A conversation with Pakistani-American poet Raza Ali Hasan about managing influences in creative writing
Raza Ali Hasan, the Pakistani-American poet earned a BA and an MA from the University of Texas, Austin, and an MFA from Syracuse University. The published collections of Hasan’s poetry include Grieving Shias (2006), Sorrows of the Warrior Class and 67 Mogul Miniatures (2008) which loosely follows the Urdu poetry structure of musaddas. Hasan currently lives in Boulder. He has taught at the University of Colorado and at Iowa State University.
In this conversation with The News on Sunday, he talks about grounding his poetry in the political rather than the personal and managing influences in creative writing.
The News on Sunday (TNS): The three poetry collections you have published so far are all deeply rooted in contemporary socio political and economic context. Why is it important for you to ground your poetry in the political rather than the personal?
Raza Ali Hasan (RAH): The personal in my poetry got waylaid in the shuffle to Texas from Islamabad. Later, as an apprentice poet (that I was in my first two books) handling the persona among other complications of poetry would have doomed, paradoxically, the “mature voice” that was evident (to my teacher David Wevill and my publisher Stanley Moss) in my very first poems. This voice sufficed until in my third book, Sorrows of the Warrior Class, a henpecked persona—basically a simple “I” or “my”— surfaced occasionally, with some poems foraying into the biographical. Stupendous! Famously, the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott complained of the smallness (of the ambit of concern) of most published American poetry. What saved my work from a similar fate was, perhaps the hyphenated nature of my work (Pakistani-American, apparently) and the almost complete absence of the personal in my poetry allowing for a sustained focus on the reality of other lives than my own. Albeit, a lesser poetry – minus the persona – but perhaps sufficient for its own resolute outward purposes.
TNS: Your second poetry book, 67 Mogul Miniatures, draws heavily on Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poems, Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa. How do you conceptualise influence? Looking back at your own experience of writing this book, how would you differentiate between an unconsciously received influence and a consciously managed one?
RAH: The American poetry critic Stephanie Burt seemed to be visibly upset with me at a Chicago hotel lobby at the annual AWP (Association of Writing Programs) conference. She couldn’t identify any sonic markers of other English language poets in my then-recently-published 67 Mogul Miniatures. Burt is really good at that kind of detective work. That is, tracing influence. She liked the book. The lines were playful, even displayed the usual poetic rigmarole – alliteration, assonance, etc – that she had noticed and liked. Plus, the free-verse couplets were not rhythmically flat but vacillated from loosely to strictly iambic.
Of course, what Burt was hearing (and I did not know how to articulate it at that moment) was not something generic, an example, as you put it, of “unconsciously received influence” but of “consciously managed influence.” My couplets were reproducing in English what I thought I was hearing in Shikwa’s Urdu lines. Back then I thought that Urdu and English were more closely related languages, a continuum, than was generally acknowledged: where one ended, the other began. These Indo-European languages overlap in sound and rhythm. So, for me, 67 Mogul Miniatures was my English version of what I heard in Shikwa’s Urdu lines.
With experience, or as I have become a better poet, I have realised the pivotal role of influence and so, I have become very careful about who I hear and who I want to hear in my own lines. Of course, in the case of 67 Mogul Miniatures, as you know, it was more than that. I wasn’t just hearing Iqbal’s Urdu, but Khushwant Singh and AJ Arberry’s English lines as well. But more importantly, I was listening to what Iqbal was saying, and to my surprise, found myself agreeing. The borrowing grew deeper, disagreements vanished, and Iqbal’s arc of reason and emotion became the backbone of 67 Mogul Miniatures.
TNS: Do you use or recommend practice in managing stylistic influences?
RAH: I have found that practice of poetry is the business of building, of a teetering tower of judgment, a hierarchy of one's own work relative to others. It’s a judgment not on subject or content but on style – language, language, language. One aches to sound like somebody or is desperate not to sound like somebody else. Unlike the poor haphazard stressed-out novelist dealing with an unbound number of pages of prose to read and then more to write in finite time, the mortality-conscious poet can comfortably look for stylistic exaltation and discovery in 16th Century poetry to last week’s, in a summer or two’s reading, and bring it to fore in his or her own manageably bounded number of lines. Thus, the poet is, by definition, a more exacting, thorough manager of influence.
