Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Persis Karim

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Editor Alan Parry had the opportunity to sit down with scholar and poet Persis Karim to discuss her approach to poetry, her heritage, the impact of Lockdown on the arts, and her role as the Guest Reader for The Broken Spine Artist Collective: Fourth Edition.

What led you to a career in education?

Well, I guess my passion for education was passed to me through my parents, who are immigrants. My father was from Iran, my mother from France, and they came here as accidental immigrants from their respective countries, which had been occupied during the war. My father, in particular, really pushed the idea of education – that is the immigrant philosophy that you need education to transform your life. So, I think I was always inclined to do something with language and literature, and I was always very interested in stories and poetry, even as a child. 

Then, when I decided to go to graduate school in the 1990s, I really wanted to know more about the Middle East, because I grew up in a time when there were not many Iranians here in the US. So, I predated the mass exodus from Iran.

So, I decided to go get a master’s in Middle East Studies. And then I decided that I really wanted to study literature, so that became the focal point of my education. And then, when you do pursue a PhD, I think teaching becomes an obvious outcome of that. I loved my experience of teachers who inspired me, so I wanted to be the same kind of wellspring of inspiration for others. I got a job after I left the University of Texas in Austin at San Jose State, which is where I met Kate Evans and Cathleen Miller. I taught in the English and Comparative Literature department. And because I have always written poetry, I naturally felt that it would be an opportunity to teach creative writing as well.

My main kind of thrust around literature has been as an editor of anthologies of Iranian American literature, of which there had not been any before I started doing that in 1998. So, in a way, my literature bent has been really focused on giving voice to people who did not previously have voices that were recognised in the body of literature of the United States. 

I have read that your father was Iranian and with your mother being French, I was aware that you are the child of immigrants to America. Clearly self-identity is a huge thing, and it has provided you with impetus professionally, and creatively. I was interested to hear about how your relationship with your mother’s French heritage compares to that with your father’s…

Well, interestingly, it was not as powerful for me because it was more accessible.

So, my mother went to France to visit her mother several times during my childhood. And then when I was 13, I went to France with her for the first time, since I studied French in high school. I think it was the allure of a place that seems so misunderstood and inaccessible that drew me to my Iranian part. My French part is much better established in terms of having spent time in France, and I speak French a little better than I speak Persian, because I think I was exposed to it a lot younger, although my parents did not speak anything but English at home because, at the time, assimilation and learning the language of the host country was so important – especially for my parents, because they were from two different contexts. I think it was more comfortable for them to speak English. 

My French side is pretty well established in that I feel comfortable going there. And I have quite a few family members – cousins – who live throughout France. In 2013 I took my son to France to visit family, and I did a little research about my mother’s background. During the war, my mother’s family were Protestant – they were the Huguenots. During the war, my mother worked for a Protestant organisation that worked with Jewish orphans who had been separated from their parents. helping to find safe homes because their parents were shipped off to their deaths. So, I did some research about that. And, you know, it is one of those things where you have to stay on it, and because I have a full-time job, I have not pursued it, but I think the war was a defining thing for both of my parents.

So that that was a defining chapter in both of their lives I think, because they both experienced occupation. In my mother’s case, it was more immediately traumatic because she was dealing with traumatised people, her brother was killed in Morocco during the war, and her older brother was a prisoner of war. She kind of shut the door, in terms of memories, on France. So, I think it was harder for me to gain an emotional connection through her to that background. But I have been resurrecting some documents and photographs of my parents, and I have started writing a little bit about both of them, because I think it is really interesting that they both came here immediately after the war ended. And neither one of them really intended to be an emigrant; they just ended up here. And then they found each other accidentally. So, it is both a unique story, and also not so unique in that many people came to the US after the war.

But the fact that they both kind of had these unique experiences of the war, my father worked on the railroads, during the war in Iran, and to expand this Southern front of the war effort into the Soviet Union to transport munitions. I am sort of fascinated by all these things that now as I am older, I really wish I had more time with them to ask those kinds of questions. So, it is partly a work of research and partly a work of imagination to write about both of their lives. 

bunch of fruits

So, there’s a relationship between memory and creativity there for you…

Yeah, I think so, and also, the idea that there are omissions of memory that become important places of creative opportunity. Both of my parents left me with photographs, and my father left me with some writing. But I think in a lot of ways, it is the job of the writer, to take the material and do something with it, even if it is all factually documented. To find a creative way to construct something from it, that will be interesting and accessible to audiences who are maybe much more distant from those individual experiences.

