Pakistani English poetry has not received the kind of accolades that Pakistani journalism and fiction have. Perhaps this is because we now live in “an age of prose”, as a speaker at the Islamabad Literature Festival commented. Whatever the reason for this lack of popularity, it isn’t due to a dearth of either quality or talent. Pakistani Poetry in English is Alive and Well, a session at the Islamabad Literature Festival discussed this fading presence of English poetry on the literary scene. One of the panelists during this discussion was Ilona Yusuf. A brilliant poet herself, Ilona was also the co-editor of the Poets from Pakistan edition of the Canadian magazine Vallum.
The Missing Slate’s Features Editor Sana Hussain and Editor-in-Chief Maryam Piracha were fortunate enough to sit down with Ms. Yusuf and discuss a variety of topics including poetry competitions, jalebis (a South Asian sweetmeat), military dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, bilingualism and a lot more.
The Missing Slate | Pakistani poets writing in English are either very few or not very well known. How did you start writing poetry?
Ilona Yusuf | Poetry comes naturally to me; more naturally than prose. I started writing when I was about eight or nine, I think maybe the first poem that I liked of mine was written when I was ten or eleven. I don’t have any of those poems anymore. But then I went on and you know I used to enter for poetry competitions and I won several of them. Most of them were organized by British Council but there was also Punjab University… because this is all in the seventies what I’m talking about, and the seventies were really very vibrant. I didn’t realize this till much later in my life and as I said during the panel, it laid the foundation for a period which came later which was very very barren for me because I really had to contact with people who were writing poetry. So I wrote entirely in my imagination, but again like I said I had access to libraries and that served as a great help.
The Missing Slate | Our generation hears about a very wholesome literary culture that existed in Pakistan in the 1970s, a culture that has apparently dwindled since. Apart for the National Library, we can’t think of a public institution [in Islamabad] with a wide selection of literature.
Ilona Yusuf | Well I have to say, I couldn’t find Zulfikar Ghose’s novels anywhere, and I met him when he came here and had a reading, and then I met him at somebody’s house also… he had a book of poems published by OUP and also a volume of essays, so I had those but I wanted to read in particular The Murder of Aziz Khan, which is now being republished by OUP. At that time it wasn’t available… couldn’t find it on the net either. I had gone to the National Library for research and I was taken upstairs where they had this huge, huge room where they have every book under the sun and they’re not even properly catalogued, very sadly. I found The Murder of Aziz Khan and it was June and there was load shedding and it was on the top story. [Laughs] There were no chairs, the stools were way at the end, and I found the book and I thought I have to read one chapter here, so I read that one chapter.
The Missing Slate | They take you to these huge empty rooms, with enormous tables, and that’s where you’re supposed to read.
Ilona Yusuf | And nobody seems to be reading! [Laughs]
The Missing Slate | The predictable retort when someone laments the absence of a book culture in Pakistan is that people here don’t like to read and are not interested in going to libraries. On the other hand, when you see events like the Karachi Literature Festival, Lahore Literature Festival and now the Islamabad Literature Festival… they’re completely packed.
Ilona Yusuf | First of all, in itself reading outside of your textbooks is not encouraged. When we had the reading for Vallum, I hate to have to say this but if I say it maybe it will make a difference… we had a reading at Kuch Khaas – I know some people consider it elitist, so I made a point of sending personal invitations to as many educational institutes as I could. I don’t think anybody came. I think [there were] only two people from NUML (National University of Modern Languages). That really disheartened me, because the only way you can make people appreciate poetry or listen to poetry is when you take it into the schools and colleges – that’s when things start. Because young people, when they read and they appreciate the sounds and the music of words, improve their writing skills; plus they develop an appreciation of literature. And I think those things help budding writers to write better…and it also contributes to tolerance, in general, which we don’t have.
The Missing Slate | You experienced the Zia regime firsthand. We constantly hear that literature and the arts in general died out or weren’t encouraged, but how bad was it – really?
Ilona Yusuf | Actually, it didn’t die out – it was just that it was underground. Like Adrian Husain in Karachi; he had a group called “Mixed Voices”, and they were a group of poets, all of them were still writing… Shireen Haroon who’s Maki Kureshi’s daughter, Moeen Farooqui, Adrian Husain, Salman Tariq Qureshi – they were all part of this group and they were writing and they were participating in creative writing workshops; they were also, I think, venturing into translation. And so you can see that all of these poets have a background in Urdu as well as in English. Same in Lahore; Waqas Khawaja was there during the eighties and he had a group and they published two issues of a newsletter called Cactus, [which] featured translations from Urdu and probably from Punjabi into English and… I can’t remember offhand the main members of the group. He was very active and this was all in the eighties and a very deliberate attempt to bring together writers, so that they weren’t in total isolation.
