This interview was published in Dawn – Book and Authors on 30th August 2015 and can be accessed here. Rococo and Other Worlds by Afzal Ahmed Syed is available for order and free delivery via our website here: Rococo and Other Worlds
My discovery of contemporary world literature and Afzal Ahmed Syed’s poetry happened around the same time, 25 years ago. The two seemed of a piece: novel and indispensable.
Dazzled by one’s first encounter with the inaccessible world through literature, one may be allowed a little self-indulgence to imagine that narratives, which help us discover new stratum of emotions and open new passageways of thoughts, are anything but miraculous.
Like the apprenticeship in life, the apprenticeship in reading, too, never really ends. However, in time, a sense of its gifts and benefactions begins to develop, and piqued by the reminiscence of something that still stands out in memory as inimitable and unique, one returns to it, and rediscovers. My translation of Syed’s nazm poetry was an effort at such rediscovery, an effort which continues. I skirted clear of an attempt to translate his ghazal poetry published in Khaima-e Siyah (1988) — which is as unique in the Urdu tradition as his nazm — mainly because most of the time language in the ghazal genre is so integrated with the form that severing meaning from the form, through translation, destroys the original.
An interview with Books&Authors followed the publication of Rococo and Other Worlds, my English-language translation of the collection of poems from his three nazm collections: Chheni Hui Tareekh (1984), Do Zubanon Mein Saza-e Maut (1990), and Rococo Aur Doosri Duniyaen (2000). Following are excerpts from the interview:
There is a separation in the subjects you have handled in your prose poems and ghazals which is understandable since the ghazal, as a genre, is made for a different purpose. But one never comes across the paband nazm in your work. Is it a conscious choice?
When I first started writing poetry, I wrote some nazms that you might call paband, but I soon discovered that I could express myself better in nasri nazm, so like everyone else I put my best foot forward. Prose poetry gives me freedom from the tyrannies of rhymes, rhythms, and unnecessary words — words sometimes used as fillers to resonate with the rhythm if it is a paband nazm. The genre of paband nazm is the prerogative of only the great masters.
Commenting on your work the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra said that your poetry “constantly reminds us of the things we have forgotten or would prefer to forget, and makes certain that, once reminded, we do not forget them again”. How is memory integral to poetry?
Memories, particularly those of reveries and nightmares, are integral to poetry. It is literature that struggles to keep memories alive, even if imperfectly. As Julian Barnes once said, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. Milan Kundera has written beautifully about how art is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Is there a classical poet who could be said to be the precursor for the lover and beloved models you have employed in your ghazal? Or did you have other influences?
My model for lover and beloved is what is depicted in this couplet of Bedil:
Khamoshi-e aan lab ba hiya dasht swale
Dadim dil az dast o na guftim jawb ast
The silence of those lips secretly posed a question
I gave my heart to it and didn’t say it was the answer to her query
As my precursors for the model of the lover and beloved, I would name the 10th century Arab poet al-Mutanabbi and the 16th-century Persian poet Naziri Nishapuri. The lover is too often treated as oppressed and tormented in the relationship with the beloved, and what I want to capture is a more human relationship that is not always about oppressor and oppressed, or tormenter and tormented. Desire is a two-way street, and this is not always recognised in the Urdu ghazal.
How would you describe the influence of the ghazals of Mir and Ghalib on Urdu poetry?
Both Mir’s and Ghalib’s ghazals are powerful and distinct, and both are widely remembered, but whereas Mir’s mostly self-indulgent poetry has left a mark on the modern ghazal, the more philosophical ghazals of Ghalib have had a very limited influence. Ghalib has already proved how the Urdu language can handle both complexity and abstraction of thought.
Would you say that Ghalib was a unique, singular phenomenon in Urdu poetry?
Nothing occurs in isolation. We tend not to remember our great poets. Only very few of the many classical masters of Urdu poetry have remained alive in our imagination. Qurratulain Hyder has somewhere declared Mah Laqa Bai ‘Chanda’ (1768-1824) as the precursor of Ghalib, and quoted this couplet:
Karta hai mujh ko daikh ke kyun justejo-e-taigh
Sar hai mera habab-e-sar-e aabjoe-e taigh
When you behold me, why do you reach for the sword
My head floats like a bubble in the rivulet of the sword
You can see in this couplet the same kind of diction that Ghalib used.
