THE POET – Interview with Mimi Khalvati
An interview with Mimi Khalvati
Firstly, thanks for your time answering a few questions Mimi, and very big congratulations for your new book Afterwardness, an really lovely collection of personal journeys and histories, woven beautifully between cultures and environments. You have been writing and publishing poetry for many years Mimi, but do you remember when you first started putting pen to paper?
I must have been about eleven when I wrote my first book of poems. It was literally a book, with a dark blue hard cover, lined pages, and I filled it with rhyming poems and coloured ink drawings which I pasted in. It was called All My Own Work, and was a birthday present for my mum. Since I was in boarding school and my mother was in Iran, I don’t know if she read it, liked it or what she thought of it. I don’t remember. But I was very proud of it, and have it to this day, though the poems are embarrassing.
As a child, did you have any early influences?
Wordsworth was my first love. We studied him at school, along with the other Romantics, with a marvellous English teacher, Aubrey de Selincourt, himself a renowned classicist and author, though I didn’t know that at the time. He would take us out on the downs or into the school grounds, where we’d lie in the grass and listen to him murmuring in a beautiful low rumble. I think it was then that poetry, without my knowing, slipped into my bloodstream.
Later, in the sixth form, I wrote a few poems just for myself, and summoned up the courage to show him one. He pointed out that the phrase ‘walking on the quiet’ had a meaning other than the one intended, and then added at the bottom, in rather spiky pencil, ‘This has real poetry in it’. Since I still remember that, sixty years later, I must have treasured it. But I never wanted to be a writer and didn’t write poetry again till I was in my forties.
You grew up on the Isle of White, quite different from your Iranian heritage, how does that influence your work?
My Iranian heritage, sadly, is something lost to me. I can’t read or write Persian, speak it very poorly, and can only read Persian poetry in translation. But my childhood on the Isle of Wight is very much the wellspring of my poetry, even more so latterly. Though surrounded there by hundreds of schoolgirls, teachers etc., and some lovely close friends, I think there was always a void in the centre of my life – probably from the loss of my language, my family and culture. But this void is also a dreamspace out of which I can draw poems and a kind of inspiration, a lyric longing. And I sense it most strongly in the natural world.
Do you get back to Iran, how does that feel from a poet’s perspective?
I have only been back to Iran a few times in my life: once for a summer holiday when I was 13, two periods when I lived there for two or three years in my twenties, and the last time after my grandmother died in 1986. Writing about Iran gives rise to complicated feelings. I’ve tried to present positive images of Iran and Iranians, particularly in writing about my family. I refuse to avoid nostalgia, since at times I am flooded with nostalgia and want to stay true to my experience. I have struggled with the expectations placed on an Iranian woman poet to write about obvious aspects of Iran or Islam and necessarily failed, or sidestepped, or rejected them. I feel guilt and shame for my inadequacies. Frustration at misapprehensions of my work and its context. Anger, gratitude, loyalty, love. As I said, it’s complicated!
Would you say that being a poet something you are born with?
I don’t know if it’s something you’re born with. I do think there are certain constellations of experience, particularly in early life, that form a rich subsoil for writing poetry. And one can’t write poetry without learning how. It is as difficult an art as any other but, because we use the medium of language, available to anyone, its difficulty and complexity are masked.
As the founder of The Poetry School, and a tutor of poetry, do you have any advice for new poets?
First and foremost, I would say read, read, read. As much poetry as you can, and not just books on prize shortlists, but read widely, both contemporary and classical poetry, poetry in translation, and good prose too. Read attentively, and lovingly. And then study – go to courses, workshops, readings, discover a community of poets where you feel at home, welcome feedback on your work, develop your critical faculties and don’t be in a rush to publish but be patient, tenacious, and open to possibility. And enjoy it all!
What inspires you to write, and how do you then take those first words or ideas to a final completed poem?
What inspires me? Reading first and foremost, poets I love and go back to, poets I discover, and prose writers, many of whom are thrilling. Reading essays and non-fiction, particularly books about literature, I find fascinating. Sunlight, very bright sunlight, flowers, sea, sky, inspire me. And timelessness, daydreaming, lack of intention, inspire me.
And then it depends on what I’m writing. If it’s a formal poem, a sonnet say, I often start with the first line that comes to me, or I wait for, wait for, and then I proceed line by line, trying to get as much of it right as I can before I proceed, since it’s so difficult to unstitch metre and rhyme. But in free verse, I do the opposite: write in prose very fast and then decide if there’s a poem lurking in there – if not, bin it; if there is, then carve out, edit, find the form, shape, lineate.
Do you have a favourite space for writing?
Mostly at my desk where I write straight onto the desktop computer. But for daydreaming, writing notes, being receptive to initial impulses, I like to be outdoors, in the sun, outside a café perhaps or, ideally, by the Mediterranean!
Can you give me some examples from Afterwardness and tell me a little about them, and why you wrote them.
