An Interview with Bänoo Zan
by Doyali Islam
Poet, translator, teacher, editor and poetry curator, Bänoo Zan, landed in Canada in 2010. She has been writing poetry since the age of ten and has published more than 120 poems, translations, biographies, and articles in print and online publications around the globe. Her book, The Song of Phoenix: Life and Works of Sylvia Plath, was reprinted in Iran in 2010. Songs of Exile, a collection of her poems has been recently released by Guernica Editions. She is the founder of Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), the most diverse poetry reading and open mic series in Toronto. Since November 2012, the series has been bridging the gap between diverse poetry communities, bringing together artists from different ethnicities, nationalities, religions (or lack thereof), ages, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, poetic styles, voices and visions.
Facebook and LinkedIn: Bänoo Zan / Twitter: @BanooZan / @ShabeSherTO
Doyali Islam: First off, warm congratulations on the publication of your debut poetry book, Songs of Exile (Guernica, 2016)! How does it feel having your debut book out in the world, and with the spring launch on the way?
Bänoo Zan: Thank you. It feels good any time new work is out, and I’ve had that pleasure many times. That being said, it is great to have a poetry collection out. I will be thrilled if the book is well received by the readers. Anything that gives one greater visibility brings greater responsibility with it. I hope I can be as good as my message.
DI: Could you talk about the ways in which the epigraph by Rumi—“Listen to the reed’s narration / Complaining of separations”—relates to your personal experience of exile, and to the poems in the book?
BZ: Those lines are the opening of The Mathnavi, Rumi’s collection of allegorical stories in verse. These words are interpreted as his definition of literature. For me in exile, they have acquired political as well as spiritual and artistic dimensions. The epigraph from Rumi places the book in the tradition of loss and longing, i.e., in the world literary tradition.
Rumi’s lines tell the readers where I started from. The poems tell them where I am. Rumi’s allegories are stories of those alienated from themselves coming to self-realization, often in the words of others. And haven’t I met myself face-to-face more frequently after leaving my homeland! I’ve come to identify differently in many ways in this defamiliarizing land of exile.
DI: What was your path to book publication with Guernica like?
BZ: The whole experience has been like a literary fairy tale. On September 20, 2012, I read for five minutes at an event hosted by the Canadian Writers’ Association. After I returned to my seat, someone passed me a card, “Bänoo, Do you have a collection?” He was Michael Mirolla. The process of publication couldn’t have been smoother. Michael agreed to be my editor, and imposed no edits. He let me select the artist and the work for the cover, and kept the original arrangement of the poems. I feel blessed to have met a publisher and an editor who appreciates alternative voices.
DI: What was the process like, putting out a book, with all of your life experience? Also, despite all of your knowledge and experience, did you have any anxieties—while you were writing these poems or after you completed the manuscript—about how the book might be received by Canadian readers? What would you say to those who might roll their eyes and say, “Not another ‘immigrant narrative’”?
BZ: I write each poem because I cannot stop writing it. As a rule, I do not write with an eye to having the work published, either individually or in a collection. I attribute the first draft to my muse; hence, I accept no responsibility for the statements in my poetry! Collections or series emerge after I have written a considerable body of work, and see a pattern emerging. For this collection, I picked those poems that are inukshuks in my journey as an exile. I picked those no one else could have written.
The readership I have in mind is the whole world. Given the presence of almost all world cultures in Canada, arguably anyone who writes for “all” of Canada writes for the whole world. As for my feelings regarding the book’s reception, anxiety is not the word. Curiosity is. This book is about exile in the literal as well as metaphorical sense. I am an outsider like any other artist, maybe more so as a newcomer. The book addresses religious, political and ideological conflicts, alongside existential and cultural ones. These poems do not tell a personal immigrant story, if they tell any story at all. My poetry, as you might have noticed, is not autobiographical or narrative. The so-called “story” is deconstructed through awareness of alternative narratives. My poetry aims at connection and reconciliation among all, regardless of how we identify. The fact that I am an immigrant does not reduce its scope.
DI: It’s interesting to me that the book has no section breaks. Poems flow one after the other, unconstricted by content. Why did you choose this structure—or seeming lack thereof?
BZ: The epigraph is a complaint against separations. How could I separate the poems from one another without risking their complaining against me? And the multi-layered nature of my poetry does not lend itself to narrative constraints. Grouping the poems under sections would reduce them to less than what they purport to be. To help readers weave a loose narrative thread, however, I arranged the poems chronologically. The arrangement lets the readers join the speakers on literal and figurative adventures. This leaves the language open to the reader, and it is the reader who will discover one or more layers according to the miles they have gone, to wax Frostian!
