Pour ceux qui lisent l'arabe :
Voici la traduction anglaise, de Amira ARJANEE, de cet interview réalisé par Nouri AL-JARAH :
1. Why (and/or how) did you become a poet ?
I found my artistic vocation quite late in life, around 30. I think that this poetic sensibility has always haunted me, deep down, but it took time to exteriorize, express itself, mainly because there was no one in my immediate environment to act as my mentor or muse, as catalyst. You need a mirror, in the form of another person, to really see yourself as you are. My first poetic writings were of a very spontaneous, gushing nature. I barely gave any thought to polishing my texts back then; it was all writing for writing's sake. Only after the first poems were published did I become aware of how these can actually touch readers and how they were the seeds of a genuine artistic calling— of writing as authentic inner need, as guiding compass for meaning and truth. Since then, I haven't been able to stop— poetry has been taking more and more of my daily life, and today, despite all the self-doubt, the constant questioning, I want to pursue this vocation all the way, I still cannot pin down what exactly this desire to write is, but it is essential to my life and it obsesses me.
2. Which particular poets or literary movements influenced your literary upbringing?
Reading The Flowers of Evil at nineteen came as a shock and a revelation. First of all, there's this extraordinary breath filling every verse of the collection: these luscious images, the exploration of the self in the most intimate nooks of its flesh. But, more than that, I also seemed to see, surely with all the naivety of youth, my reflection in these poems. Baudelaire had managed— through what dark spell, I may never know— to embody my whole being. Baudelaire is the one who seduced, initiated me to poetry; he gave me the taste and hunger for it, made me realize that inside myself is some kind of meaning that can be translated into words. I also adore Cesaire, who I think might have been an even greater poet than even Baudelaire or Rimbaud. In Notebook of the Return to the Native Land, his style is that of fusion and rupture, a reinvention of language itself. I return to this collection over and over again, carried away each time by the ardour and beauty of the words. Many other poets have also influenced me, among whom Lautreamont, Neruda, Paz, Tagore and the Mauritian Edouard Maunick. And then there are these poets disguising themselves as novelists. Here, I'm thinking particularly of Camus and Le Clezio. I recently bought Camus's Collected Works, and some of his passages, notably in Summer, have left a profound echo in me. Camus at times achieves this near-perfection in his writing, marrying sublime prose with dense philosophical musings. With Le Clezio, I love the musicality of the words in a style that's surprisingly simple at times, stripped of any floweriness yet eminently poetic. Moreover, I feel an intimate blond with the work of the Mauritian novelist and poet Ananda Devi, whose writing is impregnated with furious, tormented poetry, and who is, in my opinion, Nobel-worthy.
3. What are the distinctive qualities of poetry from Mauritius? How does a poem distinguish itself as ‘Mauritian’, or do you consider this an increasingly less important issue in a modern globalised world with the phenomenon of atomised identities ?
We must contextualize things a bit before approaching this question. Not to exaggerate, but Mauritius is an absolutely tiny island in the Indian Ocean; so small, in fact, that you can travel all around it within a couple of hours! The population is about 1.2 million, which is quite dense. The island has a rich literary history, but literary culture remains very much marginalized and is treated by the mainstream population as something of extraneous or even useless. And there are no more than a hundred writers, all languages of creative expression (French, English, Creole, Hindi...) combined. The literary field in Mauritius is split, scattered. You can discern some common thematic threads in the work of our novelists, but when it comes to our poets, these threads are less clearly perceptible. We cannot talk of local literary schools or movements— we only have strongly individualist writers who express themselves in very different styles. But our best poets and novelists nevertheless share the same level of formal exigence in approaching language, there is a very advanced meditation about language itself, which tends to foster the creation of texts that are quite formally complex, difficult to understand, yet of eminently great quality.
Is there a kind of writing that could be called, in its essence, “Mauritian”? I honestly don't know. If I have to talk about only myself, my Mauritian identity has definitely an impact on the way I write, but in so many indirect ways and only as one of so many other features. We live, as you rightly said, in a globalized era, and the imaginary world of the writer becomes necessarily fragmented— we could, stretching it a bit far, compare the writer's mind here to a cistern in which is poured the plurality of the world. While I definitely write from the context of one precise place (here Mauritius), my writing is first and foremost the expression of that plurality.
