Q: This interview will have a global audience not just your Indian colleagues so could we start by you telling us a little about your childhood, schooling and tertiary education?
A: I was born (1954) and brought up in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, amidst the decadent Awadh aristocracy; a city known for its etiquette, refined manners, extreme politeness of conversation in chaste Urdu and secular spirit (popularly known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb). I had my schooling in St. Francis’ High School, Lucknow (now St. Francis’ College) and higher education in Lucknow University, culminating in my Ph.D. degree in English.
Q: You have a strong need to educate and also give a voice to those, who for whatever reasons (lack of education, poverty, marginalisation), cannot get their stories told. Do you know of any specific reasons you care about this?
A: The most essential qualities of a poet are empathy and sympathy, which prompt him to empathize with and give voice to the deprived and marginalized individuals/groups. As I am also a teacher, this urge to educate and feel for the deprived becomes even more pronounced.
Q: If you had to pick five writers only who had a major influence on your own writing, who would these be?
A: Donne, Byron, Emily Dickinson, Ghalib and, you may be surprised, Pritish Nandy.
Q: I'm going to ask you the same question you have asked others. For P.B. Shelley, “poets ...are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society...” Do you think that quote still holds true in this age of cybermania?
A: Oh yes, it does. Serious readers of poetry have always been in a minority and this readership shall always remain. I was told by a friend who owns the largest book shop in Lucknow, that despite cybermania and the massive spread of visual media, people are still buying books like they used to before, including serious literary works.
Q: Poets can now publish their work on the Internet (websites, blogs, online journals and so on). Do you think this ease of publication, often without peer or editorial review, encourages a lowering in the quality of poetry?
A: There is a lot of trash on the Internet, but even when the Internet was not there, people got their works published, though poetry that did not possess literary merit could not withstand the test of time and sank without a trace. I’m sure this will also hold true for poetry being published on the Internet. I am quite hopeful.
Q: Why do you write? What are your seminal works?
I write because I have a strong urge to express myself, to communicate, to share my thoughts and feelings with others. I have published three books of poems: Autumn Rainbow (1993), No Man’s Land (2003) and recently, Desire, Ultimately (2013). I also translated Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea into Urdu, which received a prize from U.P. Urdu Academy in 1990. I have also translated poems from Urdu into English and from English into Urdu/Hindi and they have appeared in literary journals.
Q: Training may be beneficial to honing a poet's skills but it is my belief that without passion (or deep serious commitment) no amount of training will produce a really good poet, do you agree with this?
A: Certainly, the craft of poetry has to be learnt and mastered, but the primary thing is poetic inspiration, sensitivity and expression of myriad shades of feelings and emotions.
Q: Basho said, "A poet doesn't make a poem, something in him naturally becomes a poem." Do you think this is correct?
A: I fully agree with this statement. Poetry is not a pre-planned, deliberate exercise, but, as Keats very appropriately put it, “ That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all”, what in Urdu is known as Aamad. A poet may edit/revise his/her poem later, but when it first takes shape on a sheet of paper, it is a natural process.
Q: What type of audience do you write for?
A: People who are sensitive, who think about existential issues and who want to free themselves from hypocrisy and move towards an authentic way of life.
Q: What according to you are poems that represent you in Desire,Ultimately (2013)?
A: All of them do, in one way or the other, but poems like “Painted Faces”, “Magic”, “Comfort”, “God”, “The Light of Reason”, “Passing Showers” “April”, “The Key”, “Desire, Ultimately” and “Knocking at the Door of Sixty” represent me more closely.
Q: Who are important contemporary English poets from your region?
A: Uttarakhand is a new and small hill State and though we have a celebrity like Ruskin Bond, we don’t have prominent poets writing in English, though there are several such poets who write in Hindi, Kumauni and Garhwali.
Q: Do you write in Indian English?
A: I do sometimes use words from Urdu or Hindi and obviously, as an Indian for whom English is a second language, Indian English does form part of our vocabulary, but as I am an English teacher, I do strive for some kind of finesse and refinement, as far as English language is concerned. I, however, avoid caricatures of Indian English, like Nissim Ezekiel has done in “Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa T.S.”.
Q: If you are to prepare a text book for class x students will you include your poems?
A: No, I would rather not, as my poems are meant for more mature readers.
Q: Will Indian English poetry travel?
A: I think Indian English has a bright future and it is being read all over the English-speaking world. Gone are the days when people were victims of colonial snobbery.
Q: What are your current engagements?
A: At present, I am working on a volume of my selected poems, which I hope will be out early next year. I’m also planning a novel, with Lucknow’s decadent nawabi culture as its background. I’ve been planning this novel for the last ten years; let’s hope it finally comes through.
Thank you, Hamid ji for talking to us! Wishes for all your creative power in you!