Sogol Sur talks to Aisha Phoenix about her poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun.
Sogol Sur’s debut poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun will be published by Skyscraper Publications on the 16th of September 2017. She talks to Aisha Phoenix about sexual identity, refugees, not belonging and embracing uncertainty.
AP: When did you start writing and why do you write?
SS: Probably when I learnt how to write, which was when I was seven. I was really keen on keeping my diary and recording every insipid detail of my life. I started writing and reading at the same time in Farsi, my mother tongue.
Why do I write? Because I have to. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s an impulse. Sometimes I just have to write. It comes from within.
AP: What do you seek to express with your poetry?
SS: I don’t want to sound solipsistic, but I want to express myself. I want to express my truth, not the truth.
AP: Is your work autobiographical?
SS: Sometimes, but that’s a bit beside the point. It might be confessional or autobiographical at times, but despite that, I think many people will find that it could be their biography and they could find aspects of themselves in my collection.
AP: How do you explore queerness in your poetry?
SS: I think perhaps by developing my own writing style and by being honest about my desires and pushing boundaries.
AP: How did you get a publisher?
SS: ‘Infected Parrot’ is the first poem in my collection and it’s how I got a publisher. There was an open mic night in Senate House Library in early April that was a celebration of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, it was called ‘A Night With Mahmoud Darwish’, which is why I went there because he is one of my favourite poets.
Karl Sabbagh (founder and managing director of Skyscraper Publications) came up to me and said my poem was the only original one and asked if I had written anything else. I said I had a whole collection and he gave me his card, but said there were no guarantees that he would publish it. I just sent him my whole collection. My work was under consideration by another publisher, but when I met with Karl Sabbagh, we talked about my poems, Adunis, Darwish and Edward Said because Karl Sabbagh had been friends with him, which I took as a great sign. Karl Sabbagh sent me his essay about the last time he saw Edward Said and I thought it was really beautiful. It brought me to tears, which I also saw as a great sign.
After our first meeting in early May I knew that he was the right publisher for me.
AP: In ‘Infected Parrot’, the first poem in your collection, you talk about gender as ‘a performance’ in a way that reminded me of the work of Judith Butler. Have you been influenced by the work of any gender theorists?
SS: Yes, Judith Butler because I had to study a lot of her work, including Gender Trouble. I’m doing my PhD in Creative Writing on my short stories and an essay on Iranian queer, hybridity and Iranian female sexuality, so I had to read Foucault and my academic supervisor, Dr Heike Bauer, made me read Butler and familiarised me with queer theory, which was a great influence, not just on my writing, but in my life. It helped me understand myself, my identity and my sexual identity much better. Before that I was slightly confused about myself, but since I studied queer theory for my PhD I am more at ease and much more self-aware. So that was a good thing in my life, despite being a real challenge as I’m doing it in a different language. I’m pleased I’m doing it.
I think Judith Butler was the inspiration behind that poem. I think my creative writing, unlike my academic writing, comes naturally. Initially I don’t think about it that much, I don’t structure it that much. In poetry I need to feel incredibly inspired and that inspiration can come from anywhere. I just sit down at night and write and edit it in the morning. I do structure my fiction and I plot stories very carefully, but that is not the case with my poetry. It comes very naturally to me and I get inspired and sit down and write. If it’s good I edit it the next day, if it’s not I throw it away and say, “Well, that was good therapy.”
AP: There are some very striking images in ‘Infected Parrot’. Can you talk about what you are seeking to convey when you write:
“my mind an asylum
filled with refugees who will be deported
back, back, back.
SS: I performed this poem a few nights ago at SOAS at an event for refugees. It was me, Julia Bell and Keith Jay. I felt honoured to perform this poem. It’s heart breaking at the moment. Every time I read the news I feel paralysed and saddened by what is happening to some people just because they are from different ethnicities or war-stricken parts of the world. I wrote this poem in the midst of the refugee crisis and this was my useless contribution to the refugee crisis because I couldn’t do anything about it and I was powerless. What else could I do?
Also, any of us could become refugees. It’s not ordinary citizens who make wars happen, but it’s ordinary citizens who face the consequences. It’s not a refugee crisis, it’s a human crisis. It’s not fair that refugees are facing this huge crisis because they are the ones who are facing wars and escaping wars. It could happen to any of us.