Most importantly, this arrangement replicates the trajectory of newcomers. To an exile inhabiting a new culture, life happens outside the old familiar context. If you find it challenging to make sense of the structure of the book, you are experiencing what any immigrant goes through trying to make sense of a new culture.
DI: Your interview with Canadian Immigrant magazine notes that you were a university-level teacher of English Literature in Iran. Certain poems in Songs of Exile make me curious about your relationship(s) to language(s) and how these relationships have changed since you arrived in Canada at age 40. The poem “Words (III)” reads, “I look words / in the eyes / and invoke them // There is no response – / they do not recognize themselves / in my accent // Language is a silent philosopher / and I am an articulate silence” (10). Towards the end of the poem “Illicit Philosophy,” the poet-speaker slips from the English pronoun “you” to the Farsi third-person pronoun “ou” (28). Can you speak to this slippage? How do you navigate English and Farsi, both as a poet and in your everyday life? When you write poetry, do the poems arrive in English?
BZ: Note that “you” is a second-person pronoun addressing someone present, and “ou” is a third-person pronoun referring to someone absent. The slippage in the poem is not only between languages but also between different people. As you have noticed, “you” in “Illicit Philosophy” refers to the speaker’s lover and “ou” refers to Loneliness. This poem is about the triangle of love between the speaker, her lover, and Loneliness.
Persian love poetry is one of the richest poetic traditions not only for its erotic, spiritual, and political layers, but also for the language itself. Take the pronouns, for instance. In Persian there is only one third-person pronoun, “ou,” functioning for both “he” and “she.” When you read love poetry in Persian, you are reading your own story, regardless of how you identify. So, the pronoun choice is the preference of a more inclusive term over the exclusivist English ones.
Yes, these poems have arrived in English. I believe I am one of the very few immigrant poets from the Middle East who are writing in English. My education and work experience have helped me make this choice, if it ever was one. I should add, though, that I am a native speaker of poetry, and this matters more than being a native speaker of any other language.
I have been writing primarily in English since I landed. As a poet I feel the need to write in a language most people around me can access. And, whichever I am writing in, English or Persian, I am grappling with language. Poetry does not use language as it finds it. It challenges the world and the language and moderates a dialogue between the two. Poetry uses language, but it is not language: it is the nakedness in the bed of language, like forbidden love.
Sometimes it seems to me that it takes certain people a while to hear my voice, maybe because of my accent. By “accent,” I mean both my linguistic and cultural accents— the way I (mis)pronounce words, also the way I pronounce culture. Luckily, poetry is not the language of the language. Come to poetry with your heart and no foreign word, allusion or cultural reference would stop you.
DI: Motifs of birth and rebirth, the phoenix, and fire imagery are prominent in Songs of Exile. Why are these motifs important to you? Are there connections to your book The Song of Phoenix: Life and Works of Sylvia Plath, which was reprinted in Iran in 2010?
BZ: The poems in this collection have been written in Canada, with the exception of the first one. It came to me a couple of months before I landed when I was thinking what turn my life would take in the new land. These images represent the spirit of those who leave our countries, or go through other kinds of displacement. Not all of us survive. Songs of Exile celebrates the resilience of those who, in the words of Hafez, “break down the Wheel if it turns against [their] will.”
These motifs have achieved the status of archetypes for their universal appeal. The story of growth is the story of death and rebirth. If there is no fire, there is no phoenix. Sylvia Plath is not the only artist who has used them. If there is any connection between the phoenix imagery in Songs of Exile and my Sylvia Plath book, it could be that they both celebrate the spirit of defiance in the face of death— the endurance of poetry. It could also be an assertion of the speakers’ insistent presence.
DI: Another recurring theme seems to be the contemplation of race and power, and several poems speak about war, oppression, and violence. What is the relationship between your political views and your poetry?
BZ: I often say that my politics is my poetry. Yet neither poetry nor politics are the language of life. Politics is language stripped of ambiguity, imagery, and figures of speech. It is reduced to its message, remains at the surface and does not delve into connotations. It is less than life.
Poetry is more than life. It is enriched by the self-reflexivity of language. It is more than it is, tells the truths beyond its ken, tells more than it tells. A poet’s politics cannot be politics. Poetry challenges claims of truth and consistency. It is the language of confident self-doubt. It is its own voice, not the poet’s—true to honesty, not to the contemporary trends of thought.
Let me define the term “political” in the context of poetry. It does not imply party politics. Rather, it means an awareness of power struggles. In this sense, there is nothing more political than poetry. And no poet can be apolitical, unless they don’t care about poetry. I hate wars more than I hate hatred. Yet, I have been in wars all my life: against outsiders, against my own people, and against me. Poetry helps me get over defeat in wars—against people from other cultures, those from my own, and also against the self I idealize and cherish.
