Poet Laureate of Nowhere

Solmaz Sharif goes through Customs

By Rozina Ali

Photos By Cassidy Araiza

a woman wearing a white jacket with a blue and orange background

The poet Solmaz Sharif takes a certain pleasure from the scene at airports when flights are delayed and the people around her are frustrated and tired. “I have a sense of, ‘Welcome. Welcome to how I feel all the time,’” she told me this past December. 

Sharif has written poems about airports, about “all my waiting at this railing” at international arrivals, about the immigration officer who tells her he doesn’t like poetry because he likes writing that has an argument. “I don’t tell him/,” she writes, “he will be in a poem/ where the argument will be/ anti-American.”

Sharif won acclaim for her scathing critique of U.S. empire in her first book of poems, Look. Published in 2016, it takes a piercing eye, sometimes using the motif of a camera, to dive through the wreckage that America’s War on Terror has wrought. “It matters what you call a thing,” goes one memorable, hair-raising line from the collection. Look was a documentary project, with most of the poems based on the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, and it showed Sharif to be the rare contemporary writer who is neither shy nor unsparing on uncomfortable subjects. “I like to turn towards the things I feel really icky about,” she told me, laughing. She quickly rescinded the word “icky” and offered a different phrase: “sites of discomfort.”

At 38, Sharif has a clear-eyed sense of the discomfort she wants to explore, and an equally clear-eyed sense of the things she disdains. Among them: Poets whose ethics she doesn’t agree with (she refused to name names); metaphors (her editor Jeff Shotts told me she scoured the final manuscript of Look to make sure there weren’t any); and empathy. “Once you pity, you do something with it. Empathy, on the other hand, feels like an end point. Being rather than doing,” Sharif once told the poet Rickey Laurentiis. “Pity seems to me of an era where one owed other people something.” 

Several years ago, Sharif was reading from Look at a literary event on the west coast, where, somewhat bizarrely, Boeing was one of the sponsors. U.S. imperialism had already left more than half a million people dead since 2001, and wars still roared on. Like so many other readings she had given, the audience seemed moved by what they were hearing and, Sharif realized, also pleased with being moved. “It was kind of a catharsis being offered to an American audience,” she recalled. “I couldn’t not see my hand in it, I couldn’t not see how little was changing.” Several months before our conversation, an American drone strike had wiped out another family in Afghanistan; this year marked 20 years since the opening of the prison at Guantánamo; refugees continue to arrive, face down, on the shores of the west. Empathy takes one only so far. She was cautious, too, of the reception of her work as the triumph of an Iranian poet writing against the U.S., wary of poets who are “used to padding, / vinyl, on the foldable chairs,” as she put it in a poem called “Patronage.” 

So where does a poet, one who is committed to a political project and to challenging herself as a writer, go from here?

This March, six years after Look, Sharif’s second book of poetry, Customs, was published by Graywolf Press. It is a work that shocks and inspires. The book is about customs and borders (visas and airports and immigration officers), about customs in America (obsessions with self-care, lifestyles that desire the fake over the authentic — soy creamer over dairy, a photo of the view over the view itself) — and further still, it is about the customs we lose, those that disappear from our tongues and flesh when we are exiled from home.

Empathy takes one only so far.

When we spoke via Zoom late last year, Sharif’s angular face shone through my computer screen from Phoenix, where she arrived in 2019 to teach creative writing at Arizona State University. The light rays in our respective rooms — hers still bright, mine dimmed by the early winter evening in New York — reminded me of the way her poetry transcends time and place. This isn’t always the case with immigrant writers, many of whom use place as a central motif. Places are named in Sharif’s work, of course. There is Las Vegas, where a drone strike operator pushes a button, and Mazar-e-Sharif, where that button prompts a bomb to drop. Guantánamo makes an appearance, as does Shiraz. But place does not define the mise-en-scène of her poems. Not the narrow streets of Istanbul, where she was born after her parents left Iran, nor the stunted skylines of Houston, where they moved so her father could continue his studies, nor Birmingham, where her mother finished her college degree. Not the hills of west Los Angeles where she grew up, nor the hills of Berkeley where Sharif went to undergraduate. “I notice faces, I notice rooms, but if you ask me to describe a place, no I can’t do that,” Sharif told me. “Place is just a reminder of my displacement.” 

