vol. 2 Lyrical

Credit: Mona Arshi

02 / 02

Mona Arshi:
"The language of poetry is intrinsically empathic"

Poet & Novelist & Professor & Human Rights Lawyer

Musings about poetry versus prose, the escape ladder versus the front door, the connections between law and poetry, and tricking yourself.


Apr 8, 2021 | As told to Cherie Yang

Imagine that you have a house. To get to the attic, you’ve got to go around the back of the house, up the escape ladder, and through a little attic window.

That’s how Mona describes where a poem is found, or how a poem needs to be ‘captured’.

Mona is an award-winning poet and her debut novel, Somebody Loves You, is due to be published this year. Contrast the ‘poem in the attic’ with the ‘prose on the table’. One of the most interesting parts of our chat was the difference in how she crafts poetry versus prose: the continuity, the containability, and the musical accompaniment.

Mona is also a former human rights lawyer, and is now a professor of English and Law. Early on in our conversation, we talk about the value of poetry against the sociocultural backdrop of today, the role of poets in sparking empathy, and writing about beauty—especially if you’re a poet of colour.

As a lawyer, poet, and mother, what does feminism mean to her? It’s about understanding that you always have your sister’s back: everyone should be a feminist.

“I have a really great group of female friends. We celebrate each other. I think the word “sisterhood" is really underused. It's a brilliant word because it means looking after each other, giving a shout out, and celebrating each other's work.”

Or should we also say: advocating for each other.

  • In a way, my attention to English and words has been a carefulness that I've acquired. I think it has to do with the fact I’ve always wanted to ensure that I was good at it—good enough.
  • &: What was the first thing you were interested in as a child?

    MA:

    I was a really big reader from a very early age. I always had my head in books. I was really shy and I found real solace in words.

    I was always interested in language and in how writers handle language. Something quite unusual is that my first language was not English. It was actually Punjabi. I didn't speak a word of English until I was about six.

    I went to school with no English. I remember thinking, even when I was quite young, that I was having to do much more to catch up with my English.

    In a way, my attention to English and words has been a carefulness that I've acquired. I think it has to do with the fact I’ve always wanted to ensure that I was good at it—good enough.

    And actually, the sad thing is that my Punjabi has become a ‘back of my body’ language. I refer to it as a language that's there, but that I can no longer really handle it in a way that I could when I was younger.

    That’s what happens when you're living in a culture where the dominant languages prevails and you're working in that. There's a sadness in that actually.

  • I love being in court, I love making a difference, I love choosing my cases. I wasn't as interested in doing policy, I wanted to get my hands dirty. I love the exhilaration of being in court and doing court work. And I just love pushing the boundaries, which we were doing quite a lot when I was at Liberty.
  • &: You worked in human rights law for a decade. Did you always know you wanted to go into human rights?

    MA:

    Yes, I did. I grew up in an area where there were huge amounts of issues around domestic violence. And also a lot of racism, to be honest. I felt a really strong sense of injustice at a really early age.

    I felt that if I was going to do law, those victims are the kinds of people I wanted to represent. I first worked in a high street legal aid practice doing lots of work around domestic violence, asylum, refugee, and housing cases. You're honestly making a difference in every single case you take. You're making sure someone has a house; you're protecting a vulnerable family, or a child; you're helping an unaccompanied refugee.

    I then moved to Liberty, which is a leading human rights organisation in the UK. We were doing much more high profile work, and bringing cases under the Human Rights Act, which had just been legislated.

    I love being in court, I love making a difference, I love choosing my cases. I wasn't as interested in doing policy, I wanted to get my hands dirty. I love the exhilaration of being in court and doing court work. And I just love pushing the boundaries, which we were doing quite a lot when I was at Liberty. We were taking on cases and trying to push the law, and even though we didn't win the legal case, we were winning the moral case. We were thinking purposefully about how we could change the law and make a difference for people—ordinary people.