Clearly, you have worked admirably and tirelessly within the field of Iranian Diaspora Studies and that is perhaps birthed from personal experience, your familial experience. What advice do you think you could offer an emerging press like The Broken Spine, on redressing the racial imbalance in the UK poetry scene? How might you advise an emerging press like ourselves so they can better reach these underrepresented people and communities? How do we begin to break down barriers?

Well, you have to look for that work. I think, specifically you solicit that work, you say, ‘We want work from writers of colour!’, or ‘We want work from immigrants!’ I think you must specifically request that. But also, through building connections to communities. I feel that I have been very successful in not celebrating the individual writer, but celebrating the idea of communities of writers. 

I have been doing workshops over the years, and a friend and I did a couple where we explored identity through writing. We particularly served the Iranian community. I also think the anthologies I have worked on are really their collective efforts. Somebody once called me a midwife, and I kind of liked the idea that I was helping to birth something. I did not believe that it was my job to just write the definitive Iranian American collection of poetry or nonfiction. Rather, I wanted to sort of see what was out there, capture it; and recognise that there is no one individual experience. So, the anthologies really have two functions: to give voice to an otherwise marginalised group; and to build confidence in the value of those stories, narratives, and poetry in a larger audience outside of that individual community. So, if you were to publish an issue where you target writers of colour, or immigrant writers, you would immediately find there is no lack of it. It is just that nobody has approached them and encouraged them before. And that is how you create a brand by saying, ‘We’re interested in this stuff. We want to highlight it.’ Frankly, I know there are lots of fabulous writers just in the UK. 

One of the visions I have as an editor and maybe a writing mentor, is to really find young voices, because in some ways, it is a dynamic force. If you can cultivate younger people to feel like there is a space for them, right? So, you reach out to high schools, and maybe you do a poetry reading in a high school setting and encourage submissions. Sometimes you will get work that it is not very good. But more importantly, you create a space where people feel like, ‘Wow, I can do this. Somebody cares about my story and my literature.’ You know as well as I do, that places like the UK and the US are so much more interesting because of the inflections of cultural movement that have come through from a history of colonialism and immigration. We have to celebrate that, and I think if you make the proactive choice to dedicate one issue to this, suddenly you will find a million others that want to come and publish in your Artist Collective

red-leafed plants

Thank you! That is real sage advice. We are proud to have published people from all sorts of communities, and we make a particular effort to publish an under-19 poet in each of our issues. We are very open to pushing this issue of inclusivity further! Changing direction… Have you been on any literary pilgrimages?

Every day is a literary pilgrimage!

I guess that depends on what you mean by literary pilgrimage, if you mean, places that are deeply connected to me, my family, my heritage, maybe France is the most prominent one, but I guess I am not very mainstream, in terms of how I approach writing. I am deeply inspired by nature, all the time. I go for a walk every day down by the bay. For me those are exercises in attention, and being present – looking at, and looking for things that make me want to create. I am one of these people who collects everything. I collect feathers, leaves, and rocks.

I am an avid photographer. Recently, I was outside walking around my neighbourhood, taking photographs of nature. But I also like to take kind of urban photos too. One of the things about the lockdown that is interesting is how you do not have the same contact with urban culture and people. So last year, before COVID hit, I was taking the train to work in San Francisco – I live in Berkeley. I was taking these extremely crowded trains, where your faces are two inches apart, and your hands are practically touching. I did a whole series of photographs of people’s hands, because they were so expressive on a train. That is what I would call a literary pilgrimage. I am less enamoured with the idea of a single theme than if I was writing a novel or a nonfiction book. Maybe then I would more deeply engage in a place or a phenomenon, but right now, no.

Seemingly, you find that inspiration in the everyday…

Yes, I do. Now more than ever, I am so aware of what a tremendous gift it is to be healthy, and have the means to still be employed, so that I can go for a walk and still come back to my computer and teach my classes.

Have you always been artistic? Have you always written poetry and taken photographs?

The photographs are more recent, but I have always written. As a child I kept a diary. And I think because I grew up with six children. I am the youngest of six, I always felt like there was a way in which I did not feel seen enough. So, for me, writing was this way of sort of visualising, or documenting, or wrestling with things. I have always been drawn to writing as a form of expression. 

My parents were both very artistic. My mother was somebody who made things all the time – she loved ceramics. She was not a professional, but for forty years she made things out of clay. She was very drawn to making stuff. I would say that more than a writer, I have always been a maker. My father was a very frustrated artist, I think, because he had six kids, and he was an engineer it was difficult. But towards the end of his life, he started writing. I think the impulse to create was all around me. We did not have a television until I was eight or nine. My parents were from old worlds – they did not grow up with the kinds of luxuries that we have now. So, we were always a little bit out of the mainstream, and I found myself learning how to entertain myself by making stuff.

