You have also edited the Atlanta Review’s recent issue on Pakistani poetry. What can you tell our readers about this issue and the poetry that it features?
Atlanta Review is one of the mainstream poetry journals in the States, and its editor, Dan Veach, himself a fine poet, is tireless in his drive to bring poetry from across the world to American readers. Each year, in one of his regular issues, he focuses on the poetry of one particular region or country in the world. He has done issues on Iraq, Iran, Ireland, India, Turkey, and so on, over the years. And just over half the issue, about 70 odd pages, is allocated to the international segment in these numbers. I wish there was a journal of this kind in Pakistan too. He approached me over a year ago with a request to guest edit the issue and I was happy to accept his offer. My experience in seeing Modern Poetry of Pakistan through publication as translation editor and contributing translator was obviously useful. I had my own ideas about selection of material, and here was another opportunity to present Pakistani poetry to American readers.
Given the limited space I had, it would have been foolish to entertain any grand ideas. I had to make my selections carefully and make sure that everything that was included counted. Taking out one page for the title, four for the introduction, and six for notes on contributors, I was left with a bare 57 pages! It surprised me that I got to include 53 poems by 32 poets, and was able to present poems from Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Urdu, in addition to English. Sixteen of the poets are women. There are younger, lesser-known voices, like Naheed Sahar, Soniah Kamal, Mehvash Amin, Mina Farid Malik, Shireen Haroun, and Bilal Tanweer, and, of course, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Moniza Alvi, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Zehra Nigah, Parveen Shakir, Fahmida Riaz, Mushtaq Soofi, Yasmeen Hameed, Ahmad Faraz, and Maki Kureishi. Nasir Kazmi’s son, Basir Sultan Kazmi, who lives in England, and recently received an OBE for his contributions to literature and culture in the UK, is also included, as are Atta Shaad, Tanweer Anjum, Hasina Gul, Ilona Yusf, Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Hasan Dars, Adrian Husain, Sarmad Sehbai, and that fine modernist Urdu poet Javed Shaheen. I had material for another 30 pages or so, and more poets that I wished were represented, but ultimately the limits of space had to be respected.
How important do you think it is, to acquaint global readers with regional voices from Pakistan? Who are the regional poets that you would recommend to readers, both inside and outside Pakistan, to read?
Oh, it is absolutely imperative that the works of what we call “regional voices” are introduced to the world at large, and in really worthy translations, translations that do justice to their writings, for some of the work that is being produced in the regional languages is absolutely outstanding. Sindhi poets Sheikh Ayaz, Pushpa Vallabh, Sehar Imdad, and Hasan Dars; Ata Shaad, who writes in Baluchi and Urdu; Pashto poets Ghani Khan, Hasina Gul, Nahid Sahar,Gul Khan Naseer, and Amir Hamza Khan Sinwari; Janbaz Jatoi for Seraiki; and Ustad Daman, Sharif Kunjahi, Ahmad Rahi, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Najm Hosein Syed, Mushtaq Soofi from the Punjabi tradition.
You are not just a teacher, poet and editor, but also a lawyer. How did the shift from law to literature come about?
Literature had always been my first love, but the family profession was law. It was a question of finding the right opportunity and time to transition from law to literature, so no one in the family got offended that I had rejected their ancestral profession. I first came to Emory University as a Rotary Foundation fellow for graduate study in English literature, then returned in 1982 to practice law for the next 11 years.
But during that time, I and a couple of my friends, Mahmood Gillani, now sadly gone, and Chaudhry Shaukat, started a Writers’ Group that met fortnightly, mostly at my place, to share and discuss work that group members or guests had written. Young aspiring writers as well as celebrated literary figures came and read their work for us, and then had to sit in silence and listen to the criticism, analysis, and assessment of the audience. This did not please a couple of the celebrities, like Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, for instance, who had come with a full entourage of admiring devotees, among them Amjad Islam Amjad and Ata ul Haq Qasmi, and was most upset when listeners pointed out some obvious problems with one of his stories. But others, like Munoo Bhai, Javed Shaheen, Shuaib Bin Hasan, became regulars and greatly enriched the discussions with their contributions. Kishwar Naheed came and presented her work too, as did Taufiq Rafat, Athar Tahir, Kaleem Omer, the list goes on.
So, anyway, this led to my first foray into translation, and we produced a small anthology of original and translated work titled Cactus. The idea was to publish it as a semi-annual journal on a regular basis, but we never had the means to support it after the first issue. Meanwhile, I continued to publish my poetry, and when Six Geese from a Tomb at Medum was issued in 1987 there was some recognition of the work in the national papers. A year later, I published Mornings in the Wilderness, an anthology of Pakistani literature, one section containing works originally written in English and the other short stories and poems I had translated from Urdu. This too found an audience and a bit of critical recognition.
It was at this time that I was invited to participate in the semester-long International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. So, I got my adjournments, shut down my lawyer’s office for three months, and off I went to Iowa. Another book came out of that experience, Writers and Landscapes, and I knew then that I would be closing shop very soon and going away for a full-fledged career in literature. It took me another five years to make that happen.