  • Poetry and poets have always stood up and said: there's another way of thinking about society, or another way of thinking about what encompasses the human.
  • 'April' from Mona's first collection of poem 'Small Hands'

  • Lots of people write poetry, but why can't Black and Asian poets write about beauty? You shouldn't have to write about horror and terror the whole time. I think we should be able to look at a flower and talk about flowers and respond to that in the same way that a white poet does.
  • &: Coming from the world of human rights, and seeing the physical world that we live in now, what's going through your mind? And how does that translate into your work as a poet now?

    MA:

    It’s something I’ve asked myself, actually. For quite a long time, there was a sort of ‘usefulness’ to what I did. I used to come home tired from working on a case or a campaign, and there was this idea of actually being useful to society.

    People often ask me, “You did this thing that was so different, and you were actually transforming people's lives or involving legal principles. And now you're writing poetry?”

    I think that poetry is really important. I'm not saying it's the same as the legal case. Of course it's not, but it's doing something in a similar way. And I think the reason why it's so important is that, at the moment, there is so much public utterance which is rupturing empathy.

    The language of empathy seems to be the name of the day. This is what we see the whole time in the US, but also in the UK as well. It's so easy to normalize negative language about minorities and marginalized groups. You have that on the one side, but what is the counter to that? At least with poetry, although it's not an answer, it is a very small counterweight to what's going on, because the language of poetry is almost always intrinsically empathic. And humane. That's the whole point of poetry, it is just trying to do something that is really intrinsically human.

    What I really love about poetry is that it's not passive. It's very alive and active, you have to encounter it. I have noticed that in the last year or so, particularly in the pandemic, poetry is making you think about things in a slightly different way.

    Poetry and poets have always stood up and said: there's another way of thinking about society, or another way of thinking about what encompasses the human.

    I'm also interested in beauty and the idea of being able to make things that are beautiful, despite all the other things that are going around and going on.

    Lots of people write poetry, but why can't Black and Asian poets write about beauty? You shouldn't have to write about horror and terror the whole time. I think we should be able to look at a flower and talk about flowers and respond to that in the same way that a white poet does.

    I'm very aware that there are very few poets of color around, and now they're starting to change over the last 10 years or. We’ve always written poetry, it's just that we've been centered a bit more, and that veil is starting to lift a little bit and we can see what's around.

  • I came to poetry a bit later than a lot of poets. I started reading poetry when my daughters were born, and I feel like I'm a new age evangelist of poetry because I discovered it a bit later. I just couldn't believe it! I just thought, “My God, this is illegal! And why isn't everybody into it?”
  • &: What does poetry mean to you?

    MA:

    I think it’s truth-telling. Poetry tells the truth. I've just written a novel, so I've written prose, and I've written poetry, and it's so interesting how novels can contain plurality. But poetry is different, it holds a soul, almost. It feels different when you're in a poem, it really does when you're inside it.

    I came to poetry a bit later than a lot of poets. I started reading poetry when my daughters were born, and I feel like I'm a new age evangelist of poetry because I discovered it a bit later. I just couldn't believe it! I just thought, “My God, this is illegal! And why isn't everybody into it?”

    It just makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It shifts the essence of your body. It's so alive, and it's the opposite of everything that's bad and passive.

    And I just couldn't understand why people weren't into it, like I was.

  • I guess I've always needed poetry. It's always been something I've read. When my daughters were born, I had lots of sleepless nights. I remember somebody sent me some contemporary poems and some anthologies. And I remember reading them and there were a lot of female poets. When I was studying poetry at school, it was all a bunch of dead male poets.
  • &: And what happened there? When was it that you realized this is something that you wanted for yourself?

    MA:

    I guess I've always needed poetry. It's always been something I've read. When my daughters were born, I had lots of sleepless nights. I remember somebody sent me some contemporary poems and some anthologies. And I remember reading them and there were a lot of female poets. When I was studying poetry at school, it was all a bunch of dead male poets.

