Shahrzad: An Accidental Surrealist? Essay
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The Persian legacy has been immortalized by its literature, poetry, and songs. Persian poets such as Omar Khayam and Jalal ul-Din Rumi have been translated into hundreds of languages around the world. Subsequently the late 19th and primarily the 20th century saw a rise of women littï¿½rateurs and poets. Famous personalities such as Qurrat’ul-Ayn Tahirih, Forugh Farrokhzad, and Simin Daneshvar have caught the attention of readers worldwide.1 Their contribution to Persian literature has received consideration from literary critics within and without Iran.
The beloved pastime of Persians, poetry, has transformation and development throughout the centuries. Women writers who have received acclaim have predominately emerged from either elite social circles or the educated class. In the annals of women’s literature rests the forgotten works of a fading personality. Her name was Kubra Saidi, most commonly remembered, Shahrzad.
Shahrzad was an actress and dancer during the Pahlavi years of Iran, but also a poet. More likely than not, she would have been forgotten was it not for the recent work and translations done by Kamran Talattof (Near Eastern Studies, University of Arizona). Talattof suggests that her background as an erotic dancer and her scandalous roles in lower grade movies have prevented her from being acknowledged or credited as a legitimate poetess. (Talattof 14)
Pressing beyond the defaming connotations of a “showgirl,” he states in his unpublished article Thirsty, She Aged: The Poetry, Acting, and Dancing of Shahrzad, that, “All of her arts, however, should be treated as interrelated because focusing on any single one of her arts is highly ideological and is to dismiss her as irrelevant.” (Talattof 2) The role of poetry as an expressive agent seems to be the primary intent of Shahrzad’s writing-a voice coming from the darkness, blackened by her childhood, her tarnished reputation as an erotic performer, and by her life’s experiences. In her poetry, she unveils her emotional and psychological struggles, and searches for both reconciliation and redemption.
This paper contends that she indeed used poetry as an outlet for her emotional struggles, and as a means to be understood. Paradoxically, Talattof’s research experience has shown her original works as being often incomprehensible and abstract to the point of gibberish. (Talattof, Lecture Presentation, 12/6/02) In retrospect, was she a poet or a lunatic? May we attribute literary merit to her work, or is it a convoluted arrangement of nonsensical words? From a edited and translated edition of her work, one may attribute her poetry and prose as a product of surrealist literature.
By exploring the fundamental history of surrealism, and by conceptualizing her work through the medium of surrealist literature, this paper purports that surrealist expression was the mode chosen (whether consciously or not) to fulfill the twofold purpose of reconciliation and redemption. In an attempt to support the assumption of her ties with surrealism, and to further develop an argument for whether her literary work was a means of reconciliation and redemption, a short analysis of some of her poems, and some general themes found in the collection of her work, will be provided in this paper.
2. Beyond Reality: Literary Mode of Expression
Surrealism has most popularly been defined as a movement launched by Andrï¿½ Breton asserting that the subconscious mind, or “deep thought”, should be expressed freely without the restraints of logical reasoning, conventional morality, artistic norms, or control by intention and forethought. (Abrams 83) More than just paralogism or random thought, its expression is the natural flow of the inner conscious, in turn considered by surrealists as true reality. This mode of expression was manifested through both visual and literary art. The literary movement has often been thought of as the byproduct of Freud’s psychoanalytical theories, because of his influence on Breton. (Caws 5-12) Surrealism has been divided into two camps based on its essential mode of expression, “automatic writing”2. Michael Bell, as mentioned in Mariu Suarez’s article, “Separated Realities”, has classified two different sub-groups of Surrealist thought based on the differing views of psychologists Freud and Jung.
