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Maintenant #3: Nigar Hasan-Zadeh

By SJ Fowler.

If ever there was a nation who would claim a tradition centred on near-metaphysical poetic notions, reflective of self-identified characteristics and literal embodiments or geography and landscape, then it is Russia. Moreover, if ever a nation’s poetry mirrored it’s own complexity and self destructive exclusion, then again, it is Russia. The great figures of the Silver age – Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, have come to represent a immovable mode to which all contemporary Russian poetry must answer. In Nigar Hasan-Zadeh, an answer is given, and without hyperbole, she holds solid in their company.

What is perhaps most intriguing about her work, aside from her assured control of the poetic medium, of deft formal structures and prolificism, and youth, is her birthplace of Azerbaijan. Hasan-Zadeh is a child of a proud nation that has only sloughed away the Russian domination of central Asia in the last two decades. And yet, she writes, as she was educated, in Russian. She is both a calling to independence and calling back to a tradition as great as any in the modern. Moreover, residing in London, she is a synthesis of these influences, pan-European and not European, a composed source of expression. Rapturously received by elements of the poetry community in all three nations, she has been a regular reader at the Pushkin club and been translated by Elaine Feinstein and Christopher Arkell. For 3:AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.

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3:AM: Inevitably a poet is received through both their work, and their biography, in which people can build an understanding of the place that the poet originated. Certainly in your case this seems to be built around your nationality and the richness of your background. Do you consider yourself an Azeri fueled by Russian poetic traditions, or is your relationship to the places you from or live much more fluid?

Nigar Hasan-Zadeh: Well… I will try to answer this question through understating the composite world of word. In my opinion, real poets and well as musicians, artists, writers – those who create the real art of word, sound, and vision, those who are trying to bring it into the world – they are beyond one culture, though the background has a huge influence in the creativity of each individual, it builds up the aura of their work and feeds their personality. No matter where you live and what language you write in you will always carry your roots and your work will always have that unique ingredient which can be found only in your cultural background.

I am an Azeri poet, writing in the Russian Language, who can be taken for a Russian poet of Azerbaijani background. I was brought up in a traditional yet progressive Azerbaijani family during the USSR period, when the Russian language was the language in all former USSR republics, and when in order to give their children the best possible education, each family was trying to educate their children in Russian. Obviously there were political reasons, of which we are all aware.

That is why and how I learned to speak Russian from day one. Though I spoke to my mother in the language of Azerbaijan, I wrote my first poetry in Russian at a very young age, in fact as soon as I had learned to read and write, though it’s hardly poetry – just attempts to make simple poems. At the same time the first poetry reading I gave, to my family at the age of 6, was of only Azerbaijani poetry from an ancient poet and philosopher, Mirza Shafi Vazef. I still remember how one day I found his book in my parents library and how desperate I was to learn his poems by heart.

I was inspired by great Eastern poetry of the early centuries, Nizami, Nasimi, Firdousi, and many others. But undoubtedly, I was very much influenced by the Russian poets of the “Silver Age”, in my teenage years especially. Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, and Pasternak. It was natural that someone writing and speaking in Russian as though it was her own language would feel free writing in this language despite of belonging to a different background. I believe my poetry is a strange combination of the great Russian language and Eastern spirit.

3:AM: Certainly you display a stylistic affection for more Turkic and Eastern expressive influences, is this something you wish to bring to the forefront of your work?

NHZ: At this period of time that is how I feel. I won’t say that this is how I want my works to be seen from in retrospect, but at the present I feel I must move towards my spiritual home with my poetry. I do not do anything special to move my work from one level to another or to give it different flavours, I only let it free, believing that it will take me to “places” where it should be. Eastern poetry has very ancient roots and a very deep philosophy, it carries perfection of both “soul and flesh”. Unfortunately it is not very well known in the West and Europe, which I believe is a shame for today’s European readers and literature specialists.

3:AM: Certainly when your work was first translated, many British critics noted your affection in style to the Silver Age poets. How do you feel being associated with the great Russian 20th century tradition of female poets, that is Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva most consistently?

