Finding her voice: Farnaz Fatemi's poetry explores language, borders and selfhood with an emphasis on her Iranian American identity

Alumna and Santa Cruz County Poet Laureate reflects on her academic journey and career

Farnaz Fatemi (Porter ’91, American studies)

Growing up in Southern California, the daughter of two Iranian immigrant parents, Farnaz Fatemi (Porter, ’91, American studies) didn't necessarily feel connected to her heritage. It wasn't until she attended UC Santa Cruz as an undergraduate student, taking courses in women's studies and ethnic literature, that she started to engage more deeply with her Iranian American identity—simultaneously developing a passion for poetry that would launch a successful career.

Fatemi recalls that, during her early teens, anti-Iranian sentiment was strong in the United States. 

“Both my (twin) sister and I were ashamed of being Iranian,” Fatemi recalled. “We started calling ourselves Persian without admitting that change to each other. I buried that part of me.” 

Years later, an assignment for an ethnic literature class at UCSC would become pivotal for Fatemi in reclaiming her heritage. While reading a collection of poetry titled Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes that focuses on the author’s life in San Jose navigating her Chicana identity, Fatemi says she felt a connection to the attention Cervantes paid to the worlds she came from. 

“I needed those poems right then,” Fatemi said. “I really responded to the inquiry and the nuance Cervantes modeled as a poet,” Fatemi said. 

She met other Iranian students at UCSC, connecting more to her ethnic identity, and started writing poetry as an outlet.

Her twin sister, Tara Fatemi Walker (Porter ’91), also attended UCSC at the time and was majoring in creative writing. Through her sister, Fatemi had access to open mics and poets. “I started writing my own poetry and started doing open mics,” she said. She met local poets who further nurtured her passion.

Following graduation from UCSC, she committed to making poetry central to her life.

“I still felt apprehensive about speaking as an Iranian American in my writing,” Fatemi said. “I worried about representing a group of people. It made me sort of mute. I had to be patient.

After pursuing an MFA in poetry from Mills College, Fatemi returned to UC Santa Cruz to teach. She was a writing instructor at UCSC for 21 years, and continues to teach summer session courses for transfer students. From 1999-2004 she taught a Writing 1 course focused on reading and writing about the Middle East.

“I love teaching at UCSC because of my own transformative time as an undergraduate here. It has always been a privilege to be part of students’ academic transitions–whether first year students in my writing courses or students transferring to UCSC after their time at community colleges.”  

In 2022 she published her debut book, Sister Tongue. Like Emplumada, the collection of poetry that jump-started Fatemi's writing, Sister Tongue utilizes the two languages that have helped shape her identity—English and Farsi—to explore issues of selfhood, gender, nationality, voice, and family. Moving back and forth between traditionally structured poems and lyrical prose, Fatemi offers her readers both individual moments and an ongoing conversation between  her American and Iranian inheritances. 

“I have been obsessed with issues of culture, place, language, and borders, including those inside and between people,” she said. “I realized that these themes–borders, language, culture, and boundaries–shape the way I think about my own self and translate the world at large.” 

Sister Tongue won the 2021 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, selected by Tracy K. Smith, from Kent State University Press, and received a Starred Review from Publisher’s Weekly. She is the recipient of a $50,000 Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets and an Artist Fellowship from the California Arts Council. She co-founded the local Hive Poetry Collective, which presents a weekly radio show and podcast in Santa Cruz County and hosts readings and poetry-related events. Fatemi is also a recipient of an Arts Council Santa Cruz County Develop Grant. 

Santa Cruz County’s Poet Laureate

Fatemi’s most recent accomplishment is her position as Santa Cruz County’s Poet Laureate for 2023 and 2024.

“I heard before becoming poet laureate that people wanted more opportunities for young writers and poets. I thought one thing I could do is create a youth poet laureate program and connect with schools and libraries that want to create more spaces for young writers.” She is using the fellowship from the Academy of American Poets to augment youth poetry offerings and host a series of pop-up teen poetry workshops in Santa Cruz County. 

Fatemi said she is excited to partner with organizations that work with youth for her pop-up workshop program. Her project, “Our Place,” is focused on providing poetry outlets for teenage writers concerned with climate change and the environment. So far, she has connected with several individual teachers across the county, along with groups like Watsonville Wetlands Watch Climate Leadership Institute and Santa Cruz Natural History Museum’s nature club for middle schoolers. 

Her youth poet laureate programs have included three writing workshops as well as classes on resume writing, oral performance, and how to put a poetry portfolio together for students interested in submitting their work. 

Fatemi said that teenagers are the key demographic she hopes to reach. She noted that while Santa Cruz County has rich and diverse literary communities for adults, there are not many formal writing communities for younger people.

“When you get an opportunity to write in your early years it sticks. Finding ways to be creative can help process the intensity of the world at that age,” she said. 

Fatemi reiterates that she learned the importance of community at UCSC. 

“It has always felt that the only way to sustain good work is to do it with other people,” she said. “My mentors at UCSC, specifically Marge Frantz, were a model of the power of engaging others in your efforts to make the world a more equitable and fulfilling place. She helped me see that you can do something that is hard and that you believe in better when you do that in community with others.”

Fatemi is currently exploring ways to connect her role as the Santa Cruz Poet Laureate with UCSC’s Humanities Division and the Center for the Middle East and North Africa.

Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder emphasizes the impact Fatemi has had on the Santa Cruz community. 

"Farnaz exemplifies the powerful impact writers and poets have on our local community and society at large,” Alinder said. “I couldn't be more proud of her meaningful work as an alumna and faculty member of the Humanities at UC Santa Cruz."