We spoke to poet Mahvash Sabet about her connection to nature, writing poetry while in prison, and why, after all, life is beautiful.


Hello Again

Last night, in the midst of unsettled darkness,
I found myself at the axis of the earth for a moment,
holding it taut between my outstretched arms.
And as I struggled to keep those frozen poles apart,
I saw I could prepare these icy limbs
and melt them wondrously between my two hot palms.
So there I stood on the summit of the loftiest peak:
a simple woman, glowing with love again,
ready to salute the world once more.

– Mahvash Sabat

Adapted from the Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Based on translations by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani.

You spent nearly ten year in prison in Iran for your faith and your work on behalf of the Bahá’í community, during which time you wrote remarkable poetry. While I understand that you had written some poems before I believe this was your first collection?

I always loved poetry and literature from early childhood. Often my thoughts were actually poetic in nature, I would use poetry in my thoughts. But I never had time to actually sit down and write poetry.

I want to say something that probably isn’t going to be very beneficial to me but I’ve always had an internal clash or struggle or fight with poetry. I always resisted poetry. My work was bureaucratic, in an office, so whenever I would write – my work involved writing a lot of letters – I would look at my written work and I would say, ‘Oh this looks like a piece of poetry’. I would just rip it apart, throw it away and think, ‘I need to work harder and write something more proper’. I would resist and fight poetry.

One theme that really stands out for us in your poetry is nature and your love of nature. What I find very interesting is the contrast between the environment you were in, where you had no access to nature, and how your love of nature totally shines through in your poetry. Was this a conscious decision and a way of maintaining a connection with the outside world? Where did it come from?

I never consciously make a decision about what to say in a poem: the poem itself says itself. So the poem happens. It doesn’t happen because I have decided that it should happen. It wasn’t a conscious decision to write about nature. The nature just bubbled out.

I know that nature is always part and parcel of poetry. But I want to add that for our poets – the classical Persian poets – nature has almost been an external thing, almost to the point of being lifeless, ornamental, outside.

For me this wasn’t the case. For me, nature was something that was completely transfused inside me. It wasn’t an external thing. It was part of my spiritual being.

For me, life means beauty, life is a flower, life is meadows, beauty is meadows, life means steadfastness, steadfastness is like a moment.

Bahiyyih Nakjhavani [who adapted Prison Poems into English] has described your poetry as ‘a way of re-imagining the natural world’. Does that speak to you? Is that the relationship you feel with your poetry?

I see in my life the direct relationship between nature and the passage of life, the story of life. I wrote in one of my poems – even though I was not in nature, I was not in a place surrounded by nature – that when they imprisoned me, when they surrounded me with walls, I actually began to destroy these walls and break them down.

You mentioned the tradition of classical Persian poetry and how nature in it is almost artificial. I was wondering if there are contemporary poets or more recent poets or writers who you feel have written about nature in a way that is alive, and that corresponds to what nature actually is?

The one that comes to my mind is the famous poet Sohrab Sepehri. When Sohrab Sepehri talks about his inner life, his inner being he connects it not just with the nature but with the outside world and with the outer world. About the rest, I am not so sure.

I want to give you an example of one of my poems. ‘I will build a house up high on the mountains of Alborz’. Alborz is a very famous mountain range in Iran. The prison that I was in was hidden underground, under this mountain, inside this mountain. In my poem I am expressing a wish, a yearning, a desire, to build a house on the summit of Alborz. I do not wish to be buried in the depths of the underground. I am describing what the house will look like. This house is beautiful, it’s on the mountain, it’s going to be filled with flowers and lilies. I am describing how this house is out there in nature, on this mountain.

In the heart, the dead heart of this city, this dead city, [the prison], everybody is talking with words that are full of apathy and grief. There is a place in the poem where I say ‘I want to find another language. A language full of flowers, the blossoms of love’. That these words would have meanings that everyone would understand – like the deep understanding that comes from gazing into someone’s eyes.

My meaning was to express that while in prison – in a very cold and desolate and dark place – the beauty of this world represented by nature was always boiling inside me.

Have you continued to write poetry since your release?

I’ve done a few very important things. I needed to actually gather together all the different bits and pieces [of my poetry], pull them together and collate them. I’m now working on pulling together the second volume that will soon be published in Persian. So that was an important thing that I was busy with.

I think that as I pull them all together it will make up probably four other volumes. So I have a lot of work ahead. Because I wrote these poems in prison and I somehow found a way to get them out of prison, I never actually had the opportunity to review them, to look at them in any way, shape or form.

Fellow poet and PEN Pinter winner Michael Longley chose to share the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize with you last year and in his acceptance speech described you as ‘a lyrical poet who sings the beauty of the world.’ In the world today which is – let’s be honest – a total mess, I think many of us really need reminding of the beauty of the world that Michael describes, and I wonder what role you think poetry can play in bringing those stories to life, in reminding us of that beauty, and to not take it for granted.

In contrast with all this, I actually believe the world is still very beautiful. And this world will continue to be beautiful. And in my own way I’m trying to actually show the real beauty of this world. I think many of us need to do this because there are many people in the world that do not want to see the beauty of this world. They are the ones who most need to see it.

 

Lights Out

Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.

Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.

And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.

Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filled the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.

– Mahvash Sabat

Adapted from the Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. Based on translations by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani.

 


Teacher and poet Mahvash Sabet was one of a group of seven Bahá’í leaders known as the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ – ‘Friends of Iran’ – detained in 2008 for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. On 18 September 2017, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention. Sabet began writing poetry in prison and a collection of her prison poems, adapted from Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, was published in the UK in April 2013 (George Ronald Publisher). Sabet was named 2017 International Writer of Courage by poet Michael Longley at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library.

We would like to thank Bahiyyih Nakhjavani for facilitating this interview.

Interview by Cat Lucas and Theodora Danek.

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