    I was reintroduced to, for example, Plath, whom I absolutely adored, and encountered new contemporary poets like Alice Oswald. I remember feeling really moved. And I think when you experience poetry like that, it affects your body.

    But I also think, looking back, that there was something happening to my body at the time, I had just become a new mom. There was an intersection between that and poetry, which unlocked a real desire to read. I didn't think I was going to write it. I was just reading a lot of poetry. I then went on a poetry course at City Lit, and so I wrote some poems; I then went on some more courses and did some more poems. There was a really great tutor, Claire Pollard, who encouraged me to do a Master's.

  • Looking back, they probably thought that this person doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she has something interesting to say. I think ‘rough diamond’ is probably what they said.
  • &: Why did Claire encourage you to do a Master’s? Did she spot some talent there?

    MA:

    I guess I’d run out of courses to go on. [laughs]

    I think she knew that I had a real appetite for it. I don't know! She was really kind and encouraging.

    And so I applied to the University of East Anglia because at the time it had the best reputation for writers. It was funny because I thought, “Well, that's not how you become a poet. You don’t just go and do a course and become a poet.”

    I was quite naive. I really didn't know that much about doing a Master’s. And if I'd known what I know now about it, I probably wouldn't have applied then. I sent my poems in and they interviewed me.

    Looking back, they probably thought that this person doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she has something interesting to say. I think ‘rough diamond’ is probably what they said.

    That was 10 years ago now.

  • I was working part-time. So I was a part-time lawyer and a part-time mom. And then I thought I would just make my life more interesting by going to the UEA twice a week as well.
  • &: Have you left your job as a lawyer?

    MA:

    I was working part-time. So I was a part-time lawyer and a part-time mom. And then I thought I would just make my life more interesting by going to the UEA twice a week as well. [laughs]

    I just thought I'd see how it went. I like being busy. I always feel like I can do lots of things at the same time. So I thought it’d be possible.

    In the end, I did it over three years, because my brother died very suddenly whilst I was there, and I had to deal with all that. It was the best advice actually—to wait and then continue after a year.

  • I kept encountering all these really incredible forms in poetry and I wanted to know how to write them. I wanted to write a sestina, a ghazal or a sonnet. I wanted to know these things. And I knew that if I wanted to be a serious poet, I have to know what they were.
  • &: When you started on your Master’s programme, what did people around you say?

    MA:

    I didn't tell that many people. It was kind of a secret. I wanted to just see what was possible at UEA, and I really didn't want to embarrass myself.

    I remember people saying, “Oh, she's just had children. She’s going off to do some poems, and then she'll go back to being a lawyer.” And a part of me thought that as well.

    But it was really important to me because I was so hungry to know more about poetry, and also form. I kept encountering all these really incredible forms in poetry and I wanted to know how to write them. I wanted to write a sestina, a ghazal or a sonnet. I wanted to know these things. And I knew that if I wanted to be a serious poet, I have to know what they were.

    And so for me it was really important, but I think people just didn't know what to make of it, really.

  • 'Hummingbird a poem from 'Small Hands'

  • I had a very good tutor, George Szirtes, who said to me, “Give yourself a break. Just read a lot and something will click.”
  • &: How was your experience during your first year?

    MA:

    I have to say it was a really, really hard year because I had not done English literature.

    Most of the students had done English literature or were working in literature. I was the only one, I think, who had children, I was the only one who had another life, who was working another career.

    I was really frustrated, because I didn’t know what to do. People were talking about reading Derrida and I hadn't read Derrida. I felt I needed to go and read all that, and make sure that I could participate in conversations about poetry.

    So I did. I'm not joking really. I literally spent a year reading. I hardly wrote anything in the first year. I just thought that I needed to catch up. I needed to read about poetry, about poetics, and also just read more poems. That was the best thing I could have done.

    I discovered how diverse the church was, that you could write in an avant-garde style, you could write in a very lyrical way. You don't know that until you read what other people have already written. When it comes to writing, it really is that old saying, "You are what you write.” And also, you can’t know about what you like, until you know what there is to like.

