Rahat Kurd, the author of COSMOPHILIA, a collection of poems published by Talonbooks in 2015, is currently at work on a memoir about the making of Muslim culture in North America. Her poetry sequence “Seven Stones for Jamarat”, published in Exile Literary Quarterly, is currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist for the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. Essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The New Quarterly and Event magazines, and online at Guernica and Oscar’s Salon. She was selected as Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts category of the 2013 Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Awards.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I only have one book of poems out so I can't compare, but the moment when I knew I was going to write my first collection of poems was life-changing. It was a real moment of arrival, which is to say I can remember precisely what it felt like to have the intention to write it arrive in my head. It felt like sunlight flooding a new corner of my brain, and some minutes of marvelling at what that felt like.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry and non-fiction simultaneously, in my teens. I knew that I needed both, but I wasn't sure why. I still alternate between the two. This used to cause me some self-reproach about not being disciplined, until I realized the two forms always strike useful sparks against each other in my head.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I start new things all the time. I carry a notebook everywhere and with poetry I take many, many notes. I also re-write and re-think a great deal as I go, and this can take a long time, unless I am working to a firm word limit, which can actually help quite a lot with envisioning the final shape.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A phrase or a striking expression will start re-playing itself in my head, or an image or feeling that has been lurking just subconsciously, will emerge in the full cold light of creative consciousness and demand to be entered into creative process, to be put to work. That is always a thrilling moment.
I began writing poems in my teens without seeking publication until I was in my later thirties. For Cosmophilia a number of different pieces came together, as you say, for the larger project. My next work, which I started a year ago, is "a book from the very beginning" - thematically definite and singular - I am aiming for it to be a book-length poem or sequence.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Yes in moderation. There can be a palpable sense of emotional feedback from a live audience, where you feel the resonance of your lines in their facial responses. I think public readings must have influenced my creative process, too, because of my readings of Urdu poetry and learning about mushairas in literary Urdu-speaking cities. Ghazals for instance are absolutely geared to performance, while not all of my work is really suited to being read out in front of a room full of people. Some of the longer narrative and meditative poems really demand to be alone with the reader. For some poems I even idealize a reader who has taken the time to be alone with them, who would even be ferocious against interruption.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think the central question I want to always start from is how to make a poem effective, how to use language strikingly, to work my ideas and my language up to the potential that the form of poetry offers. It can take a great deal of concentration to remain focused on language, on the really central creative work, however, coming from my community. Peripheral issues around identity, and our current political impasse, being Muslim in the western hemisphere, can move into the centre, so that you can be made to feel you should have some answers for people whose fears arise from - what? Not having done enough reading? Not having talked to their neighbours? The idea that every Muslim has to cite their religious identity or represent their community to their utmost, is one I've come to strongly oppose over the last decade. It has cost us the ability to discern what is an appropriate entry point for discussing any aspect of our work, or what's relevant, and what kinds of questions anyone has the right to ask us. A few years ago, for instance, I heard a radio interview with an Iranian poet in Hamilton, during which the interviewer asked him to comment on the recent-at-the-time Boston Marathon bombings. The question had nothing to do with the poet, his work, or his life, but he rallied the best he could, from sheer politeness. It was supposed to be a show about literature, yet the conversation had to slip sideways into this confrontational, ideologically confined space, which has become a normative way for mainstream media to deal with Muslim voices in North American culture. So guarding my creative and intellectual energies somewhat protectively, to give myself the space to address the questions I want to address - aesthetic and philosophical - has become a kind of theoretical concern. Entry points for conversations about the work have become almost as important as the entry points from which I embark on a work. It's equally important that both arise from the love of language and its possibilities, and for me to be rigorous in demanding this of myself and the people who want to talk to me.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To keep language alive. To keep words from losing their meaning.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
To follow my instincts. Also on the cover of a book I saw on a high bookshelf once in a shop: "Feel the fear and do it anyway".
