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Who is Soraya?

My poetic other who has been inspiring me since around 2003. Ah, revealing error, I meant to say 2013, when I wrote this book, but 2003 is actually the year I began seriously publishing in journals and started composing my first books, although I’d been writing full-time for about eight years prior to that. So 2003 was really the year I felt legitimized as a writer and knew for sure that was to be my career until the end come what may. Anyway, Soraya gave me license a few years ago to indulge in the exuberance of language, to break the shackles of narrative sense, to abandon linear logic, to give way to the free play of pure pleasure. Soraya is unrestrained joy, lack of inhibition, poly-everything, chockfull of every gluttonous pleasure countering the made-up envelope and container of our mortal lives. Soraya is immortality, lack of finite being, the dissolution of my congealed identities in the very processes of imagining and writing.

 

No, tell us, who really is Soraya?

She is the embodiment of the principle of freedom.

 

And when and where did you meet her? It feels like your reply about dates and years was a sort of avoidance.

I don’t think it was avoidance, Soraya came to me when I was ready to give up a lot of rules and constraints about writing poetry, when I was primed to give up guilt.

 

Is there guilt even in the writing of poetry?

Certainly. Guilt that I am not real, not original, not saying anything worthwhile. I think all writing, at least for me, is a continuous purging of guilt. Guilt of the kind I just described, but also other kinds of guilt. The more ambitious the piece of writing the more colossal the wall of guilt I must scale, the sharper the barbs of self-questioning that come my way.

 

And Soraya freed you of guilt?

I think so. For one thing I started making a virtue out of the substance of my faults. If I feel I can’t be original, well then let me make a beautiful unoriginality out of it. I think I have a neat way of summing up the book Soraya now: it is beautiful unoriginality.

 

Do you require us to have a dictionary at hand when we read Soraya? And not just any dictionary, a good one, the OED or something.

(Smile.) A dictionary is not needed, you can get each of the 100 sonnets at the level of sonic pleasure, the pure play of words impossibly juxtaposed and mingling with strange others from incongruous eras and mindsets, so you don’t need a dictionary for that. But if you want to unravel the occult meaning of each sonnet, then yes, looking up each obscure word in a dictionary to see how it creates reverberations beyond its immediate sound would definitely be of help.

 

Why are you writing difficult poetry? Your work before Soraya was not difficult. It was dealing with difficult public and political issues but the language was mostly transparent, you were always expecting a certain degree of erudition from the reader but not to the extent that you’ve lately displayed.

Is Soraya difficult poetry? I think this is rather a silly way of categorizing poetry, difficult versus—what? Easy? Easy meaning what, that you shouldn’t have to read a poem more than once or with a bare minimum of concentration to get the “meaning” at first read? If it stresses you out to read poems, then perhaps you shouldn’t be reading poems. Besides, Soraya is not a difficult book at all, it unfolds in a way that makes it palpable that what we think is easy poetry is really the most inarticulate type because it reiterates our foolish, jejune, facile narratives about what constitutes reality, where we came from and where we’re going. So in fact what seems difficult in Soraya is a joyous invitation into a radically different stream of thought, and once you play along you find yourself swept away hither and thither, as each sonnet reveals to you how difficult it is to live with established narratives: ultimately the apparent difficulty of reading these diction-drenched, word-mad, alliteratively angsty sonnets dissolves into an ease you didn’t expect.

 

Give us an example of what you mean.

Let’s look at sonnet no. 96 toward the end of the book:

“You call me lotus-eater supplanting love-
in-a-mist hand puppets? Ideas of infinity
throw themselves at me when I teleport
your presence as a study in poker. Not
to mention never having been the ne plus
ultra of nepotism, only the nerve trunk
theorized by contumacy. Only Soraya
knows my crinoline desperation to whirl
with the eddy. It was an edge city for the
worship of yohimbine we reached, zeugma
stiff as aqua regia. Is the versal letter at
the beginning of the last chapter Soraya’s
whetstone, windward like wisdom lit-
erature, or just a trembling theomachy?”

Is this difficult?

I don’t know. By this point in the book it should be clear that what is being supplanted in my head is the thought process that demands transparent meaning—ideology, or “love-in-a-mist hand puppets”—with a different kind of sensibility trafficking in “infinity.” My identity, after a great deal of restless tussle throughout the book, has merged with Soraya’s by this point, “when I teleport…[her] presence as a study in poker.” What matters is to cease crafting poetry as though there were relevant outside referential points, and to make of it each time a self-sufficient artifact whose reference points are all contained inside: “Only Soraya knows my crinoline desperation to whirl with the eddy.” So we reach “an edge city for the / worship of yohimbine,” and what are we doing here after all, is this a form of “wisdom literature” made up of the beautiful sound of words, words flowing into each other in a literary enactment of infinite infinity, or is it in the end just a “trembling themoachy?”

