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Translating the Legacy of Ahmad Shamlou, One of Iran’s Greatest Poets

Niloufar Talebi, who knew Shamlou since she was a child, has written a memoir and opera on the poet and how he affected her life.

Ahmad Shamlou (photo by Hadi Shafaieh via Wikimedia Commons)

SAN FRANCISCO — Niloufar Talebi’s Self-Portrait in Bloom, a hybrid memoir of prose and poetry with some photos thrown in, delves into the author’s childhood in Tehran, the Iranian revolution, and her move to the United States as a teenager. But most compelling of all is her underlying journey to becoming a translator and multi-disciplinary artist through her love of the influential poet Ahmad Shamlou, considered the father of modern Iranian poetry.

Talebi, who has written librettos, done performance art, and translated poetry and prose, says she struggled with the structure of this memoir, writing thousands and thousands of words over the years. She looked for an editor to work with until she found author and poet Chris Abani. The book was published by l’Aleph this March.

“I convinced him to work with me for one month,” Talebi said of Abani. “He’s a magical human being who’s visiting our planet. I don’t even think of him as a poet — he is poetry. It was such the right match and that’s the reason it worked. I just trusted him and did what he said.”

Self-Portrait in Bloom by Niloufar Talebi, published by l’Aleph

One day, moving around sections she’d written, Talebi realized she had a chapter, and things fell into place.

“It was a divine moment,” she said. “It took years to arrive at it. After that it was a lot of cutting and pasting. It was a very productive year.”

Talebi says she did what author Toni Morrison has advised: write the book she’d want to read. In the book, she writes about Shamlou, a family friend who visited the house when she was young. Shamlou is known for having reinvigorated classical Persian poetry — Talebi compares him to Walt Whitman, in the sense that Shamlou pushed the boundaries of poetry and created a sort of cultural revolution.

“He took Persian poetics to free verse,” she said. “He was a cultural critic and a poet of the people.”

Shamlou was also a prolific translator, working on books like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and Federico García Lorca’s poetry. All of this had a deep impression on Talebi, who years later found herself wanting to put Shamlou’s legacy into words.

Talebi wanted Shamlou to have a bigger audience, and in 2012, she called his widow and told her she wanted to write a book and an opera about the poet. The title of the opera, Abraham in Flames, directed by Roy Rallo with music by Aleksandra Vrebalov, opens May 9 at Z Space in San Francisco and comes from a book of Shamlou’s poems. The title refers to the biblical Abraham, thrown into the fire for standing up for his belief in God; Shamlou dedicated his poems to the people fighting for freedom, including those who resisted the Shah of Iran’s regime.

Niloufar Talebi (courtesy Devlin Shand Photography)

Talebi’s book and opera started off as stories about Shamlou, but eventually they became about how the poet affected her life, with “Girl” as the main character in the opera, played by the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco.

“It’s still an opera born of Shamlou, but filtered through my story as a young artist,” Talebi said. “We freed it to do what we wanted, mixing and remixing metaphors and creating our own model.”

In both of these projects, translation played a major role. The book has translations of Shamlou’s texts and the opera was inspired by metaphors from his life and work. It made her reflect on how little Iranian literature is available in English translation.

Talebi, who has translated the contemporary Iranian poet Farideh Razi and the anthology Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World in addition to Shamlou’s work, writes in Self-Portrait in Bloom that translation “unlocked the universe” for her. Reading translations of authors like Ernest Hemingway and Franz Kafka exposed her to other cultures. “Without it we’re severed from the collective conscious of humanity,” she told me. “If it’s unavailable, we’re that much the poorer for it.”

The Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco for Abraham in Flames (Devlin Shand Photography)

Opera for Talebi is an exciting medium for translating a new story and voice. In her view, this opera is universal because it asks a question familiar to everyone, which is, “How should I live and what should I do?”

Abraham in Flames explores this question through Talebi’s own artistic journey, unusually reflected through a young women’s chorus. As Talebi writes at the end of Self-Portrait in Bloom: “As my understanding of Shamlou had gradually shifted away from a god-like figure toward a human figure, flaws and all, a feminine poet character was born for the opera who would serve as a symbolic figure of inspiration, truth, the antithesis of fear and deceit.”

Abraham in Flames will be at Z Space (450 Florida St, San Francisco) May 9–12. Self-Portrait in Bloom by Niloufar Talebi is now out from l’Aleph. 

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