Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi

Interview by Wendy Vardaman

Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi is an Iranian poet, translator and freelance journalist. Her first book of poetry was published when she was twenty-two. Her poems appear in the anthologies Letters to the World,Contemporary Women Poets of Iran and Anthology of Best Women Poets. She is the author of Eternal Voices: Interviews with Poets East and West and The Last Night with Sylvia Plath: Essays on Poetry. In addition she has translated Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot, Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life by Ian Gibson, Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Women Poets of the World, Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry, Selected Poems of Iaroslav Seifert, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, Blood of Adonis by Samuel Hazo, The Beauty of Friendship: Selected Poems by Khalil Gibran, Love Poetry of the World, Classic and Contemporary, and Selected Poems by Blaga Dimitrova. Her new book is the Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry.


WV     The Internet makes so many contacts available that were not possible a generation ago, providing opportunities for exchange, community, friendship, even "travel" of a sort. What role does the Internet play in your writing? Has the Internet changed you or your poetry? What have you found are its major advantages and disadvantages?

FHM     One can send love letters via Internet, so the Internet is as honest as carrier pigeons in ancient times! The only difference is in the lack of need for patience. Internet doesn't teach us the art of waiting. And what makes love strong but patience? An Iranian proverb says: "If you are patient, I'll turn sour grapes into sweets!"

In spite of so many contacts and opportunities for exchange made possible by Internet, we rarely find true friends. In fact we exchange our precious solitude for communications which rarely go beyond the surface. The nature of Internet because of its high speed and high possibility in reaching many people around the world enriches our ability for diplomacy of public relations. In our "in box" we have an international list of men and women of course, but are they as empathetic as the silent books in the shelves of our rooms? I don't deny the windows that Internet opens in the wall of my everyday life. For example, through the Internet I found that the most famous American poets don't know the difference between Iranians and Arabs. In my interviews with them in response to my question: "What do you know about Iranian poets?" they answer, "We have an anthology of Arab poetry!"

The Internet also gave birth to an ocean of e-magazines. The worst aspect of e-magazines is the ease of publishing easy poems and introducing the "I"s who are thirsty for fame, not poetry itself. Through the Internet everybody calls himself or herself a chief editor, and in this bedlam true poetry is the poor victim. Once, a picture of your favorite poet was something like an icon, while now you may find no difference between poets' pictures on personal websites and Hollywood stars' pictures.

It is so difficult to remain faithful to our heart and soul in the age of Internet, where every poet instead of hearing the pure voice of Time and its honest judgment, hears the noisy sounds of human praises.

I, personally, have been lucky enough to find some true voices through the Internet who helped me to find the weak aspects of my poetry and encouraged me to widen my world. I especially am indebted to some of Wom-Po's members.

WV     At times you take on the role almost of a cultural ambassador on the Wom-Po list, patiently explaining such basic things, like the fact that Arabic is not the language of Iran, or the names of major poets. Do you feel comfortable with this role?

FHM     Thank you very much to grant me this beautiful nickname: cultural ambassador. I am proud of myself!

Regrettably, sometimes my cultural explanations are assumed by some Wom-Po members as political proclamations. If I say for Moslem women, head cover is not the bars of a cage and bikini should not be assumed as the flag of freedom, they send me messages to convince me that Iranian women are very miserable! This is why I have stopped sending messages to Wom-Pos. I prefer to read their rich messages on poetry and to avoid any useless discussions. I translate their poems for my anthologies with their permission and I do my best to introduce them to Iranian readers. I also introduce them in international e-magazines of Iran and India.

WV     In addition to your interviews of Iranian and Middle Eastern authors, you have interviewed many American poets; please tell me about why you conduct these interviews and how they are received by Iranian readers.

FHM     My need for better spiritual connection with the poems I translate is my most important reason for conducting interviews with poets. In my opinion translation of poetry is a kind of re-creation and it needs deep understanding of the poet. If I make a connection with the poet, I'll find it easier to deal with the poems. I believe it is very important. It is only in this case that I am able to re-create. Interviews are great help to knowing more about a poet. Even when I'm dealing with a deceased poet's work, I try to summon the spirit of the poet by reading his or her biography and all information in detail, e.g., letters, daily notes, etc.

