"Few contemporary writers are courageous to take their own flight"

Zahid Imroz’s first book Khudkushi Kay Mausam Mein had serious readers of Urdu literature in thrall. He kept his cool after the warm reception of his first book and has maintained that standard in his second book Kainati Gird Mein Urian Sham. He has translated poems of Neruda into Urdu and plans to do more such ventures in the days to come.

Currently pursuing MPhil in Physics from Quaid-e-Azam University, the 28-year-old is also the founder and co-editor of Niqaat a literary journal. Excerpts from his interview conducted in Islamabad follow:

The News on Sunday: What does poetry mean to you? Can you live without composing verse?

Zahid Imroz: "Living" is quite a philosophical and existential phenomenon. This question seems to me a bit clichéd. Composing verse for survival is a kind of polemical phenomenon which never creates monotony. Birth and death are the two most common experiences which never lose their mystery. So writing is same kind of experience for me. I never force myself to do anything.

I always wait for things to come. I don’t rush toward them. I believe one can live on bare minimum. But for an artist, expressing one and one’s identity are bigger questions. I know when I have to say something. A feeling of hunger is signalled by emptiness of stomach. I feel the same kind of hunger while expressing myself. But I don’t write in bulk. This feeling comes spontaneously and I never control it.

Last year, I composed very few poems. As I don’t force myself to do anything, the same way I can’t push myself to write. Living is not a question. For an artist, surviving on something when you don’t have anything is real "living".

TNS: When did you realise there was a poet in you?

ZI: When I was a school boy, I found translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet by Razi Abidi. I never had any experience of poetry. Even in school, I never participated in poetry or literary competitions. I always felt a kind of repulsion to such taming of thoughts. I thought it makes you mediocre and you speak someone else’s language. It was a very natural feeling which always kept me away from non-genuine, opportunistic and fame seeking circles.

But I remember one moment from when I was in intermediate. The very first poetry book I bought from my pocket money was Nuskha Hai Wafa, collected poems of Faiz. Before that I had never heard his name. I went to a book shop and saw his book in black cover displayed on the counter. I silently decided to buy it next month and started reading the poetry. I think that was my first flight towards literature.

TNS: Whom do you feel inspired by locally and internationally?

ZI: I never tried to follow the footprints of any poet. Inspirations can be in different ways. Classics gave me the courage to play with language but I never felt motivated to speak their language. I enjoyed reading poems and prose writings of many writers. In local poetry, the geets of Shiv Kumar Batalvi, poetic verses of Bullah Shah, Baba Fareed and Bhagat Kabeer left an impact to stir up my intuition.

In Urdu, Majeed Amjad, Meera Ji, Muneer Niazi and some Buddhist stories of Intizar Husain, Ghulam Abbas and Manto are writers who lived physically in their work. I feel these outsiders walked through the subconscious of society and unfolded human conditions and miseries better than anyone else.

From international literature, there are many names because in many languages there are great minds which reach us through English translations. Out of one’s work every writer contributes a few survivable masterpieces which transcend space and time. Many writers inspire us in a way that it helps to understand the human condition and intellectual evolution of human mind. Rimbaud, Octavio Paz, Charles Bukowski, Fernando Pessoa, Milan Kundera, Jose Saramago and Neruda used to echo in my mind.

TNS: How fulfilling has been your poetic journey?

ZI: I never tried to tame myself to follow one particular thing. Spontaneity and inbuilt order of this chaotic universe has been important to me. Whatever said so far, I said with honesty. I don’t know beyond that.

TNS: Translation is a tricky job and it becomes almost an impossible one when you are translating poetry. Do you think you did justice to Neruda?

ZI: It was 2010 when I read his popular work Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. I was studying in QAU. It was spring, unprecedented like every year. My days were busy and nights were hallucinated with nature. Intoxicated with love and loneliness, I used to spend my nights purposelessly, wandering in the Margalla hills in full moon nights and reading Neruda. It was kind of a productive collision.

Landscape and metaphors of his poetry just personified around me. I just translated these poems to listen them in Urdu. I don’t think it’s a word to word translation. Originally written in Spanish, though translated into English by a famous poet W. S. Merwin, they still can’t carry everything of original poetry. And in Urdu it can’t be a translation but another poem re-written by another poet.

After the first draft, I worked for more than a year on these poems as if these were my own poems. I read them aloud, in silence and in a flow and crafted them with my all intelligence and skills. I tried to see these poems as I see myself. You can read and find what kind of poetry it is. Honestly speaking, I am unable to judge it.

TNS: Any future plans for translating any other poet into Urdu?

ZI: I don’t plan for this. But I find a deep attraction towards a modern poet Fernando Pessoa from Lisbon. I have been reading him since last year. Majeed Amjad and Fernando Pessoa seem to me quite similar in many ways. I may translate his poems or some prose work.

TNS: How would you describe the current poetic scene of Urdu? Are there more talented young poets like you who are carving out their own path?

ZI: There are always brilliant people everywhere. I also find some contemporary poets very creative and love to read their work. One thing I feel is that very few of them are courageous enough to take their own flight. People are scared of tradition. For me tradition is an arbitrary concept. Octavio Paz discussed these concepts and discourses in his book of essays Children of the Mire.

Creative madness is rare to see in young people but there are some brilliant minds which can contribute some impressive things. Among contemporaries and from poets of last generation, I feel young people must read Sarmad Sehbai, Anwar Fitrat, Javaid Anwar, Afzal A Sayyed and others. I would say again to read but not to mimic which is quite a common practice of Facebook-poets nowadays.

"Few contemporary writers are courageous to take their own flight"