H e a r t S o n s & H e a r t D a u g h t e r s of A l l e n G i n s b e r g
N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 4 : A r c h i v e s E d i t i o n
Interview with Ali Zarrin by Jim Cohn, June 16, 2010
Iranian-American poet Ali Zarrin immigrated to the USA in 1970. He graduated from Boulder High School in Boulder, Colorado, and received a BA in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder, MA in English Literature from University of Colorado at Denver, and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle. A teacher, critic, translator, orator, and prolific poet and writer, his books of poetry in English are Desert, To an Alien, Modern Marriage, Made You Mine America and The Book of I. His books in Persian are In Place of Every Bullet (out of print), From Qadesi to the Lowlands, Kermanshahnameh, and My Suitcase. Ali lives with his wife in Denver. His Selected English & Persian Poems (1970-2010) will be published this fall.
Jim Cohn: Can you talk about how you first became interested in poetry and your own early development as a poet?
Ali Zarrin: I was born in Kermanshah, Iran in 1952. Kermanshah is an ancient city in the west of Iran whose population today exceeds one million, but in the 1950s it must have been around 100,000. Two major ethnic groups lived in Kermanshah at that time: Kurds who had mostly moved into the city from the surrounding villages and Persians who had emigrated from other parts of Iran. The majority of my family were Persian merchants and had emigrated from Central Iran, namely, Isfahan, to Kermanshah. Only my great grandfather was native to a village near Kermanshah and was actually a Kermanshahi Kurd born in the region of Kamareh and Kazzaz near the ancient site Taq Bostan which dates back to the Sassanid dynasty of 1500 years ago. Now with this brief family background I will answer the question.
My earliest exposure to poetry was through my grandmother Gohartaj Sabbaq singing ancient folkloric tunes of the Kurds both as lullaby or just singing them in a blues style to sooth her own soul. She had been married off at the very young of 13 and none of her close relatives had survived, so that she basically knew few people from her past. Her parents were from the ancient city of Hamadan or Ecbatana. Although she was Persian in origin she still knew these Kurdish quatrains that were in nature, tone, and subject matter very close to Baba Taher Oryan’s poetry. Baba is considered the first major Kurdish poet but he is also very popular in Persian and considered a major poet. Through my grandmother’s voice I learned the beauty of poetry and its relevancy to our lives––its soothing and therapeutic nature. Her dad was a prominent merchant in our town and opened the first fabric factory in Kermanshah. She married my maternal grandfather whose forefathers were related to the Qajar dynasty and according to my mother owned black slaves. Grandmother was not educated but she loved this type of poetry which she had learned by word of mouth. On the other hand, her husband, my maternal grandfather was educated and well-versed in the classics of Persian poetry and literature, especially Hafez, and as a child I would play a poetry game called “Mosha’ereh” with him. My young aunt and I would challenge grandfather’s vast memory of poetry with an open book. And of course, he was always faster than us in coming up with a response. Later, after he passed on, and he died young at the age of 64, my young aunt married a very young and promising poet Asghar Vaghedi who became a major influence on me. Vaghedi, who lives in the USA now and only a few blocks from me, later became the Secretariat of the Iranian Writers’Association and one of Iran’s better known poets, at least up to the years following the revolution of 1979. I was only 11 when my 16 year old aunt married Asghar who was 21 years old and just out of college and working as a teacher where he met my aunt. Asghar introduced me to modern Persian poets and in particular to the modern poetry of Nima Yushij. My aunt was actually my childhood playmate. After their marriage they lived with us for a short while. This was in 1963 and at that time modern poets were still unknown and Nima was condemned for tinkering with a millennium old classical Persian poetry of Hafez and Sa’di.
