Of Architectonics and Poetics
Amatoritsero Ede: You have a conception of some connection between poetry and architecture. Could give us an overview of it?
H. Masud Taj: A strip of paper, with ‘architecture’ on one side and ‘poetry’ on the other, with half a twist and ends taped together. Poetry and architecture are the two sides of the Möebius strip that topographically has only one side. Poetry will lead you back to poesis which means making (cognate with Sanskrit: cinoti, cayati i.e. to gather, arranges in layers); construction will lead you to the act of construing. They are “mirrors: each drawing its own widespread streaming beauty back into its face.” That was Rilke speaking of beginnings. In other words: different epistemologies but similar ontologies.
A.E.: Would you then say there is an architectonics of poetry?
H.M.T.: Plato’s Republic is suffused with the very thing that he sought to expunge: poesis (a fictitious dialogue studded with the Cave, the Ring, the Myth of Er, etc). Is there an architectonics of poetry flips to: is there poetics of architecture? Both emanate from our brains that are islands of neurons in a sea of synapses that have to be crossed in a leap of faith. I read Wallace Stevens spatially by folding his poems from the centre and seeing the persistent symmetry in the displacement of words. It allows me to interpret his poems and also decide between competing interpretations (did the same thing with the films of Stanley Kubrick teasing out the labyrinth which became my post-professional dissertation in Architecture).
H. M. T.: Poetry is both for the cochlea and cornea and thus I recite poems orally (the process and products sans paper) but also indulge in calligraphy exhibits. An architectonics-on-steroids poem was Bat first recited in 1998 and exhibited the next year in Galerie Jean cocteau; paradoxically an iconic poem for a creature that cannot see. The synapse between the sound and the sight is crossed by the blind calligrapher in tandem with the deaf musician.
A.E.: Actually is a poem not like a building, with words as the brick blocks, with the poet as architect, and the aesthetically grand poem being comparable to good design?
H.M.T.: The poem is not the building but the body that experiences the building whose architecture lies in the space between the walls and not in the walls themselves. Your question is akin to one I was asked after a reading in England - whether the sestina was a room with six doors. It was more like the body with its six orientations (up, down, front, back, and left, right). When you listen to a poem the hearing in the inner ear occurs right next to the semi-circular canals, behind your eyes, that orient your body’s balance. The reception of a poem is visceral with your brain frantically trying to catch up with what the body has unwittingly responded to. Gravity connects the poem to the building via the body.
A.E.: You are an architect in real life. How has this affected your relationship to poetry or your work as a poet.
H.M.T.: I was first a poet and then a calligrapher before becoming an architect while all along trying to be real in real life. I think architecture’s yearning for order has something to do with the formalist phase in my poetry in the early-80s, when I revelled in sonnets and villanelles. I came out of that phase as a better receptor. Architecture also added a spatial sensibility along with the ability of zooming in on a detail without loosing sight of the big picture; both the angle and its resident angel sharing etymologies. In the final analysis architecture lent poetry its environmental criterion: poetry as an immersive experience. When you listen to me recite a poem you inadvertently turn into a dweller of its architecture. Hören “hearing” being folded in Gehören “belonging” renders you vulnerable. Real architecture is one that enters your heart like a thief at night.
A.E.: When did you begin writing poetry and who were your influences?