AP: Also, in your work there is a sense of liminality, a state of being in between the ‘cages’ of the Middle East and the ‘ruthless borders of enlightened Europe’ and of not belonging. Can you say a bit more about that?
SS: I think it comes from within because I’ve never felt, and never feel, I belong anywhere or to any definition. I’m terrified of being defined or labelled and there are other people who also feel the same, rather limited by definitions. So it’s also about embracing uncertainty, rather than being terrified of it. Perhaps the only thing I’m terrified of is certainty. I am an uncertain person. I have never experienced that sense of belonging. I do not like to be defined by any labels. I do believe any definition is a limitation. In that sense I am a bit of a post-modernist. I celebrate not belonging. I feel it is my privilege not to belong anywhere and not to be limited by conventional definitions and I do consider myself lucky to know that about myself and embrace that about myself. And I am very privileged that my friends and family love me and embrace me the way I am, especially my father who has been a great role model and taught me how to cultivate my ambition without losing my compassion and humanity.
AP: Can you talk about the significance of the recurring broken bed in your poetry?
SS: A bed is a very concrete image, but a broken bed evokes uncertainty. You don’t know what you will get in a broken bed, but you know what you will get in a bed. It’s about that uncertainty. A bed symbolises sex, comfort and sleep, so when it’s broken it’s about that uncertainty and ‘betweenness’ and not belonging and not conforming.
AP: A recurring theme in your work is the position of Iran in relation to other Middle Eastern countries and anxiety about what the US might do to Iran. In ‘On the Phone’, you ask, “Is America going to attack us?” Do these themes relate to your experiences growing up as well as to the contemporary situation?
SS: Yes. I try to avoid politics, although some say my collection is a political manifesto. At the same time I’m obsessed with it. I try to escape from it and soothe myself with art, but that doesn’t happen because most good art is political. I seek refuge in poetry because I feel too anxious about politics. Those were my real concerns, the questions I ask in ‘On the Phone’.
I wrote it when I was 25. I was watching the news and overwhelmed by the state of the world, I called my mother and we ended up talking about politics and our political concerns for hours.
AP: In your work you also highlight racism, prejudice and stereotypes about Arabs and Pakistanis in an effort to challenge discrimination. Would you talk about how you do this and why you feel it is important to do so?
SS: I challenge racism because sadly racism is still very much alive today. There is a strong racist discourse against non-white people both inside and outside of the UK, sometimes even employed by people of colour themselves against each other. In ‘On the Phone’, I have touched upon the ancient animosity between Arabs and Persians and I have expressed my shock and sorrow upon witnessing some of my fellow Iranians demonise black people and Pakistanis. It’s not just nasty and cruel, it’s also very ignorant and I am certain this racist colonialist discourse is still prevalent in all communities. I myself have been questioned because of my ethnicity and non-whiteness, I can’t even imagine what people with darker skin shades are going through. I shall continue to challenge stereotypes as long as they exist because they’re tedious, made by tedious people for tedious, unthinking people. They are also ruthless and rob humans of their individuality.
AP: And is there anything you seek to avoid in your work?
SS: Cliché is my greatest phobia. Other than that I avoid subjects I don’t have an informed opinion about. I need to know what I am talking about. I talk about things I am genuinely interested in and it feels right.
AP: Who are the writers that inspire you?
SS: I’m inspired by Mahmoud Darwish. My aunt is an Arabic tutor in Tehran and she helped me understand his poems in the original language. Darwish wrote ‘Ana Yusef, Ya Abi’ and it’s done justice to my favourite fable.
When I told my sister I was doing this interview she said, “Please don’t mention Eliot because it sounds pretentious”, but there is no escape from T.S. Eliot. I still remember being taught Prufrock when I was 19 and doing my BA in English. It changed my life. That poem is the reason I became interested in contemporary poetry and writing poetry in English, before that I was interested in classical poetry.
I love Eileen Myles. I recently went to one of her readings at Goldsmiths, it was divine. ‘An American Poem’ is an important contemporary poem. I also love some of Carol Anne Duffy’s poems. ‘Warming her Pearls’ is one of my all-time favourite poems. It makes me tremble every time I read it. It’s powerful and yet sensitive and incredibly sensual and beautifully Sapphic. Pushkin’s literature got me interested in poetic language. I adore Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetry and the Romantics, especially Lord Byron, he used to be my role model when I was younger.
