Tuesday, April 03, 2007

In Conversation with Kaiser Haq

Ahmede: You are Bangladesh's leading and (sadly) only English poet. Though Bangladesh has produced quite a few novelists who write in English, the country's poetry scene is somewhat barren. Why do you think the country's contribution to English poetry is so insignificant?

Kaiser Haq: That's something of an exaggeration. i belong to the second generation of Bangladeshi poets in English. in the previous generation there was Razia Khan Amin and Farida Majid. Razia Amin was my teacher at Dhaka University & later a colleague, & i have fond memories of how she encouraged me in my efforts at versifying when i was an undergraduate. Farida Majid was an important figure on the London poetry scene in the seventies. at her Chelsea flat she ran a Thursday evening salon that attracted both young and established poets and the marvellous polish artist Felix Topolski, who sat & listened to the poems being read out & discussed & drew the poets. the drawings & a selection of the poems was published by the Salamander Imprint, which Farida ran with great distinction. a couple of poets she published won poetry book society recommendations. her poems are fine specimens & lie scattered in various magazines & anthologies. They deserve to be garnered between two covers.

in my generation my old classmate Firoz Ahmed-ud-din published a promising collection from writers' workshop before slowly losing interest in writing poetry. Now there are a couple of my younger university colleagues who have published promising debut collections.

so you see, the situation isn't as dismal as it might seem. one reason why it seems more dismal than it really is may be that poetry is read by very few people, & fiction, especially the novel, gets all the publicity in the media.

i should hasten to add that this doesn't bother me at all. i don't think I'd much care if i had no readers. I'd be quite happy to have only half a dozen readers as long as they felt my work was worth engaging with.

I should also point out that when you say there is a sizeable number of Bangladeshi writers if fiction you are grossly exaggerating. And if you want to mention fiction writers who are worth reading, how many would you list? Two or three perhaps?

Ahmede: You actively fought in our Muktijuddo. What drove you, a budding poet to take up arms to liberate the country?

Kaiser Haq: Yes, I was one of the hundred thousand or so who took up arms against the occupation army in 1971. i was a second year undergraduate then. The crackdown by the Pakistan army & the terror of the occupation brought young people face to face with a existential choice: lie low or escape to another country or go and join the resistance. I made my choice & I'd repeat the choice if i had to relive my life all over again.

Ahmede: Do you remember the time when you penned your first poem?

Kaiser Haq: I have written about the experience of starting to write in an essay that i have appended to my collected poems. let me sum up. i wasn't a great poetry buff in school. i dutifully memorised poems because we were supposed to, but if i were asked to recite them they'd come out as sing-song, I'm afraid. i didn't feel at home in the traditional English metres. Then in class 10 brother Hobart, from whom i learnt more about literature and writing than from anyone else, took up D.H. Lawrence's poem 'snake'. At once I warmed to the sinuous free verse, the directness of treatment, the clarity of the images. But I didn't begin writing poetry just then. My first attempt at creative writing was a short story which can be called a prose poem & which I have included in my collected poems. it was written when I was sixteen. A year later I began scribbling verse in earnest. I have included a poem written early in 1968 in my new book. But even then & for some years after i didn't realize that my poems, such as they are, would turn out to be the chief form of my creative output. i thought that like most people with literary interests I'd switch to fiction. I thought the versifying was an exercise in handling language in a concentrated form, a preparation for novel writing. Now I realize that the novel requires a different type of sensibility, a different kind of discipline. A lucky few can manage both the novel and poetry; I am not one of them.

Ahmede: Unlike most of your contemporaries who write in Bengali your imageries are urban in nature. How does your muse come to you? Do you consider writing a spiritual process?

Kaiser Haq: My imagery is mostly urban because i was born & grew up in Dhaka city. But till the age of 13 i spent my school holidays in the village. Considering that, perhaps there should be more of the village in my poems. Maybe in future I'll be able to work more of village life & the landscape into my work.

As for those who write in Bengali, I don't think it is accurate to say that they do not use urban imagery. Among major figures, the urban world is at the centre of Shamsur Rahman's work, & this is even more true of Shaheed Quaderi, who was born in Calcutta & came to Dhaka when he was a young boy. Rafiq Azad too is full of urban imagery. i can't speak about younger poets, not having read much of them.

I'm not very comfortable with expressions like the muse coming to one. But i will try to tell you how my poems get written. Some get written at one go, some are revised a number of times, some come into being through a process of accretion: i may jot down an image or phrase & keep adding more, then rearrange them & revise the whole thing.