Initially, I began imitating the modern poets just like my Aunt did. I even saw Asghar duplicating the forms used by the modern Persian poets such as Nader Naderpur. Not much good came of this early practice for me. I only wrote one or two bad poems with this exercise, but one of these early poems was good enough to grab the attention of one of my other uncles and my father and they asked Asghar to conduct a test and see if I really had any talent in writing poetry. Asghar gave me 4 words, as had been the custom, to see if I could use those 4 words and come up with a poem. I went to the next room and within minutes the words poured out of me and this was the first good poem I wrote which later on was published in a children magazine and won me an award. I was in the 5th grade and I had a very good teacher, Iraj Shekarchian, who recognized my talent as well and rewarded me with numerous awards mainly in the form of books. So at age 13 I was already published. I ran our school’s candy store, barber shop and photography dark room and was very close to this teacher who also secured for me a reporter’s card for one of Iran’s two children magazines––Ettela‘at-e Kudakan. This relationship was also phenomenal for me because impressed with the way I read my compositions in class and my voice, with this teacher’s blessings I was designated the orator of our school prayer each morning which was in Persian and very universal in tone and meaning. I performed this prayer at the outset each morning and became extremely good at it. In other words, I set the tone for the school’s day with my performance. Thus I was aware of my oratory power and performing ability at a young age.
Around the same time I participated in a theater production which was organized by one of Kermanshah’s earliest professional actors and directors, Mr. Qolamhosain Nadji. I helped with all aspects of set production but I was also a souflor as well as an actor in a short barbershop pantomime comedy sketch as a sideshow and comedy relief to the main drama at hand which was a melodrama. Still in elementary school, I had a very active life and single-handedly also produced a wall magazine with feature articles and comedy. In this wall magazine I introduced Iran’s first modern poet, Nima Yushij. So, by the time I went to Junior High, I was well underway in my writing career. I soon had a short story published in a literary paper edited by my uncle and there I was still a teen-ager publishing work alongside grown-ups and experienced poets and writers. At that time I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be a poet/writer, but as I said I also acted in school theater productions and even painted and drew. By the time I was in the 10th grade I had published a host of poems in some of the major magazines of Tehran, attended some major plays on their opening nights, met a few of Iran’s well-known poets and writers. From 9th grade on I lived in Tehran and attended one of its best schools, Alborz, which had been founded by American Presbyterians at the turn of the century and was known as American College.
Before I go any further let me also say a word about my parents: my mother loved reading books and my dad resorted to the poetry of Omar Khayyam anytime he wanted to comment on the deeper meaning of life and its transience. They didn’t finish high school, but loved education and learning, always regretting the fact that their parents, despite being well-to-do, did not allow them to continue their education. They were liberal minded and upwardly mobile, so to say. My mother had planned to send me to one of Iran’s finest boarding schools and they did just that and when I was ready to leave Iran, they also rose to the occasion and made it possible for me to do so. We were a middle-class Iranian family and these types of expenditure such as tuition for the boarding school or an airline ticket to the USA were exorbitant for them. By sending me to the boarding school in Tehran, in effect, they gave me the opportunity to develop my character and my talents in a larger pool of possibilities: meeting people from all over Iran, exposure to many more cinemas and theaters as well as bookstores and poetry readings––things I dearly loved. So, I am very thankful to them for these early sacrifices they made to propel me forward and send me to places that they had never seen.
On my father side too I had an uncle who opened the first theater/cinema in Kermanshah and was an actor/poet in his own right. He never seriously pursued his acting or his poetry but he was very talented. He did not have the academic opportunities and training that I had. On the other side of my family, my mother’s older brother Hooshang, whom I loved very much, was a painter, a dulcimer player, and an amateur writer in his later years. He published a book of his thoughts on life and death in three languages: German, English, & French. [This same uncle became very successful in business in Germany and supported me financially during some of my college years.] So, poetry came to me because so much of it was around me. My family was relatively cultured, but they were mostly merchants and poetry was not a way to make money as it is not in the USA. Poetry was also a very well-respected national art in Iran. In the USA we build monuments and mausoleums for our political leaders and in Iran we have done this for our poets such as Ferdowsi, Sa’di and Hafez. But just like in the USA where we assassinate our beloved presidents, in Iran we have starved, exiled, jailed and killed some of our beloved poets like Ferdowsi, Eshqi, Farrokhi and others.
