2016 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Solmaz Sharif: I wrote Look for the dead. For the displaced. For myself and my own outrage and perceived powerlessness. For history, believing that somewhere in our literary record, this outrage, this grief, this Mustapha Mohammad Khalaf, 15 months old must be registered, that the history of the “Wars on Terror” should not be left to the generals and the embedded journalists. For the readings I attended and left complaining that no one was writing about the wars. For those who said the art would suffer, who said political poetry was easy, didactic, and should remember its place. For Baghdad, Basra, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jenin, Deir Yassin, Abadan, Baltimore, Fruitvale. For those whose bodies lie in the streets while uniforms chatter and chew their gum, those whose corpses some can walk around. For the despised everywhere. For the poets—Jordan, Darwish, Rich, Césaire, Rukeyser, Oppen, Williams, Whitman, and on and on—who spoke to me. For myself seen hardly worthy of address, who spoke wrong, to say I see you. Of course, for you. For the wonder with which I find myself alive at all.
With Look, Solmaz Sharif bears fierce and elegant witness to the violence wrought by imperialism, Islamophobia, and other engines of our so-called war on terror. Whether describing a drone strike or a conversation with a lover, the loss of freedoms or of a family member, Look is always inventive in its use of form and haunting in its vulnerability. Sharif confronts the paradox that “vagabonds, fugitives” must use speech to address the unspeakable, and on every page reminds us that the language of violence is no less dangerous—no less real—than what it describes.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Solmaz Sharif’s astonishing first book, Look, asks us to see the ongoing costs of war as the unbearable losses of human lives and also the insidious abuses against our everyday speech. In this virtuosic array of poems, lists, shards, and sequences, Sharif assembles her family’s and her own fragmented narratives in the aftermath of warfare. Those repercussions echo into the present day, in the grief for those killed, in America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the discriminations endured at the checkpoints of daily encounter.
At the same time, these poems point to the ways violence is conducted against our language. Throughout this collection are words and phrases lifted from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms; in their seamless inclusion, Sharif exposes the devastating euphemisms deployed to sterilize the language, control its effects, and sway our collective resolve. But Sharif refuses to accept this terminology as given, and instead turns it back on its perpetrators. “Let it matter what we call a thing,” she writes. “Let me look at you.”
About the Author
Solmaz Sharif has published poetry in the New Republic and Poetry, and has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Look is her first collection of poetry.
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Interview by Nick Flynn
My path has been crossing with Solmaz Sharif’s for years now, the way paths do in the poetry world, especially when someone come along doing something no one else is doing, in a way that is compelling. For the past couple years I’d see—and be moved by—one of her poems, here or there, and then her name would come up in a conversation with another poet (Have you heard of this poet . . . ?). I’m thrilled Look is in the world now and for the attention it is deservedly getting and that we get to talk here.
Nick Flynn: Look exists on several levels, as all good poetry does . . . as a language experiment, as an elegy, as a form of documentary poetics, as a political statement, as a lyric utterance . . . maybe we could / should break it down? You’ve said somewhere that it began as an elegy, a meditation on photographs of your uncle, who was killed in the Iran / Iraq War. You’ve said that it began as an attempt to speak to, or at least get to know, him. Did that impulse transform at some point? Having spent a few long winters in Provincetown, I can picture you there so well, bringing the photographs with you to your residency at the Fine Arts Work Center, where I believe it began . . .
Solmaz Sharif: When I started working on that long elegy, I was a few years into writing the book. I began to realize maybe I had attempted this whole thing as a way of understanding my uncle, of what he was up against, of what language did to his young body, and how I might speak to him through it. Until then, I thought I was rewriting a dictionary, that I was exposing the truth behind the military terminology. But mostly it feels like I am trying to speak to the dead over the noise that drowns them out. Like I’m calling over the violent ruckus to an uncle who, of course, won’t respond. It was indeed blessed Provincetown that enabled a poem of that length. What a gift the Fine Arts Work Center was and is. All those hours. All those tables. All those little lit studio windows.
NF: That elegy, “Personal Effect,” is really stunning, and central to the project as a whole, though it comes just before the end. We land on it, after having been taught how to read your work by the earlier poems, at least this is how I experienced it. Was this your intention, structurally?
