August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with André Naffis-Sahely by Pandelia Kyriacou
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why and how did you start?
I began writing at fifteen. Or at least that’s when I started pretending I was writer. My initial ‘technique’ involved stealing long, highly-wrought sentences from my favourite novels – Russian, German and Arabic for the most part – and chopping them up into mediocre poems; a pathetic start perhaps, but one that taught me discretion; the first inklings of that amorphous thing we call ‘taste’. This was before I came across Eliot’s dictum: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.’ Not that one shouldn’t steal and imitate. It certainly made a lot of sense to me. I held off submitting too many poems to magazines until I was well into my twenties. There’s enough bad poetry out there, why add to it? I started to write because even thinking about literature seemed a subversive act in the United Arab Emirates, where I grew up: There were no public libraries in the U.A.E., hardly any bookshops, and certainly no real, ‘home-grown’ literature; no writers I could go listen to or pester for advice. There was only oil, money, suffering and identity crises; not necessarily in that order.
2. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?
It has definitely become more political; a result, I imagine, of my reading Bertolt Brecht, a criminally underrated poet and one of the past century’s finest; as well as Robinson Jeffers, another underestimated poet who is currently undergoing a revival. There have unfortunately been attempts to pigeon-hole Jeffers as a Whitman for ecologists and nature-writing buffs, whereas he was so much more, and tremendously engagé; who went from being featured on the cover of Time to being disowned virtually overnight because of his terrific The Double Axe (1948) – a savage indictment of U.S. involvement in World War II, which appeared with a disclaimer from the publishers. Surely a first in the world of modern poetry. I am not partial to staring at flowers and using an intricate vocabulary to depict that flower to the reader in a linguistically unusual manner. The reader can see that flower as well as I can. I am more interested in the guy pissing on that flower late at night when half-cut, and why he is doing that. Or something like that. Life is gritty, raw, boring, uncomfortable and depressing. Poetry should reflect that. I can’t stand lazy, obtusely self-conscious verse that refuses to work outside a single tradition. Being political, as I conceive it, has nothing to do with being a partisan to any specific ideology; it is about unravelling the dense layers of our disordered world.
3. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?
Michael Hofmann is a poet I keep coming back to. In the words of Craig Raine, who first took Michael on at Fabers, Acrimony (1986) is a better book than Lowell’s Life Studies, a sentiment I most definitely share; others will catch up as and when, I have no doubt as to that. Michael is also one of our finest critics and translators. No serious reader should be ignorant of his work in all these aspects. Other poets I continually re-read include Auden, Lowell, Creeley, Pushkin, as well as of course the Romans: Ovid and Horace, but especially Propertius and Martial. Of late, I have added Jack Gilbert – who I can’t seem to tire of – to that list.
4. Do you think strong emotion is needed to make a good poem?
No. I think it can actually get in the way of crafting a good poem; like rational thinking, a cool, detached perspective often works best. This is not to say one shouldn’t be passionate about their subject or their craft, but that the heat of the moment tends to facilitate the overlooking of crucial details, of nuances best picked up on a tranquil morning when the night’s excitement is behind you. Take writing a poem about a foreign country. Why bother doing anything more than jotting down a few notes while you are actually on the move; you’ll have all the time afterwards to describe your trip. But first you must experience it; not shuffle through it with one eye already on the future poem that’s meant to come out of it.
5. Can you retrace your thought process when writing/or editing ‘Retribution’?
The early drafts of ‘Retribution’ were utterly dishonest. I attempted to distort the events depicted in that poem towards my own, obviously biased point of view. I first wrote that poem in 2006 and it was published in a Tower Poetry anthology that year. I always tried to hide that little red pamphlet away, somehow unable to come to terms that such a dishonest poem had been published. Almost five years later, I took the poem out and re-wrote it, whittling away and adding to its rotten frame until I’d knocked it into a less embarrassing memento of that occasion. Though the poet’s desire for dramatic effect often trumps honesty, this – as with everything else – always comes at a cost. There’s likely to be a better poem hidden under all that truth anyway. Playing around with form can usually a help a poem define itself, to contract or expand into the shape it wants to take. The poet can only steer that process; the rudder to the poem’s boat. I’m not sure what the boat is floating on, but I would bet it’s mostly frustration.
7. Do you think poetry like ‘The Journalist Speaks of The Dictator’ can make a difference in the 21st century?
How could it? Very few people read poetry today. Politicians are frightened of being labelled as readers. Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have gone on record as saying they don’t read novels because they don’t have the time for fairy tales. When people do however read poetry to better understand the world around them, the engaged, unsparing, worthy poems always come out on top, regardless of current fashions. It is appalling to think that in the aftermath of 9/11, readers in the U.S. turned to Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’. Had nothing been written in the seventy years since that poem’s original publication that they could turn to? Evidently not; and they were right. Poets often complain about the indifference of their audiences, and yet they retreat further and further into a labyrinth of in-jokes and tropes inaccessible to all but the most pedantic. Who could blame them?
8. What advice would you give young writers to encourage them to write poetry?
The first would be to avoid undergraduate creative writing degrees – an unavailable option at the time I matriculated – like the plague. You can write on your own time while you challenge your mind with any topic unrelated to literature. The further the better: philosophy, history, politics, sociology, any of the sciences, etc…many poets have often remarked on how reading non-fiction rekindles their inspiration during a dry patch. Postgraduate creative writing degrees can be a good idea if you are actually invested in the work of the writers teaching that course, and have heard good reviews about their teaching methods and attitudes. A lot of writers take on those jobs merely to pay the rent; therefore, if they don’t really want to be there, chances are you’ll leave the course feeling short-changed. I studied with Don Paterson – a gifted, thought-provoking teacher, who as a publisher, poet, and critic is particularly well-placed to teach younger poets – at St Andrews, and frankly speaking, I would have preferred to see Don for a couple of hours each month rather than go through the academic motions of an M. Litt. But then again, that’s what you pay them for: their time, experience and inclination. If established poets took aspiring protégés on gratis, they would have never have the time to write; or eat or sleep for that matter. Write. Heed rejections and welcome criticism. No poet worth their salt was spared from the meat-grinder.