Agha Shahid Ali: The Lost Interview

Conducted by Stacey Chase

This interview with the late Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali, granted to Stacey Chase, took place over the weekend of March 3 4, 1990 at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  At the time, Shahid was 41 and an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Hamilton College in central New York.

SC:  I remember reading somewhere that you said you consider yourself a ‘triple exile.’  What do you mean by that?

ASA:  Well, some of it is just kind of a self myth-making, very frankly.  Basically, it’s that I went from Kashmir to Delhi, then from Delhi I went to Pennsylvania, and from Pennsylvania to Arizona.  And now that I’ve left Arizona, I call myself a ‘multiple exile.’  How’s that?  You don’t want to say ‘quadruple exile.’

SC:  Can you be an exile when you go from one part of the country to another?

ASA:  When I say ‘exile,’ I mean an entirely new kind of geography, an entirely new kind of sensibility became available to my poetry.  . . . [Long pause.]  I used ‘exile’ also because, in some ways, when you write in English, in India, you are in some ways an exile in your own land.  In some ways.  And I know I’m romanticizing.

SC:  I have also heard you call yourself an ‘expatriate’ — not in print, but in talking to me and at other times.  How’s that different than an exile?

ASA:  An expatriate is someone who voluntarily chooses to live in another country for professional or personal reasons.  Exile is an involuntary state — you’ve been pushed into it, forced into it.  The reason I use the term ‘exile’ is because it’s a term with a lot of resonance.  It also, I think, in some ways describes some of the emotional states that I don’t think ‘expatriate’ would suggest.

SC:  So, technically, you’re an expatriate but emotionally you’re an exile?

ASA:  Emotionally, I like to think I’m close to the condition of exile.

SC:  In the sense of expatriate meaning renouncing allegiance to your homeland, do you feel that?

ASA:  I don’t feel I’ve renounced anything.  I feel, as a matter of fact, my being away has sharpened my sense of being an Indian.  Sharpened it in some ways, naturally, because I also feel very much at home in America.  And, in some ways, I say I feel at home everywhere.

SC:  You say, in some ways, you feel at home everywhere.  Do you ever feel the opposite of that — at home nowhere?

ASA:  When I’m alone, sometimes, I feel at home nowhere.  But the moment I’m with people, I feel almost immediately at home because I love being with people.  And the moment I’m with people, it helps me to bring my dramatic side out — my shameless side out, my absolutely impossible side out.  And it gives me a chance to perform, whatever kind of performance.  I love being with people.  I love to entertain.  I love to be entertained.  I love to be on display!  On fucking display!  How’s that for shamelessness?  [Laughing.]

SC:  One of the poets you admire, Galway Kinnell, constantly examines his place in the natural world.  Do you, by contrast, feel your place is wherever people are?

ASA:  The natural world, I can assure you, bores me to death.  Oh, no.  [Laughing again.]  I’d much rather go be in a city, any day.  I’d like to be seeing some bars and bookshops and restaurants and people — and imagining sex going on in every apartment in New York City.  In Manhattan, at least.  But I certainly do not want to be close to nature.  . . . [Turning serious.]  Partly because, I think, to some extent, I, as a Kashmiri, have taken nature for granted because Kashmir is so stunningly beautiful.  I love Kashmir!  Kashmir is so beautiful, so beautiful, that, for me, this business of ‘return to nature’ has never been an issue.  Nature was always around me.  It’s so much a part of me that I don’t have to make a case for it.

SC:  So, what is Shahid’s environment?

ASA:  Shahid’s environment is: Screw and let’s screw.

SC:  Oh, God.  No, that’s your religion!

ASA:  [Snickering.]  That’s my religion.  Ok.

SC: I’m asking: What’s your milieu?

ASA:  I would love to live in Manhattan, in San Francisco, in Copenhagen, in Amsterdam, in Paris, in Rome, in New Delhi, in Bombay.

SC:  But you’re living in Syracuse, New York?

ASA:  I’m living in Syracuse, New York right now.  . . . I mean, I wish Hamilton College were 20 minutes from Manhattan.  I would be in bliss.

SC:  You named your first full – length collection, The Half Inch Himalayas, after the mountain range.  Still, you feel that since you were always surrounded by nature you perhaps took it for granted?

ASA:  When I think of Kashmir, I don’t think of nature.  It is just a part of my growing up.  For me, nature is not the issue.

SC:  Then, what do you think of when you think of Kashmir?

ASA:  I think of my friends.  And I think of certain areas I used to go walking.  I think of the mountains.  I imagine sitting in certain places and watching the sun set.  . . . I’m close to the landscapes that have been an integral part of my emotional being and, of course, some of that comes into my poetry.  But you will notice that, in my poems, there is no poem that deals with nature as nature.

SC:  I can’t recall one.