    I read a lot, and I touched lots of things, and then I decided what I liked the feel of, and then I decided that I was going to write what I liked.

    I had a very good tutor, George Szirtes, who said to me, “Give yourself a break. Just read a lot and something will click.”

    And I think that's what happened.

  • For me, a poem is something that's slightly more indirect, that lives in the inference. So if I'm writing about a love poem, for example, I'd rather go around the houses and do it in a more sly way.
  • &: How would you describe your voice as a poet?

    MA:

    It's probably the hardest question to answer. I can tell you what I'm interested in and maybe that'll float into the work.

    I'm not interested in direct poems, I really resist writing the direct poem.

    For me, a poem is something that's slightly more indirect, that lives in the inference. So if I'm writing about a love poem, for example, I'd rather go around the houses and do it in a more sly way.

    I prefer that kind of approach, not even consciously. And I think that actually, it's the complete opposite of law in a way, because law is so direct and certain.

    For example, in Hummingbird, which is my first published poem, after the reader has read the entirety of the poem, there is something that's inferred, an atmosphere that’s conjured, and something that accretes and builds that you can feel.

    I think I'm much more interested in the uncertainty, in the not knowing. One thing about being in one of Mona Arshi’s poems is it’s slightly destabilizing. And I like that effect. I like the dream. The quality of dreaminess and surreality.

    There's a really lovely quote by the poet Selima Hill: she talks about poets being God’s spies which I really like. It’s the idea that we're doing a different type of work; we’re conjuring, in a different way.

  • But now, I feel as if I'm better at creating the conditions for poetry—that doesn't necessarily mean that the poem will come or that it will be any good. I'm now good at knowing what might allow a poem in.
  • Writing new poems

  • I use a notebook. And I noticed that if I use a small notebook, my poems will be shorter and more condensed. And if I use bigger pages, they will be of a very different feel.
  • &: How do you get into writing mode? What are your routines or rituals?

    MA:

    Because I have children, I have to have quite a structured day. I mean—this is in normal times not in pandemic times.

    There is a structure: waking up, breakfast for the children, and so on. Being up at a certain time lends itself to a day which is also structured.

    If I'm going to have a ‘writing day’ I know it'll be between 9 and 4. I have a ‘prep’ the day before I'm going to be writing, and I think seeding that, knowing that, helps configure your mind in some way.

    You're starting to feel as if you're going to write a poem the next day. I'm not saying that I will always write the poem the next day. But I often will try to.

    In the early days of me writing poetry, I didn't need to have a ritual. It would be very random whether or not the poem came.

    But now, I feel as if I'm better at creating the conditions for poetry—that doesn't necessarily mean that the poem will come or that it will be any good. I'm now good at knowing what might allow a poem in.

    I have to not have any devices. I literally tuck my phone underneath my bed, so I can't reach it, because I now know how bad it is to have the phone. I also don't use a computer to write.

    I use a notebook. And I noticed that if I use a small notebook, my poems will be shorter and more condensed. And if I use bigger pages, they will be of a very different feel.

    There's something very important and primal about having the connection between the pen or the pencil to the page. That activity of the hand connected to the mind always felt really important.

    I cannot have any music on (for poetry). I just really need complete silence. I know other poets and writers who are happy to have Radio 4 in the background. I can't.

    Things like that are things that you learn.

  • If you have a house, poetry is in the attic. So you have to get up to this escape ladder around the back, all the way up, and then probably there's a little window, a little attic window. You have to open that window, and then you get into the poem. That's how you find the poem.
  • &: So the poem comes to you, rather than you reaching out to create it?

    MA:

    Yes, definitely. That is the difference between poetry and prose.

    You feel that you're in a different room when you're with poetry, and when you're with prose. I would compare it to a house.

    If you have a house, poetry is in the attic. So you have to get up to this escape ladder around the back, all the way up, and then probably there's a little window, a little attic window. You have to open that window, and then you get into the poem. That's how you find the poem.

