Susan Atefat Peckham has led a rich and diverse life. Born in New York City to first-generation Iranian immigrants, she has lived in the United States, Iran, Switzerland and France. She now resides in Holland, Mich. where she teaches English at Hope College. She recently published her first collection of poems, “That Kind of Sleep,” to critical acclaim, winning the National Poetry Series Award. Before departing for Ann Arbor for her reading here tonight, she was kind enough to chat with The Michigan Daily.
The Michigan Daily: What brought you to Michigan, and how do you enjoy teaching?
Susan Atefat-Peckham: I came to Michigan for the job offer I”ve taught for eight years. I started at the University of Nebraska. I love teaching, it invigorates writing, but it”s a huge time commitment. I mostly write in the summer and on weekends.
TMD: The title of your work comes from the (13th century Afghani) poet Rumi. You also use some of his work in your collection. What special significance, if any, does he hold for you?
SAP: I think he [Rumi] holds significance for many Americans. I think Rumi is a connection for many Americans into Middle Eastern tradition. He”s a nice bridge between the west and the east.
TMD: Could you talk a little bit about returning to Iran after living in the U.S., France and Switzerland?
SAP: I used to travel back and forth until 1978 but then the revolution came. Iran became an Islamic state and travel became difficult. Then came the war with Iraq I didn”t return for 16 years. The people were devastated by war. When I returned, I had to re-acclimate to a new culture and family. I love my heritage, and there are many beautiful things about the Middle East and Iran. It”s unfortunate that we are hearing negatives because of what happened. That”s hard for me to see. All they know is Al-Qaeda, violence. By reading, I can bring the knowledge I have.
TMD: Obviously, the culture of Iran differs significantly from the United States, especially in its treatment of women. How were you treated when you went there?
SAP: If you follow the laws, you are fine. No one will bother you if you wear the garb. They ask that you wear the traditional scarf, but Iran doesn”t require a veil. Women there say that it”s OK. Iran is in a state of flux between hardliners and the moderates. There are countries that treat women worse than Iran. In Iran, women can be lawyers, doctors, judges, hold authoritative positions not like the Taliban. When you go to a country, I believe in respecting traditions. It also made a difference that I knew I could leave. I don”t know that I could live there.
TMD: Your poems are very family-centered and personal. Are there one or two in particular that stand out as especially significant for you?
SAP: My personal favorite is the first poem, “Marvari: Pearl Tree.” That was the first poem I wrote where I took myself seriously as a poet. I was going to be a doctor, but my husband said to me, “you ought to think about doing this seriously.” It was also my first poem after my 16-year absence from Iran. I was trying to bring back things I was missing.
TMD: In “Avenue Vali Asr,” you discuss a bus ride in Tehran and mention Rosa Parks. Was the incident described in the poem based on a personal experience?
SAP: Yes. The Islamic state says men and women should maintain separate spaces to keep lust out. It”s also safer for women. What ends up happening is that it”s restrictive everything is separated. The bus was one third women, and two thirds reserved for men, but the women are traditionally the caretakers and ride the bus more often. There were very few men on the bus and we were packed. This poem was actually rejected by three major journals. It finally made it into a collection.
TMD: Did your aunt in fact have a gun placed to her stomach for crossing a street?
SAP: It was during the very hard period after the revolution. Iran was questioning it”s identity, how to conduct itself. There came to be a kind of revolutionary police. My aunt went down a wrong street. I”m not sure why it was the wrong street, I was young at the time. Iran has never had, at least in my generation, a period of history quite like that. The king (the Shah) was too Western for many people. He required mandatory western dress. He banned the chador (a traditional prayer outfit). Devout women were upset.
TMD: Your grandparents always seem to be present in your poems, and no doubt were significant in your early life.
SAP: Grandparents in Iran are venerated. The family structure is geared toward honoring your elders. My grandfather was involved in reconciliation. If there was a village dispute, they would turn to him to solve it. My grandmother was the matriarch. She was the spiritual sense, spiritual feeding. I”ve lost something there that I”m trying to get back through the poems
TMD: What made you decide to write this collection? This is your first collection. Why did you choose now to publish?
SAP: When you start writing, it comes from an angle you don”t expect to happen to you poetry happened to me. When I started writing, I never thought I”d have a book. When I gave up medicine, that”s the first time I thought I could have a manuscript. Not a book, a manuscript. When I found out I won the National Poetry Series award, I was in complete shock. I was humbled, completely surprised I”m thrilled. I”m glad I have a voice. A small voice, but still a voice.
TMD: Well, since you ruined my last question, I”ll just have to come up with another to close this. Do you have any other writing planned?
SAP: (Laughs). I have a book of essays under consideration. I”m working on a second collection of poems. I also have an anthology of Middle Eastern writing under consideration. I need to write. It”s like breathing, you can”t live any other way.