The easy part of telling you about myself
I’m a poet, an essayist, an educator, and a co-translator of classical Persian poetry. I’ve published books of my own poems, of classical Persian poems translated into English, and a scattering of essays on subjects including antisemitism and racism, feminism and masculinity, reproductive rights, and classical Persian poetry. I’m a professor in the English Department of Nassau Community College, in Garden City, NY, where I’ve been teaching for almost thirty years and where I currently serve as secretary of my faculty union, the Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers. Courses I’ve taught include Introduction to Creative Writing, Poetry Writing (in our new Creative Writing AA program), Literature of the Holocaust, Technical Writing, Introduction to Women’s Studies, and Gender in Popular Culture. If you’d like a look at my CV, you can find it here.
Outside of school, I am in my sixth year of curating the First Tuesdays reading series, which happens on the first Tuesday of the month from September through June, at Espresso 77 in Jackson Heights, NY. I also serve on the Board of Directors of Newtown Literary Alliance, a Queens-based literary non-profit, which publishes Newtown Literary, offers free writing classes, runs a poetry contest for young writers, and more—all of it to support and promote the literary community in Queens. It has been very fulfilling, and it has made me very happy, to be playing a role in building that community.
If you’d like an official bio, this is the one I most commonly use: As a poet and essayist, Richard Jeffrey Newman’s work explores the impact of feminism on his life as a man. As a co-translator of classical Persian poetry, he writes about the impact of that canon on our contemporary lives. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has also published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), as well as three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY, where he also serves as secretary of his faculty union, The Nassau Community College Federation of Teachers (NCCFT). His website is www.richardjnewman.com.
The more difficult part
While I think I would likely have become a writer no matter what—I grew up in a house filled with books, with a mother who read constantly—I trace the roots of the writer I am today to how poetry not only helped me find my voice, at a time in my life when I felt most silenced, but also proved to me that I’d had a voice all along. I was in 9th grade, wandering at random through the stacks of my local library, when I took down from the shelves—I’m not sure I even knew I was in the poetry section—Conrad Aiken’s Selected Poems. I started reading the first poem, “Palimpsest: The Deceitful Portrait,” and didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I got a third of the way down the page. This is what I read:
Well, as you say, we live for small horizons:
We move in crowds, we flow and talk together,
Seeing so many eyes and hands and faces,
So many mouths, and all with secret meanings,—
Yet know so little of them; only seeing
The small bright circle of our consciousness,
Beyond which lies the dark. Some few we know—
Or think we know. Once, on a sun-bright morning,
I walked in a certain hallway, trying to find
A certain door: I found one, tried it, opened,
And there in a spacious chamber, brightly lighted„
A hundred men played music, loudly, swiftly,
While one tall woman sent her voice above them
In powerful incantation… Closing then the door
I heard it die behind me, fade to whisper,—
And walked in a quiet hallway as before.
Just such a glimpse, as through that opened door,
Is all we know of those we call our friends.
I don’t remember how much, if any, of the rest of the poem I read, but I recall very clearly the feeling of the book spines on the lower shelves digging into my back, as I sat on the floor and read those lines over and over and over again. I had never imagined that words could make me feel what I was feeling, simultaneously like the woman singing in that room, the collective “we” who know so little about the people they encounter in their lives, and the narrator, able to make the dynamic of that feeling palpable in language. I wanted—some part of me realized I desperately needed—to be able to do that.
When I was thirteen, a white man who lived on the second floor of my building lured me into his apartment and forced his penis into my mouth, pushing my voice back into my throat and filling me with a silence that made any words I spoke afterwards—any words, not just those with which I might try to describe what he did to me—feel simultaneously untrue and unreal. That silence left me voiceless, unable to defend myself, and so I did not how to say no or tell anyone else about what was happening to me, when the second man who presumed my body was his to do with as he pleased did precisely that from the time I was 15 or so until I turned 17. This second man was not violent. He limited himself to feeling me up when he could, but the fact that I liked him—that, before he started molesting me, he’d done a very good job of grooming me into admiring him and wanting his approval—only served to deepen the silence in which no one else knew I was living.
Poetry, the more I read it, and I read a lot of it before I actually started writing, pointed a way towards breaking that silence, less with what it said—indeed, I recall very little of what I read during those years—than with its physicality. Poets played with language—rhythm, rhyme, sound patterning, the myriad forms of formal poetry—in a way that demonstrated a poem’s material nature, its existence as something concrete I could claim as mine. I didn’t consciously think of it this way at the time—I was way too young—but I believe some version of that logic is why I took so strongly to heart the women’s movement’s fight against men’s sexual violence. It wasn’t just that I too had been a victim of such violence. It was also, and perhaps even primarily, the movement’s insistence on the primacy of naming, on the revelatory connection accurate naming make between language and material reality, and on how accurate naming itself, in the case of men’s sexual violence, validated the voices of those, in this case women, who were doing the naming.
To put it another way, it was in the women’s movement that I first found a language with which to talk openly and honestly about what the men who violated me had done to me, and so, in a very real sense, I owe whatever measure of healing I have attained to that movement, and to feminism. As a result, while I do not think that healing itself should ever be politicized, I see my own healing in very political terms.
I publicly broke my silence about being a survivor of childhood sexual violence in my first book of poems, The Silence of Men, which was published in 2006 by CavanKerry Press. The animating question at the heart of that volume remains the central question that motivates me as a writer, What does it mean for me to commit myself as man never to stand on the same side of sexual politics as the men who violated me? My own healing, in other words, is not the primary focus of my work, though there are certainly moments of healing in my poems and writing many of them has been healing for me. Rather, I am concerned with exploring what it feels like to hold myself accountable—personally, politically, culturally, and socially—in how l live my life as a survivor.
