June 2009 only one thing was on my mind: graduating. In the final weeks of my MFA program, I frantically worked through the last bits of requirements, practicing my 15 minutes of poetry in the mirror, thumbing through the notes and handouts of my senior lecture trying to smoothly verbalize theories I was worried I didn’t completely grasp. This left no time for the outside world. At the exact same time citizens of Iran were gathering in the streets to protest against a corrupt election and tyranical government, Twitter was a flitter, and the entire world witnessed a young woman’s murder captured by the camera of a phone. Did I take much notice? Not really. There was no time.
I remember classmates talking about Neda. I remember people in the commons area saying, “Can you believe what’s happening in Iran?” but I shrugged it off and kept my focus on the hoops in front of me. Then Michael Jackson died, and it was like the whole world stopped. It started with a text. Someone announced, “Michael Jackson is dead,” and suddenly the students around me flipped open cell phones and laptops. Perez Hilton (I went to Perez and got mocked), TMZ, New York Times, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, where flashing before screens as we waited for updates, texted, and Facebooked. Neda was Dead. Iran was imploding on the other side of the world, but here in my world Michael was dead.
A year later, the year anniversary of my MFA, the Green protests, Michael’s death, The Splinter Generation (the zine I edit for) was allowed to republish two poems from Atlanta Review’s Iran Issue. The poems represent some of the first voices to come out of the Green Movement of Iran. This lead me to invite the guest editor of that issue, Sholeh Wolpe, Iranian poet, translator, and editor, to be a guest on Splinter’s BlogTalkRadio show, Splintered Thoughts, and for some lucky reason she agreed. I was instantly paralyzed by my ignorance.
How can I interview a woman about Iran, when it barely broke through my own consciousness? How can I interview her when the main memories of last summer were my senior reading, and listening to Man in the Mirror and tearing up with classmates? How can I talk about Iran when I am so far away in a different country, a different culture, a different state of mind?
I asked our main editor, if he might want to do the interview instead, but he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I was the one with the idea; I would be the one to do it. But a year later, and I still knew nothing. What to do, but get to work reading articles, watching documentaries, and reading poetry.
There is a fear that drives much of my work: I am a vapid idiot. I worry that at any moment I will be discovered and kicked out of the creative club, my MFA stripped and my computer cleaned of every poem and essay. There will be a brand too (a t-shirt that reads “stoopid” with an arrow pointed up), that way when I go to poetry readings those around me will be properly warned. Is it that big a fear? In a way, yes. I don’t read the paper, reading novels and poetry books are work not entertainment, I can’t quote Vonnegut, the Brontes are strangers to me, William Carlos Williams an impossible uncle, and worst of all, I like reality T.V., the really bad stuff.
Not wanting Sholeh, or any Splinter listener to know the evil truth, I went to work, and discovered a very complex situation with a beautiful culture and people faced with a tyrannical government. One thing I know, Iranians are not their government.
The women stood out to me. Banned from government, made to wear hijabs/niqabs/burqas, restricted in their public goings on, and mostly tied to the home, life is difficult, and yet, they fight. They enter university, wait to marry, and conduct individual protests like allowing some of their hair to be seen below veils. Perhaps a small protest, but it speaks hugely to the strength of the individual.
Before speaking with Sholeh, I searched the cyberspace for a whole universe of knowledge, downloaded, and reflected, but I am still so very ignorant. I have never lived this existence, will never live it, and I feel there is a whole lexicon of knowledge and culture I can never crack. I feel so unequipped, and yet I must try. I may never feel knowledgeable enough to talk about Arabic Nations, and the struggle in Iran, but what I can do is question, search, and when I have someone like Sholeh Wolpe, a poet and activist, I can ask and listen.
I can share my own fears and inadequacies because we are all human. All of us, know matter where we come from, what religion we grew up in (I grew up Catholic), what websites we consider news, what news channel we watch, what country we were born in, what side of the border we stand, what side of the war we happen to be on, are individuals trying to live, trying to be brave, trying to learn.
Highlights from the Sholeh Wolpe interview on poetry, politics, and Iran to come.