In October MTV's college network, mtvU, surprised some of its more literary-minded viewers when it named Iranian poet Simin Behbahani as its next poet laureate. She is only the second poet, following John Ashbery, to hold the honorary post. "Most people assumed we would select an American poet," says Ross Martin, a poet and a senior vice president at MTV Networks, who admits that he wasn't familiar with Behbahani's work prior to the network's most recent attempt to broaden the scope of its poetry coverage to university students. "The selection of Behbahani is a reaction to the issue of Iran on college campuses."
The network considered poets from "other regions of conflict," but selected Behbahani because she is "the poet of the people of Iran," says Martin, who compares her writing with the poetry of Ireland's Seamus Heaney and Poland's Czesław Miłosz. "She doesn’t just tell stories about struggle and oppression but also about the beauty of the people; of the land, its culture and history."
Behbahani was born in 1927, during a decade that also produced other politically conscious women poets such as Wisława Szymborska and Adrienne Rich. She was raised in a family of writers and scholars; her mother was a poet, teacher, and newspaper editor. "Iranian women have always been pioneers," Behbahani insists, "championing women's and human rights. They aren't backward and oppressed."
Behbahani, who published her first poem when she was just fourteen, embodies in her work the tension between the ancient and the modern. She has reinvigorated the classical poetic form of the ghazal by introducing new meters, thematic progressions, and colloquial language, and addressing contemporary subjects such as war, corruption, poverty, prostitution, and censorship. She also worked as a human-rights activist during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and after the revolution in 1979, and has won awards for her efforts, including the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Grant in 1998. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1997 and 2006.
Receiving recognition from the world of music isn't new for Behbahani. Her poem "My Country, I Will Build You Again" is recognized as a national anthem by many Iranians and has even been recorded as a song by the popular musician Dariush. "Iranian classical poetry is close to music," Behbahani says. "In fact, before we had musical notations, instructors used poems to teach musical scales."
In naming Behbahani its poet laureate, mtvU offers her work the potential of reaching an estimated 7.5 million college students on 750 American campuses. The network plans to air nineteen video segments with excerpts of Behbahani's poems, appearing in both Persian and English, accompanied by music. Considering the impact of Twitter during and after the 2009 Iranian presidential election, mtvU has also tweeted lines of her poetry. A range of full-text poems posted online at mtvu.com covers her entire career, and includes several previously unpublished works.
Though Behbahani can't watch television or use the Internet because of macular degeneration—she writes using a large Magic Marker—the eighty-two-year-old poet speaks enthusiastically about technology. "Although some politicians believe in a culture of veiling, the world is awake," she says. "Censorship is no longer possible. Books and articles that get censored reach the world through tools like the Internet and then return to their source."