Under the glow of red paper lanterns strung zigzag from the buildings along Chung King Road, a few women conferred over an iPhone map, turning this way and that, searching for The Poetic Research Bureau. In a modest storefront topped with a vintage sign announcing “Win Sun Company Jade and Jewlery,” the bureau, a literary nonprofit, is all but hidden; were it not for the small crowd gathered to hear Mohsen Emadi read, they may have passed it by.
The bureau does not typically host readings on weekdays, but considering the urgency of Tuesday night’s event, they made an exception. Exiled Iranian poet Emadi was to read from his first book in English translation, “Standing on Earth,” published by Los Angeles’ Phoneme Media. Following President Trump’s executive order barring citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., Emadi, who departs on Friday, will not be permitted to return.
The bureau’s plastic cream-and-orange seating, like the chairs of a high school classroom, fill quickly: Soon it’s standing room only, and soon after that attendees spill onto the street. One wall of the room serves as a chalkboard: smudged notes from what looks like an American history lesson — definitions of “scalawag” and “carpetbagger” and a Civil War timeline — are half-erased. The space also houses a tiny library. (I notice an incomplete collection of the journal “Critical Inquiry”).
David Shook, Phoneme’s founding editor, sets up a card table with Phoneme’s books for sale; it publishes poetry in translation. Shook, with a waxed handlebar mustache, is unmistakable; introducing the reading, he stands before us in huaraches and tweed.
Shook opens with a kind of epigraph, a stanza from Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” throwing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan some poetic shade. Emadi, who has been in exile from Iran for eight years and now lives in Mexico, gives the reading his own preface.“Resistance is the only thing we have,” he says. “It’s not a question of hope…. Hope sometimes doesn’t work. Our daily life gets to have meaning from our resistance.”
Emadi reads each poem in Persian, after which Shook reads the English translation. As a listener, you discover quickly that longing and nostalgia sound the same in any language, but far from being repetitive, this two-part structure seems an ideal way to experience a poetry reading: The first performance gives the audience an opportunity to listen for the pleasure of the language alone, for the texture and musicality, while only on a second pass does metaphor and meaning begin to consciously sink in.
The Persian speakers in the audience, of course, understand both readers, but can listen on the second round for the closeness and nuance of the translation.
While Shook reads the translation, Emadi silently looks out over the audience, inviting us, it seems, to look back at him. “So look into my eyes / as you pack your bags / and say your goodbyes,” reads Shook, and beside him Emadi stares straight ahead.
Sanam Mahloudji attended the reading as “a way to engage with what’s going on in the world.” A writer, lawyer and speaker of Farsi, she participated in the first immigration ban protest at LAX and was inspired to volunteer her services when she saw another “lawyer standing there, prepared, the embodiment of what we believe in.” Stephen Weiss, who was visiting from New York, had protested Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration there. He noted that “the present moment feels urgent…It’s an emergency.”
After the reading, Shook invited the audience to have their books signed — and to give Emadi a goodbye hug. Emadi laughed, but most people took him up on it. Mahloudji, who was visibly moved by the reading, bestowed an emotional embrace. Emadi stepped outside to talk shop with readers and pack a tobacco pipe. What makes a good translation? “You have to be humble before the poem,” he said. “Poetry is another language.”
Emadi leaves Friday for work on a digital poetry project in Finland, after which he will return to Mexico. “In Mexico there is nobody to speak Persian to,” he said, and that both the Iranian and literary communities in Los Angeles have been a solace to him. “I have to live my exile as my home,” he said, and added that while “Trump’s order is legitimate...it’s not just. It’s humiliating to America. I don’t want America to feel that shame.”
In January, he visited his brother, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who recently had his first child, Emadi’s niece. “Finally I could embrace her,” he said. There’s no telling when next he’ll be permitted into the country to see her again. Earlier Shook, on Emadi’s behalf, read these lines: “waiting is the dense endurance of eternity / and love, the miracle of mortals / makes eternity ashamed.”