One of these diverging modes has been called Automatism, and the other Veristic Surrealism. Jung’s philosophy propagated the avoidance of judgment on the images of the subconscious, so that they could naturally enter the conscious mind. Thus, they preferred the raw emotional response over the analytical. Conversely, the Veristic Surrealists believed that automatic writing meant allowing the images of the subconscious to emerge uninterrupted so that their meaning could then be deciphered through analysis. Essentially while the Automatics believed that the actual images of thought were reality, the Veristic Surrealists conceptualized them as metaphor. (Mariu Suarez, http://www.bway.net/~monique/history.htm)
The importance of surrealist theory in understanding Shahrzad is seen in reading her work as either garbled imagery or meritorious literature. According to Shelly Quinn, citing Mike and Nancy Samuels, “the most prevalent view of informed contemporary speculations on the origins of language contends that initially language was based on images, and words functioned to evoke particular images which allowed people to exchange experiences.” (Quinn 1)
She further asserts through a series of citations that rational thought gradually dominated the natural image-pattern process of thinking, and thus, as Thomas Williams notes, in many ways reduces human perception. (Quinn, 1-2) With this in mind, one could not altogether look at surrealist literature through the spectacles of logical reasoning, for indeed automatic thinking-the natural flow of thought-preceded the rational ordering of ideas. Subsequently, we can at least appreciate Shahrzad’s work as a legitimate expression. What remains to be proven is its level of merit.
As Talattof suggests, every aspect of her art career should be considered in understanding her literary work (Talattof 3). Moreover, her life’s story also sheds meaning on her poems and prose. However because of her disreputable lifestyle, Shahrzad was not given serious consideration as a poetess. As a result, she had to publish her collection of poems and prose herself.3 After the Revolution, in an attempt to dissent against the strict civil code place on women, Shahrzad participated in a protest led by a group of feminists.
Consequently, after all were arrested and released, she alone remained confined in a jail cell. Her life, her identity, became the symbol of the dynastic corruption that flourished under the rule of the western influenced shah of Iran. Shortly after she was released, she was placed into a mental institution. (Talattof 2-3) Ironically, the founder of the Surrealist movement, Breton, believed that those individuals who are commonly called “insane” are individuals who have truly reached a state of “liberated imagination”. (Quinn 120)
Indeed upon a perusal of her poetry and prose there is no doubt that her work contains exceptional imagination. The imagery that she employs is unique to Persian literary. (Talattof 5) More accurately, the manner in which she presents some of her images is unparalleled. However, a closer look, and an examination of the frequent appearances of certain images creates a pattern found similarly in other surrealist literature. As Quinn suggests, “the Comparison of images from ‘surreal’ writers from different countries further facilitates the identification of surreal elements in imagery, and helps to isolate these from other modernist characteristics.” (Quinn 7-8) In accordance to this assumption, in the analysis of several of Shahrzad’s poems, imagery found in her work will be compared to some other Surrealist poets.
3. Through Imagery She Speaks
Particular importance was placed on the significance of the “visual” in Surrealism’s poetic imagery. (Quinn 193) The often incongruous ordering of various images was considered to be derived from natural thought patterns, the fusion of dream and reality. (Gorin, http://newmedia.cgu.edu/cody/surrealism/) Quinn’s study on hemispheric specialization of the brain and its relation to the development of Surrealism postulates that humans have focused more on the left hemisphere (left side) of the brain, thus the prevailing of analytical and logical thought. She asserts that the fundamental difference distinguishing imagery in, for example, Romantic literature and Surrealists is the process of creating imagery.
The Romantic uses his left hemisphere as he carefully chooses his metaphors with intent. Thus the conceptual (verbal) precedes the perceptual (visual). Conversely, Surrealists avoid forethought and intention of word usage, and write without restraint. A parallel model (table 1.1) organized by Betty Edwards explains the differences in the process of “knowing” based on the hemispheric brain activity. (Quinn 9) This would then support the argument that surrealist imagery is not mere paralogism but rather a surreal pattern of thinking. It would follow that frequency of particular word usage and imagery do not insinuate forethought or conscious metaphor, but rather uninhibited and automatic expression of one’s unconscious.
