It is a tragic and seemingly inevitable truth that war is a part of human existence. It is also apparent, as the daily news reminds us with far too great a frequency, that war does not make exceptions for innocent civilians. In particular, children are the unwitting victims of war, and what they experience shapes who they are and how they interact with the world. Pantea Amin Tofangchi’s debut poetry collection, Glazed with War, recounts her own experience growing up in Iran during the war with Iraq.
Each poem in the collection comes from the perspective of her young self as she moves through her daily routine of school and life with her parents and siblings against the backdrop of destruction. The bombs that explode nearby, the tragedies that accumulate among her classmates, the trauma she internalizes living in constant fear for the violence that could befall her – these are all elements Tofangchi captures in the simple, innocent voice of a child.
Read on to learn more about Pantea’s process and inspiration for this fine collection.
Baltimore Fishbowl: This collection is written from your perspective as a child. What led you to the decision to write from this point of view? What does this voice allow you to communicate?
Pantea Amin Tofangchi: Years before I started this manuscript, as an assignment for a poetry class I had to write a poem about a memory from my childhood. I remember when I was reviewing this specific memory in my head, I could easily picture it, I could see it like a movie. When I started writing my first draft of that poem, I liked how first-person voice got rid of a lot of unnecessary extra explanation that I wanted to show in my poem. But more importantly, it allowed me to relive those emotions again. Later when the idea of writing a lot of those memories was shaping, I decided to keep the child’s POV because first it stopped me from forcing my grown-up language, belief and emotion and perhaps even censoring myself, but it also let me keep the language very simple yet real.
BFB: Have you written other poems about the war from an adult’s point of view? If so, how are these poems different?
PAT: I have written a few poems specifically about war as an adult. I do believe the voice of the child was better received by the audience. But I do know being a war-child is part of who I am, and it comes out even when I am writing about another subject. I do notice that being an immigrant has the same effect on me and my writing.
BFB: Did the process of writing these poems help you understand your experience in new ways? If so, could you talk a bit about how? Are there things you know now that you wish you could tell your child self?
PAT: Such a great question. I do believe writing this collection changed my way of thinking quite a bit. I wrote this collection with a very restrictive ritual, I am actually very impressed that I was able to stick to the rules I put for myself. The day I decided to write this manuscript, I promised myself that every morning I will read William Stafford for one hour and then I will write for one hour. And I did that for two months without missing a day. By the end of two months, I had a little over 60 poems. What was fascinating to me was that memories started to come to the surface, memories that I consciously and subconsciously had buried, to the point I didn’t think I had those memories. It took me about a week of reading different poems from different poets that I decided I should read William Stafford.
To answer the last part of your question, sigh, things I know now are much too dark. Back then I only knew of one war. I still believed in good guys and bad guys and that the good guys will win! I did not know that wars are the way of making money for some countries. Perhaps I would tell my child-self not to grow up!
BFB: Why William Stafford?
PAT: I would say mainly him being an active pacifist has always affected me. But I collected a few books during the week I was deciding who I want to read: William Stafford, Robert Bly, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Cummings and I think a few others. I collected the books and sat down and read a few random poems from each for several days, and William Stafford spoke to me more than the others, especially in terms of the subject I was about to write. Especially the poem “History Display.” The idea of escaping history haunted me! Reading and rereading . . . it was just the right voice I needed in my head every morning!
BFB: Could you talk about the title? What does it mean to you?
PAT: That was literally a hands-on experience! I used to take pottery class; I was glazing one of my pieces. I was looking at my imperfect bowl that I was very proud of, dipping it in a barrel of teal glaze, I thought to myself I wish I could glaze me! I would have come out heat-proof, dishwasher, and microwave safe, all shiny and teal! The metaphor lingered in my mind. A few days later, as I was driving to my pottery class, it was very clear that in fact I have been glazed with war. I am tough; I went through a lot in my life aside from war, and I went through everything strong, dishwasher safe. Glazed with war.
BFB: According to your bio, you write poetry in English, but prose and plays primarily in Persian. Why does English seem like the right language for your poems?
PAT: Poetry has always been part of my life, or I should say the lives of Iranians in general. I never thought of writing a poem, though, until I took a poetry class. And I immediately felt the connection, especially writing in English. I had to say quite a lot with so few words, a lot of pauses and all my emotions. I came to realize that language is just a tool and I loved how my love for literature in general overpowered my imperfections in writing in English!
BFB: The collection includes drawings throughout. Did you always intend to include art with the poems? What led you to do this? Do the poems come first and then the drawings?
PAT: Not at all. I didn’t. I am a graphic designer by profession, which is just like poetry, where you have to say a lot in such a limited space with so few words and lots of white space. I knew I wanted to have pauses in my book. I wanted for the reader to pause and take moment to see a child in the most vulnerable situation. When my husband read the manuscript for the first time, I remember asking him if he could do drawings for them. I loved how he drew and saw the “child”: her frustrations, her fragility and her innocence and how those simple drawings created that pause.
in conversation with Judith Krummeck
Saturday November 11, 7 pm at Red Emmas
more info and RSVP here