Poets Talk with PEN Out Loud


Eleanor Dunn ’24
Staff Writer

On Mar. 3, Scripps Presents hosted the PEN Out Loud event: Solmaz Sharif and Kaveh Akbar in conversation. These two young Iranian American poets joined virtually to discuss Sharif’s newest book, a collection of poems titled “Customs,” which is currently available for pre-order at The Huntley Bookstore. Sharif and Akbar discussed what it means to write today, the moments where language fails, and shared their favorite pieces and themes from “Customs.”

Sharif is the author of two books, “Look” and “Customs,” a professor of English and Creative Writing at Arizona State University, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016.

Akbar has three published collections: “Pilgrim Bell,” “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” and “Portrait of the Alcoholic.” He is also a Poetry Editor of The Nation and an MFA professor at Purdue University.

The conversation began with event facilitators offering a dedication and call for justice for the Iranian writer Baktash Abtin who died of preventable COVID-19 complications while detained in Evin prison in Tehran. This facility continues to hold other writers. PEN America calls for their release and an independent investigation into the death of Abtin.

Sharif began by reading two poems from “Customs:” “America,” and “The Master’s House.” Her voice brought a human quality and depth of feeling that a silent, isolated reading had not.

Following the reading, Akbar joined the virtual stage. The two contemporaries seemed to be friends. They shared stilted greetings, compliments, and laughter, the interruptions characteristic of life on Zoom.

Akbar congratulated Sharif on her new book. “When I got my first box of books in the mail, I felt a little less afraid to die,” said Akbar. “[“Customs”] will touch people you will never meet and illuminate and complicate their living.”

Sharif continued to explain what it was like to create this collection in the midst of the pandemic and a unique period of American politics, and noted that she wrote her first book in the Obama era. “In this post-Trump era… everything is out in the open and loud and noisy,” said Sharif. In response, she has made her work quieter as she seeks to name the more subtle “violences and foreclosures” of her life in this country.

Akbar said he felt desire for touch foregrounded in “Collections” and wondered if this was a symptom of the pandemic. Interestingly, Sharif said that many of those pieces were actually written pre-pandemic. “[My work is] moving into that space where language falls apart — touching is one of the central parts of that,” said Sharif. However, she was interested to see how these pieces landed differently after the pandemic.

Later in the conversation, Akbar asked Sharif to talk about coming up against the limitations of language, to which she replied, “That’s almost impossible.” This impossibility brought us to my favorite part of the conversation.

Sharif offered a visualization of her job as a writer and the impossibilities within that job: there is a wall. She sits on one side, “just kind of scratching”. And though she doesn’t know what lies beyond the wall, she continues to scratch. Maybe someone is standing nearby, so she says, “Can you hear that? Did you just hear that?” She’ll never know if either of them did, but there is something in that moment of quiet between them as they try to see if they caught it.

“Why not do that?” she said with a shrug and a smile. “Thank you,” said Akbar. “You heard it,” Sharif replied. Their respective zoom frames appeared a bit less dissonant with this image in mind.

Further in the conversation, Sharif explained that she chose poetry as her medium because of the intimate and immediate registers it hits upon. She has always craved that feeling of a poet speaking to her from the isolation of their inner world. Akbar praised her for cultivating this poetic, deep intimacy in her writing without “revealing all of the worst shit that’s ever happened to [her],” perhaps this is the power of the un-language of poetry.

For what felt very much like an informal conversation between friends, marked by humor and shared frustrations, the metaphors and rhythm of their impromptu responses made it clear that Sharif and Akbar spend a lot of time with words. I learned much from sitting in on their musings, not least of all the difficulty of paraphrasing a poet.

Image Source: Solmaz Sharif

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