Photo Credit: Caroline Forbes
Mimi Khalvati is an award-winning poet, editor and tutor. She has published eight poetry collections, most recently The Weather Wheel with Carcanet in 2014.
Mimi was also an original founder of The Poetry School and has previously been a poet-in-residence for The Royal Mail.
Hi Mimi. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your most recent book The Weather Wheel. Can you tell us a bit more about the collection and why you decided to use a sixteen line couplet form for the poems?
When I first started writing The Weather Wheel, I had nothing more in mind than to write some poems taking the day’s weather as the starting point and then let them spin off in their own directions. This action of ‘spinning’ was in my mind and with it an image of something like a spinning top or catherine wheel. Later, I discovered there is such a thing as an actual weather wheel used in primary schools – a circle divided into segments in which children draw some element of the day’s weather – a cloud, an umbrella, a sun. Later, Martin Parker designed the book’s cover for me to represent this.
So I realised that, given such a variety of subject matter and tone, I needed a form to unify the poems and invite them to be read as a sequence, without being sequential. Early drafts were all short, tended to use a long line and had some kind of turn two-thirds of the way through. While wanting to avoid the sonnet – though the Meredithian sonnet is 16 lines – I wanted to find a frame to contain the fluidity while allowing the poems to segue into each other. In retrospect, I think the form is a kind of marriage between the sonnet and the ghazal, though here the couplets helped me to drain weight out of the poems, leaving them to float in space.
While I was writing the book, my mother died and poems for her punctuate each of the six sections, or segments.
You’ve mentioned in the past when you work with fixed form, metre and rhyme that the content, subjects and meanings of your poems become almost secondary. Do you find it easier to write poems in a strict form versus a free verse form and does your drafting process differ depending on what form you’re working with?
Whether I’m writing in a metrical form or in free verse, I rarely have a particular subject in mind. Or if I do, I just take it as the station I’m starting from, without prefiguring the journey, with no destination in mind. I’ve always been lumbered with a sense of ‘having nothing to say’ and so I write the poem to discover if I do or don’t. If it turns out that the poem has something to say and I’ve listened hard enough to hear it, it’s always a reassurance and a surprise.
Writing in strict forms is immeasurably more difficult than in free verse. And my drafting process differs radically. In the first instance, I write slowly, line by line, trying to get it ‘right’ as a I go, so that by the time I have finished, there will be little redrafting or editing. If there’s even half a line I’m unhappy with, it might take forever to ‘fix’ and many, many drafts. So I try to avoid tangles by smoothing them out in the first place and not moving on until I have. But writing slowly, while paradoxically trying to maintain energy and momentum, the free flow that always yields the best lines, is difficult.
In free verse, I often write my first drafts in prose, very fast, and keep going until I feel I’ve found the ending, that closing cadence and sense of discovery that comes with a last line. Then, sometimes working backwards, I use very large scissors, cut and paste, try to ‘divine’ the form, rewrite if necessary, before I use the very small ones.
You have written a number of ghazals over the years as well. I’m curious what makes you keep returning to the form – do you see it as a way or re-engaging with your Persian heritage or does it hold some other attraction?
Very sadly, I don’t feel I have true access to my Persian literary heritage since I can only read the poetry in translation, but certainly there is a sense of connection there or at least a deep desire for connection, for being carried over from one shore to another, for translation itself.
But I am fascinated by different aesthetic and cultural values: how can we “make English behave outside its aesthetic habits” as Agha Shahid Ali asks, in writing English ghazals? Our fear of sentimentality, of sweetness, rapture, ecstasy – being over the top – of the panegyric’s unironic rhetoric of praise, can all be challenged while also questioning our formal habits – such as disguising form, avoiding full rhyme and repetition, subverting expectation rather than fulfilling it, relying on imagery, going in fear of the abstract, etc.
I enjoy formal challenges and find the ghazal the most difficult, not only technically but also in trying to transgress our aesthetic values while still hoping to write a poem valid as an English poem, and not just as some sort of exotic import.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed this year or are especially looking forward to?
The last few months have been hectic, but wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed working with writers on courses and retreats in Loutro, Crete; in Almassera, Spain – at Christopher North’s Old Olive Press; with Ian Duhig at Lumb Bank; with Second Light in Evesham and The Complete Works in Ipswich; and with Jenny Lewis and Adnan Al-Sayegh, I was among a very lucky and lovely group of poets who attended Poesi-o-Rama, a poetry festival in Malmo, Sweden; I read at Winchester Festival and judged their first poetry competition …… so I am really looking forward to a quiet time over Christmas and the New Year and time, miraculous time, to work on some new poems.
It’s too soon to say much about the new work, but I am working on a series of sonnets, each of which explores an aspect of what I think of as ‘the Void’. You mentioned my Persian heritage, and I the absence of it, and that, including the loss of my first language, my culture, family and family history, have left gaps in my life which are forming the fabric of new poems. Increasingly, there are huge numbers of people in the world who find themselves with this kind of ‘void’ behind them. So I am thinking about this, not in terms of litanies of loss, but in terms of shaping identity and finding positive values that help one shape a life.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Many years ago my publisher Michael Schmidt rather mysteriously said to me on the phone “You should be living under the vine.” Finding myself in Spain many years later, at the end of summer and dreading another winter in London, I found myself answering him.
Under The Vine
Yes, I should be living under the vine,
dapple at my feet and the sweet dry dust
singing of drought, of heat. Look at the pile
of rubble round the roots, curled dry leaves,
little ant homes I can’t see. Look at
the flower fallen in the dirt, flake yellow,
listen to the wasps, the bees. And the vine
above me, the vine that smells of nothing,
yields nothing but the music of its name,
the memory of some long-forgotten terrace.
Yes, under a flock of swallows that repeat
– because we have to believe it – the end,
the end, nearly the end of a summer
so long it knows neither month nor week.
Yes, I should keep my happiness hidden,
under the vine, from those who envy it.