Iranians have a very highly developed poetry culture. Everybody in Iran grows up reciting poetry, knowing poetry, and can recite poetry from the great classical poets of the 13th and 14th centuries because the language has not changed that much. My father was always reciting poetry. Ironically, he loved Omar Khayyam. He was drawn to Edward FitzGerald‘s translation because it was the only English translation available. So, I grew up hearing Omar Khayyam in Persian, and then my father would read it in English. I think that impulse of hearing poetry, and feeling it is an organic thing, as opposed to schools and that kind of highbrow culture of poetry – I think it always made me feel like there was something magical about poetry and I wanted to access that.

I look back fondly on my own personal experience of poetry being a communal thing, something that we shared as a family. I remember being on caravan holidays, and my nan reading silly rhymes for us and us all laughing. Then later I remember my dad taking me out my first drink. We went to see Dr John Cooper Clarke and there was a whole room full of people laughing and engaging. So, for me poetry has always been a communal thing. Of course that is different to writing itself, because that can be quite a solitary endeavour. Can you describe your writing process?

Somebody asked me yesterday, ‘Do you write every day?’ And I said, ‘No, I wish.’ I am very unattached to the idea of writing for an audience. Whereas, I am very attached to writing for a way to capture something. If you looked at my Facebook page you would see I have been keeping a diary for a year. It is called the COVID Blues Diary. I am on day 345 right now. I do not write every single day, but almost every two days, and I post my photographs. Sometimes it is prose. Sometimes it is poetry. Sometimes it is just a short snippet, an impression. I am very driven by the idea of sharing

There is a whole culture of producing books and producing followers. I am not really interested in that. And maybe it is my age. I did not get an MFA. I am just interested in sharing work. I would say that I am a writer who believes in the capacity of writing to connect people, not producing audiences. I think that Is an impediment because you do not sell books or you do not you do not get famous in the same way. But I feel that  there’s a lot of culture of producing writing, but sincerity is really important to me.

My own work is grounded in a sincere attention to life and to words. I feel like that is a choice that I am making while other people are really interested in the idea of books, and audiences that they can then translate into followers. And I guess for me, writing is a much more dynamic and individual experience. I think that’s kind of why the anthology experience I have had was like being involved in something that has a bigger vision, beyond my own self. I suppose it is important to me. I do not know that I came to it with that consciousness, but now I feel more than ever that the work that I want to do has some kind of resonance for others in terms of either opening doors or inspiring them, or emulating models of community and thinking, rather than individualism and a kind of mastery. I would just say that’s kind of the teacher in me. I do not approach teaching in the way that I have mastery and ‘Here it is. Let me deliver this.’ I am much more interested in fostering the collective discoveries.

Well, I do not think that a published poetry collection is in any way a judgment on a writer’s worth. A published book is not necessarily better than anything unpublished. There are many poets, independent poets out there now who are  just as good a writer as your Bukowskis. But they will not be remembered the same becuase they will not have the same commercial success. This is not a comment on the quality of the work.

Yeah, and you know, I think that sense that there is enough room for everybody is an idea I want to cultivate. There does not have to be five great poets, or five great Iranian American poets – there is enough room for everybody. Let us just breathe art, like let us make it so available that it is like oxygen, you know, so full heartedly.

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What would you say that you look forward to most about joining The Broken Spine as guest reader?

Well, I like to be connected to writers and writing communities that I would not normally have the occasion to encounter. The idea that you are interested in me, makes me want to be interested in you and the universe that you belong to. I feel that I am a person of international vision, because of my background – I feel that I have never been drawn just to one cultural perspective or one literature. I teach comparative and world literature, and the reason why I think that I am so drawn to that is that there are so many places and people in the world, that we cannot go visit everything. Literature is like a conveyance of transport, cultural transport. 

Yes, and of course historically much literature has been about foreign lands, and adventure that readers were unable to visit and experience.

Yeah, and sometimes works of imagination can be fiction which you then have to unpick from the reality. But for me, the idea of connecting to writers and readers that are beyond the realm that I might have access to is just invaluable. I think a lot of times we get in our little boxes, or silos of thinking. When somebody from another country reads something that I have written and tells me that it is wonderful, or moving, or powerful, I am delighted –  because sometimes you think, because nobody in your little world recognizes you, or has read your stuff, It must be no good. I mean, that’s kind of an automatic judgment that we sometimes make about our work. But I think when you have that sense that something is valued by people who you have never even encountered before, it is exciting and inspiring, and it makes you want to produce more stuff. 