So you see, both my social and familial upbringing were conducive to making me a poet, but I was also predisposed to the brooding and moodiness of a poet. I had lost a brother to meningitis before I was born so that I was born to parents that had experienced tragedy. My mother suffered from depression and she still does at her ripe age of 85. I had to live with this disease that runs in my mother side of the family and was imbued with it to a degree. Poetry was a great therapeutic tool. Indeed, it has saved my life. I saw its healing powers in my life and I latched on to it. It has been part of my everyday day life now for the past 47 years. Of course, in those early days I never thought that I would become a bilingual poet, but as soon as I became aware of Iranian writers who wrote in a foreign language–– like Fereydun Hovayda whose debut Book, Les Quarantaines (1962), was the first book by a non-French writer to be nominated for the Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize. Also, later, when I learned about Samuel Beckett, who wrote masterfully in two languages, I knew that I too could do it and when I arrived in the United States in 1970 at the age of 17 and still in high school I knew that soon I’d be writing poems in English.
I flew directly from Tehran to Denver and then went on to Boulder. I was still in high school. In hindsight, I see that it was a very tough journey, but I was young and very excited about coming to America and living on my own. In January of 1970, I began my studies at Boulder High School where I had an encouraging English teacher. She was very nice to me and since even back in Iran I had begun with the Beatles, Roy Orbison and Bee Gees, I built on that and began reading every song I had heard, and every poem or play that I had already read in Persian. As they say, the rest is history. I started writing poetry in English as early as a few months after I arrived. My first English poem, “Dimensional Journey“, was published in 1972 in my college’s annual literary magazine, Progenitor, at Arapaho Community College. This was also due to the encouragement and support of a brilliant English teacher Otto Pfeiff with whom I have kept contact over the years and consider him a dear friend and mentor. He wrote the afterward to my first English book of poetry, To an Alien (1985). A side note to the publication of this book was the fine piece of writing that was written about it in the Rocky Mountain News by a University of Colorado Professor Peter Thorpe. Professor Thorpe also wrote about my second book of poems, Modern Marriage, in 1994, and published with the article one of my poems.
In 1971, another important event in my life influenced and changed the course of my poetic development. I believe it was March or April of 1971 when I participated in an anti-Vietnam war march in Denver. The march ended in front of the Capitol building where demonstrators made speeches and musicians played songs. There I met Allen Ginsberg. He was sitting on the lawn and I just walked up to him and introduced myself. I was only 19 years old at that time and I had already read about Ginsberg and his glorious trip to Prague in a Persian literary magazine called Khusheh edited by Ahmad Shamlu––a great Persian poet. I told Allen that I had read some of his poetry and we knew about him in Iran and of course he was very pleased. Perhaps I was the first person who told him about his work and life’s reflection in Iran. Well, he was very kind and receptive. He invited me to visit him at his downtown YMCA room where he was staying and this was the beginning of a long relationship that lasted throughout the rest of his life. There were periodic interruptions in our correspondence or meetings, but his friendship and poetry continued to be an important force in my life. First of all, as early as 1971 and right after meeting him I bought all his poetry books such as Kaddish & Howl. Of course, I had difficulty relating to some of his poems such as “Howl” at that time, but there were others that spoke to me directly and I remained intrigued by them as they were very different in tone, rhythm and subject matter compared to the Persian poetry of Iranian contemporary poets, so, I kept reading and rereading them as I attended Allen’s reading at University of Denver in 1972 where we met and talked again. Nevertheless, I was still too shy to present to him any of my poems.
In 1982 I published an English poem named “Origin” in the Bloomsbury Review which I had written in 1978 and it was and still is a good poem. I think this was the beginning of my seriously good work in English. By then I had graduated with a BA in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and had begun thinking of America as my new home and my parents too had immigrated to the USA. I became a US citizen in 1976. On the other hand, in 1980 I published a book of 45 poems in Persian entitled In Place of Every Bullet which included works from 1968 to 1980. This is only a year after the Iranian revolution and many of the poems had political overtones, but nevertheless I made sure to include a few lyrical poems as well. By 1981, the so-called Spring of Revolution was over and I was never able to visit Iran as my friends warned me that the Mullahs had taken over. In 1982 I published an English scroll poem named “Ghazal” which sold wherever it was on display. “Ghazal” is a love poem as the genre in Persian has always been, but this was a very non-representational and abstract poem unlike the dominant trend in American poetry which tends to be specific, particular and representational. Naturally I hand-delivered a copy to Allen’s mailbox at Naropa in Boulder and before long Allen wrote me a letter which he himself later referred to as a poem. He told me this on more than one occasion. I published his letter in my second English book of poems Modern Marriage (1992), and Allen made sure that the source was mentioned in his extensive and authoritative bibliography edited by Bill Morgan and published by Greenwood Press (1995).
