Mona Arshi Interview

Interview #6 Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi, interviewed by Joe Carrick-Varty

Joe Carrick-Varty: I’d like to begin with rain. Returning to my dog-eared copies of Small Hands and Dear Big Gods, I realised two things: 1, it’s raining in all my favourite poems, and 2, I’m constantly enamoured by the various speakers of your poems (in particular how these speakers relate to rain).

For example, in ‘Large and Imprecise Baby’, the mother kneels down to kiss her son, ‘just as the thin rain starts to fall’; or, in ‘The Humble Insistence’ we meet ‘the childless rain, which comes and goes’. In ‘Everywhere’, rain (and grief) happens because it must, because we were waiting for it anyway:

Mostly we are waiting for rain.
      Sometimes we let
it fall gently
             on our faces.
                   This is what a flower does.

As you can imagine, I was over the moon to see in ‘Arrivals’, one of the fantastic new poems featured in Issue 6 of bath magg, the question ‘why should there / not be rain’. I wonder if you might talk a little about rain in your poems. And how do the speakers of your poems come into being?

Mona Arshi: I think some poets are a little obsessed with water, it features in lots of poet’s work. Looking at the poems you mention there is an estrangement of the word ‘rain’ itself as it appears quite unexpectedly and the rain often comes at the end of poems or lines as if there’s a kind of release, or like the lyric latch is opened. Rain can also signify renewal or resetting of something can’t it? But I also wonder, is it acting as a sort of conduit or portal too in the poems? I think it’s more likely that.

Speakers. This is interesting to me as someone who identifies as a lyric poet but who’s also become somewhat suspicious of lyric at the same time. I am always finding ways to undermine or subvert or just play with the tradition. This leads to a certain unexpected freedom too- to the speakers of the poems, the flower-speak, tree-speak… and it’s often a way of trying on different cloaks.

JCV: The figure of a dead brother haunts Small Hands and Dear Big Gods. Many of the poems act as touchstones between a sister and a brother, as in ‘Five-Year Update’: ‘I hope it’s fine to contact you’, or in ‘A Pear from the Afterlife’, which takes the form of a conversation between siblings, before death and after life:

There are elm trees here and these geckos
       slip surreptitiously under the door
              from my side to yours.

‘Before you go,’ I say,
        ‘Will you bring me a pear from
                   the afterlife?’

Can you talk about writing the afterlife? And, why is writing across modes of being important to you? 

MA: It’s deeply unfashionable to use the word souls. But yes, I am interested in what’s on the other side.

It was Selima Hill who said that poets are Gods’ spies. I kind of love that, that we are in fact secret emissaries tasked with these missions somehow. There’s a part of me that’s always been surprised that we aren’t more curious and preoccupied about the world on the other side, lifting the thin veil or tapping on the wall and waiting to hear if anyone answers. I also like the idea of a three-way conversation I might be having in the poem, that constant triangulation, a nod to who else is in the room when we write.

The brother-poems in Small Hands were written quite quickly in the middle of intense almost obliterating loss. For the abruptly bereaved there’s a disorientating quality, a sort of numbness combined with anxiety for the living. Dear Big Gods was written five years after the event of my brother’s death. It’s written with distance. The poetry is floating out from the experience in a different way. Time can do that, of course, memories surfacing in new light and I am trying to piece things together somehow. Elegies are strange entities. We need them; we must write them, they give us strategies for living with the dead.

JCV: A mere glance at the titles of your books gives us a playful awareness of scale. Much of your work deals with the friction between proximity and distance. At one moment images are insect-miniscule, the next coastline-gigantic, as in ‘Something’: ‘a spider climbing the sublime coast / of your shoulders’ (I adore this image!). Why is scale important to your writing? And could you talk about how you create your images?

MA: I guess this is tied up very much with perception. We live in the world a certain way and we have these sort of default settings on so much of the time and yet just a little shift in perception will arouse an unexpected confirmation that we are part of something so much bigger than just ourselves. I suppose it’s why I like Emily Dickinson so much. She has these very short but sensory poems which contain the infinitesimal and then these abstract themes.

To arrive at the right image is important in poems why? Because they can do so much of the heavy lifting. There’s so much you can load in an image, even in a single line, and it can detonate and proliferate in the imagination and often a reader will remember the image even though they might not remember the title of the poem. How are these images generated? Often, it’s an image that will be the kindling for a poem. It’s like you strike a match, the image flares out and you will orbit round it or unspool the thoughts that thread out and the poem arrives like that. An image is not some sort of ornamentation (that’s an awful thought). It’s often what new poets go to first. I think a reader can detect an image that is strained and is overreaching itself.

