BWS 09.11.16: Bänoo Zan


Bänoo Zan has published more than 120 poems, translations, biographies, and articles. Songs of Exile, her first poetry collection, was released in 2016; Letters to My Father, a second, is due to be published in early 2017. Bänoo is also the founder of Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), the most diverse poetry reading and open mic series in Toronto.

Bänoo stopped by the blog for an interview before her appearance tomorrow!

BWS: You’ve said elsewhere that you chose your alias when you felt your were “writing in a voice other than [your] own, the wiser, more mature voice of [your] muse”. How does the translation from the personal to the poetic feel? And are there ways in which you might say that your voice as a person is “immature” by comparison to the voice of your muse?

Bänoo: Poetry is not a translation of life. It is an expression of life, and a brutally direct one at that. Poetry starts after stories have told and retold themselves. Poetry does not tell stories, though stories could be written based on it. Poetry is so open-ended you can write the story in a screaming number of ways. Poetry un-tells stories that impose their narrative on you and take your agency away. Poetry is reclamation of your right to be larger than your life. It is freedom from history.

I have come to realize that my inner voice knows more than I do. To give you an example, when I fall in love, at first I don’t realize I am in love. It is only when I write a poem and others describe it as a love poem or when I read it much later that I realize I am in love! If it wasn’t for my inner voice, I wouldn’t know what I am. If I listened to my own poetic voice at non-poetic moments, I would be beyond reproach. But I am blind to my own wisdom.

BWS: Given that you write under a pseudonym, I was wondering if you had any reaction to the recent “unmasking” of the novelist Elena Ferrante by a journalist, or to the responses to it. (Jeanette Winterson, for one, found the journalist’s actions malicious and sexist.)

Bänoo: I did not know about this, until I read the article. I don’t know the writer, so cannot have an opinion.

As for my case, “Bänoo Zan” as a pen name does not attempt to hide either my gender or my ethnicity. It means “Ms. Woman” in Persian. Any Persian speaker knows it is not a name, nor can it exist in this combination. And, it came to me well before I landed in Canada or even thought of leaving Iran.

My pen name came to me, not in an attempt to “create” an identity, but in an attempt to “define” it. I was feeling the presence of this voice that was and still is changing me into her scribe. As a poet, I claim the right to speak for my muse!

Let me tell you something: I wouldn’t have survived in this new land (Toronto, Canada) if I were not blessed with this self-confidence. I would not have left a trace on the Toronto poetry scene if I did not think I have the right and the responsibility to engage with the world around me. For one thing, I write poetry in a language that is not my mother tongue. And I share it with many who question that right. What is more, I am a peacemaker, a leader, a visionary who brings diverse communities together. This is a long term project. It will take more than a life-time. I don’t have time to be “successful.” But who knows what others see as success?

Poets do not write only about themselves. They capture the other in the self. Self-discovery is a never-ending pursuit, because it involves the discovery of the world. I should be thankful to whoever helps me know myself better. In some traditions, people go on adventures to find their name. I may have been on such a journey towards my writerly self when I encountered “Bänoo Zan.”

BWS: Several of the poems in Songs of Exile have dedications: to your mother, your father and each of two sisters; the book’s editor and its proofreader; and also to a public figure, Nelson Mandela. Do you know before you write a poem who it is for, or does this emerge afterward? And assuming that you never met Nelson Mandela (awesome if you did, I want to hear the story!): how is dedicating a poem to a public figure different than dedicating one to a person you know?

Bänoo: I often know from the start who the poem is about and begin poems like these with dedication. On another note, I know and don’t know the people I write about: poetry is a journey to the subject. If I thought I knew these people very well, I would probably never write about them. Most of them are people in my life, family, friends, relatives, lovers, but also public figures. None of them knew they were going to end up in the book before they read it. The Nelson Mandela tribute was written over three or four days after he passed away. I did not know Nelson Mandela personally, but I believe the political is personal.

BWS: In a wonderful CWILA interview, you say your poetry is not narrative. But would a reader be mistaken to tease out connections between the four poems called “Phoenix” or the five under the title “Words”? Particularly in the “Words” series (if I may call it that), one might argue there’s a progression: the speaker in (I) asks “Turn me into your words”, in (II) says “Transform your words / into yourself / that I may / begin to believe / in me”, in (III) is “in love with misunderstanding”, in (IV) fears words crawling on [her] palm are “nature / turning against itself” and in (V) feels trapped, perhaps, “a word in your lexicon”, and declares silence [her] song of liberation, [her] “exile / from the confinement / of your words”. How did you decide to put these poems in this sequence? Why are three grouped together, but IV and V spaced out and a little further into the collection? How do you see the “Words” poems relating to each other?

Bänoo: Poetry is a post-story genre. Readers are free to tease out stories from any poems or groups of poems. As I mentioned in the CWILA interview, however, the arrangement of poems in the book is chronological. The “Words” poems are about linguistic alienation of immigrants as well as the alienation of language from itself. As a newcomer I soon realized that stereotypical associations are imposed on immigrants. People automatically assume they know your ethnicity, colour, sexual orientation, religion, age, and more; all on the basis of the way you “look.” They don’t even bother to ask. Newcomers are told that problems start to go away once we learn the language of this country. When I landed, I already knew the language better than many of its native speakers. It has not helped dissipate misunderstandings. The “Words” poems are about the failure of language and poetry to bridge the gap.

Bänoo Zan visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Louise Bak, Pratap Reddy, Olive Senior and a special guest talk, “Getting Past Page One: How to Make Sure a Publisher Will Read Your Manuscript”, by HarperCollins Canada Children’s and Young Adult Editor Suzanne Sutherland.


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