Payam Feili, a gay poet from Iran, “has a dozen collections of poetry that haven’t yet seen the light of day.” His willingness to write openly about his sexuality has angered the censors, and the Iranian Ministry of Culture blacklisted his books. In the last few months, Nogaam’s ‘I Am Payam’ campaign has attempted to raise awareness of Payam’s work and “get Payam’s voice to the world.“
Here, Payam talks to The Missing Slate’s Udoka Okafor through a Persian translator, discussing the barriers imposed by censorship, the importance of poetry and the agony of “seeing people your age being executed on spurious charges and the world hardly bothering to pay attention.”
What interests me most about your poem, ‘Eleven’, is that it encompasses a tension between solitude and a weighted message, between grief and hope. Not many poets are able to balance those contradictions well. What do you think it is that informs and influences your poetic voice?
This balance already exists: there is no need to create it. All you need to do is maintain it. In ‘Eleven’, I’m talking about myself — about the grief that has unbalanced my life, and the message I want to give to the world. My poetry rises from a feeling of decay which is always with me.
Love and sexuality are perhaps two of the most politicized concepts, and through your experiences in trying to publish your poetry, you seem to have come face to face with these hardships. Does your sexuality both fuel and impede your life as a poet?
My sexuality has been more problematic in my professional life, and has made it unsafe for me in Iran.
No, the poem is not influenced by the corrupt politics of my country, at least not directly. I don’t waste my poems writing for the head of the Iranian regime, the person responsible for all these crimes. At the same time, I cannot ignore the effect of the political situation, which is immensely destructive. I have repeatedly pictured myself in the prison yard. Mentally, I have executed myself several times. Seeing people your age being executed on spurious charges and the world hardly bothering to pay attention… even Shiva [Nazar Ahari] and Nasrin [Sotoudeh] [imprisoned human rights activists] are alone.
I think that the stanza of your poem that I most enjoyed was, “Leaving brings sorrow/ Staying brings sorrow/ Loitering in these abandoned streets brings sorrow”. You then go on to say, “Out of spite for the beauty of my uncle’s only son, I will one day/ In the streets of the village, to the wits of my despair fall prey”. What I saw in this passage of your poem was a lust for escape, tempered by the daunting inevitability that you will fall prey to the fate of those that came before you. Is that an accurate reading?
I’m glad you liked this part of the poem, because it’s one of the parts I’m also fascinated by. But the theme is a mad desire to stay, rather than a lust to escape. Staying is the ultimate strength. When I say ‘to the wits of my despair fall prey’, I mean this is the last chance to stay.
It is very hard for a poet/writer to work under the terms of censorship because it makes it tough for us to chronicle the realities of our society, which is perhaps our most important task. How do you work against the censorship that you face, and how do you balance censorship against your need to write?
Censorship makes it tough to narrate the realities of our society, but those realities are not the only subject a poet or author can write about. He or she can create a world of colours, of fear or glory. He/she can write about anything and everything. Can confess. Despair… or anything else. But how we overcome censorship is a long discussion that requires hours and hours… I can only talk about my own method of overcoming censorship, and that is publishing my poems with publishers outside Iran. I also translate my work into other languages: for example, one of my books has been translated into English and Hebrew and I’m currently looking for a publisher. Every writer has his or her own way of overcoming censorship. Finally, it isn’t possible to ignore the shameful fact that the censors in Iran ride roughshod over the literature of this country like dishonest Arab horses.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Nogaam for their help in translating Payam Feili’s answers from Persian.
Udoka Okafor is Assistant Poetry Editor for the magazine.