Interview: Poet Rafey Habib

Last week (or maybe it was longer than that) I posted a review of Rafey Habib’s new book of poems, Shades of Islam. I followed up with him later and convinced him to answer a few questions about his work and other things:

You’ve been writing and translating poetry and writing about literary theory for years, but until now never published your own poetry. How has the process of assembling a book of your poems been different than what you’d done earlier?

It has been an altogether more pleasant process; for one thing, you don’t have to do any research (at least, not of an academic nature); and I feel that I’m attempting to speak in my own voice rather than one borrowed from academia and which is intrinsically adjectival on the work of others. And I feel that this book (of poetry) does not require a specialist audience.

Many of your political poems can be categorized into two groups: those aimed at Muslims who perform injustices (To a Suicide Bomber, Poem for Neda) and those aimed at explaining Muslims to Western readers (The World Does Not Hate America, Home). What reader are you predominantly trying to reach? And what’s the message?

I am trying to address both non-Muslims and Muslims; I want the former to see the beauty, compassion and pathos that inheres in Islam; I want the latter to see themselves in the light of their larger responsibilities in the modern world (such as acquiring and disseminating an accurate knowledge of their religion).

In the poems that deal specifically with the poet’s relationship to religion, themes of otherness, unworthiness and doubt are common. Are those traditional themes in Islamic literature or are they more connected to your own sense of cultural identity (an Indian Muslim, educated in England and living in the United States)?

They are certainly inherent in my own somewhat torn cultural identity as a Muslim, born in India, raised in England, who migrated to the U.S. But these themes of religious struggle also inform writers in Islamic traditions, such as the Medieval Arab poet al-Ma’ari, the thinker al-Ghazzali and the great C20 Pakistani poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal.

Many of the religious poems don’t make specific reference to things readers would easily recognize as Islamic. Is that intentional, and does it suggest commonality among the major religions.

Yes: our religious dilemmas are often the same; and Muslims experience the same emotions, passions and dilemmas as everyone else.

Your two Tsunami poems are written in a more narrative style with more dependence on images than anything else in the book. Why is that? Can you talk more about the experiences the poems are based on?

I stayed with my family in Malaysia for a year; so we had the opportunity to visit a fishing village in Penang that had been struck by the tsunami. The sheer scale of destruction of that event haunted me for a long time, with its implications for the perennial philosophical questions of God’s justice etc. I was appalled by the facile “religious” explanations offered. It seems to me that it is precisely these unintelligble phenomena that the poet must investigate.

Name a few poets, from any tradition, your draw inspiration from? What do you admire in them?

Shelley, of course: his sheer imaginative and verbal genius; I admire poets who are capable of addressing complex philosophical issues, such as Rumi, Hafez, Milton, Donne and Iqbal.

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