by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Award-winning essayist, novelist, critic, and poet Anis Shivani's second collection of poems Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish was published a few days ago. Here is our conversation about his latest book:
SZH: These poems are first and foremost an ideational field, one in which the emotional takes the form of an occasional land mine or a treasure hunt— the “feeling” in the world of these poems is inextricable from the richly diverse tributaries of “thought.” In other words, emotion almost always goes through a thought-filter, which is unusual for poetry, wouldn’t you say?
AS: Thank you for these wonderfully imaginative questions. It makes the difficult task of writing this book over several years feel like it was worth it. These questions are truly a blessing, coming as they do the morning after I read extensively from Whatever Speaks for the first time, at Houston Poetry Fest last night. As I read from the book to a large and engaged audience, many things started becoming noticeable to me that I hadn’t known before; this always happens once the book is out, it changes shape from what you thought it was to something it wants to be.
To answer your question, yes, I would say that I feel through thoughts, or that thoughts feel me through thinking. This may not be very common in poetry these days, as you point out, when the ethos is to express emotion directly, feel without filters, lay it all out in the open. Anti-intellectuality has its cachet in the poetry world, you know, it’s just the reigning style these days. As for me, I don’t know how to separate the two branches of the mind. The best feelings come expressed in the form of complex ideas, even as it’s interesting to notice ideas unravel, spin to their doomed end in front of one’s eyes, dissipate like a spider’s web or an eddy of water if one so much as observes them. Very Heisenbergian.
It’s fascinating to hold an idea in focus, like the proverbial dot on the wall in Buddhist meditation, and see what happens to it. At first it becomes large, it becomes hegemonic and takes you over, but soon it dissolves until there is nothing left, until there is just the emptiness of your mind, the futility of your focus, to confront you. All ideas seem to me to be like that, they cannot withstand scrutiny, observation, analysis, though that is their claim to fame in the first place—as opposed to so-called emotion.
But by the same token all emotions seem to me like that too, none of them can bear scrutiny, least of all our most cherished ideas such as love, collective good, immortality, worship, tribal feeling, memories of the past, etc. I classified the last one as an idea, but is it an idea or a feeling? Come to think of it, doesn’t this suspicion hold true for all the “ideas” I just mentioned? The nation feels very much like an idea to us today, with its elaborate infrastructure of loyalty (enforced or voluntary), but before it was an idea (in whose name most of the wars today are fought) it was a feeling, germinating from some very primitive emotional biases.
Ideas are always feelings first, which is one of the counter-enlightenment narratives (come down to us through Freud and others), and complicated further by modern theories of physics, quantum mechanics in particular, which have deeply worked their way into poetry, whether or not we’re consciously aware of it. Part of me has always been very biased toward straightforward enlightenment rational thinking (a la Defoe, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Jefferson, etc.), which, unlike contemporary postmodern fashion (or rather, its debased, vulgarized interpretation in the poetry world, shorn of the earlier intellectuality behind spiritual opposition to enlightenment rationality), takes reason very seriously—still. This is the liberal, as opposed to the radical/revolutionary, side of me, which I still appreciate, even at this late juncture of twenty-first-century apocalyptic mood, still treasure and hold precious. But part of me has also always been very oppositional to enlightenment emphasis on reason (or thinking, as you call it), because it does not seem to be the sum of human experience, or even the major part of it. How can we leave out what does not fall under reason? I’ve made all the interesting decisions in my life based on intuition not reason. I’ve done all the interesting writing (and thought) in my life based on imagination not straight logic. And yet logic dictated the unreason.
This book, like all my others, enacts an internal dialectic, where I put into opposition my “good side” (the virtuous, benevolent, generous, considerate, polite, forgiving, loving, sacrificing, public-spirited one) with my “bad side” (the opposites of all the “virtues” I just listed). I think this dialectic is particularly obvious and on the surface in this book, you can see it at work in most of the poems: as soon as the good side starts becoming hegemonic, making strong claims for itself, along comes the bad side to complicate things, almost startle you out of the complacency that was beginning to set in (these are, I think, the land mines you talk about). And vice versa too, the good side always comes to the rescue of the bad side.
The logic of the book is this: there are any number of social pressures on us to act in certain ways, by first giving credence to structures of thought which come with the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. If, once you have made the decision to notice and isolate and point out social injustice, a necessary and useful act for someone early on in their intellectual journey, then what does one do with this knowledge? This book, in many different ways, forces you to think about this impossible existential dilemma, because we cannot go back to a state of unknowing, to a condition of naiveté, hence the deathly interpenetration of thought and feeling, idea and emotion, logic and illogic.
The ending of the first of the sonnets to X. (which I believe you saw germinating four or five years ago, when I was writing them) goes: “I planted the seeds of decadence in soil both / aspersive and reflexive—mirror, O hurt mirror!— / and became fatigued and cross, watching you / absorb my lessons like an adept secretary, / when I wanted was the sinister abbess of my dreams.” Earlier in the poem, I say, “I wasted my Zarathustra” on you. So here you have it, the dialectic I was talking about, the Nietzschean anti-enlightenment rebellion which has affected every single modern human being, post-1900 or so, and the confusion between the “adept secretary” (notetaking, submissive, a cog in the wheel of the infrastructure of communication) and the “sinister abbess of my dreams” (which straightaway invokes the gothic writing that was coming into being at the very moment the enlightenment was flourishing).
This sonnet, like the rest of the sonnets to X. that follow, is a plain rebuke to the lover who will not see that without ideas there are no lasting feelings, it is a lament registered by the self-aware subaltern against the dominating and rather vacuous self-convictions of the colonizer or the dominant political faction (due to race or color or native belonging), but it is also a rebuke to my own tendency to be the adept secretary (to the existing canon and canonized modes of thought) when what is wanted is the liberation that comes through (Sadean/hashishian) consummation with the sinister abbess.
SZH: I find the title of the book, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish, very compelling. As the author you hand over the authority of the work to a narcotic substance, consciously, perhaps hyper-consciously electing the engine of the unconscious self. The title comes across as a declaration of the work being unadulterated by the author’s intent and craft (two things you’re deeply engaged with as a critic), it absolves him from direct accountability, and hints at the work being somehow closer to the truth, like a revelation; conversely, it names the work as irrational, warning not to take it too seriously since it is triggered by a drug; a book “authorized” to a mind-altering substance. The entendre of “whatever speaks on behalf of hashish” (as if you are neither the source nor the channel) is yet another level of removal from authorship. What did you have in mind when you chose the title?
AS: I agree with all of the implications of the title you just mentioned, they were all very much on my mind, and have become even clearer to me since the book came out. In many ways this book is a counterpoint to the first one, My Tranquil War and Other Poems; in fact, I can’t imagine two such oppositional books. My Tranquil War unfolded over many years, from around 2000 to 2010, so it had the scope of a very slowly evolving public oppositional stance, it gelled and came together in a very laborious way compared to the subsequent books. My Tranquil War, the title, implies direct agency, it claims authority for the “tranquil” (rather ironic, that) way in which I was, through words, trying to fight the onslaught of fascism, at least to preserve my own sanity. It surely wasn’t emotion recollected in tranquility, it was psychological warfare (countering their tactics with mine) assuming the false guise of tranquility. Whereas Whatever Speaks, in some ways, wants to disown, or remove myself from, the overt authority implied in the earlier poetic project.
I’m actually signaling my distance from, and to some extent a distaste for, direct political or public engagement. After the slow evolution of and eventual disillusionment with public intercourse, what next? Just as in My Tranquil War, over the course of many years, I was trying to find a poetic voice that was politically informed, even hyper-aware, yet not given to didactics or polemics or even self-conviction, the challenge for me after finishing that book was, what kind of confessional or autobiographical voice I could discover for myself, once I turned sharply inward and gave up on many public illusions. I wasn’t satisfied with the privatized, commercialized, I would say ultimately capitalist, voice of confessionalist grief dominant in academic poetry, that wasn’t for me, so if I was to articulate my private emotions (including sadness or melancholy, or exuberance at sensual pleasures, or recollections of the past), how would I do it?
Whatever Speaks is a stab in that direction, as is the companion book, more minimalist and restrained, The Moon Blooms in Occupied Hours. For a long time, for about the five years these books were simultaneously coming into being, they used to be one book. It was only this summer that I recognized them for the two very distinct and self-contained books that they were. If Whatever Speaks is a rebuke to and distancing of sorts from My Tranquil War, then The Moon Blooms takes a similar dialectical stance toward Whatever Speaks: in other words, The Moon Blooms has an issue with even the baroque gesticulations of Whatever Speaks, and wants to step further back toward silence.
