Sin of Semantics, Saima Afreen's debut poetry collection, reflects a poet's earnest engagement with language
Sin of Semantics, the debut poetry collection by journalist and poet Saima Afreen, affords the reader the grandeur of ancient civilisations, the simplicity of good story-telling, the perseverance of someone who interrogates the status quo
Sin of Semantics, the debut poetry collection by journalist and poet Saima Afreen, affords the reader the grandeur of ancient civilisations, the simplicity of good story-telling, the perseverance of someone who interrogates the status quo — and the earnest engagement of a poet with language.
At every turn, be it a poem about a city, a lover, a prophet, a poet or about Remembering a Smell, Afreen’s work embarks upon a dialogue with language itself.
Sin of Semantics, the debut poetry collection by journalist and poet Saima Afreen, affords the reader the grandeur of ancient civilisations, the simplicity of good storytelling, the perseverance of someone who interrogates the blind acceptance of norms — and the earnest engagement of a poet with language. At every turn, be it a poem about a city, a lover, a prophet, a poet or about 'Remembering a Smell', Afreen’s work embarks upon a dialogue with language itself. Language becomes the stage upon which she dreams the roses, meets the Satavahanas, converses with the djinns, visits the many landscapes of the body, questions the unequal treatment meted out to women and directs with finality: “Let there be light.”
As the title of her collection suggests, ‘sin’ becomes an important point of contention. This book attempts to break the strong biblical bond instituted between sin and the female body, through a renewed examination of Eve through the healing lens of Afreen’s poetry.
The poems in your debut collection of poetry Sin of Semantics are studded with references to Russian literature. From your repeated references to Princess Vasilisa, Anna Akhmatova and other Russian characters, I understand you have a great fondness for the Russian classics. There are also many references to the Greek myths; Icarus, Persephone and not to forget the endless references to many Middle-Eastern legends. In this regard, what feeds your literary landscape and how does it contribute to your conception of poetry?
As a child growing up in Calcutta I read those beautifully illustrated books on tales of Princess Vasilisa, Prince Ivan, Baba Yaga, peasants growing turnips in faraway Russian landscape, soldiers stopping by an old woman’s hut for some hot broth and rye bread. My father used to get the books from an old shop in College Street. I was smitten by the cackling geese, St. Petersburg, Volga River, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Akhmatova. Then, there were English Literature classes in Calcutta University filling me with Achilles, Persephone, Zeus, Venus and more. After tea, evenings at home were replete with Qissa-E-Gul-Bakawali, Qissa Chahar Darvish, tales of prophets, life stories of Rumi, Hafez and Shiraz, the War of Karbala, legends of the Silk Route, the Great Wall of China, and more.
The distant cities, ancient names, and mystical tales stir a longing in you. You crave to escape your real timeline. This ache breaks and makes you. The territory between the real and the unreal is where poetry is born. It claims you; summons everything you have experienced. You forever move inside the kaleidoscope it hands you over. And you keep pouring more light, more colours, sometimes your lifeblood into it.
Reading seems to have played a big role for you growing up. Many of the literary greats seem to have inspired the writer you have become today. Could you list some writers and poets who have kindled in you the spirit to write?
A difficult question. The list is extensive. Mirza Ghalib, Agha Shahid Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ranjit Hoskote, Adil Jussawalla, Jibanananda Das, Manglesh Dabral, Garcia Lorca, PB Shelley, Kathleen Jamie, Hafez, Rainer Maria Rilke, Octavio Paz and several others. I just love the sorcery Michael Ondaatje infuses in his books, especially the novels. Sample these lines from The English Patient about the kinds of winds that blow in deserts: ‘ The haboob — a Sudan dust storm that dresses in bright yellow walls a thousand metres high and is followed by rain… Some winds that just sigh towards the sky.’ Look at the beauty of the words, the extensive description, the poetic dress. He’s a poet-lyricist disguised as a novelist. Khaled Hosseini is another favourite. My poem ‘Is Pomegranate a Poem?’, which deals with the politics of language, is inspired by his novel The Kite Runner. The mention of the fruit in the book shaped my poem.
How do you begin to write? How does the idea of a poem turn into a poem for you? For example, I wonder how a poem like Nudity was born? Especially verses like:
The glass shatters in the eyes of a dervish
who stands with lonely aspens, forsaken rosaries
forlorn skins, countries, skies, cries.
The prayers have forsaken her
gods crack at her doorstep
dawn wipes the incineration
she was born of.
Writing is beyond my control, especially poetry. It comes to me on its own. The poem has to speak to my heart, if it doesn’t I trash it. Since I am also a literary-cultural journalist, the area of my works overlaps with my creative writing. Once someone WhatsApped me a poster of Russian dancers coming to town; the photograph just mesmerised me. The diaphanous fabric flitting through light made the silhouette of the woman into something ethereal. The misty-blue background was enough to transform it into a painting which came alive on the tiny screen. The images of the poem ‘A Song for the Russian Ballerina’ came immediately and complete. Some poems come image by image, bit by bit. The poem 'Nudity' came to me while I was watching a stage adaptation of the Bengali author Mahasweta Devi’s Standayini (The Breast Giver). The poem just unfolded in front of my poems.
Talking of places, your poems are set in Helsinki, Calcutta, Delhi, Gaya, Sysmä, 'At Moazzamjahi Market' and also places like Sumeria and Russia (places you’ve never visited). How do you work with the idea of place in your poems?
We are eternal travellers moving from one dimension to another. Our minds keep journeying this world and that world. The ancient blueprint calls to the atoms within us. That's how sometimes when you visit a new city or a new country, you feel you were forever a part of it. That part of you navigates through the descriptions of places you have never been to. Their streets take root in your bones. The stairs perfectly fit in the craters your heart carries. The unvisited cities no longer remain foreign, they merge smoothly into your questions and join the quest. Russia, Sumeria and several other places leave the same effect on me. Poetry finds home in the unseen fissures dressed in these places.
