Back in January of 2015 I met with Mimi in her flat in Stoke Newington, full of questions about (and barely concealed admiration for) her latest collection, The Weather Wheel, which had been published only a few months earlier. The hour-long interview was printed in the 4th issue of HARK magazine (March 2015). Here I reprint the interview and include the pieces which Mimi read, with the kind permission of her publisher, Michael Schmidt, director of Carcanet Press.
DT: Thank you so much for giving this interview to HARK magazine. I would like to start by focusing on your most recent book, The Weather Wheel. The whole book has a strict formal constraint: it’s in couplets and every poem has eight couplets, or sixteen lines. How did that come about?
MK: Well, like everything else in writing poetry it was accidental, you hit on something and then it seems to fit. I think even before I’d started writing this book, I’d had an idea that I would go back to Entries on Light, which was a book length series of poems on a theme, all free verse but with some formal kind of rules that I’d set up for myself and followed. So I had this vaguely floating in my mind as a possibility and then I wrote a few poems and one of them, or maybe more than one, fell into a sixteen line scheme. It all seemed to happen more or less at the same time that I had a few poems that all seemed to be edging towards that sort of length. Then I decided on the couplets, so it’s very simple in the sense that I’ve just stuck to sixteen lines and everything is in couplets, but the important thing is that the line length is variable. Not within one poem, but one poem compared to another. So that in actual fact the poems are not really the same length in terms of the time it takes to read them or the number of words, because some are short-lined. So early on I hit on that scheme and I followed it.
DT: I have the impression that this book tries to capture something quite fleeting, and it seemed to me that what the eight couplets do, is that – in a way – they manage to ground that fleetingness.
MK: Yes, that’s absolutely right. I knew that the theme was very vague because I started off with just the idea of weather, and taking the day’s weather as a starting point. And I knew they were going to be free verse. The subject – there isn’t really subject matter, but let’s call it the subject matter or the theme – was very fluid, and I was writing quite fast and I wanted to continue to write fast and capture this very fleeting, very fluid, very metamorphic kind of quality in the language and in the experience. And then I thought, well, there is a danger this will be just a long splurge, with nothing differentiated, and no boundaries, no borders, and also impossible to write without any kind of fixed horizon. So, the form gave me the fixed horizons, within which I could float about. And also I thought, retrospectively of course, I’d written many sonnets – the Meredithian sonnet is sixteen lines – and many of the poems have got a kind of turn that slightly echoes a sonnet. But then also I’d been writing ghazals and I think that’s partly why I did the couplets, though they’re not closed couplets, they are very open, so it was the sonnet and the ghazal sort of coming together. But I think you only think things like that after the fact.
DT: Would you read for us one of them poems in your collection? Your choice!
MT: Okay, I’m going to read you one that was written in Crete, then, because I connect with you through that. And it’s one of the most floaty of the poems. I was just literally sitting looking out at the bay, and it’s called The Waves.
Every day the world is beloved by me, the seagull eager
for its perch. I woke this morning to a darkened room,
my soul stabled at the gate. We grow older, quieter,
hearing degrees of movement, distance, and the dead
would listen if they could to the voices of the living
as bedrock listens to the ocean. I listen to the waves,
trying to make them go one, two, one, two, to hear
what Virginia Woolf heard. But she heard it in memory,
darling memory that delineates. One, two, one, two,
and all the variable intervals in between surrendering
to ‘the very integer’ Alice Oswald rhymed with water,
creating a thumb-hole through which to see the world.
Light fluctuates and my soul fluctuates like a jellyfish
underwater. My hand throws animal shadows on paper
and there, outlined, is a single goat, black and white,
standing on top of the mountain, like a tiny church.
Select this track to hear Mimi Khalvati reading “The Waves”:
DT: Thank you. I’m glad you chose this poem, it’s one of my favourites in the book. The goat re-appears in another piece that begins with the lines: ‘The goat, the earliest known ruminant in the world / and hence, one might say, our first poet-philosopher…’ And I’m always wondering, can poetry do philosophy?
MK: Oh, I’m sure it can. I mean, I don’t know about doing it – some of the most wonderful poetry you have I suppose you would call it philosophical. Whether it does philosophy, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t go there myself because I don’t have any background in philosophy. I think one can be meditative, just in the normal human way – without having any kind of specialist knowledge. But, yes, that’s somewhere I would fear to tread.
DT: What about the role of observation in poetry? How important is observation?
