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Interview with Mimi Khalvati

Mimi Khalvati in conversation

with Vicki Bertram.
(from PN Review 130)

Could you tell me a bit about where you were born and where you travelled to: about the geographical placing of your life?

Well, I was born in Tehran, and I lived there for the first six years of my life. And when I was six, I was put on a plane and sent to England, to the Isle of Wight, to Shanklin, to go to boarding school there. Of course, I didn't speak English at all. So I remember the sensation of bewilderment crowding into my mind and me pushing it back, because there was trust there. I can't remember my early childhood at all, but my sensation is that it was quite happy. I was very much the apple of everyone's eye, because I was the one child, and grandchild. And I wore big pink bows in my hair! So the trust came, I guess, from these large bows! It wasn't unusual, of course, to send your kids to have a good English education, but I think it was unusual at that age, and it was unusual not to go home for the summers. That was because my mum was, by this time, separated from my father, and she was what we'd now call a single parent, a single working parent. She worked in a bank to pay school fees a
nd stuff, and I think she just couldn't afford holidays. So I very quickly forgot how to speak Persian. By the age of seven, I think, I couldn't speak it any more. And, of course, I've never been schooled in it.

And what were the holidays like in England?

Oh, ghastly! School was the good bit: that became home, became family. And then you were booted out in the holidays to go to these awful holiday homes. When I was fourteen I made one visit home; I went and met all these strange people who were family, and I couldn't speak the language. It was difficult. And then, when I was seventeen, I stayed a few years there, and that was wonderful. I really loved it.

So did you re-learn Persian then?


It must have been a very strange experience, going back to somewhere that was half-familiar and yet -

Yes, it was strange. And, of course, I was treated by my family, and the Iranians, like an English person. I was family, and they all still loved me, which I found very strange: to have all this love heaped on you by people you had no idea who they were! My mother had occasionally come to England, and I'd spent time with her, maybe every four years or something like that. But most of my family were quite strange to me. I'd wanted to go to university here, but mum couldn't afford it, and I wasn't eligible for a grant because I was still a foreign person. So I worked in Tehran as a secretary for a few years and saved up money, and brought myself back to England, and I went to - am I getting this right? No, I'm not! No, that was later, sorry! I can't remember my own life! No, no, I got married! that's right. At nineteen I got married.

Great thing to forget!

It was very forgettable! I got married to a much older Iranian who was very Westernised ... until, of course, the day we were married, at which point he immediately reverted to 'Me Tarzan, you Jane'! So by 21 I was divorced. And then I came back to England, and I worked a bit here, then went to Drama Centre in London. I worked in the theatre as an actress for about a year, and then I got married again, but this time to an English actor. We went to Teheran, supposedly for a summer holiday, but we ended up staying there for about four years, which was strange! I worked in the theatre there, and that was, at first, quite difficult, because my Persian was just lousy; I could barely speak it. In fact, that's the time when I really re-learnt it, on my second visit, because I was actually working with people, and with the language. Then my daughter was born, so we came back to England again, and I have more or less been here since.

How have these experiences of dislocation and transplantation affected your writing?

Well, the loss of my first language has affected my writing, or has affected my relationship with the English language, obviously; because when you're six and you're somewhere in the middle of a boarding school in a strange country, learning the language as quickly as possible becomes absolutely imperative. And for me, also, I think learning English well and quickly, and mastering it, became a vehicle through which I was going to belong; I was going to be assimilated, or assimilate myself. It was very important to me, as a kid, I remember that very clearly: to master this language was absolutely crucial. I also loved it, and I was good at it. I still have that relationship to language; I don't take it for granted, I'm not casual with it. I have to do it well. I have to write well, or use it well. And I trust it, I trust it will allow me to.

Do you think it makes you more conscious of language as a tool than if you'd been a native speaker of English? Is there a greater distance between you and the language?

Not an emotional but an analytical one, yes; almost as though this is something outside that must be understood in its entirety. Obviously that's impossible. But I think my whole concern and interest and passion for the formal aspects of writing in poetry and for the language comes from that. I think maybe it makes me relate to it differently. It's almost as though it's outside myself; it's something with many aspects, many dimensions, all of which have to be understood and worked with, and experimented with, or addressed in some way or another.

I see a change in the way Persian experiences or language are used in your poems over the course of your three collections. I'd like to hear what you think.

Looking back, it strikes me that all of my work is attempting to recover something, and I think it's because I have this unshaken belief that I had a very happy early childhood. I just have this feeling, though I can't remember it. When I went and lived in Iran it was interesting, because I was an adult, but I felt like a child. I felt like a child going back into the bosom of the family, and I think I related to the family members as a child. That was also a very happy time for me, and I think a lot of the stuff I've written is trying, somehow, to either honour that, or celebrate it, or recover it: my own little Paradise Lost.

I was struck in your first book In White Ink by what seems to be a clear distinction between you, here, and Persia, over there. There's a sense in which you're almost looking at the country from outside it. You seem to be clearly settled in England, looking to books about Persia, or experiences that you remember. Also, the poetic forms used in that book seem very English. You make quite a few allusions to poems from English literary history, as well as some Persian. But it seems as though, since then, you have evolved a form that integrates some of the Persian material. I don't know anything about that tradition, but the voice in Entries on Light seems more integrated.

Yes, I think I'm more integrated. I've accepted my Englishness or, more accurately, the smallness of my Persianness, small but intrinsic, in the body. As far as Persian literature goes, I can't read it in Persian, and whatever I've read has been in translation; I really can't say it's in my blood. I think people assume it must be, even if it was through some sort of early unconscious process. I myself don't believe that at all. I just don't feel any Persian literature is actually in my blood, in my rhythms, in my forms, or anything. Of course I respond to the spirit of Persian classical poetry but then I do the same to other poetries. I think whatever I've written is very firmly rooted in the English literary tradition. But in In White Ink I was very much exploring my own Persianness. Partly I felt there was an expectation on me, as somebody writing poems, to do that. So maybe I was slightly answering that expectation, or maybe it was just at that time of my life: in my early forties,
 you know, when you start thinking back. Partly, I think, it's because when I started to write poems, I felt I was wearing a little label saying 'Persian poet', or God forbid, 'poetess'! That was also something I was trying - and still am trying - to deal with in my writing.

Well, maybe that's it. Maybe it feels less conscious.

It is less conscious. It's less directed. It's not, 'Oh, I must explore my roots', 'Oh, I must explore Persian literature', or all these sort of musts and oughts. If anything, the opposite, because, of course, I don't like wearing this label of 'Persian poet', particularly because I think it makes you misunderstood, or misread, especially in terms of your influences and your alliances, and your cultural context. In a way, I've quite happily ditched that, but obviously it will come in because it's part of me. I'm not denying my Persianness, but it's just there when it's there, if it's there! And, of course, the Persian poetic tradition is just so vast, and it's amazing. It is not something you would turn your back on, and it's a great sorrow to me that I can't read it in the original. So it does draw you towards it all the time. But still there's this barrier of the language there for me, and also so many of the translations are really just ... I'm not happy with them.

Can you read poetry well enough to get a sense of it, in Persian?

No. I still have difficulty reading the actual script but, if I have a pair to eyes to read it aloud for me, and help me with some of the vocabulary, I can get quite a close feel for it: a feel that's based on my own knowledge of the language, because I can speak it ... and also being part of the culture. So I think I can feel it in a way that, if I was just English, I wouldn't ... except that, obviously, there are Persian scholars and some marvellous translators such as Dick Davis who have the language and can relate to it much more closely than I ever could.

Can you tell me a bit about how you came to start writing poetry?

Oh God! It's a stupid story! I started writing late, I was 42, I think. I'd written a few poems when I was at school, and I had a wonderful English teacher, so I always loved poetry, but I knew nothing about it. I had never read it and never written it bar a few oddments, until I went on this Arvon course, which was for script writing. But there was some mistake, and I actually ended up on a poetry course! No one was interested in my scripts; they said, 'Oh, go and write a poem'. I'm always very obedient, so off I went and wrote a poem! And they said, 'Oh, this is all right. Well, carry on writing poems'. So I went, 'Oh, all right, I'll carry on writing ...' I mean, it really was like that. It was weird. And within the year, I gave up theatre work, and decided, 'Oh, I'm just going to do this and go for it'. But you know, twenty years too late!


I just think I've lost twenty years of reading time. I think it's the reading. And reading not in the panic-stricken way that I did, because once I started seriously writing poems, I thought, 'Oh, my God, I haven't read any poetry since I was at school', and that was the Romantics, and that was it, more or less! So I just embarked! I would consume things like jelly babies! And any which way, any order, any old how, all jumbled up together. To some extent I still do that. I read voraciously, but much too quickly, without having the time to really settle into it, live with it, live side by side with, maybe, just the one poet. So I think it's a sense of panic.

