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.
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.