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Agha Shahid Ali Author(s): Christine Benvenuto Reviewed work(s): Source: The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 2002), pp. 261-273 Published by: The Massachusetts Review, Inc. Stable URL: . Accessed: 18/11/2011 19:42
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1997)?are and longing. and I airplanes work. that would He was preparing an anthology of ghazals for publication and writing the poems about his mother's death from a brain become his last volume. 2001. 1987). Ali himself died of a brain tumor in Massachusetts onDecember 8. Agha Shahid Ali was a poet of exile. the Kashmiri man who born poet was a self-described happy expressed impa tience with accent of exile in the lilting Anglo-Indian the notion he said Americans "You love. home. His collections?The Half Inch Himalayas full-length ON Press. His third collection of A Post Office. memory his own past. Massachusetts in the late 1990s.Christine Benvenuto Agha Shahid Ali The following conversationwith Agha Shahid AH tookplace at his home inNorthampton. fussy if you have a certain kind of income. itself. published byNorton in November. had brought him poems. but for the pasts of his parents and grandparents and the ancestors he never knew. The Country Without critical acclaim and a Guggenheim tumor Fellowship. meet be are and immigrants I've lost my and who roots. 2001. with country. I say please it. whether live in you to constantly people who I feel like I've lost my culture don't so about mean. with the loss of songs of displacement replete with laments not only for lovers. Rooms Are Never Finished. A Nostaigist's University Map of America paper. or you live in New York and and fly to Kashmir." for a certain group it really makes Kashmir. The was the For Ali. He was born in New in 1949 Delhi legendary Vale of Kashmir. membership in the group for whom a given. say. But in conversation. first three (Wesleyan (Norton. Bombay fly no difference. in a culturally airplanes work and grew up in sophisticated. oh. 261 . 1991) and The CountryWithout a Post Office (Norton.

"There were sociaUy enlightened three languages. Urdu. in Canada.The Massachusetts Review MusUm home. That people a sense of perspective. and poetry musicians and upper-class Kashmiri recited and English. Faiz. For him. AU makes an unusual distinction poet between the former tongue and first language. "There was never a hint of any kind of atmosphere. I never kept it at home. And then room. in laying isUrdu. In his introduction to The Rebels Silhouette (University of Massachusetts Faiz Ahmed mother Press. I remember a little Hindu in temple once to I said Iwanted in Kashmir." When was only AU wrote natural that at the age of twelve." in the home. "I never zilUons of them coming. they ful atmosphere fuU of possibiUties of self-expression. the time. aU spoken at home in these languages. and claimed poems to find a home abroad. who He sent his to America. "When to reUgion and AU was edu that was the simply because I was a kid. "I mean in conversation. it's something worth pointing elaborating out to people that the third largest EngUsh-speaking population ismore in the world than the entire exists in India. and he is unequivocal but the latter is EngUsh." he said. and they said sure." parochiaUsm The cated eUte tolerance family's at an Irish CathoUc institution extended school. he his first poems the language of his pen turned out his translations of the Urdu to be said it EngUsh. chapel with pictures me statues of Jesus." I never took it personaUy 262 ." he laughed. worried about rejections and there were or maybe Iwas just shameless. he didn't mind of him. and poets and a very rich I would say it was culturaUy visiting AU recaUed. they brought me statues of they brought said go ahead. 1995). my a CathoUc build of Jesus. the language and canon of colonial claim to both legacy "I do a South Asian in many ways consider English language. "I used to send poetry their initial failure out aU the time. That gives people population global perspective said he always knew out of India A seemed he would ahead to be come second nature to AU. he writes. to build that Iwanted telUng my parents and they said sure. Itwas a wonder Krishna. build your temple.