Of course, in this letter Allen was advocating William Carlos Williams’ edict: “No Idea but in Things!” So, it took me a while to actually arrive at that and test drive this method and this type of poetics. I think some of the poems in Modern Marriage are a testament to this utilization and combination. By the time I published Modern Marriage in 1992, I had already been married and fathered two sons. I felt well-rooted in the American soil, especially since I married an American who had a connection to and a root in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and early share-croppers in Arkansas. Allen had seen versions of these poems prior to publication and offered editorial comments and suggestions. He even commented in a letter to me that he thought that with these poems, my poetry had improved and here he meant in comparison to my abstract poem “Ghazal” which he thought to be “terrible“. At least that is what he told me once on the phone at that time. Of course, I knew that my “Ghazal” has reached its audience and was and is basically a good poem. Since its publication, I have seen and heard that it has been read over and over at weddings and funerals––what greater honor can a poet hope for?
Strangely enough I have published the title poem “Modern Marriage” in two slightly different versions. In the book Modern Marriage I published it with my own writing and reading––my own voice and music. In the anthology Premonitions (1995, Kaya Publications) I published Allen’s trimmed down version. The great editorial skill of Allen, at least in regard to this poem, was that he did not even add or suggest a word; he merely trimmed the words that he thought did not belong or that they were extra. Of course, this way the poem’s music changed––it became jazzier; whereas in my version I maintain a different music––a little more melody line and a softer tone and tempo. In hindsight, Modern Marriage was a very seminal work for me and for my relationship with Allen. I think in many of the poems of Modern Marriage Allen could see how simplicity and clarity can be the driving force behind language and poetic imagery––something that could make our poetry more accessible and yet still keep the complexity and sophistication. In his letters, Allen also advocated to me the poetics of Basil Bunting whom I believe he had met in Italy when he visited Ezra Pound. Allen wrote to me Bunting’s advice to poets: “Concentration and condensation.” This was very helpful and I absorbed it, but I had a message of my own for Allen which I had learned from the great classics of Persian poetry such as Ferdowsi, Attar, Baba Taher, Rumi, Sa’di and Hafez: “Simple but Sophisticated.” I think I even took that a step further: I wrote poems that were no longer “poetry” or “poetic”. They did not use the signals and tools that often signify to the reader that “Beware, you’re reading a poem!”
I think at this point, by the time Allen had read a good number of my poems I might have had a poetic gift for him in return. If you read Allen’s Cosmopolitan Greetings and compare some of its poems to Modern Marriage you will see the traces of my gift and my kinship to Allen. Of course, Allen still continued to be very critical and steadfast in his “imagistic” poetics of the earlier years. He was steeped in that and this type of poetics exercised a great power over him. That is why when I moved back to Colorado in April 1994 and met with Allen in Boulder in June, I presented him with my newest and most exciting long poem “Made You Mine America!” Well, Allen still felt compelled to be the teacher and went on to work on this poem. I never forget the experience. I had already committed the poem to publication in the Literary Review for their special issue on the poetry and literature of the Iranian Diaspora. Of course, I was excited: I had used Allen’s name in this poem and this was a poem that I had revised nearly 700 times. So, by the time I presented it to Allen, although I was very interested in knowing his view, I was basically “done” with the poem. Soon I found out that this is not what Allen thought.
