Sunday, May 12, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Azad Ashim Sharma

Azad Ashim Sharma is the director of the87press, poetry editor at the CLR James Journal, Philosophy and Global Affairs, and a PhD Candidate in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London. He holds a BA in English and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Critical Theory from the University of Sussex as well as an MA in Creative-Critical Writing from Birkbeck College. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently, Boiled Owls (Nightboat Books/Out Spoken Press, 2024). He is the recipient of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista Outstanding Book Award (2023). He lives in South London. His poetry and essays have been published widely and internationally, most recently in Wasafiri.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, Against the Frame, initially appeared as a chapbook from Barque Press in 2017 in the UK and consisted of a single sequence of short poems that excavated the colonial wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in the context of growing Islamophobia in the ‘liberal’ Global North from the position of a Muslim subject living in ‘Brexit Britain’. I was 25 years old when it was released and extracts appeared in zines/online publications from Oakland to Nepal. I read from it in a host of different spaces and it received a second printing quite quickly after its launch. At that time I was very much in the throes of addiction and had sadly had to drop out of a Master’s programme at my alma matter, the University of Sussex. I was invited to read in Delhi at a small literature festival in Feb 2018. Afterwards, I decided to pull my application to Law School (I was going to give it all up, the poetry and the drugs and the booze, go on the ‘straight and narrow’ etc), I decided to apply to another MA programme in London and give myself another chance to live a life of letters. I don’t think I’d’ve done that had it not been for the small successes that chapbook gave me in terms of achievement and connection to a reading public that was international yet localised, intimate, affecting yet critically sound. Not that any of those qualities are necessarily mutually exclusive. That chapbook also catalysed my friendship with Kashif Sharma-Patel, my now closest friend and the head editor of the87press, a publishing company we co-founded in 2018.

A 5th Anniversary edition of Against the Frame was published in 2022 by Broken Sleep Books. This expanded edition of the original moves dialectically from the initial critique of white supremacy and imperial war towards a critique of identity politics with a Sufi inspired musical-mythopoetic interlude. It is bookended by two critical papers, one by Kashif and another by Lisa Jeschke who took the collection in its earlier chapbook form to a summer school where refugees from the Global South were being taught English as a second language. That Lisa took my book directly to the people it sought to express solidarity with and that they wrote poetry back to me, as part of their many educational workshops and activities, remains one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from this life. I’ll be forever grateful for that connection to disparate others who have suffered more than I could possibly imagine due to my residence in the Global North but with whom I am always in solidarity. Against the Frame may have not won awards or reached thousands of people, but the folks it did reach it registered with. In terms of my small life’s trajectory: it was world-making. In similar vein, Kashif’s essay really placed my work in a critical and discursive context, evoking much of our conversations over the years. I’m really grateful to know my work was read on its terms and responded too. I think that’s the most a writer can hope for, really.

My third collection, for which I’m currently on tour, is called Boiled Owls and it began in 2017, the year my first chapbook was released. It charts the trials and tribulations of a subject in the throes of addiction, seeking recovery, relapse, family and radical care. It’s a very different collection both in subject matter and form. But there are similarities in terms of compositional elements, the use of theoretical and philosophical language as part of the poetic weave, the insistence on approaching complexity with nuance, the penchant for outbursts of anger or finding a form for rage in the face of so much death and destruction.  Yet there’s a tightness to the formal experiments and enjambed lines in Boiled Owls that is perhaps less consistent in both Against the Frame and my second collection Ergastulum which was a work of collage between the lyric in its times and the existential subject. Above all it feels like Boiled Owls is materially a very different book, it’s published by Nightboat Books in the USA and Out-Spoken Press in the UK. I’m currently on this wild 30 day book tour for it in the USA, ending up with a reading at the largest regular poetry night in Europe, Out Spoken’s series at the Southbank Centre in London. I’m just doing my best to stay grounded and embrace all these new experiences. But that isn’t so different from how I felt in 2017 when my chapbook came out and I travelled, alone for the first time, to Delhi to read at a festival. That my work has given me these opportunitoes, to be on the threshold of new experiences and make new connections with people and institutions, remains the great wonder of all of this life in letters. But even as I type this, I’m thinking of how to open myself to the next challenge the language and the poetry has to offer.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