When reading Shahrzad, indeed, one comes across unusual imagery of various sorts, but more importantly in our study of her expression, the frequency of particular images and thematic imagery provide clues in our labeling her a Surrealist writer. As seen in other surrealist art and literature, animal imagery plays an unconventional role in providing metaphor. The famed artist, Salvador Dali used animals liberally throughout his work, often appearing with distorted limbs, warped features, and un-proportional sizes. (Gonzalez, http://www.slantmagazine.com) Shahrzad unabashedly uses the image of the horse throughout the length of both her collected poems. The usage of this image is uncommon in Persian literature, particularly in the way she employs this symbol. To recount all appearances of the horse image would be exhaustive, however several excerpts from her various poems provided here:
I can pass by you
Through your arms
Through your eyes
Like that mounted Horseman
Who on his horse all ablaze, burned and passed through the fire. (Shahrzad1 14)
The image of “his horse all ablaze, burned and passed through the fire,” remarkably resembles Salvador Dali’s painting, “Untitled – the Seven Arts, 1944” found in figure 1.1. Moreover, Dali’s use of horses plays a dominate role in the animal imagery of his paintings. In the latter, the distorted horse with a fiery mane, coming from the mouth of a man, hovers over six figures, seemingly ablaze with fire.
In another poem she writes:
I saddled my horse
I was ill
The beginning of the sea is your house.
The sound of my horse’s hoofs.
I abandoned goodness, I had two sweet dates
Which I offered to my horse
And I traveled with these dates. (Shahrzad2 20)
One could speculate that the horse is a metaphor related to sexuality. At times it is the antagonist, at other the protagonist. In terms of surrealism the horse is not just a metaphor in expressing an idea, but rather the image of the horse is the reality of her thoughts when thinking of sexuality. When she says, “I abandoned goodness, I had two sweet dates / which I offered to my horse”, perhaps the dates are seeds, her reproductive organs, her virginity, being proffered in a sexual encounter. No doubt she floods her pages with this struggle of her horse, and the horse of others. At times she introduces horseless individuals to the reader:
I remember your cheeks carrying
Prisoners without horses.
Sang military songs
Whipped the travelers
Captured the horses
Cut their manes
And they startled to the prairies. (Shahrzad2 21)
Could the mane of the horses be symbolic for nobility or innocence? Could the capturing of the horses represent the steeling of virginity or self-decency? One is left to assume metaphor and meaning. However, the frequency and appearance of such imagery is irresistible to the reader’s interpreting speculations. Surrealist expression is not merely a style or trend of writing; it is a mode of thinking. Thus, it becomes difficult to interpret her poetry, or any Surrealist, by conventional analysis. At other times the imagery of the horse becomes to vague to categorize as a sexual metaphor, seen in her poem Womanly 9:
In my wakefulness you are
So in love
That you don’t hear
The thirsty horses thundering across
The burning land.
My horse shrieks afar
The beads of the rosary hanging from its neck
Are made from the soil of the poor people in love. (Shahrzad2 40)
Other prevalent imagery that reoccurs frequently in her poem is the use of color. Other than conventional description, she often projects color on non-tangible object; furthermore, she attributes unusual colors to objects that are certainly of another color. Indeed, surrealist literature of various sorts contains incorrect assignment of colors on differing objects. In keeping with Quinn’s study, along side the study of some other scholars that she mentions, about the differentiating characteristic of surrealist thought process versus that of other abstract or modern literature, this attribution of color to the non-tangible or the placement of wrong colors on specific objects is not a contrived innovation of style, but rather part of the “deep thought” being manifested in linguistic terms. (Quinn 9) This shared characteristic again moves Shahrzad out of the light of nonsensical writing, and aligns her closer with the ideology of the surrealist. As seen in Benjamin Perï¿½t poem, entitled The Staircase with a Hundred Steps, objects are decorated with color:
The blue eagle and the demon of the steppes
in the last cab in Berlin
of lost souls
the red mill at the beggars’ school
awaits the poor student (Matthews 47)
In the poem, Making Feet and Hands, he goes on to say:
There are also hands
long white hands with nails of fresh greenery
and finger-joints of dew
swaying eyelashes looking at butterflies (Matthews 49)
Shahrzad’s unique imagery is often intertwined with color. In her The Mountain Spring Conquers the Sea, with similar imagery to Perï¿½t, she writes:
In the dawn of his house,
I saw flying fish
With two blue wings
Under a red honey bower.
