An Interview With Poet Agha Shahid Ali

Eric Gamalinda

On December 8, 2001, Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali died of brain cancer at the age of 52. Ali taught creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for seven years, and published eight books of poetry, including Rooms Are Never Finished (Norton, 2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A posthumous collection of poems, Call Me Ishmael at Midnight, will be published by Norton in 2003.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with Eric Gamalinda that took place in Ali's apartment in Brooklyn last April. The full text will appear in the March/April 2002 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Eric Gamalinda: How do you write a poem?

Agha Shahid Ali:
It varies from poem to poem. I am not one of those people who requires to be away from the world and be isolated and all that. I need chunks of time, which can be just one day or two days, but I don't need to go away to one of those places. I can work quite well in my own room, meeting friends in the evening and just working on the poem during the day. I can even work with friends-someone may be in the room and I'd be working on the poem. I can do that also.

EG: What inspires you?

ASA: Everything. Love, death...I mean what inspires poetry down the ages, I suppose. Anger-not too much anger, in my case, but definitely some amount of political rage at times. And language, just language.

EG: What comes to your mind when you hear the word exile?

ASA: Well, a number of things, I suppose. It can be seen politically, emotionally, culturally. There are definite historical moments of exile; we can think of Ovid and many other people who've been exiled, right down to this century. Writers particularly interest me in that context. Of course, I'm not an exile technically, because I haven't been kicked out of any place, but temperamentally I would say I'm an exile, because it has an emotional resonance, the term exile does. The ability to inhabit several circumstances and several historical and national backgrounds simultaneously makes up the exilic temperament a lot, especially of this past century and this continuing new century.

I see a lot of pictures of your parents here. What was your relationship with them like?

ASA: I have had a terrific relationship with my parents. I grew up in a home of so much openness, a lot of music-I heard it whenever I wrote. My parents never tried to stop me. When I lost my mother-she was here in America to be treated, also for brain cancer, she had the worst kind-after she died we took her body and went to Kashmir to bury her, because we knew that was what she had wanted. I still can't reconcile myself to the fact that she's gone; I just can't. It's been over three years. It seems to me the most monstrous thing that has ever happened to me. I don't want to dramatize, but sometimes I think that my own cancer started in response to the grief I had that my mother was gone. My mother gave me so much a sense of poetry and music and ritual, all these marvelously magical things.