As he got in my car to go shopping at the Goodwill store and have lunch together, I saw him in the passenger seat next to me penning my poem: his ink striking lines and words and this time suggesting imagery and ideas. Of course, I had a very enjoyable lunch with him. He only edited 3 or 4 pages of my 7 page poem, but when I got back home and looked at his editorial comments, all of my body/mind simply refused to change anything in the poem. My poem was finished––for better or worse, my work was done and it represented me and my life story. It was still simple but sophisticated; it was powerful because it was true to my experience, strength and hope. Incidentally, this is my most anthologized poem to date. It must have been published in more than a million copies so far. Nevertheless, Allen played a major role in my development as a poet, but I believe that I became fully independent of him as of 1990. He had great respect for my Persian literary heritage––the poetry of the Persian classics.
Of course, there were always my Persian poems and writings and my presence in the Iranian literary scene abroad and to some smaller degree in Iran. By 1994, I had published my second book of poems in Persian and my works, despite the immense censorship, had received some attention in Iran. I am mainly referring to two articles that were written & published about my work in two of Iran’s leading literary magazines, namely Asghar Vaghedi’s in Kelk, and Dr. Faramarz Soleimani’s article in Donya-ye Sokhan. Then just as important in 1990 and 1992, my wife and I were hosts to two of Iran’s great poets: Ahmad Shamlu and Manuchehr Atashi. I actually organized Atashi’s readings & introduced him around the USA and read with him at his pleasure and insistence some of my own poetry which was received warmly and enthusiastically. I have always felt very fortunate to have an active presence in two cultures and two languages.
I would like to also mention that my first book of poems in Persian brought me two good letters of criticism from two other of Iran’s established poets. Mohammad Azarm, now living in exile in France, who had mainly criticized the liberties that I had taken with Persian meters, and Mahmud Azad Tehrani, now deceased, who recognized gradual but certain progress in my work and saw it as “achieving its goal.” Azad’s letter was a landmark for me. Although what he had written was something I had practiced in the past, it made me determined to pursue it even more seriously. Azad wanted me to experiment with the old forms and then begin to de-form, as he put it, or reconstruct them. Because of his gentle voice and encouraging remarks, I took this to heart and went to work. I also took advantage of the opportunity of having immediate access to an older Persian poet in Boulder, Dr. Mohammad Nakhosteen, who knew the classical forms in Persian poetry very well.
I had met Dr. Nakhosteen as early as 1970 in my poetry class at Boulder High where he was a guest lecturer, but it wasn’t until 1980 that we became close friends and he performed the role of a mentor to me. He had already translated and published several of the major classical Persian poets, namely Hafez, Sa’di, Khayyam, Khaju, Baba Taher, Hatef and others, and was writing Persian ghazals nearly everyday. I helped him compile his selected works which he dedicated to me and used him as a critic for my ghazals written in the old rigid style.
He had been a close friend of Mas’ud Farzad one of Iran’s early 20th-century poets who was well versed in English poetry and one of the founders of a literary trend called “the group of four” whose most internationally prominent figure was Sadeq Hedayat. So, this connection also was an important one. I worked with Dr. Nakhosteen for a couple of years during which time I wrote almost a hundred ghazals. Unfortunately, his life was cut short and while in hospital for a surgery he died abruptly. Dr. Nakhosteen was a self-made man who had come to the USA in 1922 with 19 cents in his pockets and yet he had finished his studies at Yale, Harvard and Columbia. After his death his wife entrusted me with his unpublished manuscripts and writings. Among them are letters written to him from John Dewey. Well, he was by profession an emeritus professor of history and philosophy of education. He also taught me about how to handle my life and unbridled passions. He was a good mentor.
Another important influence was Dr. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak: this was a double-pronged influence since our relationship was mainly academic and lasted throughout the time that I pursued and completed my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. I chose to study with him because of his translations of Modern Persian poetry and his first-hand knowledge of and acquaintance with some of the Iranian writers and poets at that time. Of course, the whole Ph.D. program was very useful. At UW I also met and worked with Nelson Bentley who had studied under W. H. Auden and was a friend and colleague of Theodore Roethke. Among other distinguished academics that I worked with was Hazard Adams. I also had the opportunity to meet with Edward Said and Wolfgang Iser. Unfortunately some of these people are no longer with us or in my life.