As for the second part of your question, how these interviews are received by Iranians, I must say Iranian readers are lovers of American poetry and are very eager to know more about the American poets. The translation of my interviews with Adrienne Rich, Sam Hamill, Billy Collins, Edward Hirsch and many others has been always received warmly by Iranian readers. In personal Iranian websites and blogs you may see part of these interviews as the best words they've read through the week or month. Poetry lovers in Iran call me "mirror of world poetry." I love this nickname!

WV     It isn't easy for a poet to pick one poem that represents her work as well as herself. You had the additional requirement of translating your work from Farsi to English, which as a translator, you did yourself. Please tell me how well the poem, "Isn't it enough?" which you chose to include in the Wom-Po anthology Letters to the World, represents you. Why did you choose this poem? Are you a different poet in different languages?

FHM     Receiving this message from Kate Evans made me sure that I must choose a poem about my experience on war for this international anthology:

"One of the poems I've attached for you is about, in part, reading about war in the news. And it makes me almost crazy to realize that I write about it as something I read about in the paper, while there are people in the world who write about it as something they have to experience. The inhumanity of people to one another in this world is a form of insanity. Thus, connections like the one we are having right now are a state of grace."

As for the second part of your question: "Are you a different poet in different languages?" Writing Poetry in the English language has helped me to discover my hidden selves; perhaps because it reminds me of my voice as a woman from the East:

Isn't It Enough?

I gave up love
being satisfied with the quiet of shadows
And memories.

Time was past, lost,
moments exploded
by the rain of bombs.

At nightfall
I don't brush my dreams any more.
At nightfall
I don't care for the wandering sun any more.

At nightfall
I leave the frightened moon in the sky
to shelter under the ground.

I am neither a woman nor a poet any more.

Night by night
more and more,
I feel real.

Like the bloody sound of alarms,
Like the roaring anti-aircraft rounds,
Like the falling bombs and rockets,
which turn the ruins and ashes
into eternal reality;
I feel night by night more real
and old,

so old and real that in the mirror
I see nothing anymore
but an aisle of empty chairs.

Oh, isn't it enough?
What does everyone need
more than a loaf of bread,
a quiet night
and an armful of bleak love,
for giving up and being satisfied
with the quiet of shadows
and memories?

WV     When I first encountered the poems of Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67), I immediately thought of Sylvia Plath. Here, for example, are the opening lines of "Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season" (trans., Michael C. Hillmann):

And this is I
a woman alone
at the threshold of a cold season
at the beginning of understanding
the polluted existence of the earth
and the simple and sad pessimism of the sky
and the incapacity of these concrete hands.

To what extent do you think it is useful to link these two women, both of whom died tragically in their early 30's during the cold month of February, each apparently still at the mercy of love and in a white-hot fervor of writing? Are women poets in Iran and the United States today more similar to each other or more different?

FHM     Even death in a cold season and at the peak of creativity is not a good reason to find much resemblance between these two women poets. Sylvia killed herself because she was suffering from the betrayal of her husband. She was a faithful wife and a mother in love with her children. Forough left her husband and her little son to find her fate and mate in poetry. Regrettably, feminists and antireligious people in Iran and overseas, try to introduce Forough as a victim of a patriarchal religious society. It is not true. They claim she was forced by her father to marry at 16, but now everybody knows that she threatened her parents to commit suicide if they don't let her marry the man she loved. They introduce her husband as a dogmatic man who didn't let Forough write poetry and deprived her from her right as a mother to see her son. Forough's letters to her husband, published thirty years after her death by her son, prove that even after divorce she was deeply supported by her kind, generous, and loyal husband who never married again and devoted all his life to their son. He was himself a writer and painter.

As for her poetry, Forough 's poems could make themselves free from personal problems and pay attention to the world around her, while Sylvia Plath's poems speak of "self," even when she writes about others. "Lack of love" for Forough, was a universal wound, not a personal pain:

And my wounds are all the wounds of love
I have piloted this wondering island
Through raging tempests
and volcanoes
And disintegration was the secret of
that unique being
Each little particle of which gave birth to the sun

I see more resemblance between Forough and Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Both women were more loyal to love than to the men of their life, and both of them were more devoted to the truth of poetry than to the reality of life.

Yet let me admit that if Iran has one Forough Farrokhzad, America has many, many, many "Forough Farrokhzads." As a translator of women's poetry and world poetry, I can attest that North America and Latin America have the best women poets of the world.

