Courtesy of Cornell University

October 25, 2022

An Afternoon with Solmaz Sharif — Worth It?

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On Sept. 29, Klarman Hall welcomed Solmaz Sharif for a reading of selected works from her books of poetry, Look and Customs, as part of the 2022 David and Barbara Zalaznick Reading Series. Sharif was born in Istanbul, Turkey to Iranian parents and is a naturalized American citizen. Her debut collection Look was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award, and her new collection Customs was published in March of this year. For poetry newcomers and seasoned enthusiasts alike, Solmaz Sharif’s reading was delightfully provocative in its presentation of beauty, oppression and violence in cultural and political landscapes. 

Dressed in a dark green gown, Sharif began with her poem “Look.” “Whereas I felt the need to clarify: You would put up with / TORTURE, you mean and he proclaimed: Yes;” she read. “Whereas what is your life.” In fragments, Sharif presents jarring accounts of daily encounters to capture the realities of trauma and exclusion that leave individuals feeling trapped in a perpetual state of dislocation.

Continuing with “Deception Story,” Sharif framed more concretely how such uncertainty is tied to barriers of language and of government in ways of state-sponsored language and immigration policies.

As a poet, she has had to bear a palpable level of disillusionment, and Sharif emphasized how the elusive uncertainties of identity have left her questioning both cultural and literary customs. Despite the many awards she won, Sharif maintains caution in a wholehearted embrace of such literary successes. She explores these ideas in Customs and provided the audience with insights into her process.

“What started as customs of the US and of the borders very quickly became about the customs of literary production and the customs of English itself and what it means to be a poet and what is asked of us in a quiet and not so quiet way,” she shared.  

She transitioned with a seasoned ease to further explore these customs in “Patronage” and “The Master’s House” and found herself meditating on the life she might otherwise have had in an excerpt from “An Otherwise.” She ended on “Solmaz, have you thanked your executioner today?” from “Social Skills Training.”

With a collected disposition and a balanced delivery used to spectacular effect, her poems weave effortlessly between the personal and political themes for which she is known. Attention to Sharif’s visceral and honest depictions of imperfect realities held an emotional heaviness felt by audience members.

An afternoon with Solmaz Sharif displayed the numerous aspects of poetry to be appreciated as a genre. For listeners, Sharif’s astute insights capture façades, realities and complexities in American contemporary society. For students, her poems force us to question our coherence to the loudest considerations and contemplate the significance of silence in marginalizing individuals. And importantly, for skeptics, Sharif’s work represents why poetry as a medium remains significant today.

Reminding the audience that poetry is a vital tool for social progress, Sharif shared the inextricable link between poetry and activism. “It made sense that poetry and politics go together because language and politics go together,” she said. “And for me, the poem was the most capacious space to hold all that.”  

Professor Valzhyna Mort, Department of Literatures in English, the moderator of the reading, also described poetry as a necessary space for “socially inappropriate and communicatively impossible subjects.” Without a doubt, Sharif’s portraits of exile, war and trauma do precisely that in striving to express the inexpressible.

Anna Ying is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].