Two Iranian Poets Sentenced to Prison

by Jay Sheets


On October 27th, the Associated Press published an article on how two Iranian poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, were recently detained, interrogated, and ultimately sentenced to prison for their work which “insulted the sacred,” and, “[acted as] propaganda against the state.” They were also sentenced to 99 lashes apiece for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Both poets have the right to appeal and are currently free, but are facing 11 ½ and 9 years in prison, respectively. The full story can be read here.

From Mousavi’s Facebook page:

“I and Fatemeh Ekhtesari were prevented from leaving the country this morning and our passports were confiscated. We do not know the reason… Why have I been facing problems for years to hold a literary workshop and even classes to teach rhyme and meter? Why are our books banned despite taking care to select the poems and passing the censorship of the poet, editor and publisher? Why should the oppositionist swear at me for writing war poetry and the pro-regime activist swear at me for have read a rumour about me?... I have been often in the same conditions as the artist who killed themselves after years of failing to obtain permission. Do you know how many times I have thought about death? What is the body of an artist worth when their soul is tortured and killed?...”

PEN Center USA has taken an active approach to this injustice by sending a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, along with starting a petition on their website.

PEN Center USA:

“On Monday, November 2, 2015, more than one hundred of the most prominent names in poetry, including Robert Pinsky, Claudia Rankine, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Tracy K. Smith, sent a joint letter with PEN American Center to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, urging him to nullify their conviction and harsh sentencing. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, said, "It is not often that poets join together in a blunt political statement, but this sentence is an affront not just to governments or advocates, but to all who understand that without creativity a culture and society cannot thrive."

Please take a moment to support PEN Center USA’s cause and sign their petition which calls on the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally quash their sentences.

Thank you for reading.

Image courtesy of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran



The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

by Jay Sheets

I’ve always had a fascination with snails. There is something about them that feels perfectly poised in their slow, but purposeful, way of life—their shell as a home, the earth as a neighborhood—that reminds us to slow down and take life as it comes. So, when I came across Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, I knew I was in for a great read.

Bailey writes on how she suffered from a debilitating illness which kept her bedridden for years. During that time, a friend of the author brought a plant in from the garden to keep beside her bed, and a snail happened to be hiding under one of the leaves. Bailey goes on to tell a story of eventual companionship with this snail (rightly named “The Snail”), which, over time, gave her a much-needed purpose for living during her difficult battle. The more her fascination with the snail grew, the more she researched snails, and she shares these scientific findings perfectly throughout her memoir.

As a poet, I was happy to come across this thought by the author, when speaking of her own fascination with these little creatures: “...I also came across poets and writers who have each, at some point in their life, become intrigued by the life of a snail...” To read the words ‘poet’ and ‘snail’ in the same sentence was certainly surprising, but makes perfect sense. Poets and writers are creatures of the present when engulfed in their work, so what better animal to represent the feelings of the poet and writer than the snail? Especially when we think of how most poets and writers are solitary creatures, ‘shelled’ away in our thoughts, only to come out at night or when the rest of the world is sleeping to ‘feed’ on the mysteries of the world.  

Not only did I get the chance to discover what we can learn from the life of a snail in all the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, I got the chance to learn about the life of the snail itself; how a snail’s slime is stronger than we could ever imagine, how it can glide over a razor-sharp knife like it was nothing, or how it can defy gravity when put in a position to have to carry fifty times its own weight on its shell. I also learned that snails are nocturnal; sleeping during the day and exploring and eating at night. I learned that their favorite foods are mushrooms, and, if stuck in captivity, will escape to feed on whatever’s around—paper, stamps, cardboard boxes. I also learned that the common wood snail has, amazingly, thousands of teeth, and that you can actually hear it eating or munching away at a piece of lettuce if you’re close enough. The most fascinating thing I learned, however, was how the snail can be likened to the Cupid of the animal world, and because of this, I will never look at snails, or Valentine’s Day, the same way again. The following is an excerpt from Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell, as imparted by Bailey:

“As I watched them [two snails] they glided up to each other as their horns touched. Then they paused and gazed earnestly into each other’s eyes. One of them shifted his position slightly so that he could glide alongside the other one. When he was alongside, something happened that made me doubt the evidence of my own eyes. From his side, and almost simultaneously from the side of the other snail, there shot what appeared to be two minute, fragile white darts...The dart from snail one pierced the side of snail two and disappeared, and the dart from snail two performed a similar function on snail one...Peering at them so closely that my nose was almost touching them…[I watched as] presently their bodies were pressed tightly together. I knew they must be mating, but their bodies had become so amalgamated that I could not see the precise nature of the act. They stayed rapturously side by side...and then, without so much as a nod or a thank you, they glided away in opposite directions.”

