Solmaz Sharif walked into Finn House, the home of the Kenyon Review, with a smile and an aura of confidence. Introduced by editor-at-large, professor, and fellow-poet Andy Grace, Sharif shared with the room her work, her writing process, and the story of her journey to becoming the renowned writer she is today.
Born in Istanbul to Iranian parents, Sharif moved to the United States at a young age so that her parents could finish school, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Outside of Iran, LA has the largest Iranian population. However, Sharif still felt the pain of racism, classism, and sexism, the influences of which appear in her writing.
Although the Kenyon Review holds a special place in her heart as being her big break, her visit was centered around debut collection of poetry, Look. Published in July of 2016, the poems in Look make use of terms from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to comment on the costs of warfare and military power on human life. Prior to reading, Sharif told stories of her family’s negative experiences with the military and the government, deaths of family members, and her consequent passion for writing elegies. After providing background for her audience, Sharif read some audience-requested poems from Look, including “Drone,” “Personal Effects,” “Forced Visibility,” and “Safe House.”
Hearing Sharif read her poems aloud was a unique experience for those who have read them previously; listening to her tone shift from somber and serious (in “Drone”) to ironic and sarcastic (in “Safe House”) clarified her intentions as a writer. Likewise, hearing her voice drop when she articulated military terms made their use more significant.
After reading from Look, Sharif dove into a new genre of poetry focused on the language of the self-help industry. Her most recently published poem, “Social Skills Training,” is inspired by self-improvement writer Dale Carnegie (my sister is “Dale Carnegie trained,” so I found this particularly amusing). She also mentioned a new project which is sadly a secret, so we didn’t get very many details. However, we did get to ask questions, which is arguably the best part of KR readings.
From this Q-and-A session, I learned that Sharif starts her mornings with a cup of coffee, a college-ruled notebook, and a pen, and she writes for an hour before taking her best work and typing it out. She discussed her complicated role as a writer and an activist (the keys are specificity and the language of love). She explained her dislike for the term “dehumanization” (she prefers “grievability,” which implies empathy when people are denied human rights) and when asked about politics in her writing, she shared that everything is political to her, which concluded her presentation.
I am lucky to now have a thoughtfully signed copy of Look on my desk. A finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry, a New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2016, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2016, a Washington Post Best Poetry Collection of 2016, and a New Yorker’s “Books We Loved,” in 2016, Look is worth investing in––every time you read it, you’ll discover something new. However, I am even more luckily to have been able to spend an afternoon star-struck, listening to all that Sharif had to say.