MK: I think hugely so because the main gates through which you would enter a poem are through the senses, and we tend to privilege the eye over the ear (although in that poem we read I was trying to privilege the ear). Quite often the initial impulse for a poem will be from some kind of visual stimulus, or from some kind of sensuous observation. And I think quite often when poetry works you start off with the physical world, the concrete world, and you work with your senses. In my book what I aimed for was to be able to go through the images into something else, which I wouldn’t call philosophy, but I would hope it’d be something more than just the observed phenomena.
DT: Another piece in the collection, The Swarm, is a poem which I think manages to encapsulate the role of observation. Speaking as a science geek if I may, – I mean, as a physicist –, I think The Swarm has multiple layers to it, and I have a clear idea of what it’s saying to me, but I don’t know if that necessarily corresponds to what you were intending to say with it. I was wondering if you could comment on that piece, and if you could read it for us as well!
MK: Well, I think with any poem you don’t have a clear idea of what you’re going to do. You write the poem to find out. So the initial impulse was really simple, I was actually taking one of my classes at the Poetry School and it was during that very snowy winter we had. At break time I popped out to have a smoke, so I was outside the door and everybody else was inside, in the classroom, and I would smoke, and literally just watch the snow swirling around the street light. But I think you’re right, you know, it’s not just observation – otherwise you could write a poem about everything you’d see. It’s those heightened moments, when either something strikes you as exceptional in some way, either extraordinary or you have that sense of wonder. Or, you’re arrested, or it connects with something inside you. So I think it was just one of those timeless moments where you stand and you’re just riveted by a visual image. For some reason, on a dark night with the snow falling, I could see it all lit up, you know, flying round the lamp. I literally started by describing it.
DT: Swarms are made up of simple organisms, and there are simple rules that govern them, but the interactions between these simple parts create a biologically complex system, an entity which is so much more than the sum of its parts. And it can be hard to understand their origin. The poem ends with the phrase: “the blind imperative that drove them.” So, I really can’t escape the feeling that this piece is really asking questions about the origin of art, or science, or whatever else we do, creatively speaking.
MK: I think that’s right. When I started writing the poem all I had in mind was the memory, because obviously I didn’t write it there and then, I wrote it retrospectively. It was the memory of an image. And what you’ve just said was the discovery that I made that I was asking why, why am I writing about this image? What does it hold for me? It’s funny because, you know, we’re all aware – without understanding anything about quantum physics or any of this – we’re all aware of this kind of dimension of life that comes into ordinary culture. I wasn’t intending to make any kind of scientific references, but I think it all ended up as a metaphor for something, and it’s interesting you’re thinking of it as a metaphor for art or for science, because for me it ended up as actually a metaphor for lyric poetry itself. Many lyric poems are, or can be read as, metaphors for poems, or for the lyric. But in this poem it was the effort of trying to concentrate so hard on the empirical evidence of your senses, if you like, and trying to see something so clearly, and the effort of that concentration, I realised that actually it’s something that I will never, ever get to. So in a way I realised this is actually a poem about poetry, or about the writing of poetry.
Snow was literally swarming round the streetlamp like gnats.
The closer they came, the larger they grew, snow-gnats, snow-bees,
and in my snood, smoking in the snow, I watched them.
Everyone else was behind the door, I could hear their noise
which made the snow, the swarm, more silent. More welcome.
I could have watched for hours and seen nothing more than specks
against the light interrupting light and away from it, flying blind
but carrying light, specks becoming atoms. They flew too fast
to become snow itself, flying in a random panic, looming close
but disappearing, like flakes on the tongue, at the point of recognition.
They died as they landed, riding on their own melting as poems do
and in the morning there was nothing to be seen of them.
Instead, a streak of lemon, lemon honey, rimmed the sky
but the cloud-lid never lifted, the weekend promised a blizzard.
I could have watched for hours and seen nothing more than I do now,
an image, metaphor, but not the blind imperative that drove them.
Select this track to hear Mimi Khalvati reading “The Swarm”:
DT: Two pages back in your book, there’s a poem about snow. There are many connections and interrelations in this collection. It’s called Snow is, and among other things it seems to circle around this idea of the metaphor – trying to understand one thing in terms of another. But, going in another direction now, we read in that piece, “snow is a friend to children, those who have scarves, mittens, snow boards and wooden sledges, to others it is the devil’s own”. How important is social and political awareness for a poet? Should politics play a role in poetry?