In truth – I didn’t. I initially started with drawing and painting. My mother would often take me to art galleries in London and I was fascinated by abstraction, street art, and surrealism. I first experimented with writing concurrent to my indulgence in art, aged 10-13, with short stories that mimicked the wizards and elves LOTR world and crossed them with action scenes inspired by my obsession with Dragon Ball Z. I wrote one in an exam for secondary school and I think a teacher expressed concern at the descriptions of violence to my mother so I stopped writing them. I then progressed to song writing by the age of 14. Poetry only came to my life aged 16/17 when I was under the spell of adolescence and all those embarrassing memories. I became ‘serious’ about poetry during my bachelors at the University of Sussex. The funny thing is, I’m also working on a lot of critical writing (non-fiction) and a novel as part of my PhD. So I’m still working across forms and learning the ropes of different demands placed on language by them. I guess the poet who made me want to write was John Donne for, alas, he was the most exciting poet on the syllabus at school during those years. Shakespeare was fun but mechanical when taught for the express purpose of examinations. But as I always tell writers I’m working with or students I teach through workshops, I was always a reader first – it was reading which came to me and helped me address more complexity in the world both real and imagined. Poetry is just the form that the majority of my thoughts thus far have chosen to take. But that won’t always be the case, I don’t think. 

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?

Oh it varies so much! Boiled Owls took me six years to write, with many errant tangents explored and a lot of editing. It started just as an attempt to help myself make sense of what I was going through, addiction and the attempts at recovery. Against the Frame was written in 18 months and then expanded five years later in about 12 months. Ergastulum was about 12 months of consistent, almost daily and intense, writing alongside research. My PhD is well into its third year and fast approaching its fourth. I’m due to submit in 2026 which means I’ll have been enrolled for about 5 years in total. I’ve an intense few years ahead with that lined up for sure! All writing is, is just re-writing and editing, finding peers to help you see things from a different perspective, bibliomancy, that sort of thing. It’s the great challenge of repetition but also the even greater challenge of managing consistency in a fast world by giving yourself the time to slow down.

In general my research and reading phases don’t often yield copious notes but I do re-read texts multiple times and find different ways of putting the ideas, as they are represented in language (with new difficult conceptual terms), to use in the line, the clause, the stanza, the poem, etc. Often the poems in their final form look vastly different to their drafts, partly because I only play around with space and tighten the form once I’ve discovered the order of the language or the order the language requires. The main techniques I use are automatic writing, collage, and what Keston Sutherland would call a ‘philological poetics’ where I position my work, at least in my mind when composing, as in dialogue with other poets, philosophers, ideas, discourses.

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?

Most of my poems begin in transit – usually on trains or busses and I hastily note down ideas on my phone or in a notebook if I’m feeling especially whimsical that day. I then usually receive a burst of energy at around 5am the next day and simply have to wake up and go straight to the desk to write, by hand, until I’ve no more to give to the page. That can yield pieces of varying length but if I know I’m working on a ‘book’ I collate them and play around with ordering, usually under the supervision of a mentor or editor, before I take a long break from the work and read with fresher eyes. At the moment I’m working on a novel of around 70,000 words and a selection of essays totalling 30,000 words. But part of that is also to prepare, from the essays, talks and shorter essays to explore the ideas I’m grappling with in greater detail and depth. I’m also thinking of my next collection of poetry and am writing some drafts, putting ideas and words down, but this is very embryonic at the moment and nothing feels settled or assured. I do usually think in constellations, looking towards the temporary container words like ‘book’, ‘collection’, ‘sequence’, ‘chapter’ seem to give writers. Often it takes the editor I’m working with (or friend) to show me when to ‘stop’ the writing as I always flirt over enthusiastically with that boundary or edge, where the precision sometimes dissipates into something else that is too much or ‘too far’. My partner is usually my first reader and she’s got this great knack of telling me when I need to start again or focus more because I can do better; she hasn’t been wrong thus far!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to enjoy reading from draft work regularly to ‘test’ how they felt in the mouth, how they registered with an audience, that sort of thing. But these days I prefer not to give public readings of drafts and work quietly and more privately until giving a flurry of public readings and then moving on, going quiet again and getting back to the work and the study. I do enjoy readings when I do them, though. They’re unique ways of meeting readers. Just this week I was at the University of Connecticut and I realised that for many of the students in the audience, I was the first poet they’d seen read in person. Some members of the audience had autistic siblings, like me, and it was a wonderful feeling to know the poems in Boiled Owls that do not exceptionalise but explore care-giving as a daily ritual, almost mundane in its challenges, registered with them or made their experiences visible in a new way for them. My work is moving into a different kind of reading-performance, mostly influenced by the work I see writers like Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, Bhanu Kapil, and Sophie Seita doing more regularly. These performances are much more in keeping with the expansive and cross-cultural aspirations of my current work and I hope to perform not only with musicians and artists but to also ‘exhibit’ my poetry in art spaces to play with their reception, or the scene of their reception, in more dynamic ways. Yet even as I type that, there’s something quite unique about a poetry night in its traditional format, a poet clutching onto a book or loose sheaves as if letting go would end their world, a quivering voice, the wit and levity we all get from that sociality. As long as I am able to, I don’t see a scenario in which I don’t read my poetry publicly, it’s a public art that also remakes and realigns publics around this unique art form.