The white winds pass over his house from all directions
And the night
Passes through the darkness of my closed eyelashes (Saedi1 23)
With abstract imagery like the ones found in the latter and former, one cannot attribute the unique images to common place metaphor; for example, “pale as the moon” or “razor sharp teeth”. Why then do two unlikely images (blue wings / blue eagle, closed eyelashes / swaying eyelashes) surface in the work of two different authors, who had no relation to one another? One explanation is plagiarism, or at least imitation. However, according to Quinn, Inez Hedges “developed a computer program which could simulate surrealist automatic writing through a process of semantic mismatching.” By entering a word, the computer would follow with the most likely words to follow based on surrealist thinking. (Quinn 135) The fact that a program could be created to reproduce a pattern of thought implies that Surrealism writing is neither completely random nor meaningless. Following this assumption, Shahrzad’s often seemingly incoherent poetry and prose becomes validated as legitimate expression. The similarities found between her imagery and the imagery of surrealists from different parts of the world also supports this notion, and further credits her with literary merit.
One is tempted to pose the question, “Did she know she was a surrealist, or was it accidental?” Names of various authors appear sparingly in her poetry, alluding to her knowledge of surrealism. Among them, Rimbaud and Eluard are mentioned in but one verse. (Shahrzad1 2) This implicates that she was in touch with surrealist literature, or at least heard of it. However, is this enough to claim Shahrzad a Surrealist poetess? Indeed, she follows the general patterns of Surrealist works, in that symbols reoccur in not traditional context; some of her images are also found in other surrealist literature and art; and ultimately the appearance and look of her work fit the general feel of surrealist literary work. Finally, the fact that she wrote in such an abstract manner among other emerging modern Iran writers, breaking from the convention, puts her in a category of her own.
Although her literary merit has been established based on her mode of expression as defined according to Surrealism, why did she write? Although their might have been no forethought or intention to produce abstract images, they require a source from which to emerge. As mentioned earlier, the purpose of surrealism (literature or art) is to explore language by expressing that which surpasses reality, namely the subconscious. Freud and Jung explored this concept psychologically. From a gloss observation Breton seems to have wanted to do for poetry and literature, what the latter two did for the field of psychology.
To explore ones emotions and to bring them to surface for analyzing and dealing were key components in Surrealism. It may follow then that Shahrzad wrote to deal with her struggles. From reading her three volumes, this writer suggests that her poetry may be categorized into five general themes: (1) childhood, (2) sexuality, (3) redemption as a return to innocence, (4) identity, (5) being understood. Although Talattof notes that neither of her two books of poetry contains a specific theme. (Talattof 3-5) these themes have implicitly been suggested (in addition to more specific branches) in his article, “Thirsty, She Aged: The Poetry, Acting, and Dancing of Shahrzad.”
4. Themes in a Non-Thematic Collection of Poetry
However, in agreement with the surrealist definition of “deep thought”, true surrealist expression would most certainly lack an organized theme, and would rather emerge as a manifestation of the subconscious. Paradoxical though it may seem, this paper purports that her poetry was an attempt to reconcile her emotional and psychological struggles. Whether Shahrzad was conscious of her mode of expression (surrealism), or not, matters little. For essential surrealism is the expression of feelings (the subconscious) unrestrained by logical reasoning. Through Automatism her imagery becomes sufficient expression of her reality. Through Veristic Surrealism her words are put down as a means whereby her unconscious thoughts emerge, eventually allowing her conscious to reconcile traumatic experiences as a child, her sexuality and identity, and her neglected and misunderstood personage.
4.1 On Childhood:
The theme of childhood appears throughout the breath of her writings. Moreover her third publication, a book of short stories and prose revolves around the story of a child name Tuba. By bringing to front the topic of childhood she seems to be confronting her own childhood loss to the waywardness of life, while simultaneously attempting to recapture it.
I passed you up
Like the sun
That passed up my childhood
I can pass by you like a star
That passes through my forehead
In the daylight without being seen
And makes me young again (Shahrzad1 14)
Her tainted childhood, stains her verses with the bitterness of the past, and the sweetness of what may have had been were it to be resaved. In the following poem she describes the fragile nature of her childhood, and how it broke into pieces leaving her exposed to the world as a “child with a blackened body / white hair / and a dress made of your [antagonists] eyes. These three startling and vivid images may be seen as the loss of her purity, the aging effects of life’s tragedy, and the agent that took it away from her.
my childhood with glass eyes
From my broken pieces, there remained only my eyes on the thorn
Looking at you
Not looking at you
I said, I have an address
You said, I know
I said, I.
