Exploring poetics

September 6, 2020

Perusals of skill, technique and aesthetic of poetry with Afshan Shafi

The ability to contain a behemoth of ideas and experiences in a few words eludes most people; to most good poets it is almost an essential. This ability can be innate, i.e. written into someone’s DNA. It can also be worked on, like smithy, and improved

German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, who was not by any conventional standards a poet, made a turn from the standard treatise and essay forms of written philosophical discourse and embraced a more aphoristic tradition, a form which he used to great effect in breaking down the dogmas of conventional philosophy of the time. The nature of the aphorism allowed him to both unshackle the normative discussion of the prevailing restraints and channel his intensity. One can contend that the aphoristic nature of Beyond Good and Evil enabled his ideas to reach a wider audience. Who in the West hasn’t heard since that “God is dead, and we have killed him…”?

Punjabi and Sindhi sufi kafis use a similar mode of expression. As we are aware, the reach of Shah Hussain’s or Sachal Sarmast’s work extends to the entire subcontinent. The very nature of these verses enables them to be memorised and recited across generations.

Afshan Shafi is a scholar of the craft of poetry. She has also recently published her debut book of verses, Quiet Women. For Shafi, the ability to convey her ideas through shorter bursts of words is an important skill. She admits that the skill takes time to master. “I think that there’s a big misconception that poetry is a freer form (of writing). I think it takes a great deal more of craft and its appeal stems from the intensity one is able to convey in a concise amount of words. Which 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 says.

Shafi says the motivation to write is dependent on both the nature and the nurture of a person. “For me, it was very personal and something that was always a part of growing up. My grandmother used to write as did her father before her… I was in a conducive environment, surrounded by good literature as well as literary influences early in my life.”

Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath, she says, are the people whose styles she seeks to emulate in her work. Asked how she would categorise herself, Shafi says she thinks she fits best in the surrealist tradition.

“My love for the work of the surrealists and for Manto and Faiz, is on account of the revolutionary aspects of their output. The surrealists were considered anarchist after the World War. Andre Breton was a fervent critic of every established political order, his ideals were not only revolutionary but also subversive. The surrealists never succumbed to any political group.

“For me, the ‘surreal’, is joy, darkness, chaos and ordered beauty all at once. In Manto’s work one finds reality turned on its heel. Time seems to melt, angels speak and prostitutes turn to saintliness in the face of the horror and violence of the human condition. Faiz’s ache for the one flower that breathes 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 hypocrites and oppressors who claim his verse for their own ends today. He and Manto were exponents of the marginal and of the courageous outlier. I hope to continue to explore their writings in greater depth.”

Jungians have long considered the use of symbolism and imagery to evoke ideas. It seems that poets have a stronger bond with symbols. “It’s a fine line because sometimes it (the subject of a piece of work) may not appear comprehensible or coherent to the reader but at the same time, it might have the ability to convey a state of mind. I’m big on the concepts of the unconscious laid down by Freudians and Jungians, and the way dreams interplay with our sense of symbolism. 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. For me, it is more about giving a linguistic manifestation to a series of images, so I tend to use language that evokes a visual vocabulary. There are colour and scenery as well as figurative and surreal elements,” she says.

“I feel there’s immense value in the craft (of poetry) itself, and with insta-poetry, which although has become and is becoming a more powerful medium, there is a bastardisation of the craft. I’m not trying to take anything away from people like Rupi Kaur, who are massive in their own right and enjoying a lot of popularity because of it.

Quiet Women includes a poem called Buried Amongst Flowers in Pakistan which consists entirely of verses found in the works of Rumi, Robert Browning and Vladimir Nabokov. It may be the perfect illustration of the “craft” Shafi talks about. The concept of found poetry is fascinating. It consists of assembling bits of script – written in various styles and by different authors – and giving it a holistic and coherent structure.

That’s also how myths form, an amalgamation of tribal rituals and traditions. About her writing process for the poem, 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 in the novel Pale Fire by Nabokov (the latter is an experimental book featuring a 999-line poem). My interest in exploring this technique and a certain tenacious motif of transience precipitated this poem, as well as the urge to investigate the clash between elements of the human world versus nature, death versus time, men versus women etc. The way these texts wove together was very curious and certainly lucky. 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 different from physically affixing disparate elements together. The most interesting part of writing found poetry is the challenge of wrestling with the arbitrariness of another’s text for use in your own imagination and not only creating something meaningful out of it, also renewing islands of language into a fresh coherence.”

Here is an excerpt from the poem:

“This is our master, famous, calm and dead, borne on our shoulders,/

“When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about/

“Let us begin and carry up this corpse, singing together”

On experimenting with insta-poetry, she says, “While my work does lean towards experimental and departing from convention, I feel there’s immense value in the craft (of poetry) itself. With insta-poetry, although it has become and is becoming a more powerful medium, there is a bastardisation of the craft. I’m not trying to take anything away from people like Rupi Kaur, who are massive in their own right and enjoying a lot of popularity because of it. The form is more confessional and perhaps allows a younger generation more space to explore their emotions with clarity. For me personally, that doesn’t come naturally. I am fonder of work that can be analytical at some level. I can’t deny that it has a certain appeal and of course, I want people to read my work, but for me, authenticity has a lot of significance. I’d rather be true to myself and the way that I have been trained. I’d rather that my work be relatively obscure than sacrifice my values. I think I would have had to unlearn a lot of the things that I had been taught to be able to even dive into that venture. So it has a lot to do with my personal inclinations as well.”

On language poetry and ‘constructive’ defiance Shafi says, “Though I would use this term loosely as applied to my poetry, ‘language poetry’ is profoundly important in the development of modern poetics. It takes its name from a magazine edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews in the 1960s and had its supporters amongst poet communities in San Francisco and New York. Susan Howe and Rae Armantrout are excellent expositors of this genre. For me this stylistic approach has been particularly formative because it dispenses with the rules ascribed by most dominant modes of poesies. One is (much like an expressionist painter) free to write beyond the constraints of the ‘voice poem’ that prizes a kind of formal rhythm and the ‘sense’ of a narrative. The ‘naturalness’ of the ‘voice poem’ is what most language poets want to challenge. My interest in breaking up meter, line and foregrounding colour, image and a highly individualised ‘voice’ is what drives me towards this language-based playfulness in my writing.”

The writer is an editor and researcher with a graduate degree from the University of Buckingham. He can be contacted at sarangaamirriaz@gmail.com.

Exploring poetics