So what if the proverbial suit-wearing
snoots rolled their eyes?
Criticism is dead.
As if to make his point,
Haji polls the crowd,
asking who else could give a shit
in the 21st century?
If such support isn’t enough to trump
any old school critic who remains in the room,
from “Haji as Appropriator of the Islamic Republic”
in Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque by Roger Sedarat
Much talk happens in literary circles these days about cross-genre work something that Gertrude Stein did without putting a name on it. The Steiny
Road Poet says this is partially why readers of Stein have trouble accessing her work—people resist what they can’t label, what they do not have a name for. And there
is Stein’s work combining poetry, philosophy, science, history, fiction, theater, nursery rhymes, linguistics, mathematics, etc. in such a way that is chaotic, deceptively
simple, and breaching the Fourth Wall to include the reader, just to name a few elements of her craft. She was a standards iconoclast. This is why academics who read and love Stein
have jumped her from Modernist to Postmodernist.
In Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque, Roger Sedarat spotlights such Western writers as Wallace Stevens, Walt
Whitman, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats and pulls Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, John Donne, and Henry David Thoreau out
of the shadows. Stein is nowhere to be seen but her influence is everywhere present, including unusual repetitions, sound devices,
theatrical elements such as breaching the Fourth Wall, heavy emphasis on attaching to the new century, use of nursery rhyme.
To approach Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque, Steiny provides a definition of burlesque.
From The Free Dictionary:
1. A literary or dramatic work that makes fun of something, often
by means of outlandish exaggeration.
2. A ludicrous or mocking imitation; a travesty: The antics of the defense attorneys turned the trial into a burlesque of justice.
3. A variety show characterized by broad ribald comedy, dancing, and striptease.
[From French, comical, from Italian burlesco, from burla, joke, probably from Spanish,from Vulgar Latin *burrula, diminutive of
Late Latin burrae, nonsense, from burra, wool.]
Now, on this book tour of Haji as Puppet, let’s look at the
landscape of this jokey book. [Note: skipped pages, except for page 10 which is blank, indicate poems in standard poetic formats.]
1. (p. 9) Quotes from Omar Khayyam, the Medieval Persian polymath, on the subject of puppets and from Bob Dylan, the
iconic American folk singer, mention of a Persian drunkard. [Regular bookish element]
2. (p. 11) A cast list where all the characters are named Haji.
[This is an element for a play script and certainly unusual for a collection of poetry. Probably it should be noted that the first Haji seems to be the author Roger Sedarat.]
3. (pp. 13 & 14) Outrageous advertisements about a Persian Pinocchio penis extender and a fake Mullah beard. [Possibly a
postmodern element that introduces the outside world of commerce intruding on literary terrain. Postmodernism bucks what is acceptable.]
4. (p.15) An introductory scene-setting instruction. [An experimental play element]
5. (p.16) The author breaching the Fourth Wall to make a
comment to his readership. [This could be either a play or film element. Steiny is thinking filmmaker Woody Allen.]
6. (pp. 17-23) The first poem. [Regular bookish element]
7. (p. 30) The author breaching the Fourth Wall to make a 2nd comment to his readership.
8. (pp. 34-35) “Haji Hic Ups in the 21st Century,” a poem repeating a sound and physical action as a poetic device.
[Postmodern poetic experiment using a low-brow device with the high-brow of poetry.]
9. (pp. 36-38) “Faux Revolution, 2007,” a poem using social
media and talking about the process of writing poetry. [Postmodern poetic experiment.]
10. (p. 39) “When the Mullah Fell Asleep,” a poem that is both
printed with typeset letters and handwritten. [Postmodern poetic experiment but the handwritten words which are in English have the appearance of Arabic script.]
11. (p. 41) The author breaching the Fourth Wall to make a 3rd comment to his readership.
12. (pp. 42-48) “Haji as Beer Boy,” is a poem in 10 “takes.” [This clearly is the language of filmmaking.]
13. (pp. 50-57) “Iran as Spectacle (An Orientalist Burlesque)”—this sprawling poem includes five acts, a marquee headline
with the name of the musical (IRAN!) featured in this play within a play, and sound-byte reviews that interrupt after the
first act and which include historically inappropriate critics like former U.S. president George W. Bush and former Secretary of
State Henry Kissinger. [Postmodern experiment with theater and publishing elements.]
