Bänoo Zan, reading at the Brockton Writers Series
It’s only been two weeks into National Poetry Month and Toronto is in a flurry. Awash with events and brimming with excitement, bards, readers, and critics have busied themselves buying debut collections or reflecting on the place of poetry in their lives.
As I’ve immersed myself in the hubbub I’ve noticed that poetry, as with any rigorous but marginal art form, demands a strict sense of attention and a passionate engagement from its patrons. As I was discussing with author and Puritan editor Spencer Gordon last week at the Mansfield Press Spring Launch, the conversations and controversies around poetry tend to be more intense and divisive than those around fiction or non-fiction. It would appear as though poets and readers feel there is something very seriously at stake in their choice of vocation. Clearly fiction is the (often minor) cash cow of the two disciplines, and poets certainly struggle to support themselves while still sustaining their art. Nevertheless, economics cannot be the only thing that imparts urgency on the poetry “community.”
Despite the marginal, neglected status of contemporary poetry and poetics, poets and publishers will not let go, nor will they allow the struggle for financial sustenance to deter their vociferous creativity from spilling out in stanzas and similes. Why? I don’t have the answer to this question other than pointing to the demands of creativity and of politics. Poetry’s form is perfect for launching a rant, a critique, a celebration, or an elegy to an ideal, government, party, etc., in a (usually) compact form (usually) void of stylistic circumscription. It goes without saying that the tradition of live readings adds to the spirit of public outcry.
Even beyond the practicality of its format, poetry can draw out the political animal alive in all of us. Whether it’s the latest debates volleyed back and forth between critics and readers or the growing prominence of groups such as CWILA or VIDA, I see this coming year (not just month) of poetry as a crucial opportunity for the literary community in Toronto and beyond to expand poetical discourse to include more topics of large scale social import. Aesthetics are important, will never cease to be important, but how can we make poetry a factor in social justice? At the launch of National Poetry Month at Ben McNally Books (hosted by the League of Canadian Poets), George Elliott Clarke gave us a reading after rushing over from City Hall, where, as part of the Mayor’s Poetry City Challenge, Council members were asked to take a few minutes out of their meetings to listen to a poet (Clarke) and reflect on poetry’s cultural contribution to our society. What I would give to hear Rob Ford’s summary of the reading.
It’s still early in April but the fact that poetry has infiltrated City Hall is an encouraging sign. It’s imperative to keep it vital, read or heard, outside the traditional boundaries of print magazines. As the month continues, consider reaching outside your comfort zone and exposing yourself to the marginal writers aching to be heard. Their voices may be the key to awakening your inner revolutionary.
A few weeks ago, I caught up with Iranian poet Bänoo Zan to discuss the role of politics in her poetry and to see what she thought of Toronto’s poetical and political situation.
Tracy Kyncl: As a female writer from Iran practicing her craft in Canada, how do you perceive Canada/Toronto’s approach to diversity in literature and what would you like to see improve?
Bänoo Zan: Since I landed in Canada/Toronto, I have been going to many poetry events and it seems to me that Canada’s policy of multiculturalism is translated into cultural division on the ground. Poets do not usually venture out of their circles. Some events are better than others in terms of diversity, yet in general, a poetic dialogue among cultures doesn’t often take place. People are encouraged to stick to their own ethnic groups. The irony is that if they wanted to do so, it would have been far better for them to stay in their countries of origin. Poets have the right and the responsibility to represent their culture. If they do not surrender this right to politicians, the world would not be controlled by fear, division and cheap stereotypes.
Toronto has the potential to be the birthplace of solidarity among cultures. Artists are leaders. They break out of the circles that mirror them. I admit that it might prove challenging and even intimidating to go places where you are in the minority. Women poets especially have been warned by examples such as the Lady of Shalott, who got too involved with the outside world. She let her “mirror” crack from side to side when she looked toward Camelot. Yet, that was how she captured the imagination of her muse, and through him the poet, and finally, the readers, where she continues to inspire and warn! Poetry is the moment of adventure.
Tracy Kyncl: Your collection is forthcoming from Guernica Editions in 2016. Why were you drawn to that publisher and did their multicultural and multilingual approach to publishing factor in to your decision?
Bänoo Zan: I was invited by a friend, Mel Sarnese, to have a five-minute performance at an event. After I went back to my seat, a man passed me a card on which he had written: “Bänoo, Do you have a collection?” He introduced himself as Michael Mirolla from Guernica Editions. I had been working on my book, Songs of Exile, but did not know if any publisher was interested. This was the perfect moment for me. And it speaks volumes about Guernica Editions and Michael Mirolla.
Tracy Kyncl: Your poetry is very political. I was wondering if you could share with us some of your thoughts on the interstices between poetry and politics. Is poetry an inherently political form? Can you comment on the divide between political and non-political poetry?
Bänoo Zan: To me, all poetry is political. This is sometimes overlooked when poetry is produced and consumed within a closed community where everyone takes certain values for granted. Great poetry has been written about many subjects, but it has approached the politics and history of the subject at hand. This is true about erotic love poetry as well as confessional poetry. A great love poem at some level addresses the politics and history of love, the power struggles, gender, ethnic, religious and philosophical conflicts the partners face. In the words of Hafez, “Love seemed easy at first, but hardships appeared.” Great confessional poetry challenges the politics of silence and the suppression of dissidence. Poetry is not always politically correct, but it is always political.
Not every personal is political, though, and political means universal. It means relevant to larger issues such as Hiroshima and Dachau, and may I add, to the Middle East, religion, nationality, colonialism, war, ethnicity, gender and other institutions we derive our identity from or define our identity against, to everything that challenges our integrity as citizens of the world. It is relevant to every sacred and secular belief we have left behind and every system we have come to support. Poets who believe they are not political fail to see that their writing is influenced by values and ideologies that are by no means shared by all. That doesn’t make their poetry apolitical. It only makes it irrelevant outside their respective circles. A poem that does not respond to universal issues, is an artifact modeled on the theories and practices of others. The writer of such a poem is not a leader, but a follower.