An Interview With Poet Susan Atefat-Peckham

Jodie Ahern

Poet Susan Atefat-Peckham and her six-year-old son were killed in a car accident in Ghor Safi, Jordan, on February 7, 2004. A professor in the MFA program at Georgia College & State University, Atefat-Peckham was in the Middle East as a Fulbright scholar teaching creative writing at the University of Jordan. She was 33. The following Direct Quote was originally posted on October 12, 2001, following the publication of her book That Kind of Sleep.

A native New Yorker and first-generation American born to Iranian parents, Susan Atefat-Peckham is currently on a nationwide tour to promote her new volume of poetry, That Kind of Sleep, which was selected by Victor Hernandez Cruz as a 2000 National Poetry Series Competition winner and published by Coffee House Press this year. Atefat-Peckham teaches creative writing and literature at Hope College in Michigan, where she lives with her husband and two small sons.

Poets & Writers Magazine caught up with Atefat-Peckham in Minneapolis, where she was giving public readings and appearing on Minnesota Public Radio, and asked about her reaction to winning the National Poetry Series.

Susan Atefat-Peckham: Ironically, I learned of the award on September 11 of last year, and of course I was very excited; it was a very happy day for me. This year on the morning of September 11, I was reflecting on how a year ago I had won the award. Of course a few hours later the attacks on America occurred.

P&W: Where have you spoken on your book tour and how have your readings been received?

SA-P: The readings have been received well. The press has been extraordinary. After the attacks I was concerned about how my work would be received. The work has even taken on a very different meaning for me. I was worried that when I read about loving my Middle Eastern heritage, Americans might feel that my allegiances should be only to America. Of course my allegiance is to the United States; however, I still love my heritage and love my family. I feel torn right down the middle. I found that really what I was trying to do was build a bridge between the two cultures. I could say, "This is my heritage. This is who I am. I know there are many other Americans like me." The Iranian culture, from my perspective, is not the one that is presented by the media. There is a significant difference to me between the government and the people. I'm hoping to be able to show that in the poetry.

P&W: Even as we speak, events are unfolding in the Middle East as a result of the September 11 attacks. Susan, you are an American, a native New Yorker who grew up in Europe, of Iranian and Islamic heritage. You teach English literature at a Christian college. You have a truly unique perspective. Please tell us how you feel.

SA-P: I feel terrible. When I saw the attacks on television, like everyone else I saw the plane going through the building and that's an image that will never leave me. Like many Americans I was angry, I was upset, and I was in tears for most of the next few days. I wasn't teaching that day, but the next day I went into class and we talked about it with students. We all cried; we all got angry. My parents were in Teheran at the time of the attacks, so I was able to call them and ask them, "What's the feeling there? What are people talking about? What are they doing?" They told me that everyone was very upset; there were candlelight vigils [for the American victims] at the town square. Many people observed moments of silence for the Americans. I was moved by that. I thought, "This isn't covered by our media; there's no way for people to know this." Other things were carried by the media that were less than complimentary to Middle Eastern people. We are very controlled by what our media displays to us. I felt that I should say something if I can, to as many as I can, that there is a great deal of grief on the parts of Muslims and Middle Eastern people for the tragedies that we [Americans] have endured. Likewise, hearing about our recent bombing of Afghanistan, my feeling is very mixed. How can I continue to do my normal daily duties while I know that people are dying in other parts of the world? When I heard about the attacks [in Afghanistan] my heart sank, in much the same way it did when I heard about the attacks on America.

P&W: You were formerly reticent about giving interviews, but since September 11 you have become active in publicly promoting cross-cultural understanding. Can you tell us about those activities and how you now feel about speaking out?

SA-P: I am naturally a very shy person. I grew up in the late seventies. We all remember the hostage crisis and the subsequent "villainization" of Iranians in particular that lasted for fifteen years. I grew up in that era and I remember clearly that on the playground it was not good to be from Iran or of Iranian descent. As a young adult I started to realize this is not my problem; this is an issue that is much larger than I am. I learned to work around that. I was going to be a doctor, but it wasn't until I entered the field of writing that I discovered a voice that was my own. After September 11, I felt that something broke loose in my chest. In a matter of a half a minute I knew that if I did not speak, then I was not being responsible. I spoke to a dorm, to the International Education Office group on campus; I spoke to a high school; recently visited a junior high school. I think the young are the ones who can listen, who can hear the most. I find their questions heartbreaking: One child asked me, "What have we done? Why are they doing this to us?" and another said, "I thought Islam was a peaceful religion. Is this not true?" But the media has gotten better. After Oklahoma City, it was particularly bad, when immediately Arab-Americans were targeted. This time the media have been careful. They have put a lot of effort into saying that the [subsequent] assaults on Middle Eastern Americans are not right; they're not fair. There have been a lot of pre-emptive efforts that were not there six years ago.

