Local English poets compare trends in traditional writing

Published: May 1, 2013
Ilona Yusuf

Ilona Yusuf

Harris Khalique Ilona Yusuf

More often than not the books to appear at local bookstores happen to be prose. Rarely does one come across anthologies of poetry. Still rare are those by Pakistani English poets. There seems to be a disconnect between the poets and the intended readership.

This has little to do with coincidence and more with a lack of recognition within the country. Sharing their insights, three published poets Ilona Yusuf, Harris Khalique and Athar Tahir discussed “Pakistani English Poetry is Alive and Well: New Directions, New Voices” at the Islamabad Literature Festival on Tuesday.

They were, however, of the view that English poetry is being written in Pakistan and has considerable audience. There was consensus among the participants that there should be some regular publications and means to promote poetry.

Muneeza Shamsie, who moderated the session, listed their contributions to poetry journals across the world. She was mindful about the vacuum that the poets were writing English poetry under. For instance, Yusuf’s co-edited Canadian poetry journal Vallum last year that dedicated its issue to contemporary Pakistani writing, won much acclaim globally but is not available within Pakistan.

“There was a vibrant and dynamic generation of Pakistani English poets back in the 1970s,” Tahir said. He defined three stages of the poetry before and after partition as poetic influences shifted from romantic and Victorian to courtly Urdu tradition and gradually becoming eclectic. But things went downhill from there when it came to publishing.

“Very little could get published (in mid-70s), there were natural indifference and writers were writing in isolation most of the time,” Tahir said.

Yusuf recalled growing up in the 1970s and participating in various poetry competitions through the British Council and the American Centre. “(However) The 1980s were very bleak. The only support I had was the libraries, which were somehow still around,” she said. The advent of the digital age, she noted, has lent good exposure to online literary forums and publications such as Desi Writers Lounge, The Missing Slate and Asymptote magazine. She also talked about the efforts of Alhamra, Islamabad, in giving vent to literary activities.

According to Khalique, there is nothing unique or exotic about being a bilingual or a multilingual writer. “We come from a poetic tradition that is multilingual. Our literary predecessors were conversant in more than one language.

However, the new generation of poets and writers in English, has limited understanding of the multilingual literary tradition of ours,” he said. Furthermore, he said this is an age of prose where the space for English poetry is shrinking not only in the country but elsewhere. But that is not the case in Urdu and other Pakistani languages.

In the end, the panel took questions and recited select verses from their works.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2013.

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