Friday, September 21, 2012

What's not to like about purple?*


Bonus purple in this Passion Flower which is not currently in bloom.

*First there was pink. Now there is purple. Someone find me a purple luggage tag.

Monday, September 17, 2012

August Kleinzahler on his ideal reader

From August Kleinzahler's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize Speech:

I have a very personal, very particular notion of the ideal reader of poetry, my ideal reader. It is, in fact, a composite of readers I know or have known. It is not another poet, probably not another writer, though it could very well be a painter or musician or photographer. It is not a teacher of literature, though it might be a teacher of medicine or economics, say. It is someone of catholic reading tastes and broad knowledge: a serious reader, serious about the pleasure of reading.

The nature of this pleasure involves a degree of difficulty and resistance. This pleasure is not to be confused with diversion, even the cultivated diversion provided by authors like Elmore Leonard. My ideal reader has read widely enough, actively read, and with a certain degree of attention, that upon encountering a patch of dead syntax, tortured diction, bluff gesture, rote strategy, the ingratiating stylistic doffing of the hat or mechanical development and resolution the lights come on and the show is over. After all, it is 2005 and my reader doesn’t have a great deal of time – for time has vanished with inflated rents and the blitzkrieg of what’s cheerfully called information, information to be attended to, and I’m talking right now. The oriental notion of idleness as a civilized activity, or period of time without focused activity, that arena of floating consciousness in which poems are usually conceived or poems are picked up at random and read with unexpected pleasure – these sorts of sessions of empty or unplanned time are regarded as undesirable, perhaps worrisome, even dangerous, in so far that they may be the precursor of a pathological condition. So my reader demands action, complexity and intensity from reading, be it history, fiction, journalism or sci-fi. And the ideal reader of whom I speak demands the most and gets the most from poetry because poetry is the most distilled, complex and satisfying among all forms of writing, at least for the serious, cultivated reader, my ideal reader.
It gets a bit mixed-up once he names his ideal reader Khalid (a taxi driver from Karachi, no less) but until then...

This has nothing to do with this speech, but whenever I think of Kleinzahler, I think of Anthony Bourdain having a drink with him in some ancient episode of No Reservations.

Just, like a nugget of information thrown out there. No poetry can come of this detail.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: The Poetry of the Taliban

In the Sunday Guardian last weekend, my review of The Poetry of the Taliban.

The Poetry of the Taliban.
Edited by Alex Strick Von Linschoten & Felix Kuehn
with a Foreword by Faisan Devji.

Hachette India Rs. 499 Pp. 247.


Quick: tell me what names come to mind when you hear the words ‘War Poetry’. If you said ‘Wilfred Owen’ or ‘Siegfried Sassoon’, you wouldn’t be wrong. We can be certain though, that nobody said ‘Abdul Basir Ebrat’ or Shirinzoy. At the very outset, this ought to tell us something about ourselves as readers and as consumers in the economy of literature.

As citizens of a post-colonial state, it is shaming but unsurprising that we should know more about the poetry and the poets of the First World War than we do about the poetry of our near neighbours in Afghanistan. So much of what Anglophone India reads or considers worthy of reading is mediated by the West’s narrative of its own literary history that a book like The Poetry of the Taliban demands a serious effort on the part of the reader.

 The Poetry of the Taliban is a collection of poetry published on the Taliban’s website over the last decade, though there are also poems dating from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and 90s that are included in the book. The editors, Alex von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have chosen 235 poems and arranged them roughly thematically into ‘Love and Pastoral’, ‘Religious’, ‘Discontent’, ‘The Trench’ and ‘The Human Cost’. So far, so universal.

But I had to remind myself that it was not the Taliban that had edited this book or had it published; they certainly had poetry on their website. Someone even curated it – after a fashion – though it is not clear that everyone who contributed a poem necessarily approved of the Taliban. At any rate the poetry was reaching, without translation, those it was meant to reach.