DI: Your poems allude to works by and/or sayings of Rumi, Firdawsi, Hallaj, Conrad, and Shakespeare. Allusions to myths, legends, and stories about Arash the archer, Socrates, Prometheus, Athena, and Zeus also appear. This intertwining of cultural and literary traditions offers a certain richness. What draws you to this plurality of cultural references?
BZ: I am not just drawn to cultural plurality. I am cultural plurality! I cannot be the voice of any one culture, even if I wish to. I have been reading and writing in both English and Persian far too long to escape the cultural influence of either one.
Any writer’s work is influenced by what they are exposed to. However, I am more than the books I have read. I am the life I have lived, or refused to live. I challenge what I read in books and in life, change them and let them change me.
Cultural references testify to other works, thus making my work less self-centred. Allusions to mythology invite you to reinterpret the original in a new context. They make a different story in every new narrative. They add to the text, taking it from itself and leading it to the imagination. Songs of Exile is about the journey of the self from roots to leaves. If it is to explain why I am the person I am, at some point it needs to address the pain of growth. How I remind myself of the eponymous hero of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne! Hopefully, like Tristram Shandy, I succeed in digressing from myself!
DI: Songs of Exile displays other metadiscursive moments in which the poetry comments on itself—on art and art-making. Can you talk about the following statements in the poem “Athena”? “Every man is a woman / at the moment of liberation / of art from the artist” and “Every author is a woman / and every woman is her text” (32). How would you describe your feminism (if you would call it that)?
BZ: In the context of that poem, woman is the ultimate creator-poet. I have a theory about poetry. I believe any great poem, regardless of its immediate subject matter, also tells the story of its creation. In other words, every great poem is a meta-poem among other things. And so it is that in the poem “Athena” the great poet-woman celebrates other poet-women.
I am an incurable—or should I say “incorrigible”?—feminist. At the risk of using a cliché, I reiterate that the act of writing poetry is like the act of giving birth. (And how do I know that? I don’t! I haven’t given birth! Yet, I speak with the same audacity Socrates did when he called himself a midwife!) Like a good midwife, you need to be present at the bedside of your voice when it is time. I thought the speaker in this poem was honouring men. When you write like a woman, you write like Life.
Believe it or not, I was almost cured of my feminism after I landed in Canada! I am not a feminist if feminism supports colonialism and invasion, or attempts to turn us into accomplices in our own self-alienation.
Feminism to me is a movement for liberation of men and women, so they can approach one another as equals. It has not achieved that goal anywhere I know. I was very disappointed to see the way men and women interact in some Toronto reading and writing circles. I see many pay lip service to feminism but do not practice it. Dear reader, these are general observations. Feel free to think they do not apply to you, even if they do!
Yes, it is easy to be a feminist in Canada. It is even expected in some places. It is a test of courage and integrity to call yourself one in Iran.
That being said, I attribute my strength to my roots, to the women in my life—to the culture that nurtured me as its outspoken critic while trying to convert, suppress, and ostracize me!
To my dismay, I have found the Iranian and Canadian cultures in some ways similar in their treatment of women. This is my feminism. It is critical of every culture that falls short of my expectations.
DI: In November 2015, Shab-e She’r Poetry Night—which you curate and host—celebrated its third anniversary. Congratulations! As an organizer, what have you learned over the years? What would you tell others who are considering starting similarly spirited events?
BZ: I have learned that I have a dream that dreams about me, and that the privilege of vision is the greatest reward for this dream.
And this is what I would tell people who wish to start similar events:
Thank you. We need more people like you to bring communities together and heal the divide that passes as multiculturalism. Be strong, be prepared to be misunderstood and ignored, be prepared to be a leader. You are a visionary. You are a peace-maker. You are almost as amazing as I am! I would love to chat with you. In solidarity!
DI: In my mind, I think of Shab-e She’r—as well as Brockton Writers Series—as doing significant work in terms of embracing diversity. But it’s more complex than that. As an attendee, I have experienced and witnessed Shab-e She’r as an inclusive space in which people of various cultures, ethnicities, personal histories, gender identities, and sexual orientations have felt safe enough to share their work during the open mic—an act that requires much vulnerability, even risk. Since a space does not just magically become “safe,” how did this happen for Shab-e She’r? What work did you and volunteers do, over time, to create this environment?
BZ: Shab-e She’r boasts the longest and most diverse open mic any poetry reading series offers in Toronto. I am a firm believer in freedom of speech, as I know how destructive censorship can be to art and democracy. Freedom of speech requires giving a platform to everyone, including those with whom you disagree.
There was some speculation that this degree of mixing among cultures would inevitably lead to conflicts. It hasn’t. Shab-e She’r responds to a need that has not been addressed in this most multicultural of the cities in the world: the need to engage the other in dialogue, understand them and be understood by them. While I impose no ban or limits, the community itself wishes to preserve it as a model of dialogue among cultures.