JCV: To compare a poet’s books is one thing, but to ask a poet to compare their own books is quite another. Books, like children, are difficult things to collate, so I’ll be careful here…

I notice a real tonal shift between Small Hands and Dear Big Gods. Your debut collection is full of busyness. I’m thinking, for example, of the beehive of a house in ‘Bad Day in the Office’ with its incredible tree stump and rabbits and triplets who ‘need constant feeding – / they are like little fires’. In the second collection this is replaced with a purveying quietude. For example, in ‘The Lilies’ the speaker remembers, with brutal hindsight, being a new wife: ‘The lilies were sick. / I was new and wifely’.

A lot of the focus remains on the domestic, but the gauze through which the speakers see their surroundings has changed.

Could you tell us how this change in your practice came about? And, what did you find different about the process of writing the second book, compared with the first?

MA: I guess I am just writing differently now. I think the lines are becoming more brittle, poems more condensed. In Dear Big Gods I was trying to examine how far it was possible to write poems by concentrating them down so you are left with just a few word-grains and what might happen if you make them lose more weight by eradicating the punctuation and controlling the syntax in a different way. The long poem ‘Five-year update’ which I like to refer to as my ‘tornado’ poem is the only exception as it arrived in this almost violent way, it literally just rained on me one day fully conceived.

JCV: Your poem ‘The Village’ is prefaced by a remarkable quote from Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: ‘When I pronounce silence I destroy it–. I think it was Don Mee Choi who said, ‘translation is an anti-neocolonial mode’. Which writers have been central to you as you developed your own practice? And, why is translation a vital act?

MA: Wow I love that quote by Don Mee Choi.

If we accept that translation is an act of transformation, I would say that is what poets are in the business of doing all the time. As poets we are translating the world into language and trying to capture its energy in form somehow. There is a desire for human beings to translate. I think it’s hard-wired into us. Walter Benjamin refers to it as communication for kinship. It feels like a very human impulse.

Interestingly I’ve been thinking about translation in the context of landscape as I am poet in residence in Norfolk in an area populated by migrating birds and rare species. I realised quite quickly that I was estranged from the landscape. I am a daughter of Punjabi immigrants and I feel an element of uprootedness. Engaging with the Norfolk landscape made me question what parts of ourselves we bring to the task of poem-making, and there was confluence of feeling two languages bearing down in an unfamiliar place and hearing birdsong in a peculiar way through them. I used Punjabi (which I prefer to call the ‘back of my body language’ rather than my mother tongue).

Influences… so many poets accompany me. I’ve always felt quite close to the post-war poets of central and eastern Europe. Poets like Szymborska and Bachman, they seem to me philosopher-poets. The anthology Poetry of Survival edited by Daniel Weissbort often travels with me and I go to that text if I am feeling a bit lost. I also love the work of Louise Glück and Agha Shahid Ali and lots of contemporary poets. I’ve just finished Layli Long Soldier’s book Whereas. Her project is sort of poem-witnessing and I am so interested in the role of repair in her poetry. I love the subversive prose poem and Jeremy Noel-Tod’s book on the subject is on my bedside table. I read quite widely, and if you ask me in six months’ time, I am bound to say something else!

JCV: As well as a poet, you’re a Human Rights lawyer. You’ve worked on a number of high-profile legal cases including the Stephen Lawrence case. You’ve also represented women fleeing violence in homes, as well as refugees. How has your work as a lawyer influenced your writing?

MA: I wonder about this a lot. I think it gives you perhaps another vantage point, a particular way of seeing the world. When you do that kind of difficult work, and especially if you’re relatively young, there is a breaching of innocence, a knowledge that you can’t give back. It’s a bit like when you are bereaved for the first time and people say there’s a club you’re a part of now, and of course you would rather not be. But the knowledge that is foisted on you makes you see things in a slightly different way. Poems are vehicles for telling the truth aren’t they? Poems can’t turn away. If they do then that poem has been an abject failure because we rely on poems when all else fails.

JCV: Many of the poets in bath magg 6 are yet to publish a debut collection. Do you have any advice for an emerging poet beginning to fashion a voice?

MA: There is voice and there is the voice of the poem and I think they are two different things. So do experiment. It would be incredibly boring to be writing for decades and only have one single voice. I really think you must accept that you must write a lot of poems to understand what kind of poet you might be and your poems themselves might have a different path for you.