Iqra Khan is a bilingual poet, artist, and activist from India. Her poems have appeared in Baltimore Review, Palette Poetry, The Bombay Review and Feminist Dissent, University of Warwick. Her articles have appeared in Scroll and The Wire. Her work is centred around the experiences of the brown body, her conflicted relationship with the English language, and the marginalized aspirations of her community.
We talk to Iqra about her creative practice, identity and the intention behind her work.
Can you tell us about your background and your journey as a poet and artist? Poetry was my grandfather's gift to me as a child, but I rediscovered it around 2018 when my personal and political experiences became overwhelming and all our dialects of loss and labour urgently needed a medium. All I had to do was reach out and claim it. I had an entirely different motivation for painting. I started out for therapeutic reasons last year. I’ve had some time working on my craft and finding my voice as a poet but I’m still searching for my style and space as an artist.
Does your heritage and faith influence your creative practice? Absolutely. The nostalgia around a stolen cultural inheritance, the internal tug of war between spiritual curiosity and doubt, i.e. the comfort of prayer and the logical allure of denial, are at the core of my creative work. Like every other Muslim poet, I inevitably write about the universal Muslim experiences of loss of innocence and dignity in our social transactions. I write about the experiences of the brown body and female sexual autonomy. I write about my relationship with the English language, both the violence that it has enacted upon our self understanding, and the power that I have won back from it. And, I write an awful lot about Delhi.
How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages and how you find inspiration? It's a phrase here, an image there. I rarely have a topic or purpose in mind when I start writing one. It begins in one place and reaches another. Sometimes it remains a mystery even after it’s done and I rather enjoy that. It’s more about the sentiment or sensation that I get from the nuggets I build from or assemble together.
Once I arrive at a mostly consistent body for the poem, it is followed by looking for creative possibilities in its nooks and crannies, pushing and dismantling grammatical structures and syntax, weeding out clichés, introducing surprises et cetera until I am satisfied.
Do you show your work in progress to anyone? I started doing that recently. My primary achievement this year has been that of finding community. Reviewing other poets has also helped a great deal and has sharpened my eye for weakness or untapped possibilities in my own work. What is the intention behind your poetry? What reaction do you hope people have when encountering your work? I am sure there are works that speak to those who identify with me, mourn and celebrate with me, draw strength from me or break down with me. But every piece is a highly subjective sensory experience, so I don’t carry any expectations. A poem which is about revolution to me could be about grief to you, or a quiet summer afternoon to another. I like to think that a poem has a life of its own, a sentience even, and evokes a variety of reactions in its many interactions.
Who are your favourite poets? That changes every week. Like most South Asian Muslims, I grew up reading Fehmida Riyaz, Sarah Shagufta, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ghalib, Iqbal and Agha Shahid Ali, among others. They are the obvious constants, but I am currently possessed by the works of Solmaz Sharif and Noor Hindi. How does your visual art connect to the written word and your interest in language? What themes and concepts do you explore through your paintings? While painting began as a lighter activity for me, it has inevitably aligned itself to my literary interests, and complements them constantly. The concepts are mostly similar as a result, although translated into more surreal images, I suppose, to compensate for the gloom and doom in my poems. Are you currently working on any visual art projects? I am currently working on a series which is my visualisation of classical Urdu and Persian poetry, wherein I attempt to apply verses that are close to me, to landscapes that are close to me, both personal and historical. I am still in the process of fleshing out these ideas.
Is the representation of Islam important in the literary world and why? It is and I’m happy to observe that Muslim poets are becoming more unapologetic and assertive about their faith in their literary work. There has been significant representation of the "cultural Muslim" in these spaces for a while, but the new ones are increasingly writing about Islam and the actual practice of their faith.
There is also an important parallel movement attempting to decolonise classical Muslim poets and underline their Muslimness. The poets before and beside me have had many uncomfortable conversations with the West to reach a point where I can now go beyond the exoticised, secularised aspects of my identity and straight up write a poem around Surah Al Duha. What are your future hopes and aspirations as a poet and artist? To be given my dues while I’m around. But for now, a world where it is not a lot to expect publications to pay you for you work. Creative practice is severely gatekept since not many of us from BIPOC backgrounds can afford to retain our literary citizenship given the inadequacy of the reward. What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you? It is the language of a largely stateless people, with more on the brink of statelessness. Sadly, it will grow stronger in the face of hostility. It will thrive not only as an act of resistance, but also as an act of survival. A daily reminder that even the most unremarkable things and moments in our everyday lives carry beauty that is worth defending.
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