A child with a blackened body
And a dress made of your eyes
Counting her body with a loud song (Shahrzad1 38)
At other times she projects her childhood onto a third party, but changes grammatical persons to re-associate the actor (the boy) with the narrator (herself). She pities the misfortunes of innocent children, while drawing pity likewise on herself. The imagery of thirst appears in this next poem in light of the child’s essential needs. She fails him, although desperate to help as she says, “… however, I stole from his neck, his gold and his prayer.” Although a speculation, I would suggest that here, his gold represents nobility and his prayer his spirituality. Conceivably she is tries to save the boy, which may also symbolize her childhood, but finds herself helpless. Interpreting surrealist literature is far more complex than that of any other genre, in that the possibility of a metaphorical meaning is moot.
I did not know why the gypsy would tell my mother’s fortune
In the mirror.
In the mirror, there was only the child’s image.
In the mirror,
The child was thirst.
When I gave him water, however,
I stole from his neck, his gold and his prayer.
Yesterday, I was not a child.
The gypsy had silk
I found a green silk shirt with prayers
And I took the silk to the prostitute’s children. (Shahrzad2 14)
4.2 On Sexuality
No doubt, her affiliation with the low-grade Iranian film genre known as Film Farsi, which included nudity, sex, and rape scenes4, stained her image, identity, and life. (Talattof 11) Moreover, her encounters with sexual abuse as a child must have had a tragic impact on her life. Other than a search for identity, this theme dominates her poetic discourse through the use of imagery including animals, fruits, and events. In engaging the topic, she struggles with her past and most likely her present life. Subsequently, she often looks for identity or meaning in her relations with men:
From my desert beliefs
I fall into your placeless religion
Not for embracing love
Not for the sake of time
Not for the sake of place
Not for the desert
I fall in you
As my place is in your small hand
Outside the garden
Your must ride the horse
You must ride me
So that I can turn the wheels
Turn around the air
Your love on heart and plant
So that from your small hands
My name could grow
A hand from the legless earth. (Shahrzad1 34)
At times her innuendos of sex are clouded in obscurity. She perhaps tried to capture understanding of an overwhelming experience-attempting to understand and be understood. Nonetheless, other poems portray a vivid picture through abstract imagery:
You came to visit me
You covered me
With jasmine perfume
You gave me to drink
The milk that the lion had milked from the moon’s breast. (Shahrzad1 40)
Her struggle with childhood sexual encounters follows the theory that her writing was a means or rather a mode to understand those traumatic experiences. In her poem, Darkness, Who Are You, she depicts the passing from purity and innocence to the sullied reality of a bitter world:
At the end of the road
A horse is running in the whiteness of thewin.
In the distance
Under the tall trees
A girl is sleeping
Dreaming of forty dervishes.
At the end of the road
A white horse startles.
My children, welcome to your pilgrimage of the earth’s darkness
To the reception of the apple’s redness
To the party of the fish’s silence. (Shahrzad1 74)
In another poem she describes her experiences with, perhaps, rape or the loss of virginity. Here in the dark alley, out of the sight of public eyes, she may be describing her sexual organs bleeding from a rough encounter:
In the alleys,
You have hung my hand.
The black wall of time
From the lagoon of two red ships
On the surface of swollen breaths. (Shahrzad2 4)
4.3 On Redemption as a Return to Innocence
Occasionally, the reader finds pieces alluding to a desire for redemption, or more accurately a return to Innocence. The redemption may have been sought because of her sexually active lifestyle. Her desire to return to innocence is found predominately through the imagery of children. This indeed is another emotional struggle and reckoning for the purpose of reconciliation. This search extends to an indefinite tomorrow:
I wore the perfume
The childen rushed with
Their mothers dressed in rain
To send me off to the promised tomorrow. (Shahrzad2 10)
She seeks redemption through confession at times, but also through a means whereby she may save whatever credibility and nobility remains within her. She appeals in another poem:
You’ve gone as far as man’s respect can reach
And I reach out to you to expose me
To expose me respectfully (Shahrzad2 27)
Again, in another passage she writes:
What a mistake I made.
My grandmother said
Repent and do not repeat the mistakes.
