Mary MacRae interviews Mimi Khalvati.
Mimi Khalvati, born in Tehran in 1944, grew up on the Isle of Wight and attended Drama Centre London. She has worked as a theatre director and translator, and she co-founded the Theatre in Exile group. She is coordinator of the Poetry School in London and poet in residence at the Royal Mail, as part of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places scheme. She has two grown-up children. Her recently published Selected Poems draws on her three previous Carcanet collections, In White Ink (1991), Mirrorwork (1995) and Entries on Light (1997).
MM: You were born in Iran and have, I think, lived there part of your life. One of your poems refers to ‘homelands, other cultures / pulling oceans in their wake’. Where do you feel your own homeland and culture is?
MK: I suppose my sense of home is more situated in Iran, and always home as something lost and never to be recaptured. I don’t think I’ve had a sense of homeland anywhere else but my culture is predominantly English: the way I live, the way I write, the way I think, is informed by the culture here and somewhat at odds with Iranian culture.
MM: What about language? Do you speak Farsi?
MK: I speak it, yes; I re-learnt it as a young adult and I speak it well enough to talk with my mother.
MM: So you think of English as your mother tongue?
MK: Yes, definitely.
MM: Can you read literary Persian?
MK: No, I can’t read it. I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies for one year to try to read it and I got up to about the level of a ten year old.
MM: When you were younger, I believe you worked in the theatre as an actress, director?
MK: I went to drama school and trained as an actress but most of my work was directing.
MM: Do you think that fed into your poetry? Did it affect what you see as the potential of poetry or your poetic voice?
MK: In some ways it hasn’t fed into it in the ways you’d expect. My poetry lacks any kind of drama, I’d say. It certainly affects how I do poetry readings and I think it has affected me in a wider sense because you don’t just learn acting, you learn different ways of perception and analysis and that’s coloured my way of thinking about everything. Things like being able to focus on an image – you do that as an actor – relate to writing poetry.
MM: You said you thought your poetry wasn’t dramatic. What about the drama of syntax?
MK: Yes, I think there is a kind of drama there. And in the theatre, as a director and as an actor, so much of the work is done between the lines, between the text, reading in the silences, and that has been very helpful to my reading of poetry and the writing of it.
MM: So why the change to poetry?
MK: Well, it was all a big mistake! It really started on an Arvon course that I went to do, as I thought, on scriptwriting for radio or TV, and it turned out to be a poetry course – I don’t know what happened – but I’d gone to a lot of trouble, because I was on my own with two kids, to make arrangements, so once I was there
I thought, right, well I’m here! They took no notice of my scripts and said go and write some poems, so I did. That was it and I’ve been doing it ever since.
MM: So was it a total switch to poetry straight away?
MK: No. I wrote poems and worked very haphazardly in the theatre for a couple of years and then time was getting short, I was getting older, so I thought I’d put all my eggs in one basket and focus on poetry.
MM: Who has influenced you as a poet – both from the past and now?
MK: I think Wordsworth has influenced me a lot – this was from school – I still hear his rhythms and I think that’s audible in my writing. But since then my influences have been very eclectic. I tend to be influenced, even if only in a small way, by a lot of what I happen to be reading. So early on it was the feminist American poets, then later on it was Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, then Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Leopardi – it just goes on and on, too many to name. I’ve never had a poet as a kind of guiding figure.
MM: Would you say the influence was more on content, or ways of writing?
MK: Always ways of writing, ways of using language. I’m never actually interested much in content, either in what I read or in my own writing but I love the way language is used, so it’s nearly always that.
MM: Some people might be surprised that you’re not interested in content. Don’t you think poetry should or does say something?
MK: Well, I suppose how you say something is also what you say, so I hope that by concentrating on how I say it, I’ll end up actually saying something.
MM: What about Persian poetry? Do you think that’s influenced you in any way, or is it there in the background?
MK: Only as part of my reading of non-English poetry or other poetries in translation. I might try to bring some things over into English poetry but that could as well be true of American or Norwegian or French. It’s certainly not in my blood, I don’t think, not in the sense that I heard it as a child, but I’m very sympathetic to it.
MM: You’ve written of your poem ‘Rubaiyat’ that it was your first experience of a poem refusing to be written until you gave it the form it wanted. Could you talk about the importance for you of form in poetry?
MK: I suppose I’m tempted to say that’s what the poem is for me. I feel that once you’ve found the form – and that could be in free verse, not necessarily in metrical or fixed forms – but once a poem has found its form it’s almost found itself and then it’s more like filling in. I think it’s quite a magical, intuitive process. I think working with forms is very creative and not just finding the right sized box to put something in, as is sometimes thought.
MM: When did you first develop this interest in form? How did you learn about it?
MK: Quite early on, because in some ways I’m quite conservative. I think if I’m going to try to write poems then I need to learn about the technical, formal things, so I just studied it as I went along, both in my reading and from handbooks and theory, whichever way I could – and by trying it out, of course.
MM: Do you think a poem has to find its own rhythm as well?
