Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Sholeh Wolpé

In editors, poetry, translation, writing on October 31, 2011 at 11:34 am

Sholeh Wolpe

Sholeh Wolpé. Photo by Ken Pivak.

An introduction to Sholeh Wolpé, an award-winning poet, literary translator, and writer. Born in Iran, she has lived in England, Trinidad, and the United States. She is the author of Rooftops of Tehran, The Scar Saloon, and Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad—for which she was awarded the Lois Roth Translation Prize in 2010. Wolpé is a regional editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East edited by Reza Aslan (WW Norton, 2010), and the editor of an upcoming anthology of poems from Iran, The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles (Michigan State University Press, 2012). Wolpé is also the contributing editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and poetry editor of the Levantine Review.

Quick Facts on Sholeh Wolpé

  • Sholeh Wolpé’s website
  • Home: Los Angeles, California
  • Comfort food: watermelon, dark chocolate
  • Top reads: The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. As for poetry, I have too many favorites to name. Poetry is like music, favorites change. However, I strongly suggest buying anthologies. And translations, of course.
  • Current reads: I read several books at the same time. Presently I’m reading: Kill The Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World by Maria Armoudian, re-reading Arundahti Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Mary Karr’s book of poems, Sinners Welcome.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a music project with Iranian singer Mamak Khadem and musician Hamid Saeedi. It’s a marriage of my poems and translations, all in English, with traditional Persian music. We just had our first performance at the Shannon Center for the Performing Arts in Whittier, California, and the audience was very enthusiastic about it. We hope to take this program to festivals and universities not only in this country, but around the world.

I’m also working on my next collection of poems. The manuscript is just about finished—or at least, I hope it is.

How do you define poetry?

In my view, poetry is condensed language with an internal music. A good poem evokes emotions, knowledge, and memories already inside of us; it affirms truths that are buried within us.

“It affirms truths

that are buried within us.”

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?

Each person connects in his or her own way with a poem, a story or a piece of art. We  take away what we need or are capable of absorbing at various moments in our lives, moments that turn and shift. It’s important to go back to poems again and again because we don’t stay the same, and how we see life and literature shifts with our internal evolution. As for my own poems, I do hope that the humanity that is at the core of most of my poems comes across and helps the reader to shift position to look at a truth or situation or human emotion from a different perspective. We sometimes forget that we have that freedom, the freedom to move and look at things from other perspectives.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of poetry as “the perpetual endeavor to express the spirit of things.” Therefore the ideal reader, at least for me, is everybody. I think my writings are quite accessible, though multi-layered.

A lot of your work has been translated into multiple languages, what language do you usually write your poems in first?

I write only in English. And I do not translate my own poems. I do, however, translate Persian poetry into English.

How did you begin to work on translating poetry?

I was at a literary conference where Galway Kinnell spoke of Forugh Farrokhzad, an Iranian poet I greatly admired in my youth. Forugh was a rebel poet, and is arguably the most significant female poet of twentieth century Iran. She died in 1967, at the age of 32, in a tragic car accident. She left behind a body of rich and revolutionary work that propelled her into stardom. After Galway’s talk, I questioned him further about his relationship with Forugh. He told me about his encounter with this charismatic woman, then looked at me and said, “You are a poet fluent in both languages and cultures, why don’t you translate her work?”

So I did, and couldn’t stop for two years, at the end of which I had translated 41 of her poems. I didn’t even try to find a publisher. They came knocking on my door. The book is titled Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. To my great surprise and delight, it won the 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation Prize.

Since then, I have been translating many other great contemporary poems by poets dead or alive, in Iran or in exile. Translation doesn’t make you rich, nor does it bring glory. I believe that literature can help bridge the chasm between cultures and people, so translation of literature is an important service that, if one has the talent for it, must be rendered. When it comes to translation of poetry, generally poets are the best candidates to be trusted with the task. I am very excited about my upcoming anthology, The Forbidden: Poems From Iran and Its Exiles, scheduled to be out February 2012.

“I believe that literature can help

bridge the chasm between

cultures and people.”

