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Interview with Poet Rafiq Kathwari

Writing.ie | Guest Bloggers | Poetic Licence

Kate Dempsey

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Rafiq Kathwari

Hi Rafiq. Congratulations for your upcoming book. Hope it all goes well. So first question, how did you first get into poetry?

Poetry got into me, was always in me, as it is in all of us, I suppose. It took the generosity of a group of friends, in Manhattan’s West village, who helped me plumb my depths, every Tuesday evening, over ten years, to try recreate my mother who has been afflicted with schizophrenia ever since I was a lad growing up in Kashmir.

Was that a writing group?

Yes, that was an amazing writing group.

Is there where most of your poetry collection was written?

Substantially. Stuff got sorted at that workshop. Later, at Columbia U, I had the privilege of working with teachers who nurtured me as well as other students, naturally. We read seriously, thematically…reading is crucial to writing…that is where my work was structured, styled, chiselled.

When did you move to New York? I’m trying to get an idea of how long after Howl you came to it?

I moved to NY when I was 21. Howl was first published in 1956 as part of a collection. I came to it nearly 20 years later.

What pushed you into poetry rather than, say, prose?

My mother’s madness, and a bit of my own.

But I’m asking why poetry and not prose or film or painting or butterfly collecting?

My first recollection is when I was five/six years of age, my sister read me ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’ as a bed time story. One night, when the rain and wind were desperate, she read, Macbeth. I bet that was her home work assigned by the blessed nuns at the Jesus and Mary Convent in Murree, Pakistan. Later, as a teen growing up in Kashmir, I enjoyed hearing long-haired poets, wearing bell bottoms, recite Urdu ghazals at poetry gatherings. That chutney must have formed an inner template, an inner homeland for language.

What a lovely mix of east and west. Do you write only in English?

I write only in English but I have translated from the original Urdu selected poems of Sir Mohammad (Iqbal), one of the two great South Asian poets of the 20th century writing in Urdu.

Tell me a bit about the Urdu Ghazals?

The ghazal (in Middle Eastern and Indian literature and music) is a lyric poem with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme, typically on the theme of love, and normally set to music…(that’s copied and pasted from Google).

Many contemporary poets, including Paul Muldoon, have written ghazals following its strict metrical discipline. The title  of my collection, In Another Country, is a ghazal, dedicated to my childhood friend, Agha Shahid Ali, whose main contribution to contemporary English poetry is that he showed many poets how to write it correctly. Sadly, Shahid died young…whom the gods love die young.

What poets or poems would you recommend a poet who is starting out should look at?

Depends on one’s subject: mine was defined for me by my mother’s schizophrenia, which is substantially the subject of my book, from the point of view of a lad growing up, even though it was not until I was in my early thirties that I first learned exactly…in a dispassionate way…how madness had torn apart my mother, and to a large extent shaped the characters of her six children, the youngest drowned past November, and Mother, who is still alive in New York does not know about it, but she knows…mother’s know, you bet.

But I digress, you asked me about poets/poems I would recommend to  young emerging poets: Norton Anthology of Poetry, latest edition. It’s over a 1000 pages, Chaucer to present day. Each poet represented by at least 3/ 5 poems, some more. Read. See who you connect with at a visceral level, who you enjoy reading. Then, delve deeper into those poets.

That’s good advice, “see who you connect with.” What writers do you admire? Who are your influences?

In addition to the Norton Anthology, there are separate anthologies on specific subjects, as you may know: on War, environment, race relations, sex/sexual orientation, feminism, pets, madness…what’s your subject?

Aside from Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Eliot … which were standard fare during school and college in Kashmir, I was mesmerized, in New York, by the ‘new’ (for me) language in Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl.

You can draw a straight line from Shelley’s,  “Ye are many-they are few,” ( ‘The Masque of Anarchy‘) to “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” ( Howl). I connected to Howl at once. Next, upon reading ‘Kaddish,’ I discovered that Ginsberg’s mother too was ‘off kilter,’ to put it kindly. That sealed it. I absorbed all Ginsberg wrote.  Through him I found my own voice… such as it is.

