Interview: Armen Davoudian
"There has always been too much poetry."
Armen Davoudian’s poems and translations from Persian appear in AGNI, Narrative, The Sewanee Review, and elsewhere. His work has been supported by scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He grew up in Isfahan, Iran and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Stanford University. He can be found online at www.armendavoudian.com.
Swan Song, Davoudian’s first chapbook of poems, was the winner of the 2020 Frost Place Chapbook Competition.
Davoudian’s responses to the Nameless Questionnaire can be found at the bottom of the interview.
The following conversation took place on January 14, 2022. It has been edited with fidelity for the reader.
So, Armen, how did you come to poetry?
I grew up in Iran. And there poetry is—in a very quotidian way—part of the culture. People quote it as part of their dinner conversation. Classical lyric poetry, medieval Persian poetry is taught very early on in primary school.
In terms of English poetry, when we were immigrating to the States, we stayed in Austria for a couple of months to get our visa work done. And there, I somehow never found the English fiction section of the Austrian National Library. [Laughs.] I remember checking out two books: Hart Crane’s The Bridge and T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock. And that was sort of my introduction to poetry in English. And these are awesome. I mean, the one thing that I always think back on is that these are two really difficult modernist works. But at the time, I felt like anything in English would have been equally difficult to me. So it was oddly freeing, I think, to read Crane and Eliot. If I didn't understand something, it wasn't like Persian poetry. If I didn't understand something in Persian poetry, I felt, you know, like I had to. It felt like a shortcoming. But in English, it just felt like, “well, this is only because I'm not fluent in the language yet.” So poetry didn't seem difficult, in that sense.
So the difficulty of not understanding these modernist works was, in a way, one and the same as the difficulty you might have had understanding English texts more generally?
Well, understanding was not the first objective. Eliot himself has an essay about reading poetry in a language he’s not fluent in. He talks about Dante, and he says something about how genuine poetry communicates before it's understood. It has an effect on the reader before it's understood. That rings really true for me.
And did this introduction to English poetry as a reader immediately coincide with your introduction to writing poetry? Or did that come a bit later?
I had written a bit in Farsi before, but then I didn't write for years. So no, it didn't. I mean, this wasn't the catalyst for writing. I just devoured more and more of it. And then, in my last year of high school—I did one year of high school here [in the U.S.]—it just didn't seem approachable that way. I didn't feel I could. How could I be writing something that someone like Eliot or Keats was writing, you know? It didn't feel approachable.
Eventually, it seems, it did. I was just rereading Swan Song yesterday and today, and it is really amazing. This collection, your first chapbook, takes up the poetically charged figure of the swan. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially, this figure was important variously to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Yeats, and others. What does the swan mean to you?
I love Yeats’s poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole”. But the book is called Swan Song, because at its center is a translation of a Persian ghazal about the myth that swans sing only once, just before they die. I mean, this isn't strictly true. But they're seen as silent until that one, final moment. It’s a very romantic notion, I guess. But I always felt drawn to the idea that if you are going to say something—well, write every poem as though you're going to die tomorrow. Maybe this is pretentious to say, but the stakes are so high. And that figure [of the swan], for me, personally, symbolizes that fact. There is a finality to every utterance.
This notion of the Swan singing once just before dies, there could be an implication of a poetic economy, right? Write one thing and write it well. Or is it really about imagining that each poem is the last poem before you die, but continuing to go on anyway, until that's true?
Yeah, I don't want to be too literal about this. I thought, partially, it was also just humorous to call your poetic debut a swan song. [Laughs]
It's about the performance. Something else about the notion of the finality of the utterance that drew me was that writing feels automatically elegiac. There's a cliched sense of this. Robert Hass pokes fun at this notion in his famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” where he says, “a word is elegy to what it signifies.” So there's that deconstructionist sense, but I think also, more personally, I sometimes feel like a lot of my poems are a last attempt to capture what I remember from my childhood in Iran. You’re taking a picture of it, and then you have it. You can’t re-experience it, but at least you have this picture.
I was wondering, rereading your poems, whether the reminiscences about childhood in Iran are simply a matter of recollected memory, or whether there’s a bit more involved as well. You have a line in your poem, “Transition Lenses,” which gives us this child distracted in physics class, reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which is hidden in his physics textbook. “It is an Armenian Christian school / it is a Muslim country.” There is, in other words, an overlap of cultural signifiers within a single setting. It seemed to me that, beyond this simply being a snapshot, there's something else that's being said.
