I sent Amaan the questions ahead of time so he could prepare, and David invited us both to a friend’s flat in Covent Garden where he does his recordings. We all sat around a small square table and David assured us he would do an introduction explaining who we were and what this interview series was about.
Despite knowing this, I still found myself unable to stick to the prepared script of twelve questions. I wanted to respond to Amaan’s replies as you would in an organic conversation, to give reassurances, or to ask additional questions when there were things I wanted to know more about.
So, you can listen to our complete real-life conversation on Lunar Poetry Podcasts here (or via a podcast app), and you can also read the complete transcript here. I’ve also, with David and Amaan’s permission, edited down our conversation so it better matches the form of the other interviews, and pasted it below. There are still a few little interjections from me here, but it’s more or less there. Thanks again to Amaan, and to David for making it happen.
1) How long did it take you to put the manuscript together for At Hajj?
I would say it took around three years to put the poems together. I think some of the poems were written longer than three years ago. Some were written during my Masters degree, so that was 2005-2006, so quite a while ago now, maybe a decade old.
2) How much did the manuscript change after Tom at Penned in the Margins accepted it?
There was quite a lot of shuffling of poems in and out, mostly by me. I’d say I didn’t find the shape of the collection until I had delivered it, so I guess there was quite a lot of changing and shifting and poems slipping in and out. That’s how it came together.
CW: So the long poem, the At Hajj pieces that run through the book, was that something that was in the manuscript at the beginning? Or did that come in later?
I imagined it just as a more, say traditional, collection of poems, but I quite liked the way it flowed through with these more discrete poems interspersed with the larger, prose poem long section. Initially, it was going to be discrete poems, but it changed.
3) How do you feel about it now, one year on?
I’d say the book has receded a little, just because of the time that’s passed and because I’ve been writing new things, so the new poems have been at the front recently and the collection has been behind them slightly. Picking up on what you were saying, what I do remember whenever I think about the collection and see it on a book shelf or just think about it, I always think of the shape of it. I always think of the long prose poem section, as we were just discussing, with these singular poems in between. That has really stayed with me. In a way, what I was trying to do, or what has come out, has been to write about these discrete experiences and then also write something long that’s quite processual. I like the contradiction between those two. I find with writing, I’m always trying and wanting to do contradictory things. I want to do this, then I also want to do this. So whenever I think about the book now, that’s always what comes back to me.
4) How have readers responded to the book?
The readers I know best are obviously my friends and my family and they have been incredibly supportive with the book. I’ve only done a few readings of the work from this book and the readers I’ve met have been very positive and that has been really buoying for me and really nice. The book has been reviewed, I’m really lucky to say, in poetry journals. There was a review in The Sunday Times too. The book was well received and they were all really thoughtful and engaged reviews, so I was just over the moon about that. It’s always a surprise, to be honest, to hear that people have read the book.
5) How has the broader poetry community responded to the book? Do you keep track of these things or does Tom at Penned in the Margins?
They send me reviews, which is really nice. I’d say also, in terms of the broader poetry community, I guess my publisher is the main conduit to that, so that’s really nice. I’ve been aware too that some of the poems have been tweeted. Two of them were tweeted by Kaveh Akbar, the American poet, and that was a complete surprise to me, a really lovely surprise. It’s been lovely because you never know how the book is going to be received or even if there are going to be reviews.
6) What do you think about prizes in this whole context?
I follow prizes. I often find it’s a good way of finding books to read, books I haven’t heard of that might be on a prize list. I would say I don’t write, or rather, this book wasn’t written with a prize in mind and I think it would be quite misleading if I were giving advice to someone, I would say ‘don’t think of a prize at the end of it, think of the poems’ because I think that’s important. I do enter single poems into competitions which have prizes, but none of these poems were written with a prize in mind.
7) Have you been writing poems since the book came out?
I have been writing poems since the book came out. I found I wanted to continue to write and there were things I wanted to explore. I’ve been interested in the dynamic between queer sexuality and also being the child of immigrants and the intersection between those two things, the commonalities between those two things, the inability to say certain things, the habit of keeping quiet. So those things have continued to interest me. I’ve been writing poems more on that theme. Sorry, this sounds really contrived, it’s just been the way the poems have come out, it’s hard sometimes when you’re talking about writing poems, you have things in mind you might want to write about, then I hope I follow poems down the path and I don’t know where the end might be. I guess I’m exploring, that’s what I want to say.