And I promised. (Shahrzad2 61)
4.4 On Identity
No theme dominates her poetry more than that of identity. For in searching and discussing all other themes, she searches for self-realization and genuine identity. She sets out her struggling search through various means. At one time she claims to be the sum of various attributes via objects, while at others she is nothing at all. The surrealist experience is one of self-exploration just as it is the exploration of linguistic expression. After all, the movement is based on the concept of an “inner reality” that is not manifested in the contingent world. She became known for her profession, thus her identity was commingled with the role of an erotic dancer and a scandalous woman. Indeed, as will follow in the final theme, she was misunderstood. In searching for identity, she sought to understand herself. In her poem I stay, I go Shahrzad provides a perspective on her struggle with claiming an identity of her own:
In this journey,
I cannot afford a name
I cannot afford an eye
Perhaps I have eyes
Alas my eyes
And alas he who comes to me
And you who open the door
So that I can go into the wall
So that I can be seen again. (Shahrzad1 21)
Perhaps her inability to “afford a name,” suggests that she had lost the ability to define her identity. When she says “I cannot afford an eye,” it may be referring to her inability to formulate an independent perspective, while she has recognized the possibilities of its potential. Uncertain, she seems to be looking for identity through the agency of another, particularly a man, so that she could “be seen again”.
Conversely, in some of her other poems she makes straight forward claims to an identity, either manifesting her inner thoughts, or desperate for certitude:
I am an animal
I am not drunk
I am not clothed (Shahrzad1 37)
In another passage she writes:
I become filled with you
I melt in you
I become a river
I rain upon the warm snow.
A thousand stars
Sprout in the rain.
The earth becomes pregnant with wheat.
Seventy virgins die
And my breast reddens the unripe apples.
I become condemned
I become a grape
I become unripe, acrid
Seventy esteemed angels condemn me when I
Become you. (Shahrzad2 38)
Is she talking to her self in this dialogue? Is she searching for an authentic self while cursing what she has now become-something she sees as the other? Seldom does any real identity emerge in her writing. She appears lost in the identity of others, while seeking self-understanding, and the understanding of others. Indeed, her identity is often lost under the shadows of others:
My name is your name
Because I am standing
Under the waterfall of your name
And I am thinking about your journey
That has cut my wrists
I am a martyr and my life continues. (Shahrzad2 31)
4.5 On Understanding
The following theme-her appeal to be understood-is essentially an extension of the latter theme. This creates a tension in her writing, where the search for identity is constantly assaulted by misconception and misunderstanding of her personage by others. An element of non-existence comes into play, as she writes in one of her most striking poems:
At the end of the suspicious year,
I strived to know the names.
The vice principle’s hand
Struck the air with a hammer
It turned the innocent morning breaths
On a piece of red iron, hanging from the school’s pine tree.
Bang …bang …bang.
The silence tortured the innocence
The first prayer, clearly,
Was a curse.
All be seated.
Did not say present
I was absent. (Shahrzad1 3)
As Talattof suggests, “a continuation of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and mistreatment” rained upon her from spectators. (Talattof 14) The closing verse of this poem entail the essence of her search for understanding and identity. By not speaking, by not defining her identity, she becomes absent or rather unheard and overlooked. At other times, she claims to be representing herself, her identity, but it is passed over and misunderstood:
You see my lips reciting a poem
In the middle of the songs
Yet you don’t hear it. (Talattof 29)
In the outset of this paper it was asserted that Shahrzad could be proven to be a meritorious writer through association and relation to Surrealist literature. Furthermore, it contended that she wrote for the purpose of reconciliation and redemption of her emotional and psychological struggles. Through a gloss review of surrealist theory-its implications as a natural mode of linguistic expression and an explanation of its origins-Shahrzad was identified not only as a surrealist, but also one who could claim merit for her work. By dividing her work thematically into five general categories, a natural argument developed in support of her intention to reconcile emotionally, and to redeem herself through the search of a reborn identity. Indeed, much work is left undone in critically analyzing her poetry and prose; however the scope of this paper entailed the aforementioned aims. Whether or not further literary critics will look at her work is uncertain. However, in the view of this writer her poetry stands as a significant emblem of Iranian surrealism, unexplored and relatively unknown.
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