H.M.T.: When I turned thirteen, far from home in an enchanting boarding school named after its location high in the mist laden mountains of India, and have been at it since. Poetry ‘reading’ always consists of standing before an audience, sans text and downloading from mental archive poems that may have occurred twenty years ago as fresh as the one that occurred yesterday. But I am not a performance poet; I leave it to the poem to perform (with me or without me). The earliest influence was the house I grew up in. It had 11 clocks and 17 mirrors. For instance the living room had two wall clocks, a three-dimensional clock on the table and a clock on the sideboard giving simultaneously different times from around the world. There were clocks in all the bathrooms, in the kitchen, and one added to old Vauxhall’s dashboard. The car’s rear view mirror was replaced with a panoramic one with a more attractive view of the world behind than the one ahead. The mirrors in the house were also larger than life. The angled ones on the dressing table not only duplicated space, they multiplied it. Space was as mouldable as clay. The dining hall mirror ran across the width of the wall; eating was a synchronous activity in real and virtual rooms. The mirror also reflected a clock face. The clock had no numerals; double-strokes stood for the quarter-hours and single-strokes for the hours in-between. Its reflected-face remained unchanged but when the mirrored-clock showed 8.45 I knew it was 3.15 and nearing high-tea time. Only at lunch, which always began at 12.00, was when both clock-faces reached a consensus. As I ate, they went their separate ways; I lived simultaneously in clockwise and anti-clock times. Even outside the mirror it was difficult to tell the time. All the clocks couldn’t exactly agree at what pace time ought to flow. They were honed in different schools of gears: paleface was always slow, black ahead of its time, the 3-D timeless (it stopped long ago) and only the international-clock was on time (whatever that meant). I grew to be a time-sceptic: clocks only conveyed their respective point of view. I settled instead for ‘sunrise and sunset times’ in the daily papers that resembled the local train time-tables and were as accurate. The house was on the western shore, so while sunrise at 06h.25m was taken on faith, evening would find me sitting on the front steps cross-checking my favourite clock with the 18h.46m sunset in the sea. The horizon was a reliable keeper of time. Little wonder I became an architect configuring space, and an oral-poet revealing time. You would have noticed of course that I have deflected your question from ‘who’ to, what is more significant in my case, ‘what’.
A.E.: India has a great tradition of poetry – Vivekananda , Aurobindo, Tagore. Is this tradition traceable in your work.
H.M.T.:The contemporary poet in Urdu (my mother tongue), Gulzar traces his influences to both Tagore and T.S. Eliot. Vivekananda and Aurobindo were better thinkers than poets. If there be a poetry gene, you could trace me to my grandmother’s grandfather the classical Urdu poet whom Harvard’s Annemarie Schimmel referred to as “the high-sounding Amir Minai (1828-1900) who continued the Lucknow tradition.” It was the great Ghalib’s relative, Nawwab Mirza Khan Daag, who helped my ancestor’s poetics to eventually lighten up. Apart from his collected poems and his later love lyrics, Amir Minai was famous for his dictionary Amir al-lugat which remained incomplete thanks to his inexhaustible erudition. A century later his work persists, as in the contemporary singers Jagjit Singh and Chitra’s plaintive rendition of his ghazal Ahista Ahista. There was also the awe inspiring renditions of the Quran; ecstatic Qawwallis in the Indian courtyards of Sufism and the Indian movie songs of the golden era when the songwriters were leading Urdu poets. Add to that my mother’s creativity in Urdu – rewriting the endings of novels she read and sometimes even replacing the author's version with her own; and my father, who for one unforgettable year, was an inspired poet in Urdu turning our staid house into a spontaneous tavern of Ghazal-guzzlers. Urdu poetry was the aural architecture of my childhood; if I belonged to a tradition it was a living one.
A.E.: Would you describe your poetry as Avant-Garde in the terms in which experimental poetry today is seen as such?
H.M.T.: No, I would not. The term Avant-Garde makes sense if there is a consensus, a tradition, against which one measures an advance. In any case that term is born of linear time while I am more comfortable with a spatial notion wherein the three tenses of time coexist. You get adept at moving sideways, glancing tangentially from the corner of your eyes. With a peripheral vision the world appears different which may be misconstrued as avant-garde.
A.E.: I wonder if the rich Indian tradition of verdic scriptural literature had much to do with poetry in that country. What do you think?
H.M.T.:There is a certain sensibility that India imparts. This is clear when I look back from Canada, just as Khalil Gibran had remarked that the mountain’s profile gets clearer from afar. Growing up there you acquire a sense of time that takes recent history with a pinch of salt. It allows the co-existence of the pre-modern with the modern; both slightly displaced, but neither erased.
A.E.: Does your work follow that trajectory? At what point in your work do you break away from tradition?
H.M.T.: Only in a refracted sense; once the prism has dispersed the colours it is difficult to return to any sense of pristine luminosity. So you allow yourself to be seduced by colours but you don’t let yourself be fooled by them.
A.E.: Thank you for your precious time.
H.M.T.: It is precious, but it is not mine. Thank you for having me as your guest.
H. Masud Taj
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #51 ISSN 1479-425X
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF POETRY & GRAPHICS...since December 2002
Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede