This month I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity for a conversation with Mona Arshi, a highly respected UK poet, novelist and Human Rights lawyer. I was so excited when I read that Mona was to have a poetry residency with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust at Cley-next-to-Sea, a wild and windswept nature reserve amidst the saltmarshes on the North Norfolk coast in the UK. You can find out more about this very special environment here:
It’s a place I have known for decades so I couldn’t wait to see Mona’s take on it. I wasn’t disappointed! The poems she has created for Shifting Lines, a multimedia installation situated both at Cley and on-line, are extraordinary. They are full of delicacy, echoing the fragile landscape, but also contain some robust yet subtle statements about climate change. Mona, how did this project come about?
Hello and thank you! I feel so very fortunate to have been commissioned for this really unique project. My link to Norfolk is through my master’s in creative writing which I studied 10 years ago at the University of East Anglia. The team at UEA decided to celebrate 50 years of the creative writing MA by creating a project called Future and Form. The idea was that former UEA alumni, (including novelists, short story writers and poets) were paired with a digital team and with a venue partner. I was designated as writer in residence at Cley and worked with the team called Mutiny. I have to say that I didn’t know Cley at all and was not familiar with the landscape. It’s also the first time I’ve collaborated with other artists in such a far-reaching project. I’ve worked with dancers and musicians for one-off pieces but this was very different. When I confirmed the residency it was before Covid. The idea was that I would spend as much time as possible on the marshes and speak to visitors and those who knew the landscape like the back of their hand. The Project began in March 2020 but with Covid and the lockdowns the reserve was out of bounds for months. In addition, as the project involved working with tech, all the workshops and classes around VR and immersive technologies were also cancelled. I had to rely on my own reading and learning about the birds of Cley and their migratory patterns. I was extremely apprehensive about trying to write into such an unfamiliar landscape but I think reading deeply during this time and reading nature poets across the world helped me to think what a nature poem might be. Once I set foot in Cley it was the middle of July 2020, and it was extraordinary. It is quite an unusual place, the sounds, the erasure and dissolving of the landscape that’s irreversible now, of course, but also the migration story; it was so beautiful, but I felt so much pity for the place too. It was a very enriching experience. What struck me was how fragile and unpredictable this nature reserve was. At the same time it managed to contain the most astonishing, resilient species. What was also startling to realise is that Cley gives us an early window to imagine what an imperilled future might look like. I came away asking myself a question, how do we tell the story of this place in poetry, this complex story of extinction and sanctuary, while at the same time alchemising this grief into poems? Collaborating with Simon Poultner and Tim Wright and the team at Mutiny was brilliant as we had to create a vision for how we thought the poems might sit in a digital installation and effectively create new literary forms and think about how the audience (possibly one that might not have encountered poetry before ) might respond.
I think Cley is very unlike your usual surroundings, you describe yourself as an “urbanite”! How did it feel to come to Norfolk and experience this landscape? Did you find the poems you were writing in response to the environment were different to how you usually write? How did you get started? I notice the first poem on the Shifting Lines trail is a ghazal which is a form you often use and for which you are a recognised master. It seems to work so effectively here!
Yes, I am an urbanite! I am a daughter of immigrants who arrived in the UK in the 1960s and yet ironically so much migration IS urban although both my parents come from the green lungs of northern India, Punjab. I think I did have to write differently yes, and there’s lots of reasons for that, firstly the project took place during the pandemic so there was this extra film of anxiety about writing into place. Furthermore, the destination of these poems was not simply the page. The poems were being created to land in a digital space. In addition, the team and I decided that we would have to articulate an ethical and philosophical framework for the project. One of those was that above all we wanted to privilege the ear over the dominant eye and draw out the sonic power of the poems. This felt particularly important as, when you walk around Cley, you have to sensitively listen with a hyper awareness. We worked with an incredible sound artist, Peter Cusack, who extracted the sound from Cley: the birds hiding in the reeds, the rain on the ponds, the chorus of the Norfolk grass, the churning sound of the North Sea…
When I thought about what forms would work it seemed to me that the idea of the return and the migration loop were huge themes in the landscape. The Ghazal seemed the perfect form because of its odd circularity and its musical properties, it’s almost like you’re cycling round and round Cley. Other forms include a ‘specular’ poem called ‘Egg’ which begins with a simple seamless egg and then reaches into what’s contained in the DNA of each chick which returns to that same branch years after crossing the ocean. In this form you hear the poem backwards and forwards. When the poems were finally written we braided them into the sounds of Cley that Peter Cusack had extracted. We also worked with a music producer who recorded the poems in a studio. We then treated these in different ways, so we created different versions. You can hear the poems breaking up or gently distressed or in a more conventional way. The other notable aspect of the project was that whilst I was writing into the residency and listening to and vocalising the birds, quite unexpectedly my mother tongue, Punjabi, was aroused. It was surprising when you consider how the conditions of estrangement in a landscape can lead you back to a language of childhood or to re-discover it in such a way. As a result, there are poems in the sequence such as ‘Syllabising the Birds’ which are filled with Punjabi words. All of the poems were then embedded digitally into the landscape so when you walked around a particular bird hide or wandered close to the North Sea they would open up like sound envelopes on your phone.
