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Poet Solmaz Sharif speaks to value of language, specificity

In the title poem of her debut collection, LOOK, Solmaz Sharif writes, “Let it matter what we call a thing.” These words resonated throughout the acclaimed poet’s reading last Thursday, when students and community members packed the Cheever Room of Finn House so completely that some sat out in the hallway to listen in.

One of the most talked-about poetry publications of last year, Sharif’s LOOK was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry and one of The New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of 2016. Critics praised the book for its compelling critique of American military intervention and its timeliness as a cautionary narrative about public indifference. Sharif is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Her reading was a part of the 2016-2017 Kenyon Review Reading Series.

Sharif began by reading several poems and then opened the floor to requests. “I’m gonna take a risk,” she said. Students jumped at the chance to hear certain poems read aloud. Many of those present had read and discussed LOOK for a class, in some cases for more than one, and referenced their own copies of the book. So relevant is Sharif’s work that it appeared on syllabi in multiple departments, such as English and  Sociology, this semester. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Andy Grace introduced Sharif. “In a year that was so politically charged,” he said, “the book [provides] insights on how words, the meanings of which we often take for granted, can be politicized and co-opted.”

Among the poems requested was “Soldier, Home Early, Surprises His Wife in Chick-fil-A,” a poem written in multiple voices, like many of the pieces in LOOK. Justin Martin ’19 asked Sharif to read this poem — in which descriptions of soldiers surprising family members and significant others in various situations are followed by captions that range from heart-wrenching to sarcastic. Sharif’s performance lent a special clarity to her work and evoked an uneasiness one may not experience when reading it on the page.

In LOOK, Sharif deploys the lexicon of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms to illustrate how euphemisms used by the military bureaucracy to describe the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq systematically minimize the true costs of war. A life is reduced to a “thermal shadow” on a screen, seen from thousands of miles away. Official operations are dubbed “aloha,” “block party,” and “bone breaker.” In forms as diverse as redacted correspondence sent to a Guantanamo Bay detainee and an invitation to “Special Events for Homeland Security,” Sharif weaves the sanitized language of the U.S. Department of Defense into both intimate and everyday contexts, revealing its absurdity and employing it in argument against itself: “Let it matter what we call a thing.”

During the Q&A, Elana Spivack ’17 asked Sharif how one should approach language in a political climate in which people often “speak past each other” when expressing their anxieties. “Be specific,” Sharif said. “I have faith in specificity … a language of love rather than a language of abstraction, and that that is really where we can do a lot of important political work.”

Sharif also addressed what she sees as the importance of poetry in a time when an increased need for social and political action can make writing poems seem frivolous. “There have been moments in my life where I have had to decide between being an activist and a writer … and I have chosen writing,” she said. “A lot of the activist-speak or buzzwords are failures of language that wouldn’t survive a poem, and I think if they wouldn’t survive a poem then maybe they wouldn’t survive a political conversation either.”

For anyone who has lately felt compelled to abandon their books and take meaningful action, Sharif’s message may offer assurance that there is merit in pressing on. LOOK documents the failure of language at the hands of military officials who did not take care to describe the problems they encountered with honesty and precision, who used euphemism to conceal the atrocities they committed from the public and to insulate their own consciences: “Did we hit a child? No. A dog. they will answer themselves,” Sharif writes.

It is essential to learn how to recognize when language fails, or when it is being used to deceive us, if we are to avoid the indifference and complicity LOOK seeks to disrupt.

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