Like a bumblebee on a wild rampage,
stumbling against the sense that otherwise
ran as smooth as honey across my page,
one word I couldn’t spell or recognise,
starting with k, or c, then double m
in the middle and holding in reserve
e r for the end, kept coming at random –
kommer? no, commer – til1 I lost my nerve.
Poor Deborahl Yoked to her father’s muse.
And my poor daughter, darling. Who will be,
now she can’t even see night stars, her hand,
her amanuensis? So let her use,
while she still can, her one good eye to see
wild bees, like commas, coming in to land.
Many of my childhood memories revolve around learning English when I first came to England. My poem Dictation comes from a memory of a dictation lesson, when I was baffled by the word ‘comma’ which the teacher kept repeating and I kept trying to spell. This reminded me of Deborah, Milton’s youngest daughter who, from an early age, became his scribe. In turn, Milton’s blindness put me in mind of my own daughter who is gradually losing her eyesight. I don’t know if, within the short space of a sonnet, one can really make such leaps without losing the reader, or if making such a glancing reference to my daughter’s loss of vision is heartless, but poetry often teeters along an edge and one can only go on blind trust while taking such risks.
To know your story is to understand
not only who you and where you come from
even if some imaginary homeland
is all you know, shall ever know of home –
but is also to understand the nature
of story, how to prime a palimpsest
for all successive stories, how to ensure
reference points gain valence from the first.
Hence, a love of narrative; and a mind
with an ingrained habit – established by
the underwriting of your own life story –
of near total recall it is unkind
to foist on one whose underscript is less
determined and who might feel envious.
Scripto Inferior was the most difficult poem in this book to write. I felt I needed to spell out one of the main themes of the book which is to do with people who, like me, have no real grasp of the story of their lives. I think, in our age of mass migration and displacement, there will be many children who grow up without a sense of their roots, their family history, and with little or no memory of where they come from. And since it is no necessary to tell your story, to have a platform to tell it and to be heard, I ask myself – what about those who, for very different reasons, have no story? How do we give value to their experience of life?
The Lesser Brethren
Although she barely knew at school, at seven,
what a Moslem was or what Islam meant,
she proudly wrote: ‘I know I’m not a Christian’,
reassuring her mother, ‘but for Lent
I have given up saying Honestly.’
And the truth was she liked going to chapel,
shuf1ing down the aisle, the passivity
of pews, her kneeler making her feel special.
Barred from a clear view of the altar rail
by rows of serge, blue laundered veils, she’d peer
instead at the fawn, vixen, rabbit, badger,
memorise the caption in bold serif,
see how His hands were drawn and wonder if
she really had a right to wear this veil.
The boarding school I went to was a Church of England school and every Sunday we had to go to chapel. All the girls wore veils, pale blue ones tied at the nape. In chapel, there were some Margaret Tarrant paintings, portraying Jesus among the woodland animals. My poem The Lesser Brethren takes its title from one of them. Having felt the pressure for many years to write poems about such things as women wearing the veil, finally, I have managed to write one!
Lastly Mimi, what are your plans for the future?
Since my new book, Afterwardness, is only just out, I haven’t yet moved into the future but, after writing 56 sonnets, I’m sure it will be in free verse, just to give myself a break if nothing else! I’m looking forward to the more open field that free verse offers and I might make use of the fragment. But it’s early days yet.
Thank you very much Mimi, and we wish you the very best with your new book.
Mimi Khalvati was born in Tehran and grew up on the Isle of Wight where she went to boarding school. After training at Drama Centre London, she worked as an actor in the UK and as a director at the Theatre Workshop Tehran and on the fringe in London. She started writing poetry while bringing up children. Her pamphlet, Persian Miniatures (Smith/Doorstop 1990) was a winner of the Poetry Business competition 1989. Her Carcanet collections include In White Ink (1991), Mirrorwork (1995), for which she received an Arts Council of England Writer’s Award, Entries on Light (1997) and The Chine (2002). The Meanest Flower (2007) was a PBS Recommendation, a Financial Times Book of the Year, and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Child: New and Selected Poems 1991-2011 was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. Her most recent collection, The Weather Wheel, is a PBS Recommendation. Mimi is the founder of The Poetry School and has co-edited its anthologies of new writing, Tying the Song (2000), Entering the Tapestry (2003) and I Am Twenty People! (2007), published by Enitharmon Press. Mimi has been Poet in Residence at the Royal Mail and has held fellowships at the Royal Literary Fund at City University, the International Writing Program in Iowa, and the American School in London. She received a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 2006 and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has performed her work extensively in Britain, Europe, Turkey and the USA, taking part in international festivals such as Poetry International at the South Bank Centre, British Council Tours abroad and a national tour of Contemporary British Poetry. She works as a freelance poetry tutor and mentor.
Photo credit: © Caroline Forbes
CLICK HERE to order a copy of Mimi’s book Afterwardness from Amazon UK.