 I had to ask who this book was for, even while ruefully taking note that the poems are now being studied by American military analysts for what insight they might provide about the Taliban. It’s hard not to think of Vietnam and the US military’s efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese.

For a South Asian reading the book, therefore, there is a good chance that she is going to feel strangely displaced: this is clearly a poetry that has deep cultural roots that seem intensely familiar to us on the subcontinent, as when the poet says, ‘The ignorance of the dark turned to light when you came’ [‘Prayer’, Abdul Basir Ebrat]; or when a poet signs off with a takhallus – ‘I wish I could tell Mohammed Stanikzai about myself;/I wish my voice reached the wind though my mouth is closed’ [‘I wish’, Mohammed Stanikzai]. There are also familiar tropes of the Beloved, of intoxication and there is the symbolic power of colour or landscape.

And yet the poetry is often strident and so radically ‘other’ in its invocation of God, jihad, bravery, sacrifice and reward that it takes some effort to realise that this is not uncommon to nationalistic or patriotic poetry; and to see that beyond the tone of the poems lie a complicated web of identities and loyalties – to history, tribe, language, region, culture and ideology.

I suspect that if the poems in this collection had uniformly sounded remorseful or at least displayed a decent war-weariness, it would be easier for the Western reader to empathise. It is to the credit of the editors that they have refused to simplify anything. Their Introduction is, of course, a way in to the poetry and its history, but it also becomes significant for what aspects of Afghan society they emphasise and what they elide over – the near-total absence of women poets from this collection, for instance.

I could only wish that they had chosen better translators than Mirwais Rehmany and Hamid Stanikzai. So much of the poetry reads as if it could have been eloquent in different hands. In the poem ‘Sunset’ by Abdul Hai Mutma’in for instance, the translation reads:

‘The fast wind makes the branches of the trees hit each other;
Rays of sunlight go back and forth, they don’t remain in one place.”

If a poem from the section ‘Love & Pastoral’ can sound so clunky, it’s not hard to think how badly served the political poems are by the translation. In fact, for a project of such significance, a good translation should have been the first priority. Sadly, it seems to have been almost an afterthought.

The book is a useful, if not an entirely satisfactory one in the South Asian context. Perhaps one day, some poet from the subcontinent will translate contemporary poetry from Afghanistan, not in order to explain or humanise the people to anyone, but in the way that Faiz Ahmed Faiz translated Nazim Hikmet: as an act of homage and exchange.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Susheela's Kolams for World Literacy Day

Look at the date! Has it really been that long? Gosh.

I've spent these last couple of weeks anxiously waiting for letters; my permanent Song of the Day these days is Please Mr. Postman [The Beatles version, I need hardly add]. The Post Office haven't got the memo.

I saw plays at the Hindu Metro Plus Theatre Festival.

I gifted someone a copy of the Harper Collins Anthology of Poetry (in which I have poems) but have still not got my Contributor's copy.

By a delicious coincidence: after a post by Helen DeWitt some time ago, I saw there were, like, three or six remaining copies of The Last Samurai on Amazon. So I made a friend in the US buy it for me and bring it when he was in India next. This lovely hard-bound copy arrived a couple of months ago. And then, last week! Veena gave me a copy! She'd got it for me ages ago but forgot to give it to me.

Don't anybody ask for the extra copy, because you're not going to get it! This book is my new Scaramouche. I think I am going to be able to learn most of it. There are Boy Wonders and there are Spaniard Wonders; and I can be Scaramouche with a Spanish accent just as easily as I can be a single mother with a young boy... oh wait.

Finally, there's this thing called World Literacy Day, which is September 8, apparently. I knew nothing about it until Pratham Books chose my new book, Susheela's Kolams as the book they're going to use at their country-wide events.

As of today, there are more than 250 events/readings organised across the country. If I think about it, I feel overwhelmed. So I don't think about it. (That's a lie. I think about it all the time. No, that's not true either.)