4. How does the idea of ‘the island’ – of isolation or self-containment - inform your poetry ?
There are two levels to my poetic relationship with the idea of “the island.” The first is a desire to make a utopia out of it, to recreate its society into one that's essentially culturally hybrid, métisse. The second desire is diametrically opposite— it is to flee the island's claustrophobic insularity, the experience of living on an island being here defined mostly as an “exile from within,” as imprisonment and impossibility. It might doubtlessly be difficult for those who live on continents to really understand that insular unease of island life— of being limited to a piece of land, barely 720 square miles large, floating in the middle of nowhere and filled with shadows who believe themselves to hold universal powers when these powers are clearly imaginary. The island can be a theatre of shadows on the stage of the world. And I've grown tired today of the insular romanticism that some artists easily embrace— of the island as “paradise” or “sanctuary.” I do live here, and will probably live here for the rest of my life, but I know that this comes at a price: acute loneliness, constantly feeling at the periphery of everything. And it's becoming more and more obvious to me that the soul-crushing, ego-destroying nature of insularity actually fuels my impulse for poetic creation.
5. You mostly write in French, or Creole, but also speak English, your children learn Mandarin and Urdu, and as a Muslim you study the Arabic language. What is the value given to poetry through such a capacity to ‘migrate’ between languages ?
This linguistic plurality is of paradoxical nature. We might believe that it's enriching, but life is much simpler when you're born to one language and belong fully to it, than when you're always having to navigate the waters between one language and another. This unending migration is painful— I find myself with one limb in the realm of each language, yet my entire body is never rooted in any linguistic land. If writing is, above all, to be haunted by a language, how can you write when you're actually at the periphery of whatever language you fancy yourself to “master”? At the same time, these rifts, tensions between different languages can be useful to poetic creation: they make poetry possible by translating the vacuum at the core of the self. Kafka once wrote that “all language is but a poor translation.” In that sense, writing is always the search for that which cannot be fully uttered by any language. There's always something missing.
6. Mauritius is a melting pot, where peoples originally from India, Africa, China and France share a home. The island was colonised by the Dutch, the French, and the British. How does the history of the country inform your work ?
Very indirectly. I love reading about my country's history, a fascinating field, but it's not a leading concern in my own creative writing.
7. You have been described as once wanting, to shake off the yoke of the western poetic tradition and go in search of other horizons, but now admit that you cannot escape your own history, or history as such. How are issues of historical narrative and social/political contexts treated in your poetry ? Is it important to view such things from an external perspective (or as external a perspective as possible) ?
My poetry is the manifestation of an identity quest— my identity being at the confluence of multiple influences. And I consider that fact to be as much a source of cultural richness as a deep-lying wound. There are some issues, obsessional at the core, what keep coming up. For instance, what of the choice of what language to write in: Creole, my mother tongue, or French, the one I have been formally educated in and which doesn't exactly fully “belong” to me? What meaning or weight to give to my Muslim identity? How to determine my attitude towards the West, whose culture is both seductive and repulsive (See, in appendix, my text San Francisco Gay Pride, translated by Ameerah Arjanee)? How to anchor myself in this world when all my identities are afloat like driftwood? Is there any chance of ending all these exiles of the self, both the literal and metaphorical ones? I don't have sure answers to any of these questions. And it's the very existence of all these rifts and chasms in my shaky answers that pushes me to write poetry. Poetry is a privileged space for the relentless pursuit of meaning and of an identity of sorts.
8. You attended the Medellin festival in Columbia. As a Mauritian, who appreciates the intersections between different people and cultures, and as a poet, do you particularly appreciate opportunities to meet poets from other countries and explore poetry in other languages, as Medellin gave you the opportunity to do ?
I must use, to describe my trip to this festival, a word that might at first seem exaggerated : pilgrimage. But it's completely accurate as word. Taking part in this festival, I had the feeling that, after all these years of relentless searching, of working in solitude and obscurity, I had been able to break away from the shackles of my constant state of exile. To be a pilgrim is to go to a place that manages to awaken that which had always been sleeping inside of us. This festival has been, in that sense, a near-spiritual experience. Such encounters are essential to the poetic life: we find ourselves among our own, among those who have the same literary sensibility. We can also make contacts that help us evolve along our personal journeys into literature.
9. There were many cultures and nationalities represented. After the festival, what is your opinion on the state of poetry around the world today ?
We cannot untangle the writing of poetry from the context in which it is written. In certain societies, poetry is alive and thriving, it has a real impact outside of scattered readers and the ivory tower, it is still in active possession of its subversive and revolutionary power. In other societies, sadly, it struggles to survive, it is barely given any sort of importance, its songs and prophecies are left unheard. But my feeling is that poetry will remain, despite all the odds, a voice whose existence is crucial and which will force itself to be heard in one way or another. All the poets present at the Medellin festival are the custodial witnesses of poetry's stubborn struggle to survive.
10. You have described your writing process as an attempt to reach a light which always flees. In your opinion, is there a place for ideology, or even belief, in poetry ?
I think that this depends on the social context and the particularly sensibility of the poet. It is clear that in the context of an insular island, trying to turn a poem into the vehicle of an ideology or revolutionary idea is a vain entreprise, given that poetry there has no social capital and is read by virtually no one other than a few eggheads. But in other contexts, poetry can be subversive, that's for sure. As for myself as a writer, I alternate between poems that express strong convictions, that could even be tagged as “engaged literature” if we stretch things a bit far, and poems that are far more intimist in their themes, tone, aims.
