By Sarang Aamir
The ability to effectively contain a behemoth of abstract ideas and experiences into a cage of a few words is one that eludes a massive percentage of people, yet one which is almost essential to most good poets. The nature of this ability could be either innate, analogous to something written into someone’s DNA, or something which can be worked on and improved, akin to smithery, or both. In the same vein, Punjabi and Sindhi Sufi kafis use a similar mode of conveying truths in a shorter, concise, and more compact form.
And here the question of infamy need not be raised, as we are all aware of the reach of Shah Hussain’s or Sachal Sarmast’s work within the subcontinent. The concentrated nature of these verses enables them to be memorized and recited across generations, almost entrenching the truths into the people. Of course, this is not to degrade or diminish the impact of grand epics from the likes of Homer, Milton, Goethe, or Waris Shah, etc. which are great in their own right but only to show that there is something to be said about this.
The interviewee Ms. Afshan Shafi is a student of the craft of poetry and recently published her debut book of poetry, Quiet Women. For Ms. Shafi, this ability to convey ideas through shorter bursts of words is an important skill but one which takes time to learn.
She says, “I think that there’s a big misconception that poetry is a freer form (of writing). I think it takes a great deal more craft and its appeal stems from the intensity one is able to convey in a very concise amount of words. This is the reason why learning the craft of poetry may take longer than prose, for instance, because it needs to be condensed and powerful at the same time.”
She lists the works of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath as influences on the style that she seeks to emulate in her work. When asked where she would categorize herself, Ms Shafi thinks that she fits in more with the surrealist tradition, which would possibly evoke similarities to earlier writers from this region like Faiz and Manto.
When asked about the possible influences and insight that the works of these highly acclaimed writers might provide, especially in regards dealing with the different socio-political issues within our country, Ms Shafi states: “My love for the work of the Surrealists and the work of Manto and Faiz, owes much to the revolutionary aspects of their output. The Surrealists, in fact, were considered anarchists after the World War and contributed to the anarchist press in good measure. Key surrealist, Andre Breton was a fervent critic of any established political order, his ideals were not only revolutionary but subversive. The Surrealists, however, never succumbed to any one political group and were most efficient in opposition to any institution that threatened to oppose fixed dogma or a model of control. For me the ‘surreal’, is joy, darkness, chaos and ordered beauty all at once. In Manto’s work one also finds reality turned on its heel. Time seems to melt, angels begin to speak and the infamous turn to saintliness all in the face of the horror and violence of the human condition. Faiz’s solitariness, his ache for that one flower that breathed free outside the prison walls, his protest for the voice that a tyrant might threaten or harass into submission, are concerns that move me deeply. Faiz would shudder in horror at the opportunists who claim his verse for their own ends in the modern age as he and Manto were exponents of the marginal, of the courageous outliers, and the dangerously idealistic loner. I hope to continue to explore their writings in greater depth in the future.”
Jungians have long considered the use of symbolism and imagery to evoke ideas a notion that is innate to human beings if that premise is accepted then maybe it is that poets have a stronger bond with that symbolism. Ms. Shafi says “It’s a fine line because sometimes it (the subject of a piece of work) might not be comprehensible or coherent to the reader but at the same time, it might have the ability to convey a state of mind. I’m a big on the concepts of the unconscious laid down by the Freudians and Jungians, and the way dreams interplay with our sense of symbolism and I think that you can see that reflected in my work. I have a very visual imagination, so I don’t necessarily start (my writing process) with language as much as I do with images. For me, it’s more about giving a linguistic manifestation to a series of images, so I tend to use a lot of language that evokes a lot of visual vocabulary like colour and scenery as well as figurative and surreal elements as well.”
Among the pieces that interested me most in Quiet Women was “Buried amongst flowers in Pakistan”, a poem consisting entirely of verses found in the works of Rumi, Robert Browning, and Vladimir Nabokov which perhaps is the perfect example to illustrate the “craft” that Ms. Shafi talks about. The concept of found poetry is fascinating; to assemble together different bits of script, written in different styles and by different authors and giving it a holistically coherent structure seems like it would require immense attention to detail. About the poem’s writing process, she says: “When I wrote this poem I had been compiling a few quotes (at random) from Rumi (Coleman Barks translation) and selections from Browning as well as some lines from a poem present in the novel ‘Pale Fire’ by Nabokov (the latter is an experimental book featuring a 999 line poem). It’s always fruitful to see how the tones, contexts, and sentiments of different pieces of writing come together in a found poem. This kind of ‘refashioning’ of existing textual material is akin to a collagist’s craft, not altogether that different from physically affixing disparate elements together, as is done in collage. What is more interesting in the act of writing found poetry is the challenge of wrestling the arbitrariness of another’s text to the uses of your own imagination and not only creating something meaningful out of it, but instead renewing ‘islands’ of language into a fresh coherence.”