Mona Arshi originally worked as a human rights lawyer but in 2008, having written her first poem, she focused on a life of writing. Last week saw the publication of her first collection, Small Hands.
She talks here about the necessity of poetry, her passion for the ghazal, the ballad, the prose poem, and why avoiding the subject can bring a poem into being
PJ: Lawyer to poet – how did that happen?
MA: Yes I get asked that a lot, naturally. The answer is, I simply don’t know. I don’t think that my lawyering equipped me for my poetic career in any way! I worked for a human rights organisation, Liberty, for several years championing rights for asylum seekers, dealing with death in custody cases and right to die issues under the Human Rights Act. Of course you are dealing with legislation, coded and rigid at times, but my task was to try to persuade the courts to interpret the legislation in test cases in a particular way, hopefully to benefit a wider community. It was, in that sense, unfamiliar territory and yes, creative!
PJ: Were you reading poetry, is that what drew you in?
MA: I have always read poetry but hadn’t really kept in touch with the contemporary scene. When I became pregnant with my twins I was instructed to not leave my bed for three months and I was going out of my mind with boredom. A friend kindly sent me some books: Daljit Nagra’s first collection and a contemporary women’s poetry anthology, which included Alice Oswald and Colette Bryce and Moniza Alvi. I was completely intoxicated by what I was reading.
PJ: You enrolled on the creative writing MA at UEA in 2010 - how important was that?
MA: It was incredibly important. I initially I’d done lots of workshop-based courses at the City Lit in London but then applied to do the Masters. I was lucky to have three very different but dedicated teachers at UEA but the main thing was the environment - you are treated as a professional writer, your work is valued, you are expected to write but, more importantly, to read. I was the only student who hadn’t studied English Literature as a first degree and Lavinia Greenlaw advised me that if I was serious about my writing I needed to read a lot. It made me understand at an early stage how we don’t and can’t write in a vacuum, we are always looking back.
PJ: In one poem the speaker talks of ‘my altered state of alteredness’ – you have quite a particular aesthetic, too easy to call surreal, it’s more like attentive daydreaming, seeing life through a different filter. It allows you to explore the contours of complicated emotions. In ‘Bad Day in The office’ and ‘The Daughters’ you bring a slant, witty view to domestic life/relationships. Do these poems start with an image or with an idea/feeling that finds its imagery?
MA: I like the idea ‘attentive daydreaming’. I don’t think I am the kind of poet that approaches an idea or subject matter directly. Instead I prefer the oblique glance. If subject matter was a house I prefer to go around the back with a stepladder to the attic window, not through the front door. When I am thinking of writing a poem I never really have a handle on what it’s going to be like, its trajectory. If I did it would be really depressing. Very often a word/an image/a memory ignites something and sometimes a line drops in and I will quickly write it on my notebook, phone or very often the back of my hand. Then I try to forget about it. It’s the poetry of avoidance I write. I don’t wish to approach subject matter head on, I can’t write like that. Instead, you know that there is something at the corner of your eye that needs your attention but you have to be careful not to frighten it away with sudden jerky movements, instead you stalk it - you whisper your way around it. At some point you will have captured the contours of something, a bit like a baggy cloud and then the real work begins.
PJ: Interestingly, the poems that touch on your brother’s death have an otherworldliness even though the details remain in the observed world. In this sequence at the heart of the book, it’s the power of specific, everyday, objects - such as the rucksack, the sheets, the glasses - that seem to allow the poem to emerge.
MA: Yes absolutely. I didn’t set out to do this, of course. They were very difficult poems to write. Again it’s the avoidance that leads to the emotional truth and those everyday objects somehow become freighted with meaning.
I was in the middle of writing poems for the collection when my youngest brother died suddenly. When I returned to writing again, I felt as if the very ground I was standing on was softening, shifting. I then read that poem by Denise Riley ‘A Part Song’, which she wrote after her son died; a poem so moving in its honesty and its beguiling intensity. It’s interesting because it’s lyrical in parts and intensely personal, it’s even incantatory in parts, like a spell. Riley blames herself, she talks to her son (he talks back),and ‘it’s a resurrection song’. At the same time as writing the poem she wrote a prose essay, ‘Time Lived Without Its Flow,’ which movingly articulates how the loss affected her day-by-day. But the prose essay wasn’t enough; she needed the poem because if, as Richard Wilbur says, ‘one of the functions of poetry is to make the unbearable poetry’ only poetry would do. So when she asks ‘you principle of song what are you for?’ I know the answer. Spell-like she achieves in the performance of the poem incantation, invocation and the farewell. It has helped me understand how and why elegiac verses tap into something very primal in us when we experience loss. When people ask me what is the point of poetry – I ask them to read that poem.