his belt. can "Something trigger it off any time and IwiU just go and jot things down." at the level claimed less of his time. sitting or sixty where AU the first on poem. "A phrase or someone will wiU occur either spontaneously somewhere. One from to Nostalgis? the haunting epigraph Map caUed "Eurydice. to seventy drafts generally taking any a week to three months to complete a piece. Eliot As at Penn State with later pubUshed Master on to earn a then went Press. S. he'd never seen.S. so this was one of those cases in which itwas awilled on started working thing. that can lead to a poem. "With teach amanner to work as in as concentrated aren't able in upstate program New first teaching job on in 1987.D." said he penned longhand. and I'll say. moving at the University of Massachusetts York took his at to Hamilton the MFA at Amherst "I have never ing. IwiU not official reeks of anything shave. then of a poem typed as many in the idea of Eurydice to and Iwanted do a poem from her point of view. shortage in a part and a desire to spend some time writing opportunities Editor of the U. say a chance something. a dissertation as T." he recaUed/T in which this poem she's in aNew York Iwas thinking subway. 1986). even if I don't write a word.Agha Shahid AH With under a Master's in EngUsh from theUniversity of Delhi already in 1976 and earned a Ph.S. thing. ah. At Hamilton is. AU arrived in the U. He (UMI Research at the University in Creative Writing of of the Fine Arts a decision a he said had to do with of job Arizona." he insisted. coUege. Imake you'd Uke. He CoUege in EngUsh in 1993. I'll watch and soap operas. stopped writing poetry. nothing Since I'll stay in my concerning teaching longer felt pajamas." the carpet. but IwiU of the poems many do in Nostalgis? Map AU no I did Uke that. the Then I try to find time when two I can be alone to three drafts and work on in poem. often you time for myself. took a year. 263 . but the point I set Tuesdays I'll do nothing and I said on Tuesdays that aside. graduate the need to set aside specific hours for writing once he arrived at UMass. so interested "I was as lying on his computer." he explained.

" the demands of on from time form was another kind of to Merrill. and his loss continued in having three or four other friends fortunate though "It's not whose of his work were opinions invariably welcome. 1995. that's just not the ghazal." cated Ali was might arrive at myself to took he Responding Ali challenge traditional recent whose years. that. Writing repetition on a an anthology in English. has really been utterly misunderstood Imean. I can. among others. It because sentence. Rich. have written offend "People 264 . a cer Ali insisted. to what that I agree with them always. once departures line sestinas of varying him. the any poem. in America." Ali those John praised they simply ghazals. the Arabic lyric an exacting of rhyme. Ali embarked of ghazals editing within small-scale campaign it has to rescue received the form from the ill?or at least." with these free verse ghazals. experimenting with verse. a year later. but I will pay attention me I the kind of feedback he explained. with and Adrienne and so James Harrison tain cultural location. "The ghazal has a very strict formal unity. from American prosody tried his hand to time.The Massachusetts of that as a metaphor then I thought I got Then opening the first Iwrote I couldn't take Review And for hell. as well as writing In in free muddled?use "The poets. I got that opening it anywhere until Iwould it the way write which is. good friend and valued as a presence in my work. "They give they say. scheme operate couplets his own ghazals and and syllabic consistency. western at the ghazal." and I take it where has demands phrase was to in the habit of taking his poems was place Ali a in critic until his death James Merrill. a true ghazal but he as a poet who has produced Hollander didn't the form was added understood. "I value him immensely and I me in some ways would the formal say he's spirit guiding One through The Country Without a Post Office!' That book is dedi to be felt. though are not aren't. but it was getting very gimmicky and of aNazi camp and she started speaking was willed not quite willed and yet line. form I like things they have done with what they call ghazals.

" free verse." experimenting. what's your problem? and why not? excessive. absolutely one write in that minimalist should the fact that Americans have was those Ali's I think fashion that's aU the great. to Ali's concerns American verse. "I say. mature influenced. can I just consider that a luxury a rich country most it are reaUy siUy. he responded hesitation. to do with the innate nature of said. "It has nothing I think. given he Learning by example to students: simple advice being imitate. himself without the I mean. if you are too facile in those. and his in and be interested "Immature credited EUot poets and 265 .Agha Shahid Ali seen a strict sestina such out. have people to thirty years and twenty that they can just express gone thinking some in these prosy them up with themselves lines and chop no real questions sense of discipline but say being asked. Ali's kind attitude of equanimity also characterized That toward formal tioned don't. very easy. we know what But at least the real thing is. but keep trying." he pointed to keep as Elizabeth it's wonderful then of course Bishop's. AU aUowed lie at the heart of the dispute. Asked where he posi and free "I in the feud." it's fitting EUot's "Read operandi. real problem might "I do grams. And sonnets. was utterly foreign out the celebration in the traditions of the ecstatic mode Pointing he said he found Americans skittish grew up with." around of the arguments afford. to the and in particular WiUiam Fidelity recent he felt dominated Carlos WUliams-inspired minimalism as a poet. either reinvigorate verse if that's the tough thing for you. But giving that a the subject a little more thought. overly excess. "Once you've lengths. It has to do with the fact that this has been received form now for around the prevalent. Iwould if free verse is becoming sestinas. To me. you've about had Walt Whitman and you've I find Walt Whitman had Emily Dickinson. that's aU." to any single aesthetic. that AU steal. he think a certain that because kind of of free verse of MFA the proliferation pro an utter has become poem clich?. try try them or try free keep deparitng. weU. Why time. rancorous of debate between adherents increasingly verse poetry in America." Given poets examples?" own modus ravenously famous maxim.