The other factor might be that I am a minority on many accounts. A lot of people, volunteers as well as attendees, want me to succeed in this project, perhaps because they like immigrant stories with happy endings! In all seriousness, however, I believe they acknowledge the series’s contribution to the Canadian poetry and cultural scene.
It makes a difference that most of our volunteers and team members are women, minorities and immigrants with considerable experience in organizing events, teaching, and working with people. While we are open to and encourage diversity of voices and self-expression, we know how to handle issues quietly before they develop into conflicts.
Venue is important. I have nothing against alcohol and, in fact, drink socially. However, I prefer to hold my events at alcohol-free spaces. This is a deterrent to those who prefer alcohol to art. It also elevates the performance quality of features and open-mic’ers, as it has often been noticed that poets give their best performances at Shab-e She’r.
And because our featured poets and musicians come from diverse backgrounds, the group dynamic changes every time. Sexual predators and others who put the safety of any space at risk have no interest in attending Shab-e She’r. They usually target events with an overwhelmingly young attendance. We have people of all ages and backgrounds. Diversity, I find, is the best protection against vulnerability.
DI: You seem very active in Toronto in terms of getting out and attending events put on by other reading series. Do you find that there is more crossover these days between reading-series audiences, including that of Shab-e She’r? Or, to what degree do you still observe insular communities—people who just stick to one series, to what or whom they know?
BZ: One item on the list of my duties as the organizer of the most diverse poetry and open mic series in Toronto is to get to know the poetry scene as fully as possible. If I want to bring people together, I need to know what goes on in their communities.
That is how Shab-e She’r has grown into a successful model of a grassroots movement in art. We are redefining the literary canon, refusing to let go of the minorities’ claims to it. We are facilitating an ongoing dialogue between the mainstream and minority poets. At Shab-e She’r, we don’t just wait for diversity to happen: we actively invite it. We are not eliminating the mainstream; we are making it more diverse and colourful. Ours is a series no poet can ignore. It is at our events that a poet can answer this question: Do I only make sense to people like me, or do I make sense to everyone?
While the majority still stick to what and whom they know, I seem to detect more awareness of diversity among some event organizers and audiences. Still, most events are overwhelmingly insular. The mainstream doesn’t go out of its way to include others, though it makes a gesture of tolerance when they show up. This is far from effective. Since they are enjoying the privilege, it is their responsibility to share it with others. If I could have a suggestion for this group, it would be to explore minority events, and to actively involve them in their programs. This will foster artistic innovation and peace—for we should not forget that exclusion leads to grievance.
The minority mostly keep to themselves, perhaps because of discrimination they have endured. However, this strategy consolidates their marginalization and makes it easier for the mainstream to ignore their voices. If I could have a suggestion for the minority artists, it would be to make their presence felt at mainstream events, and to involve the majority in their programs. This will lead to greater artistic opportunities and understanding among communities.
My suggestion for both is that they do not wait for the other side to take the initiative! Remember, peace is a delicate flower. It needs constant care.
DI: What is in store for you and the promotion of Songs of Exile? What other projects or goals are you looking forward to?
BZ: As far as the promotion of Songs of Exile is concerned, I will do what I can in addition to what my publisher is already doing. Yet, it is ultimately the readers, reviewers, and interviewers such as yourself who can spread the word if the book speaks to you and inspires dialogue. I wouldn’t promote the book if I didn’t believe in it, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to promote it if they do not believe in it.
My second book of poetry to be released later this year is a collection of poems I have been writing for my dad after he passed away. Letters to My Father is to be published by Piquant Press in Toronto.
I have enough material for at least two or three other books of poetry and I intend to start working on them after I submit the finalized manuscript of Letters to My Father.
If my life experiences have taught me anything, however, it is that Life’s/ God’s/ Destiny’s plans for me might not be the same as my own.
My family, lover and friends had come to the airport in Tehran, Iran, on the longest day of my life—the day I left for Canada. My sister, Zahra, was all the time taking photos and videos. In one short video, she is asking me how I am feeling. I tell her I am depressed that I am leaving my dear homeland. I add that I am curious to see what is in store for me. I haven’t lost my curiosity yet. One thing I do know is that I trust Fate while I do all I can to change it.
Thanks to Cy Strom for edits.
Doyali Islam is the winner of CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35, and her poems have been published in KROnline, Grain, and Arc. Yusuf and the Lotus Flower (BuschekBooks, 2011) was her first poetry book, and she has recently completed a second poetry manuscript. For a window onto her life and work, you might peruse her February 27th 2016 “12 or 20 questions” responses on rob mclennan’s website: http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/2016/02/12-or-20-second-series-questions-with_27.html