“I have to come to terms with how the very act of writing poetry for me must both resist and succumb to a racialised assemblage.”
Immediately when you ask me the question ‘how do you write a poem?’, I think not of a singular poem but of how I write poetry. Is there something like a process t/here that I use? It perhaps is not as repetitive nor as uniform as the singular ‘process’ implies. Is there a philosophy, then, that tentatively I might gesture to here? If there is, then surely how I write poetry might have a bearing on how others before and around me have written and are writing poetry? So how I write a poem or how I write poetry is a question I cannot answer alone.
But where I can find an answer, or a distorted fragment of a voice that resembles a partial answer, is in philosophy as much as in the words of poets who I read and am influenced by. Someone I turn to here is Adorno whose lectures on Negative Dialectics are fresh in my mind. I am fond of Lecture 19 where Adorno said ‘we must philosophise not about concrete details but from within them’. A direct result of the influence of Adorno’s words here, for me and for how I write poetry, is to move from the writing about ‘how I write a poetry’ to how I write from within poetry. I don’t think it’s beneficial to provide other poets with a methodological answer, a step by step process, full of prescriptions about ‘how to write a poem’. It is better to think through how to write ‘from within poetry’ itself.
So what, for me and I hope for others, is ‘within poetry?’. Poetry brings together the ontological and the relational spheres of thought and here I am thinking with and of Judith Butler as they think of and with Emmanuel Levinas in many of their works from Precarious Life to Parting Ways. I am also thinking of the relevance of ontology for critical race studies, especially through the works of Christina Sharpe (On Blackness and Being) and Fred Moten (Stolen Life). It is impossible for me, as a poet of colour, to write poetry without these critical discourses. I have to come to terms with how the very act of writing poetry for me must both resist and succumb to a racialised assemblage. I am racialised by my daily encounters with the world I live in and some of that has a direct consequence on how I ‘am’ in and experience the world. To write poetry brings together these two spheres, the ontological and the relational.
We are seeing, then, in my reference to Butler and to Levinas, the trace of some larger ethical project. A project of ethics as it is significant for me. It was certainly significant when I wrote my first collection Against the Frame (Barque Press, 2017). An ethics of how to use poetry to extend a hand of solidarity to those suffering in an environment of permanent war in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan; solidarity to those who are fleeing to Europe only to be treated as human contraband; solidarity to Muslims or those falsely identified as Muslims living in the West who are forced to endure microaggressions rooted in the fear of others perpetuated by a televisual media and its dark epistemology. More generally, this Levinasian influence for me defines an ethics of how to write poetry. A poetry that turns away from the world and attempts to isolate itself from the under-/commons, the people, the politics of life itself: this is not how I write poetry. I write poetry to turn back towards those around me and away from me. How I write a poem is to reach a psychological state where I am connected to that which is beyond me.
Moreover, what I mean by ontological is how I write a poem captures something of my ontology in a sometimes pessimistic sometimes utopian form. This is usually a thought about my own being-in-the-world or that very same being-in-the-world in others. The juncture between my/self and others is this relationality. I don’t write a poem to be relatable. Relatability is always the first stage in commodifying my work. I want to perhaps think through relationality and its ontological limitations or think through ontologies – especially diasporic ontologies – and their relational limitations in poetry. Poetry then becomes a thinking through of these spheres. How I write a poem is to keep the spheres spinning like plates in the circus, like records at carnival.
But something about Against the Frame that friends of mine point out is how I am also pointing an angry finger at a reader, how I am documenting violence in those poems in uncomfortable ways. What does it mean to document violence in a world where violence is the spectacularly hyper-visible because of the proliferation of televisual media? To include violence in those poems was not an easy decision but it was something I had to do because I felt that we could not appreciate the horror and terror of these wars without acknowledging this violence as tangled up in the loss of lives, infrastructures, cultures, societies in the regions whose conflicts I researched. I also wanted to create an affective bridge between the people who are suffering from the violence of these wars and a ‘Western’ reader who is numbed by the constant bombardment of news reportage of these wars. I wrote Against the Frame in the hope of creating that connection, a connection which would awaken people to the very real experience of conflict. Some of that involved the appropriation of shocking and awful language.