So it wasn’t that things weren’t going on, they were. It’s just that there were no public platforms where you could showcase your work and then there was no encouragement for writing in English either. I mean in Urdu, because of the repression, you had no freedom of speech and that’s why you have this poetry of resistance, but in English it took a different line altogether.
The Missing Slate | Were those forums available for poets before the eighties?
Ilona Yusuf | Yes, like I said [during the panel], the poetry competitions were under the umbrella of the British Council. Taufiq Rafat was a great mentor. I didn’t personally go to his creative writing workshops but I know people who [did], and I am told he was wonderful – he would actually guide you so that you were able to realize your own potential. It wasn’t like he was trying to propagate his own style. Then, universities like Punjab University were also having poetry competitions.
The Missing Slate | So why do you think forums like these soon disappeared? Was it fallout from Zia’s censorship and suppression policies?
Ilona Yusuf | I think probably there was an agenda, for a particular type of Islam and politics. And anything which was related to freedom of speech was not allowed. During the eighties, they would rough people up in the universities and these were all students you know… student factions. So it doesn’t make for a good atmosphere really… I [had] actually left college by that time but, I do understand that it was a difficult time. But writers carried on – Alamgir Hashmi was writing for newspapers and he said that it was a different experience, newspapers were the forum for a certain amount of literature. I mean, you look at the earth… you look at a rock – there are ways of breaking a rock. Water will make its way through cracks. It may be a rock but there are little cracks from which things will permeate and find their place and eventually they’ll deepen the cracks and then something happens.
The Missing Slate | You mentioned poetry of resistance being written in Urdu during the eighties; was there a similar trend in English poetry?
Ilona Yusuf | You won’t have it in the way that you have it in Urdu, which is a very conscious amalgamation of political and other themes. That’s not the case with English though; I mean Maki Kureshi has some poems which are very political. She writes about Karachi when there was enormous strife in Karachi. She is an excellent poet… very small output, but an excellent poet. You will find a little bit here and there in Daud Kamal, although Daud Kamal doesn’t do that – he has very short, very deep poems, but only about five to ten line poems, maybe a very few political ones here and there.
The Missing Slate | Why do you think there wasn’t a more overt response to the oppression of the regime in the poetry written in English?
Ilona Yusuf | I don’t know really… I mean to me it’s not necessary to be political per se. If you look at Ghalib, [he] was not a political poet. He lived through the mutiny and wrote poetry through [it all]. But, he’s not a political poet, he’s a philosophical poet.
The Missing Slate | So this brings us to our next question regarding why Pakistani writers generally focus so much on politics? It is understandable that politics is an inherent part of our existence in this country but still, why the fixation?
Ilona Yusuf | The thing is that all over the world in a way there is a trend towards social political writing. Now, [Gabriel García] Marquez is an amazing writer – I love to read his work – and with writers like that politics is not coming first at all. The craft of being a writer, and being a good writer is the basic thing, everything follows from that, the themes will automatically come because they’re inside you and you can’t escape the reality around you. It is a part of you, so you will reflect it in some way –it may be in the way you describe nature or it may be in the way you describe people and that is how politics comes out. But to take politics as the focal point of your writing, that’s not the right order.
The Missing Slate | Does it seem to you that the trend is changing?
Ilona Yusuf | It is changing; I’m not so familiar with Urdu, I read in translation and I do try to read bilingually because I did not grow up speaking Urdu. But I do try to get bilingual editions so that I can read the English and the Urdu. So I know that Faraz is very political, Iftikhar Arif again is political but he’s also not political, both things are there. Faiz of course is political, but there were many love poems as well. You know, you can’t say that they’re all political.
The Missing Slate | Two of your poems, 9/11 and From Swat, when compared to say, Jalebi, can be dubbed as being more overtly political.
Ilona Yusuf | I don’t usually write political poems. For me, these are my political poems…
The Missing Slate | But they’re not exactly political…
Ilona Yusuf | No, they’re not. You see when I was writing Jalebi…first of all the jalebi is a national sweet, right… and I don’t like to eat jalebis myself but everyone else in the family loves them. And I love to see how they are made. In my house a lot of political talk shows are watched and I close my ears and run out of the room, partly because I’m apolitical, and partly because in some of them the host is trying to goad the guests to bring out the worst in themselves… which they do. [Laughs] And they’re all speaking together and none of them are speaking the truth. And in our society… there is so much in our society which is untruthful and conspiracy theories, and I think that poem came out of that. And I used the jalebi because it’s such a convoluted kind of a thing – it’s a beautiful thing, but all convoluted and it’s all about evading the truth. About the dog, we actually had a dog that chased his tail, [laughs] so that’s where that metaphor came from.
The Missing Slate | During the panel discussion, poet Haris Khallique spoke about how your generation of poets is mostly bilingual, whereas the rising poets or emerging Pakistani poets generally aren’t. Do you agree with that?