The Palestinian writer Edward Said described exiles as having an “awareness of simultaneous dimensions”: one of “here,” the new environment, and another of “elsewhere,” the lost home and culture. It’s a concept Sharif returns to often, but the “here,” she said, “never has that solid holding quality for me.” Part of the reason is physical displacement, from country to country, city to city: “You have to keep abandoning things, letting go of things, letting go of people, re-inventing yourself, re-establishing yourself.” And the other part of it, she explained, has to do with temporality, and “being the child of a people who saw millennia of monarchy go up in the air, and knowing that these things don’t necessarily hold.”

Sharif’s parents were studying in the United States in the late seventies when thousands of young Iranians took to the streets to protest Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the monarch who had been installed to power by the CIA in 1953. Security forces clashed with demonstrators, prompting further outrage, protests, and deaths. In the U.S., Iranians gathered in front of the White House to decry Washington’s friendship with the Shah, a dictator who had quashed freedom and destroyed livelihoods. Sharif’s parents returned to Iran to join the revolution, and by 1983, four years after the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power, they left again. 

Sharif, who was born soon after they fled, likes to say she was politicized at birth. As a child, she had an acute sense that she could not assimilate in Texas or Alabama. When she was in sixth grade, the family settled in Los Angeles, home to the largest concentrated Iranian population in the country, and she realized that any illusion of belonging was gone. The other Iranians she came across were wealthy, and many were supporters of the Shah. Meanwhile, her father worked in construction, fixing up mansions. She would roam their hallways, in awe that houses could extend underground into 3,000-square-foot basements, and that she had momentarily gained access to such inconceivable spaces — “and then I would be thrust out of this home and never allowed to return again,” she recalled. Sharif and her father would return to their two-bedroom apartment, with lingering feelings of unease. 

Domestic spaces were a formative education. In Birmingham, her mother worked as a nanny, and Sharif sometimes accompanied her to work. She watched her mother parent the children of other people and observed how she allowed them permissions that weren’t granted to Sharif. One day, Sharif was playing with a toy when the eldest child of one of the families her mother cared for insisted on taking it. Her mother directed Sharif to give up the toy. She was stunned; in any other situation, her mother would have mediated. “Fairness went out the window,” she recalled. 

It’s too easy to explain away the exile’s discomfort as a result of their physical separation from their homeland, or of being of a different race or culture. What claws underneath, even after one has lived in a country for decades, is something that leaves a lasting imprint: being forced to abandon dreams in progress, and to re-adjust oneself to the confines of circumstance. 

To Sharif, this sense of discomfort was both found in English, which soon replaced her mother language Farsi, and articulated through it. As a child, instead of doodling, she would write words and hide them behind elaborate cursive. Holding her drawings up to her mother, she would ask “Did I write anything?” Sharif’s mother bequeathed to her daughter her love of literature. She read aloud to her from “Songs of Myself” by Walt Whitman and gifted her Emily Dickinson when Sharif was 12 (“the perfect angsty moment”). Sharif had no siblings and to combat loneliness she threw herself into books: Nancy Drew, R.L. Stine, Agatha Christie. 

At the age of 16, her mother took her to an Iranian feminism conference, where a keynote speaker was Angela Davis, who introduced Sharif to the term “woman of color.” Suddenly, Sharif found an identity she wanted to ascribe to, one that articulated her experiences navigating the power dynamics of class, gender, and race — and that also opened up new possibilities. “By self-selecting to choose to identify as such, one is selecting one’s comrades, also,” Sharif told me. Words could inspire, illuminate the world as it is, and allow for a more capacious moral vision. 

Sharif is unusual among her contemporaries in the poetry world: Except for one workshop in college, she didn’t study literature or poetry. “I think that’s evident,” Kamran Javadizadeh, a professor of poetry at Villanova University who teaches Sharif’s work, told me. Many poets use lyricism and metaphors to convey their larger point, he explained, while Sharif is the opposite. “I get the sense that the way a poem gets made for her,” Javadizadeh said, does not have to do with “the musicality of language or beauty of an image. Instead, it’s thinking in analytical and critical ways.”

What is our complicity, as political subjects, and what is our duty?

Sharif trained as a sociologist during her undergraduate years at U.C. Berkeley and wrote her thesis on how the New York Times represented Palestinian women during the second intifada, who lived in a land sometimes described as being historically “absent of people.” “There was something about language, in particular written language, that felt important,” Sharif told me, “because I was deeply aware of various erasures in the way people get written out of the archive and out of the records and what it means to have a written record of what is happening.” 

The theme of erasure, or of being rewritten, emerges throughout her poetry, perhaps most noticeably in the “Dear Salim” poems in Look, which are written as heavily redacted letters to a Guantánamo detainee. More subtly, the concept of Said’s “simultaneous awareness” echoes across her work; she regularly considers the walls of the “here” and who finds them to be noble or destructive, and her allegiances to those who are not present “here.” 

