Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- MIMI KHALVATI
Displacement is at the heart of my work
Interview with MIMI KHALVATI (born 28 April 1944), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Writing about Desperado writers, I noticed that a major feature was displacement. You illustrate it yourself. Born in Tehran, educated in Switzerland and London, coming from the theatre to poetry, founding the Theatre in Exile group are ample proof. Displacement gives you more than your nationality, it gives you an acceptance of the whole world. In Amanuensis I find these lines: ‘the tree/ holding the sky in its arms, the earth/ in its bowels.’ Do you feel that way yourself? A citizen of everywhere and a poet for all languages of the world?
MIMI KHALVATI: I doubt whether anyone these days can feel like a citizen of everywhere – I am a British citizen but, after a recent visit to the States and, like thousands of others born in so-called ‘rogue states’, having been interrogated, fingerprinted, photographed and placed on the INS register, I realise that citizenship is no protection and language equally suspect. I hesitate even with the disclaimer ‘so-called’ to use the epithet ‘rogue states’, knowing that disclaimers are soon dropped, and that anything once named assumes an existence. But yes, displacement is at the heart of my work, though even there, the word itself implies a not-belongingness, a something being not quite right, not in its right place. However, in the lyrical space of poetry, I do feel that everything connects with everything, that there is a permeable sense to the air, that in the very smallest atoms of existence is a kind of unknowable knowledge we might call God. And that we all long to go back to where we do belong.
LV. A Desperado poet is, among many other things, a trend of his own. Desperadoes, I keep repeating this, are only similar in their dissimilarity. With some of them, not many, one can find a small biographical detail here and there, just enough to give a narrative coherence to a volume and make the texts warmer. Here is a personal touch in your poem The Waiting House:
...you will give me your dreams
and I will give you mine and dreaming still your blood
will live, as mine in yours, in mine.
I find it appealing when a poet allows me into his or her own real life. Do you think biography makes or mars poetry?
MK. I think it is inextricably linked. And often, essential. Or at least, essential to a reading of the poet’s intentions or revealing of the work in a way that perhaps the writer herself is unaware of. But biographical information needn’t be in the body of the poems and, if it is, it’s only one way in which a poem can invite the reader in to intimacy and warmth. And of course it can be equally repelling
LV. The following lines in Rice may not be about yourself, but they describe a mesmerizing existence anyway:
They have granted me asylum. I write plays.
A friend I love in London has hung the Kurdish mules I brought her
on the same hook as an old sitar she never plays.
When she dusts them she thinks of me, and of rivers.
Would you be willing to tell your readers more about your life? Your family, your exile, your education, how poetry happened to you?
MK. This poem is in the voice of a very old Iranian friend of mine who has found political asylum in Germany and the ‘friend’ he mentions is me. But I am very fuzzy about my own biography, except in the broadest outlines. I was born in Tehran, sent to England to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight when I was six and spent the holidays at holiday homes for foreign children or staying with other people’s families. I didn’t return to Tehran and my own family till I was 13, for a summer holiday. In the interim, of course, I forgot my first language and relearned it when I went to live in Tehran in my late teens. I still can’t read and write Persian. My family, typical of so many Iranians, are here and there and everywhere. My mother lives in Baker Street. I have two children of my own, my son lives with me, and my daughter has a two-year-old daughter by a Palestinian father. Sometimes I see my half-sisters and brother in America. Many relatives, few sightings.
I came to writing poetry late, in my forties, and accidentally. I never intended to be a writer – probably on the basis that I didn’t think I had much to say and certainly couldn’t tell stories. Also, it seemed quite lonesome. But I have always been quite a passive person and go with the wind. So when poetry came my way – on an Arvon course – I happily discovered that the lyric welcomes these very qualities: passivity, bad memory, no feel for narrative but a keen nose for the wind. And it is good company.
LV. Many of your poems are tortuous narratives, following the stream of consciousness pattern, invoking (real or unreal?) memories. They have an air of intimacy and a
fairy-tale fragrance. Do you feel any literary trend in particular has influenced you? Would you be prepared to acknowledge allegiance to any literary movement? Whom do you think you belong with, as a poet?