WV     Who are your favorite Iranian poets? Which would you suggest to an American audience with no knowledge of Iranian traditions, and what would you want them to keep in mind about Iranian poetry while reading?

FHM     The first poet who moved me was Sheikh Saadi (1184-1283). I was in high school. These lines by him were in our text book:

Leaves of green tree
in the eyes of an insightful
each page is a book of
God's knowledge.

My father's house had a beautiful garden in front of it. There were many trees and flowers, but before reading this poem I had never imagined the leaves of those trees as the pages of a book written by God.

The most important thing in Saadi's poem for me was not God of course. The words themselves had a strange influence on me. They had the power to wash my eyes to see things around me in a new way. The poem itself was knowledge. It was as beautiful as a finger pointing to some destination, more mysterious and thought provoking than the destination. I began to read very eagerly the biographies of poets instead of reading religious books. In my eyes they were prophets. After Saadi, many poets influenced me, from Molana Jallaledin Rumi (1207 –1273 ) to Tahere Saffarzadeh(1936- 2008).

I learned from them to see with the eyes of the heart, not with the eyes of the head. This is the first step to write poetry, I think.

As for introducing an American audience with no knowledge of Iranian traditions to our poetry, I must mention four important poets: Hafiz, Saadi, Molana and Ferdousi. Their poems are in fact the real borders of our country; so when reading our poetry, every foreign reader must keep in mind that our country will never be invaded by any army, simply because Iranians' identity is poetry.

WV     You have published an anthology of contemporary women's poetry. What themes, if any, does that poetry share? Are Iranian women writers more similar to Iranian male writers, to women writers in other countries, or to both? Who are some of your favorite female poets?

FHM     That anthology introduces women poets of the 20th century, and I selected poems which deal with important fragments of the history of the 20th century: the Second World War, the rise of Communism, Stalin's Russia and different totalitarian regimes.

As for Iranian women writers, most of them write as women, so they are not similar to male writers. Especially after Forough Farrokhzad, the Iranian woman poet learned to find her voice and speak for her own subjects. Among the women who write novels, we have fine and strong writers like Zoya Pirzad and Fariba Vafi, but I think they are not comparable with great women novelists of the world like Margaret Atwood. Yet I admire writers like Goli Tarraghi who writes about Iranian families, and her stories are a very vivid and clear portrait of our years before and after revolution. Among poets, we have great poets like Simin Behbahani, Forrough Farrokhzad, and Professor Dr. Tahere Saffarzadeh. The latter recently died. She had found real poetry in the Koran and translated it to English. This translation is really a masterpiece.

WV     What subjects have most interested contemporary women poets in Iran? Do you think female poets worldwide have any special responsibility or relation to particular subjects, such as domestic life and politics?

FHM     Forough Farrokhzad in one of her famous poems comes to this strange conclusion that to be a poet is a green delusion in comparison with being a wife and a mother.

Have in mind please that she left her husband and little son for the sake of poetry. After her divorce and at the peak of fame and success she wrote:

Which peak, which summit?

O simple words of deception What did you give me?
If I stuck a flower in my own hair,
Would it not be more alluring
Than this fraud, than this paper crown?

Give me refuge, O simple whole women
Whose slender fingertips
The exhilarating movement of a fetus beneath the skin
And in whose opened blouses
The air always mingles with the smell of fresh milk.

The poem ends with these terrifying lines:

You never progressed,
Yours has been a descent."

That was from the poem: "Green Delusion," translated by Michael Hillmann.

I find this poem as the manifesto of women's poetry: a woman ignoring her nature withers instead of growing.

Iranian women's poetry never fell in the well of feminism even through Forough Farrokhzad's poetry. In her last poems she reaches a very rich and strong poetry, not in the cage of "self" any more.

In my opinion, feminism is a well of personal poetry, which poets like Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton deepened more and more. I prefer Adrienne Rich or Emily Dickenson or Gabriela Mistral. In Iran poets like Simin Behbahani and Tahere Saffarzadeh could go beyond their personal problems, too, and you may find in their poetry eternal songs of most beautiful Muses for peace, love, and liberty. I agree with Medbh McGuckian when she says:

I have a great affection for the picture of Emily Bronte 's loaves rising, but am fonder of Tsvetaeva, one daughter living, one daughter dead, clearing a defiant space on the kitchen table. To be torn apart by births or revolutions or both, and survive at least for a time, is a prerequisite for the fullest genuine genius to flower. —Delighting the Heart: a Notebook by Women Writers

WV     In the poem, "Birdsong," by Rumi, Grief tells the poet, who declares that "sorrow is sweet": "You've ruined my business./How can I sell sorrow,/when you know it's a blessing?" As a poet who has experienced both birth and revolution, tell me, do you think of sorrow as a blessing?