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Since first learning to read poetry seriously and to construct prose arguments, in high school, I have continued to feel that I need both.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Being the parent of a school-aged kid anchors my writing routine from September to June. My typical workday begins with cutting fruits and veggies for him, and steeping caffeine for me, and then I dive in as soon as he puts on his backpack and goes out the door. I only stopped walking him to the school bus a few months ago, because he asked. Those four blocks and back in all weathers before 8:30 am was a great way to clear my head, though, so I might tag along with him again when Spring Break is over. I like my summer writing routine best - to head for Kits pool on a late afternoon and wash off hours of sitting at the computer, feels deeply luxurious.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I walk. I'm very restless and I've learned to make that work for me instead of resisting it. Also, I buy new notebooks whenever I find one I like, without guilt, and lately the things I write get scattered across different ones, and my handwriting is getting messier. Hunting up old notes - "Where did I hurriedly scribble that one thought I had about this topic while I was out shopping? Is that a w or an r?" - is a fun way to break out of a stall.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Things being boiled in water: cardamom, and rice.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My work is influenced by art in many forms. I try to go to art shows when I travel and for most of my life I've looked at or read and thought about Islamic art, architecture, and art history in particular, which a lot of the poems in COSMOPHILIA draw upon. Traditional textile art is a thing I've lived with all my life, through my mum and her family. My title poem is about the art of Kashmiri shawl embroidery. I studied film at school, and art history was a component of that, too. There is a strong connection for me between reciting verses from the Quran, which I was taught as a kid, and the way I respond to music and singing, that definitely influenced how I hear poetry and in some cases how I write it. Many hip hop artists from the middle east have said the same thing, for instance, about how the sound of the muezzin calling at prayer time influences their lyrical style. I expect these forms to continue to shape how I think and what I write about. I can also get really intense about fiction in a way I can't explain and don't completely understand. I am trying to persevere in writing about it more. I recently finished writing a piece about an Alice Munro story that, on first reading, filled me with dread and loathing. I get impatient waiting for new books from writers I'm interested in and I hate waiting for people to finish reading the books I've finished and want to talk about, because hardly anyone shares my sense of urgency.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
To write COSMOPHILIA, it was important for me to read Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry. The poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), a Kashmiri-American writing in English, whose books I read over the decade before I began to think about putting my own collection together, served as my main introduction to a few major voices from within those three traditions, especially Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) and Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008). Darwish's sequence "Eleven Stars Over Andalusia" as translated by Shahid with Ahmed Dallal has been incredibly important to me. Shahid has definitely been a writer important to my life, and my thinking continues to be enriched by the depth of the multiple literary traditions he draws from, his exuberance and precision of style, and by his emotional fearlessness.
The writers whose work has been really foundational to my life, who showed me what is possible or what I could be capable of doing, are the critics Edward Said and John Berger, and several Muslim feminist scholars and memoirists: Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Azar Nafisi, and Sara Suleri Goodyear.
Right now I am reading the mid-century Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad with English translations, and I will need to find time to read more poetry by women writing in Urdu and Farsi later this year. And I am keenly anticipating Amit Majmudar's new collection of poems which is coming out this spring.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to memorize some couplets of Ghalib in Urdu and Hafiz in Persian. I would like to visit Iceland. I would like to experience living in a city where I can go days without speaking English. I would like to learn to practice a formal type of dance. This last thing is not really an achievement, but sheer wishful thinking: I would like (this feels like an outrageous thing to ask for in this city) to have someone make me a perfect cup of coffee because they love me and want me to be happy, not because they need the job to survive in Vancouver.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think I would study medicine out of sheer nerdish curiosity.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I just have to write. I've never seriously turned away from it. I can't honestly account for my tenacity except it just feels necessary to my survival.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I love this question. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates' BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME and Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN, hugely important and inspiring polemical works. I read them both while flying (though on different trips), which I also highly recommend. Two great films I also watched on planes recently and loved were THE END OF THE TOUR which is about several days of compelling conversations about writing between David Foster Wallace and David Lipsky, and, on a flight from Delhi to London I saw the Bollywood classic UMRAO JAAN, which is set in Lucknow during the 1850s, and filled with gorgeous cinematography and Persianate Urdu poetry.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Some prose essays of criticism and an ongoing book about Muslim culture in North America.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;