MK. I first took courage from the American feminist poets of the 70s – Rich, Morgan, Hacker, Lorde. They made me feel I did have something to say, and gave me permission to write personal, domestic poems. Because my reading has been hotch-potch, it’s hard for me to draw a coherent line of influence. Many, many poets I have read, loved and admired. Some have had a more direct bearing on the way I write, or wrote at the time and have taught me particular stratagems. From Wallace Stevens, I found the audacity to try to think in poetry; from Jorie Graham, the dance of lineation, the precision of scoring the music; from Louise Gluck, the challenge of letting go of the image and pointing the moral; from Ashbery, the delight of nonchalance – daring to ‘write about nothing’; from Dickinson, Frost, Rumi, the joy of putting truth in a nutshell and from Calvino, the pursuit of lightness and speed. But the writers who have stayed with me, got into my blood as it were, are Wordsworth, Proust and Virginia Woolf – two prose writers ironically. And how small one feels, naming these.
LV. George Szirtes, Fleur Adcock and Peter Porter come to mind when I think of contemporary displaced poets. In Entries on Light you write:
How could we help
having loved elsewhere too much
and I don’t mean other lovers
but homelands, other cultures
pulling oceans in their wake?
How did you come to choose England? You fit so well in the landscape of English poetry. Were you familiar with it at an early stage? Was English a mother tongue alongside Arabic? If not, is it easy to be a poet in a later acquired idiom?
MK. Thank you so much for saying I fit well into the landscape of English poetry. Music to my ears! That is so much where I feel I fit. And it’s rare for me, when so much of my context is ‘other’, to be seen as sitting, not in a Persian courtyard, but in the middle of an English field. English fields were the background to my childhood on the Isle of Wight. They were also the first landscape I associate with poetry – hearing our English teacher, Aubrey de Selincourt, read the Romantics to us on the downs or in the school grounds. English was the first language I learned to read in and the only language I could speak between the ages of about seven to twenty-something. But being a kind of raft of survival for me, I never learned to take that language for granted. I have always felt I need to use it well, almost to earn it. This is partly because native speakers are reluctant to allow you to own their language if you are not born to it; and however well you use it, people don’t necessarily trust what they hear: a kind of linguistic nationalism gets in the way and, despite the evidence of their own ears, audiences will hear an accent that isn’t there, critics will assume allegiances you don’t bear and you yourself become defensive. And, although I feel only at home in English, it is an English not rooted in any particular ground, it has no regional loyalties, which makes it poorer in one sense, but perhaps less prone to being parochial.
LV. Literature seems to be a form of freedom for you, as the following poem shows:
This book is a seagull whose wings
you hold, reading journeys between
its feathers. It flutters, dazzles.
Sings cleanly in shade. Sharpens
your ears to journeys life’s taken
that scraping of a mudguard, tinkling
of stays. Its spine has halved the sun.
Sun fired it with a nimbus.
A wheelchair passes, crunching on shingle.
This book, set off by wind, makes you
long for the world, to take lungfuls
of pleasure, save scraps on quick raids.
So that sated, you turn, blot out the world
enter another, settle for words.
Is ‘settle for words’ what you are doing? Is acting your first love, then?
MK. You could say that directing (not acting, which I always hated) was my first love, superseded by my second love, poetry. But in the poem here, in referring to ‘the world’, I was thinking of ‘living’ as the primary act, and writing, the secondary. I think a lot of writers are torn between the two – there doesn’t seem to be enough time for both, but if you don’t live life fully, how can you write, if you don’t dedicate your life to writing, how can you be a poet? I am also worried about the scavenging aspect of writing: how can you preserve the purity of experience, when somewhere at the back of your mind, you think it might lead to a poem? Doesn’t that contaminate, pre-empt even, the poetry? And yet reading, writing, are themselves most wonderful parts of living, and good books make you want to live life more.
LV. Each poem of yours is a small play with a background. Just as you say,
the door of shadow
on a page. In the doorway
stands a poem...
The poem comes out of night, then, the night during which you dream of what is not England in the least. What do you dream of? What do you expect your poetry to reveal? Or is it to alleviate?
MK. In the last few years, I have dreamt a lot about my two children, when they were both little. Horrible nightmares. Because they have both suffered serious illness in their twenties and I feel helpless, and responsible, and in my dreams I think I try to locate blame and guilt. I also have horrible dreams about the men in my life! For different reasons. Or, on second thoughts, perhaps they are about blame and guilt too, and abandonment, indifference, exclusion.
I expect my poetry to reveal itself, is all I can say. I hope a poem will reveal itself to me, out of the dark, out of the night, out of the shadow I cast upon it. And I hope that if it does, that sense of discovery, surprise, revelation maybe, will be shared by the reader. Perhaps I hope for no more than to prove that revelation is possible, however small, wherever we look, and that it is contingent upon love.