Perhaps because Sharif recognizes that English is how she can explore the very power structures that are upheld by this language, and that dispossess and displace, she eschews the lyricism that metaphors offer. “Like, I’ve decided, is the cruelest word,” she writes in Customs. We should be able to see something as it is, even if it is unfamiliar to us, without resorting to comparisons to what we know. It’s this challenge to herself as a writer and to her readers — to not resort to the comfortable — that allows her more control over language. More deeply, though, it challenges her readers to think about themselves as political subjects, and to think about what they owe one another.

One of her new poems, “The Master’s House,” is based on Audre Lorde’s line that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The poem moves quickly, describing what is in the master’s house — face serums, dinner parties, immigration officers — before culminating in this heart-breaking moment:

“To recall the Texan that held a shotgun to your father’s chest,
     sending him falling backward, pleading, and the words came 
     to him in Farsi
To be jealous of this, his most desperate language
To lament the fact of your lamentations in English, English being 
     your first defeat
To finally admit out loud then, I want to go home

Part of what Sharif interrogates in Customs is what happens when we live in the master’s house, and the master’s tools are all we have left at our disposal. If English is the sign of her first defeat, what, then, is her complicity, and what is her duty? By extension: what is our complicity, as political subjects, and what is our duty? 

Shotts, who has edited poetry for 20 years, including both volumes by Sharif, told me he has never seen any poet practice this level of critical examination. “The way she holds her work and her life to the highest ethical standard is very rare and a very high bar,” he told me. “I really think she is one of the great genius writers of our time — just for that self-scrutiny.”

Every morning, Sharif wakes up, sets a timer for 30 minutes, and doesn’t stop moving her pen until the timer sounds. Then she sets aside what she has written, and doesn’t look at it for months, sometimes years. In the meantime, she goes down “rabbit holes,” as she calls them, exploring new interests, perusing government documents, and paying close attention to the world around her, even if these observations don’t make it visibly onto the page. 

Customs began as another documentary project, similar to Look. Sharif started mining deportation transcripts from the U.S. to see what they revealed “of the nation and its values.” But by the time Shotts received the full manuscript of Customs, it was nothing like what he expected; those early document-based poems he had seen, which he had remembered to be “breathtaking,” were gone. Sharif didn’t want to deliver what people expected of her, and write what she had already accomplished before. In putting together Customs, she studied, edited, revisited and revised her drafts, hacking away the bits that no longer resonated to her as a reader — which, to me, suggests a profound respect for her audience. And out of respect to herself as a writer, she chose to look directly at what she feared, at her “sites of discomfort.” The poems are not based on documents, but still reveal brutal truths about America, and how one belongs in it.

If in Look, she told me, it seemed that the purpose of poetry “is to name the atrocities that aren’t being named, and to grieve them in ways that aren’t being grieved,” then Customs is more “unmoored” by the grief of exile, and how language breaks in response to it. Sharif has returned to Iran four times, most recently in 2014, and it was then that she started putting to paper a new sense of loss. Her grandmother’s courtyard in Shiraz, where her father would set out a newspaper-lined cage of canaries, where a cat would slink about, was no longer the north star she had once fantasized it to be. One cannot revive the past or live out a life that could have been, and so, the desire to return — I want to go home — starts to lose meaning. It is “a without which/I have learned to be,” she writes.

“One of the greatest cruelties of exile as a punishment,” Sharif told me, is “the sense that legality might change, or that you might be allowed back, you might be allowed to return, and in that way your exile is over. However, that off-ramp that was taken and that thrust you into another culture and into another language, and into another way, and away from your life, you will never actually be able to fully return.”

“Part of what’s beautiful in Customs,” Javadizadeh told me, is that “the project is a failure. There is no home to go back to. Poetry becomes about living with that knowledge.”

Sharif’s popularity as a poet (always a relative measure) may rise with Customs. Unlike some successful contemporary poets, her poems cannot be easily captured on tote bags or in Instagram posts — a relief to her. But those who come across her work are startled, if not captivated, by her exacting language. After one reading at a university, an older man who had only recently come across her work remarked that it seemed she was “bearing witness” to something. Her precision is difficult to ignore, especially when it is damning. 

