Why write poems, novels, or literature at all? What makes a person want to become a writer? Vienna-based writer Alice Miller and Pakistani author and translator Bilal Tanweer met at Solitude and encountered each other’s work, on the one hand Tanweer’s first novel The Scatter Here Is Too Great and on the other Miller’s The Limits. Afterwards, they discussed the urgency of writing via the seemingly outdated form of the letter. What may appear slower or less dynamic than our newer forms of communication, actually reveals the potential to test out complex thoughts. Isn’t that what writing actually is for?
I begin this letter with an apology for the delay. They never tire of saying that writers don’t end a work, they abandon it. Perhaps they ought to add that writers don’t begin a work either until they are jerked out of their mineral states by deadlines.
I have spent much time with your poems now. And I puzzle about how »to transform my pleasure into knowledge« (Baudelaire’s words, I am sure you know). The hedonist in me wishes to continue to delight in your richly suggestive phrase, their breach from obvious meanings to allude to what is absent, what is looming, what has been lost, and what will never be found. The »you« in your poems is consistently ambiguous and encompassing – it ruptures singularities (person, body) into multiple points of reference, and almost gives me a sense that I am seeing through more than one I/eyes in a single poem. What is novel, beautiful, and ultimately challenging about so many of these poems is that they narrate the story of the world from a position that is not obvious. To narrate from that place, you thrust words, ideas, concepts into new unfamiliarities that even on the fourth reading (going by Faulkner’s helpful guide to the difficulties of his writing) contrive to question, jostle, and trip the stable meanings I assigned to your poems. And yet, there is a crystal-like hardness in your images that intensify and refigures the light you shine on it. Your love poems – especially, Orbit, In Season, Body, and Ocean – are extraordinary.
»If you wrote about your visit to Antarctica in an essay or a novel, how would it be different? And how do you think it matters, if at all?«Bilal Tanweer
Of course, you are a fine essayist, playwright, a student of history, and now you’re working on a novel. I want to ask you: What do you think is the difference, for you, working in these disparate voices of a poet, non-fiction, and fiction writer? How do the imperatives of thinking, seeing, and reasoning through a poem differ from that of a novel or an essay? What changes during the process? When thinking about this, I think of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s wonderfully insightful essay on Rabindranath Tagore’s ostensibly irreconcilable visions of nation in his poetry and prose: »Tagore articulated […] that the nationalist eye needed to possess two radically contradictory modes of vision. One [i.e. prose] was charged with the responsibility to locate the political in historical time; the other [i.e. poetry] created a political that resisted historicization.« Of course, in your case, one would quarrel with the premise here: poetry doesn’t serve the ends of nation, or history, for that matter, and if anything, it resists them. But I hope Chakrabarty’s observation helps to draw toward what I am hungering after: If you wrote about your visit to Antarctica in an essay or a novel, how would it be different? And how do you think it matters, if at all?
Today, a friend sent a poem by Les Murray, a poet whose work I do not know very well. But I felt this bit ties into what we are talking about:
Why write poetry? For the weird unemployment.
For the painless headaches, that must be tapped to strike
down along your writing arm at the accumulated moment.
For the adjustments after, aligning facets in a verb
before the trance leaves you. For working always beyond
your own intelligence. For not needing to rise
and betray the poor to do it. For a non-devouring fame.
– Les Murray, The Instrument
Thank you so much for your letter.
I like Murray’s notion of »weird unemployment.« It captures something of the absolute seriousness with which we pursue our work, and the utter absurdity of our seriousness. He also provides the reason for why not to answer any of your questions, because we are »working always beyond/ [our] own intelligence« (a line which very much cozies up to Stevens’ »The poem must resist the intelligence/ almost successfully.«). Perhaps my favourite reason not to talk about writing (from Barnett Newman via Ashbery) is because »birds don’t make good ornithologists.«
But let’s talk about writing! The lateness of this letter can be explained by the fact that I’ve been extraordinarily busy not writing a novel. Or rather, rewriting, restructuring, erasing, re-carving out the territory of a novel. But this relates to your question of why I move between the disparate realms of fiction, poetry, and others. Why try and straddle, like an ungainly three- or four-legged Colossus, all these different worlds? I have many answers, but I’ll offer only a couple here.
