Interview with Sholeh Wolpé

by Jacob Collum

Photo by Justin N. Lane

What drew you to the work of Ahmad Shamlou? You write that he was a “follower of Nima Yushij,” and that Shamlou developed his own unique style. What characterizes his style and how does it differ from other Iranian poets of the time?

Persian poetry broke free from the grip of its formalist past in early 1940s. A young man by the name of Nima Yushij began to write and publish poems that deviated from the cannons of Persian classical prosody. Yushij was a brilliant man, well versed in both Iranian and French poetry. He placed great emphasis on the power of perception and the poet’s duty to be involved with the life of his or her community. For him, life was poetry and poetry was life. Despite his unpopularity among the staunch defenders of classical form in Persian poetry, Yushij attracted the attention of a group of brilliant young poets, among them, Forugh Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlou. Farrokhzad went on to become the most significant Iranian woman poet of the 20th century. Shamlou evolved into one of most influential poets in Iran. I love and revere these two poets. I translated a selection of Farrokhzad’s poems which was published by the University of Arkansas Press under the title Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. That book is now in its fourth printing with a new cover.

Shamlou was a staunch follower of Yushij and learned from him how to courageously dive into new poetic experience. He used that courage to break free of the poetic language of the past, and introduce, for the first time in Iranian poetry, internal music without the use of traditional rhyme and meter. What Yushij had done in poetry was to break the traditional ghfiyeh, the rhyme, however Shamlou went further and broke the vazn, the meter. 

[Shamlou] was a humanitarian, a utopic idealist, and believed poetry equals action; and action can lead to change.

Additionally, Shamlou had keen insight into his era’s social and political issues and brilliantly translated his observation into lyrical moments that combined street language with classical poetic language. In this way, he expanded and enriched Persian language. He was a humanitarian, a utopic idealist, and believed that poetry equals action; and action can lead to change.

Shamlou was very much influenced by Western poets, particularly by the Spanish Generación del 1927, particularly Federico García Lorca. He loved the surrealists, the symbolists, and translated many of them into Persian.

How might Shamlou’s style and the content of his work enter into conversation with contemporary English poetry?

Shamlou’s influence on his own generation of poets as well as the younger generation is indisputable. His poems are linguistically controlled, yet somehow flow freely and effortlessly. That is why it is imperative to not merely translate his work, but re-create how it is experienced in Persian—its lyrical complexity as well as his keen observation of the society he lived in. As I said earlier, he combined street language with classical language. That is something that must be observed in the process of translation.

Shamlou knew how a poem can be murdered in the process of transportation from one language into another.

Shamlou was a literary translator himself and knew how a poem can be murdered in the process of transportation from one language into another. Perhaps that is why it was very important to him to be translated by a competent translator. Perhaps that is why he bequeathed the copyright to his poems to a group of erudite and dedicated poets, friends and scholars who are charged with protecting his work from inferior translations. Of course that does not stop unauthorized translations of his poems appearing on the web. That is something that is difficult to control. And of course, people do it because they love his work. I don’t blame them.

In addition to your work in translation, you’re also a poet and a playwright. How do you see your work in these different fields affecting your writing more generally?

I am a poet and writer who translates. Not the other way around. I translate because I believe literature has the power to bring people of different cultures and languages together. These are dark times and as always, the light of literature and the arts is necessary to brighten our lives and bring us closer to one another. As a bilingual, bicultural poet, I feel it is my duty to do what I can, as effectively as I am able, to re-create our beloved poetry of Iran into English, as poetry. Persian and English are as different as sky and sea. The best I can do as a poet-translator is to create a reflection of one in the other. My translation becomes a re-creation that reflects the original, just as the sea can reflect the sky with its moving stars, shifting clouds, gestations of the moon and migrating birds—but ultimately the sea is not the sky. By nature, it is liquid. It ripples. There are waves. If you are a fish living in the sea, you can only understand the sky if its reflection becomes part of the water. That reflection is the translation.

Your book The Conference of the Birds by Attar recently came out. Can you tell us more about this project? What drew you to Attar’s work and what were some of the challenges of working with a 12th century piece of literature and bringing it to a modern audience?

I am a poet and writer who translates. Not the other way around.

The Conference of the Birds by Attar (CE 1145–1220), is a brilliant, engrossing allegorical epic poem about our human struggle, both physical and spiritual. It is a story that not only moves and instructs but also entertains because it is peppered with beguiling parables that at times entrance and other times, tickle. This method of storytelling through poetry was later adopted by future master poets, namely Hafiz and Rumi. In fact, Rumi considered Attar his master and wrote:

Attar traveled through all the seven cities of love
                               While I am only at the bend of the first alley.

Attar’s use of everyday details, stories, and historical chronicles is a masterful technique he invented to animate the deeper meanings of what we consider “reality.”

In The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world gather and acknowledge the Great Simorgh as their Sovereign. Simorgh is a mysterious bird who dwells in Mount Qaf, a mythical mountain that wraps around the world. The Hoopoe is elected to lead them through the perilous journey. They eventually come to understand that the majesty of that Beloved is like the sun that can be seen reflected in a mirror. Yet whoever looks into that mirror will also behold his or her own image.

Attar tells us that truth is not static, and that we each tread a path according to our own capacity. It evolves as we evolve. Those who are trapped within their own dogma, clinging to hardened beliefs or faith, are deprived of the journey toward the unfathomable Divine, which Attar calls the Great Ocean. The Great Ocean does not turn away any soul. Some arrive at it as pure drops of water, enter, are absorbed, and become one with the Ocean; others arrive trapped inside themselves, egos intact, and enter the welcoming Ocean as well. However, they sink to its depths and remain there, knowing only themselves, never the Ocean.

Persian and English are as different as sky and sea. The best I can do as a poet-translator is to create a reflection of one in the other.

This epic poem is a masnavi, a poetic form invented by the Persians. It adheres to a meter of ten or eleven syllables per line, in rhyming couplets. The Conference of the Birds consists of a total of 4,724 couplets, including the prologue and the epilogue. I don’t believe it is possible to transfer thousands of rhyming couplets in twelfth-century Persian into formal rhyming verse in English without sacrificing a great deal of what makes the original work beautiful, moving, comprehensible, funny, and wise.  Therefore, I have dispensed with rhyme. This is not a translation of form, nor is it a scholar’s translation. This is a re-creation, and I have sought to make it as accurate as possible.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I am spending some time with my play SHAME. It is about: Happiness at what cost? It has received several staged readings at very prestigious venues in New York, Los Angeles and New Jersey and is now ready for full production. I am also working on a book of flash fiction—a series of linked stories.  And...I am very slowly working on translating selected poems of Ahmad Shamlou. It is a project I have been working on and off for the past ten years. One poem at a time. And I make sure that as I complete each translation, it is approved by the committee that hold the copyright in Iran. So it’s a slow process.  But I love it.


Sholeh Wolpé's translation of Ahmad Shamlou's poem, "Lovingly," can be read online (April 17) and in the print edition of The Arkansas International 2.

Sholeh Wolpé's publications include four collections of poetry, a play, three books of translations, and three anthologies. Wolpé’s modern translation of The Conference of the Birds (W.W. Norton) by the 12th century Iranian mystic poet, Attar, has been hailed by Reza Aslan as “timeless as the masterpiece itself.”

Jacob Collum is the Poetry Translation Editor at The Arkansas International. He received his BA from Berry College and is an MFA in Translation candidate at the University of Arkansas.