This is edited transcript of an interview with Agha Shahid Ali by Suvir Kaul, recorded at the Mass Communications Research Center, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi in August 1997.
Would you like to talk about your professional life in the US? What encourages you to keep writing?
Agha Shahid Ali
I am a Professor of English and a creative writer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and I am Director of the Program in Creative Writing there. These institutions support writers. They reward you for publishing what you would be publishing anyway.
In one of your poems in The Nostalgist’s Map of America there are a few lines in which you write about coming across an “exit to Calcutta” and thus thinking that India always exists off the turnpikes of America. That’s a very interesting conjunction–the conjunction of being in exile. What does it mean to you to be an Indian in America, to be on the turnpikes in America watching out for signposts to Calcutta . . .
What happened was when I was en route to Ohio and I saw the sign for Calcutta. I did not take the exit for a mundane reason, we were in a hurry. But later when the contrast occured in the poem, the fact that I didn’t take it became important, so that I could turn it into Calcutta-India, even though I have never been to Bengal.
So much of your work is caught up with issues of really finding Calcutta in America–I am using that symbolically–with issues of cultural transformation in one form or the other. How does that work for you?
This is often a question of textures and landscapes, foods, smells and of all of that can remind us of certain moments in the past. Now like many of us I did not go to America because I was impoverished here, so I am not like people who escapes the potato famine in Ireland. Nor was I persecuted, I went there on my own choice. So I became an expatriate rather than an exile. I often use the word ‘exile’ because I like the word. When I went there, I went with a certain amount of cultural baggage which is already tripartite: it is loosely Hindu, Muslim and Western. I grew up with them and all these are crystallised by the moment of exile. I always think of how these things live simultaneously together . . . are there contradictions, aren’t there contradictions . . . I found that they do not have to be debilitating. As an academic, I can come back to my roots for three months every summer–even if I had lived in India, I could be working in Bangalore, or I could be in Trivandrum. So I would still be away from the places I grew up in. So I do not think that I have lost anything. This departure has become a way of holding on fully for me.
I was stuck by the fact that you write Ghazals in English. There is an enormous problem of transliteration here, of being able to write across cultures. What are the salient features of the form that you keep in mind when you think about writing the Ghazal in English in America?
Well, first of all I never thought that I would be able to write about Ghazals in English till I came across a Ghazal written by an American poet named John Hollander. I was very excited and said, “Oh! my goodness, why haven’t I thought of this because here’s the tradition I grew up with,” particularly as I know that in literary history forms are constantly being taken into other areas and then being domesticated.
What is the kind of Ghazal that you keep in mind when you try to write one?
We have the tendency to see the Ghazal in Urdu as a relatively easy form because we know that the refrain is repeated all the time. In the process, we just forget that there is a rhyme that preceeds the refrain. Also, anyone who has some decent knowlege of Urdu can claim to know the clichéd storehouse of images and motifs, from the Beloved, to the flame, and so on. Genius is when somebody can take this entire vocabulary and turn it on its head again and again, and that’s the exciting thing. Or constantly endow it with all kinds of motifs which it did not have or imbue it with all those meanings simultaneously.
Would you like to read your poem “Ghazal” from your new book The Country Without a Post Office?
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight
before you agonize him in farewell tonight?
Pale hands that once loved me beside the Shalimar:
Who else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere–” “to make Me beautiful–“
“Trinket”–to gem–“Me to adorn–How–tell”–tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisoners, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
I had been writing this Ghazal and I then came across this TV programme on Jezebel and she has always been described as this bad woman, a harlot. But I now realise that she was quite a brave woman, there is this Elijah who’s screaming at her like a raving fundamentalist. When they come to kill her, she stands at her window, she makes an incredibly heroic picture.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken,
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Has God’s vintage loneliness turned to vinegar?
He’s poured rust into the Sacred Well tonight.
In the heart’s veined temple all statues have been smashed.
No priest in saffron’s left to toll its knell tonight.
(And now for the signature couplet:)
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee–
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.
Can we rest on the phrase “Call me Ishmael tonight,” because it obviously carries within it two traditions: one is of course Ishmael within the Muslim tradition, but also a neomythic American tradition, since Moby Dick opens with “Call me Ishmael.” Again we have that same conjunction of cultural traditions.
I always use these phrases because I like the sound of them. I mean, that imperative “Call me Ishmael” is such a startling way to begin a novel. And of course that fits in with the ending when he says I alone have survived to tell this tale and you find the mythic pattern–one person survives to tell a tale. I am not quite sure when I began thinking of the religious connotation but I found the idea of sacrifice very interesting.
