In January 2012 I was notified that I had won the Judge’s Prize in the Magma competition 2011 judged by George Szirtes.
The winning poem was “Hummingbird”. It was the first major competition I had won and, being a relative newcomer to the world of poetry (my work did not appear in magazines until quite recently), the win was understandably a tremendous boost for me.
But I want to explain a little about my writing, where it comes from, and how “Hummingbird” was conceived.
I had trained and practiced as a lawyer for several years and so was used to employing language in a fixed and rule-bound way. I only started writing poetry five years ago and it quickly became an attempt at expression which was the polar opposite of my profession. What drew me to writing poems was the fascination of suspending intentionality for the most part and instead to use language to allow creative accidents to take place. There was also recognition on how a poet’s ‘multi-voicedness’ is an important part of what inspires poems. I was born in West London but raised by Sikh Panjabi parents, so I was steeped in the culture of the East. Growing up, poetry for me was all about listening to my father and his friends reciting poems in Urdu off by heart for evening household soirees whilst I passed round the pistachio nuts. The consequence of this hyphenated identity meant that I am naturally drawn to the ghazal forms, being steeped in traditional western forms and poetics.
The beauty of the ghazal is partly its rather intriguing form. If you have ever tried to craft one its fiendishly difficult on the surface, a series of couplets, no enjambments, internal rhyme AND a refrain. But it’s the ghazal’s emotional aspect which is beguiling, the mood of the ghazal being preoccupied with the intensity of loss, melancholy, but lacking the emotional unity that pervades western poetry.
So what has this all to do with my poem “Hummingbird”, written in couplets but clearly not a ghazal? Well, the poem was written after a period of time when I was writing very little but reading lots of poetry, including ghazals by Agha Shahid Ali, Ghalib, and Fiaz Ahmed Fiaz .I then attended an Arvon Course where I began writing a series of poems, quiet, reflective poems and found that the ghazal was the perfect vessel for containing this emotional strain. So “Hummingbird” began life as ghazal. As the poem developed, the form needed to loosen and give way. Many readers of the poem have referred to the poem’s erotic voice, and clearly I can see how the poem can be read in that way, but this was not an intentional act, as with so many poems we write there was no clear trajectory for the poem. The poem dwells on intimacy but the kind that overwhelms and teeters on the brink of colonizing you.
Looking back at the poem, it breaks lots of rules and takes quite big risks: the Hummingbird flits around from one disconnected image to the next, which is the ghazal’s influence, I think. It is a poem borne out of cultural connectness with a form, and the growing awareness that one is able to leave it behind if necessary.
by Mona Arshi
Ask the stems in the glass to bend. Let
Your fingers fly, a momentary grasp then
slip into spaces, surge in and out of folds
where breasts begin to curve and rise.
Be God. Press your curing skin to mine,
dissolve and pronounce me. Let my eyes
fall out and embed in the carpet, rooting.
Let my hands arrange the air for you,
braiding. Reluctant sun at the window, open
your eyes burn through the dense haze with
your severe love. Slide open the bone-zip of
my spine, anoint each rigid peak, take my
limbs and fold me over. Here’s my mouth,
hummingbird, linger there, and hold
(Winning poems from the 2011 competition were published in Magma 52)