    But with prose, it feels that you can probably go in through the front door. You might not always have the right key, but that's where it lives.

    And I think what it feels like is that you have to hunt a poem down. It floats—maybe in your peripheral vision. You have to stalk it, as opposed to a prose, which I think is more stable. It feels like it could be on the table. You don’t have to capture it in the way that you have to capture a poem.

  • The poem leads, you follow the poem. You have to work out what the poem wants. You can stand in the way of your poem, because you have a particular intent. It doesn't mean that the poem does. It feels as if the poem is a creaturely thing from the way I described, but I do think it is like that.
  • &: You’ve been working on both poetry and prose in the last year. What stood out?

    MA:

    With prose, I can literally leave my laptop the night before and come back to it in the morning. And I can continue writing from my last sentence.

    There's no way that I can do that with a poem.

    The poem leads, you follow the poem. You have to work out what the poem wants. You can stand in the way of your poem because you have a particular intent. It doesn't mean that the poem does. It feels as if the poem is a creaturely thing from the way I described, but I do think it is like that. I do think there is something about a poem, a brain or DNA, that you have to understand and then the poem is revealed to you.

    But it's very different from prose, which I feel you can basically pick up the thread of what you were writing about previously.

    My biggest thing with prose is: how do you contain it all? Sustaining prose is really hard. You have to deal with plots, and it’s not containable in your head. One poem is containable in your mind, but you can't do that with a book, with a novel. There's a totally different way of holding it. How do you hold all these characters and plots and timelines?

  • I've often weirdly been writing to a Spotify playlist, that are songs that I know she would like, and it's really helped me to develop her character.
  • &: You mentioned that you need complete silence when crafting poetry. What about with prose?

    MA:

    I've been writing Ruby, the main character in “Somebody Loves You.”

    I've often weirdly been writing to a Spotify playlist, that are songs that I know she would like, and it's really helped me to develop her character. She’s a young woman, she’s 18. What would she listen to?

    I have a ‘Ruby playlist’ and when the book drops, I might see if it's possible to get that playlist out at the same time. It’s a very eclectic playlist that is Ruby-ish.

  • But there are tricks: there are things that you can do to trick yourself. I think that's the main thing: to trick yourself into writing or trick yourself into believing that you can write again. One of the things that I do now is that I always have something on the boil. I never feel that I'm out of touch with language.
  • &: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?

    MA:

    Yeah, I think that all writers suffer from writer's block. And I've decided I don't call it writer's block because then it suddenly just becomes a ‘thing’.

    After every book, you do feel spent. It was scary actually, after my first book. After "Small Hands" came out, I really felt that there was nothing coming in. I just felt this scary white paper in front of me.

    But there are tricks: there are things that you can do to trick yourself. I think that's the main thing: to trick yourself into writing or trick yourself into believing that you can write again. One of the things that I do now is that I always have something on the boil. I never feel that I'm out of touch with language.

    I have three or four different things on the go. I have a poem that’s starting, finishing, and seeding. And so I feel like there's always something that I can work on.

    When you wake up and you think you literally don’t have anything, that is true writer’s block. I think there are ways to avoid feeling like that, because I think you'd get into a real rut otherwise. When I mentor poets, I say to them to just always have something that is alive and that you know you can work on, even if it's editing something, because it just means that you're handling language and handling poetry that feels important.

  • There is loneliness, but there's another part of just being able to be comfortable in your own body, in your own mind.
  • &: What is self-care to you?

    MA:

    I discovered yoga in the pandemic. And also just taking time away from devices which I'm trying to do much more.

    And also, the power of just being able to be on your own is something that I've discovered as well. There is loneliness, but there's another part of just being able to be comfortable in your own body, in your own mind.

  • Mona's nails

  • &: What are your guilty pleasures?

    MA:

    My guilty pleasure actually is my nails. It’s a very shallow enterprise but I love having my nails to look nice. And I often spend too much time and money on them. I also love the artistry involved. I had a hummingbird on my nail before. It’s my spirit animal.

