Shadab Zeest Hashmi was doing her MFA at Warren Wilson College in the US about 10 years back when she read ghazals by Adrienne Rich and other poets and got more interested in the form when she read Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s English ghazals. She is still continuing with her exploration of the ghazal genre though she herself has become a great practitioner and exponent of the form.
“Agha Shahid Ali had taught at Warren Wilson College and his friends and colleagues were there. They suggested to me that I should write ghazals in English and I did that,” she says while talking about her early years and experiences with ghazal during a casual talk with Dawn at the Lahore Literary Festival where she also launched her third book, Ghazal Cosmopolitan, a collection of her essays on ghazal and Qasidah forms along with her English ghazals. Her earlier two books are of poems, Baker of Tarifa (2010) and Kohl and Chalk (2013).
“Kohl and Chalk, my second collection of poetry, has ghazals that had no radeef (refrain) but had qafia (rhyme). I just kept refining the form over the years. During my MFA programme that I wrote a craft lecture when we were asked to teach and I taught ghazals during my class. That lecture became an essay, which is published in Ghazal Cosmopolitan.”
Divulging more about her most recent book, Shadab says, “When you read this book, you would find out that I talk about growing up in a culture (Pakistan) where ghazal form was popular in singing. I was 19 when I left the country for the US where I did undergrad and MFA”.
Besides ghazals, Shadab also writes qasida, another classical form having origins in Arabic language just like ghazal. When asked how she came about writing this classical form she said, “I read (Spanish legendary poet) Lorca’s qasidas and then I looked for the form in Arabic, reading translations from Andalusi poets. There were Spanish poets who wrote in Arabic. And I was just interested in their themes and their practice of qasida as a form”.
Shadab says qasida genre has really faded away despite its practitioners in Urdu and Persian as opposed to ghazal that has been kept alive in different cultures and that nobody is really following the classical qasida form anymore.
“There are a few poets who are trying to experiment with the qasida form but not in the same way as the ghazal and they are not as successful. In contrast, ghazal has been adapting itself according to the cultures it went to. That’s why I have called the new book Ghazal Cosmopolitan. Besides Persian and Urdu, there is Pashtu ghazal, Turkish ghazal and ghazal in all the Central Asian languages.”
Shadab’s first book, Baker of Tarifa, has Spanish themes. When asked about the reason for Spanish themes in her poetry, she says it all started at the Reed College as an undergrad she came across Allama Iqbal’s famous poem Masjid-i-Qurtaba. Around the same time, a troupe of musicians called Al-Andalus Ensemble who performed Andalusi music in traditional attire, using classical Spanish instruments. They performed and spoke about Al-Andalus and its culture of tolerance. She got very intrigued and wanted to know more about the culture.
“I went to Spain and visited Masjid-i-Qurtaba (Cordoba) and I tried to match my feelings with Iqbal’s feelings. I was half my age then and my understanding of the poem was not same as it is today. It took me a long time to reflect on the spiritual aspects of the poem. I hope I can write an appreciation of the poem in English. I want to delve into Allama Iqbal’s interpretation of Al-Andalus and his interpretation of Islamic ideals of the fine arts because he thinks fine arts are connected with spirituality. There is nothing like this in Western poets and artists.”
Talking about Iqbal, Shadab thinks people had politicised his work. She says the chief concern of his work is to look at the world around him from the lens of history with having enough knowledge of Western Civilisation and Islam’s own political as well as mystic history and conflicts.
“Allama Iqbal’s poetry comes from a reservoir of deep knowledge. It’s very fashionable to say that he is always talking about his religion but for me he is more than how he is being interpreted right now.”
When asked about the current practitioners of English ghazal as genre, which is not easy to deal for Western poets, she thinks there are enough poets who know the form very well, including the elements of qafia (rhyme) and radeef (refrain). “They write very good ghazals in English but that can’t be said about everybody. Not everybody who is writing poetry in English can write a good ghazal as everybody doesn’t understand how ghazal functions. One has to invest time in learning another form.”
To the question about the future of English ghazal when poetry is opening up more and more with the passage of time and people taking the easy way out as is evident from Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur and her ilk, Shadab is optimistic about the future of ghazal. “English ghazal has a bright future because there are so many MFA programmes and there are so many poets who are trying out new forms. So ghazal writing is only going to grow with time. But the question is whether people are going to do it responsibly and they are going to learn about the form, its culture and sensibility or whether they are going to just take and mould and use and abuse it instead of honouring it.”
Talking about the experience of being a ghazal writer in the West, Shadab says she has to explain what it is, saying the audiences are not familiar with it but the poets, teachers and classrooms are.
Shadab conducts workshops, especially on ghazal form. She has conducted workshops in the US and Turkey besides Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2019