That’s so interesting Mona, thank you so much for sharing your processes here. If you would like to read and hear these amazing poems then go here:
You are often described as a “lawyer turned poet” and now, with your fiction debut, Somebody Loves You, I guess you might have a new description to add: “poet turned novelist”! Do you feel that these three strands – poetry, law, fiction – somehow all speak to each other, feed off each other, in creative ways, and did that come into the mix during the residency at all? Do you think the residency changed you in any way?
That’s a really good question that I think about a lot. I’m not quite sure what the answer is. But when I look at the three books; two books of poetry, the novel and of course, additionally, the work from the Cley project, I think a lot of my concerns or preoccupations are with what’s on the periphery, the edge. I’m struck by things that are slightly off and angular but maybe that’s what all poets are interested in ultimately. It seems to me that’s the most interesting window into translating the world into language, to go in through the smallest dirtiest neglected window at the back of the house rather than the front door. And also, I think I’m one of those writers that doesn’t like neat closures and also resists the steady linear narrative and progression
(I would go as far as to say that I actually hate it because this kind of approach can entrap you as it doesn’t reflect the truth of our days and our lives.) That’s probably why I’m so interested in the Ghazal and writing that doesn’t give up everything easily when you read it. I like forms of writing that I need to squeeze or apply a little pressure to, to release what’s inside. So much of the language in our culture is already, it seems to me, too easy, too flattened out. We need to be active in our language and that means language and poetry that works to keep us awake.
I totally agree Mona, it’s more important than ever to address this idea of using language which engages the reader in unexpected and thought-provoking ways. Poets are increasingly interested in writing poetry of place/nature poetry/eco poetry and it’s hard to get an unusual and compelling angle on these subjects. You do this so beautifully in the suite of poems you have created for the Cley reserve. Do you have any advice for those who might want to find a path into writing about nature in original and distinctive ways?
I guess for me, one of the most surprising features was that all the things that I thought would make writing into the project difficult, such as not feeling as if I was a nature poet or that I belonged in this setting at all, feeling estranged from the landscape… these feelings sort of fed the poems and gave them a kind of kindling or energy. What might have seemed like a hindrance actually turned into an opportunity because I think if you start off by thinking you know everything about a place you probably won’t find anything all that interesting or original to say. So, actually, coming to the landscape without the names for things like the Godwits and the grasses and the fauna was the starting point, a genuinely fresh awe-inspired perspective. I’ve been reading a wonderful book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer which contains gift after gift from indigenous wisdoms and there’s a part where she talks about how the already named thing can limit your imagination. So many times, I’ve walked in nature and felt a sense of unbelonging and it’s also a way of keeping the garden door locked to many, many people. I was really surprised to discover that less than 1 percent of nature writers are minority ethnic and given where we are in the world I think this has to change. It’s interesting to note how environmental movements are asking poets to be involved. In a world where many people are deeply suspicious, a poem helps us to feel rather than to give us information. A poem bypasses the intellect and goes straight to feeling. I think this philosophical approach helped me quite a lot.
What’s next Mona? Do you have any projects in the pipeline that we can look out for?
I think I will see what flows in the next years. I’ve been reading a lot this past year and that’s nourishing and will hopefully lead me somewhere interesting.
A lovely note to end on and a further piece of important advice. I don’t think writers ever really stop processing the world in readiness for what they want to write next, even if they don’t know quite know what this will be. Reading, as you say, is a way of nurturing the next creative step. Thank you so much for these wonderful insights Mona, your stunning poems have made me see my surroundings afresh. You can check out Mona’s debut novel here, I can’t wait to read it!
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BIOGRAPHY Mona Arshi worked as a Human Rights lawyer at Liberty specialising in dignity cases before she started writing poetry. Her debut collection Small Hands won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015. Mona’s second collection Dear Big Gods was published in 2019 (both books published by Liverpool University Press’s Pavilion Poetry list). She has taught and mentored extensively including the Arvon/Jerwood mentorship Programme and the Rebecca Swift Women’s Poetry Prize. Mona has judged both the Forward and TS Eliot prizes as well as the National Poetry Competition . She makes regular appearances on radio (most recently ‘On Form’ for Radio 4) and has been commissioned to write both poems and short stories. Her poems and interviews have been published in The Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Times of India as well as on the London Underground. She is currently writer in Residence at Cley Marshes with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel Somebody Loves You will be published with And Other Stories in Autumn 2021. She has recently been appointed Honorary Professor in both law and English at the University of Liverpool. https://www.monaarshi.com/
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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