Structo talks to Zaffar Kunial

“If ever you get caught between two locked doors, frozen for hours without any socks on, it’s always good to have lines somewhere inside you – for company.”

This interview first appeared in issue 13, published February 2015.

Photo of Zaffar Kunial and Will Burns courtesy Freddie Phillips. Portrait of Zaffar Kunial courtesy of Faber & Faber.

[Editor’s note: We have some very talented writers working at the magazine, and it’s always wonderful when they get recognised as such. Last year we learned that one of our editorial team, Will Burns, had been named as one of four Faber New Poets for 2013–14. Each recipient of the award, sponsored by the publisher Faber & Faber and Arts Council England, received mentoring, financial support and debut pamphlet publication. What follows is a dialogue between Will and his fellow awardee Zaffar Kunial.]
Zaffar Kunial has been both the most recent Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and a recipient of a place on 2014’s Faber New Poets scheme, which saw the publication of his first pamphlet-length collection of poems. We met the first time Faber & Faber brought the four 2014 New Poets together to read, and then spent more time together on tour in October 2014. During that time, we talked about his writing, his ideas and, probably more than we should have, cricket. I was also witness to his incredible powers of poetical recall on numerous occasions, most notably standing over Wordsworth’s grave. We discussed a few of these things in more detail for this short interview, although thankfully we avoided the cricket. — Will Burns

I guess we could start with an easy, and perhaps all too obvious question: how did you first discover an interest in poetry?

Hmm … not sure. Maybe with some of the things my mum would read or recite before I can remember – one of my favourites was a picture book of The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear. At school I didn’t pay much attention, but the first poetry book I remember actively reading was something I found at home – my mum’s old copy of The Mersey Sound. It wasn’t till I was at university, studying politics, that I started to buy books of poems. It took me a while to get into literature and books. I was 19 when I read my first proper novel.

What was the novel?

It was The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi … I thought literature didn’t really speak to me or for me until then – that poem in the Faber pamphlet about looking at Shakespeare’s portrait, ‘The Lyric Eye’, recalls some of my disinterested feelings at school in English classes … Various people kept telling me that Kureishi’s book featured a character who liked The Beatles and had an Indian dad and English mum and that I’d like reading it. I did – and still remember the first sentence: ‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.’ I loved that ‘almost’. I then went on to read The Outsider by Camus, again one of my mum’s old paperbacks from college, and loved that too. Since then I’ve bought a ridiculous amount of books.

Although I don’t think it’s the major theme of your poems, I’m definitely attracted to the way you explore ideas of family; in particular, the ways in which one’s family affects an individual’s identity. Do you think that’s something you are conscious of? And how do you think that affects a writer’s work in general?

Zaf_RGBThat’s hard to say – it probably depends on the kind of family a writer has. And as Tolstoy famously said, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique ways.

My parents were very different from each other – not only in terms of language, religion, and so on, but also in things like class and education. For instance, my father didn’t go to school beyond the age of about seven – his school was bombed around then – that age is a guess as he doesn’t know what year he was born in. He’s from a more oral culture that didn’t seem to record or be aware of things like calendar years. His father, who I never met, died of a snakebite, walking barefoot to the river at night to fetch his buffalo some water. Dad had another family, from an arranged marriage with his first wife. Visiting Dad’s remote village in the hills, with no running water, and the family effectively living off the land and the animals, always felt like going back in time. My mum too was from a small village although she went to grammar school and was bookish when younger and could quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory. There was one small bookshelf in the house which was mostly old books of mum’s – those she’d kept from her college days. She trained to be a French teacher. Dad’s story is that he learned to read English when he arrived in the UK by looking at the letters on shop signs. He worked nights in a factory, making car batteries. My mum was a primary school teacher. As I mention in the last poem in the pamphlet, they met in a pub in central Birmingham, on a road called Needless Alley. My father would go to the pub every day of the week, and yet we’d go the mosque at Eid and so on – his heavy drinking was something we couldn’t mention. Meanwhile, my Scottish grandmother, who I never met, spent most of her life in an asylum for the mentally ill – she grew up in a pub and was ‘committed’ in the 1950s, to stop her drinking. She was someone we didn’t speak about much. I could go on and on about the various things I was confused or challenged by when young – but what crops up a lot for me is trying to reconcile things that seem very different – or even opposed.

