Photo by Umair Khan
By Ammara Khan
Last year Vallum, a Canadian poetry journal, published a special issue Poets from Pakistan, with Canadian writer Blaine Marchand and writer and editor of Alhamra literary review, Ilona Yusuf, as co-guest editors. A collection of poems by emerging as well as established Pakistani poets writing in English, this special issue was a welcome initiative for Pakistani English poetry which is generally overlooked. Vallum is not the first international journal/magazine to publish a special issue on Pakistani literature. In 2010, Granta as well as South Asia Review published specials on literature from Pakistan. However, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that English poetry in the country has been marginalised.
On March 5, Marchand and Yusuf spoke about the magazine at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The issue was introduced with readings of selected poems and a conversation with the editors. Bilal Tanweer, one of the poets included in the collection, called it both a celebration and an inaugural launch.
Marchand said that they initially wanted to include poets from Pakistan writing in languages other than English but because of the difficulties with the collection and the translation of the poetry, they had to limit themselves to English. This decision, he said, helped highlight the English poets here who are not always recognised. He talked about their lack of representation at events like literary festivals that largely focus on fiction and prose writers. This disregard for poetry, he admits, is not only limited to Pakistan as poets in North America are also not taken as seriously as writers from other genres.
After Marchand’s opening remarks Mehvash Amin, Mina Farid Malik and Tanweer read out their poems, followed by readings by Marchand and Yusuf. Then followed a Q&A session in which the need for a platform for poets and the unwillingness of local publishers to print poetry was discussed. When a woman from the audience said that instead of going to universities poets should gather at a “neutral” place, Marchand said one of the advantages of going to universities for poetry readings is the opportunity to reach out to youth and aspiring writers.
When asked whether he is planning to work on a collection of vernacular poetry in the future, Marchand said he has recently been approached by another magazine and might be working along these lines.
It was poets like Taufiq Rafat who developed their own idiom in the 1970s, said Yusuf, tracing the tradition of English poetry in Pakistan. Poets have been writing in English for decades now; it’s just that we don’t know much about it. Moreover, this tradition has become stronger in a postcolonial environment.In her essay “A Lively Progression: Mapping Pakistani Poetry,” published with the poems, Yusuf provides a historical account of Pakistani English poetry. Giving examples of pioneers like Rafat, Maki Qureshi and Daud Kamal, she observes: “Perhaps it is not incidental that most of these poets, who laid the foundation for Pakistan’s postcolonial literary tradition, were well-versed in the rich literary traditions of the vernacular.” They also produced translations of works in the national as well as regional languages. Despite the repressive atmosphere of the 1980s, the “artists who coveted freedom of expression went underground” and kept on writing resistance poetry. The next decade breathed new life into the genre with poets like Hima Raza: “Word puzzles, jazz rhythms, visual or ‘size’ poetry define much of her work, which examines the materialistic quality of modern relationships and cultural divides.”
It was pointed out that most of the poems from the collection are of a personal nature, rather than political. Only one reading touched upon themes as varied as politics, history, society and nature.
“The Attack on Sialkot” by Zulfikar Ghose, a well-known diaspora writer, beautifully expresses the identity crisis of a man who has “gone westward,” advertising his “patient secularism”; whereas, his grandfather with “Pakistan’s earthen-pot faith” clings to his religion: “Islam, Islam, that’s/All you cared for, stubborn as a child.”
Amin’s poem “Crow” is a symbolic commentary that invites both social and political readings:
In a new world
Your role had been redefined. You are