At one time I had three or four single-spaced pages of lines of titles, all evocative phrases from the book, which was then one book, that all made sense as titles. For a while I had another title, which I’m glad I didn’t go with, and then when I showed a narrowed list of titles to a mutual friend (Ali Eteraz), he liked Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish, which has grown on me over time. The vast majority of the evocative titles have ended up in the other book, The Moon Blooms! I’m really glad I went with Hashish for this one.
In the last five years, I’ve had a growing problem with “originality.” Possibly as a result of the disillusionment—politically I believe that world-wide we are at a dead-end, there is simply nothing that can be done given present hegemonic structures, so something will have to change externally, will have to be imposed from the outside, perhaps in the form of natural catastrophe, before anything can fundamentally change—of taking a public stance, the whole idea of narrative or poetic originality also seems deeply sullied to me. Hence I’ve written a growing amount of found poetry over the last several years, until in the most recent book I’ve resorted entirely to that. There is a little of that in Whatever Speaks.
Let’s look at the prose poem, written in response to Matisse’s The Moroccans (1916), where the title of the book occurs:
“A pause on a black Friday in the barter of souls, and the posture of whatever smiles on behalf of hashish. A mad morning stone-decked like the blustery walls of prayer. A virgin in search of thirst. Minus solemn chants, minus refusal of brides, minus the wickedness of acquired languages. The dictionary open like the ladder to anonymity. Effaced, nourished like a newborn, the round music of the not-desert. Nothing connects like habituality. Day-glow for a foreign master, a limit to robed capitulation, a folded crouch toward the black core of terrifying discourse.”
I think this is self-explanatory, in terms of the feelings I’m transcribing with regard to Matisse’s own immensely complex take on the solemnity/mysticism of Islamic traditionalism, but this poem speaks to the original feeling-cluster that exists before “acquired language” complicates things, creates the endless “barter of souls” that leads to a thirst that cannot possibly be quenched, least of all through art. “The dictionary open like the ladder to anonymity” hints to the unease with the notion of originality I mentioned just now, which always threatens to overwhelm Whatever Speaks, but in the end doesn’t (unlike in later books of mine, where it does). Matisse’s painting, by the way, is not terrifying at all, so the final line of my poem is hinting at a disjuncture in my own soul at looking at a tradition that Matisse might have looked at with more equanimity than I probably do, despite being a bona fide inheritor of that tradition.
By the way, I just learned that the mass production and sale of hashish can be attributed to Morocco in the 1960s (nice going!), and of course there is the origin of the term “assassin,” which comes from Hashishin in the Arabic, lately depicted with glamorous sensuality in the underrated Netflix series Marco Polo (the critical response to which consisted of volumes of Western insecurity with regard to the idea of Central Asian “barbarians” being so central to the formation of modern civilization).
SZH: As compared to My Tranquil War, this book actively engages with the reader through the frequent use of “you” (the addressee may change from poem to poem but the effect of direct address remains with the reader) and the call and response gestures, the demands in shifts of attention that are almost conversational— when I say conversational, I refer to the conversation between Hashish (whatever speaks on its behalf) and the reader, which is a very interesting conversation indeed. How would you compare the dominant tone of this book to your previous one?
AS: I’ve already talked about the comparison of Whatever Speaks to My Tranquil War a bit, but let me add a few thoughts. First, it’s very astute of you to note this constant call and response mode, that’s very true of this book, and it’s even truer of The Moon Blooms, where there are a number of poems that are direct addresses, several in the Kenneth Koch-Richard Howard mode of “To” poems— including one that’s called “To You,” and is probably the most directly autobiographical poem I’ve ever written.
But back to this book, clearly, My Tranquil War was imposing, or offering I should say, a particular narrative of political events, it was almost a poetically-written theory of politics for the turn of the millennium, a theory of aesthetics as well. That was the game it was hunting, so there was less of the conversational aspect, it was more in the nature of offering different components of the political-aesthetic theory, and allowing the reader to make up her own mind with regard to its validity. In the new book, I’m not interested in that sort of thing at all.
I really like how you describe it as a conversation between Hashish and the reader, the book Hashish, but also the substance Hashish, the idea Hashish, or whatever is implied by the mode Hashish, and the reader.
