Sheikha A.: I am originally from Hyderabad, Sindh, Pakistan, but grew up in the United Arab Emirates. I have been located in Karachi for the past decade - it was never meant to turn into a decade-long stay - but, for some reason, time flew! Publishing came seriously only a few years ago when I thought about finally tearing the pages of my proverbial journal and scattering them to the wind to see how far they traveled on inexperienced wings. So far, the journey has been good with over 300 poems published in numerous literary venues. In addition, I have had a couple of my poems recited at two separate reading events held in Greece. My most recent claim to recognition came from Italy when I was awarded a certificate of merit for the Aglie IL Meleto Di Guido Gozzano poetry contest that I didn't win, but had my poem listed by the judges among others. I won the first prize in a poetry contest held by Poetry Sans Frontiers in August 2013.There is no fixed philosophy behind my writing in general, but I draw most of my inspiration from life, experiences, love, and spirituality. I hope to be able to write wisely and publish widely enough so as to be put into books and studied by future generations. The path is an arduous one and my intent seems whimsical many times, but I hope to get there at my own pace, someday.
DV: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?
SA: Quite honestly, no. I don't remember the first poem I wrote and, me being me, the ever anxious and brutally self-criticising, I must have trashed it as soon as I wrote it. I do remember keeping a journal through college and jotting tidbits or what some of the teachers philosophised about during lessons, and then tried exceeding their philosophies secretly in that book that never left my grip. I remember tearing away every page, giving them a final respect of a read, and then reducing them to a hand-shredded pile to be burned away in some shoddy gully or side-road by the sweeper who collected garbage from outside our homes. It was the day I threw away college - all those notes and tests and marks and remarks and teachers' praise that had begun to become a tiresome chore to pack and move about the many houses we had to shift. I remember writing poems as part of the literature course only to please and obtain the best grade and praise. And, I abided diligently all the punctuation rules of a poem then, all of which I think I've renounced now. But, I don't remember the first ever poem I wrote.
DV: How did you get started as a writer?
SA: It was the want to be ahead of everything; the ambitious, know-it-all, do-it-all, can-do-it-all, become-it-all being in me that started me out with poetry. I had been writing stories much before as a child but I stopped doing it after being published enough times in the weekly young children's magazines in the country where I was growing up. And it was always self-doubt that fueled my cessations. Poetry became serious only a decade ago when I moved countries. That is when it became my oasis. Earlier on, I just wrote. I wasn't reading many contemporaries of the now era, and was utterly clueless about how drastically poetry had taken a change in style, structure, content, subject, tone and existence! But, it was an epiphany! I began to crawl out of the box I was writing in, and discovered it only needed one to dangle a leg out the window whatever storey high that gave us acrophobia in order to become bold and wield the word like a wand. My first proper contemporary inspired poem was Invisible Land, that was published by Red Fez in Issue 55, that also went on to becoming poem of the week on their website. 2013 was the year I ventured out into publications. Getting rejected on a frequent basis only furthered my adamancy. I still get rejected far more times than acceptances come along but I've discovered a whole new world of writing and poetry that is teaching me vision and to notice the unsaid.
DV: When you talk about the drastic changes in poetry, what do you mean? Can you give us some specific examples?
SA: Poetry is progressing! Many styles have piqued my curiosity such as Avant Garde, Grunge, Stylized line breaks, Cleaved, and even Beat! I'm not sure whether these forms have existed since time immemorial or are recent, but I only just started reading such forms a few years ago. I'm not even sure I know too many kinds already! Hybrids are another kind I have come across. Variations in traditional forms of Haiku, Ghazals, etc. where experimenting is becoming a common feature, and it's exciting yet daunting because most times I'm left dumbfounded on how I'd ever emulate or try writing a style such! Poetry is literally breaking intellectual barriers with such forms, I feel. Most times in a good way, and sometimes hard to tell. Many times I miss the traditional form of writing. I also find poetry is becoming increasingly competitive, like a race, and it tends to make me want to detach, breathe and cleanse for the rush of getting ahead becomes overwhelming when I begin to feel inadequate in writing as frequently and extensively as most contemporaries nowadays. These are times when I shut out everything and return to basics.
DV: There's a line of thought that some Creative Mind writes something that is startlingly different than other things, inspiring other writers to work in a similar manner. Pretty soon, their collective efforts lead to the formation of a "genre," with its own set of clear rules, taboos, traditions, and conventions. However, as the genre fossilizes, more and more practitioners try to innovate within the existing structure. That seems to be the condition you are describing. How do you see your efforts as contributing (however modestly) to the process?