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?

All my writing carries a strong relationship to various strands of philosophy and critical theory. My debut was concerned with both anticolonialism and critical race theory. It’s also a work that embraces the movement of the dialectic, moving from ‘racialisation’ from the ‘exterior’ back to the interiorisation of race as a measure of value, an imbibing of the colonial gaze as part of the conscription to epistemic coloniality, it’s conditioning of writing. Ergastulum, which won a 2023 Guillén award with the Caribbean Philosophical Association, embraced more temporal and existential questions proceeding from the loss of touch during the COVID-19 pandemic whilst undergirding those explorations with the metaphysical and quantum questions of matter, the body, and a situated perspective on time as duration. I really was inspired by Lewis Gordon’s Freedom, Justice, Decolonization with that book. Boiled Owls also has many concerns that might be less theoretical than they are based deeply on lived experience under capitalism, the contemporary and recent discourses about addiction and recovery, and a literary concern with how to move beyond the addiction-recovery binary. A thesis for the book might sound something like this: If capitalism produced addiction as the emptying out of consciousness into a vessel for the commodity’s movement in the world, could recovery offer a socialist resistance to capitalism? I’m not sure the book necessarily answers that question but it presents that question through the merging of image, biography, research into the current issue of cocaine abuse in the UK (which is also a current global issue). It is also a deeply existential phenomenology of addiction, trying to pin down what is happening to the human psyche, spirit and soul, during that trial. I also see some glimmers of utopian gestures that are imbricated in life’s quotidian mundanity, episodes of family life or a walk in the park take on new significances in the midst of the collection’s progression. I’m not sure what will come next in terms of the theoretical concerns with my next collection, I’ve not gotten there yet. My novel and critical writing are generally concerned with anti-/ colonialism, late-/modernism and contemporary iterations of the Avant Garde.  

