Five Minutes With is a series of interviews with contemporary poets from India.

Saima Afreen is an award-winning poet who also works as Deputy City Editor with The New Indian Express. Her poems have appeared in several Indian and international journals, including Indian LiteratureHCE ReviewBarely South ReviewThe Bellingham ReviewThe Roanoke ReviewThe Stillwater ReviewThe McNeese ReviewThe Nassau ReviewThe Oklahoma ReviewStaghill Literary JournalThe Notre Dame ReviewHonest Ulsterman, and Existere, among others. She received ‘Writer of the Year Award, 2016’ from Nassau Community College (the State University of New York). She has been part of several literary festivals and platforms such as Sahitya Akademi Poets’ Meet, Goa Arts and Literary Festival, TEDx VNR-VJIET, Prakriti Poetry Festival, Hyderabad Literary Festival, Betty June Silconas Poetry Festival, Helsinki Poetry Jam, Pulse Radio Glasgow, the University of Stirling, the University of Westminster, Waterstones Bookstore Canterbury, and the University of Kent. In the autumn of 2017, she was awarded the Villa Sarkia Writers’ Residency (Finland), where she completed the manuscript of Sin of Semantics. This is her début poetry collection. She’s been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship (2019) in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, United Kingdom.

Photo of Saima Afreen reading a book while laying in the grass

What prompted your interest in poetry?
As a little girl I really despised having to memorize poems and write paragraphs explaining the theme and ‘what the poet wants to say’. I’d beg my teachers to exclude me from poetry classes. The commas, semi-colons, the alliterations would escape my memory making me stare at blank pages. But, I always wrote long literary answers with quotes which was quite contradictory to my aversion to studying poetry. At home, my parents would often quote couplets in Urdu and Persian or a line or two by Shakespeare or Milton during the conversations. Somehow, I ended up paying attention to the lyricism. One day, to release my teenage angst I started writing whatever I felt like as I’d read somewhere that writing helps in releasing the same. I wrote a paragraph, re-arranged the words, re-wrote a few, added spaces and sent it to The Asian Age newspaper which had a poetry column for students. And there it was in print the next week. Rest, as they say, is history.

What are you reading?
Poetry by Kathleen Jamie, George Gunn, Sheila Templeton, Kaveh Akbar, Ilya Kaminsky and Tomas Transtromer. And I am re-reading Arun Kolatkar, Daagh Dehlavi, and Mahmoud Darwish.

How do you find inspiration?
When I think of inspiration I think of an image or several of them grouped together. It doesn’t come to you consciously yet finds you, allowing you to rediscover it the next time. It can be mustard fields seen through a train journey, light filtering through an undecided rain drop caught between the fork of two leaves, the tintinnabulation of a tram cutting through the heart of a street, or the smell of wildflowers when you accidentally step on them. All of this and more make a home in you surreptitiously seeping into your psyche. Searching almost like a cat in the attic for whatever you have stored in there. You hear the noise, light your lamp, climb the stairs and stumble upon its fur only to feel the silkiness, its beating heart, the soft flesh. And it gently leaps onto your notebook almost in a cuddle.

Where do you write?
I like looking out of the window when I write. The sky, partially curtained with Gulmohar, Neem and Caribbean Trumpet trees, offers itself as a slice of blank space–much required for a poem. You pause, wonder at its colour at different hours of the day. It also divides your work in the pre and post phases. At night, the street lamps highlight it as a dark vocabulary you scoop the most urgent words from. Sitting in the balcony helps. Beaches are the wonderful spots where the same sky overpowers you. At the shore of the sparkling Indian Ocean at Kani Island, Maldives I just sat and wrote a few poems. Sitting near these water bodies let the words flow better. That’s how Vainguinim Beach, Shankarpur, Dover, Margate, Fort Kochi Beach, Whitstable, and South Harbour have been helpful.

Why do you write?
Writing poetry is inviting yourself to an ever growing forest at the time of dusk. You catch the last of the sunlight only to see it again in fireflies dotting the dark leaves almost in the manner of a Nordic tale of a squirrel I read as a child. The tiny animal had a chain with a fig-shaped stone pendant which would light up all the hidden fruits at night and lead it to secret pathways never heard or seen before. This is what poetry does to you. It leads you to the gardens within you, you explore the maze never wishing to come out of it. Never forsaking the magic. And each time you explore a corner, a new harvest awaits you. The transmogrification of words into something magical coming from a cauldron forged from the iron in your blood.

What is your advice for emerging poets?
Practise. Read. Edit. Read more and more. Read in several languages if possible. Explore the ancient literature, study the writings in vernacular, and then look at the contemporary writing. You’ll be able to see it differently and arrive at your own writing from a different perspective. It’s always better to let the poems soak the energy around and emerge as ripe, mature produce. Haste destroys its texture and taste.

What is the role of poets in shaping the future?
What Shelley wrote 198 years ago of ‘poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ holds true even now. Poets are the ephemeral architects involved in the construction of words and worlds. Poems are ledgers filled with personal truths that can be felt. They aren’t periodicals guarding dusty shelves. They travel within you, unlock the maps in your veins, bringing together the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ as one. Poets are the unsung visionaries with an eye to unearth what largely remains unseen.We are heading towards a feeling-less future where everything is condensed in chunks of insipid information. It’s the poets who breathe life in the dimensions with reverberating, resuscitating, pulsating, concise, sharp words which keep the humanness within the people alive. And this world still a living, breathing planet urgently in need of love and light looks toward it as the hope lurking above winds.

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