“Shabnam Piryaei cracks open experience to reveal elliptical and exquisite music. Her language is acrobatic, “earskin taut” and bristles with a “disassembling / gaze,” which allows her to reassemble memory into poems that astonish and delight. Adventurous, sonic-rich, and lush, Nothing is Wasted is a book that quickens and enlarges our contemporary lives and vocabularies.” — Eduardo Corral, author of Slow Lightning
Today we’re talking to Shabnam Piryaei — poet, filmmaker and the author of the collection, ‘Nothing is Wasted,’ forthcoming from The Operating System in July. “Sigheh,” from her video poem, above, appears in the collection, which also includes work featured in Painted Bride Quarterly, Denver Quarterly, Nailed Magazine, The Awl, and more.
“The title of the collection, Nothing is Wasted, is a reminder of what we don’t know — we have no idea how something may manifest later. This incommensurability and unmeasurability of the value or impact of a decision, an encounter, a sleepily-scribbled line, a dirty look, a shelved idea, is truly beautiful to me. It is a bigger-than-me-ness that is essential to engaging with the world mindful of our deep, deep interrelatedness, and by extension, our responsibility for one another.” — Shabnam Piryaei
Why are you a poet?
I write poetry because when I don’t, my vision wanes.
I was exposed to poems, and wrote them, from when I was very young. My father is a lover of poetry and a poet as well. It’s often my most effective means of communication, exorcism and spiritual development.
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I can’t recall when I first publicly (or privately) articulated that I am a poet. But I am definitely a poet. And my other works — fiction, drama, and film — are an extensions of my poetry and many of them explicitly contain poems.
What’s a “poet”, anyway?
Poetry, for me, is about scrutiny, juxtapositions, and a gesturing to the whole that operates as a kind of anti-possession, an anti-containment. It’s a state of animated openness. This applies to poets and to poems.
What is the role of the poet today?
When I do readings it is an intimate encounter and a meaningful way to re-inhabit and explore my own work. And I definitely read my poems aloud as I write, to feel their body and their music. But I don’t write poems specifically for them to be performed; I write poetry for the page.
And overall I think poetry written for the page is still vastly overlooked in popular culture. In particular in a social culture where ambiguity and open questions are shunned, in part for their discomfort, for the way they continue to hold and jar you. As an instructor of literature one of the first questions I encounter from students when they face a poem is “What does it mean?” This question is violent in its coercion. So I tend to respond with, “What do you mean?” As in, “Sum yourself up for me.” And if one is being honest, then it’s impossible. Because we are each a multitude. (I forgot where I first heard that. Ovid? Twain?) This doesn’t mean we can’t contemplate, discuss, feel, and return to poems, or any art. But it does mean that the urgency to contain it entirely, to totalize it in a single answer, is a kind of discarding.
Performed poetry, such as in spoken word festivals, continues to invigorate youth and draw them to the medium of poetry. That makes me happy. Additionally, there are a number of hip hop artists, many of whom are on the radio, whose work I consider poetry, though most literary institutions don’t register rap as literature.
I don’t believe in the exceptionality of poetry or of any single craft over another. Poetry speaks to me particularly powerfully, but I believe poetry shares the roles of all art. These include an inherent subversiveness, an honesty and a spirituality — all of which can produce tremendous discomfort in the writer/reader/listener/viewer. And this discomfort is generative. It constantly puts sedation at risk.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
Many of these poems were written during an “unplugged” residency in Big Sur — an experience that was jarring in its unmediated and visceral confrontation with nature. Although I was there with my husband, I experienced a tremendous amount of solitude. But the solitude felt different from the dense, dark solitude I’d experienced for years writing alone in my New York apartment. This feeling was not simply a product of a new environment — it resulted from my own transformations as well. Being able to simultaneously come to terms with, separate myself from and take responsibility for, my inheritance. But being in Big Sur — in the heart of such raw, unforgiving and gorgeous nature — had an enormous impact on the permeability, respiration and shards of light that I feel these poems embody.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write? Did you use any specifically in the production of this book or work within this book?
I never studied poetry in an institution. But I have studied poetry on my own. There were many years in my life when I spend weeks and months reading the entire body of work and all the interviews I could find from poets who deeply impacted me — poets like Octavio Paz, Alejandra Pizarnik, Federico Garcia Lorca and Forugh Farrokhzad.
Also, I’m Iranian-American. And poetry in Iran is part of an ancient and venerated tradition, one that is still relevant and present in contemporary culture. In my experiences growing up, most parties and gatherings included passing around the Hafez book to read aloud, or someone singing traditional songs the lyrics of which were poems from Nima, Hafez, Rumi or Khayyam.
Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?
All of these poems were written over a two-year period, and a number of them were written over the course of three weeks. While I didn’t arrange them until I felt the collection was complete, I felt all along these poems were part of the collection they are in now.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
I find that the titles of my poems are moving increasingly into the realm of being poems themselves. The title of the collection, Nothing is Wasted, is a reminder of what we don’t know — we have no idea how something may manifest later. This incommensurability and unmeasurability of the value or impact of a decision, an encounter, a sleepily-scribbled line, a dirty look, a shelved idea, is truly beautiful to me. It is a bigger-than-me-ness that is essential to engaging with the world mindful of our deep, deep interrelatedness, and by extension, our responsibility for one another.
Would you like this work to be translated into other languages / do you hope that it reaches beyond our local geographies and communities? What would be the best possible outcome of a broadly expanded reach for this book? Do you think it’s legible across cultural lines?
I would love, and would be grateful, for this work to be translated across languages, and across mediums — incorporated into films, music, plays, visual art.
If someone was to find this book in a hundred years, or perhaps even further in the future, what would be the best possible outcome? Why?
That as many people as possible read it.
How do you (and do you) feel that poets and other creative people should consider the archive and their role in creating and preserving a (hi)story of their work and the context in which it was created? Do you, as a scholar and/or personally take an active role in documenting/recording not only the product of your creative practice (or that of others) but also the social, cultural, and other intersectional trappings of your process / life / experience? How or how not, why or why not, etc.
I think if you are creating honestly then it is impossible to avoid the timestamp. That doesn’t mean works of art can’t transcend time in their connection to audiences, but that art-creation is its own archive.
MORE PRAISE for ‘Nothing is Wasted’:
“In Shabnam Piryaei’s Nothing is Wasted, the negative space of a photograph becomes the focal reality of her verse. Steeped in an aesthetic of nuance, each of these poems considers the expanses and shadows that surround the subject, never taking for granted the things that can be illuminated, even in the darkest corners. At once ethereal and rooted, these poems take on an exploration of our contemporary lives across landscapes both internal and external. These are poems that make us (re)consider our interior selves.” — Matthew Shenoda, author of Tahrir Suite
“If you are as crazy about anaphoras as I am, then the first poem in Nothing Is Wasted will engage and bid you proceed. Shabnam Piryaei’s work rings smart, ‘Every inheritance is a compass.’ ; surreal, ‘a benevolent crow / pecked daylight’s bullet / into the room’ …; and at the same time, pinned fast with moments that are utterly tactile, ‘somehow unbroken / in your sleeping hand, a speckled egg’. A charming voice where ‘Nothing Is Wasted’.” — Kimiko Hahn, author of Brain Fever