MK: Oh, Dimitris! This is a question we can circle round and round and round and every day of the week I think something slightly different. What I think it might be or it should be, or it could be, doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on what I write because one can’t always write what one thinks we should or would like to write. And in fact in this poem, Snow is, I wanted to write something about the Syrian children and the refugees, and it’s the one poem in the book I’m really not happy with. It’s the poem I would have excluded, but I had no other poem to put in its place. I kept very much to my very… “mathematical” structure of twelve poems in each section, with seventy two poems over six sections, you know, so everything was even numbered and there was no way I was going to mess up my maths! But that hidden numerical structure is quite important to me and it always is for some reason. So I sort of had to put it in, but it’s a very poor attempt at a, in quotes, “political poem”.
DT: Why is that?
MK: I don’t think it’s what I would call authentic. I think it comes from the wrong place in one’s heart or soul. I was – we all were – very moved by the dreadful plight of these children, but I think behind this, the actual impulse was an impulse to try and write a political poem, rather than an authentic impulse, which is, “oh, I really love that”, look at that snow, let me write it and see what happens! So I think it’s my one untruthful poem in the book, in that sense. Well… there might be others, but the one I’m very conscious of. I think that when the impulse is a corrupt impulse, such as to want to write a political poem and then set out to do so, it comes from a worldly place of how you want to be seen as a poet, or you don’t want someone saying “oh well, she never writes political poems”. It’s corrupt in that sense, it’s to do with Ego. (I think true impulses come from a place inside you where you’ve for once put your Ego aside, for a little while, you know.) I think this never produces true poetry; it’s very self conscious, contrived, and usually lacks poetic energy.
DT: Well, you say that about Snow is, but I know I responded to it. The ending is poignant, and that’s why, perhaps, a poet has to put their work out there – you can’t possibly know how it’s going to be received. So –
MK: That’s true.
DT: So would you please read this piece also?
MK: Yes, I will, because also the tone of it is a cold tone, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Snow is a rubbing of sorts, a wax heelball on ground,
an impress of ribs – exoskeletons in high and low relief.
Each snowflake is witness to the cloud-womb that formed it,
how wet, how warm, the union of crystals, how powdery.
Trapped in firn, air will evidence ash from Krakatoa,
deposits from lead smelters, pollen and greenhouse gases.
Snow is adjectival. On foliage particularly, discriminates
between the feathery and lobed, the linear and pointilliste.
In itself is silent, but on contact, creaks. Acquires an air
of sanctity in repose but in action earns oaths and profanities.
Snow is a friend to children, those who have scarves, mittens,
snowboards and wooden sledges. To others, it is the devil’s own,
akin to the djinn who frequent sinkholes, wherever mud rejoices.
To the children housed in sheep sheds, chicken coops, tents,
dressed in cut-up blankets, seeing things that aren’t there in forests,
snow is the devil they know. Better him than the live bombing.
Select this track to hear Mimi Khalvati reading “Snow is”:
DT: On the issue of politics in your poetry, I think there are some great insights in Marius Kociejowski’s book, “God’s Zoo”. I would certainly like to refer readers to go there and check that out. But, is there anything else you’d like to mention about this issue, especially in relation to your earlier work?
MK: I think some of my earlier poems were more overtly addressing the subject of having dual identity, coming from Iran, being in exile, and so on. And some of the very early poems were very much wanting to address the very negative stereotypes, even then. I’m talking about the late eighties, early nineties. The very negative stereotypes of Islam, and of Muslims. I’ve always written as a feminist, so I think of my work as political although it’s not overtly so in that, you know, I don’t write poems about women having to wear the veil, and this kind of thing. Which, people expect me to write about, and possibly I should because then people know more clearly where you’re coming from and reality fits their expectations. I think I’ve always been in a bit of a quandary about this because I don’t fit people’s expectations, you know, people do say to me, “oh but why don’t you write about women wearing the veil, why don’t you write about Islamic fundamentalism, the regime, the this, that and the other”. But you know Dimitris, I’m very interested in the problem for somebody like me, many writers like me, who are not native speakers and yet English is my first language. I only write in English, I can’t write in Farsi. I feel that there is a barrier to being allowed to own the language still, to being allowed to be seen to have some kind of mastery of it. I hate that word, but you know what I mean…
DT: Yes –
MK: And, you see, if I write a poem with very difficult syntax that I know will trip up quite a few readers, in my mind, that’s a political act. Because I’m saying, if you like, I’m claiming my right to have ownership of the language, and at a certain pitch, because I think this is something that is still problematic here. I sense it just from, you know, the way one’s work is received, or the reviews –
DT: That’s very interesting. So, playing with or perhaps “hacking” the syntax of the language can be a political act, effectively, on a certain level… As someone writing in English although my first language isn’t English, I hadn’t considered that aspect before.