ASA:  There isn’t.  I’m certainly not Wordsworthian.  I have no desire to write a poem about daffodils, if I may be very, very reductive about Wordsworth because obviously he’s a very fine poet.  A great poet.

I do love “Tintern Abbey” and “Intimations” and parts of the “Prelude,” too, I love.  But I can’t stand the “Daffodils” [poem] no matter what anyone says — as much as I can see those little yellow things shaking their heads.

SC:  I agree.  They don’t really transcend, for me, anything.  Daffodils are a nice extended image, but . . .

ASA:  But who gives a fuck?

SC:  What languages do your parents speak?

ASA:  My parents speak English.  They speak Urdu.  They speak Kashmiri.  They speak three languages, and very comfortably.

SC:  Which language did you grow up hearing in the house?

ASA:  All three.

SC:  And do you speak all three as well?

ASA:  Well, my Kashmiri isn’t good, but let’s say Urdu and English certainly.

SC:  Have you always written poetry in English?

ASA:  Yes, always.

SC:  Why is that?

ASA:  It just came naturally.  As a matter of fact, I wish I could write in Urdu.  I went to a Catholic [elementary] school.  Then I went to the boys’ [secondary] version of it — which was called Burn Hall School — and they were Irish and Dutch fathers and brothers who taught us.  . . . So, all my education as a kid was in English.  Whenever I picked up a pen to write something, I always wrote in English.

SC:  Was that just because you were in a private school?

ASA:  I would say that’s the general experience of most upper – class Indians.  Has been.  I don’t know what’s happening now, but it has been.  A relic of the British times.

SC:  Did any of the Catholic tenets in those Catholic schools take hold in you?

ASA:  If they did, it must have been unconscious because, you know, these are not proselytizing schools.

SC:  Did you not do prayers and stuff?

ASA:  No.  Sometimes just to impress the nun, I would go into the chapel and dip my hand into the holy water.  But it was more the pageantry that excited me, you know what I mean?  . . . But I must say, I loved those teachers.  I must say, I loved those fathers and nuns.

SC:  Why?

ASA:  Well, they were wonderful teachers.  . . .. And, I suppose, maybe it is nostalgia because, after all childhood is finished.  And they’re a part of my childhood.  At that age, I remember, they seemed to me these larger – than – life figures in their robes and all that; they just seemed these incredible presences.

SC:  [Joking.]  Did they beat you with rulers?

ASA:  Ah, they beat the shit out of us!

SC:  When were you first conscious of poetry as a force in your life?

ASA:  I wrote my first poems at the age of 9.  And they were in English, of course.  I showed them to my mother, and she was quite encouraging.  At the age of 12, I remember, I wrote a poem on Christ, you know?  It’s a poem I’m still not really embarrassed by because, of course, I’m embarrassed by most of the stuff that followed it for years and years and years.  . . . It was called “The Man,” and I showed it to my father and my father went and bought me this beautiful leather – bound notebook.  And he told me: Why didn’t I write all my poems in it?  So I got a lot of encouragement.  There was no deprecation of any kind at all [such as]: What is poetry going to get you, et cetera?  Poetry was quoted in our house all the time — in Persian, in Urdu, in English, in Kashmiri.

SC:  I’ve heard you describe yourself as a ‘cultural Muslim’ and, at other times, I’ve heard you use the term ‘secular Muslim.’  In what way are you a Muslim?

ASA:  I grew up in a Muslim environment.  We were a Muslim family, and we were known as a Muslim family in Kashmir.  The Agha family has been a significant Muslim presence in Kashmir for several generations.  My ancestors were royal physicians.  They were in the government of the Mahârâjas as ministers and other things.

SC:  Did you, yourself, take to the Muslim concepts?

ASA:  Religion was never a big issue in our house.  . . . But if somebody asked me what I was, I would just say, ‘I’m a Muslim’ because that was in my name and it was just natural to say it.  It implied no more than that.

SC:  In what sense of the word are you a Muslim then?

ASA:  Politically I consider myself a Muslim, and I think that sense dawned on me more after I came to America and I realized how unfairly Islam is caricatured in the media here.  . . . It seems almost racist to me.

SC:  In a couple of the newer poems you use Christian, Biblical epigraphs from Isaiah.  In what sense have you adapted, or used, Christian images in your work?

ASA:  I use the Bible as literature.  There are individual lines in the Bible, individual sentences that I find extremely moving.  And extremely beautiful.  I think one of my favorites is just the line: And Jesus wept.  Things like that.  I don’t know why, [but] I find them incredibly moving.  And of course I don’t believe in that whole business of resurrection and all that — the entire theology.  . . . But I love that phrase: And Jesus wept.  Oh!  I think it is the utter simplicity of the truth, of the bare statement of a fact unadorned in that manner that is very moving.  Sometimes lines like that even occur in pop songs that I like very much.  I mean — this will seem like a terrible come down, but — in Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” there’s this line, I get so lonely I could die.  Just like that.  I get so lonely I could die.  Or, there’s a song by the Talking Heads called “Psycho Killer,” and here’s that line: I’m sadder than you’ll ever know.  You see?