and of the Native Arizona Bisbee. One pleasures to his native land in western references obscure discovering in citing Oscar and he took a connoisseur's authors' work. I'm in one things or another all that."Ali said. how you do to quote some sometimes own. and how even it. "Will the reader get thing and not acknowledge I am a bit of a it or not? If they get it that's great. a proclivity historical loss was According "I think of people who part of his temperament. to recognize. Ali said that India's political troubles made him ache for in The Country Without A evident and this is especially Kashmir. delight on the subject of Dacca in his first book. inescapable because these way he said." the pleasure time. Ali s poems give the canny reader much Figures his moth from Arabic and the Greek myths legends. if sometimes references Post Office. conservative about know the poetry devouring They is in recognizing.The Massachusetts his fellow modernists with Review him of how the fine art of teaching business literary appropriation. to soldiers. know should their be If people are they serious should all poetry. "I mean. they their Milton. and into all his collections. oblique." obsessed with of historical 266 . in social concerns and a city in ruins. some of Shakespeare. But curfews. Nostalgists American cultures in 1917. this whole and quotations it and make it your into the fabric or an elitist should in this matter. their way Sylvia is evoked called "Resume" Plath's "The Applicant" by a poem are and lines and phrases from an array of other writers caught into the weave of his particular of Ali's own verse. in frequent. forces have lost so much. Shakespeare." are in my way of looking at the world. and in Wilde gauzes mentions inventive uses for Emily Dickinson's half-dozen finding was er told him as a child find of Kashmir (andCashmere) in The CountryWithout a Post Office. he writes Map. searchlights to the country In of his birth. is evoked whose destruction by through an to mourn to Ali. limited Ali's work weren't in of a strike put down for example. "I did learn sions to incorporate allu of your poetry. it's wonderful. a drive the desert.

MusUm interest to do in the Uteratures certain a chance the EngUsh language. "Because of the new some with of us have forces. for the first time with for the kinds of historical caU permutations said. the act of turning devastation mourning "When tended. Because certain things is aU connected things happen 267 . in one way or the poet. this obsession.Agha Shahid Ali Despite AU's work. identities by which poet. serve that material issue. with coupled. I am lucky of Hindu." interested What the world did interest him was the work enabled him to do. with say definitely a to distance that very choice yourself subject matter."! can make a thematic you might need end that began you're would dealing into art. South Asian-American "All of those designations would be known. maintained Writing like by on it's on that. experience of to loss gives way response back from that response." of the world. MusUm-American be true. and if they are used in larger ways tion to them. I'm not in them. I don't have an objec other. but Ali by the complications. but there is also a distance being poet exploring seemed unfazed "First and ries. Poems loop overpowering grief is not a feature of a process an initial in which through to to a highly postmodern anxiety puU a sense that in at times. the original it aU may be squandered. is so fine with her. he Kashmiri-American Indian American poet." He could offered a long list of hyphenated including poet. who to use the word don't want sound like hysteria?I may hysteria too much. I respect her much but everything ly tuned." AU con painful need distancing devices.You you someone Even Uke up sounding simply hysterical." he are the various maintained. is on the verge sometimes of something that Sylvia Plath. a poet I consider myself in the EngUsh foremost language. But to actually and aesthetic a formal otherwise device because you distancing subject matter." the edge may be an unavoidable condition for a cultural and ethnic territo the borders between the edge. "I would his particular in position that because of certain say to be imbued with what I'd AU and Western cultures. "Then there designations possible. This of course the history of coloniaUsm. But if they're used simply to restrict me.

The Massachusetts first time. revisions." of them The of Agha Shahid Ali's poem "The Floating Post itself to back is thirty-six pages long. have printed the portions of this are most of the stages of representative final version of this poem follows the its This manuscript Post Office" was of Agha Shahid Ali's sestina "The Floating loaned to us by Daniel Hales." let's say. its mature form. happen. manuscript. 268 . colors of of ink. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of The Agha Shahid Ali Literary Trust. Here to. we that The manuscript development. we're like Salman Rushdie lucky that someone in English in occurred. a poet and student of Shahid's. time because Shakespeare happens is finding its voice. that they that in the next 10 to 15 for something major to The following pages are reproductions of the original manuscript Office. Together the generation to the development of they a poem. of the and manuscript front covered in three sometimes present from the sestina on s a different document its inspiration fascinating seeds of scheme rhyme the back cover. finally. Maybe of us who've been writing many the ground for something South Asia have prepared like that to happen.with be able to do Indian-English poets who something poetry are now like is waiting in their 20 s." England "With fiction. many with notes. might years. rewrites. Review at a certain Imean.

& 269 .Agha Shahid Ali yf^ ?%jJLp y^ r( G^u. gfc^ Ww? <?t VW? ^vw<X. ts<JX*S?*AyO r <^-* ?/" . Pj yf/y^N ?? v?+?^ Us v*Cc ?>ej ^o? . ^J A^f ? >4-^ jU^J r^.

The Massachusetts Review ?uuju?% ??-^-r~??-? ft V oi~*4?J Cf<s^ sii^-v^to ? u^M ^y/%^-e J^ w* 270 .

like a lover. them. with fear. Love for the is leaving the :ever is climbing to the temple Driest priest rain answer letters clear ?%&< behind. prayeraanswered? and held them. 9 **Z) *"n^ VftJO* the and we took without a word. bringing from the temple^some penitent's He took our letters. we saw the boot being rowed the foa of death. J6* close back up the hill. to gi that we won't let evil o6rtent< /#*** 271 . those comed? wjhj and my whole year will be tense. death? the Sentence fog on our city. near-olive. seen the hilt From our decfcjy'd road a ?)5Srrain. It came close smudged postman?he like signs.Agha Shahid Ali S&SffS/HA ?& And then throuah through passed to reveal which gave us. black-ink letters was alive ? I without a word. close \*8^ and we wai this shameless whereby chapter^ vou anTreworT you have to rgword +JA***L?MJs S?a?Cr a i * **AJ t whereby ^tne^uCcenffflagr not s*ra*9n*? Tlcnow the road forw^J^letters ** *s love. alive And with love.

the leaves. It came close letters smudged black-ink was alive! ? postman?he a word. and we took them. some penitent's He took our like a lover. sweet assassin ring. blood shaken into letters? blood.) called And then we saw the through the passed to reveal which the gave O us. near-olive. boat being rowed the sentence fog of death. The city's would it erode our saffron link to the past? Tense with autumn. ?sxX^jL* Wha-^ abandon all pretense^ lZmfig us your word. future would crying the rain M0 live!" disclose? c. prayer?answered? and held them. JtoMTf^drown the world^give of the road. the temple's bell! For if letters ** ^ >i '?^Ix^' <^ /. we asked. without From our deck we'd seen the hill road a jade rain. drenched olive. close J <j?ou^ ^f s.The Massachusetts Review THE FLOATING POST OFFICE un wtr (A curtained palanquin terf?he was like a gondol la that post office at each houseboat. to his heart. a new password Has there. like signs. if no ? ^ ? fell on graveyards. on our city. without v \ CY f is' r u r a word.<)s? i?& 272 . bringing from the temple. And the rain drew close. new script. letters.

^?Dt our ea<}h word \^ y 7> f>-. portents. ViW t^'^P^fe^j^te^P^^ n Y*? ??~$ Z* . road. our each won? though burned aliv^ love would return as contents of letters tbej closed./wUmbed the hill.> ^^^s^gpf^i?m-to these outlive stay close. . Jncl*iForever Leaving the ra?n^?Mnd/^he tTfU^V >. al ive^-llf^^i with love! The canals wereliis. a sentence road strung on that iryto sentenced road? $6 death on/that a-f?tV^ u.-*:?* '" v> 3JJ U-vw /Cv< ^">*~^X$ \ ?*-&"** <"' \ylus-sthe climbed the hill. \V ***. though each road remain/forever just washed of lettersJand brought alive to its burning/Close. /7$P?^c ^ .(f^H cit ^^^ ^ 1. ^ <#>? vAv -vV* t^V' >-^ Z 273 . 1 1 ~ -^ \Jlf^VVlI?^\^\ r* c*i\ ^^?Sii^ soldiers AS? close.o*r.. rain^ e?^iwoid ?live)/ our each word tense to its burning of close ^\% brought alive! on a^?Sm just washed always open. rowed *M*o?d ?? tempts i cV iimefc.Agha Shahid Ali <+\%*r m??^i and my year will be tense. .

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