FHM     I know happiness as the most beautiful aspect of perfection or eminence. I even find it the true meaning of virtue. Yet if we can reach it through the dark tunnels of sorrow, I find it sweet too. Edith Södergran, the Swedish poet (1892 - 1923), has written a love poem for pain because of its sweet fruit, sorrow:

Do you know pain?
She is strong and big with secretly clenched fists.
Do you know pain? She is a hopeful smile with eyes red with tears.
Pain gives us all what we need—
She gives us the keys to the realm of death
She pushes us through the gate when we still hesitate.
Pain baptizes the children and remains awake with the mothers
And forges all the golden-rings.
Pain rules over everything, she smoothes the brow of the thinker,
She clasps the jewel round the neck of the desired woman,
She stands by the door when a man is leaving his love ...

Luck has no song,
luck has no thoughts, luck has nothing.
Push your luck so that she breaks, for luck is evil.
Luck comes softly in the whisper of morning among the sleeping bushes,
Luck glides away in the light images of clouds over deep blue depths,
Luck is the field that sleeps in the burning heat of noon,
Or the endless expanse of the sea under the piercing vertical rays,
Luck is powerless, she sleeps and breathes and does not know anything ...

What else does pain give to the ones she loves?
She gives pearls and flowers, she gives songs and dreams,
She gives us a thousand kisses which are all empty,
She gives us the only kiss that is true.
She gives us our strange souls and curious desires,
She gives to all the highest gain in the life:
Love, loneliness and the face of death.

WV     Tell me about your writing life: you're a poet, a journalist, an anthologist, an interviewer—do you find yourself pulled in many different directions, or do the different kinds of writing intersect and contribute to each other? Do you have a favorite?

FHM     Some poets treat the Muse of poetry like a slave. She must come with them shadow by shadow to serve them. That is why their poetry is spiritless, full of routines. I try to go on my way, leaving the Muse of poetry to find herself. My activities as translator, journalist, anthologist and interviewer make possible my mind to enrich itself and wait patiently for return of the Muse whenever she wants. Then we can enjoy discussing with each other. I give her my thoughts and she grants me her feelings.

WV     You are also a wife and a mother. To what extent have those relationships, and the fabric of daily life, been part of your poetry? Are there differences in general between the way American and Iranian women poets approach the relation between domesticity and poetry?

FHM     The daily life of a woman is her kingdom: dishes, laundry, children, husband, unfinished works and unreachable solitude. Without this kingdom, a woman's poetry is a ghost, condemned to be influenced by literature, not by real things and relationships. As for my poetry, I think if you take daily life from it, you will not find even one drop of blood in its body any more! Even when I speak about politics, my words try to show my worries as a woman and mother for the lost peace.

Regarding the differences between Iranian and American women poets, I find a main difference: Iranian women write to make the bonds stronger, while American women write to reach more independence. Both of them dream of freedom: Iranian women in the cage of love and American women in the cage of feminism.

WV     What do you think about the relation between poetry and politics? Is there a poet you particularly like who negotiates well between poetry and political content? Could you share a poem that you have written about motherhood and politics?

FHM     According to an Iranian poet, "poetry" is indeed the art of not to mean what you say, "politics" the art of not to say what you mean. So political poetry is a contradiction in terms like a modern dinosaur! or Holy War! or childless mother! That is why he asks: "What is political poetry about, if not about logic-breaking realities?" I personally used to find the words above the clouds before the war. The falling of bombs from the sky exiled my poetry to the basement, where I should seek refuge. Honestly my words can never trust the clouds any more!