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I’m sceptical of writers being prescribed roles – it really depends on what we mean by ‘larger culture’. If we see culture as an exclusive by-product of that peculiar nexus between capitalism and fascism which people euphemistically call ‘nationalism’ then I really see no role for the writer other than that of a boot licker – and there are many who take that kind of role extremely seriously! It also comes through the unfortunate frameworks we are taught to use to parcellate literature off, which makes sense for academic study and the good standards of research that most universities generally ascribe to, but, for instance, the idea of ‘English’ Literature or ‘French’ or any other language however endangered, tends to forge an inward looking culture. I’ve always been interested in thresholds between different cultural zones, larger culture could here mean an enlarged conception of culture, the cross-cultural matrix Wilson Harris has so eloquently written about. In that sense, the writer’s role is perhaps to do the work of tuning into this long and beautiful song, a song we know as a the poetic tradition in its various forms. I often ask students not only if they’re fit to write but if they’re fit to read. What I mean by that is: are you ready to be taken by this tradition and not let go of it but continue seeking for the rest of your life? Because that is the kind of commitment I’ve made to all of this if I’m being honest and it’s a commitment infused with radical politics, revolutionary thought, communist and socialist organising. But it’s not a commitment premised on tasks – I will never be done reading or writing but I also don’t think writers should shun the hard pragmatic work of helping imagine and create the better world we all could be living in. Some of that involves making your work with the view that it can assist those dreams in coming to reality, but there’s just so much you could do with that. For example, I’m donating my first royalty payments to mutual aid causes in support of Palestine. I’ll be giving half the total amount to Makan Rights, a Palestinian-led educational organisation, and the other half will go to the European Legal Support Centre so they can continue their important work defending activists from censorship, prison, etc. I say that not with ego, but just to give an example, because I’ve never met a writer living and thriving exclusively off of royalties. Most of the writers I know do other work, scholarship, educational, and a host of other things all the way from construction to curation. Most of the writers I know and love are not boot-licking national celebrities, in other words. A writer’s sole role, in the only sense I can conceive of it, is to read and write and continue the tradition – but often the writers who are held up as celebrity writers are doing the opposite, they’re just so flagrantly capitalistic, identity reductionist, and they speak in this strange coded language that sounds less and less like literature and more and more like bad television or wellness/travel blog. In a landscape, a global landscape, where our freedoms and our commons are facing a heightened period of erosion, erasure, and eradication, writers really do have the responsibility of pushing the boundaries of language to open up the political horizon. I was recently interrupted by a student on tour who was gregarious, well-intentioned, but quickly revealed an awful truth: he asked me why someone would write a book let alone read a book because he felt he’d prefer to just look up the summary and, in his words, ‘download the information’. This is exactly the sort of idiocy that our current era of global capitalism is actively nurturing and if we, as writers, do not use our voices and our words to be in service of the people, we will all be left without healthcare, education, public transport, social housing and a habitable planet. But our contribution can’t come from writing alone, we need to be with people right now with more than our words. We need to be in the street not on substack or twitter – those platforms have their uses but it’s quite clear that it’s a very undemocratic way of looking at cultural production and one that is more in assistance to the cult of celebrity than it is to democratising the arts etc. The reason it’s undemocratic is because I don’t believe undermining good standards in the world of letters equates to ‘socialisation’ in whatever sense the post-internet defenders conceive of it. The writer should connect the reader with the social world of existence on this planet, root the reader and position them in the difficult nuances we face as a collective at this dire moment in a long interregnum, and then, and only then, can we try and steer the reader towards an expanded political horizon, if they haven’t gotten their already by themselves. Part of that means encouraging good and rigorous scholarship, the pursuit of knowledge, a craft talk about editorial and ethics instead of networking or the over valorisation of provisional and provincial projects. A writer’s role is certainly not about pursuing the art for an award, worrying about followers, practising envy, jealousy, and all the other kinds of isolating bigotry that so many writing communities suffer from. But neither is a resistance to all things writerly the best way to proceed, as if all one really desires is a very literal echo-chamber, a pub reading with the same usual suspects all circulating the same long-arm stapler made pamphlets. There are enough independent publishers in this world ready to support new (and old) authors in the literary commons. It saddens me to see left-wing writing circles become so stubbornly insulated from those important developments in the ‘industry’ which are trying to make real concrete changes in the ways in which literature is circulated, for example: publishers who are actively socialising the industry or campaigns to divest publishing from fossil fuels or the arms trade. We really need those initiatives to be successful if we want more democratic literary cultures to emerge. We all need to stop internalising the literature qua an industrial complex and focus on lifting one another up, setting up initiatives and building collective infrastructures be they unions, distribution channels, new forms of award-giving. It’s not only our role to change the language, but also to move the tradition along whilst paying homage to those who came before us. We have no meaning alone.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Difficult and essential. Difficult because any writer who has gone through an editorial knows what it means to feel bruised but often for the better, like after an intense deep tissue massage. Essential because, my word, the publishing industry is really wild right now and most of it is all marketing, whatever nonsense ‘BookTok’ is, lots of boozy lunches and ultimately just a ruthless pursuit of profit for profit’s sake. Big publishers don’t actually care about the quality of literature or the tradition or representation or equity. That’s why the space for editorial is shrinking and writers are being judged on how photogenic they are rather than how they write. Book Tok is just diabolical. Go and talk to a book seller or a librarian for recommendations. Following this algorithmic colonisation of literature is really soul destroying. Anyway, yes, editorial! Be in that space. Marketing is the easy bit. Editorial on the other hand is like a dojo, you’ve got to go and train, rehearse the same sequences over and over, argue, stretch, find flexibility, pliability in your work, and most importantly, build a relationship on the mutual trust that the writer and editor are there for the express and exclusive purpose of making the work a better contribution to the life of letters. Editorial is a bit like an anvil, you have to let someone else hammer out all the imperfections until your work reaches its final form. But if you’re not really up for that kind of process then maybe think about why that is? We all go through moments of sublime arrogance, it’s a very human feeling, to think one knows best, to have that desire, after months or years, of being and feeling ‘in control’ of the language, to then take that effort seriously until the point of critique, critique made by someone else with the intention of helping you bring out its merit. I love the language we use in editorials, too, for example, the verb ‘to polish’ takes on this wonderful meaning. A little more polish to be had on that line, might be a note you’ll receive, and then you go and think about what it means to apply polish to a poem. Is a poem like a shoe? Is polishing here the same as polishing there, a form of caring for the object, for ensuring its best qualities, tones, and textures are brought to light? How about the word ‘quicken’ – I’ve often been told to ‘quicken’ up my lines. I find that one hilarious as an ex drug addict! But it does, however, make a lot of sense! Sometimes I’m writing poetry and prose simultaneously, working on different projects, and there’s always a little bleed – the poetry seeps into the prose and vice versa. A good and patient editor (such that I’ve been blessed with at both Nightboat and Out Spoken) knows when to point that out, when the language can fall loose, when it needs to be firmer. All of those rapidly accumulating words about the material qualities of language also attest to the fact that editorial is a world of substance whereas marketing is a shallow and two dimensional world of advertisement. The reason I oppose the two is because of my experience as a publisher and as a poet – I really value strong editorial. It’s what shapes writers but the difficulties involved with it are also necessary for a good process. Forming a bond build on trust and the freedom to challenge is a difficult endeavour but one we should cherish and speak about more.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

If you’re struggling to write: shut up, sit down, and write.