NHZ: I try not to think about it. Despite of open publicity, the critical discussion of my work is a space which I do not allow myself to inhabit or analyse too much, so to not spoil myself or to break down. Certainly, the poetry of these two great Russian poets inspired me and has lived in me since I read them for the first time. Tsvetaeva is in my opinion the strongest poet of the 20th century. Her poetry is eternal. I can only be grateful to their work as it shows a real strength and power of word, they are a great example of what the poet can be about.

3:AM: You have been highly praised for your technical skill, many traditionalists enjoy your control of form. Does this come from your reading, your education or is it bound to what you wish to communicate?

NHZ: I am one of those poets who believes in the harmony of form and substance. For me real poetry has to have a real spirit and should be “dressed properly”. A fine word should stand on its own and should be seen as an important and original molecule of a greater organism, the living creature that is a poem. Each molecule plays a unique role in the whole complicated mechanism of lines. I learned from the great poetry I was brought up on, and despite of all of the fashion and new poetical waves, which say that freedom of expression shouldn’t be bound in rhymes and meters, I believe that poetry always has to carry strong technical skill. Modern poetry should not mean a mess. The reader shouldn’t confuse a poem with short, clever prose. There is a strong line between poetry and prose and I never want to simplify it. Poetry is the finest genre of literature and it takes more than just dedication and talent. It is a blessing.

3:AM: Are you reacting against the embrace of free verse in Anglo-American poetry?

NHZ: I won’t say it’s a reaction. And it would be wrong to judge foreign poetry written in a language which I do not understand as strongly as my own. I am not a fan of free verse poetry. As I explained my position in my previous answer, I do not consider poetry without intelligent meter and strong rhyme as poetry despite of all today’s discussions. For me lines without structured ideas, could be either a lazy attempt to look and to sound smarter than they are, or just confused clever prose which is taken for a poem by the one who wrote it and by the one who reads it. But it is my subjective opinion. Rhyme doesn’t mean old fashioned, and shouldn’t be taken for a joke. Rhyme comes with a special knowledge, it comes from different way of thinking from a structured mind, it’s a blessing from what we call the Muse.

3:AM: Certainly elements of the British poetry community has been highly vocal in praise of your work. How did your translation to English come about in 2002? Were you involved in the process? And now?

NHZ: I am very honoured to be translated by my friends and poets Richard McKane, Elaine Feinstein and Christopher Arkell. Translation is a complicated process and needs time and dedication from the one who translates it. Of course, there are different schools of translations in the world, depending on the culture and traditions. In Europe as we spoke of, free verse translation is probably the most popular way to translate poetry. Many English poets would say that this is the only way to do it, in order to keep the contest and character of the poem and that it is impossible to make a translation complete in substance and form all together. I would rather agree with Brodsky who said nothing is impossible.

As you mentioned my first translation came in 2002 through Richard McKane, a well known poet-translator from Russian. He is very sensitive with the poems he translates and takes them as his own. He speaks Russian so well sometimes I forget that Richard is English, as he knows Russian poetry and literature better than many Russians. His translations are mainly free-verse but have deep understanding of the original text.

Elaine Feinstein has completely different approach. And Christopher Arkell who is a translator of my latest work, a fable for adults The Mute Fairy Teller and the White Bird Nara, translates with rhymes and keeps meter in all his translation, which is very unusual for the modern English ear, I believe.

3:AM: You’ve lived in London for quite sometime, it must have affected your poetry somewhat?

NHZ: Living in England brought my personal life and my work to a different level. It only enriched my work. I love London and I think it does love me back. The main experience of living in London is the feeling of inner freedom with which I am allowed to express and to live with without thinking and being cautious.

3:AM: Images seem to be central to your work, do you build from specific linguistic pictures? Especially if you are concerned with form so centrally, do you have a writing methodology?

NHZ: My only writing methodology is not to have one. I may know what to write about but I never know what structure the poem will appear in before I start writing. Most of the time the theme and character of the poem will find it’s own methodology while writing. I suppose that what keeps the purity and sincerity of the poem. I think pushing the poem will never make it perfect, pressure is not what poetry needs. Pressure will lead the poem in the wrong direction and the poem will lose its mesmerism. A poem should be able to breath along with the poet and later, with those who read it.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 21st, 2010.