Who do you think has influenced you? Apart from Shakespeare!

Well, first I would have to say Wordsworth. I probably have never loved another poet in quite the same way. I know great chunks off by heart, and still, to this day, I might be waiting for a bus in the wind and rain, and the lines come back to me, and I will say them to myself. So he has provided that sort of companionship always. Probably he has influenced some-thing of that solemness, or some of the melodiousness in my work, which I fight against, but is, I think, there. Then, Keats, to some extent, though now I'm rather impatient with all that lush imagery. Partly because I'm still smarting at being seen as a very exotic, hot-house flower kind of writer! That's alienated me from Keats, in some strange way.

It's odd, because there's always been a healthy irreverent tone in your work. I'm surprised that you've been characterised as such an exotic flower.

Partly, of course, it's racist stereotyping. But partly, I suppose, it's in the work. I like what you said, what was your word? Irreverent? yes, well, that's how I see myself, but I think I've been seen rather as the opposite, as a bit oriental, passive, subjugated; writing pretty poems, to please the men, as someone once put it! I've come to poetry - as I came to theatre work - very much as a feminist, and as an old-style seventies, radical feminist. I'm upholding the feminine principle, but my work has not been seen as doing that. I think it's been seen as its opposite. People have stereotype notions that, if you're exotic and you write about flowers, it therefore follows that you're also feminine, and therefore subjugated, and therefore not politicised, and not one of us, basically.

Are there any other writers who've influenced you?

Two of my favourite writers have been novelists: Proust and Woolf. It sounds awfully immodest to cite Proust as an influence, but he has been, certainly in the texture of the language, particularly the syntax. I had a wonderful year in my life where I dropped out in the sixties and went to Portugal and read Proust cover-to-cover, and that's still there, it's been really, very seminal, as they say. I think I naturally take to this long, extended syntax. I suppose it relates to being truthful: for me, to make a very direct, bald statement always feels less truthful, because what it's leaving out is all the hesitations, the equivocal statements, the things in parentheses, the contradictions, the back-tracking, the little off-shoots, all those different little branches. To try and follow the formal thought so accurately, so precisely, so honestly, very often entails that kind of sinuous syntax that is just a reflection of how the mind is moving. Both Proust and Woolf had this way of looki
ng at everything through a huge magnifying glass. Catching every little nuance. I'm really not interested in subject matter, but I'm interested in ways of perceiving, and ways of remembering, ways of thinking ... tracking what goes on inside your mind, your perceptions. And I love the kind of textural, pinpoint accuracy that I find in those two writers. I've also been quite conscious of Jorie Graham's lineation influencing me, which in its turn, of course, influences how you write and what you write. That very accurate way of scoring the inflection, the pace, the pitch, the pause, the shape of the thought of a sentence, a clause. John Ashbery, for example: I like that kind of nonchalance, this incredible confidence that anything will do! That's something I've admired. And Louise Glück; I admire the authority in her voice, and I think as a woman poet, particularly, she speaks with fearless authority, which is quite exemplary for me. At the moment I'm really into Leopardi again. I'm fas
cinated by the idea of trying to make language disappear, to make it so transparent that it doesn't come between you and whatever it is you're into - language that is so selfless it is almost silent. I feel as though I'm endlessly moving on: to the next poet that I'll read, or the next thing I'm going to learn.

How did you first get published?

I do have a feeling that I got published too early, in retrospect. I'm not really sure I was ready. I was incredibly green. It was very easy at the beginning, but I think now it's later that you pay the price. I've certainly done nothing to promote myself in the way I'd like to be seen, never mind creating the taste by which I'm read. I haven't developed those sorts of skills - which I now regret, given how difficult it is to renegotiate any sort of relationship, and that includes one with your readers, or non-readers!

Do you have an ideal reader?

That is a very interesting question, I think, which I equate with one's imaginary reader. There's so much pressure nowadays to be accessible, not to be elitist, that you run the risk of defining your imaginary reader in a patronising way. I take great heart from Calvino, who said something to the effect that his imaginary reader is ten times more creative and brilliant and scholarly and perceptive than he himself is, which is saying a lot! It demands from me great courage to define my reader in this way, but I do. My imaginary reader is someone who knows what I'm about and trying to do, someone I don't have to put up signposts for and yet won't let me get away with fudging things, someone mercilessly challenging but only within the bounds of my own vision, and a hundred times the poet I am, and the critic, and just much more discerning, literate, more sensitive, more every-thing! Of course, unfortunately, it has no resemblance to the kind of readers one has!

How do you feel about the reviews that your work gets? Are any of them helpful?

In this day and age, I think you're jolly lucky to get a review at all! Reviews are often helpful, not always in the best sense. The best way of being helpful is to throw light on what you haven't yet written, but that's rare. More commonly, they help me understand the gulf between intention and reception. But there's sometimes been the assumption - very irritating to me - that my English is not quite English, and therefore that's why I write as I do. That is really galling. I would like to be seen as a British poet, and I don't think I've really been accepted as one. I write so much within the English poetic stream. If I'm not accepted as a British poet, and I'm certainly not an Iranian poet, I'm all by my little self! And you have to belong to a cultural community, you have to be part of a particular culture. You can't just be on your own little platform and not representative of anything or anybody.

Do you mean by that, a poet who is part of the culture of these lands, so that those who read you accept that you are one of them?

Yes. Of course, if you're a British poet, your influences might be American, might be Norwegian, might be Iranian. One has influences, obviously, outside of one's own language and culture, and I think my influences are precisely that. Besides, there's the question of who owns the language? The assumption that only native speakers do is another form of nationalism.

You make quite big demands on your reader: tricky syntax, very long sentences tracing thought processes...

It's daunting to be faced with your own difficulty, and this is a problem I've had right from the beginning: the dual problem of obscurity and difficulty: which is which, and to what extent you can be difficult and be true to yourself, be authentic, and have a readership! I have no feel for narrative. I'm much more interested in process. I'm not interested in the anecdotal, and my subject matter is painfully limited, but if you have just one subject and one theme, it is an inexhaustible vein. I'm interested in the hows rather than the whats or the whos, in the various questions we address. I get an urge to try out a particular form. What I actually put inside it is less interesting to me, except that, of course, it's through the form that you discover what's going to go inside, and you deal with the inside, the subject matter, in ways that might astonish you. But the interest in syntax, especially, is something I went with in Entries on Light; related also to my interest in speed of p
erception, any fleeting sensation; the speed at which, say, an artist could capture it just with one pencil line, you know, you get it all in one. But you don't sacrifice some of the twists and turns and the complexities within that single line. So I needed that openness, that flexibility of the syntax, to trace the one line and get it all in one rather than building it up sentence upon sentence upon sentence, in different layers, like an oil painting. It's something to do with accuracy and honesty, true replication of something.

Could you talk about the importance that form clearly has for your work?

A lot of my poems are almost like exercises, because I'm thinking, 'Oh, I want to try out this', and 'I want to learn about this, that, or the other.' Mirrorwork was the book in which I decided to try and find out what I could do in free verse. My first book was the result of trying out particular kinds of metre. I've recently gone back to writing metrical verse, because I still feel that I'm just learning, I'm a novice at it. And I find all formal considerations - and that includes free verse - tremendously exciting. I find the whole consideration of the line break something I could be really passionate about! I love it! I love the magic of it all. I love the way that, if you're truthful, you won't find the right rhyme. And then if you forget about the rhyme, just concentrate on being truthful, up it pops!

Do you see them as having a connection to the unconscious?

I don't know. I don't really get into all that stuff. I just think of it as magic. As magic, and infallible as well. When you ask who I show my work to, in a way I could say, 'I show this poem to the rhyme scheme', and if the rhyme scheme is not working, it's telling me something; it's telling me, 'You're not really focussed, you're not being truthful, you're not digging out what it is you really want to say. You're taking short-cuts, you're shilly-shallying about.' The perfect editors, if you like. But also, especially recently, I've found that they're helping me to reach other parts of my voice, rather than being a constraint. For example, I very rarely express anger; I tend always to be incredibly nice in my voice. I'm currently writing a sequence of sonnets, and having that rhyming couplet, and the given number of syllables has enabled me to get to that terseness, that sharpness that my own language, when I'm angry, does express in speech, but hasn't before in poetry. So I find fo
rm very broadening. I find these technical things can often be the mechanism that springs the trap.

