Episode 4: Solmaz Sharif

“There are certain allegiances to the myth of a nation that should not be broken but would be necessarily broken if you were to follow a line of inquiry to its conclusion, which is basically what a poem would ask you to do.”
Solmaz Sharif

Our guest in Episode 4 is Solmaz Sharif, poet and Jones Lecturer in Stanford’s Creative Writing Program.

Transcript: Episode 4, Solmaz Sharif

In this episode, we got to talk with Solmaz about James Baldwin and Muriel Rukeyser, as well as Solmaz’s poetry collection Look, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Here are the key passages we discuss with Solmaz:

During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. You cannot put these things off. (19)
     —Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (New York: Kraus, 1968). Originally published 1949


I loved my country, but I could not respect it, could not, upon my soul, be reconciled to my country as it was. And I loved my work, had great respect for the craft which I was compelled to study, and wanted it to have some human use. It was beginning to be clear to me that these two loves might, never, in my life be reconciled: no man can serve two masters. (92)
     —James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (New York: Dial, 1976). Originally published 1976


     The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history. They rest on the fact that in order to conquer this continent, the particular aloneness of which I speak—the aloneness in which one discovers that life is tragic, and therefore unutterably beautiful—could not be permitted. And that this prohibition is typical of all emergent nations will be proved, I have no doubt, in many ways during the next fifty years. This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain. And, in the same way that to become a social human being one modifies and suppresses and, ultimately, without great courage, lies to oneself about all one’s interior, uncharted chaos, so have we, as a nation, modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history. We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real. (671-72)
     —James Baldwin, “The Creative Process” from Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998). Originally published 1962


Also of interest:

The New York Times review of Look

The US Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms

Paris Review interview with Solmaz Sharif

Plato’s Apology
This passage has particular bearing on this episode: “And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.

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