The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson interviews our Poet of the Month for November – the peacefully-powerful, incisive, steadfast, Mona Arshi.
Mona Arshi was born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London. She worked as a lawyer and activist for the UK human rights organization, Liberty, for ten years. Mona received her Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Her debut collection, Small Hands, won the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 2015. Her second collection is forthcoming in 2019.
Mona: We made it!
Natalya: Yes! Canada to the UK. Person to person. Let’s talk about poetry. You have an interesting story in that you trained and worked initially as a human rights lawyer. You came to poetry later.
Mona: Yes. I’d always read poetry, and I’ve always needed poetry in my life. I ended up studying law, I suppose, because there was a certain expectation for second generation children born here, a certain pressure, to pursue bankable vocations. My parents came to the UK from the Punjab in the 1960s, which was then a difficult time. I was good at the humanities, so I decided to study law. I wanted to be involved in social welfare law. I started working in human rights law and worked for a wonderful human rights organization called Liberty for a decade. I can’t honestly say I was reading much poetry whilst I was practising as a human rights lawyer. As a result of that I wasn’t reading contemporary poetry. I didn’t really know where to go for it. When I read poetry, I was reading the canon. I wasn’t reading poets that reflected me, my space, or my identity. So, I stopped reading poetry for a while.
Natalya: What brought you back?
Mona: When I was pregnant with my twins – I have twin girls – I had to stop working. Somebody sent me some books and an anthology of women poets. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I was reading Moniza Alvi, Mimi Khalvati, Alice Oswald. I felt like someone had given me a legal drug. I couldn’t believe how exciting language was, and how incredibly interesting the images, the surprise and the mystery of the poems were.
Natalya: What was so enjoyable about the surprise and mystery?
Mona: That uncertainty. Not knowing. It was so compelling, so I started reading more and more. I signed up for a couple of courses, and I had a wonderful teacher – Clare Pollard – who really introduced me to the breadth of contemporary poetry. She introduced me to form. I was hooked. She suggested I take my poetry further. I went on to do my Master’s at the University of East Anglia. I had wonderful teachers there – George Szirtes, Moniza Alvi, Lavinia Greenlaw… the holy trinity.
Natalya: Take me now, Poetry Lord.
Mona: I know! I was really lucky. But it took me three years, rather than a year, as I had my twin girls at that time.
Natalya: I hear you. I remember doing my Master’s in poetry while nursing my son, so it took me twice as long as everyone else, because I had a mini breakdown in the middle of it. But I got the MA in the end. And I like what you say about poetry being a legal drug, because it was that drug that got me through the first year of my son’s life, and pushed me to graduate.
Mona: That really resonates with me. Babies, children and writing with little or no sleep. Nothing one really prepares you for how hard it is to do both. I don’t think women talk about it as much as we should. We just sort of say, ‘Oh well, that’s done. We survived; they survived.’ And, yes, you survived but you’re different. You have a different identity and for a long time that’s inseparable from your children.
Natalya: I found the poetry gave me permission to be terrified. You cling, in those first months after giving birth, to the idea that you can live the same way, control your life with a predictability, but then there’s a moment of total surrender where your mind, body, the baby, forces you to submit to the idea that your life will never be the same. I found reading and writing poetry at that time to take me into a world where there is no equilibrium, and yet that could be beautiful and wonderful.
Mona: I agree. And I never want to know the answers in a poem, I want the mystery and the curiosity of a poem. I heard the poet Linda Gregerson say that she’s interested in the limpid surface of a poem – that it should be open to interference. I like that. Every time you write a poem it’s a sort of question, but of course this only leads you to another corridor of questions. That unsettled terrain you stand on is what makes a poem different to prose. It feels different to be standing in the room of poetry. The floor feels unsettled. The walls are shaking. I think it’s like this because of poetry coming from the body.
Natalya: Isn’t it funny how poetry demands a precise focal point, that you zero in on an experience, but then your body feels as though it’s in chaos as you try to produce a poem?
Mona: That’s where your craft carries you. Because your lines can leave you completely exposed. If your syntax is off, your grammar is off, if you use too many words or the wrong word, you’re completely standing out there in the wind.
Natalya: In thinking about that feeling of containing the uncontainable, and of exposure, and of chaos, how has it felt moving from law to poetry?