I love when poems imply an analysis of a situation, capture all of those layers and subtext in an image, or in a juxtaposition that maybe, in an essay, would need a couple of paragraphs to sort out and untangle. A poem can just present you with the knot. When I was growing up in Iran, the Armenian community there—and I’m ethnically Armenian—was pretty tightly knit. And I didn't learn Persian until I went to school. We spoke Armenian, I still speak Armenian with my parents. I didn’t see how significant this was. It’s only in retrospect that you see the larger context of everything.
So it’s in trying to preserve these childhood moments that you discover these knots, these complex entanglements, that weren’t necessarily front of mind at the time?
Yes. What is the situation that captures all of this? Obviously, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia. But I feel drawn to those moments that structurally imply all of these problems, which are not just personal. I’m skeptical of the direct treatment of politics or identity or really anything, honestly, in a poem. There is a tact and a reticence that feels essential to the genre. So, I find myself drawn to those moments that, as I said, imply the analysis. In [“Transition Lenses”], the boy is wearing transitional lenses. When it's sunny, he can see, but people can't see what he's seeing, because the glasses turn dark. This is the idea that the poet is a sort of privileged observer. It’s not just what he’s looking at that is hidden from others, but also what he's reading, which here is a French adventure novel, hidden behind a textbook. Why is it that a pursuit as simple as that must be hidden from the world? What does that say about where we are and who we’re with?
It's a fantastic image. I remember hearing you say, at a reading in Menlo Park, that the book, in actual fact, was not The Count of Monte Cristo, but something else.
No it wasn’t. I've revised the poem since then, too. I made it a work by André Gide, whom I also have not read. [Laughs]. The literal truth of this just sounds way more nerdy, so I didn't put it in the poem, but I always liked to read ahead in my literature textbooks. And all the textbooks were the same size. So it was really easy to do: I would hide my literature textbook inside my math textbook and read ahead. So one day, it would be, like, a medieval Persian romance, or a translated short story. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pay attention, but more like—
Distraction is important, right? In any high school environment, anywhere, in any physics class in any part of the world, you're being taught a fairly rigid way of thinking, because it's kind of the requirement for a STEM discipline at that level of education. And there's something necessary about tapping into distraction, for the pursuit of creativity, allowing distraction to pull you elsewhere.
Yeah. I also feel that literature is at its best when it's illicit. A lot of literature thrives under censorship and constraints.
There are a couple of poets, including, I believe, one you're working with now, who are in exile or self-exile from Iran because of the poetry they write. So, there would seem to be a gradation of illicitness to consider. You move from the illicitness of reading something you're not supposed to be reading in physics class to being condemned by the government, in certain cases. Are you writing political verse?
I do like writing political verse. I just think the subject matter is often subservient to the codes of genre. There are a lot of Iranian poets who live in de facto exile—either they left the country by choice and can't go back because of what they've published since, or are afraid to go back. The poet I'm working with right now, Fatemeh Shams, is in that position.1
Poetry in Iran is very weirdly bifurcated—at least this is my sense of it—between what is called “classical” poetry and She’ere Azad, which means the “new” poetry or “free” poetry. And you will literally get books of poems by the same poet that will be divided into halves, and one half will say classical poetry and the other half new. The classical part will be, like, ghazals and rhymed quatrains and rubaiyats, and then the new poetry will be in free verse. There will be some condemnatory, beautifully enraged poems in free verse that are extremely direct about the political situation and war, or women's rights. And at the same time there will be some conventionally wrought, allusive ghazals—the same subject matter, but on highly symbolic terms, like: “The night has taken over the country, which lies in darkness.” And this isn't a case of fear. These same poets are also writing very directly about the same situation, here, in the same books, but they still do not want to lose the resources of elusiveness. The deferral of meaning, hiding, all of these are resources of the form, not something externally imposed. So even when you have the choice of saying something directly, there might be reasons why you would not want to do that. And those reasons can be internal to poetry and not necessarily imposed by a government.
The poems in Swan Song are themselves quite varied, formally speaking. “Black Garlic” and “Ararat” are sonnets, for example. “Coming out of the Shower” proceeds in rhymed couplets. And then you have other poems that are quite free. Are you attracted to formal constraint? How does that fit into your practice?