SA: Yes! You're right. That is how all things progress. One invents, another innovates and the process ensues. I haven't invented or innovated anything, as yet, but I guess, even from a distance, one becomes a part of a large community of poets either through reading/following their work, and a commentary begins, ideas get shared and then there's collaborative or inspired results. I see many poets around me that put in far more diligence and effort into the production of their work than I do. These are people who dedicate enormous amounts of time to poetry and are in constant motion to learn new techniques to see the written or spoken word stay alive. My contributions are modest and small, but I do try to find the time to write even if it isn't too often. I know I have let many ideas die in my head before they met paper, and I really admire those who are prompt in answering the call of creativity/intuition and building it into something tactile for society. I hope to be able to put in more time for poetry which I am unable to manage otherwise with a routine life.
DV: When you do find the time to write, how do you actually do it? What kind of process or procedure do you follow?
AS: I don't. I let the words find me. They begin as a thought and if the thought is strong, it culminates or else gets pushed under. I don't think I have ever 'found' time to write. I envy people who can and do. I don't even have processes or procedures. I think I must be the most lax person on this planet who audaciously claims to be a writer of poetry and simultaneously kills the voices in her head that urge for life. Ironically, or maybe similarly for many, thoughts birth in my throat. It's as if something rises from the pit of my stomach, engulfs my lungs, escalates to my throat and bursts out of my fingers as writing. Seems funny in image, but that's how it is for me. I tend to note the thoughts down either in my cellphone or notepad, whatever is handy at the time, and almost every time I surface is only when the thought has formed a body of a poem. I need to note them down because rather than having a sharp memory, I suffer a writer's memory (if there is such a thing) when it comes to poetry, which means I can't remember the last line I wrote as soon as I wrote it! And with that, I lose the idea as well. My writing see-saws between spur of the moment and meditated, where meditated can probably be accredited as a process for deliberating over something I read or watched or heard and needed to make sense of it, or because I wanted to opine about it without necessarily using my vocal functions because I know when I've thought, I'd have voiced it far more effectively in written form. The process I guess is simple. Releasing the torrent of thoughts in whatever way they flow and then sculpt it for aestheticism.
DV: Poems write themselves. They take over the poet's mind and body. They force their own existence upon a sometimes lazy, unwilling amanuensis. Sometimes they lack the strength to create themselves. Having said that, isn't there something to be said about the intellect, rather than the instinct or the inspiration, being in charge of the process? Or is good poetry more a matter of emotion than thought?
SA : Craft is imperative to the production of creativity. And all good craft is not without intellect. I believe there has to be a strong balance of both in order to achieve a mentally and emotionally stimulating piece of writing. One cannot outbalance the other, though they do tend to and many such pieces survive, but we all know what brings sense to emotions is the processing of it, and all things processed are done by and from the mind. I am stimulated by intelligent and clever writing that is rich with perspective and wordplay that gives my visual/reading eyes and mind a kind of image/picture that is hard to forget and remove. This kind of effect, in my opinion, can never be attained without a strong semblance of intellect. There are plenty of poems written by just emotions or by just thought. Each of those may lack the satisfaction a reader may want from reading a piece. This, I suppose, brings us to the concept of the reading mind about how open, curious or hungry it is - to want to leave the safe corners of what it already knows to read and discover what it doesn't know, yet hold the curiosity to research and if not accept, at least understand the background, what or why of the writ. A hungry mind begets intellect to understand the spiritual and emotional state of being, and anything written out of this state is a superior production.
DV: I remember the "golden age" of open mics in Seoul. The performers were mostly Americans and Canadians, but there were always Korean participants, Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans as well. Most of the time the majority of stage time was taken up by musicians, but there was also a hardcore coterie of poets who read. And stand-up comics, magicians, clowns, storytellers, a fire breather, a pair of capoeira dancers/martial artists. A few times we had a naked body paintee. A member of Blue Man Group even dropped by once to perform. I never knew what to expect. I see duanespoetree.blogspot.com as an electronic open mic. Anything goes. (Although I admit that I neglected to post a handful of submissions that I didn't think met even minimal standards. But don't get me wrong -- I am very proud, and happily surprised, about the high artistic merit of most of the site's postings.) Out of the thousands of submissions, though, I have published some that I thought were of marginal value but not terrible. And, most of the time, these were among those that had the largest number of hits, while many of those that I admired greatly got rather few. The popular ones were not very craftsmanlike at all, but obviously packed a strong emotional wallop. I say this in reaction to your last remarks and wonder if you have any further response on this subject.
