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In a New York Cafe, a Place for New Persian Poetry

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Sholeh Wolpe reads at the Persian Arts Festival event in New York. She has books of her own works as well as one of translations of poetry by Forugh Farrokhzad.
New York - The traditional Persian evening of poetry, says poet and translator Richard Jeffrey Newman, involves old men reciting far older poems, the classics from Iran's literary past.

New York's Persian Arts Festival offers more variety than that. So for a shab-e she'r, or night of poetry, on an unseasonably warm November evening in lower Manhattan, three women in their 30s and 40s took the stage at the back of a poetry-themed cafe - the Bowery Poetry Club - and offered their contributions to Persian culture, American-style, in English, on subjects including birth, death, families, scuba diving as a metaphor for falling in love, and growing up in Brooklyn.

Mona Kayhan, the 30-year-old Iranian-American founder of the Persian Arts Festival, said she started the group because she was homesick: She had moved to New York from Chicago in 2004 and missed her family and the connection to her culture. She said she also was goaded by former President George W. Bush's depiction of Iran as an "evil" country: "I wanted to make sure that the American people know that we have something of value to share," she said.

Since beginning five years ago with, appropriately, a celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year, the festival has grown to offer music, films and other visual arts as well as literary events. Its audience is "very diverse," Kayhan said, including many people with no personal connection to Iran or Persian culture. It collaborates with other arts groups, and it avoids work that is clearly political "to maintain a very educational mission," she said.

The shab-e she'r events are a regular feature of the Persian Arts Festival calendar, which runs year-round. "We love to provide a space for amazing authors and poets," Kayhan said.

Newman, whose wife is from Iran and whose translations include works by Saadi, Rumi and Ferdowsi, said he gave a reading at a festival event a few years ago and came up with the idea of the shab-e she'r series with departures from classical Persian poetry. "We've had some really fine and important Iranian and Iranian-American writers reading poetry, reading novels, translations," he said.

Some events are more traditional. In December, for the winter solstice celebration - Shab-e Yalda - Newman and two other translators will perform poems, in Persian and English, by Hafez and Ferdowsi.

Poets Zohra Saed, left, and Sahar Muradi, who edited an anthology of works by their fellow Afghan-American writers, talked about growing up in the United States.

"I have a son who is part Persian who will never read Persian well enough to know this in the original," Newman said. "There's a whole generation of Iranian Americans; most of them will not be able to read it in the original."

At the Bowery Poetry Club, a portrait of the American poet Walt Whitman looks down on the stage, and the poets recite verses and answer questions over the occasional sound of the espresso machine and the clink of glasses. The audience often includes university students and fellow poets, and Newman said even tourists find out about the poetry nights and make the journey to a part of New York that doesn't draw big crowds at night.

On this night, Sholeh Wolpe offers some of her own poems, some of her award-winning translations of Forugh Farrokhzad's poetry (from the book Sin), and some thoughts on translating poetry from Persian into English.

"It took me two years to translate 41 poems. That's because I took the music of her poetry very seriously, and I truly believe in translation of poetry," said Wolpe, who was born in Iran and lives in Los Angeles. "It's a crime to present the corpse of a poem. So you have to breathe life ... as a poet into the language. Because, unfortunately, in the Persian language, as beautiful as it is when it is read in Persian, when you straight-translate it, it all translates into clichés into English. So it's very, very difficult: You have to re-create the language so it's as beautiful in translation."

Wolpe said her work on Farrokhzad's poetry was spurred by the personal connection she felt to it, but she said translation is "not something you claim: You just do your best and hope that future generations do even better." Writing original poetry is more deeply personal, she said.

Zohra Saed and Sahar Muradi read their own pieces as well as others in their new anthology of Afghan-American literature, One Story, Thirty Stories. "We're a new immigrant group, relatively," Saed said. "Most of the people in this anthology are children of immigrants, so we grew up here."

The works are all in English, and many reflect the experience of refugees: In one poem, Muradi, addressing her mother, recalls the belongings she left behind and "the last flashes of your country through a dirty window." A poem by Saed recalls her early days on the streets of New York: "When we are not bound to school, we exist happily on fragments of languages, the bread crumb of slang from the many streets we grew up in: Kabul, Mazar, Jalalabad, Riyadh, Jeddah and Brooklyn."

And so a poem in English passes along the memory of those languages in a tavern in New York.

More information on Richard Jeffrey Newman, the Persian Arts Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, and Sholeh Wolpe is available on their websites. More information on One Story, Thirty Stories is available on the University of Arkansas Press website.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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