An interview with poet Mona Arshi: law, Masala Festival 19, & making sense of the world one poem at a time…

I had the absolute pleasure of being invited along to pretty much all of Gem Arts Masala Festival 2019. Their Bengal tiger certainly strutted across the #NorthEast with seven days of epic #MasalaFestival – This award winning, multi venue festival has been running for several years and has been growing each time. 2019 was certainly their biggest year not only in terms of an ah-mazing programme but also for huge audiences and sell out events. The festival had an incredible line up of the finest South Asian Arts and Culture; screenings, theatre, music, yoga on the beach, Bollywood dancing, crafts, spoken word, poetry and free family fun!

Attending a (nearly) full festival like #Masalafestival as The Culture Vulture is just brilliant;  I get to go and experience lots of things – some of them I might not have managed to swing by unless specifically invited. With the greatest will in the world, as The Culture Vulture, I can’t get to every single thing that I’d like to see and of course, I do miss out on loads. I have to sleep and eat after all. Being invited to everything for Masala Festival and kindly given free tickets meant that I experienced events and things that I really loved (Some I would have probably missed out on) and honestly, feel more enriched from doing so…..

One such event was GemArts Masala Festival: Luck & Hope – an evening of poetry with the endlessly talented poets; Mona Arshi & Imtiaz Dharker on Tuesday 16th July at Culture Lab in Newcastle University. I love poetry, I’m a huge reader of it – but I seek it out largely in books and online in places like Button Poetry. I don’t get to enough poetry events though….. its one of those things that I’m always like I *must* get to more and then never quite get round to it.

The style of poetry I like is usually very real, quite dark, sometimes has some humour but always very contemporary and makes me think. I like it because it shines a light on other ways of viewing and exploring things and topics; I love increasing my insights and perspectives of the world. Poetry really helps me tap into someone else’s experiences and in  a world, where as an introvert I’m sometimes trapped in my own head, I really jump at these moments.

Mona Arshi and Imtiaz Dharker are two of the best poets writing today whose poetry explores the nuances of luck, grief and hope within our often violent and unsettling contemporary world. When I chatted to folks and told them I was going to see them at Luck & Hope as part of Masala Festival…. Both names in the North east poetry community hold huge excitement and respect, so it’s not really a surprise that the event sold out.

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Mona & Imtiaz during Luck & Hope at Gem Arts Masala festival 19

Mona Arshi (the subject of this blog) worked as a Human rights lawyer at Liberty before she started writing poetry. In 2015 she won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. At the centre of her latest book, Dear Big Gods is an overarching commitment to hope.

I asked Vikas Kumar MBE, GemArts Director if I could interview Mona and I was thrilled when she agreed. I was extremely touched and inspired by Mona’s readings – especially the focus and sharing of her own personal grief of the loss of her brother, her use of writing as a way of exploring, expressing and working through her experiences and, of course, the career change from being a lawyer into the creative sector. I really honed on her discussion during the audience question time, as she reflected that she went into the legal profession as a “proper job” to fulfil a melting pot of societal, parental and personal expectations before eventually taking the jump…… I felt so connected to that moment that I could have jumped up and announced “I did that too!”

An interview with Mona Arshi by The Culture Vulture

So, HI Mona! I think I will start with an obvious question and one you covered during the Luck & Hope event, but one I want to share with my readers….When and why did you start writing poetry?

About ten years ago…I have always read poetry since I was very young, but I became a heavy user of the stuff when I got pregnant with my twins and I had a career break from law; I had more time to read. I started reading more widely, contemporary poets, women (we were offered NO female poets at school), so it was refreshing and wonderful to see work being written by women of colour people like Imtiaz Dharker, Moniza Alvi, Sujata Bhatt etc…

CV- How interesting – I went to an all girls’ school and we studied a few female poets  – I saw myself as a tortured soul as a teenager, so used to love to write about it. I was VERY into women writers as a teen and hyper aware of them…

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When did you decide to pursue poetry as a career path?

I think being a poet is not something I set out to do. Who does really? I think poetry finds you rather than the other way around; it’s such a strange thing to do, to make poems and I think most people if they thought long and hard about it would realize it was a really strange and precarious enterprise and wouldn’t do it.

It’s more of a devotion than a career to be honest; in order to pursue the task of making poems you have to make a lot of compromises and be quite bloody minded and determined but when you are knee deep in the making of a poem and it’s all going well there is nothing like it; the freshness, the surprise, the encounter with language and trying to nail down an image and the other ingredient that particle that arrives like magic in a poem.

CV – I think a lot of what you said above is equally transferable across a variety of creative industries and we are taught there is no “money” in the arts sector. For the determined and resourceful – I believe there are opportunities and magic to be had everywhere.

How did you first get published?