PJ: There is a lightness of touch of when exploring cultural identity. By saying less you seem to say so much more. I’m thinking of poems such as ‘The Gold Bangles,’ ‘My Mother’s Hair,’ which explore heritage but also ‘Jesus Saves’ where a seemingly innocent childhood memory poem explodes with huge significance around that one word, ‘Enoch.’ Is this a process of paring away?
MA: I am an Indian poet and for a long time I avoided writing about these issues as I felt that there was perhaps an expectation for me to write about particular subject matter. I have realised that this principle of avoidance leads you to those issues anyway but in a slightly different way. ‘The Gold Bangles’ I actually decided to write after attending a translation workshop with David Constantine. He brought in a Brecht poem called ‘Das Feischergerat’ (The Fishing Tackle), which was a very simple poem with a simple everyday object that takes on so much significance. I thought the simplicity of the poem and the lack of any discernable poetic diction gave it its power and that allowed me a way in to talk about my mother’s story in a poem.
PJ: You are inventive with lineation in free verse, there are ghazals, a ballad, list poems – I’m wondering how you work with form?
MA: When I started out the only form I was vaguely writing in was the ghazal.This was because I was familiar with the ghazal in Urdu as my father both wrote them and recited them when I was young. The music of the ghazal - so different to the western aesthetic – is fixed in my mind. There was also something about the circular notion of the closed couplets that really seemed to resonate with some of the collage poems I drafted particularly early on. I attended a year-long versification course with Mimi Khalvati, which introduced me to prosody and fixed forms. I have to say that I didn’t see myself as ever really wanting to master many of these forms but I think it taught me that as poets we have an imaginative obligation to consider form. If that means ultimately you want to write a free verse poem, that’s wonderful but then master the line-break, understand how it will have an impact on the reader. Your line-breaks are telling your reader to read the poem in a particular way. You need to know how much power you potentially wield to heighten, to astonish or conversely, bore senseless.
I know form is difficult and that it can take years and years of practice, but I think there are certain forms that suit certain poets. I have fallen in love with the ballad and the terza rima (both are in the collection). In fact the ballad for me, a bit like the ghazal, has this primal, earthy quality. If the earth had a heartbeat it would be the sound of the ballad. It’s also a form that allows you to slip into dangerous territories. ‘The Ballad of the Small Boned Daughter’ is a poem about an Honour Killing. I was trying to write a poem after the horrific death of Shafilyah Ahmed five years ago and then suddenly it hit me - the poem needed to be in the ancient ballad form. As soon as it found its perfect vessel it was written in one afternoon, (almost).
PJ: You also include several prose poems in the collection. What attracts you to that form?
MA: I actually love the prose poem. I have read a lot of Simic as well as David Tate and Richard Bly. Given what I have said about avoidance, I guess it’s easy to see why. It’s another way of negotiating difficult subject matter obliquely. It’s especially good at exploiting the line between what’s ominous and innocent. I do think that you have to be confident about writing a prose poem. Poets get very excitable about the boundaries between prose and poetry - I know some poets don’t believe that such a thing exists. Unlike poems in prose there is an expectation when reading it that it will flow logically and it’s less likely to have syntactical ambiguity. But successful prose poems often employ the uncanny or surreal to surprise the reader and throw them off balance. I’ve realised how difficult it is to shape a prose poem to make it do this but equally how satisfyingly unsettling the results can be. In my poem ‘Mr Beeharry’s Marriage Bureau’ a compliant young Indian woman enters a waiting room in a marriage bureau with unexpected results. I hope that readers can see what I have attempted to do in the poem and why I have used the prose poem form to enter the subject matter and quietly abduct them.
PJ: Who are the poets you return to in order to feed your own writing? Can you name one poet or, even one poem that is a touchstone for your own work - a work you return to frequently for nourishments?
MA: I love Sylvia Plath and read her in my twenties and then in my Thirties, but she is too much of a pull for me and I daren’t read her at the moment, but I am sure that will change. I have such an eclectic mix of poets I love Sujata Bhatt, Medbh McGuckian, Heaney, and of course ghazals by Ghalib, Agha Shahid Ali and Mimi Khalvati.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
MA: I am re-reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, selected poems by Adrienne Rich and the sensual poems by Lesley Saunders The Walls Have Angels.
PJ: What are you writing at the moment?
MA: I am trying to write something around myths. Indian myths but very female centred. I am not putting any pressure on myself, I have been writing fairly intensively for over two years.
PJ: What would you say to a poet putting together a first collection?
MA: Take your time. Go to a good workshop with a fair tutor and be prepared to make mistakes in your early writing. Subscribe to good magazines (not just necessarily because you want to submit there), oh and read! Choose three or four poets you really like and read all of their work.
Small Hands is published by Pavilion Poetry, part of the Liverpool University Press. You can buy a copy here