Solmaz Sharif by Arash Saedinia

Poet sees military terms as violence against language

What began as a poetic rewrite of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms has become the first book by Solmaz Sharif, Look, published last week by Graywolf Press.

The title is a term from the dictionary: “In mine warfare, a period during which a mine is receptive of an influence.” When Sharif was an undergrad, her friend, a photographer, asked her to caption various war photographs — “so to take a military euphemism, basically, and apply it to a picture or an image of atrocity,” Sharif said by phone. After exhausting the terms that came to mind — “occupation, operation, security sweep” — she Googled “military terminology” and discovered the dictionary.

For the next couple of years, Sharif sat on that discovery, “trying to figure out what poem” she was going to use it for. In 2007, she realized it could be an entire book; for the next seven years, that dictionary played an increasingly defining role in her life.

“It was a very simple, kind of one-to-one relationship between the lies of the state and the truth of what is actually happening,” Sharif said of the project’s beginnings. “I was going to do these short, almost haiku-like images of warfare as definition.” (For example: “Battlefield Illumination: on fire/ a body running.”)

Every morning she wrote these condensed images, hoping to “communicate something about the language that’s being used in war,” she said. “But as I continued to do that, I saw that I was describing Iraq and Afghanistan through images of violence, and it was only those locations that had to actually deal with the military terminology, so that just felt like I was re-enacting the violence and also the limited American narrative that we have of ‘over there.’

“I realized that I wanted people, and namely Americans, and narratives and lives that usually don’t see themselves as at war. I wanted to have them use that military terminology, and have to actually grapple with it.

“We’ve been at war for 15-plus years, but it doesn’t seem like it, necessarily, if we’re out in the streets, and I wanted that to come out; I wanted these everyday, quotidian, American moments to be infiltrated with a military terminology, even if there isn’t a seemingly actual military presence in those poems. And when I did that, then my personal narrative started coming in more and more.”

A Jones Lecturer at Stanford, Sharif demonstrates in “Look” how the violence being committed against language enables violence to be committed against bodies.

“Language itself is a social construct, it’s political, and it’s not to be taken for granted,” she said. “It’s a democratic medium, as in it’s one that we all create, and that we can all potentially access and hone and shape. As a poet I see it (as) my duty to be a kind of caretaker for that language.”


Fresh and Best! Poetry Series: Solmaz Sharif: 7 p.m. Friday, July 15. Free. Diesel, A Bookstore, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. 

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Arash Saedinia

Other book events

Why There Are Words presents readings on the theme “Ever Since,” featuring Mathieu Cailler, Elizabeth Collison, Brennan DeFrisco, Kate Folk, Maureen O’Leary, Shobha Rao, Tess Taylor and Kara Vernor (7:15 p.m. Thursday, July 14, $10, Studio 333, 333 Caledonia St., Sausalito).

Canarium Books authors Farnoosh Fathi (“Great Guns”) and John Beer (“Lucinda”) read from their poetry (7 p.m. Friday, July 15, free, Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley).

The 39th Annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which runs through July 24, kicks off with an opening reception followed by Hansol Jung’s “Wild Goose Dreams” (6 p.m. Friday, July 15, $15, Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St., S.F.).

Booksmith celebrates 40 years by collecting community stories and ephemera, with Design Like Whoa set up to print Booksmith designs on discounted shirts and totes (or bring your own item for a free print). An official 40th birthday toast with cake, drinks and dancing is set for 5:30 p.m. (4 p.m. Saturday, July 16, free, Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F.).

The Beast Crawl literary festival celebrates its fifth annual day of readings throughout Uptown Oakland, spread throughout three hour-long legs featuring more than 100 writers and culminating in a two-venue afterparty (5 p.m. Saturday, July 16, free, various locations, Oakland).