I will just give you a little example. I am part of this project called the Al-Muttanabbi Street Project, which is a really amazing collective of people around the world that have been brought together by a wonderful poet in the Bay Area named Beau Beausoleil. He used to own a bookstore. He is an older guy. But when the bombing on Muttanabbi Street in Baghdad happened in March 2007, he brought together poets from all over the United States to commemorate what that bombing meant in terms of loss of culture, as an attack on free speech. It was incited by the US/British invasion of Iraq, and it was his way of saying ‘This is what war does to culture!’ I have been a part of this collective of poets, and printers, and bookmakers, who acknowledge what the invasion of Iraq has done to the Iraqi people – but it is also a model for understanding violence and what happens to cultures. He recently published the poem that I wrote for this project, Shadow and Light, which is to commemorate the number of Iraqi academics who have been assassinated since the invasion of Iraq. There has been hundreds and hundreds of targeted assassinations of academics, mostly people who were critical of either the government or the invasion. Beau sent me some of the comments on the piece that I wrote about this woman who was assassinated. She was the dean of the law school in Mosul, and I could not find anything about her. I wrote the poem mostly out of thin air. Several people wrote to him, and he sent me those comments and it was so moving. I reread the poem for the first time since I wrote it in April 2020 and I cried, because it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and I could feel my own sense of fear and loss. So, I think having readers and peers, and engaging in cultural work with people who are from far beyond your immediate surroundings kind of feeds you, so want to keep doing it.

That is so inspirational. Now, I do not want to I do not want to downplay the impact of war, and those despicable  acts that you have just spoken about at all. But I recognise that there is a definite correlation between that, and what we are going through now. I often wonder how it is going to have a lasting impact on the arts. I was interested to hear how you think the landscape might change going forward.

Well, it is a very interesting thing because I think many people have become more creative because of the slowed down time. There is a certain sadness and loss, and loneliness and, of course, grief associated with this time. Not to speak of all the people who have been lost and most of whom have been lost needlessly. I think that what it is going to do is it is going to make us hungry for connection. I think art has been the one tether of connection that has sustained a lot of people. I see people doing more writing, collaging, and making stuff than I have ever seen. So, there is this idea of creativity born from boredom and isolation. The one thing that I know is that people have become more in touch with their own creative selves, and what I hope for is that they become more appreciative of those who are creators for the rest of us – whether it is making a show for Netflix, or writing a poem.

But it is also true that the arts have suffered terribly economically. You know as well as I do, it is artists who were performers who suddenly have no venue to perform at, or people who were hired to do commissions that involved being in spaces, for a mural or something who will suffer. I think it is going to be a long recovery. Even if we want to be idealistic and say, ‘Oh, everybody loves the arts. Everybody appreciates the arts.’ I think, structurally, we do not know how the arts can come out of this and be sustainable for people to be full time artists, and I do not think there is honestly any conversation about that. 

minimalist photography of yellow art neon light signage

You cannot rescue the arts by throwing money at it and saying, ‘OK, here you go. Figure it out.’ I think we have to structurally rethink things, and I do not know how that conversation will come about. In some ways, it is the same dynamic that surrounds global climate change. It is like we need to have those almost paradigm shifts about art and culture, and what its relationship is to how we live in the world. I really do not know what the answer is. I think one of the things that will, and perhaps maybe even has already happened, is that people are connecting through art more than they have ever connected before. For example, I go to these Zoom book readings and I mean, they are deeply unsatisfying in terms of being on-screen things. But I also feel ‘Somebody made this, I need to be there for them.’ I went to a poetry reading last week of a friend of mine, and it was so frustrating because the technology was shitty and kept cutting out. It was a little too long for me, so I just said, ‘Right, I’m just going to cook, and turn on the volume and let this play through the airwaves because it’s a form of oxygen.’  

Just how do I think we will come out of this? I do not really know if the arts can survive economically in the way we need them to survive in a time of deep economic distress. But I think a lot of people are doing free stuff. They are producing stuff for others, and I actually think it is saving us. I think artists and the spirit of connection will save us from utter doom and gloom. I think maybe there will be a way in which we might rethink how art is for everybody, it might become the great democratization of the arts. It will not mean that people can make a living from the arts, perhaps in the way that they would like. But maybe that is okay, and in some ways we will come to understand the value of art for our own survival, and our own humility. This will help us in dealing with a time like this. That is my hope anyway. 

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