So is Ishmael here the witness or the victim?
He’s also the one who is exiled. He is exile with his mother. He goes away to Arabia.
We will go on to talk about figures of exile in your poetry, but I thought perhaps we will stay for a little while longer with your experiments. You have written a villanelle, which is a comparatively unusual form. What attracts the poet like you to these forms?
One that attracts the poet is the fact that it is a challenge. You are always dying to do new things . . . you are constantly on the lookout for that. I was also looking for departures from my earlier work which had largely open forms where you have to create rules for yourself to make sure that you are not just being self-indulgent in a facile way. These tight forms help, especially as you already have examples of past genius. They are a challenge but they also help you remain honest when you are dealing with difficult subject matter–that is, the shackles are strangely liberating. I do not think you really free yourself from a form, you free yourself through the form and you experiment. You see when the subject matter is difficult, it is so easy to become sentimental and facile and I would say silly. And therefore, I found these forms have kept me honest.
This is an important lesson for any younger poet to learn, for there is a sense that free verse is its own authority. What you are suggesting is that the only way in which you learn to write with power is if you can learn to write via a fairy structured system, where you can really learn the system, come to terms with it and make it express your own concerns.
Well, you can of course arrive at a very sophisticated kind of free verse by just writing for long time. But structured writing also becomes a way of later arriving at free verse if you want. People who write free verse are often not asking themselves enough questions, so it has become a means for a very lack-luster kind of self-expression: “I also have a heart, I have feelings, I can alter them and then chop them into lines.” It does not go beyond that. I find that very disappointing–it is not interesting to read.
There is another poem that I like very much (“Dear Shahid”), if only because it refuses our conventional understanding of the difference between poetry and prose, it is a prose-poem. For a lot of people who don’t read poetry, a prose-poem is the fudging of the difference: any piece of prose can masquerade as a poem, can claim to have the rhythmic structure of a poem. What is your way of categorising the difference between prose and poetry?
That could be an endless answer but more simply, what I did was realise that in this relatively short space I had to create the same kind of effect that a poem had. But my unit of argument would not be the stanza or the line, it would be the phrase, sentence and the paragraph. But I had to bring the same sort of intensity to it. That was the way I managed to solve it. Partly because the moment we move to prose, there is the desire to tell a story. The way I tell my students about it is, when you reach the end of the page and if you want to know what happened next, then it has not worked as a poem. It should be a complete piece. Sometimes the line between poetry and prose is very blurred, but I think it is meant to be.
Would you like to read it so that we can talk about some of its details. Form apart, the concerns of this poem are in some ways the central concerns of this volume.
This actually is a combination of various letters I received, many I did not receive. I think poetry can tell lies, tell technical lies in order to reveal deeper truths.
Before you begin, I want to remind our listeners that the title of the volume is The Country with a Post Office. So the thematic of letters, particularly lost letters, is obviously very central.
Obviously. That reminds me, I love the ending of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener where when you are wondering what Bartleby is all about you are told that he used to work in the Dead Letter Office. All letters speeding to death . . .
There is also a context nearer home: there is a whole genre of Hindi films in which the lost letter (this includes Pakeezah) is an important way of talking about ruptures–people leaving, people not coming back, the transmission of messages being interrupted because of cataclysms of one kind or the other. So the lost letter is obviously a way of describing disruptions in the social fabric that are much larger than those of the individual or the family.
Ok. [he reads “Dear Shahid”:]
I am writing to you from a far-off country. Far even from us who live here. Where you no longer are. Everyone carries his address in his pocket so that at least his body will reach home.
Rumours break on their way to us in the city. But word still reaches us from border towns: Men are forced to stand bare foot in snow waters all night. The women are alone inside. Soldiers smash radios and televisions. With bare hands they tear our houses to pieces.
You must have heard Rizwan was killed. Rizwan: Guardian of the Gates of Paradise. Only eighteen years old. Yesterday at Hideout Café (everyone there asks about you), a doctor–who had treated a sixteen-year-old boy released from an interrogation centre–said: I want to ask the fortune tellers: Did anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?
This letter, insh’Allah, will reach you for my brother goes south tomorrow where he shall post it. Here one can’t even manage postage stamps. Today I went to the post office. Across the river. Bags and bags–hundreds of canvas bags–all undelivered mail. By chance, I looked down and there on the floor, I saw this letter addressed to you. So I am enclosing it. I think it’s from someone you are longing for news of.
Things here are as usual though we always talk about you. Will you come soon? Waiting for you is like waiting for spring. Waiting for the almond blossoms. And, if God wills, O! those days of peace when we all were in love and the rain was in our hands wherever we went.
