An Interview by Ziaul Karim

(ZK = Ziaul Karim, HS = Hayat Saif)
ZK: How and when did you first start writing poetry?
HS: I don't know when I first started scribbling. My efforts to compose poetry was first appreciated by my elders when I was still in school. Poetry writing became an interesting pastime for me. That was the beginning, and since then the Muse has never deserted me.
As for the chemistry of a poem's birth, I would say, I don't know. Actually, I've never searched for an answer. Sometime I think that probably T.S.Eliot was right in saying that a poet's mind works as a catalyst. It holds within itself information of his own consciousness, information about his own experiences, information of the past, and all these come together at a particular moment to give birth to a poem. It may not be something you consciously do. I fully agree with Shamsur Rahman when he says, "someone makes me write". There will always be something unspeakable, however much we try to dissect the very process of writing a poem. You can never fit it into one definition and say this is how a poem is born. I think much of it is to do with a poet's mind, but then, a lot of it has to be the make­up of that particular poet's own mind, his own experience, his own education, and his own way of looking at things. That is how one poet is different from another.
ZK: It is said that nothing excites us more than poetry and politics. We all know the role poetry played during the 'Language Movement' and during the 'War of Liberation'. But something went wrong in the past five years or so — readers appear more inclined to read novels these days. Even a publication from a leading poet is not greeted with much enthusiasm. Why is all this so?
HS: I think one of the reasons is that there has been a tremendous deterioration in our standard of education. The kind of education we now give our children, does not properly plant a seed in their mind which enables them to take a fresh look at life, and then understand his place in his culture. That is one strong reason why there is a decline, not only in readership, but also in all areas of intellectual pursuit in Bangladesh at the moment.
ZK: But that does not explain the rise in the readership of the novel.
HS: The commoners were never great lovers of poetry. Poetry had certain functions in the middle ages, for example. Or even after that, till nineteenth-century in our country, people wanted to listen to stories presented in rhyme and metre. Since the mid-20s poetry has drastically changed. In our country, it was changed by the work of few talented poets who were probably a bit ahead of their own times.
This complete change in the language of poetry was not readily accepted by the reading public. Besides books of poems were never great sellers. But then there is always a group, a sophisticated group, who really act as inspirational sources to poets.
ZK: A handful of critics are of the opinion that the poems of the 1930s, except those of Jibanananda Das, are artificial and largely imitative of those of contemporary European poets in their theme and style. How would you react to that?
HS: Well, this theory is currently in vogue, it is fashionable. But, we the poets of the 1960s, if I may say so, and even our seniors are indebted to the poets of the 30s. How can they be ignored? Some may term their works as artificial, but to me a work of art is genuine as long as it talks about life. When it loses touch with life, it ceases to be genuine. So I am not in agreement with the view that Jibanananda Das apart, other poets of the 30s are not genuine.
Artificiality is a question of degree, and it depends on how you define it. In poetry we do not use the language of common people, do we? Wordsworth also failed to do that. The language he used was not always taken from everyday life. Some elements of the commoner's language are used, but when you use them in a poem it becomes new. In fact, that is the function of poetry. Always renewing the vigour that is inherent in words, that is inherent in language. Therefore, the question of artificiality, I think, does not hold ground.
ZK: Poetry is basically anchored in emotion. As a poet yourself, do you think philosophy, theory, and criticism, can at times strangle inspiration and emotion necessary to write poetry?
HS: If I understand your question correctly, you are asking whether critical appreciation of a thing stands between your emotions, and the creation of a good poem out if those emotions. You see, the mind works in a mysterious way. One mind can at the same time be critical and creative - it can be critically creative, and it can also be creatively critcal. When it is critically creative, it produces an article on a particular theme; when it is creatively critical it produces a poem. So I don't think critical appreciation of things can actually stand between looking at life, understanding it, and then translating that into a work of art. It basically depends on the mental make-up of a particular poet. A poet may try to understand life only through certain emotions and feelings. But then emotions and feeling are always there in poetry. A poet who looks at life critically, tries to understand the meaning of it - those elements will come into his poems. But critical appreciation of a thing will never stand between his understanding of life and then creating a good poem.
ZK: Perhaps the most difficult proposition for a poet is to reflect on the future of poetry. What do you think?
HS: This is a very difficult question to reflect upon, because I'm not a prophet and cannot look into the future. But then having looked at the history of humanity, the growth of human culture, one can expect that a barren time will never come, since a part of the population of any country will never stop appreciating beauty, will never stop appreciating a work of artistic sake, will never stop appreciating good poetry.
ZK: Which poets have most influenced you and shaped your poetic vision?
HS: It is difficult to identify that. Maybe, all of those whose works I have come across. The greatest influence was, of course, Rabindranath Tagore, which is the case for most Bengali poets of post-Tagore era. He has taught us to speak the language, and coincidentally the primer that was given to me for my alphabets was by Tagore. Tagore's works has had a great influence on our family.
Then in my boyhood, I was greatly influenced by the poems of Kazi Nazrul Islam, whose poems I used to recite. Later came Jibanananda Das and Sudhin Dutt. In Sudhin Dutt, I found someone who created poetry from a limited diction of the Bengali language. He played with that diction, explored other languages of India, particularly Sanskrit, from where he had collected lot of expressions, and used them brilliantly in his poems.
I have always believed that a very accomplished artist is he, who can very consciously try to create a work of art like the work done by an architect or a sculptor. That influenced me greatly, and I was within that ambit for a very long time. I think it is only recently that I have tried consciously to come out of it, and construct a language of my own. I was also greatly influenced by W.B.Yeats and definitely by T.S.Eliot; then at a later stage, surprisingly by the Indian English-language poet, Dbm Moraes.
ZK: It seems very contradictory to me — first you are influenced by W.B.Yeats and Sudhin Dutt, and then T.S.Eliot and Dom Moraes.
HS: Yes, they are a world apart. There are all sorts of different influences that might shape one's psyche and thoughts. So, in spite of the fact that they are apparently different, the fact remains that all of them are poets.
ZK: Non-native English writers have earned universal acclaim for their fresh use of language, fresh cadence, and fresh images. How do you look at the rise of this new breed of writers?
HS: I don't think it is a fad and it is going to continue for some time. But having said that, to say that the English-language has been overtaken by non-English writers is going a bit too far. I still think if you write in English, the whole history of English-language and its literature is behind you. And you cannot completely segregate yourself because whenever you use a language, you should bear in mind that the language has arisen out of certain historic events through the flow of time. What has happened to English, particularly since the Englishmen went out the empire they had once created for themselves, is that different cultures started influencing the English psyche itself. The change there is only natural one, something that is happening to other languages as well.
Photograph by: Din M Shibly

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Hayat Saif:: Biography

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