And here is my poem about motherhood and politics:

A Letter from an Iranian Mother to an American Mother

If as a tourist
your son comes to my country
my son will be kind with him
Simply because in our religion
a guest is a gift of God
even if he is our long-standing enemy.
We will share our bread with him
And we'll offer him
the green shadows of trees
So that your son feels at home
And walking in the streets with your son,
Shoulder to shoulder,
like a kind sister
My daughter will dedicate to him
poem by poem
The spirit of her mother land
Like Marina Tsvetaeva
Who dedicated Moscow to Mandelstam
Church by church
And the small pigeons also that rise over them

If as a soldier
your son comes to my country
My son will be a defender
While your beloved son has no choice
But to be a killer
And if he, God forbidden, my only son, dies
My sigh will kill your son everyday.
His tongue will shrivel to dust
Because it didn't say no to the dictator
His eyes will fall out of their sockets
Because they didn't see the human rights
And lastly
His heart will be the portion of hungry dogs
Simply because an aggressor doesn't deserve a heart.
Surely because an aggressor doesn't deserve a heart.

And who more than you as a mother believes
In the power of my sigh as a mother?
a burning sigh which turns into an invisible fire
stronger than nuclear bombs.
much stronger than nuclear bombs.

Then, in the absence of our beloved sons,
you and I will have no one but God
The same God who makes flow the milk
in mother's breast.

(A note on "sigh": Iranians believe in the "sigh," or "ah," a deep breath to express sadness. For them the sigh of the oppressed, impresses. The sighs of the oppressed pursue the oppressor, and the oppressor is doomed to be punished. It will happen by a mysterious power in nature. We try to warn against cruelty by admonishing: "his or her sigh will burn your life.")

Among political poets I admire Dr. Samual Hazo, Mahmoud Darwish, Naomi Shihab Nye, Adrienne Rich, Forrough Farrokhzad, Tahereh Saffarzadeh, and a number of South American poets.

WV     Your poem ends with these lines:

Then, in the absence of our beloved sons,
you and I will have no one but God
the same God who makes the milk flow
in mother's breast.

What are your thoughts about the relationship of poetry and religion? Would you make a distinction between God and religion, between religion and spirituality?

FHM     I, by nature was incapable of prayer and resignation. Only through poetry and literature could I reach metaphysics. The first time I believed in God with all my heart was the morning after giving birth to my child. I found my breasts full of milk. What a strange feeling! I needed to stand and pray. I never forgot that morning.

For many years I had in mind to describe that moment in a poem but I couldn't. Writing the above poem (a letter from an Iranian mother to an American mother), in the second stanza, with the flowing of blood, I remembered the flowing of milk, and I couldn't resist to put an end with the name of God.

As a mother I am sure God's message is spirituality. He wants us to enrich our spirits instead of having intolerance regarding our religious ideas.

WV     Do you think women poets worldwide have any special role with respect to poetry or to each other? In what ways does Wom-Po facilitate that role? Are there any changes that could help Wom-Po serve women poets who do not live in the United States better?

FHM     Without women, poetry loses her fountainhead. Wom-Po members from east to west give it depth and brightness by exchanging their experiences. Any political prejudice or social prejudgment will make muddy this limpid water.

As for the last part of your question: if Wom-Po wants to help women poets who don't live in America, first it must help her own American members by encouraging them to be brave as poets. One Wom-Po wrote a letter to me when I asked her permission to publish my interview with her in Iran, and she worried that if America were to go to war with Iran and her sentiments were to appear in the Iranian press, her comments might be construed as anti-American propaganda and get her in trouble. What is the meaning of such a message but this: Let poetry be a motto, not an honest thing related to our real life.

WV     How well you think the Letters to the World anthology represents women poets worldwide?

FHM     I need more time to read all the poems, but I have found strong works in this anthology. The most precious aspect of it is its peaceful message. We must have in mind it was published in a time when American politicians had divided the world between two groups: those who are with us and those who are not with us. This anthology by publishing poems from all around the world from America to Iran resisted seeing some nations as enemies. Letters to the World is indeed a beautiful symbol of uni-verse!

WV     Do you like to travel? What place would you most like to visit outside of Iran that you have never been?

FHM     I prefer the corner of my solitude and my books to all countries. The last time I traveled, in the airport of Geneva I was separated from other passengers because I was an Iranian. All the beauties of that city lost their color in my eyes. I could stay for three months, but I came back after one week to my innocent motherland where it was caught in an imposed war directed by America.

I only wish I could visit the tomb of Marina Tsvetaeva in Russia, unknown in a mass grave.


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