MK: Yes, I think the rhythm is part of the form. In fact, I think for me, until I can hear a rhythm, I can’t even begin to approach a poem; the poetry’s not there until it’s audible in some way.
MM: What do you find most often triggers a poem for you – visual stimuli, dreams, the natural world?
MK: No, none of those things. I think for me it comes from an inner urge, suddenly, like an impulse, or a surge of a certain kind of energy, a feeling of desire – like the way you might suddenly crave chocolate! – you suddenly think – oh, I want to write! So it comes more from inside me, as a sort of yearning that needs to be expressed.
MM: What about the process of writing? Do you revise a lot, or do you think first and then get it all down quite quickly?
MK: I certainly don’t think first – I’m rather averse to the idea of that – I think it can kill the poetry, the discovery of it – and my method has changed a lot over the years. I used to re-draft ad nauseam, and got very sick of it, so tried to find a new way of writing where I can write quickly and get as much of it in the first draft as possible. I edit but I don’t rewrite or re-envision that much unless I’m not finding the poem, in which case, more often than not, I abandon it.
MM: All your volumes have poems written as series – ‘Interiors’ in Mirrorwork is one I’m very fond of – and the whole volume Entries on Light. Why does the series attract you?
MK: It just happened that way! It really is impractical so I wish I wouldn’t write them! I think in the beginning they were my way of confronting difficulty, giving myself that much space to deal with whatever was the current problem. But now I begin to feel that it’s something to do with the fact that I’m interested in the infinitesimal, in tiny perceptions, the fragment, if you like, though I donít like the word fragment because each fragment is, in itself, a microcosm and has a completeness. So, paradoxically, I think I’ve written sequences because I’m interested in what is small. I’ve written very few actual long poems, they’re nearly all sequences of little things stuck together!
MM: You mentioned earlier reading American feminist poets. Do you think of yourself as a feminist poet?
MK: Yes, absolutely, I do.
MM: Are there any important ways in which you see your ideas about poetry as at odds with current received opinion?
MK: Yes, I think I’m quite at odds! I think a lot of current poetry is anecdotal; there’s quite a vogue for that. I’m not anecdotal, not ironic; I’m certainly not funny – I wish I were! But I think also that I don’t like poetry where the surface of the language is too busy, too full of things, of words, with nothing shining through from behind, where all the interest is in the vocabulary or the texture.
MM: What would you say to someone who said your poetry was difficult to follow – in its elaborate syntax or lack of narrative?
MK: If readers trust the poet and the language, then the syntax is what leads them through the poem and, in many cases, is the poem. But it depends on the reader being able to follow the syntax; it has happened in the past that a reader has been unable to follow it and either thinks the syntax is wrong or just finds it so impenetrable that it’s irritating. But I feel that syntax is my main strength as a writer and it’s probably the only aspect of language in which I’m quite sophisticated so it would be ridiculous not to employ that, like cutting off your right hand. As for the lack of narrative, I can’t make myself interested in it; I think that’s just a limitation I have to live with. But there are obscurities, more so in the early work, that are faults of the writing, that I’ve had to grapple with.
MM: What kind of reader do you have in mind as you write?
MK: I’ve given quite a lot of thought to this and I think it would be someone who was quite conversant with reading poetry and with reading in general. I don’t think my work would appeal to people who are new to reading poems, so I think my readership is quite limited in that sense. My imaginary reader is a better poet than I am, basically! – and I’m quite happy to be limited in that way, it’s my choice, and the way I write.
MM: So your ideal reader would be someone who was prepared to read and re-read and let the poem sink in?
MK: Ideally, I’d like my reader to re-read for pleasure and for culling further goodies on each reading, and I would hope that the poems would yield that kind of on-going harvest, but I’m not very happy with the idea of the reader having to re-read the poem several times in order to penetrate or make sense of it. I hope that for the reader I have in mind one reading would yield the gist and then, hopefully, if they liked it they would re-read it for other things.
MM: How does your work for the Poetry School fit into your writing life? Do you see poetry courses as creating a pool of readers rather than a pool of writers?
MK: I think in the first instance readers, in as much as more people will be likely to continue as lifetime readers than as lifetime writers, but to encourage both.
MM: What’s the best advice you were ever given as a poet?
MK: Probably things that Michael Schmidt, my editor at Carcanet, has said to me, particularly when I’ve been attempting something difficult and failing, and he has encouraged me to persist and attempt it. A lot of people would have said, don’t try to do that, because I was failing, or wouldn’t have seen what I was trying to do in the first place.
MM: What are you working on now? What direction do you see your poetry taking in the future?
MK: One thing I have in mind is to write shorter poems that really stand up on their own two feet rather than in a sequence or series. Since my last book I’ve been working only in metre and rhyme; I havent been using free verse at all – just to hone my skills, really, because I like constantly learning. It’s what propels me forwards; rather than having things to aim for and achieve. I’m always thinking about what I want to try out and learn, and if an achievement is a by-product of that, well and good.
MM: Are you enjoying writing short rhyming poems?
MK: I’m loving it – for the first time I’m feeling a sense of naturalness in using metre particularly, a fluency that I haven’t felt before, so that’s exciting.