That is lovely. What I was stuck by when I read it is that it has the credibility of a letter written by somebody possessed of a sensibility. But it does have certain kinds of motifs, images, repeated rhythms, that suggest the work of a poet. And I was wondering whether in your poetry there is an element of the commonsensical, where the word as it is spoken, as it is used commonly, is of consequence even as much, if not more, than the word in its finished form. Is this perhaps how you think about your poetry–written shall we say with the warp of the spoken language and a woof of the cultivated artistic detail?
That is the wonderful way to put it!
The volume is scattered with references to places that I know because I know Srinagar: I know Zero Bridge, other localities, Gupkar Road–the book is repleat with local references. But the local reference is always contained within a larger set of themes. That is what I meant when I said that perhaps it is a combination of the commonsensical, the everyday, and the comtemplative mode, the meditative mode, that marks your writing.
I do not know what to say to this except that that is what it is. By the commonsensical you mean just ordinary words or that they are suddenly changed?
I mean ordinary words, ordinary usage. One of the great skills of a poet is that the ordinary can be turned into a moment of corruscating brilliance or real illumination. There is usage in your poetry that approximates the patterns and the practices of everyday speech but that is always interleaved with and over-written by much more considered use of language, and that is the play that I like very much. Would you like to read a few stanzas from “A Pastoral”?–I think they effectively combine the element of spoken speech with the element of surprise.
[reads from “A Pastoral”:]
Will we follow the horned lark, pry
open the back gate into poplar groves,
go past the search post into the cemetery,
the dust still uneasy and hurried graves
with no names, like all new ones in the city?
“It’s true” (we’ll hear our gardner
again). “That bird is silent all winter.
Its voice returns in spring, a plaintive cry.
That’s when it saw the mountain falcon
rip open, in mid-air, the blue magpie,
then carry it, limp from the talons.”
Pluck the blood: My words will echo thus
at sunset, by the ivy, but to what purpose?
In the drawer of the cedar stand,
white in the verandah, we’ll find letters:
When the post offices died, the mailman
knew we’d return to answer them. Better
if he’d let them speed to death,
blacked out by Autumns Press Trust–
not like this, taking away our breath,
holding it with love’s anonymous
scripts: “See how your world has cracked.
Why aren’t you here? Where are you? Come back.
I was going to call your attention to the opening of poem “We shall meet again, in Srinagar.” The location of most of these poems in fact the Valley and its difficulties for the last decade or so. So many of the images of your poems are derived from your observations of nature, people, cultural practices, but also of violence. The falcon springing upon the blue magpie and carrying it limp from its talons–this is an extraordinarily local and powerful image of violence. What is the relation between such violence and the finished technical quality of this poem? Is there a connection?
I think it brings us to the earlier point that we were talking about. How do you deal with very painful material which has a certain stature? I think you serve it by being not chaotic in what you create but by being as finished as possible. This is the only way to contain that violence and serve that material. I do not know why that’s so. I cannot give a clear answer. But when I started this poem, I was thinking of Mandelstam, the great Russian poet and his poem which begins with “We shall meet again in Petersberg,” written I think at a point when Petersberg no longer existed. I was reading a book on the Birds of the Himalayas, and then this is where luck also came into play: I found that this particular bird, the horned lark, is truly silent in winter and as it warms, its voice start returning. So it works so well as metaphor and as absolute fact. It needs spring to speak.
I am stuck by what you said about the degree of control that attachment to form grants the poet or indeed the writer when he or she is dealing with painful, moving, challenging issues. Stephen Speilberg, the maker of extraordinarily mindless popular firms, also made Schindler’s List, and he made it in black and white because he said that he could not make a film on the Holocaust in colour. He needed the distance and the precision granted by the tones of black and white in order to be able to deal with the Holocaust. What you described as the contrast between the subject matter of pain and the aesthetic pleasure that comes from finding a vehicle in which to express that pain can also be exemplified from your poem “Muharram in Srinagar, 1992.” Could you read from it please?
This is a pantoum, and it has that circular quality we sometimes find in the ghazal . . . you are constantly being returned to something. The progressions are not linear in any dull way.
[he reads the poem:]
Death flies in, thin bureaucrat, from the plains–
a one-way passenger, again. The Monsoon rains
smash their bangles, like widows, against the mountains.
Our hands disappear. He travels first-class, sipping champagne.
One-way passengers again, the monsoon rains
break their hands. Will ours return, ever, to hold a bouquet?
