For the next installment of our interview series, Scribendi staff member Alex Dickey sat down with WRHC Poetry Award Winner Sogol Gharaei to talk about her poem “Diaspora.” From her contributor bio: “Sogol is a first-generation immigrant from Iran. She wrote this small collection because the world is full of other voices that are never heard. She wrote to contribute to a writing community that gave her so much as a young reader.” The interview appears here, with the following transcript having been lightly edited for clarity.
So, what was your inspiration or purpose for writing “Diaspora”?
Oh my gosh, “Diaspora” is a poem about my life. So it’s something that’s very personal, just growing up as a first-gen immigrant, being—I started as a novelist, and then I realized that poetry is something that I really enjoyed doing. And my culture, Persian culture, we’re known for our poets. We’ve got Hafez who could put Shakespeare to shame, and we have so many great, world-renowned poets. And it was just something that clicked, like “Diaspora” didn’t really take me that long to compose. It was just something that has been sitting on the tip of my tongue, and it was about to come out at any moment. So it was just about my experiences growing up from the Iranian culture, and then moving to the United States, growing up in America and never feeling like you necessarily belong in either category. So you’re always just living in this cloud of nowhere and somewhere at the same time, and that’s the diaspora that not only the Iranian community feels but every single migrant community feels.
Absolutely, that all makes a lot of sense. I think all of that comes through in the poem, and hearing that come through your voice in a sort of more informal fashion is fascinating to hear. On the note of, you said you used to be a novelist, the big question I always ask poets about their work is why. Why is this a poem as opposed to an essay, a short story, or another form of writing? What about poetry—what attracted the form and the idea together?
So you’re pretty much asking why write a poem instead of writing a book, or like, in another format of writing.
Yeah, another thing. Why write a poem?
I think poetry is just—the reason I’ve always gravitated towards poetry, I used to be informally writing a bunch of different compositions and saying “Oh, it’s nothing” and then like, this is poetry and this is something really beautiful. Like, poetry has the capacity to basically take big moments of your life, of these human moments that we feel, and make it into this tiny composition that encompasses everything you’re trying to capture. The beauty of poetry is that poetry is also vague and very specific at the same time. That’s the beauty of it, because you can relate to the individual who’s writing it. It feels like this conversation between you and the poet, while with fiction, I feel like it tethers it to a specific narrative, to a specific individual, and it’s harder to have that universal connection with a piece. And an essay, I don’t know, it just didn’t have the same soul and heart that poetry has when you write. It just has that moment where you’re capturing so much and so little.
I think poetry is a really unique form of expression, and so it’s always worth exploring why. Why that’s something that someone wants to do. And part and parcel with that, tying back in with all these different forms of expression: What is your first memory of creating something? Of art, or something like that? Could be finger-painting, could be—whatever you define as your first art creation, what would that be?
So when I was younger, my dad was a toy wholesaler. And my art form has always been writing. So the way I communicated when I needed or wanted something from him was basically writing a story of “Oh my gosh, if I get this toy, these are these adventures we’re going to go on.” I would just write these letters and little drawings and slip them under his door. And before he woke up, before he went to work, I would—I’m the type of person where I can only verbalize and truly get my perspective out if I have the time to write it, and that was the way I would tell him, gently, that I wanted something. I was really lucky to have a dad who was a toy wholesaler, so he had all these toys. It was like every kid’s dream. I think that’s the first memory of me expressing myself in that manner, and just creatively writing and storytelling and being really creative in that aspect. And I feel like my dad always jokes “That’s the moment we should have known that you’ve always wanted to do writing.” I’d write these crazy, creative stories and he would just eventually give in, and every day was something different that I would slide under his door until I got my toy. That’s one example!
That’s fabulous, I think that’s adorable! And also, as you said, every kid’s dream in a way, your dad a toy wholesaler?
Oh, I lived it! I lived the good life. [laughter]
I understand. [laughter] So we have the past, right? You have slipping stories under your dad’s door. You have the present, which is this wonderful piece of writing that we’re going to be publishing. So what are you currently working on, or what do you hope to work on in the future in terms of your writing? Do you have any projects up here in the can, or? You’re nodding emphatically! [laughter]
Always, always something. [laughter] “Diaspora” is one of the very beginnings of my collection that I’m working on, a poetry collection about my experiences. I think the most important thing about poetry is that it has to be real and it has to be raw. I feel like it’s really easy to just not—just to resonate with something that’s like genuinely coming from a real moment, because you can encapsulate that experience for everyone else reading it. But with other forms of writing, you can just go with whatever it is, make your own story even if you haven’t experienced it. With poetry, it’s very raw, it’s very personal. So I’ve been working on a poetry collection called “The Iranian Diaspora.” That is going to be basically—within the poetry format, it’s going to be narrating my experience. So it starts when I was really young, it’s me growing up, and it’s different poems explaining that. It’s really exciting to do that project, I really, really love it, I’m really excited. Because it feels like it’s the best way to connect with my roots, my artistic roots, and my culture, my Iranian culture. And also be able to share my story, because I know I’m not the only person who’s felt this way. In American culture, we are a nation full of other cultures. That’s the beautiful thing, there’s people that feel this inner struggle and they don’t really know what it is. And I realized what diaspora was—because I’m an international studies major—and I was taking a class and we read this definition and I was like “That explains how I feel!” That word captures how I’ve been feeling, like you don’t belong to anything, you’re just in this cloud, you never know what part of your identity is yours and you can’t really establish yourself or your identity. That was something that was really personal to me. So I’ve been working on that collection, I really love it! I think I have 40 poems in the making right now, within the collection, so it’s really exciting. It’s kind of like—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the young adult novel that recently came out called The Poet X, and it was basically kind of the same concept with the same format. It was the author telling the story of an immigrant woman and her struggle with religion, her family, and her social life. Once I read that format, I was like “Oh my gosh, that’s something I should really do,” because poetry is my thing, that’s what I really excel at. I just started doing my collection, and it’s still continuing and it’s really exciting, because it’s going to be done soon.