»I think of fiction, poetry, or plays as being different kinds of echo chambers. Inside them, material reverberates in a particular way.«Alice Miller
Poems depend (on red wheel barrows, and) on music, syntax, the unit of line and sentence, and the line-break, which can break open a world like nothing else I know. Poems can think in mid-flight, and court evanescence. But some matter feels ill-suited to a poem, and for me this is often matter that requires a development which is less musical, that chimes in sense or psychology or story before it chimes in sound. Which is to say, I think of fiction, poetry, or plays as being different kinds of echo chambers. Inside them, material reverberates in a particular way.
In the book I’m (re-)writing at the moment, I wanted to explore an existing story, which deals with questions that I don’t know the answer to, questions that have always intrigued me and touch on what I fear most. The book is anchored in a developing narrative, and in psychological habits and change, and this wasn’t something I felt I could tackle in a poem. (Whether I can do so in a novel is quite another question).
My genre-leaping can also be attributed to hubris. There is a tendency in New Zealand, being small and colonial, that you can try anything! Why not? In some ways this is a wonderful urge – but of course it’s also dangerous, because you risk skipping from world to world without being brave enough to fully immerse yourself in a single world’s history, difficulties, and potential.
Finally, in a sense, I am always writing a poem. And the great rush to assign categories is not without problems. If something works – which as we know is bloody near impossible – who cares what we call it? Your own book, The Scatter Here Is Too Great, seems to me to suggest that categories aren’t so important; is it a novel? Is it a collection of connected short stories?
What does matter is that it is an extraordinary book. It contains the distinct voices of so many real, flawed characters, and brings them together not only in the event they are all affected by, but in the violent, vibrant city they inhabit. Your second book, which you are working on now, will also be anchored in Pakistan. As you studied in the US, and are currently hanging out in Germany, I wonder how the time you’ve spent outside Pakistan informs your work. What little I remember from Chakrabarty is the notion of Europe as the sovereign of all histories, that all histories tell a story of »first in Europe and then elsewhere.« Of course, we’re talking about intellectual space even more so than physical space, but I wonder what it might mean to you, to be a writer »first in Pakistan and then elsewhere?«
Finally – at risk of successfully resisting the intelligence – I’m appending a Tranströmer poem to accompany our »small pale telegrams from the world.« Isn’t it a shame that moths can’t eat emails? How else will our histories be chewed down to haphazard poems?
He laid aside his pen.
It rests still on the table.
It rests still in the empty room.
He laid aside his pen.
Too much that can neither be written nor kept silent!
He is paralyzed by something happening far away
although the wonderful traveling bag throbs like a heart.
Outside it is early summer.
Whistlings from the greenery – men or birds?
And cherry trees in bloom embrace the trucks that have come home.
Weeks go by.
Night comes slowly.
The moths settle on the windowpane:
small pale telegrams from the world.
– Tomas Tranströmer (trans R Fulton)
I read your note several times with greater pleasure. I will be quoting from it axiomatically to folks who pay me to talk about writing (namely students in my writing classes).
It’s true what you say about »talking about writing« (via Ashberry, Newman, and Stevens). Birds even on the pain of death would have neither the patience nor the binoculars of good ornithologists. The trouble is – and I will qualify it as a consequence of living in Pakistan – I fail to see thinking about writing as separate from the practice of it.
Living in Pakistan has taught me to worry about writing because it can be bitterly irrelevant or utterly fatal. (Pakistan consistently makes the top 10 on the most-dangerous-countries-for-journalist index.) I obsess about it, a lot, how to make my writing more deeply relevant to myself and, by extension, to others. I think very much about what aesthetic pleasures shook me into thinking of myself in newer ways.
»…storytelling can be so much more than light entertainment, while always essentially being nothing more than light entertainment.«Bilal Tanweer
One of my favorite Pakistani novelists, Mohammed Hanif – author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, a brilliant, biting, perhaps the best, satire on the Pakistani military and society – once said in an interview: »I provide light entertainment for the Pakistani elites.« The exhilaration that I (and many of my friends and compatriots) felt while reading that novel was seeing how it exacted a (hilarious) revenge on a history that has savaged us. It showed me that storytelling can be so much more than light entertainment, while always essentially being nothing more than light entertainment.
One of my writing instructors used to say, »Think about how writing can become a biological imperative for you.« I don’t think all writing could be that, but some writing can and some subjects can. I wrote a slim book which took me five years. A significant part of that time was spent simply worrying about why I was writing it. Why does this book matter? Why am I driving my stories in certain directions and not in others? In due course, I saw that for me living and writing for me were closely bound. Not as in one must be the representation of the other, which usually turns out to mean a dismantling of structure and plot (although that’s fine too), rather the knowledge that language and stories and living flow out of the barrel of power that shapes language we use and authorizes which stories get told, who never gets to be a hero, and who always is a villain.
There is now a mini-industry built on criticizing the MFAs (like us) for our obliviousness to thinking about writing in terms other than formal/technique/craft. At the heart of this critique is really a simple question: while MFA-trained writers think (and write) endlessly about their subjective experiences and what techniques need improvised to represent them, are they also thinking as hard and as seriously about larger histories and contexts that shape them as subjects and their subjectivities? More worryingly, do they have any desire to do so?
For this reason, I feel close to writers who write out of awareness that the language they employ to tell their stories is first and foremost a mistress to power. To seduce it to do your bidding is to court danger. Many of these writers wrote dealing with this crisis, and writing in turn forged their attitude toward the world. A poet who exemplifies this for me, one who I have returned to and have been returning to constantly for a decade now is Zbigniew Herbert. To read his works is to think about all the ways he found to not just comprehend the world he inhabited, but to see how he improvised a language to withstand its brutality. He was a poet who wanted to describe the world without »the artificial fires of poetry.« I read his poems The Envoy of Mr Cogito as an anthem. This poem – and of course, one can cite endlessly – is essentially about writing, but it is about everything else too. I also think so many of Robert Hass’s poems do exactly the same thing.
»It seems if one doesn’t contemplate the role that writing plays in the world, one doesn’t necessarily go beyond the assumptions which are embedded in the writing one consumes.«Bilal Tanweer
I consider Pakistan too large a term to describe where I am writing from or what I am writing about. I write about Karachi, specifically a specific urban middle-class milieu – it’s morality and conflicts and hatreds and humor. Fiction allows me to gather myself, exactly as Toni Morrison describes in Beloved: »She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.«
It seems if one doesn’t contemplate the role that writing plays in the world, one doesn’t necessarily go beyond the assumptions which are embedded in the writing one consumes. I think of what Walter Benjamin said: »There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.« Many writers and artists entangle themselves in »Project Civilization« without necessarily considering the barbarity that they preserve and multiply by unknowingly providing affect to it.
Do you think being from New Zealand affects how you think about writing too? I understand you are writing a novel about New Zealand around World War I? Is it possible for you to say more about the history you are writing about?
I also apologize for all the delay in writing this – but I thank you for the opportunity too.
Thank you so much for your note. Neither of us understood what we were getting into when we began this, but if we had, we’d never have agreed to it! And I’m quietly glad we did because I get to read your remarkable letters.
You write powerfully about your relationship to Karachi. And I agree with you that writing cannot, must not, be separate from life. In your book, the determination to forge a connection between writing and life is very palpable – the tension between the uncapturable overflow of life and the controlling imposition of writing. Yours is an optimistic book in many ways, one that believes in gathering the scatter, as you call it. But naturally we glimpse the other side, the uncontrolled mass which brings to mind the famous declaration in the Cantos: »And I am not a demigod,/ I cannot make it cohere.«
Perhaps this marks me as a poet rather than a novelist, but for me the biological imperative to write – the urgency – has always come from an existential terror, rather than a physical place. Place is essential but is not the driving force (and I confess my novel is for the most part set in early twentieth century England). I come from a tiny string of islands in the South Pacific, and the imprint of those islands mark my brain and my body wherever I go. They are relevant because as far as I know, the only way to save myself from terror is to focus fiercely on specifics: a rush of cloud caught in a puddle; the branch of a wrinkled tree in a courtyard; the curl of feathers at a bird’s throat.
