August 12, 2013

of poetry readings and literary festivals

in march 2013, my co editor blaine marchand, an award winning canadian poet with whom i worked on vallum, a special issue of pakistani poetry in english, came to pakistan ( what began as a set of two readings, planned over the last few months, became much more, as will be seen.  

all three readings had their own character: at LUMS the audience was small but eager to listen. it was made up of friends and students of the poets, and Seerat Hazir, the eldest son of Taufiq Rafat (poet and mentor, Rafat was one of the pioneers of english poetry in pakistan). Forman Christian College sent several of their faculty, who invited both of us for a panel discussion at the end of march.  blaine was unable to extend his trip as he had other commitments, but i was part of this panel with athar tahir and mina farid malik, both of whom are poets. 

our reading at LUMS in early march led to our being invited to Punjab University by Dr. Amra Raza, where we had a panel discussion and reading.

punjab university brought together a very large group of MA and MPhil students as well as faculty, and there was an hour long session in the auditorium followed by another in Dr. Amra Raza's office, where we adjourned for tea and listened to poetry by Rizwan Akhtar, a lecturer and poet: and a very good one. this being a public university, i expected the faculty to be much more reticent. no such thing. the youngest members were as vocal as the oldest, and during this lively, impromtu session everybody had plenty to say, or perhaps i should say express: attitudes - sometimes resentment -towards writing in english, the difficulty of teaching english poetry, as students appear to think it a difficult genre (although the course now includes modern poetry), ways of approaching poetry to make it attractive to them, and conversations between the several writers about their craft. Dr. Amra wrapped up this session with a visit to the library, which she's been instrumental in organizing. it's a rich, painstakingly put together collection, and she is justly proud of her librarian's skills at cataloguing the books.

the kuch khaas reading in mid march, which rounded off blaine's pakistan trip, also had a good turnout. raza rumi introduced the session with comments on writing in english in pakistan, and the differences between writing in the latter and in the vernacular. i only wish there had been more representation from local schools or colleges with departments of english; we had sent out invitations but NUML was the only university represented. it's a sad contrast to lahore, where i felt that colleges and universities are actively trying to promote reading and literature (BNU organizes writing competitions and publishes The Maya Tree, LUMS has a creative writing program, and Forman Christian has plans for competitions as well as other activities). 

at FC College, after the panel discussion we had time to get to know the faculty, some of whom work on translations, which will soon be featured in Papercuts,(,the online literary journal of desi writers' lounge, edited by afia aslam in karachi.

suffice it to say that the vallum readings, the fact that blaine was in the country, and the presence of contributing poets in both cities appears to have kicked off - at least for me - a series of events to celebrate and recognize the much neglected and sometimes resented genre of pakistani writing, particularly poetry, in english. 

as muneeza shamsie said when blaine and i went to meet her in islamabad, 'if people can write novels in english, then why not poetry?'

during april, muneeza shamsie invited me to be a speaker on two panels for which she was the moderator at islamabad's first literary festival: one on pakistani poetry in english, the other on prose. both were well attended: the poetry panel, amazingly, had an audience of over two hundred and the session itself was lively and cohesive; the prose session, with ahmed rashid, shahryar fazli, muneeza shamsie and myself was jam packed. ahmed rashid was articulate; and shahryar fazli articulate, pertinent and thought provoking; the audience too was ready with questions.

i won't go into details about the panels, as i am posting links to reviews in dawn and the express tribune, which will give you varied points of view: 

and here is a review of vallum by ammara khan, who attended the reading at LUMS: dawn books and authors, vallum reading at LUMS

last of all, a link to one of blaine marchand's recent prose poems:

i wish i had more time to write in detail about these sessions, as well as the islamabad lit fest which took place later. they were very rewarding, and the conversations which took place outside the actual events, in hallways, with writers and audience, which my experience of literary festivals and conferences here and abroad have taught me to look forward to, were some of the best things (this year at the lahore literary festival in late february, i ran into shadab zeest hashmi, a wonderful poet and now dear friend who was visiting from california and just happened to be here for the event (we were both waiting for the doors to open for the nadeem aslam interview with declan walsh; bilal tanweer, with whom i was already corresponding over email regarding the LUMS reading for vallum; and wajahat ali, playwright and author of the domestic crusaders).  

below are pictures of the readings, an image of the poster for the panel discussion at Forman Christian College, (which incidentally is now a university), and of the islamabad literary festival.

from left to right: mehvash amin, blaine marchand 
and ilona yusuf at LUMS in early march. mehvash is a poet
 whose work is featured in vallum

from left to right: bilal tanweer, lecturer at LUMS
 and organiser of the vallum reading there; and 
mina farid malik; both have work featured in vallum

blaine and myself slightly left of centre, with Dr. Amra Raza in turquoise, at Punjab University

left to right: shayan afzal khan introducing us at
 kuch khaas, with raza rumi, alamgir hashmi, ilona yusuf, 
harris khalique and blaine marchand

blaine reading from vallum at kuch khaas

a slide show of the poems read at kuch khaas: 
this one is alamgir hashmi's 'the chair'
poster for panel discussion at Forman Christian College

left to right: harris khalique, athar tahir, ilona 
and muneeza shamsie at the session on english poetry 
at the islamabad literary festival

in the writers' room at the literary festival 
before the session on pakistani literature in english. 
left to right: ahmed rashid, muneeza shamsie and ilona

the session on pakistani literature in english: 
author shahryar fazli and muneeza shamsie
Note! kuch khaas, which has become a community cultural hub, will continue its tradition of poetry readings from october. 

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