11. You are a founding member of Point barre, a Mauritian cross-disciplinary poetry journal that publishes poets from around the world. Do you find that your own poetic practice is improved through your involvement in editing and publishing.
You must remain aware that this literary endeavour, that of the publication of a poetry journal (which happens to be the only one of its kind dedicated exclusively to poetry in the entire history of Mauritius!), started a good decade ago. Thanks to the support of, among others, the French Cultural Centre, we've managed to release 14 issues up to now. Our ambition is to unite Mauritian poets, both established and rising, with their foreign counterparts around a set theme in each issue. Because we want the journal to be a space of plurality, we publish these texts in the three main languages of the island (French, English, Creole) as well as other foreign languages translated into English or French versions. This experience of editing this journal has been enriching in more than one way. This work has allowed us to meet many interesting people, locally as well as internationally. We must highlight the importance of the Internet in all of this, for without this crucial tool of communication, our project would simply not have survived and stretched its wings. This literary endeavour has not altered my own writing, but it has surely allowed me to become more informed about, more conscious of, the different kinds of writing at work today in the poetry world.
12. As a Muslim, how do you feel about the current atmosphere of antipathy in the West towards Islam ?
I find this situation disconcerting. Today, the Muslim has replaced the Jew in the Western collective unconscious, he has become that “Other” on which is projected this whole bundle of fears. And the irony is that there's always this discussion of Muslims without genuinely talking about real Muslims— Muslims are everywhere in the media, but as mere caricatures, as the bearded fundamentalist, the submissive veiled woman, or even the “properly assimilated” Muslim who “talks” like us, “is” like us. If we're not careful, Islamophobia could resuscitate the worst “inner demons” of the Western world. That said, Islamophobia does not exempt the Muslim world from a genuinely self-critical analysis of its own failures. It's easy to bask in conspiracy theories, which in the end say more about those who come up with them than those they purport to be talking about. We owe ourselves, above everything else, to have a clear-headed stance. For we cannot blame all of the Muslim world's problems on the West. Even if I'm clearly not an expert on this issue, the important thing, I think, is to engage in an honest, intelligent reflection on the core reason(s) behind our civilizational collapse. We must also then try to acquire the resources to climb out of this civilizational stagnation.
13. If you could suggest two poems (one written by yourself) to the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, which would you chose ?
Casualties of War and Jenine.
14. Your second collection, Sang, is a long mystical love song written in the Sufi tradition. What are the salient qualities, in your opinion, of the long Sufi poetic tradition ?
I like this kind of poetry for more than one reason. I feel a strong magnetism towards Islamic mysticism, even if I'm far from being a mystic myself. I think that it's a path that leads one in the direction of spiritual liberation. I also like its paradoxical nature, mixing the sacred with profane; we can't always orientate ourselves in it, it's a poetry that blurs the desire for God with that for women and wine. The cultivation of this ambiguity is clearly visible, for instance, in Ibn Arabi's famous poem Tarjuman al-ashwaq (The Interpreter of Yearnings). But, even more than that, Sufism takes the awakening of the divine in man as its philosophical foundation, whereby to become awakened means to become the mirror of the divine, in which is reflected the full extent of its love and compassion.
15. If you could go back in time and suggest two poems (one written by yourself) to the Sufi poet Rumi, which would you chose ?
Baudelaire's The Carrion. And my own poem Blood, which is inspired from Sufi thought.
16. In my everyday life I often get the feeling that a hidden world flourishes in us and that now and then, when a barrier gives way, a poem is created. How does a poet access this hidden world ? Can you force the barrier to give way ?
It might be rather curious, but I am unable to explain the exact mechanism behind poetic creation. I would be unable to, for instance, host a creative writing course. We can surely, with time, learn to master certain techniques, but writing is a work that's mostly under the iron fist of the irrational side of ourselves. To write is to give free reign to whatever is deep down our psyches. I don't know if that “whatever” is a concealed world— I only know that it's a universe inscribed into my guts. The American poet Christian Winman talks, in his book Into the bright abyss, of the “monkish devotion to poetry.” I agree that the poet's work is similar to that of the monk, who closes himself off into silence and solitude so as to reach the light within the self— the light of the divine or that of poetry.
17. What is your measure of success as a poet ?
Success, even if the word sounds quite odd and misplaced, is that communion or alchemy between whatever power is inside of myself and the Other, when the very stuff of my soul becomes, for the most fleeting of moments, that which takes hold of and transforms the Other. Franz Kafta summarized it perfectly when he wrote that A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. There is no greater definition of "success," in my humble opinion, than being able to shatter that sea of ice in the soul of a reader.
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