I’m drawn to contemporary post Freudian poems which speak to me specifically. That’s not to say that pre Freudian poets didn’t have any notion of the subconscious. Of course, they did. Wordsworth is perhaps the first pre Freudian poet who mentions ‘that inward eye,’ but I’m quite certain Wordsworth was tipping his hat at the Bard.

Yet, for me the most compelling poet of the pre Freudian era is Rumi who says, “Stay with the pain and sorrow, for the wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Even Mr Sigmund couldn’t have said it better himself. Agree?

Tell us a bit about your links to Ireland.

As the first non-Irish winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2013 in 46-year history of the award, it’s not just about the new multicultural Ireland, brilliant as that is, but it’s also about the proselytizing of the English language by Irish missionaries. Had it not been for Father Galvin, McMahan, and Sisters Mary, and Aoife, who all introduced me to the English language in my native Kashmir, I doubt if I’d writing this.

Irish literature has had a global reach, from Swift to Heaney, and after Heaney, by the established as well as emerging Irish women authors. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, named his seminal work after a line in a poem by Yeats, Things Fall Apart, where you’ll discover gems borne of the Irish experience: ‘When the wind blows you see the chicken’s arse.’

We live in a visual culture. In the film Mughal-e-Azam, which is to Bollywood what Gone With The Wind is to Hollywood, a polished marble statue of a beautiful woman comes to life as a Mughal prince unveils it. Don’t tell me that isn’t a nod to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.

But in a larger sense, we are all children of Lord Macaulay, and what the British did in India they had already done in Ireland. There is a book out, ‘Masks of Conquest,’ by Gauri Viswanathan, a protégé of Edward Said, in which Gauri shows that English Literature as a subject was first introduced in schools in India before it was rolled out in England. That’s pretty amazing.

We are just starting to see, 200 years after the Minutes of Macaulay, the impact English-medium education has had on India, now fast becoming the back office for global capitalism. But we also see the English language enriching itself in India: Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy-both Booker winners, Amitav Gosh, a prolific bi-continental author, to name just three at the tip of my tongue. English language is the bridge that links an Emerald Isle at the edge of Europe to my border town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where those blessed Irish teachers always reminded us that Irish literature is the revenge the Irish took on the British by infusing the English language with music.

Are you saying that you personally do not have an Irish connection other than in the global world of literature manner? 

Of course I have an ‘Irish connection,’  a physical link to Ireland: I have been livinig here for the past 12 years, up in Ballyoonan, County Louth, where many residents can’t even pronounce my name. Some call me Rafferty. Others call me Dustin, for they say I look like Dustin Hoffman! And a few have been able to wrap their Christian tongues around my heathen name. Thank you very much, folks.

How do you share your time?  Don’t you work in New York?

I share my time carefully. I work for myself; so it’s not too hard to share my time between New York, Ireland and Kashmir.

What attracted you about Ireland?

I moved to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years to serve Ireland in my own cross- cultural way. Took a mortgage out on a cottage. Soon, the tiger’s roar turned to a whimper, now it’s a whine. I cling on by the cuticles of my nails for I love the usual bright things about Ireland, despite its mostly rainy days. Sadly, things are falling apart, but I’m resilient, like Ireland herself.

I guess I’m asking why Ireland and not Italy or Montenegro or South Africa?

Why Ireland: Personal circumstances. I’d like to think it was destiny.

Do you have readings planned for your neighbours and others in Co Louth?

Yes, have a reading planned for my neighbors: small worldly group.

Thanks Rafiq and good luck with the launch.

The launch of Rafiq’s book, In Another Country is on 26th September in the Patric Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, Co Monaghan.

Rafiq Kathwari is the first non-Irish recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, in the forty four-year history of the award. He lives in Ballyoonan (Baile Uí Mhaonáin), County Louth, but has lived most of his adult life in New York. Born, as he puts it, “a Scorpio at midnight” in the disputed Kashmir Valley, Rafiq has translated from the original Urdu selected poems of Sir Mohammed Iqbal, one of the handful of great South Asian poets of the 20th century writing in Urdu. He obtained an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University and a Masters in Political and Social Science from the New School University. He divides his time between New York City, Baile Uí Mhaonáin and Kashmir. In Another Country is his debut collection and is available to purchase from Doire Press here with free worldwide postage.

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