Rafik Romdhani, author of The Crash of Verses
1: When did you first start writing?
At first, I didn’t know that inventing short songs and humming them in the fields of wheat and barley while stumbling behind my parents was what would, later on, develop into a form of writing. Writing has already been there in such funny songs I used to create out of the blue and sing in Tunisian spoken language (i.e. an amalgam of Arabic, French, and Barbarian) at the age of ten. I remember myself once beading words into smooth-running utterances and reciting them before a group of gleaners at tea time, which made everyone around express their admiration and admit that I am a gift to them to while away the tedious hours. Putting pen to paper and speaking my mind began later as I fell in love with Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, taught by Mustapha Dhaya, our teacher of French when I was a student at secondary school. I started writing short poems in French and Arabic between 1994 -1999. But I have indulged in penning and rhyming in English since 2000 because I found English a musical language that matches my yearning for singing. Words in English felt like ways into poeticizing life in a much more inspiring way. In this regard, the English language acts like an inspiring realm in itself, not to mention Nature and life experiences which have become not apart from living. Still, a kind of double living lived within the English language.
2: What are the primary themes in your work?
I am of the opinion that themes can’t be mapped out for or prepared beforehand. But I think they are born or at least are struggling to be born during the writing activity itself. The primary themes in my work include the question of time, Man’s existential worries, and the notion of love as a raison d’être. The theme is the underlying message that every artist or writer wants to convey. Themes can vary across poems which cover a wide variety of topics. Still, the primary ones are usually the common ones like the human versus the natural, Good versus Evil, the metaphysical versus the physical, and so on. The Crash of Verses teems with themes that overlap and intermingle in a way that it is difficult sometimes to privilege a theme over another.
3: Would you ever co-author a project? If so, who would your dream co-writing partner be?
Well, in truth, I am a believer in collaborations and working with other poets. Poets could inspire one another avowedly or unavowed. For instance, a poet’s word could be the seed of another’s poem. For the time being, I am co-authoring and working on a third collection with my fellow poetess, Genevieve Ray. The title of this anthology, made up of about 120 poems, is Breath of Distance. The work is still under scrutiny and hasn’t been published yet. I would always love to co-author new projects because I think working with another poet is enriching, and we can learn different styles and discover different ways of thinking and interpreting the world around us. My dream co-writing partner would be someone like Paul Muldoon, for example.
I crave Muldoon’s poetry because it is challenging enough to be interesting, and it is known for its use of paradox. Muldoon’s poems are playful but serious, elusive but direct, innovative but traditional. In addition, they push far beyond the surface level. To my way of thinking, Muldoon is an interesting and convincing poet who uses traditional verse forms such as the sonnet, ballad, and dramatic monologue but alters their length and basic structure and uses rhyme and meter in quite innovative ways. This implies that he looks into the old with new eyes, which interests me and pertains to me a lot.
4: If you could have a dinner party with five writers (living or dead), who would they be?
I am going to assume that all of them would love to have typically Tunisian Kuskus for dinner and that there would be no language barrier, and all the invitees would be able to communicate with each other and myself.
I would invite:
1. Edgar Allan Poe
2. Herbert Zbiginiew
3. Mahmoud Darwish
4. Paul Muldoon
5. Charles Baudelaire
These are amongst the most influential and interesting poets to me. If I were to invite another important figure for a mouth-watering dish of Kuskus, I would think of Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish-American poet, and I would ask him to join us. The reason I would invite them for dinner is that I am their biggest fan. They must have different definitions and conceptions of poetry.
A dinner party with the five of them will not only be entertaining but highly insightful. Perhaps on occasion like this one, I might be able to understand what poetry means to them and what inspired them to become such great poets. I guess the one who would like my poetry the most would be Edgar Allan Poe.
5: What book had the most significant impact on you (either as a reader or/and as a writer)?
I can remember the first book that had a significant impact on me. It was a book entitled Mother written by Maxime Gorky and which I came across in the secondary school library when I was a student at Raccada secondary school. It wasn’t easy and challenging at first though the version I read was in French. But after reading it twice and looking up many of the difficult words in the dictionary, I came to grips with the encrypted messages and deeper meanings there. Gorky’s mother is a book in which Paul, the main character, reads forbidden books discreetly, which is why I liked this novel a lot. Another reason behind my being affected by Mother is that it deals with the hardships of life under the yoke of which factory workers were straining.
I felt like those characters were combatting manual back-breaking works in a similar way to mine while working under the scorching sun in the fields. As far as poetry is concerned, I think that Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil affected me the most as it paved and blazed the way for my writing career.
6: What is your favourite poem, and how did it affect you?
My favourite poem is Pessoa’s “The Tobacco Shop” (Tabacaria), in which the speaker finds himself torn between the abstractions of the mind on one hand and the mysteries of reality on the other. This is what I often feel whenever I try to idealize reality because everything at the end of the day is driven “down the road of nothing”, as Pessoa puts it. Reality itself does not seem to be authentic and concrete enough. Therefore, this poem made me rethink and re-imagine the outside world around me by re-inventing myself through the lens of poetry. After all, ‘the real’ is not necessarily what is not inside us.