Not long ago some poets - perhaps especially women - viewed form as an unhelpful constraint.

Yes, in the seventies, when traditional forms were considered patriarchal... I don't agree with that at all, and I think, nowadays, people have reneged on those ideas. But, at the time, it was very liberating, and it was very inclusive to a lot of women. I think it did a lot for women. A lot of women started writing and expressing themselves, and giving value to their own voices, to their own experiences, partly, I think, because those rather daunting barriers were taken down. And I think it was great.

What was it like for you being in London during the Gulf War?

Quite difficult really, because everyone was so up in arms and 'engaged and enraged'. I suppose this is where I was very much slipping into my Iranian skin. I remember how I identified with my mum; we had a much cooler, detached feeling towards it. Partly, I suppose, coming out of the cynicism that we had because of the Iran/Iraq War, when there had been a complete absence of all the emotions and hype and the media interest. But underneath the cynicism, the coolness and the detachment are huge and very old angers.

Could you tell me about the importance of the mother figure in your poetry?

Certainly I think it's very important to me in my life, and in my writing. I always write from a stance that is against some-thing, but I don't - or tend not to - spell out what it is that I'm against. So, it's out of some kind of protest, but the protest is not voiced as one. My own experience of mothering, which is definitely the most important experience in my life, has made me feel very deeply, very angrily, very passionately about the fact that, the way I perceive it, we live in a mother-hating and mother-blaming society. Fiction, films, biography, journalism, psychoanalysis: whichever way you look at it, it's basically 'Blame the mother'. I think it's incredibly unhealthy for the society as a whole. I mustn't start moralising! But also in my own life: I'm sure from a Westerner's point of view, if they looked at my life and my mother's, they wouldn't think she was a particularly good mother. But to me, my grandmother, my mother, the other women in the family, have been tremendous
 rocks, and I've felt an enormous amount of love towards them and from them. So I suppose by centralising them, by celebrating them, I'm going very much against the grain of 'your mother and father fuck you up'. The hidden word in protest is redress: I feel I'm redressing something. And if I write about flowers, it's also because I feel I'm redressing the endless irony, the endless cynicism, the endless sweet-wrappers, the endless shopping trolleys, the endless urban high-rises. Now, if things were the other way round, I'm sure I'd be writing about shopping trolleys!

Memory and language are clearly important themes in your work.

In losing your first language, you lose all the memories that are encoded in that language. Of course, you retain the memories that are body memories, sensations, like smell and taste. You can't remember what town it was, how old you were, who was with you, where you lived: any of that stuff, but you can remember a sensation of a battle in your mind between bewilderment and trust. Often people have said to me, 'Oh, you write a lot about childhood memories', and what's funny is that, of course, they're not childhood memories, they're adult memories. When I went back to Iran, it felt like I was a child again. They're memories from that time. This whole question of memory and language and its relationship is something that fascinates me more and more.

And it also explains why you are such a very unusual writer in the world of poetry today, precisely because all the realist props that most people are using are simply not there.

For me, there is a surfeit of too much particularity, too much concrete detail in poetry: a huge emphasis on the concrete and the particular that I wanted to redress. I have taken the risk of using abstracts and generalities and more conceptual things: calling a tree a tree, rather than an ash or an oak. It doesn't go down well here. There the Persian poets have influenced me, and Scandinavian poets, and other poetries that are not so heavily constrained by the empirical. In Persia, the poetry is used like the I ching or something. People tell fortunes with it. Say you were getting married: I would open Hafez and wherever the book opened, I would read the poem, and that would be like Patrick Walker or something! So people tell it to read signs: the auspiciousness of things, rather like an oracle. I love this sense of poetry being part of daily life. Instead of looking up your horoscope in the paper, you could open a book of verse. And poetry's used as moral adages as well. That kind o
f poetry is also memorable, and memorisable; you can carry it with you, like little goodies in your pocket. Very few people, especially in England, are attempting to write in that kind of way. It's very difficult to do it and sound contemporary. But I'm very attracted to it. I'm attracted to morality and here, people really hate that. It's there in some American poets like Glück, and it does not go down well here at all; it's attacked as didactic. I just like the idea of it, because where's the fine line between something that has convictions and stands up for them, and something that is moralising? There's a very fine line between the two. Poetry to live your life by: I quite like that idea, rather than a quick read on the bus home.

Next interview with Mimi Khalvati... To the Mimi Khalvati page...
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