Ilona Yusuf | Okay… lets clarify that. In a way, he has a point. Poets like Waqas Khwaja, Taufiq Rafat, Daud Kamal, they were also very good translators. Daud Kamal translated Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Taufiq Rafat translated Qadir Yar and Bulleh Shah, Waqas Khwaja has translated various Urdu poets and he’s also edited an anthology which came out about two years ago – it’s modern poetry of Pakistan but it’s [in] all languages, all the vernaculars. So they have a very solid grounding in local, vernacular poetry. I can’t claim that. Some of the new poets, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, she has a very good grounding in vernacular poetry; Bilal Tanweer, he has this felicity for being equal in both English and Urdu.
English medium schools are not making Urdu mandatory, and I think that really is very sad. When you come from Pakistan, why are you not teaching Urdu – you must have a connection to your literary heritage because otherwise you are going to divorce yourself totally from it. You can’t pretend not to be part of that heritage. It’s like when Zia came into power, he wanted to rewrite history but… you can’t pretend that Harrapa was not part of your history or Gandhara wasn’t… I mean you should really be over the moon that there was this wonderful civilization called Gandhara which embraced different religions and was so tolerant, and instead you want to negate it.
The Missing Slate | Why do you think we constantly downplay our literary culture, and then wonder if there’s a market for Pakistani writers?
Ilona Yusuf | There is a market definitely. Publications abroad are picking up Pakistani poetry and publications here also need to wake up and do something about it, because if you don’t recognize your heritage then you’re going to lose it.
The Missing Slate | Speaking of markets and readership, The Missing Slate has been deliberating moving into print; maybe an annual anthology of the best of the year’s issues. What are your thoughts on that?
Ilona Yusuf | Ah yes, best of everything is a great idea. And it doesn’t have to be every year; it could be every other year. I mean somebody told me for instance, [that] the Life’s Too Short journal – I don’t know whether this is true – but I was told that there were many, many entries, and the reason they didn’t do another one was that the quality was just not good. And part of the reason for that is that people think that they can write but they’re not ready to do the background reading, and it’s not just about the background reading, it’s about having a sensibility about reading and reading constantly, and looking for authors that you would read. You don’t copy those people but they’re your models. You have to read, without that you’re not going to be able to produce good writing. And then there is good editing, because people write and they don’t realize where the writing could be tighter. That entails going over and over your work and then distancing yourself from it and then going back to it. So without that you can’t… there is a craft involved, it doesn’t just happen like that. You start with something but you have to tear away the extra details.
The Missing Slate | We’re curious on how you think Pakistani poetry fares internationally.
Ilona Yusuf | Oh I think it’s absolutely at par. You know the thing is that some of the poetry is very sophisticated and to be quite frank, with the Vallum collection so many of these poets are a part of the “diaspora” section, because there had to be a large diaspora section because I think the magazine had some funding from the Canada Council of the Arts, so it had to have Canadian representation. By good luck, some of the poets who are from here have recently migrated to Canada – Sadaf Halai, Sahar Rizvi [et. All] – these are poets who grew up in Pakistan, were educated in Pakistan, they spent several years… they must be in their twenties, so that means they had some working years here as well. They were writing very well before they went to Canada. It’s not like they fine-honed their skills in Canada; they were writing here. And I would say that they’re excellent poets, they’re poetry is as good as any we read from abroad. Poetry is poetry you know; it’s either good or bad.
The Missing Slate | What would your advice be to young poets?
Ilona Yusuf | Read like anything.
The Missing Slate | Aside from reading…
Ilona Yusuf | [Laughs] Keep going back to your work and edit, try and eliminate any extra detail because what people very often do is to add detail or overwrite, or state things, you don’t state things; poetry is about picture and that picture conjures several things rather than just one. It’s the image, it’s not saying that this is the city of greens, its evoking that atmosphere of the city of green.
The Missing Slate | Finally (for real this time), who is your favorite poet or rather, which poet influenced you most?
Ilona Yusuf | I started with… now this is the sixties… this Puffin book of verse and I read it so much it was in tatters, and this was when I was seven. Poetry came to me very early. And these were a mixture of new poets and older poets. I used to love Hilaire Belloc, because of the rhythm, and then when I was in college I loved Dylan Thomas, Neruda, these are some of my favorite poets. Faiz I’ve read a lot. Oh and I read a lot of Chinese poetry as well. You know… all kinds of poetry because I think you need to read a lot. And American poetry as well, because they’re more modern and because I write open-ended verse, and I guess that’s what appealed to me. Rhyme did not appeal to me but over the last few years, I’ve been a member of a poetry group and that’s been amazing because some people only want to read classical poetry and I wouldn’t read classical poetry as a conscious decision, but hearing it has actually benefitted me, because then I will go back and read something or reread that same poem later. Those things do matter, you know, because you have to go back to history.
Photo Credit: Ilona Yusuf