This interview was conducted by Madisyn Parisi, Chief Copyeditor of Grub Street, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Ashley and I met up on a chilly October afternoon. She had come straight from her job at Towson’s career center, and we trudged up three flights of stairs in Towson’s commons to find a quiet place to talk about her writing. I was excited to dive into her vast collection of work, and before we even found a table, we had struck up a conversation about multimedia work, men who get mad at her on the internet, and The Dropout on Hulu.
MP: So I guess just starting off, when you sit down to write a poem, where do you start developing that idea? Do you usually have a line or a concept?
AH: For me, I get obsessed with a very singular image or word, and then I build the entire poem or piece around that. Like I was writing this flash fiction piece the other day, and I was really thinking about the Iranian women’s movement and burning film reels, so then I combined those two to create a flash fiction/poetry piece that was based completely around that image. Going back to edit, I wanted to keep that central. I don’t cut that out.
MP: Do you feel like you ever take a different turn from that initial image or realize something’s not about what you thought it was about?
AH: It depends on the way the story and narrative turns out, but I’ll go back and edit and see how the story grows. Sometimes our children grow up, and they don’t become what you expect them to be, and we have to adapt to that.
MP: You have to love them anyway?
MP: Most of your poetry is in the first-person. When you write, is that speaker generally you, a character, a combination of both?
AH: It’s not me. I like to use “I”, and I’ve been switching more to “you” lately because it’s more interrogative — like, you, look at yourself. But I tend to use “I” because I feel like that drops the reader into the narrative. “I” is someone who’s real because if you say “she” or “they”, anything, they’re not a real person to the reader. Also, I tend to use very fictionalized versions of my own life. I’ll take pockets of things that I’ve experienced, then blow it into something fictionally-spun.
MP: So you’ve published two chapbooks now, cinephile and cartography of trauma. Did your process change a lot between the two of them? Do you feel like they taught you different lessons?
AH: I think for me, especially because I’m in grad school studying the world a bit more — cartography of trauma, a lot of it was poems from high school. That’s the interesting part. Poems from cinephile were like sophomore year of college, so just growing up and being like… I wanted to sell some stuff because I did a lot of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton confessional-style poetry when I was in high school. Then I was like, “I want to see beyond myself, see how I interconnect in a broader way. Like, what does it mean to be a woman in the US? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American woman? What does it mean to be a woman in the world?” Seeing how to use poems. And that adjusted my style because then I realized, hey, a lot of the time in writing classrooms we’re taught a very Western-specific way of writing. So I started reading poems from traditional Chinese, Afghan, and Persian poetry, trying to break free from the conventional western mode of storytelling. Because even in a novel, the way we think of the three-act structure, that’s only in the West, that’s a Greek thing. In China and East Asian literature, it’s just a rise and fall. A rise and fall. So my technique has been more informed by being a quote-unquote “global citizen”.
MP: Do you travel a lot?
AH: Yeah, I lived in Korea for a bit. I was posted in India last summer. I went to the Caribbean a lot growing up, and I’m a global humanities student now, so I study the world and world literature. But I hope to travel more. I grew up low-income, so we never really got the opportunity to travel, and I got these state scholarships to go other places and learn about other people, and that changed my life.
MP: Being Iranian-American is a pretty central part of your identity and your voice. Are there specific parts of your writing that you trace back to that identity?
AH: I feel like there’s this inherent sadness that comes with being Iranian-American because you see what’s happening in Iran right now to women and even growing up in the diaspora, a lot of the men treated women horribly. Especially in the community I grew up in, abuse was normal. So I really decided in my work that even though I’ll acknowledge the male perspective, I want to ground myself in women’s voices because they’re not allowed the chance to speak often.
MP: I get the impression cartography of trauma is about all that, right?
AH: Kind of. But also just thinking about…women’s history is so messed up.
MP: A lot has happened. So when you write, you want to give voice to that female perspective. Do you want that same thing for your audience? Is your audience young women, Iranian-American women?
