February Issue 2011

By | People | Q & A | Published 13 years ago

“Poetry is a very intimate art”
– Kyla Pasha

Kyla Pasha is a lecturer of Cultural Studies at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. She is also the co- founder of Chay with Sara Suhail. An online forum for dialogue about women and sexuality, Chayexhorts its readers to break the culture of silence that has become part of our psyche. Here, Kyla Pasha talks about cultural conventions in Pakistan, her poetry and her recently launched book, High Noon and the Body.

How do you explain the titles of each section in the book?

I tried to put things together thematically, but it didn’t work. You don’t think of poetry in a chronological or a thematic fashion, so I chose the poems I liked. The first section is called Marauder because I liked the sound of the word. It’s a mixture of dark and light poems. Border is named after my love affairs with, and in, different places. Border Poem, which didn’t belong to that time, still fell into place there. And High Noon and the Body is named because it contains confrontational, ‘facing down’ poems.

Most of your work is love poetry. It appears that you identify so strongly with whatever you are writing about, that you become that person’s mind, that moment, or experience.

I consider any kind of poetry as love poetry. Poetry is a very intimate art in which you carry on a conversation with your reader, your subject. Other than that, much of my work is inspired by a basic precept of feminist thought, “the personal is political.”

Who are the poets that inspire you?

My first conscious inspiration was Sylvia Plath: visceral, confessional poetry. Then at college I read the Sufis. Sufi poetry is a form of love poetry which struck me because it was so different from the conventionally prescribed reverence for God. I identified with the idea of talking directly to God. Then I began to read the Quran in translation. Keeper of Lost Things is self-consciously influenced by a number of things: a cadence that one imitates from the Quran, the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer from the Bible.

Another influence for me was the power of the spoken word. I discovered it by accident when HBO did a series called DEF poetry, where six or seven poets get together and compose a poem. It confirmed the importance of spoken poetry that I was familiar with from my childhood: the Urdu mushaira. It contrasted with the tight and reserved stylistic tradition of English poetry. However, to create good poetry one has to learn how to balance the physical and vocal art of performance poetry with poetry laid down on the page. I feel that some of my longer poems lose out in being written down — I wrote them explicitly for performance rather than reading.

Your voice is very fresh and original. With regard to form, does this come naturally, along with reading poetry, or have you had instruction?

Any art requires some guidance. Very few people are entirely self-taught, even if help comes in the way of a mentor. In my case, I did a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, qualifying in translation and non-fiction. However, my course exposed me to writing patterns and forms in various languages.

I also showed my poems to a poetry teacher. Although I can’t call her encouraging — she didn’t approve of my line breaks — I learned three things from the experience. One, that each line should be a poem in itself. And that how you see it on the page matters, although this triggered a reaction in me because in the culture I come from, the appearance of poetry is secondary, even tertiary. Poetry is set to music, and used to begin and end speeches. Lastly, I learned that what the poet says must make sense to other people.

Do you work in isolation, or are you in touch with other writers? Is such interaction necessary?

I’ve never sought out a community of writers. At one point a group of friends used to get together but there was no constructive criticism of each other’s work, so it never quite gelled. My best critics are people who read and understand poetry, although they aren’t writers themselves. Ponni Arasu, a friend in India who works in theatre is spot on about the content of my poetry even though she can’t critique the technical aspects. Mariam Suhail, a visual artist, has a common foundation in art, and we bounce ideas off one another.

What are your experiences or thoughts about poetry in Pakistan? If reading is necessary to developing writing skills, what are your thoughts on the current atmosphere?

There is a future for English writing here, and the window needs to be seized upon before it goes away. As for reading, plenty of books are imported. The café and bookshop culture is well developed and people buy and download books.

I feel that people don’t read as much as I did when I was little, although there is an underestimation of the desire to read and an overestimation of the quality and diversity of what is available.

However, I feel that as a culture which fosters duty rather than individuality, we aren’t ready to allow young people to choose the things they like because we think it’s childish, we want them to read the books we prescribe, rather than creating an environment of enjoyment for inquiring minds. That’s something we need to change.