The other aspect of how I write is to do with time and space. I think time makes a fool of all of us. The timing of poetry for me is only evidence of that. I wrote most of this on my phone on a tube from Morden to Goodge Street. I am on this tube in the movement of matter. A matter I am made of, live in, and sometimes make myself. I have a playlist on. I am sitting down and I am comfortable. I trust the tube to take me from A to B. But is it not inopportune for the inexplicable desire to write to raise me to the page now? This desire comes primarily from the desire to record a thought or perhaps just to pass the time. Is how I write a poem simply a passing of time, a letting go of time as I pass through into the poem? But there is a drive there a drive to write and record thought in this form that we call poetry. So we admit then, hastily, that poetry gives a form to thoughts. Thoughts, for me, which are constantly the spinning plates of ontology and of relationality and of the small pulses of air between them. But I am commuting right now and trying to prepare my brain for another task and yet poetry surfaces in the here-now of that preparation of the other to which I am tasked. And in those small pulses of air I am swept away by the impulse to do something other than that which I thought I would be doing, namely to write poetry or write about how I write poetry, when I should be focussing on my day job. How I write poetry is to seize the opportunity of this inopportune moment and let it pass through the depths of who I am in that moment whilst acknowledging my own relation as distance from that moment.
Also, attending to the air is itself curious, generative, strange. Air: the space or the substance or the ether I am moving through in the tube that blows into my eyes. How I write poetry is also, then, to breathe in and through and of language in a space or to find in and of and through language a space, an atmosphere, an air with which to breathe. A language that always feels like a stranger to me not because I spoke another language first but because to speak a language and to write poetry with it are very different actions. Breath is always connected to time; it is perhaps an indivisible unit of time. The inhalation and exhalation are just two points in that unit. Its parameters and its guidelines. The pause between them is the space for the subject to be in and to live with poetry. To be in that interval between inhaling and exhaling is to be-in-the-world. To be-in-the-world is to write poetry and for me that is how I write a poem: I am first being-in-the-world and then the world registers itself in my being-as-poetry. To write poetry is to understand the relation between being-in-the-world and the language you use daily and how it might not always be up to the task of performing what you want to do within poetry.
The moment on the tube will come to a halt. The breath falters like a wave breaking on the shore. As the wave laps the land so there is a lapse in the time of poetry, an inopportune time as we have ascertained, and then there is a final stop. The oyster card bleeps, the day goes on until it crawls into the evening. How can I write poetry when my senses go through this daily assault, the commute, the working day, the fatigue at the end of it? Even people who do this work ‘freelance’ have their personal lives encroached upon by the incessant notifications of email threads. Amidst that organised chaos, it is a feat of unimaginable courage to simply sit down and write a poem. Sometimes how I write poetry involves courage. A confrontation is usually required. Know your enemy. Know which side you’re on. Or don’t know and try and figure it out. How I write poetry is to try and collect the fragments of the day and to find the courage to weld them into some discordant union. I discover that the left hand margin exerts a push and pull on my place within poetry. The left hand margin is both an anchor and a sail. It pulls you back and at the same time pushes you away. So I’ve decided that how I write a poem requires courage, confrontation, knowledge, confusion, collecting fragments of a day. Wonderful. I have some ingredients there. Maybe writing this will help me write a poem!