SS: Absolutely. Teaching a reader how to read the book was actually the language I used to describe the structure to myself. You know, I am increasingly convinced that a poem or a lyric is a way of reading, not a way of writing. As in, what makes a Wikipedia entry a part of a poem is, sure, authorial intention, but more so how a reader will read it. That’s just an aside. To answer your question, I thought of the poem as a zooming in on a single obliterated life for a sustained period of time. It appears right after a list of operation names from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These operations which have nothing to do with my uncle in any direct way, but I was thinking how each of those operations could be unpacked life by life as such an elegy. I wanted there to be a sense of scale undercut by intimacy. I also wanted to extend the conversation beyond today’s wars in the US and into how state-sponsored language, how a sanitized language of warfare, and how their destruction exists in any nation. It is a tactical problem.
NF: You use a quote from Sontag’s On Photography to open “Personal Effects,” a sequence which is built, as mentioned, around meditations on photographs of your uncle, who you never met. You’ve described yourself as a visually driven person, which is clear by how grounded the poems are, even as they engage with the uses and abuses of language, which is in the realm of the abstract. Poem by poem, this tension, between the seen and the abstract, is played out, how language simultaneously builds and subverts reality.
SS: I, too, believe “no ideas but in things.” If I wanted to deal with abstraction, I would be a legislator or even a lawyer. I write poems from the seeing behind sight, is how I usually think of it. Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, Errol Morris’s response in Believing is Seeing, Barthes’s Camera Lucida, were all major influences. I don’t have faith in images. When I see a photo of my uncle holding a bazooka, I think how young he is, how uncomfortable he looks, how dead he will be soon. I think he looks absurd. Were I, though, to publish the picture on the cover of the New York Times, I don’t have faith that a general American audience would see him or any absurdity. They would see, of course, a middle eastern murderer. The frame, the aperture, the caption, the article, and the larger imperialist forces behind these contexts would see to that response. There was a fair amount of progressive excitement around the release of the Abu Ghraib photos—the truth was out! Let us not forget this nation made and popularly sold lynching postcards. It is not and never has been about confronting the truth of photos—if that life is not loved, no image will save it. I guess that’s where the abstract comes in.
NF: I have an eight-year-old daughter, and not a day goes by when I am not aware that she is a child who was born into a country at war, a country which remains at war, a war which is invisible—somehow, seemingly, impossibly—to much of the country she lives in. You said somewhere that, for you, washing the dishes is informed by this violence . . . and the line, “I burned my finger on the broiler and smell trenches” echoes through the book . . . I don’t know if there’s a question in this, or if it is simply a relief, that the war is manifest here . . .
SS: Thank you for this. This is precisely the realization that we, I think, need. It is chilling to think were I to stop random people on the street in the U.S., and ask if they believe they are at war, a great portion of them will say no. This nation has always—always—been at war. If it is the writer’s duty, in part, to imagine, then it is to bring the seemingly distant near, put its stench right up to our noses.
NF: Can you talk about your sense of yourself as an outsider, and how that informs (or manifests in) your poetics? I’m thinking of the word you use in interviews—“calcify”—a state you actively resist, both politically and in your poems.
SS: Edward Said talks about this more beautifully than I can when he discusses exile as a metaphorical intellectual position. The outsiders, the “nay-sayers,” the exiles, he writes, exist in “the state of never being fully adjusted, always feeling outside the chatty, familiar world inhabited by natives, so to speak, tending to avoid and even dislike the trappings of accommodation and national well-being… being constantly unsettled and unsettling others.” More charmingly: “the intellectual as exile tends to be happy with the idea of unhappiness, so that dissatisfaction bordering on dyspepsia, a kind of curmudgeonly disagreeableness, can become not only a style of thought, but also a new, if temporary, habitation.” And then he gives that killer Adorno quote: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” I do believe it is my duty as a poet to be the bane of the Republic—a duty made easy when one’s very viscera is such a bane. My allegiance is to those deemed “not-you/not-yet.” Every social justice movement, every poem, every word has this—they are as much about how they narrow and focus, how they exclude in other words, as they are about what vision they create. At some point a poem, a movement, a we, an I becomes a logic to police. My job is to agitate and make again and again alive and wild and, well, free the languages we live by. To aim there, at least—the there being something that exists only nomadically.
Nick Flynn has worked as a ship's captain, an electrician, and as a case-worker with homeless adults. His most recent book is My Feelings (Graywolf, 2015), a collection of poems.