A Conversation with Ashley Hajimirsadeghi

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?

AH: Yeah.

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 [39]. 

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

Poetry Highlight: “Summer Night” and “August Wind” by Marcin Oświęcimka

By: Michael Downs

As I try to write these words, a little more than a month has passed since Marcin Oświęcimka drowned while swimming off one of the Canary Islands. Marcin, a writer and graduate student at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, had begun a semester abroad at Universidad de La Laguna in Tenerife, working to complete his degree in English philology with an emphasis on American language and culture.

Though I am a writer and professor in the United States, for a brief time in Spring 2022 I taught in Kraków, which is how I met Marcin. Quickly, I came to admire his writing and to feel grateful for his spirit. Smart and witty, Marcin connected to others through tenderness and empathy. He organized events for the campus’s English language and literature club. He could talk about skateboard wheels as well as he could discuss poems by Charles Bukowski.

For an assignment in my class, he wrote a poem based on a painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Some 75 years after Hopper finished his “Summer Evening,” Marcin looked closely at the image of a man and woman standing in garish porch light, and he called them “a couple like any other.” Such a bold statement! Literature usually explores what differentiates the individual from others. So, Marcin’s description challenged my expectations and raised questions. What would the poem reveal about couples that make them all alike? At the end of his “Summer Night,” published here for the first time, Marcin offers a paradoxical answer that leaves the reader to wonder about the distances between people in love.

As seen in “Summer Night” and a second poem, “August Wind,” Marcin was a writer and poet of great potential. In an email before he was to leave for Tenerife, we talked about the possibility of him studying in the United States. I knew of a scholarship, and he hoped to conduct research into attitudes toward different foreign accents in English. “No other country can provide so many opportunities to research that field,” he wrote.

As for his creative writing, Marcin told me that he’d been traveling back and forth between composing in Polish and in English. It turns out, he wrote, “that I’m a completely different poet in my mother tongue, and I’m currently having adventures exploring this side.”

Summer Night
after Edward Hopper’s Summer Evening

the guests returned to their homes
it was an enjoyable evening
(for them)
or at least it looked as if it was
firewood and charcoals are crackling still
in the barbecue

they are a couple like any other

the night has come and
moths are headed to the lamp
sizzling on the bulb
and grasshoppers and
an occasional owl
are looming
from the meadows
and from the woods

this corner of the world
is where time flows how
it was meant to
with the idle wind strolling along
and perhaps too many chances
to think about what we all
think we think about, but we don’t

a neighbourhood like this is too small
for having secrets
so that’s how I know
they are a couple like any other

I see their undraped curtains
and the door blind undrawn
And it doesn’t mean much
nor does it bare a soul

I see them in the spotlight
sitting on the ledge of the veranda
quite close to one another
but they are a couple like any other
infinity spans between them

august wind

august wind
sometimes carries
notes of autumn
to itself
although it’s still
summer around

and silver moon
shows up
now and then
in the middle of a golden day

so I find a single dry straw
among lush blades of grass
and a lonely white cloud
in a patch of clear blue sky

old age reminds us that
it not only reads our memoirs
but also
writes us back

– Marcin Oświęcimka

Small Press Highlight: Poet Lore

Reviewing America’s Oldest Poetry Journal

  Poet Lore serves as a solid pillar of both historical and contemporary literary journals by being the oldest poetry-based publication in the United States. Now located out of our very own Bethesda, Maryland and backed by The Writers’ Center, a nonprofit, this journal has been published out of a handful of different cities for nearly 140 years. Founded in Philadelphia, the journal in its formative years was a comparative literature project of Shakespearean scholars and life partners, Helen Clarke and Charlotte Porter; though the two quickly shifted their focus to that of living writers. The women moved to Boston after two years where the journal remained until it was bought by Washington D.C.’s Heldref Publications in 1976. Eventually, it shifted to The Writer’s Center where it has been published biannually for the last 25 years.  In its longevity, the journal has had the opportunity to publish the early works of renowned poets like David Baker and Mary Oliver. 

It is clear that Poet Lore’s staff is proud of its long and inclusive history. The website declares that “poetry provides a record of human experience as valuable as history”, emphasizing not only the importance of history but the inherent value of the written word. The journal publishes content that is both urgent and intimate, offering its audience “poems built to last” with an emphasis on quality. In an interview with Frontier Poetry, Poet Lore editor Emily Holland said, “we love featuring poems that broaden the spectrum of what poetry is – and can be – on the page.” In fact, the editors are so dedicated to the vast possibilities of poetry that in their newly redesigned issue, the editors opted for a larger trim size to publish poems that might not format well on a standard book-size page. They also printed multiple poems to a page to show connections between pieces. This sizing detail is one example of how the team emphasizes voices that lack widespread renown, reconfiguring the journal itself to better accommodate its contributors. In doing so, Poet Lore remains true to the vision of its founders by maintaining its progressive and inclusive legacy. 

-Review by Chloe Ziegler, Grub Street poetry editor

Grub Street featured in Poets & Writers!

Last month, Poets & Writers released a spotlight on poet Abigail Chabitnoy, who was published in Volume 71 of Grub Street!

In their monthly Literary MagNet series, Abigail and writer Dana Isokawa discuss her writing process, Indigenous background, and all of the journals she has work published in, including our very own Grub Street!

We are proud to be a part of Chabitnoy’s publishing journey.

Read Abigail Chabitnoy’s work In Grub Street here.