SA : You have a point. Social networking sites have provided poetry and writing with such a large and expansive platform that networking and self-marketing have become easy tools. We don't need to rely on agents or associates anymore for the marketing or promotion of our work, but posting links on myriad poetry groups gets people the readership they want. The larger the networking circle, the more attention they draw to their works. I don't think there is anything necessarily wrong with this practice. But it does take a toll on those who don't frequent the internet. I would say I am moderate, probably poorer than moderate when it comes to promoting my work. I even tend to neglect my blog which I started with the intention of networking with as many people as I could, but I am just hard pressed for enough time to do so. My blog has become a place where I dump links wherein/at I've been published, like an inventory, and I fear it will turn into an archaeological space (you know, like a ghost town)! Coming around to what you said about open mics, I feel they have become a theatre of their own, literally. It is a fast growing popular culture - though, I honestly don't know how far back in time it has existed - but I came upon it only just a couple of years ago, finding uploads of poets reading their poetry at small or large group readings. It is performance art, and some do it with finesse, thus adding to their popularity. The coverage is better, I believe, because readings allow writers to network on a personal basis. People get to see, talk to, socialize with a writer whose works they admire, and that stays forever in their minds. The loyalty towards a writer becomes stronger, and the writer's readership expands. I think what's different now, from centuries ago, is that writers can form cliques, which I believe is good for promotional (or moral) support. Competition exists, but getting turned down by publishers isn't so bothersome any more, since self-publishing is on the rise. I guess writers, today, don't need to downsize (or literarily kill) anyone to get ahead. Or, perhaps, I'm naive about it. Or, perhaps, time will be the best revealing agent of who survived and stayed remembered to become the Classic for future generations. About what you say about marginal poems getting the most hits, I think we fall back on the topic of understanding what a poem conveys. Perhaps the reason why some poems get the most hits is the ease of language usage that lets readers connect immediately and directly with the subject of the poem. There is not much contemplation or research required. It's about comfort and how a poem makes the reader feel. It's the reader's prerogative. We can't berate or argue readers' preferences, but, I guess, must settle for whatever attention is received, little or more, for our work. I know I have read many poems that I had to read several times in order to find a connection with them and still wasn't able to, and, quite simply, those are poems I don't remember. It's about genre too. Every reader enjoys a select genre more than others.
DV: That's a very broad-minded (and, I think, correct) response. And I thank you for it. What poets do you read and enjoy?
SA: I know the answer is a typical one, but I honestly read all kinds of poems, from the old established classics to the emerging contemporaries. I have to admit, for the past couple of years, I've been reading new established or emerging poets more. To name anyone would make me want to hang myself from guilt for forgetting to mention those I couldn't recall at the moment. But, really, in all fairness, of the little I keep up on Facebook, I do try reading as many poetry posts as I can. The old classics have been shamefully neglected in my reading time (not that I get much of it), but whatever hour or two in the day I can muster for reading is spent on new established and/or emerging ones. I enjoy reading themes of surrealism, mysticism, spirituality and love the most.
DV: Why do you write?
SA: It’s my therapy. Every person needs a therapeutic release, whether by painting, drawing, writing, sculpting, etc. – any kind of the arts or crafts. You can immerse yourself in it and allow the emotions to flow without judgment or even having to speak. Plus, there are many secrets to tell. What we can’t say/vent to someone, we can through art and/or craft. I have seen myself through many intense issues by writing them out, and solved the majority of them too. You don’t even need to be good or great at any of the art or craft you take up; it’s about treating it like a cleanser. When we remove the thoughts and emotions that clog us, we are able to think, feel and thus respond better. Some people may think the creative arts are whimsical or for the fantasy thinkers, but it really isn’t. It helps some of us stay logical by finding a medium through which to make sense of the illogical. We all need that one zone, space or closet where we want to sit quietly by ourselves, pause everything around us, catch a breath, remove baggage, find our core, re-boost ourselves and then walk back into the world. Writing is my closet/zone/space.
DV: I've read a lot of therapeutic poetry. Most of it is self-indulgent, self-centered, formless (no denigration meant -- the purpose is therapy, after all, not art). But yours transcends that healing function. You obviously have esthetic goals as well. You clearly want to share your "secrets" (or some of them, at any rate) with others. Do you have two caches of poems, public and private?
