Chad Sweeney teaches in the MFA program at California State University, San Bernardino and lives in Redlands. He is the author of four books of poetry: Wolf’s Milk: Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney (Forklift Books, 2012); Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James, 2010); Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga); and An Architecture (BlazeVOX); and he is co-translator of the Selected Poems of contemporary Iranian poet H.E. Sayeh (White Pine). He is coeditor of Parthenon West Review, a journal of contemporary poetry and translation. Sweeney’s poems have been included in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and The Writer’s Almanac.
How did you find Sayeh and his poems?
I found Sayeh through a wonderful accident (some would call it destiny) because of my love for the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz! I was having a rich conversation with a total stranger, Mojdeh Marashi, about the great Sufi masters Rumi and Hafiz, about their musical, mysterious blend of spirituality with secular concerns, the music of the Ghazal, and the whole celebrated tradition of Persian poetry. Mojdeh Marashi smiled wide and said, “The modern day Hafiz is a poet named H.E. Sayeh, but his poems are not really translated into English, so you probably can’t read them.” “Let’s translate one together,” I replied, and our new adventure had begun. It was the first day for each of us in joining the Masters program in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. We happened to be sitting beside each other, and we struck up a conversation about poetry, which led us to a eight-year collaboration. We began by translating one poem, but we knew right away that a complete book of Sayeh’s poems needed to be translated, so we committed to doing just that!
How long did it take you to translate his poems?
Well, eight years from that day the finished book appeared in print with White Pine Press: THE ART OF STEPPING THROUGH TIME: Selected Poems of H.E. Sayeh. We had finished most of the poems after about six years, but I was working on them right up until the book was published, as I wanted the voice to be consistent throughout, and there were still lines that felt clumsy or un-musical. The great challenge is to balance music with the images and the meaning. It’s a slippery formula, like trying to catch water with a net. The poems are so beautiful in Persian, and the meaning of the poems is not separate from that music, so it’s essential to express that music in English as much as possible, to express the full musical capacity of English just as Sayeh expresses the full musical capacity of Persian.
Did you have any support for translating it?
The most important “support” came from Mojdeh Marashi, a native speaker and my partner in the project. Mojdeh elaborated on the texture and history of each word, of each syllable, and of the myths and folktales and literary epics referenced in Sayeh’s poems, the romantic traditional gestures, the metaphysical and religious symbolism, the double meanings, the differences in grammar and syntax, and the political dynamics in Iran between 1948 – 2000, with special focus on the coup d’état of 1953 and the Revolution of 1979, the way an Iranian reader would hear and see each line in the book. Mojdeh worked very hard to teach me, and we labored over every nuance and gesture. She also traveled to Germany and Iran to speak with Sayeh directly.
The renowned Persian poet and scholar, Shafii Kadkaani (currently teaching at Princeton), also agreed to read the book and to make suggestions. We were also supported by the American literary community, as many of the poems were published by important national literary journals, such as American Letters & Commentary, Crazyhorse, Poetry International, Atlanta Review and the Indiana Review, and two poems were chosen for Shole Wolpeh’s important Anthology, “The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its Exiles.” In addition to all of that, I was fortunate to win a large grant (Cultural Equities Grant) from the San Francisco Arts Commission, and White Pine Press won grants from the NEA, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts. We’re grateful for all of this support, and to Denise Maloney, editor and publisher of White Pine Press, and Elaine Maloney for doing the layout and the design.
Which one of his poems do you like the best and why?
There are several “best” poems, each in its own class. There’s a long poem in the middle of the book called “The Dance of Burning” that reaches the greatest philosophical depth, an inspired poem which reminds me of why I love Rumi and Hafiz so much. Here’s an excerpt of this ten page poem:
What is light but the laughter of Being? Laughter drunk on its own joy?
Light has twirled in seven curtains Before coming to circle in this mirror
Color is the raiment, the red and the white, But the nude body of light is invisible
A few starlings sit on that low branch— How many starlings are in the whole tree?
That little blackness is all they are But they overwhelm the sky when they fly...
The most musical poem is “Sunset on the Green,” at least in terms of what we were able to render into English. The most powerful personal poem is “Caravan,” when the young Sayeh commits to turning his art away from happy love poems and toward the national crisis of poverty and inequality—a fascinating, passionate poem! And equally provocative and perhaps even more haunting is “Arghavaan,” a poem in which Sayeh calls out from his prison cell to the flowering tree in his family garden, “Arghavaan, become my bleeding poem. Keep the memory of my loved ones red on your tongue!”—while in prison during the years after the Islamic Revolution. The poem that contains all others is the masterpiece, “Exiled,” for its music, philosophy, romance and historical witness, a poem which features the circling of the cosmos at the macro and micro levels, from the planets to the blood in the body, as the whirling Dervishes sought to discover and express in their ecstasies of turning. “Exiled” may be my favorite poem over all.
In literary adaptation, which American poets are comparable to Sayeh’s poems?
The traditions are so different, the question is almost impossible to answer, as we can not find Sayeh in any one poet, but perhaps in a distribution of many poets. Sayeh is a poet of large vision and formal innovation, capable of sweeping arcs of grief and love, felt at a personal and a national level. In this he is comparable to Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, though his tone feels more like Randall Jarrell on one hand and W.S. Merwin on the other, especially in Mewin’s Vietnam era masterpiece, “The Lice.” Musically, I hear a kinship with Native American poets like Joy Harjo and Maurice Kenny, especially in their great chanting poems, such as Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” and Kenny’s “Dug-Out.” And in this spirit of listening to Sayeh’s poems as incantatory works of oral mastery, Galway Kinnell shares this deep resonance with Sayeh. In Sayeh’s most personal moments, I feel Robert Lowell in one way and Robert Duncan in another. Among the European languages, I feel a closer kinship between Sayeh and Lorca, the poet of duende and silences, (which reminds me also of the haunted presences and silences in poems by L.A. poet Ralph Angel)—yet also Pablo Neruda. Yet it would be too easy to refute any one of these comparisons.
Do you know other Iranian poets and writers
Besides Rumi and Hafiz whose poems I’ve pored over now for twenty years, I’ve studied the master Ferdowsi’s epic Shahnameh (Book of Kings), and the poetry of Shafii Kadkani. And I’ve been excited by the contemporary poetry emerging from the Iranian diaspora, as witnessed in anthologies such as Sholeh Wolpe’s Forbidden and the extensive efforts of Niloufar Talebi’s Belonging.
Are you planning on translating any other Iranian literary works?
At the moment I’m working on translating a book from Spanish, Pablo Neruda’s final book, Calling on the Destruction of Nixon. After that, I’ll take a break to focus on writing my own poems. Since I began translating Sayeh, I’ve written and published four books of my own poems, and I see some of what I’ve learned from Sayeh in those books.
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