»Perhaps this marks me as a poet rather than a novelist, but for me the biological imperative to write – the urgency – has always come from an existential terror, rather than a physical place.«Alice Miller
I’m fumbling and gliding my way through Heidegger at present, and he writes at one point, »It may be that any other salvation than that which comes from where the danger is, is still within the unholy.« I love this, and I want to repeat it here not just because it addresses what we’ve been talking about – the danger from which we write – but also because of his emphasis on the holy. Is writing a sacred calling? Stevens says somewhere that after we abandon our belief in God, poetry is »that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.« (I am tempted to add a string of exclamation marks). Does this resonate with you, I wonder, or do you shy away from it? I grew up as an atheist, and have always found it difficult to imagine organised religion as anything other than an extraordinarily powerful fiction (»we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them,« as George Eliot says), but I can better grasp the notion of the sacred, which I think is the process I mentioned above – of grasping specifics, of pushing the profane towards the sacred. I also wonder about the role of irony here. But – help – I am blasting open an enormous conversation right at the end of our correspondence, and so now I will wave from my retreating ocean liner, and quietly and dutifully take my seat.
»The things that are difficult are the things that are worth doing, aren’t they«?Alice Miller
The way we’ve struggled with our self-imposed deadlines for this letter-writing has also reminded me of something. Not just what I rediscover daily, as Thomas Mann put it, that »a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.« But also the wrench it is simply to try to write something true, even in a letter. It can’t be faked – or it can, and then afterwards it’s grey, dead, meaningless. If anytime I am lazy in my writing, it usually comes from a fear of looking at something closely, the fear that I will not sufficiently understand it, am not worthy to engage with it, or that it might be a waste of my time. And so I associate laziness with a reluctance to look at something, a kind of sulkiness, allowing the profane to remain profane without pushing it into the territory of the sacred.
And yes, do MFAs simply teach you to manipulate lyricism, so you know what you’re doing when you chuck it away? Could MFAs train writers beyond what they do already, and push them towards the stories they need to write? My feeling is that everyone probably has to do that on their own.
There is so much more to ask, so much more to say. But I think it’s time to close this particular chapter, and so I won’t ask you for more thoughts on the gather and the scatter, the profane and the sacred, on pelicans vs. flamingos (absurdly giant beaks, or obscenely long legs?) unless you opt for one last postscript. For now, all I’ll say is that I very much look forward to our conversation continuing. The things that are difficult are the things that are worth doing, aren’t they? Really, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Your letter is such a wonderful summation – I am tempted to leave our conversation with its closing. And yet, it provokes more responses, more ideas. If our stay were longer, and I were more disciplined, and books read themselves while you slept, I’d have wanted this to go on forever. I’ll say a couple more things, briefly.
I feel a contradictory impulse driving my own writing: first, an abiding distrust of and dissatisfaction with the established ways of seeing because they leave so much out; and second, my inability to find other ways that would allow the expansiveness to accommodate everything that I am not. (»All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is« – Aleksanadar Hemon.) In that sense, writing for me is always an endeavour to test my limits, to think how my ways of looking are stupid and insufficient. Which, of course, brings me to what we were talking about earlier: the questions of writing being the same as that of living. After having wandered away from religion for a long while, I strayed back toward it for its rich tradition of having engaged with the ethical questions I felt I was dealing with in my own writing (and living).
»…writing for me is always an endeavour to test my limits, to think how my ways of looking are stupid and insufficient«.Bilal Tanweer
So I am distrustful of Stevens for rewarding poetry with sacredness and redemptive power. I find it too easy, but more importantly, arising out of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. I do not consider myself religious in any normal sense, but I do live among the religious – and I loathe them for many things but, too, I admire them for achieving some things effortlessly. Community, for instance, which, at least ideally, in a religious framework is based upon individuals exerting through ritual and practice of common ethical principles toward an awareness of the self. For that reason, religious thinkers (Merton, Buber, Buddha, Rumi) often make for the most serious existential thinkers too. I find arts – at least in their creation – not analogous to religious experience. Perhaps, perhaps, in their reception; but their aims are still different.
I want to close this note with a poem by Franz Wright, for reasons that might become clear upon reading.
Yours, with gratitude and admiration,
It is late afternoon and I have just returned from
the longer version of my walk nobody knows
about. For the first time in nearly a month, and
everything changed. It is the end of March, once
more I have lived. This morning a young woman
described what it’s like shooting coke with a baby
in your arms. The astonishing windy and altering light
and clouds and water were, at certain moments,
You. There is only one heart in my body, have mercy on me.
Thank You for letting me live for a little as one of the
sane; thank You for letting me know what this is
like. Thank You for letting me look at your frightening
blue sky without fear, and your terrible world without
terror, and your loveless psychotic and hopelessly
with this love