I thought I’d share the conversation I had with Wardah Books’ owner, Ibrahim. It was a good conversation with good questions asked. I hope you’ll get to take away something from it.
There is a kind of alchemy with poetry. Word to meaning; image to emotion. But this alchemy requires quite a bit of ground work. I get the sense from your poetry that you engage in a lot of active introspection. How do you get into that head-space in an age when distraction is the default setting?
Living in this age of distraction, I believe what helps me to get into the flow of uninterrupted writing is by creating a routine and sticking to it. To write when inspiration strikes is always ideal but that’ll never get the work done, so sometimes I find that I need to glean inspiration from the mundane, the everyday. Being anchored on a specific routine helps me to be disciplined and focus on my work. For example, I practise a daily morning routine of waking up at 5am in the morning, pray, have breakfast, read, head to work. In that order. And in the evenings, after work, I’d go for a run in the park. I’ll find the time to write during pockets of time in the morning or night before I sleep, and I’ll switch off my devices when I do so. It’s also a way of safeguarding my time. Sometimes, a change of environment can help. Some of the poems I’ve written were during my travels, where I get a change of air and scenery.
So it all comes down to good habits, then. You read every day. This is something we have been advocating at Wardah Books. Can you tell me, firstly, more about your experience reading every day, and secondly, about how reading has a bearing on your writing.
Yes, good habits. I have always grown up with books around me. My mother was my biggest influencer – she’d read to me during bedtime every night without fail. So reading is something I try not to miss every day. It helps that as an educator, I get a daily 5-10 minutes silent reading period in the morning to set the day right. If I don’t have the time to read in the morning, I’ll try to make some time for it during commuting, or at night before sleeping. I’m also a messy reader. That is to say I read with a pencil in hand to underline the parts that resonate with me or make me think, or I write those parts down in a notebook, and I also sometimes dog ear my favourite pages. In his book, Uncertainty, Jonathan Fields mentioned that every one of us needs some form of ‘certainty anchor’ throughout the day. Certainty anchors are routinised habits that we engage in to set our day right. Reading is my certainty anchor. Without it I feel like something’s missing.
I think my repertoire of reading materials evolve as I grow. I used to read a lot of adventure, thriller, mystery, general fiction growing up. As I get older and explore more genres, I tend to gravitate more towards creative non-fiction like memoirs or autobiographies, books on spirituality, and poetry. Poetry is something I only started reading when I was in my early 20s. I was fascinated by the play of words in weaving powerful emotions that cannot be conveyed in conventional prose. I started writing more poems when I read more poetry books by diverse poets, local and abroad. I had always dreamed of publishing a novel when I was younger, but I realised that the things I read have a profound influence on the kind of book I want to write. (I still dream of publishing a novel though. One day perhaps.)
A novel or a collection of short stories from you would be very much welcome. Back to your present collection homebound, can you tell us about the title? Perhaps start with where is ‘home’.
Home to me has always been a feeling. A house could just be that. A house. But without the love, security, comfort and warmth of a family, it will never be home. Home is wherever we feel a deep sense of comfort and love. Home is wherever you feel like you belong.
More about my title… Initially, I was deciding between ‘Homebound’ or ‘Alight’. I wanted a brief, one-word title that’s easy to remember, and something that reflects the general theme of my poems. But I settled with homebound in the end because I felt that my poems have a sense of grounding the self back to the fact that we are all fleeting, and that we are all on this common journey of seeking light, of coming back home to God. I thought it was apt since I wanted my book to centre around my second visit to Mecca and Medina, where it felt like a homecoming since my first visit was when I was only 5. Between my first and my second visit, I’ve lived, learnt, and lost, so returning to these holy lands was a sort of healing. It gave me a strange sense of comfort, it felt like I was in safe hands again. It felt like home.
Can you tell me about the poem ‘Metaphors’ (page 58 in homebound)?
‘Metaphors’ was written after a quiet observation and reflection on the creations around me. I was also thinking about metaphors as a powerful device in poetry, and how we human beings tend to prescribe metaphors to things that we see. Like how we often say ‘look up to the skies’ to signify that there’s hope, or when we look at the rose and come up with the saying ‘life is a bed of roses’, to represent life’s beauty and its inevitable thorns… it made me wonder what could represent us human beings, our existence? If we commonly relate the sea or depth of oceans to the emotion of love, then perhaps a city and its architecture and systems could represent our existence. The aerial view of the streets remind me of our veins, the signboards and the roads we traverse remind me of the language we speak and the journeys we undertake. We are such complex beings living in a strangely symbolic earth. I am still very intrigued by the whole concept of metaphors and meanings, and how there’s a metaphor represented by every creation that exists. Which led me to wonder, how could some of us wander this beautiful planet without once thinking or reflecting on the purpose or meaning behind our corporeal existence?
Your image of streets as veins and so on in ‘Metaphors’ made me think of ‘Song of Myself’ by Walt Whitman in which he explores Man as microcosm. While Whitman’s cosmos is very rooted in the natural world, ‘Metaphors’ is decidedly urban. I share your fascination with metaphors. I have often thought about what we lose culturally when certain metaphors or even words drop out of circulation. For example most children in Singapore today do not know what is lallang and never walked into lallang, and never heard its loud rustle in the breeze. And because they don’t know what the word lallang is, they have no access to the resonance, accoutrements, associations and possibilities of ‘lallang’ as metaphor. However, what is interesting for people who practice a religion such as Islam is that we have a timeless scripture. And the continued access to and study of scripture preserves a kind of operational semantic and metaphoric field that co-religionists immediately identify and relate to, whatever our ‘first’ language.
And this brings me to the question of purpose. Not the big question of the purpose of existence, but a smaller question: What do you intend when you write?
Yes, I wonder what will happen to them as languages continue to evolve and the linguistic expressions couched in these metaphors irrevocably shift and disappear (and I wonder if cultural memes would be the future…)
When I write, I intend for nothing else but to make sense of the emotions inside me. To give form to the emotions I feel and the thoughts I think. When I write it out, I get to see what I’m feeling with more clarity, and it also increases me in my self-awareness. When I put these feelings to words, I get to understand and know myself better. It’s a way of healing for me. A therapy. To make sense of the world around and inside of me. The poem ‘If They Ask Me Why I Write, Tell Them This’ attempts to explain the intention behind why I commit my pen to paper.