Yeah, I mean, form has become such a bête noire that I don't even like calling it that. The constraint of it appeals to me, but also it’s just music. I love it musically. Sonnets in particular. I feel that every poet interested in form cuts their teeth on the sonnet. So one sort of always starts there.
That bifurcation in the middle of the sonnet, the break or turn, has always—well, the form seems engineered to talk about immigration, or leaving. I remember that, at first, I was so literal about it. And I was like, “we’re going to be in Iran in the octave, and then we’ll immigrate across the volta to the United States in the sestet.” I hope it’s a bit more nuanced than that now. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Certainly, it is.
It just feels like, why not? The form is there, and it fits the subject matter, why not use it?
As a point of admiration, I love the last two lines of “Black Garlic,” the final couplet of the sestet, where you rhyme, mostly visually, “molasses” with “loss.”
I mean, I think it's hard… Especially with the Shakespearean sonnet, that last couplet can fall so differently on modern ears. Even in Shakespeare’s own sonnets, the summative couplets sometimes seem—and maybe this is heretical—off to us. I feel that you need something almost ridiculous, like “loss” and “molasses,” to pull it off.
And to draw attention to the scheme, right? Reading [your poems], it sometimes escapes me that I’m reading rhymed verse. But, upon inspection, I am.
I think I sort of picked this up from Heaney, but then also Merrill does it even more: these randomly rhyming sonnets, where every line rhymes, but there is no set pattern to where they rhyme. I think this introduces a serendipity into the form that I really like, a randomness.
So part of this collection involves navigating between the Persian and English poetic traditions. The poem “Rubaiyat,” named for a quatrain verse form developed within Persian poetry, but also signifying, to the English reader, [Edward] FitzGerald's translations of Omar Khayyam, is a distillation of this dynamic. How do you think about these two traditions in relation to one another?
I often think there are two extremes of how an artist can relate to experience. We have a really wonderful inward-looking strand in English poetry that I do love, like A. E. Houseman or a lot of romantic poetry, that is very circumscribed. Like, “I grew up in this place, I've spent my life in this place, and I'm going to write about this place.” And you know, I think there's something to be said about that.
But also, a lot of poetry issues from a sense of alienation, and a relation of otherness toward your own life and toward where you live. One of my favorite definitions of poetry is [given by] Viktor Shklovsky: it's about “estrangement,” it breaks our habitual ways of looking at the world. And because you break out, because you see it differently, you come away with something that you're not used to. There is also a lot in common [between the two traditions], but there's a lot that's usefully different between the two. And I feel like the difference keeps you on your toes as a writer.
Every poetic tradition is bound to tie itself up in ridiculous parochial debates that just pass you by, decade by decade. You know, “is it morally alright to write in other people's voices, or use similes, or write in meter?” And then you read in another tradition, and it often turns out these are not questions essential to the art. They seem that way from the inside, but they're not.
Let’s talk about the culture of poetry more generally. In some sense, being a poet has never been easier. There are many more venues that exist to publish the work of many more writers than ever before. Many of these are writers who might otherwise never have tried, or would never have thought to try. Is this volume a good thing, in your opinion? Has it become more or less difficult to be discerning? Does it matter?
I honestly don't know. This is the only time period that I've experienced firsthand. I don't think that it's more difficult to be discerning. If you go back and read anthologies from thirty, sixty years ago, there were all these poets you’ve never heard of. Or even if you think about the poets who were popular, let's say, in early 19th-century America, like Longfellow—I mean, even Tennyson! I love Tennyson, but you know, he's not thought of the same way now. I think there has always been too much poetry.
[Laughs.] That's the soundbite.
We've spoken a bit about Elizabeth Bishop in the past, and I know you've written about her and taught her work at Stanford. Why do you keep returning to her?
Hm, I don't quite know. Okay, obviously, she writes beautifully in form, but not in a very pointed way. She's really poised, but also perfectly casual and colloquial. The poems don't seem like poems. They seem like you can say them, and that's always drawn me.
Something else I've been recently fascinated with: When she was an undergraduate, she wrote these brilliant essays, almost like something you'd read in the Studies in the Novel journal now. They're very complicated treatments of novelistic time in Proust and Woolf and Dorothy Richardson. But then, the more she matures as an artist, the less comfortable she becomes with the language of discursive prose and criticism. And more skeptical of it. I mean, sometimes she's just really dismissive. Somewhere she says that only a handful of critics are worth reading. She loved Helen Vendler’s book on Herbert.
