeure, a criminal, a callous gregarious fiend — never a muse, but an active force of destruction, manipulation and violence. Nor is the speaker a victim to the environment or to “You”. She is resigned, resolute, and ever the active agent — “I was about to remove my foot from your shoe/but I stepped on a landmine.” She leaves, and intrusion, destruction, and havoc, are what leaving has left her.

Dying in a Mother Tongue is a collection which looks at loss of place and loss of relating squarely, with clear-sights on how a self may be defined by a loss horrific and haunting. In Powers of Horror Kristeva develops abjection from an analytic concept to a literary and philosophical one, points out its commonness — in Dostoevsky’s Verkhovensky, Proust’s homosexuality, Joyce’s Molly, Freud’s Little Hans, but also Nazism, petty affects, taboo objects, incest, and the narratives of family life. She also, I think, suggests an analytic cure for the powers of such horror, which she calls true Aristotelian catharsis:

“Getting rid of it is out of the question — the final Platonic lesson has been understood, one does not get rid of the impure; one can, however, bring it into being a second time, and differently from the original impurity. It is a repetition through rhythm and song…” (28, Powers of Horror)

There is a call in the culture of poetry at this contemporary moment for poetry that identifies the margin, names the margin, and works through our cultural ambivalence to margins. Dying in a Mother Tongue points at one way to do this — not by the all too common trope of boundless suffering but rather its obverse — a self which sees the limits of its suffering, the borders, political and emotional which mark it, and turns towards it.

Over email, I asked Roja some questions about her creative process.

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Leah Xue: Could you tell me a bit about your current location — where you are roughly, what you’re seeing, reading, eating, smoking, drinking, etc?

Roja Chamankar: I’m currently living in Austin, Texas (USA) and sometimes in Strasbourg (France); still other pieces of my soul are living in my hometown Borazjan in southern Iran, in Tehran and in Paris, and even in cities that I have not yet had a chance to visit in person: New York and Prague and Berlin- wherever words and books take me with themselves.

I love to travel; I have traveled to many cities and countries and currently I’m writing a collection of short stories about the places I have lived in or traveled to, and about the people that I have met during these trips and these times.

Also, I am preparing a collection of my new poems in Persian.

Besides that, I have been collaborating with my father on a series of short stories for children. So far, we have published three books from this collection, and we are working on the fourth one.

Writing aside, I have a plan to make a documentary about the personal library of a deceased Iranian historian in Austin. He was a professor at the University of Tehran and later the University of Texas at Austin. I have been cataloging his huge personal library in the past year. To make this film, I’m reading books on Iranian history during the Qajar period. At the same time, I’m reading Identity, a novel by Milan Kundera that I’ve already read in Persian, but this time I’m reading it in English. So, both times in translation!

I watch movies a lot from all over the world, read the news first thing every morning, do not smoke, and eat and drink everything.

LX: Could you tell me a bit about the translation process? Did you work back and forth with the translator, or did he mostly recreate your poems alone? Do you have any thoughts on the experience of re-reading your own poem translated by another person in a language that is not your mother tongue (in a way interfaced, then, by several translations?)

RC: We [Roja and the translator Blake Atwood] talked a lot about the poems, even before the translation of poems began. He knows my world and he has worked hard to get close to the soul of the poems. Furthermore, he knows Persian poetry very well, especially the form and content of contemporary poems. This has made the process of discussions about poems enjoyable and easy. In my opinion, without a wide knowledge about the poet’s world and the world in which the poems were created, re-creating those poems in another language and in another world will be difficult. I have always opted for discussing and having conversations with my translators during the process of translation. That is what happened with Farideh Rava, Babak Tabarraee, and Emily Beyda, for example, and this time with Blake Atwood. Dying in a Mother Tongue is the first complete Persian book of my poems translated into English. What makes the translation of this collection exceptionally beautiful to me is the re-creation of poems in English; by finding suitable equivalents in English, Blake has made the poems meaningful and pleasing in this new world. And this is my ideal in the translation of poems.

Knowing the world of poetry in the source language while living in the target language can sometimes lead to the simultaneously difficult and sweet practice of re-creation. That is why I consider good translators true literary creators. Translated poems have passed through the filter of the mind and the world of the translator; so, they are at the same time far and close to the original poems. It is a very delightful and exciting feeling to hear my translated poems in another language; they are both familiar and foreign. And that happens a lot during my poetry readings, as I prefer to read my poems in Persian in order to convey the musicality of the language–in the same way that I prefer a native speaker of the target language read the translated poems in order to convey the correct rhythm of the poems. That being said, I am aware of the difficulties of this process of translation/re-creation. I do like this challenge, though, and I have tried to achieve that in my translations of Henri Meschonnic and Alain Lance from French into Persian.