MK: Do you see what I mean? It’s only reviewers or people who know me very well as a person, and who know my biography, that know I’m at home in English, that it’s my only linguistic home. But people who don’t will always throw the focus on subject matter that is about exile, or is about Iran, or dual identity. And I get the feeling that people are very reluctant to actually say, “well the use of language is not bad, you know.” Because you’re not a native speaker, it’s almost as though they don’t entertain the possibility. Although we have people like George Szirtes, who is masterful in this way. And of course many, many prose writers, not least marvellous writers like Nabokov. But I still feel that on the ground floor, which is where I am, it’s still kind of a problem.
DT: People also keep going back to the ghazal, and Hafez, and these sort of influences on your writing. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a spectrum of influences, but if there is one, then quite possibly on the other end of that spectrum, relative to Hafez, some people would put Wordsworth. Can you talk a little bit about those influences?
MK: Wordsworth was certainly a very early influence just because I knew him as a young person very well at school, and I’ve always loved Wordsworth. Now, I can’t really say Hafez influenced me in the sense that I can’t read him in the original, so my knowledge of Hafez is through these appalling translations in the first place, and through a few, very few, maybe three or four, ghazals that an Iranian friend has transliterated for me, you know, taken me word by word through, because my colloquial Farsi doesn’t reach literary Farsi. But in writing ghazals – and this very much illustrates what I was saying before – I come to it as an English language writer, and in the same way that I would try and write a glose, a Spanish form, a pantoum, a Malay form, or the very difficult Heroic Crown of Sonnets for example. So I came to it from a formal aspect, thinking the challenge was how do I take this form and make it sit naturally in the English language and, not only in the English language, but within our contemporary poetic norms or ideas about what goes and what doesn’t go. Take just the question of repetitions, how can you repeat one word, or one phrase, that many times without it doing your head in, you know! Or, that number of very full rhymes. So how do you not disguise the form which is what we do with contemporary formal poetry, everything is disguised – so you write a sestina and ideally somebody eventually notices it’s a sestina, and then they give you a pat on the back. But you can’t do that with a ghazal, it’s very up front and naked. Now, my theory is, to the extent that maybe some of my ghazals work, it’s not because of my Persian heritage or Persian influences, which really don’t exist, it’s because I’m quite good at English. And I can access different ways of using the English language, to try and stretch it to accommodate things that are outside our aesthetic habits. But nobody gives me brownie points for this, nobody says, “wow your English is so good that you managed to do that,” instead they say, “oh you managed to do that because you’re Iranian, you’re influenced by Hafez and you remember hearing it when you were a child.”
DT: I still haven’t come across a critic who gives credit to the modern possibilities that can be opened up by a ghazal, which is self-referential in a very traditional way (as in a folk-oral tradition) and post-modern at the same time.
MT: Can you explain that?
DT: What I mean is that, for example, the ending of a ghazal –
MK: which is the signature couplet –
DT: yes, the signature couplet, it is highly self-referential. This very structured, very well-defined space of the ghazal, opens up by referring to itself and to the creative source behind it, if you want, referring explicitly to its creator. All of those things are referenced from within, and this is grounded in a long tradition, but at the same time, it is a very modern thing or rather, post-modern.
MK: It’s the form that really brings that out because traditionally the last couplet is the signature couplet, where you refer to yourself by name, and I think originally it was to do with copyright, it was a way of establishing “I’m the author of this, and not my rival”, you know. But it’s very scary to write that signature couplet because it’s very embarrassing to refer to yourself by name, it feels pretentious. So I kept trying different ways of trying to do it.
DT: It wouldn’t be a ghazal without it.
MK: Yes. In the classic ghazal all the couplets are seen as microcosmic, and they’re seen to be universal. When you get to the signature couplet, then that is the poet’s place in that universe, so you insert yourself into the little world that you’ve created through the other couplets. That’s how I understand a canonical ghazal to be. Mine don’t have that universal quality, as a ghazal by Hafez would, but that’s the idea. And, actually, it’s quite like the couplet of the Shakespearian sonnet. Not as it’s necessarily written nowadays, but go back to Shakespeare’s own sonnets. They’re quite often fairly universal, in the twelve lines, and then in the couplet he suddenly steps inside himself and speaks from a very personal voice: “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” (Sonnet 116).
