Quiet Women:

 A Unique Celebration of Poetry and Art

Lahore based poet, editor and columnist, Afshan Shafi launched her first full length poetry collection, ‘Quiet Women’ last month. Stocked at Readings, the collection is a unique all-female collaboration featuring the illustrations of acclaimed artists , Samya Arif (Pakistan), Marjan Baniasadi (Iran) and Ishita Basu Mallik (India). 

TS Eliot award nominee and winner of the Forward Prize for Poetry , Vahni Capildeo termed  ‘Quiet Women’ as one of the ‘new poetries emerging in the twenty first century which are characterized by a ferocity that spans yet exceeds love and outrage, involvement and observation’

‘Quiet Women’ is an exploration of form and linguistic artistry, propelled by a sense of creative freedom espoused by the surrealists and  abstract artists. Inspired by the creations of both Eastern and Western female artists and writers this book is a tribute to women, and the power of their collective voices. 

Profile: Afshan Shafi lives in Lahore and has studied English Literature and International Relations at The University of Buckingham and Webster Graduate School London. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Poetry Wales, Blackbox Manifold, Flag + Void, Luna Luna, Clinic, 3am magazine, Ala Champ Magazine, and others. Her poems have also appeared in the anthologies, Smear (edited by Greta Bellamacina) ,The New River Press Yearbook and Halal if you hear me ( edited by Fatima Asghar and Salma Elhilo). Her debut chapbook of poems ‘Odd Circles’ was published by Readings (Pakistan) in 2014. For her work as a poet she has been interviewed by Arte Tv (France) and Words Without Borders. She was a co-founder  of the Woolf Writing Club, a creative workshop series in Lahore. As part of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan she has appeared on BBC (World), The Times (UK) and in The Economist’s culture magazine. She has also served as a poetry editor for The Missing Slate and is currently a senior contributing editor at Pakistan’s leading literary journal the  Aleph Review. She also serves as an editor-in-chief for the online Pandemonium Journal, which is a platform for emerging creatives from Pakistan and abroad. 

Inspiration to write this book:

This is my first full length collection and is a tribute to the  panoply of female artists that continue to inspire me. From the creations of Iranian artist Farideh Lashai to the work of lesser known poets like Veronica Forrest, there is a rich engagement with the work of these female trailblazers in ‘Quiet Women’. What makes the book different is its collaborative nature. Each artist  I have collaborated with in ‘Quiet Women’ possesses something unique to their perspective. Samya Arif’s illustrations are defined by their bold and stylized detail. She thinks in an opulent manner. Marjan Baniasadi, hails from Iran and has studied at the NCA and her paintings are elegant, deeply intelligent and beautiful. Ishita  Basu who lives in Calcutta, India,  is a poet as well as an artist and there is such a yearning and melancholy to her creations. Their art complements my writing seamlessly in the book.

Synopsis: (This is a blurb by the novelist Anis Shivani and describes ‘Quiet Women’ in good detail)

‘Never have I been so surprised upon reading a book given to me for endorsement; I was, and remain, in a state of shock. From the first words to the last, I remained under the impression that this was the work of a mid or even late career poet at the full peak of her powers; if I had read this book blindly, I might have suspected a poet the caliber of a Bernadette Mayer or Barbara Guest or Marie Howe. I still find it impossible to believe that this is the work of a poet for whom this is only the second book! I won’t comment on the technical wizardry Afshan Shafi has mastered like a veteran—from an internal music that never flags despite conveying complex ideas, to the confidence in initiating interrelated chains of challenging metaphors—but I will say that as someone who likes to indulge in quite a bit of fancy wordplay himself, I often told myself that the ability to stretch the limits of linguistic experiment without losing objective meaning was something I wish I possessed to the extent Afshan Shafi does. There isn’t a slack line in the entire book, it is a compressed whole, a dynamite unity, a wise history of female (aesthetic and social) awakening in a world that has lost its moorings that has few comparisons in the contemporary American poetry world I know best; certainly no one I know among the aspiring poets in America is capable of a mature, objective, dazzling performance such as this one. I can only imagine how far this poet will go, if she hangs on to her supreme confidence’- Anis Shivani, author of Karachi Raj

On how ‘Quiet Women’ came together

‘Quiet Women came together over a period of two years, where my poems were being frequently accepted by European magazines for publication. I decided to put together a collection of these poems with some newer verse with the intention to collaborate with artists for the final product. The titular poem of the collection ‘Quiet Women’ deals with the notion of female silence and the policing of a women’s language and her personal choices. For one reason or the other , this notion of ‘quietude’ had been drilled into me from an early age, and as I grew as a writer I started questioning all kinds of enforced silences, which in turn led me to critically examining all kinds of oppressive practices aimed at ‘containing’ the very agency of a woman. ‘Quiet Women’ as a book, functions for me as a bridge across a myriad number of fears; these verses are bridges across patriarchal structures, restrictive artistic ideologies, and perhaps purely existential concerns (quotes from a recent feature in DailyTimes Pakistan)

On the collaboration with artists for ‘Quiet Women’

I would say that I have been a student of the Surrealists my whole life, as I have often been drawn to the interplay of artist mediums, in which they revelled. Surreal output has always been concerned with  juxtapositions and techniques like ‘collage’ and ‘frottage’, and an indulgence in hybridity. For example , Surrealist collaborations include films based on poems, in the way that the filmmaker Man Ray adapted poems by Robert Desnos to his medium. Since my poems are often initiated by visual ephemera, and my imaginative focus is on delineating these visuals (triggered of course by emotion or artistic curiosity) , I found collaboration with these artists to be a natural progression. Each artist was sent the poem to illustrate without any instructions, the idea was for there to be a fluidity of connection, one derived purely by imaginative means, and for the artworks to be instinctual and primal.

Creative influences and the impact of Surrealism on my work

Each poem in ‘Quiet Women’ is a tribute to the marginalised , whether that figure be that of a woman or an artist or poet. Each poem aims to counter reality with the dream and to re-engineer the accepted image of the creative as ‘outlier’. Whether in terms of stylistic experimentation , influence or tribute, this book aims to upset normative modes of thought and glorify one’s creative faculty. A quote from the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton, below, explicates much of how the imagination is seen as a threat to all dimensions of order , similarly, much of my work is concerned with consistently upending language, mass-perspective and received ideas in much of the spirit outlined here-

‘Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality. There remains madness, “the madness that one locks up,” as it has aptly been described. That madness or another. We all know, in fact, that the insane owe their incarceration to a tiny number of legally reprehensible acts and that, were it not for these acts their freedom (or what we see as their freedom) would not be threatened. I am willing to admit that they are, to some degree, victims of their imagination, in that it induces them not to pay attention to certain rules – outside of which the species feels threatened – which we are all supposed to know and respect. But their profound indifference to the way in which we judge them, and even to the various punishments meted out to them, allows us to suppose that they derive a great deal of comfort and consolation from their imagination, that they enjoy their madness sufficiently to endure the thought that its validity does not extend beyond themselves. And, indeed, hallucinations, illusions, etc., are not a source of trifling pleasure’ (The Surrealist Manifesto)

On why I enjoy poetry as a genre and as my chosen form

A poet often writes a poem as a postscript to an emotion . ‘High tragedy’ or ‘wondrous joy’ need not compel the writing of verse, it could be a retained sense of childlike wonder for say an owl, or the precise engineering of a pistol. I feel that I write primarily to escape a powerful inoborn reticence. In that vein these words by the great James Joyce encapsulate perfectly the retaliatory bent of my mind as it stitches a sentence together; ‘poetry even when apparently most fantastic is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality’

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