I think this theme of reconciling differences, and being in two places at once, crops up in a few ways. I’m often trying to put distanced things ‘on the same page’. Even in poems that have nothing to do with family.

So to go back to what you asked about writing – yes, whether it’s about family or other things, perhaps writers are tied to questions or mysteries that are set up for them at quite a young age, long before they’re capable of articulating any answers.

That’s a great answer, and I suppose in one sense the idea of a family, rather like a poem, is a way of interrogating how the seemingly opposed two senses of ourselves (one as a single individual and then as a person linked, dependent and depended upon) can be balanced.

Yes, perhaps poems are a kind of balancing act. But I never planned to write about family or selfhood. Or anything really. But as I say I’m often trying to reconcile things in poems, whatever the subject.

I also love the linguistic sense of play in your poems. Could you tell me a little bit about your feelings towards that? You’ve said to me before that you’ve always felt unsure around language. I wonder if that sense of uncertainty gives the poems their energy somehow?

Thanks. Yes, I’ve always felt quite tentative and stand-offish around language. I was very quiet as a young child – and then later at school had periods where I remember consciously resolving that I wouldn’t say much if I could help it. I also developed a stutter that lasted a couple of years. I think this was a way of checking my speech. A kind of habitual hesitation.
Plus there was a sense of sacredness or otherness around words and scripts. Especially those I couldn’t understand, whether in English, or French, or Arabic, whatever. Books and letters were where truth and power hid. We had a dual-language copy of the Quran wrapped in cloth, kept on a wardrobe – at a respectful distance and height. We also had an old family Bible that was inherited and covered in cloth. I was taught to look up to words. And felt at a remove from them sometimes.

The first ‘poem’ I wrote was in a birthday card for my dad when I was learning to write. I wanted to make a rhyme and all I could come up with was ‘When you die, I will cry’. Next night I heard my parents arguing – my father was angry that I was talking about his death in a birthday card. I meant to say that I loved him, but couldn’t think of another way to say it that rhymed. I’d been misunderstood and my mum was paying for it. That’s one story, but for various reasons I still expect to be misunderstood somehow. Uncertain and also desperate to try and ‘get things right’. Perhaps my poems sometimes reconfigure this situation.

In that poem ‘Hill Speak’, the word for ‘yours’ – tuwarda – I later picked up on in the words ‘towards’ and ‘in to words’. I doubt if that’s particularly noticeable, but I like it when a word pulls me in two or more ways. And when I say in the poem, ‘it’s the close-by things I’m lost to say’, it’s very much me that is speaking. This isn’t my father’s, or an immigrant’s, story at this point. It’s mine. Explaining how I feel, and getting those words right, sometimes seems like a hill that’s impossible to get to the top of.

I’ve been lucky enough to witness your incredible powers of poetic recall in the flesh. Maybe you could tell me a bit about what importance you place on having poems in your memory like that?

Haha, I’m not sure I remember as much as you think!

It’s different with my own poems – the words just seem to stick through the editing/redrafting process.
I rarely think: I’m going to learn this poem, completely from scratch, so to speak. The first poem I had by heart was a sonnet by Keats – I kept returning to it because I thought it was beautiful. I think it was Frost who said that poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom – that’s how a few poems by other poets have ended up being ‘learnt’ by me – mostly through reading and re-reading certain lines.

