FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH PARWANA FAYYAZ

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION:When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

PARWANA FAYYAZ: I first started writing poetry when I learned English as a second language in 2010. In the year 2011, with the advice I received from my mentor Mary, I took a creative writing class, the Art of the Personal Essay. The first essay we had to write was on ‘how do I identify myself?’ I thought of my name Parwana. In Persian, Parwana means butterfly, at least that’s what my parents told me growing up. Shahparak (another colloquial name for Parwana),where are your wings? Fly high… my cousins used to tease me around if I ever got annoyed by them or was critical of their mischievousness.

I wrote about my life journey from a girl spending all her time in the kitchen to spending my life with books in the libraries. I titled this prose-poetry essay piece ‘silkworm to butterfly’. The purpose of the essay was to celebrate my own journey as well as to share my hope for the Afghan women’s journey to take a turn like mine had taken. Not knowing what exactly could be the reason for such a turn in anyone’s life – personal choices, or having good men around. I was then told that I was a writer. I never believed it.

I started having all these strange questions about all the things I encountered around me and that drew me to poetry. Like a philosopher and a thinker, my poetry became my philosophy of life on little things I cared about. I realised that everything I wrote not only reflected my own life, but was also about the other women’s lives that surrounded me – in memories.

As a kid, I read Rumi’s famous book of poetry, The Mathnawi, in school. It starts with the song of the reed. ‘Listen to the reed that narrates a tale, / and complains about separations…’ The reed is the hollowest plant, and thus it sings the loudest. And it sings what is blown into it. Painful echoes create throbbing songs. Joy of the chest in return brings festive songs. The reed is the throat. The thinner and smaller kind of the reed is used to make pens. Persian poets dipped their reed in ink to write their poetry. The chest of any person is the creator of song through the reed, and with a reed the poet writes poem/songs – due to the hollowness and absorbing nature of the reed, we have poems and songs preserved in pages.

And my poetry became my form of the reed to blow on and to write with. Poetry is about making sense of the things we can’t otherwise. My everyday life makes more sense through poetry.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

PF: I love words. I remember my very first poem which was about my mother. I wrote it in 2010, I had moved to Bangladesh for my studies in 2009 was missing her greatly. Then I wrote my second poem about some unseen fire that I felt had been ignited behind the closed door that I was standing next to. The feelings and emotions in making those poems were about missing home, living in a different land and also finding a way to pierce through present moments to look into future. I captured the duration in writing my poems. I used to look up to the moon at night. And sometimes silent supplications found their ways into my poetry.

I think I used poetry as a way to escape nostalgia but also to remain in the present moment. I certainly missed my mother more than anyone when I left to study abroad. She became the subject of my poetry. Not only did she become an inspiring subject for my poetry but through poetry I seemed to express my gratitude for her allowing me to leave home. That first poem I wrote about her must have the answer for my development as a writer of poems. I must have the poem somewhere in my old computer. What goes into the first poem speaks of how one thinks in her/his immature poetic mind which can also be the truth.

More than words, I know that I love pictures, images. I remember images before words. If we are to compare the two with the nature, I would say: Words are like water for me – running and clean/unclean. Images are mountains – solid and unmoving, green or brown, under the snow or the rain and in co-existence with the words. I rely on images to help me and let me express – so they have some sort of power over me. Even my words remain incomplete against the images that appears as beauties. All I think about life is based on what I see on daily basis in images. That being said, I feel, I’ve always been a poet. I just happen to write them down now – as I have learnt a precise language for self-expression.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

PF: I believe that a good poem in essence should captivate the reader in heart and mind. To being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes means that my poetry has made sense to the valuable reader(s). The poem communicates a story about forty women jumping off a cliff to preserve their honour. There are some vivid images, metaphors and a simple language to convey the whole idea. We are now more familiar with the mountain that was named after this (perhaps semi-mythical) story but not the names of the forty girls. I have tried to give names to these women in this single poem. And I thank the judges’ sensitivity in choosing this poem to be shortlisted. So thank you.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

PF: The poem is called ‘Forty Names’, in Persian it is called chehal dokhtaran, and a literal translation would be forty daughters/girls. It is a poem about a story told by my father or mother when I was a child. It is about a mountain called kohichehal dokhtaran, the forty girls’ mountain. My poem tries to re-narrate the story by giving the forty women their names, a lamp and their colourful scarves. I grew up with my parents’ stories, they have served as life-lessons to become wise, clever, and serious in life. And most of my poems are inspired by those stories and memories from my childhood. And in particular this story of forty daughters. The PN Review has kindly published this poem along with three others in issue 241, May-June 2018.

I hope to publish a book of poetry soon after I complete my PhD dissertation at Trinity College, Cambridge. I have been working on the collection since 2012. The common themes that my poems share are women, war, and me in the in-between.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work? 

PF: My admiration for poets really varies based on what purpose I feel poetry should serve. I like to read Rumi when I am in search of words and ways to think of the essence and the inner world, the heart. For the sake of my mind, I read clever poets like Plath, T. S. Eliot, Whitman, Frost and especially Emily Dickinson. For inspiration and celebration, I read John Keats and Wordsworth. For memories and the past, I read Eavan Boland, whom I had a great time working with at Stanford for four years, and the deceased Afghan female poet Nadia Anjuman, who always visited me through poetry in my conversations with Boland.

As for now, I admire the 15th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic scholar Jami, the subject of my PhD dissertation. He wrote a whole narrative poem about a dangerous love-story between a wet-nurse (Absal) and the young prince (Salaman) she once suckled. I admire Jami taking for his risktaking and cleverness in choosing to write this poem and to include it in one of his most celebrated Sufi collections of poetry, Haft Awrang or The Seven Thrones.  I have learnt so much about this poet through this one long poem. I don’t rely on other secondary sources to understand the poet and his life and political engagements. A poet like him takes the risk to relay to the stories that recount human experiences in the simplest and most human form, while the mystical or otherworldly is left unexpressed, at least indirectly, for it serves a purpose only in silence.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

PF: I would like to bring more poetry to a general audience. So I hope to publish a book of poetry and dedicate it to my mother and Nadia Anjuman.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

PF: Keep writing your poems. There are things that can only make sense in words and in poetry. Such as how the stars make us feel when everyone is asleep, and you find yourself still awake like the moon and the stars. The feeling that becomes a bridge between you and the stars is called poetry. If you can walk on the bridge, touch the dust and sense the beauty – you are the poet in your soul, if you ever realise that, then you must write your poems and keep writing them. Without excuses and pauses, you must keep walking on that light bridge, and you should know there is no destination, but just walking and pacing.