Or is the reader Hashish? And the book the innocent consumer? I think this is not as insane a proposition as it might at first appear, because the whole book can be seen as questioning the tactics and strategies that are ascribed to readers (of poetry): that the reader comes equipped with preconceived notions (based on personal experience and exposure to previous poetry) that will lead him or her in a certain direction, regardless of the argument the book is proposing. The reader, if smart enough, will twist the book to his or her ends. It seems to me that one might be helped by taking a playful/mind-bending/scurrilous approach toward this dilemma of predetermined meaning: what if one wrote the reader out of the equation, by making him or her too much a part of the equation (with all the conversational flow, the active pauses that solicit the reader’s opinion or input, which as you note occur frequently throughout the book)? That’s one way to subvert the reader’s authority, by giving her too much credence for her authority.
Let’s look at another prose poem, the one called “Apple” that ends the series called “Objects,” which it hadn’t occurred to me to look at before from the standpoint of conversationality, but which, like everything else in the book, is eminently conversational, as you point out:
“Design is a problem for undergraduates. The elegant bushwhacking versus the array of bulldozers. Often I fall ill from contentment. I know how it is inside remote monasteries, where love is memorized in discriminating couplets. No one taught me fear. I know all the circles of hell, which is the most abstract conception of all, its eggshell definition slender as the membrane between truth and lies. I invented freedom.”
Apple immediately makes you think of Steve Jobs and his famed perfectionism, his intolerance of foibles, but also his quest for convenience and accessibility for the consumer (reader, shall we say). I would note that the distinction between “elegant bushwhacking” and “array of bulldozers” is mostly false. An act of creation, like a product, should imply effortlessness in the making, and effortlessness in the usage. Let’s think of this with regard to poetry and the contentment (or tranquility) that issues from such effortless engagement. The final line, “I invented freedom,” is startling in the sense you noted in the first question, and it makes a mockery of course of capitalism’s misappropriation of liberal freedom as freedom of choice to buy beautiful products, or if you think of the book as a conversation between Hashish and the reader, then highlighting, once again, the question of what is the nature of the freedom we seek or think we’ll find when we consume poetry.
SZH: The lines manipulate the reader’s depth of attention by sharply changing not only the tonal register but the contextual domains as well: “The nose, curmudgeonly all through the fascist years, is suddenly a fine instrument of joy. This is a television of bankruptcy. I am not getting through to you; it is impossible when you are listening so intently.” It’s a veering in and out of a psychoactive state, an invitation to join in the addiction of wandering through historical, civilizational labyrinths. There is a certain urgency in pulling the reader into this somewhat dystopic vision of the world. You fought your “Tranquil War” in the ivory tower, a precision-loving, structured world—this new war takes place in the deeper recesses of isolation, the drugged psyche. Would you say that the primary gesture of this book is to say: if we ever speak, we will speak through Hashish. History (war) has stolen rational articulation and we have succumbed to incommunicability; we must rely on the mediation of intoxicants for truth-telling, for genuine communication. Yes?
AS: Yes. I have almost nothing more to add after your beautiful summation, which I couldn’t possibly have said any better, so I will agree with everything you said here. That is precisely the main gesture of the book, and I hope it has weight because of the prolonged “tranquil war” that preceded it, otherwise it would have felt empty. I left the ivory tower because I thought I could never find my true voice, discover what I was all about, as long as I hung around in that very structured world; and this turned out be true. But what you find outside the ivory tower is a mirror image of what goes on inside it, different and shocking ways of surrendering freedom, in less sophisticated language, but giving up freedom nonetheless. Historically, I have deep nostalgia for the 1970s, when it seemed, all over the world, capitalism opened up, very briefly, to some small accommodation with human psychosocial, even erotic, freedom. Likewise, the 1920s seem to me to have been the same way, but in each instance the forces of repression clamped down harder than ever, with new technologies, to crush latent freedom.
The poem you quoted from is the opening one called “Illumination” (a parallel term for enlightenment, of course), a prose poem, which refuses, as you note, to settle down to any ideological stance or personal spiritual manifesto. There is no road to success in that vision, there is the unfreedom inside the ivory tower (or protected professional privilege), there is the absence of readership one encounters as a devious writer, and there is the futility of ceaseless labor without much thought put into it. So in this poem, I write, with regard to the ivory tower: “One should welcome the positively dynamic chairs whose unseen thorns we inhabit in a cerulean morning of surpassing ceremony, whereafter we proceed to the seminar of abstraction where écriture féminine occurs at last to the shifting glances of open windows.” But also, “The age of the worker becomes opaque through unequal tempo.” Stranded between these oppositions is the writer, who, like Lorca, is caught “in the moment of surprise,” the moment lasting a lifetime of course. So yes, the twist is that the reign of hashish is dystopic, as you note, it can’t be otherwise, this plunge into the depths of the psyche, when all around is dystopia. There is no point to the counterpoint. I think you will note in this poem a constant idolization of the reader, putting her on a pedestal, followed by startling recurring notes that admit, no, this is just my projection, it’s not going to happen, you’re not there to listen to me.