But I then need a space which I can fetishise to start writing the poetry. All I’ve collected thus far are inopportune desires, thoughts, mis-rememberings. I like sitting down and writing on my laptop, usually in a secluded part of the world like Lower Morden, an attic, overlooking a mundane suburban street which overlooks an army base and in the distance there is a skeleton of what I presume was a 20th century water tank. Sometimes I make mistakes – mistakes of course being the quintessential fact of human subjectivity – so I delete some words or move them around. If I were to think about mistakes I’ve made along the way, the one that stands out to me is in (or rather is not in) Against The Frame. Something I noticed when The 87 Press was publishing Minoli Salgado’s collection of short stories Broken Jaw was how Salgado not only uses narrative to speak from the wound, the trauma of the Sri Lankan civil war, but how, at another level, inscribed within that very narration is the wounding of telling these difficult stories. The narration of the wound necessarily evokes the wounding of narrative. As I look back at Against the Frame now I wish I had made that reflexive movement apparent in those poems. But I think there will be more poetry under that title to come so there is always room to improve.
Now this is the point at which sentimental capitalist poets talk about materials and commodities. You need coffee. Coffee is trendy you can sit there and look fancy as a writ-eurgh. You need cocaine or some other intoxicant to help you see with your pineal gland or whatever nonsense is floating about these days as new age alternatives to consciousness. You need to be on the edge of your seat. Well I tried all that intoxication and hid from the world for 2 years until I dragged myself out. All I want is my brain, a clean and sober brain. A clean and sober brain that reflects back on the experience of addiction was the prerequisite of the poems I’ve had recently published by Poetry Wales, Datableed, and Erotoplasty. Sobriety is, paradoxically, intoxicating in and of itself. For addicts who do recover and go through the intensive processes of psychoanalytic therapy, 12 step programmes, etc, the desire to narrate the journey into sobriety is unrelenting. I think this need to find from ‘within poetry’ a means by which I can find sense and nonsense in this experience of de-addiction is going to stay with me for a long time. It’s formed the basis of a second collection titled ‘Boiled Owls: A Narcopoetics of Postcolonial Madness’ which is forthcoming. There is a gross mis-representation of poets as drug addled intoxicated people. We should always remember the dangers of this. Addiction is one of the biggest health issues in our world and we owe it to all recovering addicts – many of whom are poets or could become poets – to be more conscientious in the ways in which we talk about indulgence.
It may also be that this kind of rampant indulgence is an unfortunate side-effect of wanting to write poetry that thrills the reader in its performance both off and on the page. For me, a unique and influential way to capture this energy is to consult poetry that is engaged in revolutionary politics. For me there is no better place to go than Keston Sutharland’s beautiful essay Revolution and Really Being Alive. Sutherland writes with urgency, that revolutionary poetry must “do one thing: it must hurt and thrill a reader with an irresistible premonition of the feeling of being more fully and really alive than ever before, the feeling that is the true, unmistakable and inalienable basis of revolutionary subjective universality”. Those words have stuck with me for many years. They were echoed for me on the 1st July 2019 when Luke Roberts gave a reading of some of his soon-to-be-published poems. Roberts has this line that resonated with me: injury is the root of poetry. Sometimes when I write poetry, and especially the poetry I am working on meticulously now, I write from the place/space of injury.
If I have any piece of advice to come from this kind of exercise, this kind of querying into the process of ‘how I write a poem’ it is this: surf on the edge of that thrill and try to keep your balance. When the energy that is poetry knocks me flat on my arse, I know I’m getting closer to the poem I am trying to write. Usually, I also need a pile of books which I’ll flick through when I’m bored of my own thoughts. Then I stare at the army base and the skeleton of the water tank as what I have in front of me looks like anxious diatribe. To be anxious is sometimes to write poetry. I write poetry in fits of worry and disorientation. I then edit them with a sense of healing on tube journeys. I feel at my most grounded when I am in transit. And then when I’m editing the poem I thought I was writing I start writing the poem I need to. That’s usually how it goes. That and a lot of luck as chance would have it.