That’s so cool! I think it’s really wonderful for young people—and by young, I really do mean young people, given how most young successful poets are in their early thirties—to be writing collections and to be putting together whole ideas that they’re encapsulating in multiple pieces like that. I think that’s really, really wonderful. So, this may be a dumb question, but why did you submit to Scribendi? What was the reason? Or why did you submit to Scribendi in particular, if that’s an easier question to answer?
No, that’s a really good question. I’m actually very different compared to other artists in the poetry community, I don’t share my work. I feel like there’s only like five people in my entire life who know I’m a writer. It’s something that I consider very personal, because I think writing is a really personal thing. Letting someone else read your work is really personal. I didn’t even think my piece would even get selected, it was crazy when I found out. I was like “What? It’s going to get selected?” I’m really glad that it reached someone that really felt like it had something that they really resonated with. That made me super happy, that’s the reason I write. It’s not for anything else other than that, just to connect people in the form of poetry. I submitted to Scribendi because I’m in the honors community at Cal State Long Beach, and they told me about this opportunity. I was really excited, it was at the beginning of my collection and I was like “Oh my gosh, I have this piece, I feel like it’d be super good,” and I submitted it. I was like “It’s not going to get accepted, it’s not going to get accepted,” so I was so excited when it was! Because I always think it’s important to remain humble about your work, and just to see every poem as another opportunity to grow and to improve as an artist. And I sometimes feel like some artists that are really overexcited to eagerly share everything they write, sometimes that can kind of diminish the craft in some ways too. So I like to keep my work in the dark until I really see an opportunity present itself, and I thought it was a good platform to submit my work to Scribendi. It seemed like it would be really well represented there.
Thank you! Thank you both for that impression and for entrusting us with our work. You touched on this a little bit, but what was your reaction to finding out you were getting published? And to winning the award?
Oh my god, I was surprised! [laughter] I told my friends, and they were like “What? You do poetry? Can I read it?” And I was like “No! You can’t read it, once it comes out I’ll share it, but no.” [laughter] I was really surprised and I was really excited, because I feel like it’s really easy to doubt yourself, especially when you’re a writer. Writing is just so hard, writing is so difficult, and the community is very saturated too. Everyone wants to be the poet, the next Atticus, the next r.h. Sin. The new, modern form of contemporary poetry is the one-liners, and I like to continue to tell that narrative. So I was really surprised, I was really excited for the opportunity, and it kind of gave me the affirmation I needed to continue on my path. It’s something that seems to be working, just following that and continuing my own artistic way of representing my story instead of just thinking “I need to change for the media.” I feel like that’s what a lot of authors do, and when I was looking into being published, that’s what they all care about. They all want to know when the next Angie Thomas is going to arrive and give them that best-selling novel. And then every writer tries to format their work into that format so they can get published, and I feel like that diminishes the craft. The most important thing is just staying authentic. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s something that’s really been coming through and working. Not only in this format, and being able to get this opportunity, but also in a couple of other publications that my poems have been in.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I like that we went from surprise to a very deep analysis of the world of publishing. [laughter]
It’s so true, they all want the next Angie Thomas, they all want the one that’s going to give them the best seller, but they don’t take a chance on those books, they don’t care! Because they want it once it hits big, but they’re not willing to take the risk to get it there. So that’s the interesting thing, because my novel was something that—for me, obviously representation is important, and I have done so much research into all of that, and I realized that the publishing world just wants that. And poetry is a community where you can just truly express what you’re trying to say, without the fear of having to adjust to the market demands and what they want. So that’s the most interesting thing. I’ve had so many publishers say “You’re super young, we love your work, but the market is saturated for this. We need the next The Hate U Give.” It’s so interesting to see how that pressure is changing the way writing is coming out. It’s becoming more commercialized, less personal, and poetry is a great way to get away from all of that and to focus on what really matters.
Absolutely, that totally makes sense. You touched on this a little bit, because you mentioned that you’re an international studies major, the collection you’re working on, and being published other places, but in the very broadest strokes—and I know this is a scary question, especially in today’s day and age—where are you headed from here? What are you hoping to do in the future, post-graduation or even before you graduate?
That’s a good question, and actually it has nothing to do with writing! My goal is—I’m currently studying international studies to go to law school and pursue human rights law, work with people in situations where it’s really difficult. I came from a refugee background, so for me that’s something that’s really close and dear to my heart. Seeing news about Syrian refugees, children in cages, that stuff really makes my blood boil. It’s something I really feel I can be an agent of change for, and I think that’s always been my goal in life, to be an agent of change for people and to provide a community, whether it’s through writing, through my work, whether it’s through law. I will always do poetry, I feel like it’s something I can’t not do. I really can’t, I can’t stop it. It’s really exciting to see myself grow as a poet. I don’t think it’s ever going to stop. I think the collection is going to be the next big thing I really want to work on, to try and solidify and perfect that as much as I can and see where it goes from there. I go wherever the inspiration strikes, and right now that collection is all I care about.
I think that’s an admirable career goal, absolutely. Thank you so much for sitting down and for talking with me. I saved my hardest question for last, so brace yourself: If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be?
Exclamation point! Why?
Because it’s so exciting! It has a little uppity beat to it when you use it. It’s like “Oh! Hello!” It’s nice and happy, I feel like it’s one of the only punctuations that has an expression attached to it.