Harris Khalique: International Poets in Conversation

November 3, 2015

Ed HermanWelcome to Poetry Lectures, featuring talks by poets, scholars, and educators presented by The Poetry Foundation. In this program, poet Harris Khalique of Pakistan speaks with American poet, Christopher Merrill. Harris Khalique was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1966. His father was a writer and filmmaker, his mother a writer and teacher. Khalique now lives in Islamabad, and is a critically acclaimed and internationally recognized poet in Urdu and English. In 2013, he won the UBL Literary Excellence Award, which is the most prestigious independent literary award in Pakistan. Khalique also actively participates in social, labor, women, and minority rights movements and is currently a leader in the Voice and Accountability Program, which focuses on the rights of women and excluded groups in Pakistan. Christopher Merrill directs the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He has published six collections of poetry, and his work has been translated into 25 languages. He serves on the US National Commission for UNESCO, and in 2012, President Obama appointed Merrill to the National Council on the Humanities. This conversation took place at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago in September, 2015. We’ll hear Harris Khalique read three of his poems, including one in Urdu with an English translation. He’ll discuss literary traditions in Pakistan, the cultural influences of different cities, and the important role of women in Pakistani literature. The conversation begins with Christopher Merrill asking Khalique about writing poetry in both English and Urdu. 

Christopher MerrillThe interesting thing, Harrisis that you work in both English and Urdu. I hope that we might begin by having you sketch out what the literary landscape looks like in Pakistan for a writer working in the two major languages.  

Harris KhaliqueThank you very much Christopher. It’s a privilege to be here this afternoon at the Poetry Foundation. Your question is very relevant because in Pakistan, unlike what people think outside, English is not in currency as much as people think in Europe or North America. English is one of the many languages in which we write in, and our genius still is not fully realized in English as perhaps it is happening more so in India. Urdu is the main language of our cultural expression, literary expression, and public discourse. But we have major literary traditions and major writers still writing in other Pakistani languages: Sindhi, Saraiki, Pashto, Balochi, and many other languages that we have. English is one of the many. I wouldn’t see English as the main language after Urdu. As far as the literary landscape is concerned, there’s an advantage if you write in English, because it’s more accessible, it’s a European language, it’s an international language, and the languages which are not European or Arabic or far Eastern languages are always at a disadvantage. I hope and I wish that more translations of Urdu and other Pakistani languages are available to international readership so that a full picture of Pakistani literature can be established.  

Christopher Merrill: Where do you fit into this? 

Harris KhaliqueThere’s another dimension to your question. We come from a multilingual society, traditionally it has been a multilingual society except for a few regions where one language was spoken by literati or by the artists or by the poets. So in that multicultural, multilingual tradition, English was introduced a few hundred years ago. It has done us well, it has expanded our horizons, it has connected us with the rest of the world in ways that were not known to some of our literary predecessors. But it also has replaced Persian as our support language as it were. Persian was our support language, I use the term liberally, which connected us with the intellectual tradition and the literary tradition of central Asia and west Asia. English has connected us to the literary tradition, more so in recent years, from across the world. So it has enriched us in many ways, and some of us have been trained in both languages, so in a way if my father’s generation or my grandfather’s generation particularly had Persian as their second language, second cultural language if not the first language, for us it is English. It enriches the expression of my Urdu work and my being grounded into North Indian, South Asian, Pakistani linguistic tradition. It perhaps brings a different flavor to what I write in English. 

Christopher Merrill: Do you have access to the Persian tradition as well? 

Harris KhaliqueAbsolutely. Most of us who write in Urdu even now, I see it civilizationally, if I may use the term, all of us are a part of a Persio-Indo-Gangetic tradition, which is the Persian tradition, what is now Iran, Pakistan, and Northern India. That is our linguistic landscape and our cultural landscape. Im not speaking about states and issues of politics, Im just speaking about the civilization we belong to. Urdu is one of the major languages in that civilization. I see myself rooted in all these subcultures which are a part of the larger civilization, and then of course the Western tradition of writing, and Western tradition of the sensibility that is being introduced into our writing and into our thinking over the last couple of centuries. 

Christopher Merrill: I know from previous conversations with you that Faiz Ahmad Faiz whos been well translated into English was an influence on your early writing and perhaps your bearing to the world. Can you talk a little bit about him? 

Harris KhaliqueEarly writing, yes. Id say that Faiz is one of our icons. Hes a cultural icon, not just a poet, because he has contributed to our prose also and to our journalism, and to the tradition of artists coming out and campaigning for peoples rights and trade unions. He definitely has had an influence on my writing also but I think of him as more of a symbol for writers, somebody who actually bridges the gap between art for art and art for life. Faiz does not compromise on his aesthetics. At the same time, he has a developed social consciousness. I definitely see myself being inspired from his writing and from his person. 

Christopher Merrill: So Faiz is one influence, no doubt there are others. 

Harris KhaliqueChristopher, I think Im more influenced, or I like a couple of people more than any other poet now. They include Noon Meem Rashid, Akhtar ul Iman, and, Im not influenced by that particular individual but I think he was an avant-garde poet of Urdu and he again introduced new patterns of thinking in our corpus, thatMeeraji. All three of them are the middle of the 20th century poets.  

Christopher Merrill: How would you describe those new patterns of thinking? 

Harris KhaliqueI would compare Meeraji for instance with Marquis de Sade at once level. Meeraji died very young, and perhaps Marquis de Sade spent as many years in jail as Meeraji got on this planet. He died in his 30s. But the sexuality and non-conformism that Meeraji introduced into Urdu has not happened either before him or after him. There is erotica in any language, in any literature. But it’s a different sensuality and sensibility that he introduced. Noon Meem Rashid is a master craftsman. He enriched the azar nasidthe free verse, in Urdu like nobody else did. His canvas is very broad. All the people say that Faiz Ahmad Faiz had a broad canvas, he definitely had. But in Russia there’s a poet’s poet. Akhtar ul Iman is an Indian poet who was very direct and simple but at the same time had a lot of depth. He was also a Nassim poet. Majeed Amjad I must also mention, he wrote about the ordinary, about the mundane, like Ogden Nash did. These poets I should mention as people who, if not influenced me, certainly inspired me. 

Christopher MerrillAs a writer you’ve adopted a strong social activist outlook. That’s a part of your makeup, right? 

Harris KhaliqueIt is, I think it has a background. In Eastern Europe and in North America for instance, being a socialist is something that’s looked down upon because of a certain political trajectory. But in our part of the world, in South Asia particularly but also in other developing countries, or the third world countries, socialism had a different meaning for our predecessors, for the generations that came before us, for people who believed in liberation, human rights, and equality. You have to appreciate that socialists have remained in opposition all along and unfortunately, South Asia has remained a very classist and anti-human society, or there were classes of people, elites, which have been very oppressive over centuries. Of course I see myself as rooted in that tradition of resistance and that tradition of opposition to powers that be. Maybe if Faiz Ahmad Faiz or people like us had been in Stalinist Russia, then we had been defectives there. I think context is important, but fundamentally I think Faiz and his people, his successors or people who came after him, have a staunch, strong belief in democracy, in human rights, in egalitarianism, in justice for all, in social justice. I do come from that tradition. But for an artist, for a poet, I believe that a poem has to be a poem first, or a painting has to be a work of art first, and then of course your consciousness can further nuance it and give a message out. But the fundamental role of art is not to be propaganda. There’s a difference between journalist and writers, creative writers. Journalists will present facts; creative writers will present stories. But if those stories are about ordinary people and chronicle the pain that we see around us, then I think that serves the purpose. Aesthetics must not be compromised.  

Christopher Merrill: How do you manage that relationship then? Between politics and poetry, between politics and art. 

Harris KhaliqueWell, it’s a tight rope to walk. You can’t really be making decisions consciously when you’re writing. But if something’s there at a subconscious level you believe in something that art has to be art. Also, Christopher, there comes a time where you have to be very direct, it has to be in the face. For instance, in Pakistan what we’ve been going through over the last–actually, for a long [time], but certainly for the last two decadeswhen you’ve seen 70,000 citizens killed by terrorists of various hues and colors. We have seen so much suffering for our women and for our minorities. Actually for the majority of people, if you look at the marginalization and the dispossession that we see people around us. You become direct, you can’t help it. It has to be really incisive and scathing, your art piece, so that it jolts people. Having said that, it’s a large canvas. From some very subtle love poems to very direct political poems, I think there’s a broad range you’ll find in Urdu poetry or in other languages in Pakistan, and I think I’m a part of that. I’m a part of that mixed tradition. 

Christopher Merrill: Can you give us an example? Can you read us something maybe in English and Urdu? Maybe to give us a spectrum in which you work from; the pure love poem to the indictment. 

Harris KhaliqueI can start by reading a poem in Urdu. I have the translation available, so I can read in Urdu and then I can read the translation. Then I have an English poem, a couple of short English poems which I’ve written recently and I shared those in Shambaugh House in the Internation Writing Program a few weeks ago. 

[reads poem in Urdu]  

The translation, perhaps not the best of translations available because I did it myself. 


“In The Times of Love” 


Spring arrives. 

Birds fly low. 

To fill her eyes with dreams,  

the soaring kites look for ways to get their strings cut, 

come down, and get entangled 

into her long, pointed eyelashes. 

Boys from the neighborhood, who come running after these kites 

Pause and stagger 

Shaken by her presence 

In that very moment of truth, she reveals all her dreams one by one. 

They laugh at her, doubt her words 

Saddened. Her sadness brings rain. 

The rain makes a river. The river swells. 

Drowns them all. Never to be seen again. 

But there is a believer who trusts in whatever she says. 

Swaddled in dreams of his own 

Writes one strange poem 

To be salvaged.  


Christopher Merrill: Do you think of yourself as being a different poet in Urdu than you are in English? 

Harris KhaliqueI have never thought about it. I think the choice of themes and language come to you naturally, if I may say so. Its at your subconscious level that a decision is made. It also depends on the words and images that you are surrounded with in your head at that particular time. I havent given it that much thoughtwhat makes me decide to write in a certain language. I do not see myself a different poet in the two languages. Poetry itself is the language, then I see the languages in which I write. Occasionally I also write in Punjabi, very occasionally, or a few lines in Farsi, in Persian, but the two major languages in which I write in are perhaps the two dialects for me for my language of poetry. I switch between the two dialects, but my language is poetry. 

Christopher MerrillSo in the run-up to writing a poem, in that pre-verbal state, are you hearing it in one language or another? Or are images accumulating? Or is it a cadence that’s going to trigger the poem. 

Harris KhaliqueI think it is the cadence that triggers a poem. 

Christopher Merrill: And the cadence would be tied to a language. 

Harris KhaliqueThe cadence would be tied to a language. It happens before writing it down, the lines or the poem starts coming to you in a particular language. I don’t translate. Being bilingual is not about being bilingual in one poem. You asked me about the direct poems, how do they read? Let me read for you two unpublished poems written just recently. These are two short poems in English which just very recently I wrote. 

Burying Martyrs Who Are Heavy 


Burying Martyrs Who Are Heavy 

We are turned into a funeral procession 

All 180 million of us 

We carry a hundred thousand bodies on our shoulders  

We are told they are martyrs and martyrs are light  

Light like rose petals. 

But the ones we carry are heavy 

They have metal inside 

Bullets, shrapnel, pellets, nails 

Tips of swords and daggers broken into their flesh.  

The bodies will dissolve in the mud once buried 

But the metal will keep the earth hard under our feet 

For long. 


And the other poem recently written is titled “Remains.”  




After the massacre 

The night has fallen 

Moonless and dry. 

Let us collect the scattered body parts  

Its easier, less painful 

In the darkness of the sky. 

An arm cannot be made out from a leg  

Fingers from toes 

A childs torso from a big mans thigh. 


But what about the head?  

A head is a head 

Whether living or dead.  

Christopher Merrill: That’s a searing poem. When you write a poem like “Remains” which has such stark political content, how will that be received in Pakistan, and does that then shape the literary landscape? The conversation? 

Harris KhaliquePakistan has a very strong poetic tradition, but there is another side to it. The art and poetry and anything that is subversive or that is liberating is under threat. There is a challenge. But I must say there is a large number of people who receive it with a lot of warmth. You’ve been to Pakistan, Christopher, you have been to the largest city, I believe, but if you go out to the countryside and in smaller cities, you’ll find a large warmth; perhaps not for English-language poetry but for poetry per se. Poetry still is very well received, although it is still seen as a threat as I said earlier. If it hadn’t been seen as a threat, then poets or writers or journalists particularly would not have been attacked or eliminated. It’s not just necessarily the state which sees writing as a threat, it’s also the forces of bigotry and darkness, the conservatism that has engulfed us which is a more potent threat to the existence of the writing community and the art community. If you may recall, there were artists, performers, singers, and dancers who were killed by these religious extremists. There are writers who are under threat for some nonreligious parties also, who would do violent politics under some other tag, ethnic or linguistic. It’s a difficult situation, but at the same time there’s a lot of warmth and respect you’ll find in Pakistan for artists. 

Christopher Merrill: You mentioned the cityyou’ve lived in Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan. You now live in Islamabad, you’ve also lived in London. I wonder if you can talk a bit about the influence of the city on your work as a writer. You’ve been in such different kinds of large metropolises, I wonder if that’s had an impact on your work. 

Harris KhaliqueI have a series of poems where I’ve written about, which are portraiturescharacter-based poems. A series about my generation of people in Karachi. I wrote those poems when I was young. Young working women in the face of all else coming out and making their presence felt and supporting their families, people who come from different social backgrounds. I think Karachi has not just shaped my writing, it has actually conditioned me. That is important because it’s a melting pot, it’s reasonably cosmopolitan for sure, you can’t compare it with New York or London, but reasonably cosmopolitan and very diverse city. It’s a city where I see the tragedy of Partition culminating. 

Christopher Merrill: How so? 

Harris KhaliqueKarachi has seen a lot of violence, and Karachi has a large number of people whose ancestors migrated from what is now India to Pakistan in 1947 or the years following 1947. There is a lot of violence, and there’s a search for identity for these people within Pakistan. Then you have these large communities of people, in migrance from Pakistan, large communities of people from Iran and Afghanistan and the revolutions of the two countries, communities of people from Bangladesh and as distant as Vietnam and Cambodia, a small Sri Lankan community. They’ve all converged in Karachi. Karachi itself is a hugely rich city for some people, it provides opportunities for bread and butter. That’s why people come to Karachi, still even after so much violence the city has seen. But these tensions and this hostility that communities have faced from gang leaders and from the criminal gangs in the city operating in different neighborhoods. Local warlords, I would say. It’s a difficult city to live in, but there’s no other experience in the region comparable to living in Karachi. And it has so much more to offer. There is another side to the city. It’s so resilient in so many ways, which you don’t find anywhere else. So yes, I think it has had an impact. London is different of course, but then London somehow is connected to the South Asian psyche. London was the capital of South Asia for about 100 years directly and for 200 years indirectly, and there is a large community and also writers who have lived there in exile. That was the first stop, the US is far away. You find people there from the South Asian … One of the books I did with an Indian coauthor, friend of mine, was also set in London. It was all about the South Asian diaspora. We spoke about the partition of ’47, the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in ’71, and the experiences of South Asia diaspora and how can we promote pluralism and peace in the whole region by looking at the suffering and pain of people who have gone through these wars and these partitions and dismemberments of countries. I think London has a certain place in our imagination. When it comes to Islamabad, I think it’s a city in the making. It’s not really as metropolitan as you suggested that all three cities … It’s a small city by South Asian standards. Perhaps by European standards it’s a sizable city, but by South Asian standards it’s a small city. It’s becoming more and more cosmopolitan because it’s a capital city, and it’s a purpose-built capital. There is a community of writers and there’s a community of readers in Islamabad which is very strong now, I must say. I come from Karachi, I was born there, brought up there. Both my parents came from different places in South Asia but they decided to settle in Karachi, or somehow it happened that I was born there and went to school there. Now I see that Islamabad is not far from home, and it is catching up in the good sense as well as the bad sense also. Cities have their own dynamic when they become large. 

Christopher MerrillI know that you’ve addressed the plight of women in your writings, also in columns. On our way over here today you were describing a friend who’s created a school, the One Rupee school for underprivileged kids. Can you talk a little bit about women’s perspective in poetry and the kinds of issues you try to address in your work? 

Harris KhaliqueChristopher, I see Fahmida Riaz for instance, whos our leading poet, or Kishwar Naheed, whos my neighbor in Islamabad, lives very close to where I live––these two womenin this time and age, as two of the most important poets writing in Urdu, and not just in Urdu, in any South Asian language. They have redefined the place of women in our society and in our imagination. Not just in art, but also on the street. There are many other women, Im just taking two names because these two women I know that they have a definite quality to what theyve written. 

Christopher Merrill: And how would you describe that? 

Harris KhaliqueThey have provided that voice to downtrodden women, to marginalized women, to disadvantaged women and girls of our society. That voice is a very liberating voice. It starts with the consciousness about a womans body and the confidence in being a woman. From there, to the movements of restoration of democracy and movements for restoration of fundamental rights. Women like these have actually led the way. I have always maintained that if there is any hope for the Pakistani society, it comes from our women. Whether they are writers or whether they are pursuing other professions. Because they have completely transformed the landscape in the sense that if you go to our major universities and medical schools and law colleges and engineering schools, the majority of students you will find will be women. That side of the story about Pakistan which is neither known nor discussed. With all our problems and issues and crises that we and I personally keep lamenting about, theres this silent revolution being brought about by women and girls. Malala is one small example of that. 

Christopher MerrillIt’s interesting in Iran, 70% of the university students are women now, a little-known fact in the Western world. Does that extend to poetic form in Urdu? Are they working in different forms than perhaps their predecessors might have? 

Harris KhaliqueNot particularly these two women. Kishwar has written prose poetry also, which is something which is not fully established. If the poet is good, the poems are appreciated, but the form itself, the genre itself is not fully established. Kishwar has experimented with that. Fahmida has not, Fahmida is more into rhyme and meter and prosody, or verse libre, free verse, or blank verse she has written, established forms she has used. But the poets that have come after them, they have expanded the boundaries, or pushed the boundaries I would say. There is a lot that is happening now. Its not just women, its also men who are pushing the boundaries. But in terms of forms, the ghazal is so dominant in Urdu language and literature. Any language which is influenced by Persian or has remained influenced by Persian, at some point in history ghazal has taken precedence over other genres. Even after poets like Dr. Mohammad IqbalAllama Iqbal, whos primarily a poet who would write nazim, which is the poem which has the element of offering a narrative in verse form. Still, people who are not essentially writing ghazals, maybe some of us also write ghazals just for the heck of it, but the people who are not writing ghazals still find it hard to get that kind of appreciation, that kind of instant popular appreciation which a ghazal or a poem in proper meter and following the 200-year-old rules of prosody will have. That is a struggle that continues. But I think its changing. Theres a lot of new consciousness and theres a lot of new understanding of how literature should be appreciated and criticized.  

Christopher Merrill: And your own practice? Where do you come down on this? 

Harris KhaliqueThat takes me back to the first question you asked today. I think English gives me more liberty and space to experiment with forms and genre. Urdu perhaps I have so much historical baggage for worse or for better. I dont think its a baggage, I think its my roots. But theres so much history that I carry in Urdu that I think it does impose certain limits. While I appreciate people experimenting with forms, and I have no issues with that at all unlike some of our senior established critics, myself I write (azar nazim) which is free verse or (mora) which is blank verse. At the same time, I also write quite a bit of metrical rhymed poems.  

Christopher Merrill: Could you talk a bit about what would be some models in the English verse tradition for you? 

Harris KhaliqueI think I like prose poetry and free verse. Also, theres a rhyming which comes and theres music in words which English has sort of taken us to a different level. English itself has actually borrowed quite a lot from other languages, true translations. That expands the horizons, as I said earlier. That expands the horizons not just in intellectual sense but also when it comes to the skill of writing poetry. But I still think primarily Im an Urdu poet who also writes in English. Like Ghalib and Iqbal were Urdu poets but they also write in Persian. I have no claims about my writing in English, I have no claims about my writing in Urdu either. But in the sense that its my second language when it comes to poetry. When it comes to prose and nonfiction, I write more in English. But when it comes to poetry, I think it is my second language for expressing myself. The other dialect, as I put it. 

Christopher Merrill: Thank you for expanding our horizons so completely this afternoon, Harris Khalique. 

Harris KhaliqueThank you very much Christopher. 

Ed HermanThat was Harris Khalique speaking with Christopher Merrill. This program was recorded at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago on September 24th, 2015 as part of International Poets in Conversation and was sponsored by the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. Harris Khalique is the author of eight books of poetry. Those in English include If Wishes Were Horses, published in 1996, Divan, 1998, and Between You and Your Love, originally published in 2004 and revised in 2012. The two English poems he read in this poem, Burying Martyrs Who Are Heavy” and Remains” are unpublished. Christopher Merrill has authored six collections of poetry including Watch Fire published in 1995, Brilliant Water 2001, and most recently Boat and Necessities, both published in 2013. He is the editor of several volumes, among them The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature and From the Far Away Nearby: Georgia OKeeffe as Icon. He has also written five books of nonfiction. You can learn more about the world of poetry by visiting, where youll also find articles by and about poets, an online archive of more than 13,000 poems, the Harriet blog about poetry, the complete back issues of Poetry Magazine, and other audio programs to download. I'm Ed Herman. Thanks for listening to poetry lectures from 

Christopher Merrill speaks with Harris Khalique about literary traditions in Pakistan, the cultural influences of different cities, and the important role of women in Pakistani literature.

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