Monday, May 13, 2013

Poet Sassan Tabatabai: A Persian poet of mourning, exile and love.


Sassan Tabatabai has composed a book of delicate mourning, exile, and love. Ancient Persia and modern Iran harmonize in his vision, as do the ancient poems of Rudaki and Rumi and the contemporary poems of Kadkani in Tabatabai’s translations. Sensuous, rueful and clear, these poems recreate lost worlds in imagination: their Beloved is both a country and a mysterious female figure worthy of the poet’s longing.
            — Rosanna Warren  ( Commenting on Tabatabai's new poetry collection UZUNBURUN ( The Pen and Anvil Press)

Born in Tehran, Iran, Sassan Tabatabai has lived in the United States since 1980. As a poet and scholar of medieval Persian poetry, he is the author of Father of Persian Verse: Rudaki and His Poetry (Leiden University Press, 2010). He teaches humanities and Persian literature at Boston University and Boston College, and is Poetry Editor of the literary journal News from the Republic of Letters. Most recently, Tabatabai is the author of Uzunburun, a collection of poetry and translations published in 2011 by Pen & Anvil Press in Boston.
I had the privilege to interview him on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.

Doug Holder: You are an accomplished poet, but you are also an accomplished boxer. Is this a surprise to many people?

Sassan Tabatatbai
. To most people it is a surprise. I think they consider poetry to be soft and emotional and boxing the complete opposite. But they have a lot in common. There is something philosophical about boxing. Something that teaches you about yourself. There is a kind of deep introspection that you can get from both poetry and boxing. Nabokov took boxing lessons for instance.

DH:  You were poetry editor for News from The Republic of Letters
founded by the acclaimed writer Saul Bellow at Boston University.  How was it working with the man?

ST: I got introduced to Bellows by some of my old professors, and that is how I got involved with the magazine. When I started working with Bellows--it was basically about running things by him for his approval. He was still sharp at that time. He kind of deteriorated slowly over time. He seemed to have a very piercing look. When he looked at you, it was as if he was formulating one of his characters. But he was always very sharp with details. Even when he got older he was still on top of all the material he read in the past.

DH:  Your grandfather served in the Iranian army reaching the rank of general, until 1979--the time of the Islamic Revolution. You are involved in a project translating his memoirs. Talk about this.
ST: My grandfather had a whole career in the military. He reached the rank of the general. With the Revolution we all went into exile and left the country. Ultimately he settled in Atlanta , Georgia. I inherited his papers. His papers consisted of his memoirs, and his poetry. I am in the process of translating both the memoirs and poetry. Most of the memoir was from the time he was stationed in the mountains of Kurdistan. This was right after World War 2 when Soviet troops still occupied parts of Iran. It is very fascinating stuff as far as giving historical insight on a real human level on the political situation.
DH Was it difficult translating from the Persian?
ST: Translating poetry creates all kinds of problems from any language. In Persian-- for instance-- our pronouns don't have gender. We don't distinguish between he and she. Persian does not have articles--this also creates problems. When translating poetry you need to transfer the meaning of the poem--at the same time you can't kill the poem...the musicality of the lines. Oscar Wilde said and I paraphrase:" A literary translation is either faithful or beautiful, but rarely both."
DH:  Are Americans aware of Persian verse?
ST: I would say yes and no. Rumi is over- represented here. This 13th Century mystical poet was the bestselling poet in the U.S. just a few years ago. There is something about Rumi that resonates with the contemporary reader. But there is a huge Persian canon that is neglected.
DH:  In your poem Caspian Summer from your new collection UZUNBURUN,  you use a phrase  your mother used during your childhood and it seems almost like a poetic prompt, bringing the reader into a womb of memory:
"Come inside, she would say, it's almost dark"
Yes this is a poem of childhood memories. The Caspian Sea brings back the memories of childhood. The humidity, salt, garlic, the moist sheets--is still something I remember. We as kids played outside and at some point we were called back to the house. Part of these memories is a full sensory experience. And it is sound and one of the sounds is the voice of my mother calling me back in.
Caspian Summer
I can still hear my mother’s voice
sifting its way through the orange grove,
broken by dusk and distance, calling
me back to the villa on the hill
away from my August friends:
local boys who didn’t need sunscreen,
who caught water snakes with their bare hands
and carried frogs in their pants pockets.
"Come inside," she would say, "it’s almost dark."
Inside the screened porch, safe
from mosquitoes and night sounds,
glowing comfort awaited:
smell of fried garlic, rattle of dice
rolling on the wooden backgammon board,
and moist, sticky tiles under my bare feet.
Later, tucked into cool, damp sheets,
my little sister asleep,
I listened to the ebb and flow
of adult conversations downstairs,
cornices of excitement followed by lulls
filled with the sea’s silence, distant
waves crashing, mute on the deserted shore.
Strange, that as autumn leaves
bruise in New England, I can still
taste the air of a Caspian summer,
heavy with humidity and salt.
Strange, that as time thickens, the distance
between us shrinks.

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