7: Being multilingual, what is your favourite language to write in and why?
I am of the mindset that English is best for writing poetry because of its musicality, rich vocabulary, and easy-going flow. However, I think Arabic and French are better for spiritual and philosophical concepts. I love to write in English and think in English though I draw on writers who are well known in the French-speaking world and the Arabic-speaking one. This does not mean that I am not inspired by famous poets like the ones I have previously mentioned. English makes it easier for me to know which side my bread is buttered, as they say. It is the language that exceeds its circumstances, defeats distance and outgrows its native speakers.
8: If you could read your poetry anywhere in the world to an audience, where would you most like to go?
My dream literary destination where I would most like to read my poetry would be The UK. Who on earth doesn’t want to recite their poetry in a country where interesting literary figures like William Shakespeare, William Blake, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, and John Donne were born. So, if I could read my poetry anywhere in the world to an audience, I would, without a doubt, choose the United Kingdom.
9: Does any of your pieces require research before or during the creation process? If so, how do you go about that?
In truth, all of the pieces I wrote are built upon a sudden incident or happening. Sometimes a word that I catch in a song or that my eyes set upon at first glance can develop into a poem. If there is any research required during the creation of the process, it is certainly meditation and deep reflection. I don’t think a poem requires research, apart from trying to put it in its historical or cultural context. But from my experience, I believe that the most difficult thing in the creation of imagination is the choice of a suitable title to go in tandem with what I wrote.
10: Being a teacher and writer, your schedule must be very demanding. What do you do to relax?
Well, I am a poet by passion and a teacher by profession, which is why I seem to be able to reconcile the two. I feel like teaching is harder and more demanding than writing poetry. I often do my utmost to be successful in both of them. To be a poet and a teacher simultaneously is like being trapped in a catch-22 situation. But the good thing with poetry is that it relaxes me from the two tiring missions ( writing and teaching). In other words, relaxation and relief could be in pressure itself because what I do to relax from writing poetry is paradoxically writing more poetry. That’s the same thing that refreshes my mind when I get burnt out from teaching twenty hours a week. Poetry is a safety valve.
11: How would you describe your work to a reader who hadn’t yet read you?
The Crash of Verses is a smorgasbord of poems with disparate but interrelated themes, wittingly or unwittingly. This collection is necessitated by experiences and circumstances which never occur in the form of poetry. So, there is a need to poeticize the world that surrounds us. The Crash of Verses could be understood as a journey of self-reinvention and rediscovery. It is a work of art that reports the conversations I had with Nature, with the desert and the sea, with the metaphysical and the invisible, with what sees through my eyes and speaks through my mind.
Each poem in this book has an architecture of its own, and it is a realm of its own that resembles a box of music in that it re-imagines and rethinks life in a new way. The entire collection is dotted with bright spots despite the deep sense of emptiness and loneliness here and there. It’s worth noting that The Crash of Verses connects with the past to make sense of the present. It goes beyond the superficiality of things and digs deep into Man’s inner workings of the mind, acting life as a reckoning mirror that exudes the smell of the soul.
12: What is your favourite piece from The Crash of Verses, and why?
In truth, I don’t think I can privilege one piece over the other ones simply because the question of what a poet’s favourite poem is from his collection sounds like asking a parent who his favourite son or daughter is. I fear the fall into unfairness towards the pieces in The Crash of Verses. But let me tell you that there are a few poems at least that I find the closest to me, namely “Life Goes on,” “Revolution,” “My Heart Was Cut in Two,” “The Genes of Poetry,” “Passing,” “A Descent on Chests,” “In My Country,” and “Poetic Blood”. Personally, it is too hard for me to identify a poem as a number one poem given that I indulged equally in ruminating about each idea and have given much of myself into each piece. Therefore selecting the best poem would be the task of the reader, I guess.
13: Finally, what are you working on now, and what can readers expect from you next?
For the time being, I am working on an anthology with my fellow-poetess Genevieve Ray, who is from Great Britain. She is a very kind and collaborative person.
Our styles are certainly different, but there are common themes in our work. Each one of us deals with them in his way. I hope we won’t change this anthology’s title, The Breath of Distance. I find it classy and very symbolic.
I also have a project in mind with Sinazo Crystal Ngxabani, a poetess from South Africa, and we talked about that a few days ago. We admire each other’s poetries, and we are glad that we represent our continent as two artists, one of whom is from South Africa and the other, i.e. myself is from North Africa (Tunisia). We got the ball rolling, and we started writing new poems for our project and sharing them. It’s a true pleasure and great honour for me to work with rising names in the world of poetry like Genevieve Ray and Zoe (Sinazo Crystal Ngxabani).