The Language of War: Three Questions With Poet Solmaz Sharif

Solmaz Sharif
Solmaz Sharif.

Solmaz Sharif’s first book of poetry, LOOK (Graywolf Press, 2016), was a finalist for the National Book Award. Although her visit to FIT has been canceled due to precautions taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we had the opportunity to speak with her about her work and her experiences becoming a U.S. citizen.

How did the book come about?

I was collaborating with a dear friend of mine, a visual artist named Samira Yamin, who was doing a series of prints using images from U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She wanted me to caption them using military euphemisms. I could think of a few: occupation, military sweep—words used in the news media. Then I saw that the U.S. Department of Defense has a whole dictionary devoted to rewriting the English language to fit the context of war. I began to write a poem using these words. It took me a year with the document to realize that this wasn’t a single poem; it was an entire collection. My poems interrogate the language of power and state-sponsored language, and they explore the ways in which violence against bodies is premeditated in violence against language.

Cover of LOOK, by Solmaz Sharif
The cover of LOOK.

Why is it called LOOK? What do you want your readers to see?

It’s not so much what I want them to see as how I want them to see. There’s always a new “what” to look at, sadly, and always a desire to look at the spectacle and allow the spectacle to exist in isolation. The book is a plea for a kind of poetic attention to the world that acknowledges the “grievability” of lives—a term from Judith Butler. I am trying to close the distance between the violence we are perpetuating and the mundane lives we live at home that are enabled by this violence.

The title refers to the period, in mine warfare, in which a mine is “receptive to influence.” “Influence” is the person who steps on the mine. This is an example of taking a mundane word and then adding a definition that is incredibly violent, and euphemizing the violence within the definition. That was one of the most disturbing examples, how everyday words are being redefined.

You’re of Iranian descent and were born in Turkey. How has that affected your viewpoint?

I was an infant when my family ended up here. I was exposed to the immigration process, which is an incredibly violent and degrading process that forces you to lay your life bare and to make an argument of your life that proves you are not a threat, you are grateful, and you are subservient, and that you have some kind of economic or intellectual value to offer the nation.

Whenever a new travel ban comes up, some part of the border closes off. The argument that these are doctors, grad students, people who are accomplished and can enrich the economy of this nation—that whole line of argument I find reprehensible. Because the reality is, given the choice between staying in a home and leaving a home, it takes a lot for people to want to leave a home.

I had to confront all the ways I did not belong, and all the avenues that were closed off to me. For example, as a kid, I was offered a gifted program at a scientific lab; that offer was removed because I was not a permanent resident or citizen. I am now a U.S. citizen. I see how freely I get to travel. Speaking with “natural born” Americans, I realize how little most know about how the immigration process works: what it means to apply for a visa, how expensive it is, how embarrassing it is, how impossible it is, and what it means to be treated as a threat to an entire nation. Most people don’t have a visceral and felt sense of this, or an intellectual one. This is part of what I’m trying to work through in my next collection.

Solmaz Sharif was to appear at FIT as part of Fine Lines: Reclaiming Imperiled Language and Culture, a grant funded by the FIT Diversity Council. The event was sponsored by Academic Affairs, the School of Liberal Arts, and the English and Communication Studies and History of Art departments. The event was funded in part by Poets & Writers through public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

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