Thursday, 17 May 2012


To be a Persian poet is to write of loss, exile and love.

                “If my heart grieves
                  for Kabul,
                  it’s for Leyla’s sighs of
                  ‘Oh, dear God!’
                  and my grandmother’s heart
                  set pounding.”

(from Shakila Azizzada’s moving elegy, “Kabul”)

It was a great privilege to hear Shakila Azizzada, Reza Mohammadi and Azita Ghahreman read (or rather, recite) their poetry in Persian on Tuesday night at the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere.  Of course most of us didn’t know a word of the original but we did understand the emotional power of the poems.  The music of the Persian poetry with its syllables so unusual to Western ears was pure magic.  All three poets were brilliant communicators – as if they were willing us to understand their writing beyond the limits of language.  After each poem a translator read us the English version of the poem.

Reza Mohammadi was born in Kandahar and moved to Iran when he was four.  He began by reading one of his most celebrated poems, “Drawing”.  I will not forget the way Reza started this poem so quietly and hesitantly and slowly built up to an emotional climax and then gradually drew back to the quiet hesitancy of the opening.  With such a powerful original it was a pity his English translator did not convey more.  At times the English versions were inaudible and there was clearly a height ratio problem with the reading desk and microphone.  The English reader seemed to have little interest in the poetry or the audience.  Was he unwell?

Azita Ghahreman’s poems spanned life in Iraq (“With a red flower” about love and a hidden relationship) and exile in Europe (“The boat that brought me” about her new life in Sweden).  “Glaucoma” (“The corn poppies came first”) was a poem about the poet’s experience of loss of sight but also, by the end of the poem, about her society.  Beneath the ordered language of her poetry was a sense of great emotional turmoil.  I would have liked a little more oomph in the reading of the English versions but perhaps the fact that Azita had come at short notice meant there had been little time to rehearse the English translations.

By far the best pairing of translator and poet was Mimi Khalvati (who used to live in Tehran) and Shakila Azizzada.  Shakila herself said that she and Mimi are very much on the same wave length – and it showed.  Mimi conveyed to us in English the way Shakila’s language (like Azita’s) shaped and controlled the powerful emotional content.  There was a quietness and directness about Mimi and Shakila’s readings that went to our hearts.  “A feather” was a tender poem about Shakila’s small daughter climbing into bed with her early in the morning – it begins

                “Just as my dream
                  hears the sound of your steps,
                  that’s when you enter
                  quietly, quietly on tiptoe.”

By contrast “Recitation” conveyed the unbearable grief of Afghan women whose daughters had been killed in war.

A big thank you to the Poetry Translation Centre who organised Persian Poets on tour and who have published pamphlets of the poets’ work in Persian script on one side with the English version on the other.  My copy of Shakila’s poems is one to re-read and treasure. 

There is more information on the Poetry Translation Centre’s website
You can read English translations of the poems by all three poets:

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