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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​.richard​jnew​man​.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.

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