Interview With Sholeh Wolpé (January 2005)

sholehlrgBorn in Persia, Sholeh Wolpé spent most of her teen years in the Caribbean and Europe, before arriving in the U.S. where she pursued Masters degrees in Radio-TV-Film and Public Health. Her most recent book of poetry is The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press), and her poems and translations have been published in many literary journals and anthologies. Sholeh is the director and host of the Poetry at the Loft series, in Redlands, Ca., where she says poets are treated like “royalty.” She is currently finishing a new book of translations and a new volume of her own work, while doing readings up and down the West Coast and across the country later this year.

How much and where have you toured in the U.S.? What kinds of responses do you get to your work, especially in recent years?

Sholeh Wolpé: I have been fortunate to have been able to take my book around the country. My tour schedule is posted on my website, So far I have been to Tahoe, Las Vegas, Boston, Cambridge, New Hampshire, the San Francisco area and Atlanta, and soon I’ll be heading to Arizona, Vancouver, Seattle and Austin. I was invited to read at the Austin International Poetry Festival, and I’m looking forward to that. It is an honor to be featured alongside such luminaries as Naomi Shihab Nye and Tony Hoagland.

The response to The Scar Saloon has been great. People feel the poems, and often I see tears in the eyes of the audience.

Tell us about The Scar Saloon.

SW: The book is divided into two sections. The first is pretty much a tour of the Middle-East and sometimes beyond. It is about human beings. It is about looking at the world with empathy and compassion. The second section contains poems that are sometimes personal, other times whimsical. I think the two sections balance each other.

Many of your poems call attention to a tragic event, like a shooting or a bombing, that, once it’s reported (if it’s reported), society seems to hasten to forget, or at least to move on to the next one. What calls you to revisit and to reflect on these moments? What do you hope to achieve with your poems?

SW: That is a great question, what does any poet try to achieve with his or her poetry? I want the readers or the audience to revisit these events without judgment, without preconceived notions. I want them to see the people who populate my poems as human beings—even the terrorist captured and put in a hole as in “Prisoner in a Hole.” I want us to see that no matter what, we are all human beings and most of the time each believes that he or she holds the truth—the only truth. I wish we could move past that. Entertain doubt, keep the flame of “search” burning. Without that flame, “truth” (if there is only one) cannot have any meaning or form in darkness.

What inspires your poetry? What most often in your everyday life sparks the idea of a poem in your head?

SW: The universe is one long poem. I think some of us just tap into that poem and snatch little pieces of it and translate it into words. Every poem is a translation of this sort. And in a sense everyone is a poet, and those of us who have a way with words or care about words have this urgency to translate our poems into words, hence we become “poets.”

When you are writing a poem, do you think about how you might perform it in front of an audience? Or do you think about how it works on the page first, how it captures a particular voice or idea, and then the performance aspect comes later?

SW: When writing a poem, I never think about performance. But I do think about the music of the words. For me, what makes a poem a poem and not a piece of prose is its music and form. And I tend to like short poems, ones that fit in one page. When I write, I can write everything I need to say, translating the piece of universe I happen to tap into, then like a sauce on a burner I slowly simmer the poem, until what is left is the essence of what needs to be said. Often it is intense, yet its taste lingers on the tongue.

And through the editing process I keep reading it out loud, because I have to hear its melody. If you subscribe to the latest scientific theory about the makeup of the universe, the String Theory, it tells us that the most basic constituents of our words are tiny identical strings, and depending on their vibrations, things are what they are. What makes this table a table and this keyboard a keyboard is the difference in vibrations of the strings making up the table or the keyboard. Perhaps that’s why music has such a profound effect on us. After all, it is nothing but vibrations. So for me the melody of a poem is very important.

Right now, I’m translating selected poems of Iran’s most important twentieth-century female poet, Forough Farrokhzad. Translating her poems has been a beautiful challenge, because I’m attempting to not only translate the poems but also their music. Hopefully I can finish the manuscript by July 2005. And I’m almost finished with my next manuscript (my own poems): The Rooftops of Tehran.

What do you love/hate about touring?

SW: I believe we are all part of an amazing and beautiful web; that our lives and spirits are connected to one another. What I love about touring is being able to meet people I may otherwise never know, even though I am connected to them in a wonderful and inexplicable way. Just last night I met an amazing artist here in Santa Cruz who probably is going to become a life-long friend. This happens all the time. I love connecting with other human beings, and sometimes I bond almost immediately with them.

Also, it’s great to read my poems to different groups of people. It is like sharing a part of myself with them and so far I have been received with open arms. There is so much love in this world and it’s great to step into it.

Having said all that, what I hate about touring, since you ask, is … nothing. Actually I dislike that word: “hate.” I try to avoid it.

What is the strangest place you’ve ever performed?

SW: I don’t want to name names, but there was this one venue where the host had misspelled my name in his flier and also had not bothered to learn how to pronounce it. That was awkward. Also just recently I was the only poet in a variety show and as it turned out I went on stage after a sex worker read a very erotic—actually hardcore porno—short story. But it turned out OK. The audience quieted down for my reading. You could hear a pin drop and this was an audience of 100 plus, in a bar. So I felt the people in my poems got the respect they deserved. All in all, it was a great experience.

In addition to being an artist, you also have your own medical business and a degree in public health. How do those two pursuits intersect? Do they?

SW: I have a masters degree in Radio/TV/Film and one in Public Health. This enabled me to make PSAs and documentaries in the health field. Initially it was my intention to make soap operas in Latin America, inserting public health messages like breastfeeding or using condoms in the programs. You know? If the beautiful heroine of the story is breastfeeding her child, that has a positive impact on the viewers. However, for reasons I won’t go into right now, I ended up in Southern California and began making health documentaries. When I became a mother, I stopped doing that and started my company, so I can make money and support my writing habit. My husband, Allan, has also been very supportive. He is a wonderful man.

You host a series of readings called Poetry at the Loft in Redlands, Ca. What are they like? What kinds of work do you feature? If a poet was interested in featuring at the Loft, what should they do? Should they contact you directly?

SW: Reading at Poetry at the Loft is a very special experience. I treat our poets like royalty. They often stay at my home, which is unique, spacious and comfortable, I cook for them or take them out to dinner, then they read in our beautiful space at the historic Mitten Building, downtown Redlands, then we go out for drinks or coffee after the reading, often with others, and I make sure they feel like they are on a holiday. I let them know and feel how much we appreciate them as poets. I come from a culture where poets are like rock stars. So I treat them accordingly and demand the same from our audience.

We are located in a gorgeous historical building. The space itself is amazing. When I began this poetry series, under the auspices of the Performance Loft, my goal was to bring dynamic poets who read their work well. I wanted to bring poetry to the lives of people who never read
poems or if they did, they never attended readings. With the support of Producers of the Performance Loft and Poets & Writers Inc. (through a grant they received from the James Irvine Foundation), we have been able to do just that.

Our season runs from October to May, one a month, the second Wednesday of each month. So there aren’t that many spots to fill, and I am very selective as to who reads at the Loft. I almost never book a poet I have not seen perform. We have a loyal but fragile audience. I don’t want to lose them. But, I’m always happy to hear from poets who are performing in the LA area so I can come and hear them.

What three things are critical to take with you on tour?

SW: My laptop, my notebook, and underwear.

What’s the first thing you do when you get home from the road?

SW: Ask my son if he still knows who I am. Often he says no, then bends down and gives me a kiss. He is fourteen years old and is six foot five inches tall. Wears size 15 shoes.


Author: schenelle

Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Jersey City, NJ. Co-author of Using Informational Text to Teach literature series. Doctoral student in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University.

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