LV. Not all poems are dramatic. Some are engaging watercolours, such as the following:
With finest needles
lawn and dew are making
a tapestry of water...
You write here with your sensibility. There are other poems written with your nostalgia, love of the stage or sharp thought. Which is your favourite way of writing, with the mind or with the soul?
MK. I love most ways of writing. I don’t expect to use them all, consistently, within each poem. I think of each poem as a small unit in a body of work which, over time, will change and develop and at the end, represent something. I’m not concerned with what that something is. It seems to me a larger version of the mystery you face when you start to write a poem. But I think each poem has its own palette, music, form, and my job is to be flexible and versatile enough to provide the body it needs through which the mind or soul might speak.
LV. Tenderness is a forte with you. This poem proves it:
Curling her tail
not quite sure who
how many kittens
I too had had, stalking
past as disdainfully
is what she
left me with:
It made me remember a forceful writer, Doris Lessing, who only has tenderness when it comes to cats (I have recently read her Ben, in the World). You, on the other hand, have tenderness to spare. You are an affectionate writer who is not afraid her strength will be impaired if she shows she is weak. You write a strong poetry about frailty. Would that definition be acceptable to you as you see yourself?
MK. Yes, thank you, that’s a lovely way to be seen. I do see tenderness as a strength, rather than a frailty. Many of the qualities we consider weak or feminine, I do see as strong and infinitely desirable. My politics rests on that hopeless desire – to reverse our values, to feminise relationships. And that is also my frailty.
LV. Love is an intense experience in your poems. You focus on the pain rather than the ecstasy of experience:
‘Darling, your message on the phone
made me cry. I phoned you back
to let you hear the tears
in my voice but your phone
was engaged. On second thoughts
I’ll write you this with
tears gone from my eyes and cloud
like smoke from smokestacks
moving across a lining of blue
that is our sky, that no matter
how clouds cross, yes, my smoke rises
— I’m not smoking now –
we’ve always known lies behind them
as the heart and breath behind
your vowels – such a long ah
in darling! – as tears behind these
words, not sad tears nor tears
to lay on you, but dried tears to
‘open the eyes of the heart’
as they say back home – and this is
back home – to beginnings we always
dreamed of, now lay a claim to
not knowing if dreams come true.
I’d thank you but ‘it hasn’t a thankyou’
and I haven’t words large and clean
enough – the phone’s ringing now...
it wasn’t you . . . and this sentence
if I go on like this is never
going to end as you aren’t with me
nor I with you. I wish I could slice
that bit of the tape and keep it forever
but neither you nor I know how to.’
Your naturalness is partly due to the clarity of you style. You do not torture words. Sometimes you experiment with rhyme and punctuation, though. What do you think of those poets who forget about life and focus on the page just for the sake of playing with words?
MK. I think playing with words is part of the process of discovering the life of the poem. And the moment of your own life that brought it into being. Playing is joyful but, like any game, requires a lot of practice and skill. When a poem looks dead on the page, it is sometimes because the hand that plays is just fiddling, not playing with the arm, the spine, the whole of one’s being. When something is done unsuccessfully, the temptation is to ditch the attempt and try something easier where the chance of success is higher: I think in poetry this is often applied to, for example, the use of full rhyme, sustained metaphor, fixed forms and difficult conceits. And poetry is a game with two players – the writer and reader – whose roles are interchangeable and must be played with equal skill.
LV. A poem calls English ‘foster-tongue’, ‘fairy godmother.’ The space of your childhood obviously means much to your poetry. Actually you build many poems on memories of vague beginnings, turned magic by absence now. Where do you feel at home? Tehran – London, stage – poem?
MK. I haven’t been to Tehran since 1986 and, in that time, the Tehran I knew has vanished. Most of the years I’ve lived in London have been in north London, but about nine years ago I moved to Hackney, which still seems new and odd to me. I feel most at home, either with people I love, or – at the risk of sounding mystical! – in a more unearthly space somewhere above my head, where a kind of ancestry or memory seems to live – I don’t mean memory of the past, but of a continuum outside the bounds of history.
LV. Entries on Light is a remarkable volume. You love light, you say. I can also feel in every poem a nightful of sorrow, of fear suppressed. Is that wrong? What sets the clock of your poetry ticking if not this hidden wound?
MK. Yes, there is always the hidden face. The light implies darkness, the wound implies healing. Unless I have a sense of beauty, something that makes my heart beat even a little bit quicker, I have no impulse to write. And the hidden face of beauty is sorrow, I guess, the loss and the keeping.