I don't know what it means to say that writing is a spiritual process. Some may take it to mean that writing poetry or creating art in general is one way of worshipping God. Others may equate writing poetry with a spiritual activity like meditating since both enable one to create a distance between oneself and the chaos of life. With Schopenhauer one might regard art as a means to achieve spiritual liberation. I am more sympathetic to the Nietzschean idea that it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that life has any meaning. Only I am not very happy with thet 'only', for different people may find meaning through different means. Besides, every means to find meaning, including art, is ultimately provisional. Anyway, if I may cut the pseudo-metaphysical cackle & call a poem a poem, i should perhaps end by saying that it's very pleasurable to write a poem that seems to work, i.e. one that i enjoy reading out & that one or two people say they have enjoyed reading.

Ahmede: You write in a language that has once been a tool of colonisation in this part of the world. Has English been your conscious choice?

Kaiser Haq: Yes, it's true that English was a tool of colonisation, but it was a double-edged tool, & so when the anti-colonial movement got going the English language & the ideas that were conveyed through it played a role. Then, when the colonisers left, the subcontinent didn't let go of the English language. There are wheels within wheels too. Recently the dalits in India celebrated Macaulay's birthday with great fanfare because they felt that learning English & being educated through English had enabled them to liberate themselves from the tyranny of upper caste Hindus.

By now of course in the subcontinent as a whole there is a thriving tradition of writing in English. But it isn't free of controversy. And that is a good thing. It is salutary that writers should question themselves & also be questioned by readers & others. a subcontinental who writes in English should keep on questioning his/her relationship with the language used.

But there is also a kind of criticism that is too ridiculous for words. When someone says that a Bangladeshi should not write poetry in English, the statement is nonsensical. let's analyse it to see why. One can ask if it is only poetry that should be put under a ban, or fiction and non-fictional prose as well? If it's only poetry that is under the interdiction & not the other two one can question why fiction shouldn't be under the interdiction as well. If both poetry & fiction are under the interdiction, because both are forms of creative writing & the critic in question believes authentic creative writing can only be done in one's mother tongue, the question arises whether, when a Bangladeshi writes non-fictional English prose he/she should deliberately write badly or, if he/she writes well enough for his/her work to be considered of literary merit, he/she should be condemned. if he/she isn't condemned & is praised instead, how is it that his/her work is authentic when a fiction writer's or a poet's is declared a priori to be inauthentic? Creative non-fiction is often little different from fiction; what if the successful non-fictionwriter now writes a novel: will it be condemned outright? & if fiction is considered to be ok, why not poetry, if the poetry deals with our situation successfully?

One could change tactics and argue that writing in English is bound to be a coterie affair in a country like Bangladesh & should therefore be discouraged. But why? why, if there is a coterie that enjoys writing in English & reading the stuff, should they not be allowed to enjoy themselves? Would we discourage a small ethnic community from writing in their language? Besides, even if we take writing in Bengali, it is not read by everyone in the country. Most poetry collections in Bengali sell a few hundred copies; should the poets stop writing on that account?

The upshot is that one can respond critically to a Bangladeshi poet (or novelist or creative non-fiction writer) in English, that is to say, read the work & comment on it, but one cannot say that a Bangladeshi should not write in English. If a language is used at all in a country one cannot prevent it from being used for literary purposes.

as to why i write in English, it was a conscious choice made against a certain background -- my English-medium educational background. But I am very conscious of my Bengali heritage, enjoy reading Bengali classics & i have translated some Bengali poetry & prose.

Ahmede: Many see South Asian poetry as a strand of Post-Colonial literature. Does Po-co really exist as a genre or is it just another term produced by some critics in the West for general convenience? Is it fair on the authors to be put together under one roof only because they were born into a particular part of the world?

Kaiser Haq: We live in an age of multiple labels & identities, or at least an age in which we are conscious of & deliberate on our multiple labels & identities. To be a south Asian writer is also to be an Asian writer, a commonwealth writer, a third world writer, a postcolonial writer or a postmodern postcolonial (pomo-poco) writer. Nobody will of course regard all these labels to be equally felicitous; you can have your pick. the postcolonial label covers both first world and third world writers, since Australians & Canadians & even the Scots may regard themselves as being postcolonial. But it's mainly Asian, African & Caribbean writers who have to who have to deal with this label. The label has its uses; it enables critics to focus on a body of writing that would otherwise have been in a limbo perhaps. but problems can arise if they start arguing that only certain 'postcolonial' issues should be privileged in postcolonial writing. that could stymie creativity. i don't let labels bother me. they come & go. i just want to keep on writing & if I'm lucky some of it will stay.