Oct. 27, 2006
NOTE: This is part of a series of feature articles on some of the writers from around the world who are taking part in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program this fall.
Plunged Into English, Khalvati Learned Not To Take Language For Granted
Mimi Khalvati, a poet in residence this fall in the University of Iowa International Writing Program, sounds every bit the proper Brit. But when she was sent from Tehran to a boarding school on the Isle of Wight at 6 years of age, she spoke only the Persian language, Farsi.
She feels now that this sudden immersion into the cold water of a foreign language, with the necessity of learning it quickly to survive, created an awareness of and sensitivity to language that came to the fore many years later, in her 40s, when she became a poet: "I've always thought that one of the reasons I am so fascinated with formal things -- I mean, I could think for hours just about semi-colons; I just love it, I can't get enough of it -- is connected to having to learn English suddenly, at a young age, and it being so crucial."
"English was the first language I learned to read in and the only language I could speak between the ages of about 7 to 20-something," she told Lidia Viany for the "Desperado Essay" collection. "But being a kind of raft of survival for me, I never learned to take that language for granted. I have always felt I need to use it well, almost to earn it."
Some older Iranian girls were already at the boarding school when Khalvati arrived, and one was assigned to be her caretaker, but the challenge of quick language acquisition was a sink-or-swim imperative.
"I really have very few childhood memories that are not about language," Khalvati says. "I remember being in a dictation class -- I was probably about 7 -- and feeling the most mortal agony. I was very good at spelling already by then, but the teacher kept saying this word I couldn't spell. And in my mind I was spelling it in all different ways, and I knew that none of them were right. Everyone else was just scribbling away, totally unfazed. And I was having little heart attacks.
"And this word was 'comma.' She kept saying "blah, blah, blah, COMMA" and I kept saying "Oh, God, how do you spell comma." I didn't realize it was just . . . a comma."
Now she locates herself, a devotee of Wordsworth, at the core of the English poetic tradition. "I can think of very few other British poets who are so strongly in the middle of that old English lyrical, pantheistic, romantic tradition," she says. "But at the same time I can see that somehow I am on the outside."
And, of course, part of that sense of being "outside" derives from the simple fact of her personal history, and her non-English ethnic background. Although she had to relearn Farsi as an adult, and has never been proficient in either reading or writing the language, she was drawn to that heritage -- her collections "Mirrorwork" takes its title from Islamic mirror mosaics -- and to investigate and experiment with traditional Persian poetic forms.
"The language is still to me like a foreign language, but I am absolutely passionate about different kinds of forms and structures," she says. "I thought, being Iranian, I should try some rubaiyat."
Rubaiyat is the Arabic word for quatrains (literally, "fours"), and identifies a particular kind of four-line verses using an AABA rhyme scheme, best known in the West through the poetry attributed to Omar Khayyam.
"I had written a poem about my grandmother a year previously that I had never managed to finish," she explains. "It sat in a drawer. And one day the penny dropped and I thought, 'Oh, I know what that poem is trying to be. It wants to be rubaiyat!' So I got out the old draft that was all wonky, and it had been in quatrains going AAAB. I changed them around to AABA and the whole thing clicked. I couldn't believe it; it was fantastic."
Another traditional form that she finds appealing is the ghazal, a popular song-related form that is built from couplets that share a rhyme and a refrain -- a poetic form common from Turkey to the Indian subcontinent.
"I've been interested in ghazal, partly because I can't understand why poetry to the Iranian occupies the kind of space that it doesn't to people in Britain," Khalvati says. "Why it is in their hearts and on their lips whether they are literate or not? Can I 'English' the ghazal in such a way as to try to retain something of that lyrical or popular-song quality?"
Khalvati's fascination with ghazal ran head-on into the menacing tangle of current events between Iran and the West. In May, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a surprise, 18-page letter to U.S. President George W. Bush. http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/world/0605/transcript.lemonde.letter/ The letter became the source of news commentary, official repudiations and general puzzlement. But for Khalvati, it became a source for poetry.
"I was surprised at how few people I knew had actually read it," she says. "I'm not the sort of person who tells people what to do, or sends around e-mails. And so I took the letter and made it into a ghazal. It's a four-page ghazal, and I haven't altered the text at all. All I've done is cut certain things out. And the refrain is, of course, 'Mr. President.'"
Khalvati has not been back to Iran for 20 years, and yet recent conflicts, saber-rattling and terrorist events have conspired to make this troubling time an especially difficult experience for someone with Persian heritage and name, dual British/Iranian citizenship, and a life experience that renders the public, political melodrama a shallow, simplistic and dangerous caricature -- a cartoon with live ammunition. "What can I say, except that it is terrifying," she offers.
And she realizes that, although she is not overtly political -- in her attempts to push herself toward topicality "the poetry flew right out the window" -- her history creates a personal reality that her poetry cannot avoid, but also that this poetry, steeped in the very British lyrical, romantic tradition, can provide some comfort and hope.
"The further away a culture is from our own, the less we appreciate the shades of difference within that culture, or hovering on its edges," she told Viany. "Looking from here towards Iran, I think most western people see a dark mass of people, among them hordes of black chadors, and the sound that rises from those people is heavy and harsh. But I see only pastels, dust and turquoise, mountain skies and in them, hear the sound of sitars!
"I doubt whether anyone these days can feel like a citizen of everywhere -- I am a British citizen but, after a recent visit to the States and, like thousands of others born in so-called 'rogue states,' having been interrogated, fingerprinted, photographed and placed on the INS register, I realize that citizenship is no protection and language equally suspect.
"I hesitate even with the disclaimer 'so-called' to use the epithet 'rogue states', knowing that disclaimers are soon dropped, and that anything once named assumes an existence.
"Displacement is at the heart of my work, though even there, the word itself implies a not-belongingness, a something being not quite right, not in its right place. However, in the lyrical space of poetry, I do feel that everything connects with everything, that there is a permeable sense to the air, that in the very smallest atoms of existence is a kind of unknowable knowledge we might call God. And that we all long to go back to where we do belong."
Khalvati was educated in Switzerland at the University of Neuchatel and in London at the Drama Centre and the School of African and Oriental Studies. For many years she was a director and actress, working in both England and Iran.
Her poetry collections include "In White Ink" (1991); "Mirrorwork" (1995), which received an Arts Council Writers' Award; "Entries on Light" (1997); "Selected Poems" (2000) and "The Chine" (2002). She is also the author of a children's book, "I Know a Place," published in 1985. "The Meanest Flower" is due to be published next year.
She is the founder of The Poetry School, running poetry workshops and courses in London, and is co-editor of the School's first two anthologies of new writing, "Tying the Song" and "Entering The Tapestry." In addition, she compiled the volume "Poetry to Calm Your Soul." She is a tutor at the Arvon Foundation, and has taught creative writing at universities and colleges in the US and England.
She participates in the IWP as the recipient of the William B. Quarton International Writing Program Scholarship.
Twenty-nine writers, representing 22 countries, are in residence this fall at the IWP. Biographies of all the writers are accessible on the IWP Web site, www.uiowa.edu/~iwp.
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