These ‘darts,’ as Durrell describes, and as Bailey informs us, are “...tiny, beautifully made arrows of calcium carbonate, and they look as if they’ve been crafted by the very finest of artisans. They are formed inside the body of the snail over the course of a week and can be as much as one-third the length of the shell. The dart’s shaft is hollow and circular, and, depending on the species, may have four fin-like blades, which are sometimes flanged; one end is harpoon sharp, while the other end comes to a flair with a corona-like base.” These ‘darts’ are vehicles for sperm, and since snails are hermaphrodites and can take on either gender when necessary, some species will simultaneously swap sperm. Other species can be solely male or female, or reverse roles at any given time. How fascinating is that! Again, I will never view Cupid the same way after this read. Though we know Cupid represents/is derived from Greek mythology, couldn’t it be safe to say that our modern idea of Cupid and ‘Cupid’s Dart’ could have been inspired by the ‘love-making’ of the snail? With this information, it certainly makes one think Yes.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a great day-read for anyone looking for something off the beaten path. This book gifts us new perspectives on companionship, surviving illness, and of course, the wonderful world of the snail.

Poetry & The Hidden Present

by Jay Sheets

I’ve taken on a pretty exhausting, yet exhilarating challenge this semester: to demystify the creative process by examining not only the psychology of poetry, but the link between poetic inspiration and ritual across cultures and oral histories.

Poets and psychologists could argue all day about what the meaning of ‘inspiration’ is. The etymological definition is ‘the picture to oneself,’ but the overall consensus I’ve found so far is that poetic inspiration is a call to create, derived from image (mnemonic, archetypal, literal), derived from ritual. I’ve never met a poet who didn’t have a ritual, an act to call a poem forth by placing themselves in a necessary space (physically, emotionally, a balance of both) to charge their creative batteries, and connect to the ever-mysterious stream of creative consciousness. Whether it is sitting down with a coffee and a blank computer screen with headphones on, performing an ancient shamanic dance, or experiencing a walking meditation through the woods, it’s all a form of poetic ritual. This, hopefully, results in a story and a feeling of freedom from creating something new, from experiencing something new, that’s always seemed to be present.

In Poetry and Prophecy by N.K. Chadwick, the author speaks to a ‘hidden present’ in relation to inspiration and knowledge which I, as a poet, find absolutely fascinating. Chadwick states, “The association of inspiration and knowledge of whatever kind acquired by supernatural means is ancient and widespread. Inspiration, in fact, relates to revealed knowledge. Revelation covers the whole field of human consciousness. It includes knowledge of the past and the hidden present, as well as the future.” These supernatural means Chadwick is speaking to are the rituals throughout history which result in poetic utterance, or simply, poetry.

I’d always been called to write, but it wasn’t until I recently began to deconstruct my creative processes that I saw what my writing was asking of me, and why the act of writing spoke to me when nothing and no one else ever could. When looking at ritual, imagery (or imagination, if you prefer), and finished literary works from a phenomenological point of view, in my relation to memories and physical and emotional environments throughout my life, it became evident that writing poetry, had been an act of recognizing and reconstructing, or ‘remembering,’ my personal mythology. We all have our own mythologies; the untold stories swirling deep inside that tell of our childhood traumas, current fears, loves, wonders and wants. Poetry has been the literary tool I’ve needed in order to look back through the present to look forward.

As you may be able to tell by now, I’m still deep in these studies. I invite you to take a closer look at your writerly ritual, how you use your imagination (or how your imagination uses you), and what inspiration does for you on an internal level. Since the advent of language, words have been known to carry power. Isn’t ‘spelling’ considered to be a form of casting a spell, on either ourselves or our readers? We want to evoke emotion, so I think it’s safe to say yes. Poets and writers are alchemists of language, carefully transforming images of the ‘hidden present’ as words see fit.

So, when an image pops into mind, in that ‘ah-hah!’ moment in our writerly heads where divine inspiration seems all too real, I invite you to ask what that image is asking of you in terms of your own personal mythology. Are we poets really our own psychotherapists? It seems like a reasonable theory; even Jung couldn’t satisfactorily define the poetic process.

Aren’t the simplest explanations often the right ones? When we look deeper into the spaces in which our work calls to us, we often find answers to questions we’ve not yet learned how to ask. We find out how amazing is it to have been given the gift of word, the power of language, and to help answer the questions of our ‘hidden present.’