Farnaz Fatemi is an Iranian-American poet, editor, and writing teacher in Santa Cruz, CA. She is a member and cofounder of The Hive Poetry Collective, which presents a weekly radio show and podcast in Santa Cruz County and hosts readings and poetry-related events. Her poetry and prose appears in Grist Journal, Catamaran Literary Reader, Crab Orchard Review, Tahoma Literary Review, phren-z.org, Tupelo Quarterly, and several anthologies (including The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal If You Hear Me). Farnaz has been an artist in residence at Djerassi Resident Artists Program, PLAYA, Willapa Bay AiR, Marble House Project, and I-Park Foundation. She taught Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from 1997-2018.

Farnaz, what led you to PLAYA?

Originally, I knew someone who had been in one of the first cohorts, author Sarah Rabkin, and she could not stop talking about it. Everything she described about the place turned out to be true: the independent cabins, solitude, beautiful high desert, and support for artists. Even emerging artists were welcome—people like me, for instance, a writer who didn’t yet have a book out. So I could apply and was accepted.

Did you come to work on a specific project? If so, did you make progress on it? 

Yes and no. I came to PLAYA with the idea that if I changed my mind about what I was working on, that would be fine. I was certainly conducive to that, because I came with a couple of very young, embryonic ideas about places I wanted to go with my work. The first time I was here was spring of 2016 and then a year later before the application guidelines changed [so that alumni must wait before applying again]. During both of those spring visits, I worked on chunks of a much longer piece that is now the backbone of a book. I just finished that manuscript in the fall, based on an essay called “Sister Tongue,” started here in 2016. That was the source and wellspring of much of what I’ve written for the last four years. Recently “Sister Tongue” was published by Grist Magazine and is available to read on their website.

How do you think the land and waterscapes here affected your work?

There is no question that the way you can see in almost every direction here relaxes my brain. The first time I came here, that relaxing space was something I walked into immediately. Now I can recreate that feeling even when I’m home. The memory of this place gives me a way to imagine being creative and to create space for my work. And I remember to listen to what I have to say. PLAYA was instrumental to my changing my life to make space for writing.

So the land is has a power that comes with me to other places. Because of it being elevated and open and multi-hued, it’s never the same sky. I could take pictures of the sky every day and it would never be the same. Plus the bird life here in the Pacific Flyway has been completely formative for me. In 2016 I got here at the beginning of migration season and then in 2017 got here a little early.

Both times I got to be part of like something that’s just hard to describe to anybody else. I have never been in a place where I’ve seen so many birds as at the wildlife refuge. Tracking the birds on the landscape is such a good way to pay attention and to think about putting words next to each other on a page. That in itself has totally stuck with me. Even when I’m here in winter and there aren’t as many birds, I’m still looking for them and I’m still paying attention.

Describe a typical day at PLAYA.

Every day I’d wake up in time to watch sunrise over the playa. When I’m there, I never have to set an alarm. I make myself an espresso (I take my machine everywhere), and I stand at the windows and watch the sun come up. When it’s warm enough, I step outside into the morning. After that, I do a few hours of writing, both with pen in hand and also at my computer. Usually that’s interspersed with a lot of reading, where I let my brain follow whatever it’s wanting to follow. Then one walk around the premises to just check out the bird life and usually a much longer walk or a drive down to the refuge. It’s a dream. It’s so luxurious.

What were some highlights for you?

At each of the residencies I’ve served here, I’ve made friends—lasting friends (yourself included). Getting the chance to just talk about the day and share whatever each person is immersed in, comparing notes, reassuring each other, and reflecting back all our work—these are all the true gifts of the place.

I do also love the solitude here. It is just unlike any I’ve experienced on any other piece of land. It’s really great that we can have both space and community. My nature is to be introverted, but I like people. So, at PLAYA, I get to have both parts of my nature taken care of.

Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email info@playasummerlake.org to join this conversation.