AH: I think it would be women in general. I hope men can read this and be like, “Wow, this sucks”, but I also give a lot of people too much credit. Yeah, no, they’re not going to. But I am thinking a lot right now about how niche certain genres are. Like poetry. People say, “Oh, it’s too hard to understand.” So, I’ve been thinking about accessibility in poetry and writing in general. People are like, “Yeah, I don’t read. I just watch Tiktok.” So just thinking about how to make it more accessible in a way that people will see it. Social media’s playing a big role. But also using big words and stuff, people won’t understand.
MP: I was going to say, your work isn’t very lofty like something you might expect from someone with your degrees and writing history. It’s very easy to understand.
AH: Well, I came from working-class parents. I wasn’t exposed to theater or art or poetry growing up. I never even took a writing class until I went to Carver down the street. So, just growing up working-class, and also not taking writing classes in undergrad. That shapes you. When you take a lot of writing classes, and you’re taught, “This is how you should write.”
MP: You don’t become a workshop writer or an MFA writer. You become something else.
AH: Yeah. So it’s about self-education but also this idea of — I think this about academia too — PhDs and all that, a lot of that stuff isn’t accessible. It’s written in a way you can’t understand it. It’s only for academics.
MP: So do you like that you’ve found yourself in a different space than that?
AH: Yeah, even though it’s hard. It’s unconventional. A bit of a rough way to get published. Because you see people younger than you getting published because they subscribe to the model. For me, it’s realizing it’s a process. Like Toni Morrison wasn’t automatically famous, she was like 38 .
MP: But you’re also in this Instagram space. I feel like the poetry community at large hates “Instagram poetry.” Rupi Kaur, those sorts. Do you consider yourself in line with those poets, do you think you’re doing something else?
AH: I don’t really like Instagram poetry because it’s bite-sized, and a lot of it doesn’t have depth. And also Rupi Kaur was accused of plagiarizing a lot of her work. So, it’s good to share information that way, but it’s also dangerous, too. It’s kind of like seeing Facebook news and believing it’s all true.
MP: So a lot of your life right now is about writing — you’ve got Mud Season, your poetry, reviews — what do you do right now when you’re not writing, to refill the well or just take a break? … Do you take breaks? You’re looking at me like you don’t.
AH: I do like to read, but at the same time it is kind of studying. So I guess you could consider it not work, but I do genuinely enjoy it.
MP: Is that about the furthest you ever get from writing?
AH: I used to watch movies, but now it’s my job… it’s not as enjoyable anymore. I garden, too. I like to grow our own food. It’s very serene. There’s one writer in the Caribbean, Jamaica Kincaid, who writes a lot about gardening.
MP: I feel like there’s a lot of metaphor you could get out of that.
AH: Yeah, definitely. There’s this book called Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. She wrote about George Orwell. He had an obsession with his rose garden. He saw it as an allegory for the end of the world. It’s very fascinating how people get attached to their gardens.
MP: Talking about that Orwellian idea, I think a lot of people in the world right now, especially writers, feel that sense of doom about the world and their work. Do you feel that way, or do you think you write with optimism?
AH: People tend to think my work is very pessimistic and sad, but I tend to look at it as progress and optimism. I work part-time at New Perspectives Theatre Company. I spent this whole two years building a database of women playwrights. A lot of these women were forgotten. Their stories never had the chance to be told. If they did write plays, they were considered dainty, feminine, docile. Seeing all these playwrights across the world made me realize that a lot of them were writing about women’s issues at the time, so the fact that I can have a platform to put my work on, or even write it, feels like hope to me. Because if that’s ever taken away from us, then what’s the point?
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an Iranian-American multimedia artist, writer, and journalist. Her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Moon City Review, The Cortland Review, DIALOGIST, RHINO, Salt Hill, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor-in-Chief at Mud Season Review and a contributing writer and critic at MovieWeb. Her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com