Politics enters only obliquely in your poetry. But there is a long history of Urdu poetry making politics and international political events its subjects. How do you describe this phenomenon in contemporary Urdu poetry? After Iqbal, the major contribution to Urdu poetry was made by the poets who tried to propagate socialist ideas. Their poetry is, of course, full of what we might call political commentary. International political events, too, were the subject of Urdu poetry in the 20th century, but they are concerned mostly with the Middle East, for example, Faiz’s ‘Irani talbaa ke naam’.
One of his collections was named Sar-e-Wadi-e-Sina. Similarly, one of N.M. Rashid’s collections is Iran Mein Ajnabi. His ‘Hasan kozehgar’, although an apolitical poem, is also set against the backdrop of the Middle East — Baghdad, and Aleppo — now a besieged city. Since the 1970s, we have seen a number of international poets translated into Urdu. Pablo Neruda and Mahmoud Darwish, in particular, have helped, to some extent, in developing a global sensibility in Urdu poetry.
There are always subtle and indirect influences, but what appeals to a poet in another poet’s work is what helps us understand the nature of a poet’s poetic world and sometimes also how he sees the world through others’ eyes, deepens our understanding of his own influences. Again, we may admire something in a work but it may not be an influence in what we create ourselves. Do you feel this distinction in how you appreciate poetry and its inspiration and influence?
Reading other poets offers an opportunity to see how they contended with the world they faced, how they reacted and expressed themselves, how they loved, what values they upheld, and so on, and more importantly, how they transformed those experiences into words. I am inspired by the lives of poets like Faiz, Neruda, and Nâzım Hikmet and subscribe to their struggle against injustice. As a poet, I admire the post World War II Eastern European poets; Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska, Marin Sorescu, Aleksander Wat, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, and a few others.
I can relate to the hardships they endured and the injustice that they witnessed and wrote about, which is why I have translated their poems. But my creative process and approach are different from theirs. For example, love is a predominant theme in my poems, which I borrow from the tradition of Urdu poetry, but it was not a major concern for these poets. So even though we share many experiences, we draw on different traditions.
What about your own influence on other Urdu poets?
Any poet writing nasri nazm or prose poetry in the 1970s was considered a poète maudit (accursed poet). No magazine dared to publish any of their poems. Writing prose poems, therefore, became a sort of literary movement led by Qamar Jameel, Iftikhar Jalib, Anis Nagi and Mubarak Ahmed. It was Ajmal Kamal who first published prose poems in Aaj in the early 1980s. Today, this is a well-established genre of poetry. Readers were introduced to this genre of poetry through the works of those, including myself, who started writing in the 1970s. These poets have, undoubtedly, influenced the next generation.
Pick two classical poets from Urdu and two contemporary poets whom you admire for different facets of their work. How would you categorise them in terms of admiration, inspiration and influence?
Ghalib I admired, and I was inspired by him, but I had to make deliberate efforts to disentangle myself from his influence. I also admired Iqbal, and in terms of his influence, I learnt from him how to start a poem from an ordinary statement. Just see the line ‘Kehte hain kabhi gosht na khata thha Ma’rri’ and his poem ‘Mohammad Ali Bab’. There are too many contemporary poets that I admire to list here.
Moving on to world poetry, how did your immersion in Eastern European poetry suggest to you any new frames for experimenting with narrative?
By the time I encountered Eastern European poetry, I had already published a number of poems and my first collection was about to come out. Many post WWII Eastern European poets suffered a lot during the Nazi occupation and the subsequent communist regimes. Their recourse was ‘inturned and subtle’ dissent. Of course, their works have been devoid of symbolism, metaphysical; they have Osip Mandelstam’s ‘this-worldliness’. Reading these poets affirmed for me the value of this form of poetry that I had been writing.
Could someone consider the human experience ultimately meaningless and remain a poet?
Yes. The ultimate example is Bedil. His poetry reflects a strong belief in the meaningless of existence and yet he employs his intellect to paint with his words what he sees and observes.