Is there any particular way you have arranged the poems in this collection? Perhaps chronologically or geographically?
Stream of consciousness. Not because I had a psychology paper as an undergraduate student at Calcutta University or that ‘To the Lighthouse’ still haunts me with its floating timescape. The poems flew the way they had inhabited my thoughts. You travel not just through body, you explore cities, hamlets and forests through the mind as well. The places speak to you in an order which finds convergence to the point where the perceptions occur. It replays in the mind and demands to be presented the same way on paper. And you just don’t feel like confining it to any other order.
You use the form of the lyrical free verse in this collection. Some of these poems have an internal rhyme scheme. For example, in the poem 'Maghrib' “the cry of birds” turn into “Khusro’s words”. How did you conceive the form of these poems?
You learn, then unlearn. While relearning, you play with the language, strum the diphthongs, hum the syllables, flow with the music within till it bubbles in your blood. The whisper then blends with the words you choose. The position and the juxtaposition decides the crescendo and scherzando of the music. The white spaces are boxes of silence that decide the direction of lyricism. And then the words listen to their own composition: your harvest at the end of the page. Each word offers itself as a mini orchestra blooming at your fingertips.
Could you elaborate upon your editing process and how you keep the checks and balances of your writing in place? It could perhaps help young, aspiring writers to learn from your method.
I let the poems soak in their jus, release flavours, acquire colour and move beyond the original texture. The arrangement then climbs the layers of the composition. I can smell the words, check the taste notes. If I feel it’s ready, I open the lid and set the space to spread it. If the final preparation doesn’t satisfy me, I feed it to the grass, empty the platter and begin all over again.
What does Sin of Semantics mean to you? What do you mean when you use the word ‘sin’? Whose sin is it?
Senior American poet Brian Turner writes in the blurb of my book: "Sin of Semantics studies the metaphorical and the mythological, as well as offering insights into the cultural and political structures that limit the feminine within all of our lives." I commit the sin of being human. A woman. It was Eve who was blamed for the primordial sin. Adam was innocent! Lucifer was the first rebel in the universe who questioned and challenged the order issued to him. When you refuse to be a puppet and register protest, you commit the sin of being a rebel.
For example in the poem 'Revenge' the protagonist asserts: "I am what Eve couldn't be." Or in the poem 'Printing Press' one of the lines reads: "Burqa is the new nudity. Hide in it sin and stones", and in another, a woman says: "I was born a prophecy, / An ultimatum of sins". It's the sin of having your own voice, sin of denying the command of the oppressive ruling powers, sin of being free and not being 'one of them' which separates you from others. That's when you express yourself through semantics. Your words register the protest, the sin, the ‘NO’ connecting with others who think or act the same way. The words that you use rise and flutter as flags — denying to give in to the tyranny around. The poems quoted refuse to accept female body shaming, the second rate treatment women are subjected to, the bitter distinction one has to face for being brown, belonging to the minority community, being seen from a microscope all the time especially when you are at home, in your country, among your own people!
The changing political-cultural landscape of the country requires our voices more than ever to address caste atrocities, right wing fundamentalism, erasure of history from school textbooks, food politics, strong biases based on identity, shaming of women’s bodies, and divisions based on colour and faith. This is where ‘sin’ in my poems acts as a semantic rebellion hoping to stir a revolution against all injustice in the world at large.
As a Muslim woman of colour, how do you locate yourself within these poems? Poets of colour with a Muslim identity, for example, the Pakistani-Kashmiri-American poet, Fatimah Asghar asserts her identity with very strong poems like 'Main Na Bhoolunga' and 'Partition', whereas Iranian poet, Solmaz Sharif references Quranic anecdotes to relay the threads of her identity. How do you think your poetry engages with this very volatile identity of a Muslim-woman-poet, in today’s world?
I am a woman. Muslim. Asian. Brown. Single. Independent. You see the layers of subaltern I and many other writers like me carry. This is the undercurrent the words imbibe automatically. You don't always have to march the streets with slogans and flags to assert who you are or raise objection against that which curbs your identity — words are the strongest tools. What I write isn't always conscious. Journalism, which takes care of my bread and butter, does that. Poetry explores the unseen, wakes up the unconscious. Since the very soil is made of several layers you get to see the same in what sprouts from it. Qur'an isn't just a holy book, there is more to it than meets the eye. There are several references which lead you to One Universe. In connecting with the Supreme Power one finds paths which guide to mysticism — the very Beauty it holds within its core. Rigidity is its enemy. It doesn't come to closed hearts. Now, coming back to the real world where you are questioned: "But you don't look like a Muslim!" or "But we heard Asians are too conservative," I would like to scream and say that when a bullet hits your heart blood flows. Its colour is red not cream or tar! Accept that. This world belongs to all of us! Give back the citizenships, return the original maps, dissolve the borders, drop that hypocrisy!
Finally, on a lighter note, what is your favourite poem from your debut collection of poetry, Sin of Semantics, and why?
'A Polka Dot Umbrella'. During the Villa Sarkia Writers Residency, in October 2017 when I was unable to find my way on a stormy autumn evening in Helsinki, I asked a girl, who was sipping coffee at a nearby kiosk, for directions. She told me, and at the same time handed me over her only umbrella saying: “You are a guest in Finland. You’ll fall sick if you get soaked in the rain. Please take my umbrella.” I was touched by the kindness of a stranger in a foreign country. This poem is dedicated to her. Her name, as she had told me, is Velma. Hope she reads this piece someday.
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