In my own practice of poetry, the coming into focus and going out of focus of work of others, I have found, though cyclical, is subject to a narrowing of taste. A teleology is discernible: one begins as a poet, Catholic in taste, only to end up an avowed sectarian. My last poetry collection, Sorrows of the Warrior Class, for example, was the result of euphoria generated by my reaction against Keats et al – the still reigning romantic school of American poetry presided over by Wallace Stevens, with its affected, mannered speech – by admitting to the rigors and virtues of 16th Century poetic plain style inspired by the example of late-Auden and formal-Gunn (late poetry of WH Auden and formal, metrical poetry of Thom Gunn).
In my recent work, in my fourth yet unpublished collection of science poems, like a scavenger striping for copper in post-industrial Ohio, I have tried my best to strip off any remnants in my stylistically pared-down phrases, of what goes for “poetic language” in American poetry.
TNS: Your poetry is full of inter-textual allusions which are mostly politico-historical. How would you analyse your use of inter-textuality? Is it just your knowledge of history and politics that influences your poetry or do you see it necessary for poems to give a critical portrayal of reality? How often do you research the subject you are planning to write a poem about?
RAH: One explanation could be that the inter-textual allusions have to do with a willful – as in programmatically sought out cultivation of influence of Eliot and Pound. But before I sat down in earnest to read Eliot and Pound, I was always switching between the collected volumes of WB Yeats, Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney. I saw firsthand the word ‘expansive’ in action: ‘worldly’, ‘political’, ‘historical’. But particularly influential for me was Yeats and Heaney’s practice of writing tightly thematic sets of poems dealing with carefully chosen sets of specific inputs: specific landscape, actual or mythic figures from history and lore, usually a politically fraught decade, delineated poetic form and style and language, etc. To give a concrete example, in Heaney’s thematically tight set of Bog poems, his landscape is a juxtaposition of Northern Ireland and Jutland, Denmark. Heaney populates this landscape with Grauballe Man, Tollund Man, Bog Queen. Both the Danish landscape and these character portrayals are based on pictures and text in archaeologist PV Glob’s The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. Heaney is thus able to compare Iron-age violence of Northern Europe (Denmark) with “the troubles” in Northern Ireland that lasted from late 1960s to 1998.
Consciously or unconsciously, I followed Heaney’s poetic practices closely in my last book Sorrows of the Warrior Class. For instance, I compared the imagery, landscape and mytho-historical characters like Alexander the Great, Bahram Gur, Ardeshir, Rostam and Sohrab, Tehmina, Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi, Eblis, etc, from The Fitzwilliam Museum’s Catalogue notes and images for their exhibition of illustrated miniatures from Firdowsi’s Shahnamah (available online) to the fate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s (using his letters and interviews and video clips from the internet) and Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala in the 1950s. The poems themselves were mostly written in traditional style with focus on metrical, formal, rhyming sonnets and stanzas.
TNS: Grieving Shias and 67 Mogul Miniatures give poetic accounts of several wars. However, instead of focusing on images of violence, you focus mainly on what has led to this violence. What made you think of aggression in causal terms?
RAH: An equivalent line to “der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” (Death is a master from Germany) in Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge (Death-fuge) with its unscripted truth and unbounded truth and power can be, arguably, found in a Seraiki or Punjabi or Sindhi poem or story but never in an English language poem or story published in the West by a South Asian author. It is not done. In my last published book, Sorrows of the Warrior Class, despite its quite explicit take on American imperialism, right before sending my manuscript to my American publisher I replaced the phrase “machinations of the Americans” with “machinations of the Empire.” In another poem, I replaced the original line “that he (Bhutto) would not have turned to Jihad/as a recreational activity the way the Americans did” to the lamer and less offensive “that he (Bhutto) would not have turned to Jihad/as a recreational activity the way the imperialists did.” It is still accurate, but now denuded of any power. Only my fourth book (still unpublished) I am happy to report, contains the following lines (at least for the moment) “now on crutches after a landmine accident,/ his back turned—can’t bear to look—/ on the passing convoy of American Humvees” or in another part of the manuscript “in that circle/ where orbits the promise of Sputnik…/ abruptly brought down/ by the helmeted American/landing on the moon.” It is not done.
TNS: Sorrows of the Warrior Class is about several leaders of different nations who lost their lives for daring to harbour the lines of resistance against the globalisation of Western economic and political ideologies and exploitation. Some of the leaders your poems memorialise have been seen as controversial figures even by objective critics. What purpose does your humanisation of them serve?
