2015 Paul Violi Prizewinner Mariam Zafar talks with Sam O’Hana about AWP, corporate storytelling and words that never make it into English.
“I was presenting on a panel about bilingual waiting at the AWP three years ago”, she begins, detailing her watershed moment in poetry that lead her to take up an MFA at the New School. From Pakistan to New York via Dubai and more recently Miami, where she majored in both international business and creative writing, Mariam Zafar is comfortable occupying the blur of transience as well as the rigidity of tradition.
Meeting outside the New York Public Library’s monolithic Schwarzman building in Midtown, Zafar quickly becomes enthusiastic about humor, and poetry that is purposefully engaged with the world. She immediately brings up poetry’s capacity to cross boundaries of time, landscape and culture, and how her experience of much of Pakistan comes through the stories of her parents’ lives there. “Poetry is a way of constructing a home on a blank page”, she then tells me, before mentioning the importance of hybrid, experimental and multimedia forms of poetry.
Zafar is keen to talk about writers who, in their own periods, were experimental, and have since gone on to become touchstones in American poetry; Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, as well as key proponents of their form– the novelist Jenny Ofill of The Dept of Speculation, and Kashmiri American poet Aga Shahid Ali. Rich and Ali in particular, she notes were crucial to her appreciation of the Ghazal across languages– the former poet is credited with bringing it to the US, and the latter for refining and mastering it in English.
“Poetry is an arrangement of sorts, like pouring texts, languages, ideas, and research into a beaker and distilling it to a concentrated representation of one’s self” she continues, drawing attention to the sense that poetry can be a form of controlled chaos. “Coming from a culture of arranged marriages, I am especially fascinated by the idea of an orchestration that can be deliberate and artful instead of forceful and haphazard” and while aware that her work often speaks with her parents and their collective culture, Zafar widens this scope by pointing to the tension between the collective and individualistic sentiments of Pakistani and the US communities respectively.
“I enjoy incorporating research and collaging it into with my own words” she says, describing recent work that addresses the details of her father’s line of work in the tyre industry. She is concise when I ask her about the relationship between traditional and contemporary texts– “there’s a rebellion that goes on between writers and the people that influence them”, specifying further by explaining how secondary or ordinary texts can be made extraordinary by contemporary authors in new work, in particular Jenny Ofill.
Zafar reserves a special mention for the effect that texts like this can have. “That physical reaction is an incomparable experience”, she says, describing it as a usually unplanned experience that comes from “a really exquisite piece of writing that Dickinson describes as having the top of your head blown off”. It’s here that she gives the example of some hyphenated writers, returning to Aga Shahid Ali, and how the Ghazal’s original structural relation to song is a key element in the effect that it can have as poetry.
“The idea of a hyphenated writer causes more division than is necessary”, she says, questioning the value of the terms ‘Pakistani-American’ and ‘writer of color’. She speaks of feeling validated with the honor of the Paul Violi Prize, and this is related to an awareness of words in Arabic and Urdu that don’t have equivalents in English. At this point, she feels it has helped reach a wider audience as a South Asian writer, yet she is also aware of practical limitations of the knowledge that readers can bring to a poem which bring new words from one language to another.
She pays attention to the changing role of facts in poetry. Critical of writing that is sensationalistic rather than focused on sensory, specific experiences, she points out the difference between reporting on drone strikes from a distance, and on-the-ground reportage detailing the experience of a local family picking okras at the time. Ultimately, she reminds us of the importance of specificity in writing, something that should never be left out.
Zafar turns to another side of international writing by bringing up novelist Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and who introduces corporations to the value of storytelling in their work. She speaks briefly about this, and highlights the focus on statistics and analysis that often detracts from the emotive, expressive side of business. She is keen to point out that the business world needs more writers and novelists, and that working in writing is good training for work in this field. I ask her whether she would like to operate in both fields of poetry and business, and, true to her fluency with liminal spaces, she enthusiastically says “yes”.
Mariam Zafar is a recent graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School. A desert dweller at heart, she writes between Miami, Dubai, and New York City. She is the 2015 winner of the Paul Violi Prize in Poetry, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Ink & Code, Bird's Thumb and H.O.W Journal.