  • &: Why the hummingbird?

    MA:

    Because of the Hummingbird poem. And also because I discovered that the hummingbird has the biggest heart out of every living creature relative to its size.

    Some of these hummingbirds are absolutely miniscule. The idea that inside this little tiny, bird body is this huge heart—I just thought that was so beautiful.

  • I feel like it's the ‘alert’ part of me. It's the part of me that has that antennae, to tap into what's going on generally in our society and to imbibe that.
  • &: I want to go back a little bit and talk about the connection between law and poetry for you. We talked about direct vs indirect, and language is obviously the common thread. Do you think law is always a part of you?

    MA:

    I do, I always want it to be a part of me as well.

    I feel like it's the ‘alert’ part of me. It's the part of me that has that antennae, to tap into what's going on generally in our society and to imbibe that.

    There's another part which is the thinking part. Poems are performances in thinking. You’re always having to think about image. You're thinking about making something fresh. Going back to what I said earlier about thinking and the public space—there seems to be less thinking going on, we need to be thinking the whole time.

  • Mona reading for Lord Mayor's Appeal

  • I feel as if you should be able to have these conversations with literature students, about law, and with law students, about literature.
  • &: You were made an honorary professor of English and Law at Liverpool University. Tell me about that.

    MA:

    I have to say I'm so pleased that they didn't forget that I was a lawyer as well. [laughs] I spent a long time as a lawyer, and I do feel like it is a part of me.

    I feel as if you should be able to have these conversations with literature students, about law, and with law students, about literature.

    There are too many silos. We should be having more conversations about art and the value of art, and the value of poetry, in particular. This is not only for our personal wellbeing but also because as a society. Just consider how much poorer we would be without artists, poets, novelists and people that make theatre. I think that this pandemic has probably demonstrated that.

    It’s equally important for poets to understand what is going on in the human rights law context, and how that can inform some of their work. I'm doing a really interesting thing at the moment with the "Ripples of Hope" festival. It's run by Simon Armitage, the poet laureate. We have poets responding to the UNHCR Convention of Human Rights. So every poet will have an article and write a poem into the article. I think those sorts of programs are very important and interesting. They make conversations happen.

    We are dealing with the pandemic and Brexit. But post-pandemic, post-Brexit, the Human Rights Act, which is our Bill of Rights, is in peril. It's very clear that this government has an agenda to bring in their own weaker Bill of Rights, and to do away with our own Human Rights Act, which is much better for our citizens. Poets being able to have those sorts of conversations in the work that they do is really important.

  • It made me realize that in the end, that's what we're doing, we are making things. We are making something, and sometimes the byproduct is beauty. I never think that I'm going to sit down and write something really beautiful. I write something, and the byproduct happens to be beautiful.
  • &: You talked about your love for creating something beautiful. If you weren't a poet or a writer, what are the things you think you'd been making?

    MA:

    I don't know if I'm good at anything else. I'm so grateful to have changed careers and done it quite successfully. When I say success, I mean in terms of people wanting to read the work and engage and talk and value the work.

    But I do admire a friend who is a ceramicist and she works with clay. I spent a few days in her workshop, and that was really fascinating to me because it's so different to what I'm doing. But also, it was a real connection to making something that looks like it will bend itself and shape itself to you. There's something really wonderful about having clay in your hands.

    It's so different to, obviously, language. But also, there was this idea of handling something, like we talked about. I made this connection that there was something physical about poetry writing too. It was quite surprising to have that revealed with just having a lump of clay in your hand. I mean, I made something, it was terrible, but it's how it felt in your hands, or underneath the weight of your fingers, to feel something coming, something shaping.

    It made me realize that in the end, that's what we're doing, we are making things. We are making something, and sometimes the byproduct is beauty. I never think that I'm going to sit down and write something really beautiful. I write something, and the byproduct happens to be beautiful.

    That's very different to pursuing beauty. That's not what I'm interested in.

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