If you’re juggling too much writing: slow down; slow the fuck down.

If you’re feeling isolated, undervalued, or patronised: delete the apps and go to the library.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Honestly I don’t have a regular writing routine, I usually adjust what I’m doing to meet the demands of the work, the deadline, the feeling. I like to rise early, do some meditation and my usual 12 steps routine after a cigarette and a coffee.

If I need to write I tend to block of days from my day job as the moment I open the Gmail app on my phone it’s curtains! I’ll end up sucked into the relentlessness of admin and it is nigh on impossible for me to be associative-minded, which is a way I’m thinking about creative poetics at the moment. If I approach writing as a task and not as a process, I’m absolutely not doing any writing. It’ll get to that stage when I want to write but I’m frustrated because something feels blocked.

I also recently took up mentoring with my old professor Dr Ruth Charnock who has such a wonderful, warm, and welcoming writing mentorship programme now. Ruth is brilliant and has really helped me tune into a practice of writing that meets the demands of my life as it has moved into realms at once sober, spiritual, and social, often simply by holding space and gently guiding my thoughts to often perplexingly generative insights. We recently did this exercise where we read tarot for my novel’s characters so I could figure out how they’d interact based on the archetypical projections tarot offers as a way of making sense of the world. I think working with Ruth has opened me up to being less, how to say, rigid about my own writing, less immediately brutally critical of it, more compassionate to the process.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

If I’m stuck with my novel I re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses. If I’m stuck with poetry I read J H Prynne. If I’m stuck with critical writing I often turn back to Nathaniel Mackey’s Discrepant Engagement or Sara Crangle’s Prosaic Desires. If I’m stuck due to a lack of imagination – Wilson Harris or China Mieville. If I’m stuck because of a lack of motivation – Lewis R. Gordon. If I need to get more clarity I love Jane Anna Gordon’s writing, it’s so lucid and authoritative. On tour I’ve found it really hard to connect with my reading practice but I picked up Lyn Hejinian’s The Language of Enquiry and I feel like this text will be with me in a similar vein, a text I’ll return to many times. I also think it’s about finding what ‘feeds’ the writing, you know, like what type of text do you as a writer need to read or be reading, in order to hold onto that energy and persistence with the page. For me there’s such strong evidence that the best writing I’ve produced has always been when I’ve been reading a lot of critical theory and philosophy. For other poets, reading other poetry is enough, for me it just isn’t. I need that breadth to what I’m absorbing, that nutritional diversity!

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I could really sound like a cliché diaspora poet here but: ghee. Hot ghee in a pan. Mmmmm!

13 - 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?

All of that and more! Right now: Nature = grief. Music = elation. Science = information. Visual art = meditation. Of those examples, though, Nature, Music, and Visual Art are the three that stand out as consistent influences. Science does interest me, but I’m usually unable to separate it from ‘nature’ because so much of what we think of as the natural world is mediated through science.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

The poetry of Bhanu Kapil and of Anthony Ezekiel Vahni Capildeo. I’d be lost without their magic, their friendships, and their sage wisdom. The only other books I’d place close to theirs would be The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and The Holy Qu’ran.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

There’s so much of this world I haven’t seen, I’d love to travel more and meet new people, perhaps without the expectation of poetry. I’d love to teach at a university and help with institution building in that way. Right now, I’m at peace with the wonderful life I’m leading with an openness and excitement around what’s coming around the corner.

16 - 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’d join the Communist Party and run for office or build with the movement or become a plumber.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Being in the right place at the right time, luck, fortune, stubbornness.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Nathaniel Mackey’s Double Trio remains the most singular poetry achievement I can recall by any living poet in a long time – I’ve read a lot of great poetry books on tour, debuts by Jaqueline Baldarrama, Susan Nguyen, and I’ve been doing a deeper dive into Ed Dorn’s selected. I’m also about to read a book by Devonya N. Havis called Creating a Black Vernacular Philosophy which I’m really excited about. The last great film I watched was American Fictionbased on another wonderful book by the indomitable Percival Everett.

19 - What are you currently working on?

A lecture for the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Summer School in June on Late Modernist Poetics of Time and Subjectivity which is essentially an epistolary review of Oscar Guardiola-Rivera’s first two books in his Night of the World trilogy with the87press.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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