Tattoos, unlike smoking, remain pretty cool. They’re also here to stay (and in keeping with the loose Persian connections, please allow the pun). I thought of introducing a brief collage of poetry tattooed on strangers and friends. Of course I suspected something like this had been done before, but I had no idea of the quality nor the extent of such projects.
Before briefly exploring some Persian connections and implications of this topic, I want to thank writer Facebook friends for introducing me to a couple of great publications: Editors Kim Addonizio and Cheryl Dumesnil have created an anthology of fantastic writers that capture the art of tattooing in various ways in Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos. Also of interest is Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor’s The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos for Bookworms Worldwide, a great coffee table book featuring great photographs of literary excerpts tattooed on various body parts.
I also want to mention too that my Queens College Early Americanist colleague Sian Roberts advises researching into “moko,” which,” she says, “is deeply integrated into Maori and Polynesian culture (fun fact: ‘tattoo’ originated as a Polynesian word.)”
In thinking about this topic in relation to things Persian (my commitment for my week of blogging), I also got to know those already in my life by various poetry on their skin. I didn’t know, prior to this entry, that my friend Jason Tougaw, a Comp. Rhetoric specialist (also at Queens College) has a Cocteau drawing of Orpheus, which explains in part why he seems to embody a kind of poetry. Stefanie Simons, who I got to know at Pen America, has tattooed part of an Aracelis Girmay poem on her body (yet another significant reason Stefanie is such a cool young writer). Getting more serious with things—and hopefully I can put a few pics up of what I’m seeing—Claire Van Winkle, poet and translator (and new MFA student at Queens) has this on her arm from Jorie Graham “The longing is to be pure. What you get is to be changed. ~JG” Always, or usually, the arms of these writers carry the words of writers, as if literally connecting to some key influence.
By way of transition to the Persian, Tara Mokhtari, an Iranian-Australian poet and critic who I recently met during her visit to NYC, has the following lines in Perisan on her arm from the modern Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri (about whom I hope to blog soon). She offers the following loose translation: "Live large, and alone, and modest, and unyielding.” Most people, she notes, get a little disappointed when she explains the “alone” part. Writers, however, would surely understand.
I offer these tattooed lines as a greater transition to the well-known early trendsetting images of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, who radically politicized the female body with words from poetry as well as other sources. Like Neshat’s work, Mokhtari’s words both attract and subvert attention, as the latter explained how men during her trip to NYC hit on her by using the foreign lines as an entry into the conversation (making the message of valuing aloneness all the more significant).
Those unfamiliar with Neshat's postmodern treatment of the feminine post-Islamic Revolution—especially following her visit to her country of origin in the 1990’s—might find it worthwhile to check out her Women of Allah series. She co-opts a kind of communal or group definition of the Persian woman in the context of the Islamic Republic of Iran, reproducing a seeming empowerment with guns, for example, though also rendering the women with little individuality (re-imposing the mystique of the veil, so to speak).
There are far too many things to say and theorize upon as one considers the implications of these seminal images. In a pithy blog entry, it’s perhaps best to let the art speak for and against itself, so I’ll refrain from what will only become a reductive analysis. One overriding question that Neshat’s work continues to brilliantly bring to the surface relates to appropriation and issues of Orientalism.
Obviously the Persian script on female bodies (the artist used her own body in much of this work), like Tara’s tattoo, means something different to Iranians than to those, say, in the English speaking world. The latter can’t help but find another layer in their resistance to understanding, and I read that some have mistakenly assumed they must be lines of the Qu’ran. What does it mean to know, or to not know, that often this amazing calligraphy are the words of the first modern feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzad?
A prodigious amount of tension derives from the dichotomous reception of eastern vs. western audience. Insofar as Robert Frost famously claimed “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” he was pulling a fast one, and his elusive irony gets aptly demonstrated here. The meta-statement itself is poetry, an epigram of sorts, meaning in locating the dislocation Frost paradoxically finds poetry. In her own way, through the resistance of translation and the resulting loss of meaning, Neshat too makes poetry in the English speaking world by allowing the loss.
Of course there is a lot more going on in Neshat’s earlier work here (not to mention her more current projects with video and film). To a certain extent interjecting the images in the framework of poetry tattoos might seem like forcing a comparison. However, when considering these indelible impressions as well as a kind of permanence through the use of impermanent artistic media, they remain another kind of tattoo pictured on the artist.