P&W: You are a poet, a teacher, a visual artist, and a musician. What do you feel is the role of poets and artists in the midst of social grief and turmoil?

SA-P: I don't know if this is a conscious role, but I see it as a role that's often played out: Literature, the visual arts, and music are a way for us to connect to one another. Art is empathy. Empathy and compassion are what we need most in times of grief. I tell my students, "Let's try to take something good out of this, even if it seems impossible." I remember hearing on television a woman from New York saying, "I will never watch another country terrorized without understanding what it feels like." Human empathy is the role of art. Art can build bridges for people from very different places.

P&W: Your collection of poetry is an intimate portrait of a close-knit, multi-generational family living within a culture with which many American readers are unfamiliar. I found the poems to be gentle and compassionate concerning individuals, but critical of the practices of a culture that suppresses women. As a highly educated woman, what is it like when you visit Iran?

SA-P: Iran embodies so many contradictions. I think this is a large result of the people being so very different from its government. The people in my family are well educated. The women are doctors, lawyers, judges-these women are well educated. However, there are groups of people who have persecuted women and mistreated women. It has mostly occurred during the painful period in our history just after the revolution. Currently those actions occur less often. The poems in my book are largely about the period just after the revolution, which started in 1978. The period of time I write about is through the eighties. During my mother's visits, she told me what it was like. I was not able to visit Iran for many years since I was a U.S. citizen.

P&W: Your poems address recurring images: the wrinkled skin of elders; knots of both a physical and metaphysical nature; the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of domestic rituals described in a wonderfully sensual way; images of birth and death. Can you talk about your imagery?

SA-P: I always believe in rendering the experience to the reader. I want the reader to experience the work and come up with his or her own judgments. So when I create the scenes, I'm interested in allowing the reader to experience this other culture, this other place, and still come to the realization, hopefully, that people are people. The differences are there; no one is the same. You can't just say, "Why can't we all just get along?" That's a very naive way of seeing the world. Ultimately my hope is that we can think, "Yes, we are all different, and this is a very different place, and now I will try to understand what those differences are, and where I stand in those differences." I really like to give the reader a place to stand in the scene and observe for him or herself, and take part in the action.

P&W: You convey the universal feelings of love among family members as they go about their everyday lives. Is this the most important element common to all cultures?

SA-P: It is an element that many of us can identify with. It's an element that is most important to the Iranian culture. The family-the children especially-are the most important part of our culture, besides the religion. The religion accentuates the closeness of the family as well. Because I was writing out of absence, my poetry brought people I hadn't seen in a long time back to me. In the poems I can make them come back to life. I can put the words in their mouths; I can see them moving again. Every time someone reads that poem, every time I read that poem, these people are there. In many ways I think I wrote this book to fill the spaces between us.

P&W: You particularly venerate the grandparents and the great-grandparents. Is that a strong value in the Iranian culture?

SA-P: Oh, yes. The grandparents, the elders are very much respected, revered, and loved-in my family in particular. I was the first American in my family, and many of my extended family members do not speak English. Going back, there were many spaces-the cultural distances, the linguistic distances. When I write the poems I am trying to bring us together in some space that is sacred to me. We all exist in our ancestors and our spirits are very much from our ancestors. I'm interested in discovering what that is-which parts of us are from the past.

P&W: The glossary of Iranian terms in That Kind of Sleep is inviting. Especially lovely were the names and descriptions of children's candy. That seemed poignant and universal. Will you teach the Iranian language to your sons?

SA-P: I would like to teach the children the Farsi language. We live in America; my husband is English-speaking. My grasp on the language is tenuous at best. I'm hoping to get cartoons for my sons that are taped in Iran. And they know the words for the Iranian candy that my mother brings over to them.

P&W: What are you currently working on?

SA-P: A second collection of poetry, almost a sequel to the last poem in this collection. The book is tentatively called Silent. The larger narrative context is the death of my grandfather from esophageal cancer. He was a figure of reconciliation in our community. I am talking about the death of sound, the cancer of silence. I am also revising a book of essays, Black-Eyed Bird. I am working on Ocean Music, a nonfiction memoir about the women in my family and the ways in which we connect. I am also working on an anthology of contemporary Middle Eastern-American writing. I hope that people who read That Kind of Sleep will be able to connect with different people in a different time, and that it offers some measure of peace.