Wel­come to my web­site! My name is Richard Jef­frey New­man, and, as it says there over on the left, I write about the impact of fem­i­nism on my life as a man and of clas­si­cal Per­sian poetry on our lives as Amer­i­cans. “Fem­i­nism?” I can hear you think­ing, “And clas­si­cal Per­sian poetry?” You’re right. It is a strange com­bi­na­tion, but they are my sub­jects, and so I’d like to tell you how I came to write about them and point out some of the con­nec­tions I have come to see between them.

Why I write about feminism

My first sub­stan­tial encounter with fem­i­nism came in the early 1980s, when I read Adri­enne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence. In that book, in the dynamic of sex­ual objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and vio­lence that Rich was writ­ing about in terms of women, I rec­og­nized for the first time the sex­ual vio­lence that I had sur­vived twice dur­ing my teens, at the hands of two dif­fer­ent men. Before then, not only had I not named that vio­lence for what it was; I also had not real­ized how thickly my life had been blan­keted in silence, how thor­oughly those men had ter­ror­ized me into never speak­ing fully the truth of who I was. I’d been writ­ing poetry with increas­ing seri­ous­ness for about five or six years, and I craved the way putting my words down on the page made me feel fully present in a way that noth­ing else did; but it was in Rich’s fem­i­nism that I first con­nected the “real­ness” of that expe­ri­ence to a need to name not just what my abusers had done to me, but also the fear and shame and self-loathing they had planted within me. When I say I write about the impact of fem­i­nism on my life as a man, in other words, I am not talk­ing about cat­a­logu­ing the ways I have had to adjust to the social, cul­tural, and polit­i­cal changes that have their roots in fem­i­nism, though that is cer­tainly a worth­while project. Rather, I am talk­ing about explor­ing what it has meant for me to embrace a way of under­stand­ing the man I have been, of giv­ing voice to the man I want to be, that stands in oppo­si­tion to every­thing about man­hood and mas­culin­ity that my abusers, as men, rep­re­sent. To put it another way, I write about what it means to me to be a fem­i­nist because fem­i­nism is the only pol­i­tics I know that com­mits itself explic­itly to a world with­out exploitive sex­ual objec­ti­fi­ca­tion. That is the kind of world I want to live in and it is the kind of world I hope my words will help to cre­ate. In the 1990s, I tried to write a book of essays about this. I even found an agent who believed that the book would sell, but while almost every edi­tor she con­tacted admired the pro­posal I wrote, they all said that a man writ­ing about his feel­ings just wasn’t com­mer­cially viable. After a year, the agent dropped me. She was, after all, run­ning a busi­ness, and it had become clear that my book was not going to make her any money. Dis­cour­aged, I put the book aside and focused on writ­ing poetry. The result was The Silence of Men, pub­lished by CavanKerry Press in 2006, which says, though obvi­ously in a dif­fer­ent form, most of what I’d wanted the book to say. Most, but not all. What didn’t (and doesn’t) fit into my poems—though it is in poetry that I feel most at home as a writer—I write about here on my blog, and on Alas, a blog to which I reg­u­larly con­tribute. Per­haps I will even­tu­ally try again to turn that mate­r­ial into a book. For now, it’s enough for me to know that peo­ple are read­ing it and find­ing it, at least on Alas, worth talk­ing about.

So what’s the con­nec­tion to clas­si­cal Per­sian poetry?

Aside from the fact that you can find sex­ual pol­i­tics worth talk­ing about in almost anything—but espe­cially in a lit­er­a­ture as con­cerned with love and desire as the poetry I translate—the sim­plest answer is that trans­la­tion is also a way of giv­ing voice to what has been voice­less. I became a trans­la­tor in 2003, when I accepted a com­mis­sion from Mehdi Faridzadeh, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Inter­na­tional Soci­ety for Iran­ian Cul­ture (ISIC), to pro­duce book-length lit­er­ary trans­la­tions of selec­tions from five mas­ter­pieces of clas­si­cal Per­sian poetry:

  • Bus­tan and Golestan, both by Saadi of Shiraz
  • Ferdowsi’s Shah­nameh
  • Attar’s Elahi Nameh
  • Nezami’s Haft Peykar