LX: Could you name some books that are important for understanding the genealogy of your work? They don’t necessarily have to be poetry books, but books that were important to you in thinking through this work. I am prompted towards this question by what I notice as elements of I guess, maybe you’d call it “Sadism and Masochism” in the dialectic between I and “Thou” in this work. Is it De Sade you’re thinking of? Pauline Reage? The Golden Ass? I am just listing books that come to mind for me, but please fill me in on yours!

RC: I started writing poems at a very young age. Of course, in the various periods of my life, the impact of the writers whose works I’d read is evident in my poems. During my teens, Iranian poets such as Forough Farrokhzad, Ahmad Shamloo and Iranian fiction writers such as Bozorg Alavi, Ali-Ashraf Darvishian, and Sadegh Hedayat influenced me. Later, I was inspired by the poets of French surrealism like Breton, and later some other poets like Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and Federico García Lorca, to name a few. Novelists such as William Faulkner and Romain Rolland were also influential in shaping my worldview.

In addition, cinema has influenced my poetry as much as literature; I can name many filmmakers and many movies. About Marquis De Sade and Pauline Reage, I cannot find anything of them in my poems, but it’s so interesting for me if you see a connection here. Because, in my opinion, the audience’s process of reading and interpreting poems is also a creative one. Reading an American or Mexican poem in translation, for example, I personally experience several layers of engagement. The first layer is just the understanding and analysis of the text of the re-created poem. Now, if I get to know more about the life and the world of the poet, I step into a second layer, which can both extend my reading beyond a merely textual level and limit it by that knowledge. The next step is trying to know more about the literary, political, cultural and social contexts of the society in which the poem is produced. And for this reason, a poem is both a poem and a microcosm of a bigger world. The ideal kind of reading for me is one where the reader engages in an active process during which she also brings her own textual, biographical, cultural and political world into the world of the poem and the poet. To me, this confrontation between the two worlds can be the culmination of literature and the ideal of art.

 

LX: Will you comment on the films that have influenced your poetry? And how your film making and your poetry writing intersect? After reading your earlier replies I found and watched The House is Black [a film by Forough Farrokhzad] in a grainy vimeo upload. You write that Forough Farrokhzad is a big influence for you poetically. How do you think her films influence your work? This is a film that absolutely refuses to look away from the body, and which I think espouses a philosophy of looking towards ugliness and pain in order to transform it. Is that something you might identify with or could expound upon?

RC: Many films and filmmakers have had an impact on me in different periods of my life. If I want to name them all, the list will include half of the global film history! I studied film at the university of Art in Tehran, and later at the University of Strasbourg. The Poetic realism of the French films of the 1930s was an early discovery. It was a magnificent period when the poets and writers were directly and indirectly involved in writing screenplays and making films. Marcel Carne’s films, such as Le Quai des brumes and Le jour se lève, were specifically influential. From the classical Hollywood style, and films like Casablanca, I learned how to employ the cinematic concept of mise-en-scene in poems; just as Godard’s jump cuts were an inspiration for moving between spaces in poetry. Then, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films taught me how to create a poetic ambience with images. The editing style in Jim Jarmusch’s films inspired the structure of some poems and the use of symbols and metaphors in Alejandro Jodorowski’s films helped me achieve a kind of visual brevity.

I think there are no boundaries between arts today. Or between arts and literature. Using cinematic capacities can add another dimension to poetry, and using the magic of poetry in cinema can enrich films. The marriage of words and images can certainly give birth to untapped worlds.

The House Is Black is a humanistic and poetic documentary. It has had many cultural, political and social interpretations. Many consider it a symbolic or metaphorical film. We hear Forough’s own voice reading her poems on the images that sometimes are hard to watch. Images of people suffering from leprosy and isolated from the rest of the world. To me, this film is all about hope, though. Hope for life and living even in the most difficult situations. It is the reality of life–at least partially. Forough’s artistry is the standpoint from which she looks at life and death and beauty and love, just as in her poems. As a woman, when I began to write poems, Forough’s perspective on poetry and cinema influenced me. But, living life in my way and discovering many objective and subjective worlds, I think I have long passed that period.

As for the motifs of body and sexuality, I do not necessarily think about them while writing. They are part of me, just like my age and nationality and gender and other constituents of my identity. They are part of me, and so they are part of the body of my poems. I just try to not censor myself in any way. The moment of writing a poem is an intuitive moment for me. But it is definitely a moment where all my personal and social experiences, including what I have read and watched, come together. The intuitive process does not mean sitting and waiting for a poem or an inspiration. It requires preparation and practice in advance, and lots of edits and rewrites afterwards. It requires a trained mind to be able to turn whatever happens in the daily life into a poem. The essence of my poems, however, I think is “love.” I do believe that love can be the only savior. It is simultaneously both the most enjoyable and the most painful part of life.

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Roja Chamankar’s book of poetry, Dying in a Mother Tongue, translated to English by Blake Atwood, is available for purchase here. 

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