Interview: Shadab Zeest Hashmi
California-based poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi recently won the San Diego Book Award for her collection of poems, The Baker of Tarifa. Set during and after the Arab Empire of Spain, the poems initially paint a picture of an empire in which the spirit of tolerance fostered enlightenment and the pursuit of knowledge; the later sections, dealing with the re-conquest of Spain by Queen Isabella, show how war dehumanises people and lays waste the achievements of civilisation. There are many parallels to be drawn, whether intentional or unintentional on the part of the poet, to our own times.
A former student of Lahore’s Kinnaird College, Shadab Zeest Hashmi completed an MFA from Warren Wilson. She has been the editor of the Magee Park Poets Anthology since 2000, and currently edits Contemporary World Literature, an online journal of international writing. Currently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Hashmi’s poems have appeared online as well as in print journals. Hashmi lives in San Diego, California, with her husband and sons.
Q: What brought about your interest in literature, more specifically, poetry?
A: When I was old enough to master the alphabet, I used to play scrabble with my grandmother and my brothers and I loved arranging the letters on their miniature wooden “bench.” My reading was very limited at the time but I was endlessly fascinated by the visual magic of words. Apart from the visual fields of language, I was also drawn to its sonic fields. My father had an extensive collection of LPs, so music from various traditions and songs in different languages must have poured into my psyche too. Creative expression was generally encouraged at home and I remember painting, play-reading, and writing stories for the radio in my elementary school days.
When I wrote my first serious piece as a teenager, my mother noted that it was too lyrical to be considered prose, so I promptly lineated the piece and called it a poem. I suppose my inclination towards lyricism comes from a deep interest in music.
Q: Which poets have inspired you?
A: I’ve always been attracted to poets whose writing draws from history and myth or whose main concerns are humanistic. Iqbal, Bulleh Shah and Faiz may all be worlds apart in form and style but I find each to be spiritually dynamic and stylistically original. I’m inspired by how boldly they question the status quo, how deftly they fuse rhetoric with lyricism, and how powerfully they utilise paradox, engaging the reader on various levels as they negotiate spirituality with the intellect. There is a long list of western poets I admire for the same reasons — Keats, Lorca, Yeats, and among contemporary poets, Eleanor Wilner, Robert Bly and many others.
Q: Your work has often dealt with identity and attempted to unite the East and West. Do you consciously look for such references or linkages, or does this occur intuitively?
A: I’m very interested in discovering overlaps between cultures and how these links emerge when mediated by language and teased out through different art forms, especially because Urdu is a hybrid language and I grew up thinking of its sounds and where they came from: the crisp, “heated” sound from Arabic; the tender, lyrical sound from Persian; and the earthy, summery sound from Sanskrit. My grandmother, a professor of English Literature, taught me the names of Greek philosophers in English and Urdu, apart from stories of the prophets in the Quran, stories from Shahnamay, and those written by Shakespeare, and George Bernard Shaw.
It was fascinating to learn two languages side by side, both doorways to the classics: English to the Greco-Roman and Urdu to the Arabo-Persian.
This parallel learning gave me access to discovering these civilisations, how they’ve collided, cooperated and competed in history. At the level of discovery, you may call this preoccupation with cultures an intuitive move, while the crafting of poems and choice of themes are conscious. Piecing together parts to make patterns is perhaps a sign of my spiritual leanings, my insistence on figuratively mapping every member of the human species on one family tree.
Kipling was wrong when he said of the East and West that “never the twain shall meet” — they have met in peacetime and war, in art and trade, through poetry, painting and film, and what an undeniable wealth of inspiration there is in the apparent disparities and the underlying commonalities. If the two weren’t compatible, their interaction would not have produced such friction, points of connection, such provocation and fodder for art and literature.
Q: What was the inspiration for Baker of Tarifa?
A: When I was a student at Reed College, I stumbled upon Iqbal’s poem on Cordoba while researching “Urdu” for a Psycholinguistics class. Soon after that, I attended a concert by the Al Andalus Ensemble and found out that the civilisation of Al- Andalus is known for moments of inter-faith tolerance, known in Spanish as “convivencia,” a legendary period of harmony between the Abrahamic people. When I first began writing the poems in this collection, about 15 years ago, I was mostly interested in unravelling the mystique of Al-Andalus. I went to Spain twice with my husband during this period and started collecting my research material including books, photos and music.
Q: The first section of your collection celebrates the flowering of intellectualism and tolerance that was the stamp of the Arab Empire in Spain. But the book’s most significant characteristics are lyricism, empathy, the horror of war and genocide, of which the latter could be metaphors for recent conflicts?
A: As you’ve pointed out, the book attempts to poetically recreate both the making and the falling apart of this great civilisation. The resemblance of
Al-Andalus (711-1492) to our times is mind-boggling, not only in the way inter-faith tolerance (or the lack thereof) plays itself out but also the incredible reversal of the status of Muslim achievements in all fields of knowledge, art and technology. It’s a little known fact that Muslims were the first to introduce the West to simple things like paper and sugar, board games, deodorant, street lights, hygiene manuals for street vendors, and that they were crucial in developing the fields of medicine and technology in Europe. Their influence on modern technology and modes of thinking is undeniable and was deliberately concealed due to the Inquisition’s long reign of terror and intellectual oppression. I agree with you that the poems that deal with tragic conflicts and the trauma of persecution allowed more of my personal response to the present political climate to seep in, but this subliminal energy came later in the process.
Q: In ‘Montage’ and ‘Etymology,’ you examine the roots of words to explore the way they have developed in different languages, creating certain attitudes, even prejudices between the characters of the Abrahamic faiths.
A: I look at language as being organic. It grows, absorbs influences, is enriched by diversity of thought and has an amazing generative power. It may also become stagnant and end up decaying. Language is, in many ways, a reliable indicator of the collective achievements of a people as it tracks quite accurately their intellectual, spiritual, socio-political history. It also reflects the points of convergence and divergence between users who are ethnically diverse, hence exposing their connectedness as well as deep-seated prejudices. Carrying the organic analogy further, words have complex, in-built “genetic” structures that bespeak their genesis in tandem with the genesis and growth of ideas. More important than this cerebral aspect of language, is its visceral aspect because poetry, to me, is about emotional precision, which can only be reached when we exploit the visceral power of language.
Q: What is the focus of your next work?
A: My next collection Kohl & Chalk is based on my experiences of travelling, being a young Pakistani mother living in America and the recent wars. But I’m still under the spell of history and my work-in-progress has a historical theme.