SC:  Is Jesus a historical figure to you?  Do you believe he’s someone who really walked the face of the earth?

ASA:  I don’t believe or disbelieve, I just don’t have enough information.  I assume there was a figure such as Jesus, historically.  To me, it’s irrelevant whether he did or didn’t exist.  . . . What matters is what the people believe.

SC:  Muslims believe Mohammed was a prophet, but not the prophet, right?  Whereas, Christians believe Jesus was the son of God.

ASA:  Mohammed is just considered the last of the prophets.  . . . And then they [Muslims] are waiting, like the Jews and the Christians, for Doomsday.  [Dripping with sarcasm.]  The three of them, let them just wait.

SC:  Do you consider yourself an agnostic or atheist?

ASA:  Atheist.

SC:  So, sex is your religion!

ASA:  [Laughing.]  You could say that.  [Then, seriously.]  Sex is very central to my way of looking at the world, it’s not my religion.

SC:  How much of a minority are Indo – English poets in the US?

ASA:  They don’t even begin to be a presence.

SC:  Just a handful?

ASA:  [Completely deadpan.]  We must be about eight, total.  Or six.  Maybe even five.

SC:  How is your voice unique among the Indo – English poets writing today?

ASA:  I have these three major cultures [Hindu, Western, Muslim] available to me.  They’re part of my mental makeup, my emotional makeup.  And I do not have to strive for exotica to use them; they’re just there, they’re part of me.  . . . And I think that is the lucky part.  I mean, I think, even American poets can go out and write about something out there, but you’ll be aware that they are writing about it.  I can write a poem using a Greek myth, I can use a Muslim myth, I can use a Hindu myth, and each one will seem absolutely innate to me.

SC:  Can you identify your own voice?

ASA:  I would say it is a kind of deeply rooted, and yet cosmopolitan, voice with a deep desire for internationalism.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe that sentence would also require, maybe, tons of qualifications.  But. 

SC:  How do the international cultures meld, or fit into, the American experience?

ASA:  I don’t know.  . . . A poem like [my] “Snow on the Desert,” I suppose, is a poem that describes the whole notion of exile, nostalgia, the expatriate elements, and the mixing of three cultures, as well as their being apart.  Its subject matter is absolutely different from my early experiences and, yet, treated in a language that I would say the music of which is not quite American.  It’s a tangle — that’s the term.  It’s a tangle of various forces.

SC:  In terms of your oeuvre, do you see a tangle?

ASA:  I see a tangle, and then sometimes one dominates and not the other, depending on my mood and my particular temperament at that particular moment.  . . . You see, when I write, I don’t think of these matters.  It’s more a question of looking back, and then trying to rationalize and trying to theorize.  But when I write, I want to write the best possible poem.  And if I’m in my witty mood, then I will come up with something funny.  And if I’m in my nostalgic mood, with something else.  And if I’m in my historic mood, something else.  [Sips drink.]  If I’m in my flippant mood, I’ll want to write a poem about Georgia O’Keeffe and those paintings of hers which are full of those petals and they look very vaginal.  I want to write a poem about Georgia O’Keeffe’s vaginal petals! [Both giggling.]

SC:  I remember that when we were at MLA, you ticked off five, significant contemporary American poets —  [Adrienne] Rich, Ginsberg, Merrill, Ashbery, Merwin — for a critic sitting at our table. How’d you come up with that list?

ASA:  I find these poets, in one way or the other, reflect certain things I have wanted to do with my work.  They’re not necessarily my favorite poets, though they are that, too.  I mean, there are other poets who are just as much top – of – the – line for me — who are just as much favorites — like Galway Kinnell, a poet I admire exceedingly.  There’s a poet called Michael Palmer; I just love his work.  But I don’t think I could ever really write like Kinnell or like Palmer.  But I do think I could . . .  [Unfinished thought].  This’ll sound very strange because James Merrill is a genius.  And John Ashbery’s a genius.  And [W. S.] Merwin is a genius.  These people are genii.  I think they represented various currents I like in American poetry, and there’s a part of me that would love to be able to write as un – self consciously as Allen Ginsberg, a poem of social protest.  Where he’s not even being pretty.  Or he’s not being poetic, where he’s just saying things.  A line like: America . . . Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.  I wish I could write a line like that.  I don’t know whether I could.

SC:  Do you consider your audience to be in the West or in the East?

ASA:  My audience is in both places.  Sometimes certain details in some poems someone in India might recognize more easily and relate to immediately, but I don’t think the absence of knowledge on the part of someone in America or England would necessarily exclude that person from the experience of the poem.