Mona: I was involved in some brilliant cases at Liberty for ten years, and even though I’m not officially practicing law, I don’t think of myself as inactive. I do things now with poetry that are different from when I was a human rights lawyer. I feel that poetry is useful in a different way, particularly in the time we are living in. Poetry does things that nothing else does. If you look at our world, even over the last hundred years, poetry is accessed first. That’s because poets tell the truth first. They’re almost like little canaries that perch on the margins and utter the ineffable and say it first. The fact that I’m a female poet of colour, and that I’m using language in the culture that we live in, in the world that we live in, is doing something. It’s not the same as me taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights involving destitute asylum seekers – of course it’s not – but it’s useful in different ways.
Natalya: How has your family’s immigration experience informed your poetry?
Mona: I feel my family had a very typical immigration experience. It was the 1960s, when many, many Punjabi men arrived in the UK with their wives and made homes here, particularly in West London, where I still live. When I think about how that translates into my poetry, I never really write consciously about being an Indian, or about being an Indian woman, because my poetry is oblique. I have a sort of hyphenated identity, and it’s complicated. Like a lot of people who migrate and are from the Indian diaspora, I have a complicated history. That hyphenated identity – of identifying as being a British-Indian woman, but also identifying as being a Londoner – is something I do explore in my poetry, but never directly. The most important thing for me is that my first language was not English, it was Punjabi, and it was my only language until I was seven years old. That has been the most fundamental shift in terms of how I see language. Now the most natural language for me is English, which I write in. But there is an echo. And now my Punjabi is not great, and I can’t read it. It is a huge regret, not being able to learn this complex beautiful language and access its literature in a natural way. Having said that the language that you are born with never leaves you. More importantly, the poetry of that language, that I did imbibe, has never left me. It’s in my bloodstream. That’s the most relevant thing about migration, for me.
Natalya: I’ve been honoured to speak with poets such as Hoa Nguyen and Doyali Islam, and they have both expressed a similar experience – of being displaced somehow from their language or their parents’ language, and of this being integral to informing the tone and pace of their poetry.
Mona: The idea of foreignness in one’s own language is fascinating to me and it’s something I sort of exploit. At some point when I was child at school, the English language was a foreign language to me. On my first day of school, when I was babbling away in Punjabi, my mother came to collect me, and she was told by the teacher, ‘You must tell your daughter that she must never, ever speak Punjabi at school. It’s just not acceptable.’ This is how it was in the 1970s. Your own language is de-valued and silenced and it’s not seen a suitable language for the public sphere. And there was this strange notion at the time that immigrant children wouldn’t learn English properly if the first language was supported.
Natalya: I hear many stories from poets of younger generations experiencing the same thing, even today. And we see in the US a president that I don’t need to describe further here.
Mona: Generally, I am a positive person, and I believe that society can and is waking up to the idea that if we want to keep the rights and freedoms that we have gained and not end up lurching back to the 1930s, then we have to fight. That involves us all being active in some way, challenging, provoking in our writing and ensuring that we advocate for the kind of society we want to live in.
Natalya: Is your family proud of your work as a poet, now that you’re not active as a lawyer?
Mona: I don’t know. My father did take me aside and say, ‘You worked so hard to become a lawyer – a very good lawyer – and now you’re not doing it anymore.’ There was a sadness in that conversation. But, it has helped… you know, you win a few prizes, and my parents have come to a few things. I think they are proud to see their daughter using language. They said to me, when Small Hands. came out, ‘My goodness, people spend money on this book? That’s great!’ I know, I can’t quite believe it either!
Natalya: What was the impulse as you were writing Small Hands.?
Mona: It came from a particular place. My brother Deepak died very suddenly whilst I was doing my MA. This was five years ago. I occasionally talk about his death, but it’s too overwhelming an event, really. Basically I got a phone call from the coroner in March 2012, whilst I was on a train, telling me had died. It felt really unfair. I had to decide whether I would put my pen down and not write, or whether I was going to be truthful. It was difficult terrain to write through. There are about 12 poems that are about my brother in Small Hands. But, really, because they were written quite quickly after his death, there is a sort of immediacy and surrealness in many of the poems. That’s what it feels like in those early months. For example, there’s a poem called ‘Bird’ which describes my mother turning into a bird and flying out of the window. It’s me, a poet-observer, reaching for the unreachable – trying to give shape and language to my mother’s loss and mine. One of the functions of poetry is to make the unbearable bearable and lyric poetry allows you to step into another human being’s shoes.
Natalya: Will your next book explore your feelings of grief further?
Mona: It may be inevitable. I think that it’s often the poems that you want to avoid writing about that you probably need to craft, the ones always popping up in your peripheral vision. Yes, you can ignore them and submerge them if you wish, but maybe the poem wants to tell me something and it might be worth listening to.