After finishing a review of Kazim Ali and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati’s new translation of the modern Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s long poem Water’s Footfall, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Iranian culture’s long and inventive accommodation of other traditions. Art in the United States from its inception has appropriated traditions so well that at times it seems Americans, myself included, think that they invented the kind of radical intertextuality that so defines our contemporary aesthetic.
I’ll not go deep into Sepehri’s work or the translation of it, but the gist of what I continued to find in revisiting this poem in such a well-done translation is how subtly and smartly Persian modernism absorbed European and far Eastern influences, even while retaining its cultural identity. While much less audacious (and egregious) than Pound's or Eliot’s cutting and pasting foreign traditions into their work, Sepehri fuses his own experience of an Iranian tradition with a wide and interesting range of outside sources.
Ironically, what we’ve come to call “intertextuality” in the parlance of reductive academic post-structuralism, arises from a quotation in response to another text. While Mikhail Bakhtin receives credit for the literary concept, Julia Kristeva’s coinage of the term in her summary of Bakhtin’s writing on dialogism typically gets used to describe it: “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Taking that mosaic as a kind of Persian carpet, Sepehri’s absorption of other influences links to an Islamic as well as a more specifically Sufi tradition to create something new, a kind of Persian romanticism for the modern era.
Such intertextuality most attracts me to the experience of Iran as a hybrid (Iranian-American) poet and critic in the 21st century. Poetry offers one of many mosaics that reveals how the Persian culture has retained its identity—including its language—despite the conquest and spread of multiple invaders and influences, retaining its pre-Islamic figurative and literal history following the Arab conquest and spread of Islam, for example, through the writing of Ferdowsi’s famous epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings).
When my wife’s cousins picked us up from the airport in Tehran, Radiohead played in the car as we drove passed mosques listening to snippets of calls to prayer on loudspeakers. As far as America goes, which politically positions itself antithetically to the Islamic Republic, friends and relatives in Iran watch the same reality t.v. shows as my wife in the U.S. The cultural interchange of course cuts both ways, (or rather a zillion ways, considering how multimedia has amplified the intertexual crossings among most cultures of the world). I’m told that Ryan Seacrest is soon to host a reality show featuring rich Iranians in Los Angeles.
As much as poetry defines the very character of Iran, a country that names its streets after poets and where even the illiterate can recite Hafez from memory, a multitude of pop culture signifiers reflects and expands upon Sepehri’s revolutionary moves. Music, of course, is a relatively easy to grasp study of cultural interchange and transformation. Iran hosts underground heavy metal bands, which have been covered in the recent movie, No One Knows about Persian Cats and by bands like Angband.
Not only is there a Persian genre of rap/hip hop, but several subgenres. Like Sepehri’s poetry, the rather popular Hich-kas posits a kind of transgression of authority (in the streets as opposed to in nature, like the poet), even as it juxtaposes a certain youthful rebellion with a reverence for God.
Rather than writing with a linear plan, linking and hyperlinking to such intertexual moves in cyberspace allows one to follow trends, outlining and reposting such videos while being led to the many next big things. As I try to stay with music, in answering an email from an Iranian filmmaker friend I’m suddenly watching basketball. Like jazz in the modern and postmodern era, which originated in America and has gone on to morph into many interesting and spectacular kinds of new music while retaining the semblance of key elements like syncopation, phrasing, etc. (which in themselves vary by culture) basketball now more than ever has seriously started to proliferate throughout the world (with a recently retired superstar in Yao opening up the sport to China and a Russian billionaire owning a US team hosting games in his home country).
As I keep writing this blog, two close friends, German-American and Iranian-American filmmakers Till Shrauder and Sarah Nodjoumi have also recently emailed, informing me that they are in the process of finishing a documentary about an African-American basketball player relocating to Shiraz, Iran, to join the country’s “Superleague.” The same rules of the game apply in Iran as in the U.S., and also as in the U.S., Iran features international players. The audience, of course, has changed, with women forbidden from attending the games.
More on this another time, or another blog, but I’ll out myself as an academic who finds amazing poetry in basketball (one thinks of Ed Hirsch’s famous basketball poem, and, going closer to the source, to any number of actual teams and players throughout the history of the game). Though I’ve yet to see a game played live in Iran, I have seen sufficient footage of this forthcoming documentary to find inspiration in the same sport but in a different culture. Reading basketball as a text as I return to the definition of intertextuality as “a mosaic of quotations…the absorption and transformation” of disparate influences, I discover I’m moving, with the postmodern world, toward witnessing a new formation, a “trans-cultural” “trans-formation” of a poetry that refuses to stay in one tradition.