Mona Arshi

Q. What’s the response been like to your collection, Small Hands?

Wonderful. Humbling. I think because because the writing travels through elegy, fantasy and uses form it seems as if everyone has his or her favourite poem. Being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best first collection was a huge honour particularly as it was such a strong shortlist and that in itself is really gratifying: that the judges not only seriously engaged with the work but told readers it was vital work to read. But then going on to win the Forward was beyond words.

Q. Can you tell us more about how long the process took to put the collection together, how did you go about selecting pieces?

Yes, I have been writing poetry seriously since 2008, which is a relatively short time. I have always read poetry of course but I hadn’t moved on with my reading from school, so I had stuck with the ‘canon’. When I was pregnant and on strict bed rest with my twins in 2004 someone sent me an anthology of women’s contemporary poetry, which included writers such as Alice Oswald, Moniza Alvi and Colette Bryce, and I was hooked. I then began courses at the City Lit with a very inspirational poet and teacher Clare Pollard and then decided to commit to a Masters in Creative in Poetry at the University of East Anglia. For me this was an important course. I was made to feel like a professional writer and I read (initially) more than I wrote. I began writing in earnest at the end of the second year. Whilst there I won quite a big mainstream prize for a poem called ‘Hummingbird’.I was then lucky enough to be selected for a mentoring program called the ‘Complete Works’, which was funded by the Arts Council. This meant I was writing fairly intensely for the next two years. The book itself grew organically. At the quiet core of the book there sit a sequence of elegies for my brother who died suddenly in 2012, and the other poems radiate outwards from this sequence of poems. Some poems were left behind as I felt as if they came from a different imaginative zone. Some early poems also, were discarded.

Q. Where do you write?

I write almost everywhere. I am not precious about writing in exactly at the same place at the allotted hour. I am happy to write at my desk, in cafes, on the tube and on buses and am constantly writing on the back of my hand!

Q. How do you use everyday experiences to get inspiration for your poetry? Can you cite an example?

Being a sentient human being equips you for being a poet. I never have a problem with ideas for poems. I am bit of a magpie. Sometimes I will hear a word on the radio or overhear a conversation and very often that will plant a seed. I think you have to allow yourself to be quite porous and pathologically curious about the world we inhabit. One very clear example is my children. They were losing their teeth when they were around 6 or 7 and I was fascinated (and slightly horrified) by the human body’s ability to be able to dissolve teeth-roots and that led me to the threshold of writing a poem entitled ‘The Daughters’ .In fact the first line of the poem is ‘My Daughters have lost two-hundred and thirty six teeth and counting. ’ The poem itself has nothing whatsoever to do with my children, but it was the kindling if you like.

Q. When did you start calling yourself a poet? Did you notice a mental shift when you did?

I don’t normally go around calling myself a poet. I feel like it’s a thing I do in private but of course the people that know me well know that that’s what occupies me most of the time. It’s becoming more and more difficult to stay in the private sphere so I feel as if I am talking about it more than I may wish to. I also feel that deep inside the mouth of each poem I write is reaching out with the same questions and testing out are conditions of living. I let the poems do the work in the world-me the poet doesn’t have to.

Q. Who would you say has had the most influence on your writing life and why?

I think the one person who helped me was my mentor Mimi Khalvati.She has engaged with my work for three years and has helped me to edit and shape my poems. She is also a poet who understands Form in poetry, which I am very interested in and made me think about the imaginative obligation every poet has to consider form before they draft a poem. For me using forms such as the Ghazal, The Ballad, The Sonnet is extremely liberating, it opens up something very new in the poem.

I would say other poets and other poems have influenced me more than anything else. Poets are never writing in the dark; when we put pen to paper we write with this enormous inheritance behind us-the ghosts of other poets are in your room and must be acknowledged. There are some writers that I always go back to for poetic nourishment, Virginia Woolf, Agha Shahid Ali, Keats and Seamus Heaney and of course Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Q. What helped you most in your creative development as a poet?

Yes read. Read. Read. If you find a few poets you connect with then go on and read everything they have ever published. Read poems closely and pay attention (or learn to pay attention) to meter, music in a poem and the power of the line break. Go on courses with poet tutors who you trust and be prepared to make mistakes and remember that poetry is a long hard process. Read poetry magazines. Go to the Southbank Poetry Library (its brilliant) and spend a few afternoons in there. Read dead poets, foreign poets and go out of your comfort zone. Cast a fearless eye on the world. Being uncomfortable and pushing yourself is a good sign.

Q. It took a while for me to find a British Asian female poet – why do you think British Asian women are still largely invisible on the poetry scene?

There are some quite well established female poets from the Indian subcontinent such as Moniza Alvi and Imtiaz Dharker.But there is a recognized problem with emerging poets here and there simply aren’t enough of us on the poetry scene. The problem of diversity in UK poetry generally is a real problem. In 2007 an Arts Council Report revealed that less than 1% of poetry collections by major presses were by BAME poets. In response to this depressing statistic the Arts Council funded the initiative ‘The Complete Works’.There’s been an attempt to address the issues and there are some poets coming through. I don’t have any answers really, what I can tell you are that it’s not for lack of talent.

Q. Do you think it’s becoming easier for Black and Asian poets to find outlets to publish their work??

I do think so. I think in some respects it is because of the initiative that I have spoken about. But not enough headway has been made. The publisher, Bloodaxe for example has an excellent list of poets that are from BAME poets. Other publishers will publish Indian poets from India and largely ignore the talented writers on their doorstep. I think a lot of the problem has to do with structural and cultural conservatism. I know Indian poets who have sent poems to publishers and are rejected because they already have that ‘Voice’ in the magazine! It’s astonishing that our writing, multilayered, nuanced and textured as it is can be simply lumped together as ‘one voice’. I think it’s really important for Indian poets to not only write and publish work in magazines but also to engage with literary criticism and write for magazines. If the same people (mainly white middle class men with a particular aesthetic) run the magazines and set ‘taste’ there will be very little cultural shift.