Interview

Mimi Khalvati

Mimi Khalvati

Mimi Khalvati was born in Tehran, Iran. She grew up on the Isle of Wight and was educated inSwitzerland, and in London at the Drama Centre and the School of Oriental and African Studies. She has worked as an actor and director in both the UK and Iran, and is currently co-ordinator of the Poetry School, running poetry workshops and courses in London. Her poetry collections include White Ink (1991), and Mirrorwork (1995), for which she was awarded an Arts Council Writers' Award. Selected Poems was published in 2000 and a new collection, The Chine , in 2002.

VALERIA MELCHIORETTO: How did you start writing poetry?

MIMI KHALVATI: By mistake and discovery on an Arvon course in 1986.

How soon after that did you start publishing your work?

My first book came out three years later, so it all happy very quickly, indeed, before I knew exactly what was happening. Within a year of writing poetry I decided to stop the theatre work I was doing, and instead concentrate on poetry full-time.

Yet it's not about being a full-time poet, that would give the impression of someone who sits at home and write poems all day, which of course would be nice, but it's the poetry-related activities that take up a lot of time.

Do you think that there is a right time to get published, and do you think it can be a mistake to get published too soon?

I think that because it's so hard to get a first collection published these days, that any time is the right time!

To be a successful writer, how much do you think is down to talent, and how much is down to hard work or even charm?

I'm certainly not one of those people who thinks that if you have the talent then you can simply ride it and not have to work so hard. The separation of talent and hard work is slightly false because I think that a lot of the hard work is to do with discovering what talent you have, the precise nature of that talent, and how to nurture it. So in a way I think that the two go together in the sense that the work often reveals the talent.

The Chine came out last year. Have you started your new collection, and if so are there any themes running through it?

It's early days for me with ideas for the new book. I find that until I've written the collection I don't know exactly what it's going to be, so it might turn out completely different to what I had in mind. But what I'm starting off with, for the first time, is quite a clear idea of a book.

Beforehand, I've written in to the dark, and sort of followed my nose. This time I've got a title which I've taken from Wordsworth, and certain strictures which I have set up for myself, for example, I will only include quite short poems, they will all be very formal, and I'm hoping they will be much closer to song.

When writing, what inspires you?

Well I've never written in a very random way. It's not as though one day I wake up and write a poem about war, and the next I write about a dog. I tend to find details that fit into a large scheme of things, or a general idea that I might have at the time.

Of course, reading poetry and other people's poems is inspirational. Wordsworth I always go back to, though I find inspirational writers in many cultures and centuries.

Some contributors to the Wolf are exploring poetry on the page and as performance. As you have taught 'Performing Poetry', what do you think is the most important aspect of performance?

The most important thing is good poems. I'd rather hear good poems performed badly, than bad poems delivered with a great deal of panache.

Having said that, I think that establishing a rapport with the audience in your own individual way is essential for a good reading or performance. Real contact with the audience is usually what makes any poetry reading work. Most people who can establish a good relationship with their audience can usually do it very quickly.

There are certain additional factors that can help, like having a longer set. More time provides the chance to settle in and overcome any potential nervousness.

Aristotle wrote 'Poetics' with a view to both theatre and poetry. What do you think is the main difference between the two genres?

Nowadays poets tend to write lyric poetry. Very few people write epic poems, long-narrative pieces, or verse-plays. The similarity of both is that they, like all art, concern relationships. Yet in theatre the relationship is often how one character affects another and their actions, whereas in poetry it is about the effect on the reader from the poem.

You founded The Poetry School in 1997. Do you think anyone can learn to write poetry, or are there aspects that cannot be taught and what would they be?

I think that there are only a few true poets in every generation. Nevertheless that does not mean writers cannot develop their learning and style. For every single person, no matter how talented, there will be some aspects that cannot be learnt, yet these are different things. You cannot teach people to love the language. You can't teach people to have strange dreams, wake up in the night, and write about them!

In the Poetry School we address people's different levels of interest. I think that people's existing skills can always be developed. The wide range of courses cater for all kinds of people. For example, if you want to learn more about form, you go to versification. If you wanted to translate poetry then that should dictate what course you do.

Most of the writers who come to us have been through the routine workshop before, and want new levels of difficulty, sophistication and focus. It is in these situations that the potential for learning is raised.

What do you think it means to find ones 'voice'?

Sometimes it can be unhelpful to the poet to be told that they have to find a voice. What often gets overlooked, and I think is more important, is the voice of the poem itself.

There are some poets who tend to write in a similar voice in all their poems, and while I think that can be very engaging, it can also be very limited. Then there are very versatile poets who can write in a whole manner of different styles, and are found to be quite different in each passing collection or poem. The pitfall there is that these writers cannot be so easily identifiable.

Do you think that it is a myth that it is harder for women to get published?

With some publishers it's the case. With other publishers not so. I do think that there is still sexism at work in poetry, particularly with positions of power, like editors, publishers, or critics. Also ageism seems to exist for older women poets and I think this is a serious issue, those who are often seen as has-beens at a certain age are not getting a fair representation. Indeed male poets are often treated with a higher level of respect as they get older.

You recently had published a poem in the anthology 100 Poets Against War, to what extent do poets have an obligation to make statements on political events?

In an ideal world I don't think poets should have to write about one thing or another. With a poorly written anti-war poem, I don't think it helps the cause of peace, or helps the cause of poetry.

Of course, it's not easy to write, but when a wonderful piece is written I think it takes a very special place in the reader's mind, and in the culture. Because of the current political climate, questions such as: Why is it hard to write a good political poem, and how that difficulty can be addressed are occupying writers' minds, and I think that it's a good thing.

What might need addressing in order to improve the standard of a political poem could be exactly the same difficulty that creeps into every other poem. If you are just giving vent to your passion in a way that is not poetically, linguistically alive, then the same problems will occur no matter the subject, making the expression of an idea the potential difficulty.

My own interests in political poetry extend to Eastern poetry, where there doesn't seem to be such a clear divide between the personal and the political.

Some publishers have stopped putting the picture of poets on the back of their books. How important do you think the public image of a poet is?

Well if you are eighteen years old and gorgeous, why not have your photo on the back of the book!

Interview: Valeria Melchioretto

 

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