14. (p. 62) “This Little Haji,” is a nursery rhyme retelling. [In the tradition of Gertrude Stein who used nursery rhyme not so
much to retell but for musical quality.]
15. (p. 63) “Haji Defends His (T)ruthful (T)one” is a poem that
plays around linguistically, letting the reader know that author thinks certain words are loaded with additional meaning. [Postmodern poetic experiment.]
16. (p. 73) The author breaching the Fourth Wall to make a 4th comment to his readership.
17. (p. 76) “Haji Haiku” is the author bowing to the
contemporary literary interest in haiku.
18. (pp. 78-79) “Haji’s Waterboarding” is a very self-conscious
mini play where the author both is and is not a central character. The Inspector (torturer) asks in French who is Mr.
Sedarat. [Combines play with interview in such a way that the reader is both in and out of the scene.]
19. (p. 85) ) The author breaching the Fourth Wall to make a
5th comment to his readership. [This comment is, however, different from the others because it uses the omniscient narrator and Haji speaking. The others use the omniscient
20. (pp. 86-87) “Return to the Circus Animals” is a poem in
rhyming couplets. [Like “Haji’s Haiku,” this poem is a nod to what is traditionally known in the poetry world.]
Beyond the map of what’s coming and what to expect, Steiny suggests it is helpful to know—if you, Dear Reader, haven’t already
figured this out—that Haji as Puppet is poking fun or critical commentary (take your pick) at government and culture both in
the United States and in Iran. Will Sedarat have to go underground like Salmon Rushdie? Sedarat addresses this in “Faux Revolution,
2007” where Haji gives a reading in New York City’s Bowery Poetry Club.
“…A poet caught in the performance of his life.
You think it’s so easy standing up for yourself
when the repressive regime you’re fighting
has less blood on its hands than a land proclaiming
idyllic freedom? Sure, he cried this 4th of July
as the band played ‘God Bless America.’
Later, at relative peace with hypocrisy,
as suburbanites slept in their beds,
he climbed out of his attic window
and onto his roof, shouting,
‘Death to the dictator!’ and ‘God is great’
as random fireworks rained overhead.
Dogs howled. Rows of houselights came on.
Folks emerged on their lawns in their PJ’s.
Finally, a heavy-set neighbor
in wife-beater and boxers yelled,
‘Hey buddy, you’re in Jersey! It’s a free country.
Now shut the fuck up and let us get some sleep!’
Here stands Haji, silenced on the stage.
Nobody even takes his picture,
in the wrong place
at the right time.”
By the way, Sedarat nods to Plato wanting to banish poets from “the ideal Republic” (in “Haji as Appropriator of the Islamic
Republic”) and how little poets can actually accomplish even if dictators are afraid of what poets say and other poets don’t step up
to continue the battle against tyranny. Sedarat also spends a lot of time bashing poets—he’s quite equal opportunity in that respect:
…How ridiculous, the parade of self
at conferences like AWP, careerism
of dribble and drabble,
praise of hollow words,
devoid of the divine. …
from “Haji as Puppet”
Perhaps Sedarat’s most important tenets lie in these lines:
…Thus he attempts to replicate
this reductive spirit of self,
received reality in the 21st century,
rewriting Pound’s modernist maxim,
“Make it new” underpinning most verse
with an admonition of the tradition
inherited in his own time:
Let it be real.
from “Haji’s Blue Guitar”
…He sought to mine “the bone shop of the heart”
But couldn’t make his own decadent art.
A record of his struggle to be new
Proved ultimately the best he could do.
From “Return to the Circus Animals”
“Haji’s Blue Guitar” refers to the long poem by Wallace Stevens
entitled “The Blue Guitar.” Steven’s poem has to do with the perception of reality and the nature of art, performance and
imagination. Pound’s motto for writing was to make writing new. Sedarat is preoccupied by the quest to create something new in his
writing but he says he fails because the best he can do is record his struggle.
The Steiny Road Poet who is merely acting as literary tour guide and not a critic because she is on the team of editors responsible
for this intriguing work suggests, Dear Reader, it’s up to you to decide the value Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque.
The book cover is by Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi whose work is in the collections of Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British
Museum in London, Guggenheim Museum of Abu Dhabi, and others.