So I have, this past week, finally been able to put aside the work I’ve been doing for my union, which is a subject for another post, to focus on my own writing. Frankly, it’s making me a little schizophrenic, since I am working on two very, very different projects. In the mornings, I am working on turning my book of poems, The Silence of Men, into a one man show. Not the entire book, but a substantial number of poems held together by an overarching structure. It’s a challenge; I’ve never done this kind of writing before, but I am enjoying it tremendously since it gives me a chance really to let loose about the subjects that preoccupy me: gender, sexuality, feminism and so on. And I get to say what I have to say without worrying about the logical and other constraints imposed formally by the essay, or even the memoir. Of course this form has its own constraints, but I am having fun discovering them. I am a little intimidated, since if all goes according to plan I will be the one performing the show, which will bring me full circle in so many ways. Performing was what I first wanted to do when I went to college, but for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a complete lack of support from my family, I just never had the confidence to pursue it seriously. Anyway, we’ll see. I’m working with a director who has access to a venue, but I also don’t want to get ahead of myself. I need to write the show first.
The second project I am working, to which I have been giving my afternoons, is the fourth of the five book of translations I was commissioned to produce by the International Society for Iranian Culture. The book, Ilahi Nameh, was written by Farid al-Din Attar and is a meditation on the Sufi concept of zuhd, or asceticism. Right now, I am doing the preparatory reading, working my way through sections of Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam, because understanding Attar, more than either of the other two poets I have translated, Saadi or Ferdowsi, requires an understanding of Sufi thought and the role Sufism played in the Muslim world. My plan is to post about each of these projects as I go, but what I’ve been thinking about tonight is how strange an experience it is to go from writing, as I was this morning, about the explanations for Jewish circumcision that rabbinical authorities have given through the centuries — almost all of them focused on the need to excise male sexual pleasure — to reading about how the Sufi search for oneness with the Muslim god actually engendered a kind of religious tolerance that is diametrically opposed to the dominant image of Islam that we have in the west.
It’s easy to see the connection between the one man show and the work I have been doing until now, not just because it is based on my book of poems, but because its subject matter — gender, sexuality, manhood, masculinity, feminism — is something I have been writing about for a very long time now. The translations, however, even though I have published three of them in the last eight years, are a different story. When I first agreed to take on the project, I didn’t realize just how deep a field I was getting myself into. I figured I would translate the poems and that the books I published would, more or less, be a sideline to the rest of my work. Instead, I have found myself wading deeper and deeper into Persian literary studies, at least in terms of classical Persian literature, and I have been aware for a while now that I need to make a choice – not between the translations and the work I’ve been doing all along, but between whether or not I am going to make Persian literary studies my field, at least to the degree that I am able given that I am not literate in Persian and that I have never done any formal study of the literature. Actually, now that I think of it, I suppose it is more accurate to say that the decision is whether to make the study of classical Persian literature in English my field, since that is clearly the category in which the work that I am doing most clearly falls.
Making this choice and figuring out what the consequences are is what I am comparing to turning an ocean liner, because it means changing the trajectory of a more-than-twenty-year teaching career, untangling myself from a lot of things that I have been doing at school, including, eventually, the union work I am doing – though I will likely continue to do that work for as long as the crisis on my campus persists. As I’ve planned it out, assuming a whole bunch of other things fall into place, the translations I have yet to do will keep me busy for the next five years. The challenge will be to make sure that work doesn’t prevent me from also doing the writing I have been doing all along. More on this whole process, and on my two projects, in future posts.