8) What do you think are the different pressures on you now, as someone who has, in quote marks, ‘published a first collection’? (And what does that even mean?)
All of my writing happens in isolation. The poems were just with me, I was working on them, then when the book comes out, it becomes public. People you don’t know read the book and then you have to step out with the book, to an extent, and read and discuss. Maybe that’s not a pressure, it’s just a difference from being in a room and writing the poems, to accompanying the poems out into the world. Another pressure is perhaps that another book that doesn’t exist yet might follow.
CW: It sounds like you’ve got a really clear area of stuff you’re writing about now to build towards whatever the next publication or body of work you put together is. I know some of the other people answering this, several of them use the phrase ‘difficult second-album syndrome’. It sounds like you’ve already got an area you’re coming through and that’s really encouraging and inspiring.
Thanks. I would also say I have a lot of uncertainty about that future work as well. It sounds great I sound really confident about it, but there’s a lot of uncertainty infused all the way through it. I don’t know what it’s going to be at the end. They say the story you finish is never the story you start, so this is my starting point, I don’t know what it’s going to be at the end. Probably something completely different.
9) How much do you need the validation of your work by others?
I have thought about this a lot. I think the point I always try and get to – I hope this doesn’t make it sound so easy – is that I’m happy with the poem myself and that sitting alone with the poem, I’m happy. I think it’s an important step, but of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s being published in journals and having a book published, or the process towards book publication, which is fraught for all different kinds of reasons. I would say I would always come back to that point where I’m happy with the poems because all those other things outside of it, you have no control over, for example, whether a poem gets accepted to a journal or whether a collection is published, you don’t have control over those things really. With yourself and your writing, that’s a relationship you can work towards being happy with.
Going back a bit, what I also wanted to say about having a full collection published is it’s public in a way that having a poem published in a journal isn’t. When you have a poem published in a journal, it’s part of a larger landscape of other poems, that’s comforting in a way. A collection is just you, so it’s scary. Also, writing new things or just writing something else really helps with that question, so I’m not spending too much time thinking about whether my poem was good, I’m moving onto the next one. I guess that’s fraught too, because how long should I be spending on each poem, I’m not spending enough time on each one. I find writing new things always helps.
10) Which poems or poets are currently inspiring you?
Mary Jean Chan’s ‘a hurry of english’. Within that pamphlet is the poem ‘Chopsticks’, which was published a while ago now. I felt very close to that poem, that poem was very familiar to me. I recently read, or heard on the Poetry magazine podcast, Danez Smith reading ‘How Many Of Us Have Them?’ I really enjoyed listening to that. Slightly away from poetry or into poetic language, I was reading Clarice Lispector recently, ‘The Hour of the Star’, and ‘Agua Viva’, which are full of this very poetic, prose-poetry kind of language, which I found intriguing. Poetry absolutely comes out of reading for me. Reading is absolutely at the centre of where writing comes from. I feel I’m a reader first, that is the central thing. I actually don’t think I would write without reading.
11) What advice would you give to someone who was about to publish their first collection?
That’s a tricky question. I think I’m probably quite full of anxiety about being published and anxiety about writing, so I would say ‘just enjoy it, you’re writing because you’re enjoying the poems, just enjoy the writing and find what you love’. I’d say ‘go with your gut’, I think that’s always good advice. Trust your instincts.
12) What is ultimately the point, for you, of writing and publishing poems?
That is a big question. Initially, when I thought about that question, I thought ‘I don’t have enough experience to answer it’. I would say I would think about the writing process and what is the writing process, so you try and write a poem and then at some point, you think ‘this is OK, this poem has been successful’ or you come to an end point. When you go and write the next poem, none of that previous experience is necessarily helpful in helping you write the next poem. You have to go back to zero. I often find this is my experience and I feel like that might be the meaning, that you’re always having to find your way and find your way again. That is perhaps the meaning of it. I guess the fact is you will never really know how it happens. You might have a process that helps you or a way of doing it, but you’ll always have to go back to zero in a way and I think that’s where the meaning is. The knowledge is always fleeting.
In terms of publishing poems, that’s a hard question. I’m not sure I have an answer for that one. I guess it comes back to validation, having a collection together, and also you’re adding a book of poetry to a larger landscape of poetry. Also, when I’m reading, I think I’m looking for stories maybe I’ve heard that I haven’t found in literature and part of the writing project for me is putting down stories I haven’t quite encountered elsewhere. Those are my thoughts around that question.