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Zaffar Kunial was born in Birmingham and lives in Hebden Bridge. He published a pamphlet in the Faber New Poets series in 2014 and spent that year as the Wordsworth Trust Poet-in-Residence. Since his first public reading, of ‘Hill Speak’ at the 2011 National Poetry Competition awards, he has spoken at various literature festivals and in programmes for BBC radio, and won the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize for his poem ‘The Word’.
1) Thanks Zaffar for agreeing to this interview, to begin with who were/are your biggest poetic influences in writing ‘Us’?
Oh that’s hard to answer briefly – so many quite different poetic influences, and not all from poets. I was thinking recently how many novels and novelists I’d quoted or mentioned in ‘Us’ — Austen, Ishiguro, Rushdie, Emily Bronte, Dickens, Mary Shelley, and Hanif Kureishi whose ‘Buddha of Suburbia’ was the first novel I’d ever read, when I was nineteen. Perhaps the references to fiction and stories reflects how I came into thinking about ever writing a book – and how novelists were the first writers I looked up to, even though it felt more possible for me to aspire to write a poem than to feel at home in prose.
2) How did you navigate the transition from producing a pamphlet to a full debut collection, was that a challenging process?
It was a very different feeling, and I’d say the book started to have its own creative energy towards the end of the process. The pamphlet felt more like a sampler of work, partly because of the length. I wanted the full collection to feel like the poems worked individually but also collectively, through small mysteries that add up – and perhaps not like the kind of first collection that is simply an album of the best poems so far. I could have had a collection published earlier, but I wanted to take time until I felt surer that the themes and sub themes of the book were working together and not too obviously. I ended up leaving poems out to try and keep the balance between poems. I think the length is really important of a collection, and if it’s too long it can be harder to hold in your head as a ‘book’, despite being satisfying in other ways. But like a poem, each book possibly has its own laws in this regard.
Related to my first answer, I wanted the book to almost have the satisfaction of reading a novel – not in the sense of a page turner – but in those connections that the reader might make across the pages. I love the feeling of things subtly coming together that you get reading those books that stay with you after you put them down. Almost like the book is holding you afterwards through the gravity of its connections.
Another difference is a title, which my pamphlet didn’t have (‘Faber New Poets 11’). Once I’d settled on the title ‘Us’ it made me want even more to get the poems to feel both various but also connected, as though they were speaking to each other across the pages in unexpected ways.
4) How important do you feel that personal history played in writing ‘Us’?
I was a very confused child who would keep things in, and this child keeps wanting to explore things that felt too big to hold. Perhaps this is some of the energy that holds the book together, ultimately. Even writing about impersonal things, the confusions and the confused energy of personal history is probably still there beneath the floorboards. Sometimes I’m looking away from my stuff, and at other kinds of history and how they intersect with my ‘own’. Sometimes personal history comes through memories around individual words, often very small words – like the word the, or the word yours, and of course the word us.
5) On being the Poet In Residence for the Ledbury Poetry Festival, a role you’ve done before at the Wordsworth Trust’, what is your approach to that role?
I’m looking forward to attending as much as I can while I’m there, and to being in Ledbury and just being around. It was lovely to have been asked for input into the programming of this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival. I’ll be doing some one-to-one sessions where I can offer editorial feedback, and also a group workshop on editing poetry.
I’m really looking forward to reading with Jackie Kay at an event to celebrate Martin Luther King, and at another event with the US poet Major Jackson. It will be the first time I’ll have a book with me, as ‘Us’ will be published on 5th July. It feels extra special as Ledbury was the first festival I’d read at, in 2012 (following a National Poetry Competition reading, of which Jackie Kay was one of the judges). So I’ll be reading on the same stage as the first time I’d ever read a set of poems in public. Hopefully I won’t feel so nervous this time!
6) What poets are you reading at the minute?
Ah you’ve caught me in a week where I haven’t got a particular poetry book on the go. But the last poets I read were in the latest Poetry Review. I was especially taken with Fiona Benson’s poems. So I’ll be looking forward to her collection when it comes out, as well as to fellow Faber & Faber debuts next year, from Rachael Allen, Mary Jean Chan and Joe Dunthorne.
7) What next, are you working on a new project?
Hopefully a second collection. I have an idea for a title, and some poems I might include. So that’s a start. And I am thinking of something in prose too. But that’s an even vaguer thought.
Zaffar Kunial is poet in residence at the UK’s biggest poetry festival, Ledbury Poetry Festival 2018 (29 June – 8 July). Tickets available from www.poetry-festival.co.uk
Zaffar Kunial’s debut collection Us is published by Faber and Faber, 5 July 2018.
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Featured image credit: Tom Chivers.