Poet Mona Arshi traces her childhood to braid its images together

Poet Mona Arshi traces her childhood to braid its images together

At the mention of diaspora poets in the UK, three names will immediately neon-flash in any poet’s mind: Daljit Nagra, Imtiaz Dharker and Mona Arshi. Also, they have, in a way, moved out of such marginalisation to influence contemporary English poetry at large.

It has always intrigued me how these remarkable poets have created such a vast space of acceptance for them. For they are also – mostly and simultaneously – not viewed as the diaspora poets! They have not achieved this with ease. It is about being best at what you do and never stop reading, as “you are what you read”.

Mona, in her interview, concisely not only tells us that but also leads us to a precise answer: “You wouldn't fire a clay pot in a kiln before finishing it, why wouldn't you do the same with a poem?” Like her poetry, what is simple – or what she makes look simple – hides hours of labour just as would the clay-pot she mentions.

This is a special treat for our readers at iGlobal in the sense that I have been discussing this feature with her since last October to find a time in her back-to-back schedules.

Mona Arshi was born in West London to Punjabi parents. She worked as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. Her debut collection ‘Small Hands’ won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2015. Her second collection ‘Dear Big Gods’ was published in April 2019; both books published by Liverpool University Press’ Pavilion Poetry list. Her poems and interviews have been published in many leading publications as well as on the London Underground.

She has judged both the Forward Prize and the TS Eliot prizes for poetry. She has recently been appointed Honorary Professor at the University of Liverpool. Mona is currently a poet in resident at the RSPB in Cley Marshes, Norfolk. Her debut novel ‘Somebody Loves You’ is due to be published in 2021 by And Other Stories.

A little help from the Poet:

“I think poems give you a different level of immersion. You should take your time with a poem. A poem lives in the ear, so reading a poem out loud and enjoying the sonic journey or even detecting a disruption musically is key. Poems aren’t puzzles, there isn’t ‘a solution’, and the best poems live in this zone of ambiguity. A good poem should allow you in and I still believe the best poems change you slightly, the atoms in your body shift a little.”

Q

You are one of our most revered and respected poets in demand. After an astounding success, you recently dived into writing a novel awaiting a launch in the coming months; what is the drive behind it? If poetry stopped working for your expression, what was it that required writing a novel?

A

I guess I need to say from the outset that I am a poet that is writing a novel and not a novelist who writes poetry. I've been writing poetry for about 10 years now and I think that's still an early stage for a poet, but in terms of writing the novel, I had written two poetry books quite quickly close together leaving a little space for me to explore a voice (the voice of Ruby the protagonist), who was gently knocking at my door. I kept thinking, well this is new, this is not poetry, it has a narrative; she is telling her story.

I tried not to get too bogged down with form; then this insistent voice unfurled. If I knew I was writing a novel at an early stage, I would have been terrified! I sort of tricked myself into writing it. The novel is very poetic and at times you don't know where you are; as a reader you may become a little less surefooted and ask yourself - 'is this the realm of poetry or are we in the land of prose': I quite liked that.

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Q

The poem I have chosen was first published in ‘The London Magazine’. Most readers who maintain a distance from poetry find modern poetry unapproachable. What handles – using this poem – will you give them to understand how different strands connect in a poem? How would you remove their reservations about poetry?

A

The poem 'Driving' is quite a new poem that I wrote early in lockdown. It traces a childhood memory and picks it up and examines it in the light of the pandemic. It braids all sorts of ideas together, the dying tree, my father, silencing of children and the aftereffects, shame, repression and time, I am increasingly occupied by these themes... It's so difficult to talk about your own poems, but I hope I do write approachable poems.

I always think when I am writing or reading a poem, I try to ask why does this need to be a poem as opposed to some other text? For me, part of the answer lies in poetry resisting the knowable, the poem as a question and using it as an excavating tool to discover it. I would say to new readers of contemporary poetry, read the poem aloud and bring all your senses to bear.

Q

You have judged many poetry awards. When you read the bulk, what will be your expectations in any poem? What types of poems will switch you off? To collect some drops from you will help the aspiring poets!

A

Oh, that's such a lovely and unique way of looking at poems! Yes, I’ve judged a lot of prizes this past year! Insofar as the single poems are concerned, I think it’s important to be really open and have no expectations, but have a hope that you'll be surprised by something, and you’ll be left with the tingling feeling you get when you read something really good which Emily Dickinson talks about.

To poets I teach and mentor, I always say that you are what you read! It’s very clear to me when a poet has been reading and there's a clear understanding of the difference between capturing a poem and working on its form, rhythm syntax and lineation. You wouldn't fire a clay pot in a kiln before finishing it, why wouldn't you do the same with a poem?

Yogesh Patel MBE runs Skylark Publications UK as well as the non-profit Word Masala project to promote South Asian diaspora literature. He is the recipient of many awards, including as Poet of Honour at New York University in April 2019. Practised by many poets in English literature internationally, he has invented a new poetic form entitled Rapid. By profession, he is a qualified optometrist and an accountant.

In this regular series for ‘iGlobal’, he profiles Global Indian poets from around the world.

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