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Interview with Mimi Khalvati

17 August 2007
Independent 17 August 2007

Mimi Khalvati owes as much to the Isle of Wight as Iran

By Christina Patterson

To be a "writer's writer" in this age of celebrity is something of a mixed blessing. Yes, you get the respect of your peers • and awe and envy, too • but you can probably forget about much in the way of money or prizes. To be a "poet's poet" is worse. Even those who do win the prizes cause barely a ripple in the public consciousness • or the bookshops. For the rest, the rewards remain in the realm of the intangible. Reverence, honour and a sense of satisfaction that's something like catching a butterfly. In short, you do it for love.

Mimi Khalvati has been writing exquisitely nuanced lyrics for 20 years. She has been compared with Wallace Stevens and praised for "some of the finest sad poems since Tennyson". Her work has been hailed as "unforgettable". All by poets, of course. "I am convinced," said Moniza Alvi, "that while we may tire of brasher voices, Mimi Khalvati's work will endure." So am I. Khalvati may not be a household name outside the world of poetry, but she is one of the most gracefully accomplished poets writing in English today.

Her home, like her, is an elegant hybrid of East and West. Plants and flowers nestle next to antique samplers and flower paintings. On the floor are richly coloured Persian rugs. On the wall next to the piano is a huge velvet hanging. "It was part of my grandmother's trousseau," Khalvati explains. Her Iranian grandmother was there at the start of it all. She was there during Khalvati's early childhood in Tehran. She was there when Khalvati returned to Tehran after spending her school years on the Isle of Wight. And she was there in the first serious poem that Khalvati wrote • a poem that started off as a radio script.

"I was thinking of trying to write for radio," says Khalvati, who trained as an actor and director, "because I was finding it so difficult to do theatre work with the kids. I'd never thought of writing anything, but a friend said, 'Why don't you go on an Arvon course?'" The course, run by poets Archie Markham and Alexis Lykiard, changed her life. Khalvati was bitten by the poetry bug • and fell for the Montserrat-born Markham. It was he who first encouraged her to write and the two remained friends long after their relationship ended.

Khalvati was soon juggling part-time secretarial work and single motherhood, with four or five poetry workshops a week. Then she entered a poetry competition and won it. Not long after, she published her first pamphlet, Persian Miniatures. The title came from a poem about writing a poem about a Persian miniature, but it was one she later came to regret.

Khalvati was hailed as an exotic addition to the poetry scene, praised for her Middle Eastern delicacy and put on platforms with other "ethnic" poets. While many of the poems did indeed explore the Iranian roots she had discovered in her late teens, the landscape she called home was not the "mountain passes" and "stony tracks" she describes in her poem, "The Bowl", about a famous Persian pass, but the green hills of the Isle of Wight.

When Khalvati was sent to boarding school at the age of six, she instantly forgot her Persian. She spent holidays with her classmates and only saw her mother "about every four years". Her extremely touching letters to her mother, quoted in poems in her collection The Chine, were in English. It was only aged 19, when she went to live in Tehran, that she learnt to speak Farsi. When she returned there in her twenties, with the English husband she had met at drama school in London, she learnt more. She still speaks Farsi "with an English accent" and struggles to read it. Which, perhaps, is why the standard description of her as a "Persian poet" provokes a wry smile that at times borders on a grimace.

What her English childhood gave her was not just a love of the English landscape, and of English poetry • a passion fed by recital competitions she took part in as a child, and an inspirational teacher who introduced her to the Romantics • but also an ability to adapt, which proved vital to her writing. "I think I developed very early this ability to be chameleon-like," she says. "When you entered a family house, at the start of a holiday, you immediately clocked in and took up all their ways and even their little figures of speech. I connect that with the imagination. I think the ability to lose yourself is something to do with being able to enter into the spirit of something that's not you, so that you almost become it."

It's a view that runs counter to the prevailing one of art as elevation of the ego, and chimes with her view of poetic inspiration. "When you're writing a poem," she explains, "there's a strange feeling that the poem pre-exists, that it's out there, and also that it exists outside you. And in writing the poem you are taking it from the outside and bringing it back in... By finding it through language, it becomes visible. The magic is how the particular metre or rhyme... reveals what's out there."

Khalvati is a poet unusually adept at form. "Whatever I do, I like to learn to do it properly," she explains, "like playing tennis. I love learning to do something well. It's my natural instinct to be the apprentice." She is, she says, "not very interested in subject matter", believing instead that form "leads you in to it". Her first full-length collection, In White Ink, is an early indication of this abiding fascination. The title is taken from the feminist critic Hélène Cixous's comment that a woman writes in the "good mother's milk" of "white ink". "In women's speech, as in their writing," says Cixous, "that element which never stops resonating... is the song."

It took Khalvati a while to discover that the lyric was her own natural form, the medium in which she lives and breathes • and sings. After In White Ink, she approached each book as an exercise in form. Her second book, Mirror Work, which used the Islamic art of mirror-mosaic to explore themes ranging from art and nature to domestic life and memory, was an exploration of free verse. It was only with the third, Entries of Light, in which she set herself the exercise of "learning to write more quickly" with a series of meditations on light, that she suddenly realised that the lyric was "right at the centre" of it all.
If "subject matter" is less important to her than form, however, it is certainly not to the reader. Here are joyous celebrations of the physical world, snapshots from childhood and tender poems of romantic, and family, love. Unusually, Khalvati's work has become more accessible as her writing has progressed. Where some early poems can be challenging to the point of mild frustration, the later ones have a singing clarity that makes them both more memorable, and more moving. They are also much more personal.

"In the last 10 years, there's been so much grief in my life, where there wasn't before," she confides. "I always write out of my current life... I don't fictionalise. So if I'm having a hard time, it's going to come out in the poems." Her two most recent collections, The Chine and now The Meanest Flower (Carcanet, £9.95), bear testament to a litany of family tragedies, which started off with her daughter's diagnosis of a congenital illness and continued with her son's breakdown. As always, the raw emotion is offset by the taut discipline of the form. "Some lives fall, some flower," she writes matter-of-factly in the sonnet, "Come Close", one of a number of poems exploring this lost Eden.

The title of The Meanest Flower comes from Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" ode: "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/ Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears". Wordsworth is Khalvati's favourite poet and, it's clear, an influence. Here is the near-mystical communion with nature. Here is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquillity". Here is the sadness and the beauty.

Khalvati is a poet whose work is infused with the lightness and delicacy of the Persian literary tradition, which she can claim as her heritage. She is a poet who believes in the value of courtesy • one, indeed, who recently discovered that the Persian word for literature, adabiot, means "courtesies". But most of all, she's a poet in the English landscape tradition, whose poetry, and conversation, combines Persian politeness with English restraint. "I think," she says, "that niceness is hugely underrated." Yes, and in poetry, too.
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