I was first published I think…after my poem ‘Hummingbird’ won a competition for the inaugural MAGMA competition. It was quite lovely and unexpected. The poem won first prize; no one had ever heard of me of course and I then had to read the poem at the Prize Event. It was the first time I had ever read a poem on stage, I remember reading it really badly; too fast with my knees shaking.

What inspires you to write?

That’s a difficult question for any writer. I don’t think I can say there’s something specific that ignites a poem…I think you can make poem about almost anything. I think it’s more to do the quality of attention you give to a thing or an experience as a poet. Most writers are curious people but poets can and do get up close and personal to the thing their examining, we turn the stones over and see what’s lurking there, we might probe and stay longer with an experience, that’s what it feels like for me in any case.

You’re read from “Dear Big Gods” at Luck & Hope- it was wonderful.  Can you tell me a bit about that collection of poems?

Dear Big Gods is my second collection and I think of it as a sister book to Small Hands. ‘Small Hands’ was written right in the middle of a traumatic event; a death of a brother and the heart centre of the book contains poems around that experience. But DBG is written with distance but the experience is still being examined and aftershocks felt.

In some ways DBG is a post-event book; it’s me looking at the grief-terrain and taking stock. I think the book looks at other themes too, the garden is a character in the books, there are small things like insects and flowers which arrive like fugitive guests in the soil of the book, I am having conversations with them too.

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Why do you think so many people love and connect with your poetry?

Gosh I hope they do! I think successful poems (or poems that I think are successful) are very good at accessing and ambushing your senses and your heart; I think a lyric poet is very good at this, so you feel very familiar in a poem as well as feeling as if you’ve heard the language fresh for the first time, so in a way, both familiar and foreign. Poems are and need to be active creatures and there is a role that the reader has in participating in the poem in the reading of it. Good poems should allow this space for the reader.

CV- Well I certainly felt connected with your work – you convey very human experiences and emotions.

How did you come to get involved in this year’s GemArts Masala Festival?

Well I think there was some talk of me doing Masala Festival, a few years ago and the dates didn’t work out. But I so wanted to do it as I’d heard what a rich festival it is and have also heard incredible things about Newcastle University so it was wonderful to be asked to be involved in 2019.

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How does the troubling contemporary world, in the present, affect your writing?

This is a difficult question but an important one. What is the role of Poetry (and art for that matter) when we risk losing so much in our liberal democracies? Should we insist on making art that is overtly political? Some artists do this very successfully of course and we need to remember that poets historically have always had a role to play in saying the unsayable in the most authoritarian regimes.

Ted Hughes said of the Eastern European poets that they were some of the most ‘Wide awake’ poets writing. I think that’s an important phrase, that poetry has to be alive and awake to the times we live in, the meat of the language to work and of course, it has to engage the wider world or what’s the point? There are many ways of doing this, subtle and overt but mostly through the language itself. We should also remember that poetry somehow always manages to survive and flourish in the most difficult of conditions.

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What would you say to someone who thinks an evening of poetry or poetry in general isn’t for them?

I think people who say this should try it before they make up their mind. The most interesting work currently being written is by poets. Poets are imagineers; it’s a very alive creaturely thing a poem and it has a different sort of vitality when you hear poetry live.

Why? Because it wakes up our ears!

So much of what we do in our daily lives is about privileging our senses, that if you sit and listen carefully and tune ourselves into language that hits our ear it’s a very different experience.

My first degree is in law, I studied at Newcastle University Law School and you were a Human Rights lawyer – what was the trigger from legal practice into poetry?

Studying law and being a lawyer equips you for many things but one of those things is not writing poetry! Having said that lawyers and poets are careful and attentive with text. I think it’s helped sharpen my editing skills. I have always read widely including poetry and I think fundamentally like for all writing that is the key to me being able to write. I guess I wanted to write, when I actually had time to write, so I took a career break when my twins were born and did a masters in poetry which opened up a huge new world.

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Advice to an aspiring poet or writer?  Or, advice to someone who is already writing but wants to grow further?

Read widely. Read the canon of course, but also read translation, read out of your comfort zone, and keep on reading some more.

CV – I really don’t read enough – I need to read more.

Can you share with us any other poets that you admire?

So many, that I can’t name. I am a really eclectic reader. I have just finished re-reading Shivanee Ramlochans collection ‘Everyone Knows I am a Haunting’. I  think she’s pulled off something interesting in that book. I am currently reading and loving Maggie Nelson’s strange and wonderful prose/Poetry. If I lose my foothold somehow in this strange ephemeral art there are some go-to poets that always bring me back and they are Keats, Mimi Khalvati, Paul Celan and Sylvia Plath.

CV – I am also the biggest Sylvia Plath fan and often go back to her writing when I need some grounding or in a fug.

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You can find out more about Mona and how to get your hands on her work to read by visiting HERE!

Thank you to GemArts for inviting me along to Masala Festival and enabling this brilliant opportunity of interviewing Mona Arshi!

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