ISIC’s goal for this project is to open up Iran’s cul­ture and his­tory to an Amer­i­can read­er­ship out­side the class­rooms and schol­arly activ­i­ties of Per­sian Stud­ies pro­grams. Lit­er­ary texts in trans­la­tion human­ize the peo­ple of the cul­ture in which those texts orig­i­nate and make that cul­ture com­pre­hen­si­ble to the peo­ple who are read­ing the trans­la­tions. Given the his­tory of sus­pi­cion and hos­til­ity between Iran and the United States, this kind of cul­tural exchange is extremely impor­tant. Yet my stake in this trans­la­tion project is also per­sonal, no less so than my stake in writ­ing about fem­i­nism and mas­culin­ity. My wife is from Iran. My son, there­fore, is Iranian-American, and so how Iran is depicted in this coun­try is not just a mat­ter for me of inter­na­tional pol­i­tics. It is also about my fam­ily and my home. Strangely enough, one thing I have learned in the course of doing this work is that the the lit­er­a­ture of clas­si­cal Iran has been mak­ing itself at home in Eng­lish for at least 350 years. Jeremy Taylor’s unwit­ting use of a story from Saadi’s Bus­tan, for exam­ple, to close his argu­ment for reli­gious tol­er­ance in A Dis­course of the Lib­erty of Proph­esy­ing (1646) intro­duced a Per­sian Sufi sen­si­bil­ity into the devel­op­ment of reli­gious tol­er­ance as value in the west that found its way into Amer­i­can cul­ture via Benamin Franklin’s “Para­ble Against Per­se­cu­tion.” Sim­i­larly, to take two other exam­ples, through a vari­ety of trans­la­tions, Rumi’s verse, or Hafez’, has become part of our dis­course on love and desire, self-fulfillment and spir­i­tual enlight­en­ment. My son, like many other Iranian-Americans of his gen­er­a­tion, will never know Per­sian well enough to read this lit­er­a­ture in its orig­i­nal form. He and they deserve access to this part of their cul­tural her­itage in ver­sions that strad­dle the cul­tures they strad­dle and that sing in the lan­guage in which they are most at home. To be hon­est, when Mr. Faridzadeh first offered me this com­mis­sion, I refused. Not only am I not lit­er­ate or even flu­ent in Persian—though I do speak and under­stand the lan­guage at an advanced begin­ner level—I knew absolutely noth­ing about the lit­er­a­ture he wanted me to trans­late. I sim­ply did not feel qual­i­fied. I often still don’t. I know that poet trans­la­tors have for cen­turies worked as I am work­ing, using not the orig­i­nals to make their trans­la­tions, but “trots,” Eng­lish ren­der­ings that are seman­ti­cally accu­rate but do not sing as poetry. Nonethe­less, I am very aware that some aspects of the poetry I trans­late are per­ma­nently inac­ces­si­ble to me and that this inad­e­quacy shapes my work, how­ever strong it may be in other ways. Still, I am very happy Mr. Faridzadeh was able to change my mind. I’ve learned a lot from the poets I’ve trans­lated, and it has been a priv­i­lege to get to know my wife’s cul­ture in this way. More than that, though, immers­ing myself in a lit­er­ary tra­di­tion I knew noth­ing about has returned me to one of the most impor­tant lessons of my life. I learned it many years ago, when I was study­ing in a yeshiva high school (when I thought I wanted to be a rabbi–but that’s a whole other story). One of my teach­ers, Rabbi Wehl, gave a lec­ture about how true learn­ing was not the result of find­ing answers. Rather, he said, true learn­ing inhered in find­ing and then lov­ing the pre­cise ques­tions you needed to ask. Lov­ing the ques­tions was essen­tial, he explained, because you might have to live with them for a very, very long time. Saadi, Fer­dowsi, Rumi, Attar; Adri­enne Rich, Susan Brown­miller, June Jor­dan, Andrea Dworkin (to name some of the women through whom I first dis­cov­ered feminism)—each of these writ­ers has con­fronted me with ques­tions that have been, or have become, essen­tial to how I under­stand who I am. They are ques­tions that I think every­one, in her or his own way, ought to be ask­ing, which I sup­pose is why I write about them.

First Tues­days

I also want you to know about First Tues­days, the monthly read­ing series that I host. First Tues­days is held on the first Tues­day of every month, Sep­tem­ber through June. The read­ings take place at Ter­raza Cafe in Elmhurst, New York, a block away from the sto­ried 7 train that runs from Times Square to Flush­ing in Queens. The for­mat is a stan­dard open mic. Peo­ple come to read small selec­tions of their work and to hear the fea­tured reader, but while some very impres­sive writ­ers have read at Ter­raza, First Tues­days is, first and fore­most, a neigh­bor­hood read­ing series. Almost every month there is some­one who gets up to read her or his work for the first time, and there are reg­u­lars who come to read not their own poems, but the poems they love, or poems by peo­ple they love. One woman, for exam­ple, comes every month to keep her mother’s mem­ory alive by read­ing her poetry for us. So, if you have poetry you’d like to share, or if you just want to have some poetry in your life, please join us. You can find more infor­ma­tion here, or you can just sign up for the mail­ing list.