There was an earlier age, the 1950s, of capitalist hegemony, of quietude (though because of prosperity in the larger part of the West, the repression came with an easier hand), of quietist academic lyrics, which generated an oppositional poetry of mysticism, namely from the Beats, who tried to speak through hashish. If you look at the beginning of the found poem called “The Beats” in this book, I think all of the points we’ve been discussing with regard to what can be gained in speaking through hashish, and the oppositional forces arrayed against it, come through in the push and pull of this poem:
on the advice of Paul Bowles, in 1950 he moved to Tangier
with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand
on a gray day, abandoned tin cans and old building blocks
his wild eye, a “real” American, sucked such a poem right
out of America, with that little camera he raises and snaps with
one hand, the crazy feeling in America, the result is America.
The result, in the end is the same: America. You can’t escape it, even in your mysticism.
Finally, I really enjoy how your poems recreate literary history, including biographies of literary figures and events, the genesis of literary works, the alchemy of influences, the whole drama of literature affecting other literature and human civilization. Would you comment on your critical work as a catalyst for poetry?
Poetry comes from poetry, just as money comes from money, loves comes from love, and war comes from war. Poetry is not created in a vacuum, as all writers know, one merely steps in at the point in time one finds oneself, to add something more to the conversation that has been going on since the beginning of conscious thought, or perhaps just recapitulate bits and pieces of it. For me, the great fascination of addressing, reassessing, imagining, denying, being truthful to or playing fast and loose with literary biography is that it seems such a close correlate of poetry itself. To write a true literary biography, to be true to the origins of literary creation, is impossible. In order to do that, one would have to recreate the work of art itself, in all its fine detail, in a very Borgesian sense: it would be a never-ending exercise. To the extent that a work of art is successful at all, it adds up to non-summation, it has a residual that cannot be recaptured, least of all in literary biography and history. So essentially, it seems to me, we are dealing with phantoms: the work of art as a phantom, and the creator behind it as a phantom, and curiously, the phantomness of each enhances the phantomness of the other. The greater the work of art the more elusive, the more impossible, it is to say anything about it.
Here’s a short poem of this nature from the book:
Dear Kenneth Koch
my street of poets (pink crevasse) tumid volcano
firing jets of lyrics on Sunday afternoons
when I put you aside, kenneth, eager
to entrail caesuras from your thousandth
unknown play, for barbies doused
in gasoline, yes, that’s the metaphor I want
to steal from your snail of a bed,
virgin oaks dying suddenly in my yard
on the very day I check
microscopes for efficiency
Well, this was perhaps a poem about gentrification, or the unsustainability of the cost of living for a writer in twenty-first century America—written in response to an idealized (and probably untrue) bohemian Greenwich Village habitat for the New York School poets of the 1960s. Later in the book, in another poem, I commit outright thievery against Kenneth Koch, by way of David Lehman. It was not enough for me just to steal the metaphor of “barbies doused in gasoline,” which he never wrote anyway.
Essentially I’m denying the possibility of literary history or biography and subjecting it as a field of imaginative enquiry—as is true of any other kind of history. One consequence of this attitude is that my literary forerunners become friendly accomplices rather than masters (though I recognize their greatness). I take something from them, and more often I steal something from them, and I hope they’re looking the other way when I do so, letting me get away with it. Again, the shift in tone from My Tranquil War, when dealing with literary and artistic influences (as with Fellini or Antonioni or Cheever or Djuna Barnes) will be obvious: when hashish speaks, there is less of an issue of fidelity or originality, which occurs when you have the notion of a canon occupied by masters, each with their original voice. Now I conceive of the literary landscape as a vast terrain of theft-worthy objects, things that belong to no one, because the act of writing seems to me to be the act of giving up or yielding mastery, rather than acquiring it. This loss of language—loss of both rational and mystical language—by way of indulging in free appropriation of language feels like a lot of fun to me.