I’m interested in the different ways poems can be memorable – in what makes them stick, and how they are screwed to that ‘sticking place’. Sometimes none of the words stick, but the atmosphere or feeling of a poem stays with you over time. Once, in London, I went to answer a door to the postman and got caught in my pyjamas in the lobby, without the key to the door that had just shut behind me, or to the front door. I’d rushed out because my mum had sent a package in the post for what was going to be my first Christmas alone. It was about eight in the morning and it wasn’t until four that anyone came back to let me out or in. It was snowing outside, and freezing, and I had no socks on. Apart from the socks, I also wished I had something to read. But that Keats poem, ‘Bright star…’ was something I repeated to myself as the hours passed. And a speech from Hamlet – ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth …’ which I knew simply from the Withnail and I film. Ever since then, I’ve liked the idea of carrying poems around with me.

And if ever you get caught between two locked doors, frozen for hours without any socks on, it’s always good to have lines somewhere inside you – for company. A kind of inner Kindle.

I wondered if you read aloud a lot when composing your poems? I feel as if your poems really take on a different shape when read aloud as opposed to when reading them on the page, and I think of Ted Hughes in his letters saying how important it was for a poet to read aloud, how it allows the poem, the words, to exist in their fullest form, rather than simply as visual symbols?

That’s interesting, the idea of a poem taking a ‘different shape’ when read aloud. I suppose it’s a mystery, the link between the visual and aural considerations in a poem, and how it all comes together, if at all. Maybe it’s a kind of ‘butterfly soup’ – both types of composition happening at once.

I have a little poem called ‘Butterfly Soup’. It started as a nonsense poem, but the first lines – ‘This butterfly comes from a bud / they call the small cocoon’ – came, before I recognised it consciously, in the form of a ballad, while I was sat at my desk at Hallmark. The ballad metre and rhyme scheme is the one sentimental cards are often written in. That’s how that poem took shape. This is different from the kind of inner hearing that makes its own shapes.

I was at work that day and not meant to be writing my own stuff, so I definitely wasn’t saying it aloud at the desk!

I might occasionally mouth things out while I’m writing a draft, but usually I’m staring silently at the screen or a page. I’m sometimes partly led by how a poem looks, or rather what it’s shaping-up to look like. But there’s still a kind of inner speaking/listening going on, if I’m lucky.

Often it’s the ideas that preoccupy me in editing – once I’ve seen what I’m writing about – and then I can lose touch with the inner speaking/listening part. I think there are lots of ways to put a poem together, and sometimes those ways are in conflict with each other.

I wondered what you thought of the Elizabethan poets? I’m thinking about the poem ‘The Lyric Eye’ [from Kunial’s Faber pamphlet], and August Kleinzhaler’s introduction to Thom Gunn’s Selected Poems, where he describes Gunn deploying a kind of Elizabethan, almost invisible, ‘I’ speaker in his poems, the kind of speaker who is somehow removed from the action. I wondered if those ideas or writers were an influence at all?

Yes, I’m sure they are, amongst many other kinds of poets and writers. I’ve tried to read as widely and openly as possible, even though I’ve never studied literature academically. I like how Donne, for instance, tries to connect things together, very distant things sometimes. How he needs to do this. How he’s trying to connect his heart and his head along the way – the way being words. Donne obviously patronises women in his ‘love poems’. But he sometimes intertwines genders of his male and female speakers, and blurs the lines between speaker and subject, which is interesting. I think the real person he’s trying to connect with is himself.

The title of that Shakespeare portrait poem, ‘The Lyric Eye’, was suggested to me by Ian Duhig who knows more about these things (and most other things) than I do.  

This poem, by the way, has had more titles than any other I’ve written. ‘Slow Reader’. ‘Shakespeare’s Opposite’. ‘Borders’. And a hundred others. It’s about lots of things, and I wasn’t sure which was more important. I was going to call it ‘Five Feet from Shakespeare’ at one point – again picking up on distance, and reading/speaking a line from a distance – so perhaps that relates to an ‘I’ that is removed … I didn’t know I was writing about these things till I kept seeing them in the poems.