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Bänoo Zan’s upcoming Calgary performance explores intersections and identity in poetry 

By Ansharah Shakil, April 18 2023

Award-winning Canadian-Iranian poet Bänoo Zan is coming to Calgary for a poetry reading  organized by the University of Calgary on April 19. 

For Zan, poetry is an intrinsic part of being human. She spoke about her feelings regarding the importance of culture in poetry, noting in particular its importance in Persian culture. Persian poetry and other translated work, however, often goes unread by North American audiences. Zan noted that good translations are hard to come by.

“For a translation to be able to convey the magic and the intensity and the beauty of the original, lots of factors are at work,” she said. 

Yet despite the difficulties involved in translation, Zan believes not paying attention to works in translation results in loss of wisdom. 

“We need to read translation as much as we can, by good translators, who try to be faithful to the poetry, both to the content and the form,” she advised. 

Poetry in Iran is celebrated in ways that acknowledge music’s connections to poetry. 

“A lot of poems are put to music in Iran,” Zan said. “In classical or traditional Persian music, there is no songwriter. They pick poems from established poets like Hafiz, Rumi, and they put that to music.” 

Like music, she explained, poetry is more focused on emotion than narrative.

“Poetry places the thoughts and the feelings of humans at the centre, not the story that happens to them,” she said. “That is why poetry is very empowering and is a more apt medium in conveying human struggle. For example, a lot of poems are used as political challenges or slogans because they lend themselves to that reading.” 

It is a fundamental point in Zan’s work that poetry and politics are undeniably connected. In the past, she has spoken out about protests in Iran and addressed her experience as a self-exiled poet.  

“Nowadays in North America and the West, poetry is stripped of two important roots that it had throughout the centuries: politics and culture,” Zan said. “When you remove culture and politics from poetry, you’re basically not saying anything of significance, and why would people read a poem that says nothing? It’s a waste of time.” 

In the past, she continued, there were intensely political writers that were important in the West and there should be once again. 

“One of the things I have to say is that the identity of a generation, a generation’s way of life and the way they see themselves is a manifestation of centuries of struggle and institutions that have gone into shaping the identity and the worldview of that nation,” she said. 

She concluded that poetry is integral to any culture or nation, and politics is part of that. 

“We don’t know who we are. We go read poetry to know who we are,” she said. “And if the poetry doesn’t refer to anything that has gone into making us the nation we are, it is irrelevant.” 

For young poets or students, the question of identity is a complex one, and art can often help to the path of realizing what matters to you. Zan emphasized the importance of community. Regarding anyone who wants to start a poetry event, she recommended checking events already existing in the city.

“You can start something that both continues this tradition but at the same time makes a meaningful contribution to what might be lacking or what is the gap, you fill the gap,” she said. “And when you start it make sure you keep going, it needs a lot of communication and energy, but if you believe in bringing people together, nothing is more beautiful than that.” 

In 2012, Zan founded her own poetry salon, Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), a diverse space for poets from different groups. In her new role as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta, an experience she referred to as very rewarding, she has continued this tradition. 

Together with editor Cy Storm, Zan is currently looking for sponsors for a new, groundbreaking anthology entitled Woman, Life, Freedom: Poems for the Iranian Revolution. She is also calling for poetry submissions for the anthology, with the deadline being March 15, 2024. The full submission guidelines are available here

Along with her hopes for submissions, Zan expressed her excitement for her arrival in Calgary and highly recommends people to show up on April 19. 

Free to attend with registration, details of the event can be found on the U of C website.

Photo by Nada Hashim

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