I would be remiss if I would not mention my poet friend Dean Brink who was my classmate at the University of Washington. We also shared Nelson Bentley as a teacher and mentor and soon in 1995/96 we co-edited an internet international literary magazine called Interpoetics—a term that I coined for the type of poetry I was writing at the time. Over the years from 1987 to nearly 2007––a period of 20 years, he was always a good reader, editor and critic of my poems and wrote a few thought-provoking pieces about my work which are available online.
I must also speak of two other major influences and friendships in my life: the first came in the form of meeting Anne Waldman in 1994 and presenting to her my Modern Marriage. She responded with a kind and encouraging letter in which she wished to see more of my Persian life and Persian mind––at least that is how I read it. Well, this was a great spark for me and the result was “Desert”––a long poem that has not received the attention that it deserves, but it is a poem that did just that. It juxtaposed my past and present––my past as an Iranian and my present as an American. Of course, these divisions are not as clear cut as they seem––the fact is that I am both and neither simultaneously, but that I have an active present and participation in the Iranian literature of the Diaspora and nowadays with the advent of internet and e-mails, also in Iran. In other words, Anne showed me by encouragement how desirable and accessible my past is––the past that is indeed so present in my mind and life.
The other major friendship and influence was that of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Again, the very day in 1971 after meeting Allen Ginsberg that I went to the bookstore to buy Allen’s books, I also picked up A Coney Island of the Mind and I read it as many times as I did Howl or Kaddish. It probably left a greater impression on me than either of Allen’s works, but I did not meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti until 1996 at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program where I was offering a workshop in Ghazal writing and gave a poetry reading. Ferlinghetti could not attend my reading as he arrived the next day, but Steven Taylor who introduced me to him had already told him about my reading and the warm response I had received from the audience. That summer I sent a poetry manuscript to Lawrence and soon received a response in which he had put his finger on a crucial point in my poetry: by referring to a line in one of my poems called the “Complaints of a House-Husband”, he showed that, generally speaking, my poetry tended “to avoid I”. He too wanted my Persianness to coalesce with my Americanness and he asked me in his letter to write a work like that and send it to him for publication.
I took this as a great occasion to start my long work The Book of I which I dedicated to Ferlinghetti and in 2004 finally finished it and sent it to him. In 2005, he edited it and chose 3 sections from it and published as a Broadside on the City Lights website. This was indeed a wonderful achievement for me––it felt like by then I had completed the circle from the point of arriving in America as a teenager and meeting Allen to the point of meeting his first major publisher and poet friend Ferlinghetti and having a long poem edited and published by him. Needless to say, I was overjoyed. In 2006, with Felinghetti’s blessing, I published “The Book of I” as a hard copy Broadside, but this time I included 3 of his letters to me consisting of his first reaction to my poetry and then two of his letters explaining the processes that he went through in order to edit The Book of I.
Of course to the list above I must add a host of Iranian and world influences––poets such as Nima Yushij, Forough Farrakhzad, Ahmad Shamlu, M. Azad, Manouchehr Atashi, Mehdi Akhavan Sales and then all the great Persian classics: Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Rumi, Hafez, Nezami, Attar, Sa’di, Baba Taher, etc… It is really a long list. In the last nearly 50 years, I have tried to read poetry from all over the world––including Folk songs and lyrics. In the same vein I must mention the great admiration that I always felt for the American modernist poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. Eliot was first, but he did not last as long as Pound and Williams did. Nowadays I am very picky about what I read and of course poetry is always at the top of my list.
After all said and done, perhaps the most significant contribution to my development as a poet, came from my wife Carolyn Adams who is a good writer in her own right. She has remained to be my most staunch critic and editor––always demanding from me truth, more truth, and nothing but truth when it comes to poetry and to my writing. She has also grounded me deeply in the reality and life of a parent raising a family. Somewhere along the line I decided that I want to have a functional family free of alcohol and drugs. Fortunately this happened early on in our marriage. I wanted to be there for my boys like few artists and poets had in the past due to their addiction and alcoholism. I chose to be clean and sober and this has been a bigger savior in my life than even my poetry.
[Originally published in NHS 2010, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs10/index.html.]