SA: Yes, I do want to tell (without telling too much – ). I don’t know, would it make sense to say I want to talk and I want someone to listen but I don’t want to be asked questions…? It’s just why I started poetry, to heal myself first. It’s interesting you mention that my writing consists of a healing function because I’ve never intentionally written to that effect, nor really ever targeted a specific way I wanted my poems to be. I want(ed) to write and then be grateful if some small audience found a way to relate (I guess, pretty stupid, huh, because this is like saying I write without any meaningful goals and ambitions for my writing –). But, now over the years, I write (sub)consciously and want my words to mean something to people. I want people to remember my words, to quote them, or repeat them, or use them, dwell on them. I want to exist for much longer after I stop existing. I do have a cache of poems that haven’t been shared with anyone. These are poems from my late teens and early twenties, and I guess those poems are from a time of my life I want to forget. I discarded more than 100 poems written at that age because I thought they were incredibly childish ranting. I cringed at reading them. I don’t even know if they were good or bad poems. I do have a few published in some places, those I can’t rid of, but I sometimes secretly wish those magazines would catch fire wherever they exist – childish, right! I still have about 20 odd poems I haven’t yet amputated from my folders. There was this time in my late teens and early twenties when I wanted to be like those classic love poets. And I imitated. But, I don’t think I can go back to that. I have experienced way too much in life to be so innocuous anymore.
DV: Would you mind sharing one of those 20 unamputated poems with us? And tell us why you hold it in such low esteem now, but also what you see in that allows you to tolerate its continued existence?
SA: You have me pondering. I had them stashed in a folder somewhere on my PC and your question prompted me to find it and read the document. I, honest to say, don’t want to share anything from it…but, one poem, I could, that isn’t too bare… I don’t hold it in low esteem, I just fright at the openness and honesty of the words I wrote back then. It reminds me of how little I knew of everything. I guess I don’t like the way it makes me feel about how I was back then. We all have that one place in time that we want to erase because even though it taught us important lessons, we don’t want to remember it anymore. There was a time when I had put it together as a chapbook, but raw work isn’t published anymore by anyone (all with good reason, I understand now. I can already see how it needs to be massively edited.). I may have kept it to remind me of how thin the difference is between being fearless and careless, and we tend to become adamant about certain aspects of our lives that we believe we know better than anyone is good for us, but in actuality is just blindfoldedness. I am grateful for all the experiences. One of the poems, from the unamputated lot, is:
On which, I am
Pain can fill you in so many places.
Piece by piece, the bane of reality
on which you stand. But with its
depart forms a void to show you
there remains no basis of pride,
no self-esteem serves the podium,
having fallen from struggling up,
no pain to help you succeed again,
none of it to keep you from breaking.
That’s when you know, you’re alone.
It wasn’t just you - the hurt you brought;
you gave, with it, hope of never leaving.
You’d watch from behind the light, in
the dark where I moved, worked the day,
your eyes would be the same ruthless,
I would breathe, breed, on every inch
keeping with me just the memories;
I would fill and swell with your gift, pain
my locus of existence, away from which
I’d be completely defeated, and alone.
DV: Aside from all the qualities you mentioned, the thing that strikes me the most is its you/I-ness. At first I thought you were using second person just to make a general statement about life. I didn't realize you were addressing an actual somebody until midway through. Are both "persons" aspects of yourself, or are there two separate identities at play here, a speaker and an addressee? Or would that reveal too much about the poetic mystery?
SA: The poem is in two parts. The ‘you’ in the first half is general. The second half is where I am being specific, i.e., addressing somebody. And interestingly, now that you mention it, both persons really are aspects of myself is what I realize from re-reading this poem now despite the fact there are two separate identities being talked about here.
DV: Isn't it interesting that not only readers but even the poets themselves may find new "meanings" and "explanations" in their own works?
SA: It’s true. I always tend to go back to what I wrote after many months of having written it and often find myself wondering about the state of my mind and events that evoked the thoughts written. It allows us to recall/recollect and sometimes even learn once again. I get excited when readers relate deeply and keenly with the state of my being at a particular time and admit theirs in turn. It’s literally a form of telepathy (except realized much later at different times). Poetry is a metaphysical catalyst. Perhaps, it’d be best to say, all thoughts are. We are probably connected in more ways than one and don’t know about it until the word is written, read and coincided by another.
DV: At any rate, it has been a great pleasure exploring the evolution of your thought process. I want to thank you for your candidness and openness during this interview. And, naturally, I hope you continue to write and find whatever success and satisfaction you seek.
SA: Thank you, Duane, for processing this interview. My best wishes to your site and hope it continues to showcase many writers the way you elaborately do, giving them a platform and freedom of expression.