One of the oft-repeated misconceptions of Sharif as a political poet is that she is not as concerned about aesthetics as she is about the message. She rejects this. For Sharif, language and liberation are tied, but if that was all there was to her work, she told me, she would have been an orator. She may resist aesthetics de rigueur, but form is a primary consideration for her. Revisiting her poems, it becomes obvious that the length of the white space on the page and specific punctuation, or lack thereof, are careful choices. The repetition of closed brackets in “Without Which,” for example, evokes a sense that something is being inserted “that doesn’t belong there, or is trying to correct what is being said,” she explained. If metaphors limit moral vision, for Sharif, form offers a way to expand it. If there is no turning back to the lost past, she seems to say through Customs, there is no giving up either. One must use what one has, to scrutinize, insert, and cross thresholds toward different imagined futures. 

The poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant once argued that opacity was necessary to obtain a radical democratic world. “If we examine the process of ‘understanding’ people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought,” he wrote, “we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce.”

This is not dissimilar to Sharif’s critique of empathy. Empathy rests on familiarity and understanding, but then what? Sharif resists reduction through familiarity, in part by interrogating and expanding who the “I” is and can be in a political community. As a result, the sense of displacement she conjures is not just of being separated from one’s place of birth, but also of being in a country without being of it, of not being allowed in certain rooms, of being told by others who belongs. Few books of poetry have seemed so necessary for our time.

If Customs is unmoored, it’s because Sharif no longer wants to just identify the problem; she is in search of answers. In the poem “Planetarium,” the speaker gazes at the stars above Joshua Tree National Park, in California, before the moment is interrupted by flashes from the nearby military base.

“I wanted to write about stars for once 
and looking
At them thought My God thought
This is just like a planetarium
Thought of the glow in the dark stars
I stuck all over my bedroom
When between the explosions 
It was dark enough” 

The question Customs seems to ask is not just what is illuminated when we look, but what does the illuminating? What is lightened, and what is darkened? And then, if we can accept some opacity, where might that take us? 

Many years ago, Sharif walked into a Borders on Westwood Boulevard, in L.A. She picked up a poetry anthology and came across a poem that was simply variations of the word “no” written over 16 lines. It was “Taiko Dojo,” by the poet June Jordan, and it irritated Sharif. But out of all the poems in the book, she later recalled, that was the one that stayed with her. 

“As solitary as poetry might be, there are answers that require a collective.”

At U.C. Berkeley, she enrolled in a class called “Poetry for the People” that instantly captivated her. It was taught by Jordan, who had founded the project in 1991 as a way to widen the scope of who reads and writes poetry, and whose poems are read and shared. There were poet guest lecturers and student-led courses; Sharif taught one on the history of Palestinian poetry. Every week, she expected Jordan to come to class, but she didn’t. Jordan was battling cancer, and passed away that summer. 

In her search for finding a role for poetry beyond offering feckless empathy, Sharif has started another “Poetry for the People” project at ASU as a way to interrogate what other models of literary production might exist for people outside the traditional schools of writing. “As solitary as poetry might be,” Sharif told me, “there are answers that require a collective.” It’s fitting that she would locate that collective outside the literary establishment, which she views with a healthy skepticism that she shares with radical forebears like Lorde (who praised poetry as a “most economical” art form, because it could be written “between shifts” or on the subway) and Jordan, with her combative “nos” and populist pedagogy. The program is a way to survey the answers that poetry has offered so far, Sharif told me, but she’s also in search of new ones.

Her next project, to her own surprise, is nonfiction, in the tradition of Jordan and other writers she’s admired, such as John Berger. “I’ve been talking myself out of it,” Sharif laughed.  Poetry afforded her a distance, she acknowledged, while prose demands a more direct conversation with her readers. The essays will be statements of poetics; among the questions she is exploring is her hesitance to write about place. 

In Phoenix, Sharif has become fascinated by the physical space around her, the ancient rock formations that spot the Arizona desert and which offer a particular kind of reckoning. “I don’t think I ever fully considered land and one’s own mortality in the face of it,” she said. Sharif had recently embarked on a mission to learn about Phoenix’s plants and trees — her latest rabbit hole. 

There can be no returning home, but a surprising conclusion Sharif reaches in Customs is that the desire for home does not vanish. “What am I hungering for?” Sharif wondered as we spoke. “I’m not sure exactly what it is. I know it’s a sense of maximal liberation, and I know it’s a sense that moves from face to face and person to person, it’s not tied to place. It’s not tied to nation, it’s not tied to language.” She paused, carefully parsing her words. “I haven’t found a way yet, but it feels like my writing is growing into this tuning, where I’m just trying to catch the frequency of that.”        

Rozina Ali is a contributing writer at New York Times Magazine. She covers the War on Terror, the Middle East, and literature.