The part that might seem to come out of left field
It might at first seem like quite a stretch to move from sexual politics, especially the politics of sexual violence, to co-translating classical Persian poetry, but it’s not as far a stretch as you might think. Translation, after all, is in its way also about giving voice to the voiceless. It’s true that the voiceless in this case have not necessarily been violated or oppressed, though in many cases they have been, but the process of bringing the literature of one language into the literature of another is nonetheless the process of giving voice to someone—and, by extension, to the culture and history that person represents—who would not otherwise have been heard in what translators call the “target language.”
I became a co-translator of classical Persian literature almost by accident. My friend Iraj asked if I’d be willing to do some work for a then-new, but now defunct Iranian cultural organization, the International Society for Iranian Culture (ISIC). ISIC wanted, he said, to create an online database of classical Persian literature-in-translation and they wanted an American poet to write a kind of guide to the works that would be included. For a variety of reasons, not least because my wife is from Iran and this seemed a wonderful way to involve myself with and learn more about her culture and history, I said yes. When I met with ISIC’s Executive Director, Mehdi Faridzadeh, however, he informed me that what the organization really wanted was to publish literary translations of selections from five masterpieces from Iran’s Persian literary canon.
I spoke and understood some, mostly household Persian, but I was both ignorant of the literature in general and unable to read the original texts, so my first response was to say no. Mehdi explained, however, that while it would have been nice to retranslate the original works from scratch, he had been unable to find a native English speaking poet able and willing to take that project on. The native-English-speaking-poet part was very important to the organization, he said, because one goal of the project, which they were calling The Farsi Heritage Series, was to make these works accessible to a contemporary American reading public. They did not want scholarly translations or translations too deeply rooted in the concern a native Persian speaking translator might have for semantic accuracy. They wanted literary translations that the “average American reader” would be likely to enjoy reading.
In form, The Farsi Heritage Series was about cultural exchange, the kind that literary translation is almost by definition, but its overall goal was also deeply political. I met Mehdi in the early 2000s, when then-President Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric was in ascendency and talk of war with Iran was not uncommon. ISIC hoped that making masterpieces of classical Persian literature available to a broad American public would help open this country’s eyes to the deeply humane thread that runs through Iran’s cultural tradition—which was precisely antithetical to the image of Iran and Iranians being promulgated at the time through our media and political rhetoric. It was hard to deny the importance of what ISIC was trying to do, and so I agreed to give it a try. ISIC provided me with well-respected English translations of five books of classical Persian poetry, and I began my co-translation work.
I have published three of the five books ISIC originally commissioned me to produce: Selection from Saadi’s Gulistan, Selections from Saadi’s Bustan, and The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. I’ve also published a translation of Farid al-Din Attar’s “Story of the virtuous woman whose husband had gone on a journey,” the first story in Attar’s Elahi Nameh, or Book of God. As a co-translator, my role has been to turn into poetry the prosaic, scholarly, sometimes literal and awkward, and sometimes long out of date translations of those works that ISIC gave me.
Fully to do justice to what I do as a co-translator would require an essay unto itself, but one thing that has been important to me in maintaining my own sense of integrity as I do this work is educate myself as much as I can about the reception of classical Persian literature into English—about, in other words, the social, cultural, and political contexts in which the translations I work from were made. One thing I have learned is just how thoroughly those translations can obscure and silence not just the voices, but also the cultural identities of the original authors. I try both to make sure that doesn’t happen in my own work and, where I can, to expose it in the work of others.
So that’s what I mean when I say that literary translation is also about giving voice to the voiceless, and it’s how I am able to see what might otherwise seem like two wildly disparate kinds of literary work as part of a unified whole.
The part about what might have been
If you’ve read this far, I’d like to tell you a story. When I was three years old or so, we lived in the same town as my grandparents, who were good friends with the man who owned the Lee’s clothing store around the corner from where they lived. Lee’s had just come out with a line of children’s dungarees, and my mother got it into her head that I’d make a good child’s clothing model. So she dressed me up in a cuffed pair of jeans, red suspenders, a cool short sleeved shirt, and she took me outside to try to take some pictures. No matter how hard she tried, though, she couldn’t get me to stand still long enough for the Lee’s label that was just above my young butt to be clearly visible in the image. My modeling career was over before it even started. The pictures she did take, though, are kind of cute, even if I do say so myself.
I think about this story whenever the question of “life’s path” comes up. While I don’t know if I would have had what it took to be a child model, I am reasonably certain that the looks I grew into would have excluded me from a modeling career. Who knows, though, what life I’d now be living if my mother’s hunch had played out and I had become the child-model face of Lee’s children’s jeans? It’s not that “what could’ve been” beckons to me. I’m old enough and, more importantly, happy enough that the promise of that kind of thinking immediately rings hollow. In fact, I wouldn’t trade who I am or where I am or what I do for anything. I may not touch as many people with my work as I might have had a child modeling career taken me down whatever path that would have been; but the work I do now, the writing, the co-translating, does touch people, and it touches some of them very deeply. I know this because they’ve told me and it is a source of great joy that their telling me is (almost always) enough for me to be satisfied.
Poetry does its work in a culture, or at least in our culture, very, very slowly. The things it makes happen, to play on Auden’s famous line, almost always happen first in the interior lives of the people who read it. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably someone who cares about that process as much as I do. If so, and if you’re interested in hearing more about my work from time to time, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which you can do here.