 

Okay, why the sonnet form?

Because of the intense erotic dialectic—the protean exchange of fluids if you will—the sonnet form allows me, pushing toward synthesis within the parameters of the form, after forcing me to succinctly lay out the thesis and antithesis. After 100 repetitive arguments, 100 iterations of the same essential sonnet, it seems to me that at last I start striking gold in terms of originality. I said earlier that I’d given up on originality, but that is not really true, perhaps I meant I’d given up on naïve originality, the one that ensues from a stable self. The sonnet is available as an established form with a history of erotic declamation, engagement, consummation, and refusal, so I can explore it at leisure in order to make a great show of my unoriginality, which is signaling a different kind of desperation.

 

What is the desperation you feel?

At the time of writing the book nearly three years ago I think the desperation was something I didn’t know I had until I actually wrote the book—I discovered it during the act of composition. It was like finding a new love and realizing how desperately I needed it but I hadn’t been aware of it until I actually encountered that love, and then it was as if I’d always felt that need. Suddenly writing poetry became “easy”—even if the words that were coming out were superficially “difficult”—once Soraya started spilling out of me. And it has remained so until now, almost to the point where I wonder if this signature playful surreal style that I have developed, beginning with Soraya, is not something that I should get away from to do some “original” work that is not saturated with the inebriation of language per se, language in and of itself instead of as reference structure for external reality and history. I would say that today the desperation I feel has everything to do with knowing too much, knowing certain things too well, and yearning for a lack of words all over again, yearning for struggle in writing poetry. I have, mechanically, performing certain aesthetic maneuvers, figured out a way around the struggle of poetry, and Soraya was the first step in that escape. In a way Soraya, my ideal other, overflowing with surreal juxtapositions and the entire world’s vocabularies at her disposal, killed certain ways of telling stories, opened up other ways I hadn’t thought of, and left me stranded high above the drama that is unfolding way below as me in my corporeal reality. I feel like I no longer have an identity to claim as my own.

 

But isn’t that good? Isn’t that what you wanted all along?

Yes, like all devastating things that happen it is what I wanted all along.

 

Poetry can deprive a poet of identity? Is poetry that powerful?

Poetry after all is the essence of one’s identity, it sums up where one is and all the constituent parts that go into one’s self. A book like Soraya forces me to spontaneously yield up everything I’ve built up in reserve to hold myself steady, it is an act of emptying myself out, leaving nothing back to shore myself against emergencies.

 

You sound like you may be at a dead-end.

Not a dead-end, but an impasse of sorts, yes, after writing several more books in the vein of Soraya, different in tone, but building on the same playful surrealism, the same drunkenness on the sound of words to carry meaning. There is a way forward but I don’t know it yet. It may return me to a new interpretation of originality.

 

How did you actually write Soraya?

I think you’ll have the answer for yourself once you read the book. There is no real mystery, it all becomes evident if you give up “normal sense” in your pursuit of the book.

 

What are your thoughts on madness versus rationality?

I think what we typically consider rational is mad and vice versa. It is because we are caught in the prison of language which is constructed so as to make us believe that the fantastic is actually real. What appears as fantastic is actually the real reality that speaks honestly to us. Soraya is one such attempt to reverse the equation, to expose the vulnerability of ordinary language to radical subversion, but all writing to some extent makes precisely the same attempt of reversing the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the rational and the mad: “We are slow as theorems in travelogues / populated by blind car bombs: courtship / of the dramatis personae on Menander’s / loading dock is Soraya’s cue to bank / on jurassic second sight.”

 

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ANIS SHIVANI is the author of several critically acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism, including Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), and Karachi Raj: A Novel (2015). Both Anatolia and Other Stories and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories were longlisted for the Frank O’Connor international short story award. Books in progress or recently finished include Literature in an Age of Globalization, Both Sides of the Divide: Observing the Sublime and the Mundane in Contemporary Writing, Plastic Realism: Neoliberalism in Recent American Fiction, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish: Poems, The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours: Poems, Death is a Festival: Poems, and the novels A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less, Abruzzi, 1936, and An Idiot’s Guide to America. Anis’s work appears in the Yale Review, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Iowa Review, Threepenny Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, Fence, Epoch, Boulevard, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Verse, Colorado Review, Quarterly West, New Letters, Subtropics, Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, Meanjin, Fiddlehead, and other leading literary journals. His criticism appears widely in newspapers and magazines such as Salon, Huffington Post, Daily Beast, In These Times, Texas Observer, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Austin American-Statesman, Kansas City Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, St. Petersburg Times, Charlotte Observer, and many other outlets. Anis is the winner of a 2012 Pushcart Prize, graduated from Harvard College, and lives in Houston, Texas.

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