Then she was the poetry critic of the New Yorker for two years, but never turned in a single review. They were like, “OK, whatever, this contract is void.” [Laughs.] But she seemed really unlike other poets, like Lowell — or like Eliot, the majority of whose output, by sheer volume, is critical prose. She seemed really devoted to living and experiencing the world through this medium of poetry. You feel like you're close to the source of what makes a poem a poem, and a poet a poet, when you're reading her.
It’s clear you take some inspiration from her as a writer. But she’s also a part of your academic work. Your academic trajectory has seen you begin a PhD program, then take a hiatus from that degree to pursue an MFA in poetry, and then return to the PhD, which you're working through now. In what way are these pursuits harmonizing for you? In what way might they conflict?
I guess the main conflict is time, right? I want to write poems, but I also want to write my dissertation. And they're competing.
And I think also, in terms of, approach… Well, you write fiction and also write about fiction.
Yeah, I do.
I don't quite believe this, but I'll just say it anyway: I feel like as a poet, you just really have to buy into it, you know? I'm always jealous of people who feel comfortable being poetic in the world. They'll stop to smell the flower. Something beautiful, without any need to ironize or joke about it, or deflect somehow. But the criticism I've always liked to read is all about disenchantment, and picking things apart, and breaking the spell. You unmix the potion into its separate ingredients.
When you’re deep into research, and you're reading the dozen drafts of one poem that Bishop wrote, it can honestly be dispiriting. This is the amount of work that goes into writing a perfect poem? Am I willing or even capable of doing that? But then, in another sense, that can be inspiring. “The Moose” took forty years to write. Her villanelle, “One Art,” started as this random free verse poem that went everywhere.
It's interesting, this notion, that the work of academic literary criticism might poison one with irony.
Yeah, but I also think poetry is capacious, it has room for irony. There's this critic I love, Earl Miner. And—take this as you will—he talks about how lyric poetry is capable of interrupting all other genres. We’ve all read that piece of poetry criticism where you're reading the prose and then suddenly there's a humongous block quote of verse, and you think, “I don't want to deal with this.” Then there are poems that show up in plays or in prose, as in Ulysses. Miner claims that poems are capable of interrupting all other genres but are themselves uninterruptible. The poem either is what it is, or it is not. If you’ve broken it open, you’ve lost it. And that rings true for me. For example, it is hard to incorporate academese into a poem.
Certainly. But you do it in “Persian Poetry,” where you talk about “dull and fashionable words,” like “positionality,” etc. You’re both showing how they don't fit into a poem, while at the same time putting them into your poem.
It's fun. I mean, nothing gets me more excited than when a poet can show you a different texture than what you're used to in a lyric poem. How these other languages, like technical language, can be incorporated. But you can't just plunk it in. It has to be subsumed.
This is like the argument that [Mikhail] Bakhtin gives for the novel, which is that the novel can absorb anything, that no other form is as capacious. But I like the idea that, actually, there's a counterclaim for poetry in this respect.
Yes. Bakhtin says that a lot of lyric poetry is monologic. And I think he means that, unlike the novel, it can't reflect multiple social voices—the voices of different people, [those of] different parts of society. For him, poetry shuts out the social world, which I think is anathema for a lot of poets writing now, but it feels true to me in a way. Maybe not that it completely leaves out the social world, but that it has to be in one voice. I think of my favorite poem by Auden, where he writes: “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie, / The romantic lie in the brain / Of the sensual man-in-the-street / And the lie of Authority.”
That’s from “September 1, 1939”? With the famous emendation.
The ending used to say: “We must love one another or die.” And then he revised it to: “We must love one another and die.” The greatest revision. But it was still not cynical enough, so he just cut the poem from his Collected. [Laughs.]
How has your poetry changed, evolved—or not—since you published Swan Song?
I'm working on my first full-length book, which includes some poems from Swan Song. So it's a bit of an extension, but I think I've become a lot less patient with things that seem overt or pointed, especially in the usage of form. As in, “Here’s a sonnet about fourteen people in fourteen lines.” No, it needs to be more subtle.
The subject matter doesn’t come as easily to me now. It can’t be vaguely homoerotic childhood experiences in a repressive regime. More like: “I'm here, walking in Palo Alto, and I see this world, and what does that mean? How are all of these daily encounters sort of woven into the same fabric?”