He travels first-class. Our hands disappear. Sipping champagne,
he goes through the morning schedule for Doomsday:
“Break their hands.” Will ours return with guns, or a bouquet?
Ice hardens its fat near his heart. We’re cut to the brains.
He memorizes, clause by clause, the contract for Doomsday.
We mourn the martyrs of Karbala, our skins torn with chains.
Ice hardens its fat in his heart, and we’re cut to the brains.
Near the ramp colonels wait with garlands by a jeep.
(O mourners, Husain bleeds, tear your skins with chains!)
The plane lands, In the Vale the children are dead, or asleep.
He decends. The colonels salute. A captain starts the jeep.
The Mansion by the lake awaits him with roses. He’s driven
through streets bereft of children: they are dead, not asleep.
O, when will our hands return if only broken?
The Mansion is white. lit up with roses. He is driven
through streets in which blood flows like Husain’s.
Our hands won’t return to us, not even mutilated, when
Death comes–thin bureaucrat–from the plains.
What is extraordinary about this poem is the simplicity of its images. The figure of death, the “thin bureaucrat from the plains” could be a figure out of Tarot, only this is a figure of death in its contemporary variant. There is an Eliotean quality to it, a kind of precision where a single phrase can stand in for a whole set of values, not simply an administrative structure but the structure of values and the ethos, the code, that says it must impose its will, its organisation, upon a space or a people. That kind of logic is another theme in a great many of these poems. There is a contrast between local disorder, local systems of organisation and something that seeks to impose a larger structure or will upon it. Let me take you to a passage where you write about Habba Khatun. Habba Khatun as we know is of extraordinary importance to the valley of Kashmir. She is venerated by both Hindus and Muslims–she is a figure of that kind of cultural consolidation. I would like to read some lines and ask you to think about them some more. This is the fourth section.
[Kaul reads from “The Blesséd Word: A Prologue”:]
Each fall they gather chinar leaves, singing what the hills have reechoed for four hundred years, the songs of Habba Khatun, the peasant girl who became the queen. When her husband was exiled from the valley by the Moghul kind Akbar, she went among the people with her sorrow. Her grief, alive to this day, in her own roused the people into frenzied opposition to Moghul rule. And since then Kashmir has never been free, There is another passage [in “Son et Lumière at Shalimar Garden”] in which you talk about “the Moghul’s thirst for terracing the seasons into symmetry.” We all know that these gardens and that form of terracing, that imposition of structure, symmetry and order, was an imperial importation into Srinagar. The play between local disorder, with its fecundity, its richness, and an externally imposed system of order, resonate through all these poems.
Is that something you consciously worked into your poetry?
I don’t know how consciously I did it. But now you point it out, I know that it is there. In the Moharram poem, for instance, I was aware of two or three things: first there is the problem of simile. Pablo Neruda once asked if you could have a line which says “the blood of children flowed on the streets?” What is there that can match the blood of children flowing on the streets? This is also an asthetic problem, and the way he solves it is by writing “And the blood of children flowed on streets like the blood of children flows on the streets.” There is no equivalence outside itself. Look how he takes care of the problem of simile there! It is really a brilliant moment. In the experience of Islamic history, the destruction of the Prophet’s grandchildren and his family at the battle of Karbala is something that has such intensity that I can in the poem talk about children dying or weeping or whatever and compare it to the blood of Hussain flowing. Because it carries weight. The other is the idea of the thin bureaucrat from the plains. There is a poem by the great German-Jewish poet Paul Celan called “Death Fuge,” which contains the line “death is a master from Germany,” and this poem is one of the most powerful ever written on the Holocaust.
There is another moment where you describe the kind of idea that says we will destroy the garden to preserve the haven, which is an evocative way to talk about the dissonance between administrative and political exigency and the idea of local cultures. In another passage you write of the administrator who dreams of saving nations by destroying its cities–in each case a feature of the whole is excised and yet we are convinced that we are in fact preserving the whole. That seems to be the problem of political logic, which produces its own aesthetic, its own dream world.
Yes, it does. It absolutely does. It has its own connections with reality.
In your work there is a metaphysical explanation of evil, of pain, of horror, there are moments where you talk about God having turned his face, Bhagwan or Allah having given up on us. There is also a much more detailed, much more passionate account in which the local, the here-and-now is probed for explanations about what has gone wrong. Are there moments at which you stop and say, really the only way to explain a dilemma is to take recourse to a metaphysics?
I think, to some extent, yes. But as you said, in moving towards the metaphysics, there must be constant acknowledgement of the here-and-now because otherwise it can also an become an invitation to sheer irresponsibility.
Suvir Kaul is A. M. Rosenthal Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania.