First things first: I should like to extend my gratitude to you, Lorette, and The Ekphrastic Review for providing me with an opportunity to take part in an interview. I promise you, for me, it’s a source of a tremendous contentment at the conscious, cognitive, philosophical, artistic, and poetic levels to be a part of this one-of-a-kind Review, and to find myself in the company of such fantastically-ingenious poets, writers, and story tellers at TER. In fact, I am confident that I also speak on behalf of many members at and contributors to the Review, when I utter the following statement: without any exaggerations, TER is, indeed, an exemplar in the Global Literary Arena of the Online/In-Print Journals, which is sincerely dedicated to endowing a Voice to all manner of national and international poets, writers, and storytellers (known and unknown alike) from all walks of life. Therefore, my sincerest congratulations to You and TER Team. It’s Fantastic to be here—that is: to have discovered and have been discovered by TER.
The Ekphrastic Review in Conversation with Saad Ali, on Owl of Pines: Sunyata
Lorette: The ekphrastic element is present in much of your poetry, in this collection and your previous ones, too. What is it that attracts you to writing inspired by visual art?
Saad: We are all very well familiar with the English proverb: "a picture is worth a thousand words." Well, my response to the said aphorism is: a word is worth a thousand pictures and more!
Now, when a thousand pictures (images) and a thousand words (letters) amalgamate / reconcile, the story (of the human enterprise) becomes extraordinarily enticing/exciting/intriguing, don't they?
To me, (visual) art in conjunction with/supplemented by ekphrasis is the door to: 1) the world of interpretations and inferences and intrinsic-ness of the human condition i.e. beyond merely descriptions and definitions and recordings of the natural/historical/scientific facts, 2) the world of storytelling, where the images and alphabet are truly free to consummate in any fashion they prefer, and 3) the world of amalgamations i.e. where the artists (painter and poet) allow their worldviews to collide and re/incarnate as aNew.
It’s an awfully addictive enterprise, this ekphrastic writing (poetry) is, I tell you. And I think, you yourself can relate to this notion in a better manner than many—being an artist and a poetess—right? By the way, how generous are the Muses to you, Lorette: you get to enjoy the best of both worlds i.e. The World of Art and The World of Poetry. Admittedly, I am a little envious, but mind you, not ‘jealous.’ I think, I have uttered the last statement previously, as well—in one of my prose poems titled "Letter to Lorette" which is inspired by your artwork titled Black and Blue Haiku 7, 8, 12 (2018).
Lorette: Were you always interested in art history?
Saad: Since my early teenage days, I have been interested in the subjects/disciplines of anthropology and history, yes—i.e. symbolism, language, culture, architecture, literature, and poetry—which, subsequently, led me to the rich terrain named art.
I remember, I had become particularly interested in the Western/European modern art on having visited The British Museum and The National Gallery in 2002 C.E. in London, UK. By then, I had been already living in the UK for two odd years. Since then, I have been particularly inspired by the Surrealism Movement after becoming introduced to Salvador Dali. Well, not in person, but rather through his paintings and artworks, of course. Well, it would have been such a pleasure and honour meeting him in person, though. Alas!
Surrealism, in particular, appealed to my artistic and intellectual side, and continues to, due to the movement’s/artists’ fascination with the human mind and its sub-classifications (id, ego, and superego). Here, I shall spare us a/ny lengthy/short discourse on the influences of the philosophies/ideas of the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung on the Thought and Momentum of the respective movement.
And I wish, I could paint, too, or draw/sketch, at least. I think, I have also made a reference to my initial days of getting introduced to art in one of my rather long poems titled "Self-Portrait," which is inspired by your artwork titled The Best is Yet to Come (2019). The other genres of art that I am thoroughly intrigued by include: abstract art, expressionism, symbolism, and dadaism. I think, my interest and engagement with the (visual) art is also psychological, to be honest. I mean, it’s because of this very matter-of-fact that I cannot paint, draw, or sketch that the desire to be(come) a painter remains repressed in the unconscious; and it’s only through my conscious engagement with the art and artists that a part of the said desire is ever satisfied. So, here’s an instance of the self-psychoanalysis, for you, as well.
In the recent years, I have also become interested in the contemporary street art, you know. But I haven’t had a chance to explore it properly—neither nationally nor internationally—as yet. To my mind, it’s one of the most organic forms of the human expression, Street Art is. I mean, a modern cave-wo/man with modern tools; drawing, sketching, and paintings in the modern concrete-jungles: on the modern concrete-walls and in the modern concrete-streets, you know. How fantastic, how very fantastical! Banksy, Bambi, Lady AIKO and the likes come to the mind, for now, when I think of this particular kind of art.
And then, there is this mixed media art genre that you practice and preach. And I have to confess that I wasn’t at all familiar with this genre of art, you know, until I had discovered The Ekphrastic Review. In fact, even on finding TER, I wasn’t aware that TER Project was being run by an artist—the cherry on the top: a poetess. And what a fantastic news it was!
Lorette: You immerse yourself in western art history as well as South Asian art. I see this duality in your approach to literature, too, borrowing a great deal from the western canon while constantly sharing treasures of literature and spirituality from the words of your own culture. Can you tell us how you reconcile any differences or contradictions in worldview of the arts of South Asia and Europe or America? Are the works of art and literature or philosophy and faith at odds with each other, or are they actually complementary?
Saad: Pease allow me to divide my answer into three parts for this fantastic question: 1) Ideological Underpinning, 2) Art, Poetry & Philosophy, and 3) The Subjective Realm.
I think, the base, structure, and superstructure in the West are grounded in Materialism; whereas, in the East, the base, structure, and superstructure are grounded in Idealism. By Western Materialism, I mean the scientific empiricism; by Eastern Idealism, I mean the spiritual, the mystical elements of the ideological enterprise. The Western ontology and epistemology is predominantly founded in the physical (matter/atom); whereas, the Eastern ontology and epistemology is predominantly founded in the metaphysical (thought/energy). One needs only to observe and experience the mannerisms of art, poetry, literature, architecture, medicine, engineering, attire, and food in the respective cultures/societies to witness the infiltration of the said ideologies in almost all walks of life.
Now, based on my rather substantial subjective exposures to and experiences of both cultures/societies, the two philosophical/cultural paradigms are still at odds with each. To my mind (consciousness and intellect), above all: the reconciliation needs to transpire between the Western Materialism and Eastern Idealism i.e. the reconciliation between ‘wo/man for her/himself (individualism) of the West and ‘wo/men for themselves’ (collectivism) of the East needs to transpire, in fact. In simple words: the excessive rationalism of the West and the excessive emotionalism of the East needs to be reconciled into a meta-Paradigm. I think, the current Era of Digitalism will play a vital role in such a reconciliation (synthesis) of ideologies.
Art, Poetry & Philosophy
Nevertheless, I opine that the (contemporary) Western art, poetry, and philosophy is still Truer/Sincerer to the condition(s) and experience(s) of the Human Enterprise as compared to the Eastern mannerisms of art, poetry, and philosophy. I mean, the West is that Artist, Poet & Philosopher, who is sensitive yet ruthless, to keep it simple. On the contrary, the East is that Artist, Poet & Philosopher, who is still incarcerated by conservatism/traditionalism, I am afraid. That is: the Western individual is liberated; the Eastern individual is constrained at the hands of suppression, at the hands of repression of thought. Which is to suggest that the Western artist/poet/philosopher is loud with her/his voice and expressions; whereas, the Eastern artist/poet/philosopher is with the subdued voice and expressions.
I mean, I do not foresee the Eastern society producing the likes of Nietzsche, or Michelangelo. I mean, I cannot imagine some thinker (philosopher) proclaiming that ‘God is Dead’ in a conventional/traditional societal setting of the East. Well, what Nietzsche meant by that dictum is a matter best suited to a rather serious philosophical deconstruction and discourse, of course. Or I cannot imagine an artist undertaking as audacious a project as Simoni’s Creazione di Adamo (The Creation of Adam). The primary reason being: pictorical depictions of the God and His Prophets/Messengers (and their Disciples) is strictly forbidden in the Islamic tradition. Yes, I do realize that Islam is but only one of the prominent aspects of the Eastern mindset. Let’s consider another example: one of the prominent iconographies in the West i.e. Jesus on the Cross. Such an iconography is utterly INCONCEIVABLE in the East e.g. especially, in the Islamic tradition—primarily, because such a visual representation of one of the Messengers/Prophets of God is considered utterly disrespectful and heinous; it even qualifies as blasphemy. Here is another instance: Iqbal, inspired by the likes of Milton and his work, Paradise Lost, dared to tread the dangerous path of critical/radical-thinking with his long poem titled "Shikwa" (The Gravamen), but had to immediately issue an apology in the shape of another long poem titled "Jawab-e-Shikwa" (The God’s Retort) due to the socio-political and politico-religious elements of the region. And so on and so forth.
However, historically and culturally, I find the Chinese and the Indian Artist, Poet & Philosopher to be relatively courageous compared to her/his other Eastern counterpart. Even then, the elements of ingenuity and creativity are not commonplace, I am afraid—in that the movement-away from the ascribed (given, inherited) myths, folklores, parables, and stories is yet to properly transpire; where, the artists, the poet, and the philosopher is able to create any/some-thing new. In simple words, there’s a dearth of Courage; courage to question and deconstruct the Given.
Subsequently, in the recent times, I have observed a cultural-trend, which has been loudly pronouncing its presense in the contemporary Eastern hemisphere for a couple of decades or so; whereby, the artist, poet & philosopher looks (up) to the West for inspirations and aspirations. (The song "Go West" by the Pet Shop Boys is now playing in (the back of) my mind). Well, all of this/that is also a courtesy of the postcolonial syndrome in the South East Asia. But this "postcolonial syndrome" isn’t only true of the said regions, you know; it’s true of Americas, Africas, and Australasia, too—where, the (socio-)psychology of the American-ness, Australian-ness, African-ness, Arabic-ness, Canadian-ness, Chinese-ness, et cetera continues to manifest in the shadow of the Anglo-Franco Cultural-Spirit. And in the South Americas, more in the Hispanic Cultural-Spirit. And so on and so forth.
The Subjective Realm
At the subjective level, to be honest, I am not an ardent follower of neither the Western Thought (ideals) nor the Eastern Thought (ideals). To me, both philosophical/cultural paradigms are a prey to determinism, in their own peculiar ways. I am even of the opinion that the terminologies of ‘West’ and ‘East’ (with their respective first capital letters) are more a socio-psychological by-products of the colonial enterprise/mindset, really. Anyway, in my poetic and philosophical mannerisms, I am more a subscriber to the ideals of the neo-paradigm in the making i.e. meta-postmodernism, to keep it simple. Well, this is how I would title/name it.
I am not sure as to what the other artists, poets, and philosophers are calling this cultural-paradigmatic transition, though. Maybe every artist, poet, and philosopher has her/his own terminology (or terminologies) for it, as well. And that’s the beauty of this contemporary cultural-shift i.e. it’s prowess to facilitate heterogeneity across the board (cultures/societies) as opposed to the obsession (OCD, more like) of the Western materialism and the Eastern idealism with homogeneity, or the universal hegemony via homogeneity. I have always opined that existence/being is more a heterogeneous enterprise than a homogenous one in [Its] essence! And that’s how the poet and the philosopher is reconciled (balanced/merged) in me, too.
I strongly opine that especially the artists, poets, and philosophers need to seriously consider opening up to the idea of becoming involved in the cross-cultural collaborative works, too i.e. contributing as conscious actors to the creation and proliferation of the meta-postmodern culture.
I have talked about almost all of the above mentioned notions on several occasions in my poetry and poetic discourses, as well e.g. in the poems titled "Ashraf ul Makhluqat," "Language and Thought," "History and Men," "The Caveman," "Coin: Imagery, Language & Spine," and "Time = XYZn," in this compendium.
Lorette: You are called a philosopher poet by many, and reference philosophical ideas and thinkers frequently in your work. What does it mean to be a philosopher?
Saad: Now, isn’t this the ultimate question--The Quest, more like? To me, to be a philosopher is to be an embodiment of an array of characteristics, such as:
Above all, to be a philosopher entails being a thinking and a feeling being as opposed to being a passive-automata. In one of my most recent poems (vers libre) titled "Being Thinking & Feeling Being," I address the matter (problem) of being a philosopher as follows:
being a thinking & a feeling being
being as sensitive as a butterfly’s wings
being as ruthless as hyena’s jaws!
Philosophy is a phenomenon: which is not to be lived sitting on the curule seats inside the walls of the ivory towers; which is not to be experienced being recluse under a tree somewhere! Philosophy is a continuum, where the foreplay and the interplay between the opposite forces and neutral elements is perpetual. In other words, to be a philosopher, isn’t (all) about brewing some ‘big and unintelligible ideas’ in the mill-of-mind, but rather it’s (also) about routine-life e.g. now we are able transmit our thoughts in the form of micro/nano data electronically, such as, in case of this correspondence between you and I via e-mail, which is, beyond a shadow of doubt, a by-product of a philosophy and a philosopher. And so on and so forth.
I am grateful to the friends and acquaintances, who refer to me as a "philosopher." I am grateful to all of them for such kindness: I feel honoured; I am humbled. Nonetheless, the desire, on my part, is to come forth/rise as a philosopher, who is: sensitive yet ruthless! For now, I have merely arrived at the riverbank—the immersing in the river and amalgamation with the things-of-river are yet to transpire, I am afraid. However, the predicament—to borrow the words of one of my favourite natural Greek philosophers, Heraclitus—is:
Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so I am as I am not.
If I may explicate: the idea behind making a reference and/or quoting the aphorisms of other artists, poets, and philosophers isn’t merely for the purpose of decorating my own poetic-discourse with fancy words, but rather to consciously engage with others’ ideas/concepts i.e. to establish the validity and relevance of their notions to the contemporary human condition, the culture, and the society. But of course, I hope for the other artists, poets, and philosophers to engage with my (poetic) discourse in the similar spirit of constructive critique.
Lorette: Is art a form of philosophy?
Saad: In the context of my preceding perspectives regarding ‘what is philosophy’ and ‘what it is to be a philosopher:’ to me, if not philosophy-philosophy—in the strict conventional-sense of the noun/phenomenon—art is a form, at least, of philosophy. In fact, art is a significant form of philosophy. By the way, the vice-verse is true, too i.e. philosophy is/as a form of art. And why not? However, if we continue with such dialectics, I’m afraid, we will be prone to falling a prey to the very ivory tower/arm-chair philosophising of: which came first: the chicken or the egg, or in other words, philosophy or art? The initial conscious act of the so-called cave wo/men was painting the walls of their caves, not creating gods and goddesses, after all!
The Founder of the European Academy, Plato, opined that the philosophers and academics should run the affairs of a/ny State. Well, my response to that is: unless you want the State to be all plain and colourless, don’t underestimate the function of the artist! After all, who best to decorate the rooms, walls, floors, doors, and windows of a building than an artist? After all, what is (the value of) a base/structure without any walls, floors, doors, and windows, in the first place? Therefore, Dear Plato, philosophers and academics are but merely the frames, the artists are the interior/exterior decorum of the bases, structures, and superstructures. Well, here is a metaphor for you/I/us/them to contemplate. I think, I have also made a reference to this notion in my poem titled "Plato Is Right" in this collection of poems.
Lorette: Your poetry is a very unique style, usually with considerable length and multiple footnotes, as well as changes in font, spacing, and margins. Were you influenced to write this way, and if so, by what or by who?
Saad: Thank you for your kind words regarding the uniqueness of my poetic style. I appreciate it.
hus far, there are no influences on my poetic etiquette i.e. composition, verse decorum, spacing, et cetera. Yes, that my thought (process) is influenced by a quite a few (Western and Eastern) artists, philosophers, poets, storytellers; but No, the poetic style isn’t influenced by any. However, if there is another poet/ess on the face of this earth, who is currently composing poems in a similar fashion as I, I am definitely not aware of her/his existence, thus far. I would LOVE to find out, or be introduced to her/him, or even meet her/him! I wouldn’t be surprised, if there is one or two or more, by the way.
In my case, the poetic mannerism is more a child of an effort to achieve and compliment the ideals of the contemporary cultural paradigm shift, which I refer to as the meta-Postmodernism, which is the Global Cultural Movement that allows for the elements/ideals of the East and West to merge/reconcile, to keep it simple. In other words, my poetic style is more a result of, if I may borrow the English proverb, thinking outside the box, than anything else.
If I may: I opine that every artist, poet, and philosopher ought to fashion her/his own artistic voice (style) as even a matter of artistic moral obligation—as a Movement towards consciously contributing to art and its evolution.
Lorette: Your poems are often numbered, and contain many footnotes and allusions to literature and to sacred texts, to artists. You include dialogue, quotes by a wide variety of interesting thinkers, and references to family and friends. All of this gives your poetry the feeling of archaeology, or a labyrinth. Each one is a voyage of discovery, a gift to unpack, or a puzzle that only makes sense when all the pieces have come together. It is almost like collage, in words. Tell us about your process.
Saad: Thank you for your kind words regarding my poetic mannerism/style, Lorette. I appreciate it a lot—especially, since the appraisal is by an artist-poetess. It means the world to me!
The "process" is the same in its characteristics as in case of any poet, I suppose. I mean, there’s a thought or two, or a memory or two, or an experience or two, or an emotion or two, or a notion or two that is lurking behind the curtains of the mind, and you spot it, or it spots you—either accidently or purposefully—and then, you engage with it, or let it engage with you, and both parties let the language and alphabet—with a hint of a literary device or two—play with such a manifestation of a muse or two, as you recline deep into your seat to enjoy the Literary Animation/Feature Film to unfold, you know.
A few days ago, I was contemplating this phenomenon of the "poetic process," and ended up composing a few aphorisms on the said subject. Please allow me to share a couple here:
Poetry cannot be taught
just as a mother’s breast cannot be taught
how to make milk for her infant.
These [poet, poetry, poems, verses, forms]
are the matters best suited for
the devices of epiphany, eureka moment.
Lorette: You sometimes translate English poets into Urdu. Tell us about this aspect of your work. What appeals to you about it? What do you hope to achieve?
Saad: Well, there are several reasons for my involvement with this enterprise of translation and translating the foreign poets—especially, the postmodern and contemporary English language poets. Some of these reasons include the following:
Unfortunately, the culture of translation/translating isn’t a commonplace in the South-East Asia literary scene e.g. in countries such as Pakistan. Thereby, one of my aims and objectives is to encourage such a culture in this region and country—both at the individual level and the universities/colleges level. There is a dearth of translations of the Western literature in this country, I am afraid.
I opine that translating/translation is an Art in its own right! I do always encourage my fellow (national and international) poets and writers to consider becoming involved in the translation related activities. By the way, if time and energies and health permit, I do have plans to translate—either individually or in a collaboration with a fellow translator—a few poets & writers of The Ekphrastic Review into the Urdu language and publish this anthology of translations in the near future.
Lorette: What does the title Owl Of Pines mean to you?
Saad: To me, the title, Owl Of Pines: Sunyata, is:
—in its own right!
Above all, it’s a homage to: 1) Sunyata, and 2) dichotomous characteristic of existence/nature/life—or howsoever you render the phenomenon of being intelligible (to thy consciousness/cognition).
"Sunyata" (Sanskrit for "emptiness") is the void, the space, which allows for the opposites (elements, phenomena, species, things) to not merely interact but integrate to both destroy and create: elements, phenomena, species, things! Without it, there would be no matter, no energy, no sound, no light! Owl Of Pines is that Sunyata to me!
And of course—it’s a tribute to the three distinct forms of the literary art i.e. vers libre, prose poem, and ekphrasis; it’s a tribute to all those poets and writers (on the face of earth), who are consciously engaged in the practices/culture of the said art and its forms.
And of course, in many ways, it’s even a culmination of my artistic, poetic, and philosophical system of thought.
Lorette: Tell us about one or two favourite poems in this book. Share how they came together and why they are meaningful to you.
Saad: I think, "A Poem Without Punctuation," and "Snow Leopard and Ibex," will have to be the two of my favourite poems in this compendium.
Both prose poems are instances of: 1) an homage, and 2) a confession. Homage to the literary art, in general; to the said art form, more specifically. It’s a confession in that the respective instances are representative of the poet’s (my) utter helplessness before the sheer authority of the literary art, poetry; where, I am literally rendered a slave—not a wage-slave in the capitalist sense of the noun, but rather a tragical/classical Roman-Slave, who is without any freedom/s, even deprived of the sense and/or notion(s) of freedom—since the poetry and poems literally dictate at (free) will, like a Caesar: the anatomy and the nomenclature of the poetic-manifestation i.e. the exordium/the interlude/the epilogue; the selection and the arrangement of letters and words; the shape, the length—I mean, everything!
In the "A Poem Without Punctuation," I am more like a rebel, Camus’ rebel: I’ve revolted; I’ve initiated an insurgency against the hegemony of the enterprise of language, alphabet, art, and form; where, I refuse to obey the rules of the game; where, I desire to construct my own meta-Order—like a Spartacus, whose real-name is not known to anyone, who is ever-ready to embrace death in the spirit of metamorphosis (change). (But hold on a second here! My real-name is known. Oh, crisis!)
In the "Snow Leopard and Ibex," I am more like a philosopher, an anthropologist, a historian, a naturalist, a humanist, and an evolutionist; whereby, I am acknowledging both natural and human-made conditions and processes that are indispensable to the existence of all i.e. nature, human, and beast in unison; whereby, I am an advocate of the philosophy that the progression of thought/ideas cannot transpire without the material conditions, and that one is not more or less in/dispensable than the other i.e. both thought/ideas and matter are interdependent!
Lorette: In just a few words, what would you say your poetry is about? What do you want readers to take with them?
Saad: My poetry is a compendium of poetic discourses, which is an embodiment of: 1) contemplations, 2) memories, 3) experiences, and 4) emotions. My poetry also entails the elements of materialism, idealism, romanticism, and utopia.
Above all, my poetry is about:
I hope for my poetry to resonate with the readers—that is: the readers are able to relate to the reflections, experiences, memories, feelings, and philosophical notions in some way; that the poems also become, besides being a source of literary pleasure, a source of inspiration for the readers to contemplate existence, practice self-reflectivity, reflect on (the direction of) our society and culture; that the readers are encouraged to adopt art/literary art as a medium of (individual/collective) self-expression.
Management Consultant, Poet-Philosopher, Translator & Author
Listen to Brian A. Salmons read Saad Ali on TERcets, a podcast of The Ekphrastic Review.
Read a review by Ejaz Rahim of Saad's previous collection of Prose Poems.
Read a poem by Saad Ali here.
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