Our poetry reader Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad, featured poet for Issue #35. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her feelings on spoken word poetry, and how writing helps her work through painful experiences.
Your poem “After the Antidepressants Stopped Working” exposes such a raw vulnerability. What did it feel like to write this poem? Did the act of writing it bring your life to your lips, to borrow from the Farsi expression you mention in the first lines? How do you think that the act of writing about pain can help to ease it?
Whenever I’ve heard anyone use the Farsi expression, joonam beh labam reseedeh, it’s always uttered with such desperation. I wrote this poem during a particularly debilitating bout of depression last summer, and I remember feeling the weight of it in a remarkably physical way. The despair felt horrifically tangible, as if it was something that was caught in my throat, and I wished so badly that I could just spit it out. That’s when I thought about the phrase and how I felt I could relate to it in this literal sense.
In regards to how writing about pain can help ease it—there’s a comfort in rearranging agony so that it takes up space in the form of words and poetry, rather than exclusively in the obscure and unseen areas of your consciousness. Pain is the number one motivator behind nearly every poem that I write, and for me, it comes from a sense of obligation, meaning that I must make the hurt known. I must acknowledge it and “see” it. Sometimes it’s easier to move through or past a pain if you can make it readable.
In “This Was for Tiphys” and “Baby Timpani,” you include detailed descriptions of specific parts of the body—the mastoid process, the eardrum. In “While Watching the Protesters Saturday Morning” you mention ribs, teeth, and arteries. You express quite a bit through descriptions of human anatomy. What inspired you to do this?
Most of my poems definitely do delve into body parts and their functions, partly because—of course—organs like the heart, lungs, and skin are just ideal subjects for poems. But I’ve also been interested in exploring some of the less popular body parts for poetry. In “This Was for Tiphys,” I wanted to write a poem about a guy tucking a girl’s hair behind her ear, but as soon as the thought came to mind, I rolled my eyes. Who wants to read a poem about such a cliché gesture? But the second I discouraged myself, I also challenged myself—how can I still write that poem without it sounding like a scene from a romantic comedy? That’s when I started to think about what body parts are involved in this gesture. I realized that when hair is tucked behind your ear, you brush against the bone behind your earlobe. That got me thinking—wait, is there a name for this particular bone? A function? I did some research, and that’s how I learned about the mastoid process. As soon as I learned that the bone has air pockets and that it’s Greek for breast, I thought boom! Perfect! This poem is about to write its damn self.
You mention Farsi expressions in both “After the Antidepressants Stopped Working” and “While Watching the Protesters Saturday Morning.” The expressions themselves certainly have a striking poetic quality. How would you say that your knowledge of Farsi has affected your writing in English? Do you ever write poetry in Farsi?
I grew up speaking Farsi at home, and I went to Saturday school where I learned how to read and write in it as well, but it wasn’t until recently when I began to really pay attention to the inherently poetic nature of the language itself. And by that I mean that there is so much storytelling in everyday Farsi words and phrases. Just to give you an example, the Farsi “word” for generous literally translates to “hands and heart open.” So if you want to refer to someone as generous, then you say that’s a “hands and heart open” person. So I began to look into some of these everyday Farsi terms as subjects of poems to write in English, or as a way to tie into poems I write about other issues. That was my objective in writing “While Watching the Protestors Saturday Morning.” To compare the Farsi “I have your air” to the English “I have your back” gave me the opportunity and flexibility to celebrate what it means to say I will help you in another language.
I wish I could write poetry in Farsi! But sadly, I’m not at all poetically fluent in Farsi. My parents, and I’m sure my ancestors, are disappointed by this.
You address the timely issues of immigration and deportation in “While Watching the Protesters Saturday Morning.” With all that politicians and pundits have had to say about these issues recently, it can be helpful and calming to sit down and read the words of a poet. Can you think of a time when reading a poem helped you to gain a new perspective on a social or political issue?
Writing this poem was one of the rare instances where my career as a litigator crossed paths with my work as a poet. After the first travel ban went into effect in January 2017, I volunteered with several other attorneys at JFK International Airport to assist people from the seven countries on the travel ban list. It was surreal to go to the airport voluntarily at five in the morning knowing I didn’t have a flight or anyone to pick up. It was emotional. I couldn’t believe what was happening, that this was happening in Queens, the most diverse county in the country, at one of the busiest airports in the world. I wrote the poem the next day, not only to address the travel ban, but also to bring light to how the identities of immigrants are challenged in America. The sentiment behind this poem was also inspired by another poem I had previously read by Fatimah Asghar, “If Ever I Should Have a Child with a White Person.” That poem always makes me clutch my chest.
Did you begin writing poetry before or after you began your career as an attorney? How do you carve out time to write, as well as to work as poetry editor for the magazine Noble / Gas Qtrly?
I’d always written poems as a kid and continued to throughout high school, but it wasn’t until 2014 when I began to write poetry seriously. This was after I started my practice as an attorney. It’s hard to carve out time for poetry when you have a full-time job as a matrimonial lawyer, but I also live in New York City where I take public transit daily. And if you know anything about the Subway system, then you know that there’s a ton of waiting time. I get a lot of poetry writing done on these slow-ass trains. I also block out nights and weekends for Noble / Gas Qtrly during our reading periods. I love working as their poetry editor though, so magically, I always have time for Noble / Gas Qtrly.
Can you describe your writing process? Would you say that you’re more of a spontaneous writer, or do you set aside regular times to write? Do you keep a journal that contributes to your poetry? And what is your revision process like?
I definitely do not set aside regular times to write. My poems are usually about specific moments and memories that I’ve had, so whenever that moment or memory happens to come about, or whenever it’s an experience that touches me in a way that’s incredibly painful or exquisite, that’s when the poem starts to write itself from within. It’s only then when I decide to figure out how to bring it to life for the reader. I know it sounds so cheesy, but when I know a memory is going to turn into a poem, the thoughts that I’ll have about that memory start to sound lyrical; it’ll just be verse after verse in my head. I don’t write poetry at all unless these are the circumstances.
I do prefer writing in public as opposed to a private setting. I’m way more focused in the mildly noisy coffee-shop environment than I am in a quiet space at home. I also edit so much (and spend a lot of time looking into the etymology and the history of words and phrases) that I’ve long abandoned writing by hand in a journal. Everything I write is typed on a phone or a computer.
Since Mud Season Review grew out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: what’s your best—or worst—workshop experience?
I’ve never had a workshop experience! The last time I studied poetry in any academic or workshop setting was probably in my AP English class my senior year of high school. I should start though, right?
Do you ever read your work aloud for an audience? Do you have any strong opinions about poetry as a spoken art versus a written art?
I have read my work aloud for an audience a handful of times, but I haven’t done it on a regular basis. I will say that I am far more inspired by spoken word poetry over the written art. Actually, it was a spoken word poet, Elizabeth Acevedo, that I discovered online in 2014 that got me into writing poetry seriously. The performative nature of spoken art with its sounds and movements always has this effect on me that can best be described as immediate. Usually with the written art, the impact takes longer to settle in.
What is the best advice you have ever received about creative writing?
I was writing poetry for about a year and a half solely for myself before I shared it with anyone. I mentioned that I write poems to a fellow lawyer-mentor-friend in the office breakroom at the time, and he asked to read my work. I brought him a stack of fifty poems the following week, and after he spent time reading, highlighting, and scribbling notes on the manuscript, he encouraged me to start publishing. So the best creative writing advice I have ever received was to share my work.