SC:  Do your own books — as you have said of [Salman] Rushdie’s —have a “thorough Indian – ness” to them?

ASA:  I think the poems in The HalfInch Himalayas, many of them do.  I think the sensibility of my poems is very much the sensibility of someone who grew up with a lot of Urdu poetry being recited around him.  I mean, I grew up with it, I think, in my bones.  And I think, if you read my poems carefully enough, you see the sensibility and the music, if you will, of the lines is not akin to the music of American English or British English.  I think one should be able to detect the music of Urdu, the Urdu language, behind my English — or at least I hope.

SC:  Does it get harder for you to hold onto that [Urdu] music the longer you’re in the States?

ASA:  No, I don’t think so because I translate Urdu.  I listen to Urdu poetry sung and recited, and I know so much of it by heart that it’s always with me.  So I don’t ever feel I lose it.  And I go home every summer.  I go to India every summer to visit my parents, to visit my friends, to keep in touch in a sense.  So, I really feel I belong to . . .  [Stops.  Corrects himself.]  Well, I don’t know whether I belong to, but I feel both worlds belong to me.  Both America and India.  I feel they both belong to me, and if I belong to both of them too, that’s fine too.  . . . I’ve found that people in America have been unusually good to me and very nice to me.  Some of that I attribute to my charm.  [Chuckling.]  Or should I attribute most of it to my charm?

SC:  What do you regard as the major themes that you keep coming back to?

ASA:  It is a sensibility more than a theme.  And the sensibility seems informed by a sense of loss.  Things vanishing.  Loss.  And this can take place in an engagement with language, in an engagement with landscape, in an engagement with history, in an engagement with myth and legend.  In all of them, there seems to be — not even ‘seems to be,’ there is!  — this overriding sense of the evanescent, the vanishing.  And I suppose that’s what inspires me most to write.

SC:  Do your poems start out at least always being about yourself?

ASA:  No, no.  Not at all.  . . . I’m not interested, as such, in confessional poetry — for myself.  There’s a lot I admire, a lot of confessional poetry I admire very much, but I’m not interested in my life for the sake of my poetry — meaning my life as autobiography — I’m interested in my autobiography to the extent it helps me to illuminate my concerns, my themes.  And the way they merge.  But I don’t think some people read [my work] and say, ‘This is a poem in which we are getting Shahid’s personal neuroses or something.’  You know what I’m saying?  That may sound like a criticism, [but] I admire John Berryman and Sylvia Plath and many of them very, very much.  Sometimes the autobiographical streak can get a little trying and a little irritating, but that’s a different issue.

SC:  What about your new poems?

ASA:  In the new collection I am working on, [A Nostalgist’s Map of America, published in 1991.] most of the poems are set in United States, particularly in the American Southwest, the desert.  I think one very good thing that happened to me by moving to Arizona was that I suddenly found a landscape that could somehow bear my concerns and my themes of exile, loss, nostalgia.  . . . Some of my political concerns, too.

SC:  Is A Nostalgist’s Map ultimately about homesickness then?

ASA:  It’s a homesickness for what has gone, what has vanished.  The homesickness in many of my poems is for what has vanished. There can sometimes be a homesickness for others’ nostalgia for something.

Sometimes in my poems, I’ve really been nostalgic for what I imagine is my father’s nostalgia for his youth.  For his youth and his nostalgia for his ancestors.

SC:  How do you see history and nostalgia feeding off each other’s plate?

ASA:  An interesting history is a way of recovering and enriching one’s memory, one’s collective human memory — if there is such a thing.  Or, at least, one’s racial memory.  . . . [History is] a way of nourishing one’s memory, strengthening it, making it be something more than just a very private, simple affair.  I mean, why is it that people look back to their past, to artifacts, to recover what has been lost?  Maybe there’s a real human need there.

SC:  Do you know why “your” particular themes have a hold on you?  Obsess you?

ASA:  I don’t know.  I think those are very difficult questions to answer.  I think somebody would have to do a psychoanalysis of the poems.  . . . If I want to imbue myself with political significance, I could say: We feel terrible about the devastation of the earth, about the wars, about the trampling on peoples’ rights, [about] the sheer hypocrisies that exist —

SC:  And, for you, poetry is a way of recovering from all that?

ASA:  Yes, I suppose.  Writing poetry is an individual act of affirmation of some sort.  I mean, I think of W. S. Merwin’s obsession with the earth of late.  So much of it concerned with the rainforest and the environment.  Why is it?  Well, I suppose you feel something is being destroyed and you don’t want it to be destroyed.  Sometimes the reasons are very simple; their expression is complex, but the reasons are very simple.  We just want a better world.  No?

*This is an edited transcript.