RAH: Why of all people Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a heroic light? Comparisons to Alexander the Great and Arbenz; really? To the surprised readers of these poems, I would say even I was surprised by my deferential tone. To counter these six, poems the careful reader will find the poem, Sultan of the Abyss, in the same collection which at one point during the writing of the book had an epigraph, A Criticism of Bhutto. It was an epigraph that I deleted out of desperation. Yes, my defence: Sorrows of the Warrior Class is an act of desperation. And if imperialism exists in this world, by definition, imperialism has to occlude any and all agency Bhutto ever had or could ever have. It’s an act of desperation not to let Bhutto’s infractions take away from our very understanding of imperialism’s relentless cruelties.
To find (or create) a moment of light and resistance in Pakistani history without tarnishing it with its twin, darkness and despair, that always accompanies it. Go figure.
TNS: After having written poems about past and present, you have now composed poems (for your fourth collection) that seem directed at the future. What inspired these new poems that you call science poems? How can subjects like physics, geometry and calculus (which are traditionally seen as binaries to art and literature) also be healthy stylistic and thematic influences for a poet?
RAH: My fourth collection (not yet published) was the direct result of my failed attempt to turn away from poetry, from the cultural and political world; from history to nature. For in the meantime, I had graduated from tutoring middle school mathematics to my daughter Atiya to becoming a fledgling connoisseur of high-school science and mathematics and of their foundational delights. Of course, I had grown up reading science fiction by Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, watching Carl Sagan on Cosmos on PTV, and ended up like all diligent Pakistanis in the US with a computer science degree. The interesting thing about Atiya’s American high-school science and mathematics curriculum was that it wasn't a high-school curriculum. More like outsourced – downstream – college courses. What they call here in America AP (advanced placement) classes. Yes, freshman-level calculus, physics, chemistry, computer programming and so on. And so, all the “ohs,” “wows,” “aahs,” “way-cools,” “awesomes” that I experienced had to go somewhere and they ended up in my (as you stated) what I call my science poems. Though I failed to turn away from poetry, I did turn away from the mannered, affected phrasing and language that I was perhaps guilty of using in my earlier collections to plain diction and language. My focus moved to perfecting the form and structure of these new poems, away from trying to sound superficially poetic.
TNS: Most of your poems are about the part of the world that you have been away from for about three decades. How does a poet’s geographical location affect his choices? Does exile have any role in your reflections of home?
RAH: It was as if I had never left. I did not change. I left Pakistan when I was twenty-five years old – I turned 25 in my first fall semester in the US. All my college friends are at least six years younger. At 25 and after, one is distressed by geographical dislocation, not changed. For me, the decades I spent here in the US were not American decades: each year, until 2007 when my circumstances changed, I was mentally prepared to return to Pakistan at a moment’s notice. It is this kind of uncertainty that changed and shaped me: the ever-present possibility of return sharpened the reality of Pakistan. The well-being and future of Pakistan remained a central worry even if for mostly selfish reasons. Western predations and wars on the rest of the world continue to alarm me. It was as if I had never left Pakistan.
Plus, crucially, Sheeraz, our discussions and your presence, during your visits and your teaching spell here at the University of Colorado at Boulder, reoriented my Pakistani perspective and point of view which had been veering off into some kind of diasporic nonsense. This, subsequently, had a paradigm-shifting effect on my next, third, book of poems Sorrows of the Warrior Class.
TNS: You have an advanced degree in creative writing. What role does a workshop play in improving one’s craft? Do creative writing departments also direct/ help their students in choosing themes for their work? Do the ideological associations of the instructors influence their students’ worldview?
RAH: The MFA was a break from the grind of the world. The main purpose of a creative writing programme is to allow students two to three years where they can devote themselves to writing and have time enough to generate a substantial and publishable work of art. It is not really about improving one’s work but the feed-back from other students with varying degrees of competence and talent helps. And then, of course, there are comments and suggestions from the professor. Another reason why one’s writing improves is that one is forced to write in a systematic and regular way each semester. As for subject and themes, at graduate-level, at least in my experience, the students bring their own themes and obsessions to the workshop. The professors usually do not suggest themes and topics for students to explore in their poems. There are no profound exchanges between professors and students about the world and human existence. Professors and students usually share the run-of-the-mill liberalism. At least back when I was taking workshops, ideology and politics, did not enter the workshop. But that situation might have changed with recent focus on identity in American liberalism.
The reviewer is the head of the Centre for Language Teaching at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and the author of Urdu novel, Sasa. His most recent publication is Razm Nama-i-Gilgamesh