Sohrab Sepehri, Ahmad Shamloo and Forough Farrokhzad are my favourite Iranian poets and they all had a massive influence on my poetry writing. I love their work. In terms of contemporary Iranian poets, Reza Baraheni is an important poet in my life. His poetry helped me a lot when my mother passed away because I was in such shock I couldn’t cry until I heard his poem ‘Esmaeel’. The way Baraheni describes Esmaeel reminds me of my mother and that poem always reduces me to tears. It’s a very authentic poem. One day I’m going to translate it into English.
I also really love Ocean Vuong, the Vietnamese refugee who recently published his debut collection, which is so gorgeous, authentic and necessary; Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were both significant poets for me; Keith Jay is my favourite performance poet and he’s also a very lovely friend and PhD classmate who inspires me. Julia Bell is another of my favourite poets. She’s working on her collection and the poems are really beautiful, especially ‘Night Walking’.
Some of my favourite prose writers inspired me to get into literature, including: Iris Murdoch, Nabokov, Alan Hollinghurst, Oscar Wilde, Sadegh Hedayat, Jonathan Kemp, Deborah Levy, Lara Pawson and Anaïs Nin and of course Shakespeare.
AP: Is there a poem that is particularly significant for you in your collection, Sorrows of the Sun?
SS: ‘The Leather Sun’ is my favourite in the collection. It’s my gayest poem and the best poem I’ve written in terms of literary devices. I really love the imagery. I think the metaphors, the use of alliteration, its structure and length make it very vibrant, sensual and yet dark.
AP: You certainly do use very evocative imagery of the sun in your work, not only in ‘The Leather Sun’, but also in ‘Game’, for example. What’s behind the name of your collection: Sorrows of the Sun?
For me, the Sun represents Iran and the Middle East and it represents emotion and heat and light and it represents warmth, but also deadly attraction, like the myth of Icarus. To me it represents height and ambition, but also danger because it’s too hot. It’s also for the reader to find out. If they read the collection they will know why I named it Sorrows of the Sun.
AP: Who do you hope will read your work?
SS: Anybody who enjoys poetry and anybody who enjoys good poetry. I do hope what I have written is good poetry, so hopefully anybody who likes good poetry might enjoy it. I also hope it appeals to people who might be outcast.
There are people who get my poetry instantly and say, “It has everything in it. I was blown away.” This poetry collection is for them.
AP: You have a couple of lines in your poem ‘Game’ in Farsi. Are you hoping that Iranians and Farsi-speakers more generally will read your work?
Yes of course, because poetry is international and that’s why I wrote it in the international language. Art doesn’t have a language, it’s beyond that. Language is just my medium, it’s not my end. It’s just a tool for me and anybody from any nationality who understands English. Those two lines are the same thing I’ve written in English, I’m just repeating them in Farsi as well, as it sounds right and it sounds beautiful. The poem is a game, it’s playful, so it’s okay if some readers feel cheated out of those lines, although they are not.
AP: What do you hope to do after your PhD?
SS: Teach literature at university, write more, publish books and essays, attend more conferences and perform more poetry.
AP: In an industry that has been taken to task for its lack of diversity and a country where sections of the media have been known to stereotype Iranians, how have you found writing, performing and navigating the industry as an Iranian woman?
SS: I wouldn’t have been where I am if I weren’t in the UK, so I do feel privileged to do what I’m doing in this country. I haven’t had much difficulty in this country. As a graduate I have been supported by Birkbeck. At times I have felt discriminated against by individuals, but I have also had opportunities to present myself. On the whole, the UK has been a welcoming country for my work and a good influence. There have been people who have been very patronising because I’m an Iranian woman, but on the whole it’s been welcoming. I have never felt like a stranger here because London is a very diverse city.
Aisha Phoenix is a Creative Writing MA student at Birkbeck College. She writes fiction and poetry and has had work published or forthcoming in: Litro USA online, Word Riot, the Bath Flash Fiction anthology and Peepal Tree Press’s Filigree poetry anthology. She has a PhD in Sociology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Aisha Phoenix is a MIROnline features writer. She tweets as @FirebirdN4.