LV. You write clearly, forcefully, unafraid of the word or of revealing its burden of true emotion, unafraid to be autobiographical. These are a few of the strong points of your poetry. Lots of poets today run away from autobiographical hints, chasing personae, using masks, speaking for somebody else. Your lyricism is intensely personal. Do you believe poetry should be personal? Eliot wrote and wrote about the impersonality of poetry but ended up in an inferno of boiling personal passions. I for one rejoice at any narrative thread in poetry that relies on the poet’s true self. How about you?
MK. I write the way I do because it’s the only way I can write. I feel quite limited, but relatively happy in my limitations. For a lot of women writers, the use of the ‘I’ feels both natural, inescapable and constrictive. I confine myself to the lyric and am trying to move closer to song. Song can transcend the limitations of the more autobiographical ‘I’ and make it sound like everybody’s singing it. I feel there is room for all kinds of poetry and particularly enjoy poetry unlike mine, in that it stretches me.
LV. Your rhymes are resourceful when you choose to use them, but many poems rely mainly on an inner rhythm of the soul, of sensibility. The music of your poetry is not a shocking but a soothing one. What do you think of poems that rhyme half a word with a preposition, a pronoun with a conjunction, just for the sake of amazing lovers of words? What is more important to you, the word or the beyond-the-word?
MK. Since, in my more formal last collection The Chine, I do sometimes do precisely those things, perhaps I should defend them! The thing is, I think the crucial difference is between good poetry and not-so-good poetry, rather than between formal and free verse, or between classically formal verse and a more contemporary approach to metre and rhyme. I also believe that virtuosity can be a joy in itself, to reader and writer, and that true virtuosity creates not just outward show but, as you say, ‘an inner rhythm of the soul’. I am unhappy about either/or choices; the question for me is always ‘does it really work?’, ‘is it true poetry?’ The music is paramount and I agree that the sound of my poems is soothing, soporific even, and I would love to be able to capture more contrapuntal, jazzy rhythms, but I have a naive ear for melody and the singing line.
LV. Are you happy with what critics have written about your poems? What kind of criticism do you prefer? There are clear critics on the one hand and scientific critics on the other. Some – very few – are capable of being both. Which would you be, if you had a choice?
MK. On the whole, I have been lucky with some good reviews and am always grateful, and touched, when someone reimagines the work and gives it time and thought. Occasionally, because of my own self-misrepresentation, critics have made assumptions that have placed me outside the milieu where I feel I belong. And this is partly because we are anxious about issues of inclusion and ethnicity, and the further away a culture is from our own, the less we appreciate the shades of difference within that culture, or hovering on its edges. Looking from here towards Iran, I think most western people see a dark mass of people, among them hordes of black chadors, and the sound that rises from those people is heavy and harsh. But I see only pastels, dust and turquoise, mountain skies and in them, hear the sound of sitars! Nostalgia is, to an English sensibility, something lightweight, sentimental, that denies the present realities of our lives. To a poet like Mahmoud Darwish, it is the very condition of life. To me, an ideal critic is one who stands looking in the same direction as the poet, before looking back along the written lines. That said, I also appreciate the one who focusses on language rather than biography or subject matter, and who trusts the evidence of their own eyes.
LV. Do you find interviews useful? From your experience, how well do they manage to reach the audience and how much can they explain that is not already in the poems? Is an internet site a good idea, do you think, as far as a communication between poets and students of poetry, or just among poets, is concerned?
MK. I think internet sites are wonderfully useful and informative and can provide poets with a huge platform normally impossible to find. Interviews are invaluable, too, in that they give us an opportunity to stop and think about who and where we are. It is still important for poets to try and create the taste by which they are read, to correct misapprehensions, and to communicate outside the world of the poem. Those who have done so, in interviews, essays, articles, have paved the way for their poems to be read in the best possible light.
LV. Is there a particular question that you would have liked to have been asked by interviewers so far, yet never have been?
MK. I think you have covered all of them, Lidia! And would like to thank you for reading my work so carefully, so generously, and for giving me this opportunity for dialogue.
LV. If you were to start all over again, would you still choose exile and poetry?
MK. Well, as I said, I fell into both, one as a child, the other as a woman in her forties. Perhaps the things we feel most tender towards are themselves the most tender parts of us and, given another chance, we would still choose to have them, whatever their frailties.
February 23, 2003