DT: Is there any advice you’d give to younger or emerging writers?
MK: This isn’t advice at all, but I’m terribly aware how rapidly everything is changing and has changed in the kind of poets that younger writers are reading, the kind of poetry they’re wanting to write, the way it’s put out there, the whole online presence of poetry and all the effects of that, the lack of a kind of critical environment. So when it comes to general advice, I don’t have the confidence I would have had ten years ago, because I would suspect that any advice I might give would be pulling younger or newer poets back towards something, rather than pushing them forward into something, you know, it would be a little bit on the lines of beware this and beware that. But I think the best advice is always just to read, and to develop the art of reading because it’s not just about reading everything that just came out this year, or everything your friends are writing, or everything on a prize list; you have to read widely across different cultures, languages even, different centuries, and I would certainly say don’t get so swallowed up in reading everything that’s contemporary at the expense of older work.
DT: The Romantics and their worldview, for instance, seem to have a lot to say to us today. One of their preoccupations was around the role of emotion, or feeling, in a rational world. I’m wondering what does poetry have to say in that big contemporary debate between scientism and art – and by art I mean the creative, alternative modes of thinking about the world and our place in it. Should poetry have a say in that?
MK: I don’t really think one can think in terms of what poetry should and shouldn’t do, I think what it all boils down to is poetry should be good poetry, but how the hell you define good poetry then is another subject altogether because people will define it very, very differently and will privilege certain aspects over other aspects. This isn’t answering your question at all, but it’s bringing something up in my mind that is a sort of parallel dichotomy, I’m not sure. There seems to be a tremendous emphasis at the moment on subject matter, in reviewing or in terms of how books are discussed or how poetry is thought about, it keeps on coming back to, well, what is it about. And what issue is it addressing. Whereas to me, still, or maybe I’m very old fashioned in this, poetry is first and foremost about language, and the use of language, and to what that use is put as well. It is this aspect of poetry that seems to me to be backgrounded now and the whole thing about what issue is a poem addressing and what’s it doing, as though it was a form of journalism or something, is very much to the fore. And the value of novelty, you know, people seem to subscribe to this idea that everything should be novel and then things are seen as new while in fact they’re not new at all, but actually quite old, you know, for those of us who were there first time round. But that doesn’t really answer your question.
DT: No, I think it does. It reminds me exactly of an answer that George Seferis had given to a somewhat similar question. Someone had asked Seferis about his worldview in relation to the “issues” he was tackling in his poetry. Seferis responded that he wrote without any worldview. To which he added, “Perhaps you find that scandalous, but may I ask you to tell me what was Homer’s worldview?” So now I’ll ask something more prosaic, perhaps. What are you working on now?
MK: Absolutely nothing!
MK: I’m actually sort of mulling ideas over where I want to go next. I think usually after a book I have some idea of what I haven’t done or done badly or what I should try and get better at, addressing what’s missing or the weaknesses. I’ve always progressed with a sense of dissatisfaction. But at the moment I’m not so sure, I think I’m going to drop that approach actually, not because I think I’m good at everything, but just because I feel something’s shifted, so I suppose I’m just mulling over ideas of just the kind of language, yes, the where I would like to go on my journey with language. So it’ll be very different, all my books I think are always very different from the one before. But not on purpose, it’s just because I’m restless and I want to then move on to new ground.
DT: A few years ago the Government asked artists to explain, or justify, their activities. Funding seems to depend on it nowadays – explaining how theatre or music are beneficial to society. So I guess my last question, Mimi, is just this: what does poetry do?
MK: Poetry does poetry. I mean, I don’t know, I can’t think about poetry in those terms and actually I think there’s too much pressure on poets – it comes back to this thing of addressing an issue – and we have to write about the war, we have to do this, and we have to do that. Poetry is a wonderful art form, it’s never going to be for everybody in the same way as all the art forms are not for everybody, not everybody appreciates or loves it. But I think it’s a wonderful expression of our humanity, in the face of great inhumanity. In the case of poetry it’s not just to do with having finer feelings, it is something to do with our relationship to words, to the way language is used in a poem, and a kind of receptivity to what is out there.
There is some poetry in the universe, in the world we live in. What poets do is to first be alive to it, and awake and receptive to it, and in love with it – I think it has a lot to do with love – and then have the wherewithal to translate that poetry that’s out there into poems, so, for me it’s an act of listening and of translating into heard and written language.