What do you enjoy most about the translation process?

Translation helps me to be a better poet. It is also, for me, a kind of meditation. It absorbs me, engulfs all my senses. But it’s also hard, and truly a labor of love.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

For me writing is like going into a trance. I become unaware of my surroundings.

I enter an internal world free of time, and I’m able to connect to something that is not entirely me. I know it sounds a bit wacky, but that’s my experience. I’m a meticulous note keeper and write in numerous notebooks. When I finally sit down to write, I am at my desk at least four to five hours. Some writers work well at night. I can’t do that. Generally I do my readings and research in the evening hours.

“I’m able to connect to something

that is not entirely me.”

Where would you most want to live and write?

So long as I have my laptop and notebooks, I can work from anywhere that is comfortable, clean, and without distractions. Having said that, the energy of a place is very important to me. There are places that agitate me for no apparent reason.

Presently, I work mostly in a large room full of books and artwork which opens to a small but beautiful garden where a two-trunked ash tree holds court with squirrels and mocking birds. I keep a Persian samovar on low boil, and a package of dark chocolate and a bowl of dates within comfortable reach. However, I am planning to get out and try some of the residencies around the country and the world. It will be good for me.

What do you listen to while you work?

I’m going to tell you a secret. When I work I listen to a CD I have listened to for years: Evening Adagios, a collection of music by the usual suspects…Debussy, Barber, Dvorák, Shubert, etc. It’s the only collection of music that my brain has so deeply absorbed that it can enjoy but ignore while writing.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Whether an addiction like cocaine, or a must, like air, I write because I have no choice. If I didn’t, I’d be miserable.

How do you balance content with form?

When I was a child, I didn’t speak a lick of English, but was fascinated with the music of the English language. I used to listen to an American radio station, then an English one, and compare the music of their speech. Now when I write poems, the music is perhaps more present for me than it is for a native speaker. To me, music is what gives form to my poetry. As for content, it’s all about how I see and absorb the world. Isn’t that so for most writers?

“Music is what gives form to my poetry.”

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

André Gide: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has courage to lose sight of the shore.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read widely and extensively. Read translated literature. Read at bedtime; fall asleep with poetry swirling inside your head. A poem is not a soup, it is a sauce. You have to let it simmer and boil down to the essence. What you put out there should be your best.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Have faith in yourself and write what you must without fear, but don’t be afraid of criticism. It’s the only way to get better at one’s craft.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Live some more.

About Sholeh Wolpé

Sholeh Wolpé is an award-winning poet, literary translator and writer. Born in Iran, she has lived in England, Trinidad, and the United States. Her publications include two collections of poetry Rooftops of Tehran (Red Hen Press, 2008), and The Scar Saloon (Red Hen Press, 2004), a CD of poetry and music, an anthology, The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and its exiles (University of Michigan State Press, 2012), and a book of translations, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)—for which she was awarded the Lois Roth Translation Prize in 2010.

She is a regional editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East edited by Reza Aslan (W.W. Norton, 2010), the contributing editor of Los Angeles Review of Books, poetry editor of the Levantine Review. Her 2010 Iran issue of the Atlanta Review became the journal’s bestselling edition.

Sholeh’s poems, translations, essays and reviews have appeared in scores of literary journals, periodicals and anthologies worldwide, and been translated into several languages. She has been thrice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been featured on NPR, Voice of America, and Dodge Poetry Festival. Sholeh holds Masters degrees in Radio-TV-Film (Northwestern University) and Public Health (Johns Hopkins University). She lives in Los Angeles, California.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Sholeh Wolpé.” Words With Writers (October 31, 2011),

  1. […] Zack (2010) Shurin, Aaron (2013) Spahr, Juliana (2010) Walls, Yon (2011) White, Hazel (2012) Wolpé, Sholeh (2011) Zapruder, […]

  2. […] Words With Writers – Marissa Bell Toffoli interviews Sholeh Wolpé […]

  3. Tablet and Pen is great anthology especially for people not yet familiar with any Middle Eastern writers. This interview was an enjoyable read as well.

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