And then, stylistically, I’m more interested in trying to incorporate other textures and lexicons, like academese. Take a word like “YouTube.” Two years ago, I would never have put “YouTube” in a poem. And these decisions seem like such baby steps. But it takes a lot. Because, obviously, you could throw “YouTube” into your poem wherever. But to do it in a way that feels true to your own sensibility is something else. You want every aspect of your life to be available to the poetry, not one slice of it.
What are you reading right now?
I'm reading the Remains of the Day by [Kazuo] Ishiguro, and I'm reading a translation of a medieval Persian romance by Dick Davis called Layli and Majnun, which we like to claim was the basis for Romeo and Juliet.
Oh, that's interesting. Didn’t know that.
It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers.
What else? The last poetry book I read was Benjamin Gucciardi's West Portal, which is wonderful.
Are you teaching next quarter?
I am. I'm teaching a course called “Sonnets: Shakespeare to Now.” We're just going to read all the sonnets. [Laughs.]
And what’s the takeaway?
I think the takeaway is: Shakespeare is great. He’s so ubiquitous that you sometimes forget that these sonnets are actually amazing.
Last question. You mentioned a full-length book. What else are you working on now?
I'm trying to tie up the loose ends of that collection, which is called The Palace of Forty Pillars, after a historical palace in Isfahan, Iran, my hometown. And right now I'm working on finishing the title sequence. I want it to be twenty sonnets because there are twenty pillars in the palace, reflected in a pool and so appearing as forty, sort of how a sonnet is doubled in the middle, across the volta. It’s all about reflections, doubleness—leading a double life as a closeted gay kid, two languages, two cultures.
But somehow, the more sonnets I write the fewer I have. [Laughs.] You constantly have to take one out and put another one in. It's been a real struggle. You change, you know? And the project changes.
The Nameless Questionnaire
Each of The Unnamable’s guests is asked to respond to the following questionnaire. Here are Armen’s answers.
1. A novel, a poem, and a short story you’d teach in a college seminar
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare (or 98, or 129)
“Half a Day” by Naguib Mahfouz
2. The title of that seminar
“A Little World Made Cunningly: The Art of Compression”
3. The great work no one has read
I’d say Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, Hope Against Hope, but any work is always bound to have been read by someone! Instead, let me answer this question this way: one of my favorite reading experiences is when I discover a new (to me, if not to others) aspect of a work I thought I knew well — not a great work no one has read, but an overlooked reason why a work everyone has read is great. Is there a work of poetry more overexposed than Shakespeare’s Sonnets? Yet rereading them recently, in preparation for a course on the sonnet, what I found myself struck with this time was not their ubiquitously-praised lavish rhetoric, but the elegant simplicity, plain-ness even, of lines like “From you have I been absent in the spring.” Ten words, almost all monosyllables. “And you away, the very birds are mute.” This time nine, but still mostly monosyllables. In sleep a king, but waking no such matter. My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.
4. The terrible work everyone has read
William Carlos Williams. Not terrible, just overrated.
5. Three books you'll send your enemy on a desert island
Kant’s three Critiques.
6. The doorstopper that should really just be used as a doorstopper
The Collected Translations of Coleman Barks, which thankfully does not exist. Until it does, Atlas Shrugged can get the job done.
7. Who do you read in order to write?
Elizabeth Bishop and Seamus Heaney, for their elegant permutations of childhood and politics into poetry. My favorite poems by them (Heaney’s “Clearances,” Bishop’s “The Moose”) manage to appear poised yet perfectly casual—a difficult combination I aspire to.
8. “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Agree?
Poetry makes poetry happen, which is not nothing. If that sounds glib, it’s the argument Auden himself makes in the poem this famous phrase appears in. “Poetry makes nothing happen” but is itself “a way of happening,” is itself what happens.
9. What can be found on your cutting room floor?
An abandoned dissertation on the merits of poems vs. books of poems, an annual confessional in blank verse, versified “recipes” involving my favorite dishes and ingredients (watermelon, coffee, a Persian frittata called kuku), Oulipo-inspired experiments in constrained writing, a bawdy ballad in baby talk, failed translations of Rumi, and too many sonnets displaced from a longer sequence I’m working on.
Ben Libman is a writer in Montréal and the Bay Area. You can find him at his site.
Davoudian is working on translating Shams’s poetry.