But luck and chance imply an element of the inopportune as well as a hopeful sense of what might happen. When I think about how I write a poem again on a tube from Morden to Goodge Street which is a different tube makes me appreciate the Not Yet of poetry in the sense of Ernst Bloch’s rewriting of dialectical materialism to expose the hidden energies and rhythms of hope. To write a poem is to hope that I will write a poem. To enter into this realm of the Not Yet, that which hasn’t arrived but which I hope for, the poem, the Novum, is to enter into the ether of the now, to question ‘what makes it possible for there to be a palpable feeling in the air’ (Esther Leslie). To find now in this inopportune moment of inspiration the blurred edge of clarity, a sudden flux of the tube carriage which wakes me up into poetry. How I write a poem is to appreciate that these movements are the entrance of the Not Yet into the ether of the now, the entrance of the poem into the ‘how I write a poem’ which has not yet come to be. It was Walter Benjamin who wrote that thought is an eminent narcotic; perhaps he was thinking of poetry when he thought that. At the very least, how I write a poem is to think of thought as an eminent narcotic and to proceed deliriously from there, with hope, ethics, and a vehement loathing of formal and of linguistic orthodoxy.
But once I’ve written a poem how do I find out if I even like it? Sure you send it to your friends, some of whom may be poets, some of whom will just say it’s nice or that they don’t know what you’re on about. But how do you, the composer, appreciate the tone of your composition? My answer to that is, of course, to read aloud. There is a brilliant essay by Hollie Pester about this ‘voice’ in poetry, the politics behind the reading aloud of poetry, and how working your voice into the performance and composition of your poetry can prove fruitful provided you don’t then imitate the all to prevalent and boring ‘poetry-voice’. Pester has this great expression: “the rough stuff of delivery and the ethical shrapnel of intonation”. With that, Pester captures, I think, an entire movement of contemporary experimental and vanguard poetry. It’s the essay of the year to be honest. If you’re bored of my thoughts go check it out. Anyway, I think that’s another layer to my deep engagement with Ernst Bloch’s concept of the Not-Yet. Some of this is whole ‘how you write a poem’ stuff is to do with an emergent process. I never knew why my poem in amberflora, ‘To Gurgaon’, had consistently either pissed off or endeared some of my Indian / Indian-origin friends until I read it aloud. There was something in that poem that I didn’t have a grasp on –I still don’t think I ‘get it’ if there is anything to get at all – but once I read it, I began to see how the language weaved itself into this lattice which caught my diasporic experience of an imagined homeland alongside a mourning for the loss of a nation which is mired in daily communal violence and the rise of a brutal saffron fascism. I don’t really feel like the ‘poet’ behind that poem either, I’m just really pleased I was able to empty myself to become a vessel for it to reach the eyes of others. For me the most crucial aspect to this question of ‘how to write a poem’ is how open I can be to poetry as an emergent process, how willing I am to relinquish control and let language pass through me.
Azad Ashim Sharma is the director of the87press. Azad’s first collection of poetry, ‘Against the Frame,’ was published by Barque Press (2017). His poems have been published by Tripwire, Pratik, amberflora, Datableed, Poetry Wales, and Erotoplasty. His second book of poetry ‘Boiled Owls’ is forthcoming. He lives and works in London.
Keston Sutherland, Revolution and Really Being Alive: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/40496/
Holly Pester, The Politics of Delivery (Against Poet-Voice): https://poetrysociety.org.uk/the-politics-of-delivery-against-poet-voice/
Azad Sharma, Against the Frame (Barque Press, 2017): http://www.barquepress.com/publications.php?i=102
Review of Against the Frame: https://spamzine.co.uk/post/185297276772/review-a-context-in-flux-azad-ashim-sharmas
Azad Sharma, 2 Poems, Erotoplasty, Issue 4, 2019: https://erotoplasty.tumblr.com
Azad Sharma, 3 Poem, Datableed, Issue 11, 2019: https://www.datableedzine.com/azad-ashim-sharma-issue-11
Azad Sharma, ‘To Gurgaon,’ amberflora, Issue 5, 2018: https://www.amberflora.com/issues/issue-5/azad-ashim-sharma-to-gurgaon/
The 87 Press: https://www.the87press.com